- Ambassadors of the Working Class: Argentina’s International Labor Activists and Cold War Democracy in the Americas by Ernesto Semán
In Ambassadors of the Working Class, Semán uncovers a little-known chapter in the history of Juan Domingo Perón’s government and its labor supporters—the labor attaché program that assigned union activists to Argentina’s embassies. Using a transnational framework, Semán recounts the story of union men (only a handful of women participated in the program and none in the original cohort) recruited to serve in Argentina’s diplomatic corps, long a preserve of the country’s aristocratic families. The attachés were charged in the early, heady days of the program with propagandizing in favor of Perón’s Third Position and contesting American [End Page 171] hegemony in LatinAmerica, in an attempt to promote an alternative to U.S. liberal democracy. They established numerous international connections, especially in Latin America. They even garnered a degree of influence with certain Latin American labor groups that saw in Perón’s economic nationalism and social and labor reforms a possible model for unions seeking greater social equality and political rights while confronting entrenched oligarchies and regimes hostile to popular movements.
Semán’s book presents the Peronism that might have been—a nationalist, working-class populism serving as a counterweight to the United States and American labor’s anti-communist obsessions—rather than the Peronism that it became, with its own anti-communist priorities, increasingly authoritarian and covetous of business support. Semán’s rosy account of the populist content of Peronism never mentions Perón’s courting of the business sector and his attempts to enlist its support for his government. Only in the first few years of Perón’s government did Peronism as an ideology and a movement represent anything particularly nettlesome, much less threatening to the U.S. government. In the face of China having just fallen to the Communists, the Korean War raging, and rumors of Soviet probing in Mossadegh’s oil rich Iran, among other crises, popular nationalism in a distant South American country barely registered as a concern to U.S. policymakers (regardless of what American academics found distressing in the phenomenon of Peronism). Moreover, in the book’s final chapters, Semán notes Perón’s abrupt jettisoning of his popular nationalism and ambitious aspirations for the labor-attaché program, and his rightward turn, as Peronism lost whatever was novel and dangerous and settled into a more conventional Latin American, Cold War personalist regime. At the same time, many of the labor attachés remained true to Peronism’s original anti-imperialist and socialdemocratic promise, putting them on a collision course with Perón.
The approach in Ambassadors of the Working Class is not really interdisciplinary in the sense that most readers of this journal would accept. The book is a largely a political and diplomatic history using the diplomatic dispatches from various archival sources and personal interviews as its evidentiary base. It does, however, offer a paradigm—the transnational perspective—that gives it a theoretical angle that would be absent in a straightforward narrative. Semán defines transnationalism as “the point of contact between the local and the external as something different than the perpetual and active impact of a foreign force (usually U.S. foreign policy) on a rather static domestic political fabric” (164); it is, instead, a set of historical contingencies in a shifting dialectic with one another. The identity and actions of the labor attachés are inexplicable without reference to transnational politics in domestic developments.
Semán generally gets the U.S. side of the story right, though he makes a few slips, such as the statement that before the Civil War, “most economic activity in the United States relied on slave labor” (74). Although cotton was the country’s leading export, northern and midwestern free (wage) workers always outnumbered the southern slave...