Juan Perón and Getulio Vargas: a comparison

Juan Perón was president of Argentina from 1945 to 1955, returning again in the 1970s. Getulio Vargas was president of Brazil from 1930 to 1945 and also returned to his old office. He committed suicide during his presidency in 1954. Former presidents Juan Perón and Getulio Vargas are regularly compared. To what extent is this comparison valid?

Getulio Vargas and Juan Peron

  • Prior to
  • Getulio Vargas, a brief introduction
  • Juan Perón, a brief introduction
  • Vargas’ social and economic policies
  • Perón’s social and economic policies
  • The relationship between Vargas and the Brazilian people
  • The relationship between Perón and the Argentine people
  • Vargas’ ideological legacy
  • Perón’s ideological legacy
  • Conclusion


Prior to

Getulio Vargas was a Brazilian president who had many sides. Ask a Brazilian to describe this man and you will get different descriptions depending on the age and social class of the person interviewed. One will be positive and describe him as a man who cared about his people, the other will be negative and call him a populist. You will also hear the word dictator from the mouth of one person, while the other person does not think of using this word. Yet the name Vargas does not cause much of a stir. There is little international attention for him, and his ideological legacy plays little or no role in contemporary Brazilian politics.

How different is this when we talk about a man who was president of one of Brazil’s neighbors at about the same time. In Argentina, Juan Perón was a president who introduced policies that political scientists often compare to those of Vargas. Opinions are also divided about Perón, but with an important difference: the name Perón is quite well known worldwide. His party is still the largest in the country in 2017 and the current president is a center-left Peronist. A musical and a film have been made about his second wife Eva Perón and millions of pages have been written.
In that respect you could say that there is a world of difference between these politicians. But how big is this difference really? How close are Vargas’ and Perón’s policies? That is a question that is answered here on the basis of literature on both.

Getulio Vargas, a brief introduction

Getúlio Dornelles Vargas was born in 1883 in Sao Borja, in the province of Rio Grande do Sul. He came from an influential family for that region. Officially he does have a military title, but he chose to go to university and studied law there. After receiving his doctorate in 1907, he became a lawyer. In 1909 he was elected to the Chamber of Deputies for his province as a member of the Republican Party. After a period in which he worked as a lawyer, he was elected again in 1917. Under President Washington Luís Pereira de Sousa, he served as Minister of Finance from 1926 to 1928. After this period as minister, he became president of his state of Rio Grande do Sul. In 1930 he took part in the presidential elections for the first time for the Liberal Alliance, but was defeated by Júlio Prestes. That same year, a revolution broke out against the government. The working class was dissatisfied with parliament because it was considered too bourgeois and did not take into account the needs of the middle class and the peasantry.

After this revolution, the army came to power and appointed Vargas as interim president. In this role he quickly emerged as a populist. Despite his elite origins, he was quickly accepted because he did something for the common people. Under his leadership a process of industrialization was initiated. But if a regional director went against him, he was immediately replaced without mercy.

Juan Perón, a brief introduction

Juan Domingo Perón Sosa was born in 1895 in Lobos, southern Patagonia. His father came from a family of doctors but had chosen a life as a farmer and had become the outcast of the family by marrying a half-breed woman. They moved further and further into the inhospitable south, after which Perón was sent to his aunt in Buenos Aires at a young age. Because he had no money for another education and the army seemed like a great adventure, he became a soldier at the age of 15. He turned out to be very talented and went through a long training within the army. He eventually started teaching at the military academy and wrote several books on military strategy.

In 1943 he was the mastermind behind a military intervention. The seriously ill President Castillo refused to relinquish the government while corruption was rampant , and interventions proved necessary. In the subsequent military government, Perón became Minister of War and Labor. In this latter position he had a lot of contact with the workers. They came to him with requests and Perón did his best for them, which greatly increased his popularity. The army did not want to let this happen and Perón was imprisoned in 1945, a few days after his 50th birthday. The unions saw their most important ally disappear and this was reason to declare a national strike. However, a few days before this strike was planned, Buenos Aires was already filled with angry people. On October 17, 1945, the army gave in to the masses and released Perón. In 1946 he took part in the elections, which he won with flying colours. Only after these elections did he found his own party (Partida Justicialista).

