The Astrologer Who Shaped an Argentine Dictatorship
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the future of nations could be written in the stars — depending on who’s advising the leader.
By Wesley Tomaselli
- José López Rega, a police officer turned astrologer, molded the Perón government of the 1970s.
- He’s just one example of spiritualists and star-watchers who have held outsized sway among Latin American leaders in recent decades.
In 1951, in a drab living room in a small town north of Buenos Aires, the young man first felt the celestial vibrations take hold.
There, on the table, syrupy wax dripped down the candlestick and melted to form the shape of a white dove, the symbol of peace. Doubt no longer remained in the young man’s mind: It was an astral sign.
José López Rega was a police officer by day and a singer at night. After the first astral sign, he feigned illness to get out of policing duties and made frequent visits to the house where the dove had appeared, writes Marcelo Larraquy, López Rega’s biographer. When he arrived, he was greeted by Victoria Montero, whom he believed to be a sorceress.
López Rega embraced Montero’s astrology and didn’t let go. And while Montero would eventually fade in importance, a bond with another powerful woman would strengthen. Except this time, López Rega would be the spiritual guide — not the acolyte.
He who dominates the mind can dominate everything.
José López Rega
For decades, Latin American presidents have sought special counsel from trusted advisers who dabble in spiritualism and mysticism. In the early 20th century, Venezuelan dictator Juan Vicente Gómez employed Eloy Tarazona, an indigenous manservant versed in witchcraft. More recently, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega has entrusted his wife, Rosario Murillo, who preaches a kind of New Age spirituality, with the day-to-day workings of government. The fiercely superstitious late president of Venezuela Hugo Chávez believed he was a reincarnation of Simón Bolívar, Latin America’s independence leader. Chávez often consulted with members of Cuban Santería, a religion based on West African spirituality.
“Sorcery doesn’t seem to be made for lukewarm, grayish politicians, but rather for ambitious men capable of doing whatever it takes in order to stay in power,” says David Placer, author of The Sorcerers of Chávez.
In June 1973, after 18 years in exile, former Argentine President Juan Domingo Perón returned to win the presidency. During his exile, he dodged kidnappers in Venezuela, suffered amoebic dysentery and hobnobbed with Caribbean dictators. He also met and married María Estela Martínez, a dazzling nightclub singer. Following his election, Perón named his third wife vice president.
Things had changed in Argentina since Perón’s abrupt departure in 1955. As the Cold War divided the world, so it did his followers. Some became Marxist revolutionaries; others became conservatives loyal to Perón’s military ethos. By the 1970s, political tensions in Argentina were at a fever pitch.
One year after his return, Perón died of a heart attack. María Estela Martínez, better known as Isabel Perón, was poised to take over.
Years earlier, López Rega had mesmerized Isabel, who lived in the shadows of Perón’s first wife, Evita, with his spiritual rituals. When Evita died in 1952, Argentines mourned her as a kind of saint. When López Rega first met Isabel, Larraquy writes, the aspiring spiritual counselor made her a promise: Isabel would become just as great as Evita.
“But how?” Isabel had demanded.
“I have a vision,” replied López Rega. “At some point, I will be able to transfer her spirit to you. He who dominates the mind can dominate everything.”
López Rega had ascended from bodyguard to personal secretary to the Perón family. Now, more than ever, Isabel needed a trusted adviser.
As the 1970s unfolded, López Rega’s beakish face began to appear more and more alongside Isabel’s. He wore nondescript peacoats with black buttons as he strode through the streets of Buenos Aires. There was a time in his life when López Rega had dreamed of singing in the bars of his hometown. Instead, he decided to meld music and astrology into an esoteric belief system based on purity and hostile to materialism. He was determined his political path would be guided by the divine and the good.
Before Juan Perón died, he appointed López Rega minister of social welfare, and he became a powerful quasi prime minister within the Cabinet. But López Rega’s interpretation of purification for the troubled state took a dangerous turn.
Today, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro waxes nostalgic for the days of the military dictatorships such as Argentina’s that defined his region in the 1970s. Bolsonaro denies the scientific analyses of the coronavirus pandemic. He believes federal police should have extrajudicial shoot-to-kill powers.
Like the Perón government of the ’70s, Bolsonaro’s government consults with its own spiritual guru. Olavo de Carvalho lives on a ranch in Virginia and relishes tweeting controversial philosophical observations about Brazil’s place in history.
“President, for the thousandth time I beg you: Understand that this conversation of ‘technician superior to ideologies’ is an ideology,” he pleaded with Bolsonaro on April 27.
De Carvalho claims he has influenced Bolsonaro’s Cabinet, and Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo is a devout follower of the far-right ideologue. One thing is certain, ideas don’t just appear out of the ether. There have always been powerful figures in Latin America who, if unchecked, can become even more powerful than those elected.
At the same time that Argentina was mourning Juan Perón’s death, an elite government group secretly spawned the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance, or Triple A.
The conservative authoritarian side of Perón’s legacy wanted to stamp out dissent. Its aim was to purge opponents of Isabel’s government.
The Triple A was eventually tied to the extrajudicial assassinations of at least 2,000 political opposition figures. Its fountainhead? An insider: the policeman-turned-astrologer José López Rega.