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Isabel Peron turns 90

Suzanne Cords
February 4, 2021

Former Argentinian leader and the world's first female president continues to lead a reclusive life in self-exile in her adopted Spain.

Argentinien Buenos Aires | Argentinische Präsidentin | Isabel Peron
Image: Wikipedia

She hasn't been much seen by neighbors recently, nor has she attended services at the Santa Maria Soledad Torres church. The local press has said she "lives like a nun," avoiding social contact and has a phobia about politics. The company she keeps is limited to her service staff and physiotherapists – the latter on account of a couple of falls she has suffered.

The one-time president of Argentina, Isabel Peron, has been living in seclusion in her villa 30 km northeast of Madrid, Spain for four decades now. She may well be spending her 90th birthday on February 4 in quiet contemplation of her eventful past.

From nightclub dancer to Juan Peron's secretary

Maria Estela Martinez Cartas was born in 1931 in La Rioja, the youngest of six children. She discovered her passion for dance early on. Aged 20, she joined the dance troupe led by Cuban Joe Herald and toured the nightclubs of Latin America under her stage name Isabelita Gómez.

Details are sketchy as to when and where she met the Argentinian President Juan Domingo Peron. One places them at the trendy Pasapoga cabaret in Caracas, Venezuela in 1955, shortly after Peron was deposed from his second term as Argentine president. Other sources say they met in Panama.

She quit her career as a dancer and became Peron's personal secretary and accompanied him into exile in Madrid, where the two were married in 1961. 36 years his junior, Isabel became Peron's third wife after Aurelia "Potota" Tizon, and the infamous Evita who enjoyed saint-like status in Argentina. The latter had not only pushed through the right to vote for women and founded the Partido Peronista Femenino (Peronist Women's Party), but also lobbied for the Descamisados (the shirtless), the poorest of the poor.

a woman waving from the balcony
Evita Peron was adored by the nation Image: Getty Images/Keystone

Isabel realized she paled in comparison to her predecessor who had succumbed far too early to cancer aged only 33. In a televised message to the Argentine people post-marriage, Isabel said she wanted to "continue doing in a humble manner" those "good deeds" that Evita "unfortunately could no longer do for the country."

President by default

Isabel cut her political teeth during Juan Peron's golden period as president from 1946 to 1955, and in exile visited Argentina several times to galvanize support for her husband and his Peronist party.

When Peron finally returned to Argentina to run for president in 1973, Isabel was chosen as his vice presidential running mate. The couple won the election and took office in October 1973.

However, Peron's ailing health saw Isabel become acting president on several occasions. She eventually succeeded him upon his death on July 1, 1974. She was the first woman in the world to hold the title of president.

a man and woman standing on a balcony
Juan Peron watches a parade with his wife Isabel in 1973Image: Everett Collection/picture alliance

"Madam, you are under arrest"

Lacking experience in office, Isabel unwittingly became a pawn of power-seeking politicians. She relied on the counsel of Minister of Social Welfare, Lopez Rega, who had already served under her husband. But like other Peronists, he feared losing power and persecuted opponents. His paramilitary group Alianza Anticomunista Argentina (the Argentine Anti-communist Alliance) or Triple A for short, became synonymous with terror; thousands were tortured and murdered.

Meanwhile, Argentina faced a severe economic crisis, with general strikes repeatedly paralyzing the country. In the midst of this chaos, the military staged a coup 632 days after Isabel became president.

"Madam, the armed forces have taken political control of the country, you are under arrest," General José Rogelio Villareal informed her when she was deposed by the US-backed military junta.

On March 24, 1976 she was taken by helicopter from the terrace of the Casa Rosada, the official residence of the head of state, to her luxurious prison, a government chateau in Patagonia. She remained under house arrest there for five years. In 1981, she was allowed to leave for Spain.

soldiers and tanks
President Isabel Peron was deposed by Argentine's military junta in 1976 in a bloodless coupImage: Getty Images/AFP/OFF

40 years in exile

She settled in Peron's former house in the heart of Madrid, returning to her homeland only a handful of times: Including in 1983, when she personally congratulated President Raul Alfonsin, who was democratically elected after the end of the military dictatorship. He waived the repayment of the $9 million (€7.4 million) she allegedly transferred from public funds to her private account.

In 2007, an Argentine judge issued a warrant for her arrest on charges of human rights abuses perpetrated by the armed forces during her presidency. Peron, who was by then a Spanish citizen, was briefly arrested. In 2008, however, Spain's National Court refused the extradition request on the grounds that the charges did not constitute crimes against humanity and that the statute of limitations had long been exceeded.

Adapted from the German by Brenda Haas

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