The family history of José Alfredo Martínez de Hoz helps explain the logic of Argentina’s last military dictatorship.
José Alfredo Martínez de Hoz was the product of one of Argentina’s most famous landowning families. As Minister of Economy during the dictatorship of 1976-83, he then became infamous as the architect of an economic programme that left the country racked by stagnation and hyperinflation. To understand why this occurred, it is helpful to look at the origins of the man himself.
The Martínez de Hoz family arrived in the River Plate as merchants in the late eighteenth century, but rapidly moved into landowning when the profitability of rural activities increased dramatically after independence due to an unprecedented boom in the region’s terms of trade. They then became one of the country’s most prominent landowning families. Most notably, in 1866 José Toribio Martínez de Hoz, José Alfredo’s great grandfather became the first president of the Rural Society, the powerful organisation that represented the Argentine landowners (Asociación Chapadmalal n.d., p. 16).
Chapadmalal, the 25,500-hectare ranch on the coast of Buenos Aires Province, was the centrepiece of the Martínez de Hoz family fortune. Miguel Alfredo Martinez de Hoz, José Alfredo’s grandfather, inherited 12,500 hectares of Chapadmalal in 1888 (ibid., p. 17), which he used to fund an extravagant lifestyle that saw him and his wife pass much of their time in England. Chapadmalal, meanwhile, became like a small part of England: a contemporary guide to Argentina described how ‘from master to men, nothing but English is spoken; the hours of labour, the cooking, even the making of bread, are all on the English style’ (Lloyd 1911, p. 552).
As for many other Argentine landowning families, this golden age came to end with the deterioration in Argentina’s terms of trade during the interwar period. By the late 1920s, Miguel Alfredo had already been forced to sell off almost a quarter of his share of the ranch in response to the relatively depressed prices of agricultural products. His attempts to diversify away from landowning then proved disastrous. In 1931, he invested in a business that was supposed to import automobiles to be sold to the government. When the deal fell through, however, Miguel Alfredo’s family faced financial ruin and were forced to hand over many of their most prized assets to their creditors, including the 9,842 hectares that remained of the Chapadmalal ranch. While the family were eventually able to buy back 5,370 hectares from the banks (Asociación Chapadmalal n.d., pp. 22-23), it was obvious that they, like many other Argentine landowning families, had been undermined by the deterioration in the terms of trade.
What happened next added insult to injury. In another attempt to diversify away from landowning, Miguel Alfredo’s heirs, including José Alfredo’s father, José Alfredo Snr, planned to turn Chapadmalal into an extension of the exclusive tourist resort of Mar del Plata, 23 kilometres down the coast. In 1939, they wrote to the Ministry of Public Works to ask for permission to begin construction of ‘a Spa with modern characteristics, such that does not currently exist in the country’ (quoted in ibid., p. 32). In total, they built 120 country houses, which they rapidly sold, together with another 420 empty plots, on what was now called the Chapadmalal Maritime Beach. A national newspaper described how they had been bought by ‘people linked to society, who, as anticipated, are proposing to transform this spot into a modern and aristocratic summer village’ (quoted in ibid., pp. 34-5). Their idyl was sabotaged, however, by the government of Juan Domingo Perón, which obliged them to ‘donate’ prime coastal land for the government’s new programme of ‘social tourism’ in the late 1940s. Large hotels with a capacity for 4,700 guests were built and opened to poor, urban workers, whose holidays were financed by the Eva Perón Foundation (Torre and Pastoriza 2001, pp. 19-20). The Martínez de Hoz family thus saw their exclusive seaside resort turned into a playground for the ‘shirtless ones’ – the descendants of the peons who had once tended their cattle.
This, then, was the context of José Alfredo Jnr’s childhood. Born in 1925, he grew up watching his family’s fortunes collapse.
And José Alfredo knew who to blame. Largely ignoring the injury inflicted by the deterioration in Argentina’s terms of trade, he focused on those who had insulted his family. In a short history of Argentina’s agriculture that he published when he was 22, he explained how Perón had sabotaged Argentina’s prosperity by misguidedly attempting to promote industrialisation through government intervention (Martínez de Hoz 1967, esp. p. 45).
Martínez de Hoz also knew the solution: to roll back the elephantine state that Perón had supposedly constructed. For the conservative Catholic faction of the military that became prominent in the mid-1970s, the story he told about Argentina’s history proved attractive. Once upon a time, it went, Argentina had prospered by specialising in the comparative advantage given to it by its abundant land. It was thrown out of this paradise, however, after it discovered the forbidden fruit of industrialism. Thereafter, Argentina had wandered lost in the wilderness, and only (neo)liberalism would allow its paradise to be regained. For José Alfredo Martínez de Hoz, this was the truth of Argentine history, yet in reality it reflected the resentments of a man whose family (and class) had been one of the great losers from the deterioration in Argentina’s terms of trade.
Asociación Chapadmalal, Chapadmalal: Entre el campo y el mar, n.d..
Lloyd, R., Twentieth Century Impressions of Argentina: Its History, People, Commerce, Industries and Resources, London, 1911.
Martínez de Hoz, J.A., La agricultura y la ganadería argentina en el período 1930-1960, Buenos Aires, 1967.
Torre, J.C., and E. Pastoriza, ‘La democratización del bienestar’, in J.C. Torre, ed, Nueva historia argentina, VIII, Los años peronistas (1943-1955), Buenos Aires, 2001, pp. 257-312.