Vargas’ social and economic policies

Many cannot understand what motivated Vargas to pursue such complicated policies. A little man obsessed with power. Tireless and of good nature, shrewd but lackluster, Vargas saw the presidency as a vehicle for authoritarian rule but not for self-enrichment […] Only when his ability to assess situations, hold power and control others failed him, That must have felt like the ultimate failure to him, which led to him taking his own life so abruptly. (Levine 35-36)

Some politicians are quite capable of never actually choosing one side, left or right, and thus leave a lot of material for discussion. This was not the case with Vargas. In 1937 he made the decision and chose the right side. He dissolved parliament, imprisoned thousands of communists, including communist party chairman Prestes, and announced the Estado Novo (Strong State), which is often characterized by historians as a tropical variant of Mussolini’s fascism. However, Vargas was smart enough not to give power to the truly convinced fascists. As a result, his political space was not limited by ideological dogmas. He wanted to develop Brazil’s own industry through authoritarian means, while taking care not to harm the interests of the country’s most powerful class, the coffee planters. (Levine 138-158)

His dream was to develop Brazil, to establish it as a country of importance in the world. He wanted to modernize Brazil. When he became president, he already had so much political experience that he knew exactly what he had to do to get what he wanted done. He ruled without a congress for a large part of his presidency. He himself was not religious, but respected the Catholic Church within his politics. (Levine 16-17)

Although he was known as someone with great respect for his employees from all ministries, it is known that he regularly informed them about new laws and regulations, without asking them for their opinion, even though they had more knowledge in that area. Yet it cannot be said that he was only after power and wealth. Power could have been a motive for establishing a kind of dictatorship, but there has never been any evidence that he enriched himself or that this was the intention. (Levine 38)

Vargas felt that Brazil’s unstable position was due to the fact that the country was not really a unit. One of his first measures as president was to unite the states more. To do this, he replaced all but one governor. In this way he established a strongly centralized power. This was summarized in the new constitution, which stated, among other things, that states were no longer allowed to impose taxes themselves and that their armies could not be larger than the government army. (Smith 1-2)

Stimulating the economy also received his attention. He knew that everyone actually wanted economic reform. What was new was that when planning this he also looked at the position of the workers. He was in favor of a kind of class collaboration and wanted to ensure that the different classes in society no longer had any reason to oppose each other and would work together for a common goal. He was also innovative with regard to the trade that resulted from this. He has done well in international relations, and has taken a pro-American course.

Perón’s social and economic policies

The social policies that Perón promoted are what won him the presidency in 1946. As Minister of Labor, he was known for pursuing policies that had many positive consequences for the Argentine worker. As president, some of his actions included raising wages, nationalizing many European-owned companies, and increasing the power of state-controlled labor unions. The largest union, the CGT (Confederación General del Trabjo), actually took over the tasks of the Ministry of Labor. Workers also knew that they had to come here with their problems and the number of organized workers increased explosively with Perón’s presidency.

Another body that gained important power within Perón’s government was the Fundacion Eva Perón, the foundation for the promotion of social aid that was led by his wife Eva. A small percentage of tax revenue even went there. (Dujovne Ortiz 317 -328) Perón’s

objectives are extremely well stated in the book Perón expone su doctrina (Peron explains his doctrine). It contains a fold-out page showing exactly in a complicated diagram how the government should be organized and how all lines of communication should run. What is striking here is how the Peronist party is central, despite the other parties always present in a democracy. In making the schedule, Perón seems to assume the absolute sovereignty of his party, not taking into account a possible election defeat. In fact, the scheme is worthless if the Peronist party is not the largest party in the country. This is also the reason why so much disagreement arose about the interpretation of Perón’s doctrine after Perón fell as president. The doctrine always assumes that one’s own party is the largest. It contains surprisingly few basic principles that always apply to followers, such as, for example, within fascism a strong racial doctrine is adhered to and violence is not condemned.

