OBITUARY: Arturo Frondizi

As President of Argentina between 1958 and 1962, Arturo Frondizi withstood over 30 military coup attempts before the roll of tanks finally removed him from the Casa Rosada and sent him to a brief imprisonment on Martin Garcia Island off Buenos Aires.

Indisputably a leading Argentine political figure of the Pernist and post-Pernist periods, Frondizi was elected President at a time when the nation's politics - polarised by 10 years of Pernist autocracy and three of anti-Pernist repression - reached levels of near farcical chaos. The planteo, or military ultimatum, became all but institutionalised. Military officers would present objections to specific areas of policy with the threat of coup d'tat if their wishes were not respected. In spite of this, Frondizi instituted wide-ranging and controversial reforms and oversaw a period of breakneck industrialisation.

The son of an Italian immigrant couple - his father was a moderately successful builder - Frondizi was the youngest but one of 14 children. At the age of 10 he was sent to school in Buenos Aires. The only boy enrolled in a school for girls, Frondizi showed little early sign of academic ability. Preferring sports to study, he frequently scraped his way through the academic year with bare passes. His one attempt to enter military school floundered when he failed an entrance exam.

Frondizi was none the less a man of considerable intellect, subsequently developing a passion for the works of Hegel. In 1930 he completed a law degree at the University of Buenos Aires. Before he received his diploma, however, the then President, Hipolito Irigoyen, was overthrown. Frondizi, by now an active member of the centrist Radical Civic Union, protested in the streets at the overthrow and was jailed for 20 days. In a gesture typical of the man, Frondizi refused to receive his diploma from the new university authorities. They had, he said, been illegally appointed.

In 1933 he married Elena Faggionato, the daughter of an immigrant family from the same central Italian village as his own parents. Elena had written to him in jail. Frondizi's mother, a tireless match-maker, was delighted with the marriage.

Frondizi's political career took off very quickly. Elected to Congress in 1946 - the same year Juan Pern became President - Frondizi became known for his speeches attacking the undemocratic nature of the Pernist regime.

Following the overthrow of Pern in 1955 and the proscription of Pernism, Frondizi's party, the Radical Civic Union, split - largely over attitudes to Pernism. Frondizi lead the more leftist of the two wings, arguing that it was not possible to build Argentine democracy while excluding the largest political group, the Pernists, from the political process.

Frondizi fought the 1958 Presidential election campaign on a radically nationalist platform while at the same time advocating the reintegration of the Pernists into the political process. Frondizi won the presidency, defeating his one-time colleague Ricardo Balbin who lead the anti-Pernist faction of the Radicals. Frondizi's victory depended largely on the votes of Pernists who had been instructed by the exiled Pern to support him.

The nature of the deal struck between Frondizi and Pern is controversial. While it made political sense for Pernists to support Frondizi, there are many suggestions that Pern's open support for Frondizi was bought with cash. One version, supposedly recounted by embarrassed witnesses, tells how an emissary of Frondizi attempted to deliver the bribe by "forgetting" a suitcase of money after visiting Pern in exile in Caracas. Pern, the story goes, called the man back and counted the money in front of him.

Frondizi's Presidency, therefore, was based on the enormous political gamble that he could wrestle support away from the Pernists, while at the same time moving to integrate them back into political life. It was a gamble that failed, and a big victory for the Pernists in 1962 elections in Buenos Aires was the final spur for the anti-Pernist military to overthrow Frondizi.

James Hodges

Arturo Frondizi, politician: born Paso de Los Libres, Corrieintes, Argentina 28 October 1908; President of Argentina 1958-62; married 1933 Elena Faggionato (one daughter); died 18 April 1995.