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Putin the Perónist

MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin has been compared to many strongmen of the past – Joseph Stalin, Leonid Brezhnev, and Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, to name a few. But, after nearly 14 years in power, perhaps the best comparison now may be a transgender cross between the former Argentine leader Juan Perón and his legendary wife, Eva (“Evita”).

In the early 1940’s, Colonel Perón, as Minister of Labor and Secretary of War, was a “gray cardinal” to Argentina’s rulers. Before communism collapsed in 1989, Colonel Putin, also memorably gray, was a devoted KGB operative, entrusted with spreading disinformation and recruiting Soviet and foreign agents in East Germany.

At the labor ministry, Perón initiated social reforms, including welfare benefits for the poor. Although his motivation, at least in part, may have been a desire for social justice, Perón was, in effect, bribing the beneficiaries to support his own rise to power and wealth. With his beautiful and outspoken wife – a “woman of the people” – at his side, Perón was able to persuade voters in 1946 that, as President, he would fundamentally change the country.

He was as good as his word. Perón’s government nationalized banks and railroads, increased the minimum wage and improved living standards, reduced the national debt (for a while at least), and revived the economy. Argentina became less reliant on foreign trade, though the move toward autarky eventually undermined growth, causing the country to lose its position among the world’s richest.