The relationship between Vargas and the Brazilian people

Politicians must be able to divide their attention well across all sectors of society, and Vargas was able to do that like no other. ,For the poor, he was a kind of paternalistic protector; for the middle class, he was the one who brought stability, and for the rich, he respected the status quo., (Rose 1-2)

Getulio Vargas is known as a populist, and populists usually have a good relationship with their people. People may be a nice unambiguous word, but in reality it is of course different. A people consists of several classes, and it proved impossible for Vargas, as for most politicians who attempt to unite these different classes. He certainly tried. The model he used for this is known as corporatism. Corporatism is a model where employers and employees are united in councils. These councils must then jointly find a solution to existing problems. The only other Latin American country where an attempt has been made to introduce such a system is Argentina.

Vargas founded the Ministry of Labor, which he himself called revolutionary and which legislated a number of workers’ rights, but at the same time also banned classical class struggle. Also new was the establishment of a Press and Propaganda institution that was responsible for stimulating Brazilian national identity and awareness. Although he managed to ensure workers’ rights and introduced a minimum wage, strikes were prohibited and illiterate people were not allowed to vote. In summary, he reformed the military, focused on international trade, stimulated the economy, and improved foreign relations.

The relationship between Perón and the Argentine people

The relationship that existed between Juan Perón and the Argentine people is quite unique, especially for someone with a military past. Peron’s story fits nicely into that of the South American caudillo tradition. Peron made no secret of his admiration for the former Argentine caudillo Juan Manuel de Rosas, and was a big fan of one of the most famous books in Argentine history Martin Fierro by Jose Hernandez.

This relationship begins in 1943, when Peron is the mastermind behind one. Although it might seem logical that Peron would become president after this takeover, this did not happen. After some changes, Edelmiro Farrell became president and Peron became Minister of Labor and Minister of War. Shortly afterwards he also became vice-president, but it is this first position that is of great importance for the further course of Argentine history. As responsible for the workers, Peron was the first minister to visit the factories, interview workers about the conditions on the shop floor and keep track of everything. Not long after this, he started introducing a minimum wage, a minimum price for farmers’ products, a labor inspection and days off. He was loved by the common man for this, but he became dangerous for the army. So he ended up in prison in 1945. As described earlier, he was liberated from here on October 17, 1945 by a large crowd and was elected president in the 1946 elections. The introduction of measures that almost led to his worship continued. Courts were established in which employees could sue their employers, large holiday resorts were built on the coast and schools and hospitals sprang up.

An important person in this offensive was his second wife Eva, affectionately called Evita by the people. In 1947 she founded her Fundacion Ayuda Social Eva Peron. From an office and various warehouses in the city, she started distributing goods for the poor population (humildes), and people could send her requests for, for example, a wedding dress or hospital treatment. Evita died of cancer on July 26, 1952, her death was accelerated because she refused to be treated for her illness because she did not want to abandon the poor for whom she worked an average of 19 hours a day. (Dujovne Ortiz 319-320)

Of course, Peron and his wife were not just loved. Landowners and wealthy families were severely beaten in speeches and never missed an opportunity to speak out against Peron. When Evita died, a wall of their house was even defaced with the phrase Viva el cáncer (Long Live Cancer).

Some people also turned against Peron because of his hostile attitude towards the Catholic Church, including part of the powerful army (Owen 221-226). There were also accusations from anti-Peronist quarters that Perón was a Nazi and that he had enriched himself by giving Nazis access to Argentina after the Second World War, but real evidence for this has never been presented (Goñi 20).

Vargas’ ideological legacy

According to some, no 20th century politician has influenced the history of Brazil as much politically as Vargas. Yet the term Varguism, or something similar to it, does not yield many hits in an Internet search engine. What Vargas left in writing are his memoirs and his speeches, but no more than that. Not full of books in which he further explains his ideology. Well-known is of course his dramatic carta testamento, the letter he left behind before he committed suicide, the last sentence of which reads Gently, I take my first step on the path of eternity and leave life to enter history.

Of course, you have to keep in mind that he committed suicide during his presidency, and did not have a pension with all the time and space to start a book. But then again, during his presidency there was no distribution of books or the like that are still available in libraries, as was the case with many populists. Anyone who mentions the name Vargas on the street today does not have to fear strange reactions, just as mentioning the name of Franco in Spain, for example, would lead to heated discussions. It can be concluded that Vargas is simply not a controversial person today.

Another reason may be the role Brazil played on the international stage at the time. Brazil did not play a controversial role in World War II. While this was sometimes unclear in some South American countries, Vargas clearly had a pro-American view, and so there was no criticism from the American side. Vargas was no longer involved as president in the aftermath of World War II.

Perón’s ideological legacy

Peron was deposed by the military in 1955 in what is now known as the Revolucion Libertadora . Eduardo Lonardi became president and Peron fled to Spain. With Lonardi’s presidency, a violent time began in Argentina. The Peronist party was banned and Peronists were persecuted. The best-known example of this is the episode described by Rodolfo Walsh in his 1973 book Operation Massacre. In it he describes how in June 1956 a group of Peronists were kidnapped by the army and executed at a rubbish dump just outside Buenos Aires. Rodolfo Walsh was murdered during the later dictatorship known as the Dirty War (1976-1983), partly because of this book. (Walsh)

There have always been attempts to continue Peronism underground. This led to the establishment of various (semi) guerrilla organizations, of which the ultra-left Montoneros was the best known. For years they have been fighting a bloody battle, including with the army. They committed bomb attacks, kidnapped rich people for ransom and were responsible for the assassination of anti-Peronist former president Aramburu.

The military appeared unable to pursue a policy without allowing Peronism. The more moderate President Frondizi therefore opened negotiations with Peron in Madrid. After a number of failed attempts, Peron managed to return and in 1973 he was elected president for a third time. However, Peron was ill and there are indications that he already had dementia. In the following year and a half, a lot happened that he had no control over. He died on July 1, 1974.

In a brutal attempt to suppress Peronism and communism, Argentina suffered a brutal dictatorship between 1976 and 1983 that resulted in at least 30,000 disappearances.

After the restoration of democracy, the Peronist party remained the largest in the country for a long time. There has always been a lot of division within the party and several splits have arisen due to discussions about Peron’s ideas. Governing without Peronism proved impossible in the second half of the twentieth century and the memory of Peron’s presidency still makes many Peronist hearts beat faster.


Making a comparison between Vargas and Perón has not proven to be very easy. The difficulty also lies in the distinction between outer and inner. That is, populism really only has one true manifestation, and looking at that alone will lead to superficial conclusions. For the conclusion, I would therefore like to distinguish between outward appearance and political policy.

In terms of appearance, I see many similarities between Vargas and Peron. The gestures, the speeches, the way of writing, all contain characteristics of South American Caudillism. This was also the reason for me to start a paper on this subject. I already knew a lot about Perón and when I started reading about Vargas I saw a striking similarity.

It must be concluded that much of the similarity is external. The most striking political similarities are that they both introduced a new constitution, returned as president and are often seen as kindred spirits of Mussolini (although that is of course open to dispute). There are of course similarities in terms of policy, for example, both had anti-communist institutions, they were in favor of a corporatist system and they had the lower class as a power base. Still, it can be argued that these are not enough similarities to say that Vargas and Perón are really similar as presidents.

There are also many differences. For example, Perón was anticlerical and Vargas had an exceptionally good relationship with the Catholic Church. Perón came from a humble and military background, where Vargas had an elite background and a university education. Such differences naturally also affect political policy and the foundation for the bond between the people. One last important difference I covered is what it all leads to in the end. Vargas’ legacy seems considerably smaller. He no longer plays much of a role in politics today, where there seems to be no more important former politician in Argentina than Juan Perón.