When Argentine military authorities this month freed Maria Estela Martinez de Peron, the former nightclub dancer whose brief and disastrous presidency ended a 1976 military coup, they hustled her by helicopter from the courthouse out to the heavily guarded suburban Buenos Aires chalet that has been serving as her prison. She was prohibited from speaking to reporters, meeting with her supporters, or appearing even briefly in public; three days later, under heavy security guard, an Iberia Airlines jet whisked her out of Argentina toward a safely distant retreat in Spain.

Given the bare facts of Argentina's recent history, it was an altogether remarkable display. This is a reportedly frail 50-year-old woman who was thrust into the presidency when her husband died in office; whose tendency to weep and seek counsel from an astrologer was the despair of many Argentines; whose government appeared to be collapsing around her even before the military threw her out, and who has spent more than five years under house arrest, forbidden to talk to anyone besides relatives and lawyers.

The government that overthrew her is composed of the army, the navy and the air force and -- if we are to believe their frequent speeches -- is backed by many millions of Argentines. Argentina's president, Gen. Roberto E. Viola, has repreatedly said the junta wants to listen to the political parties and eventually return to democratic rule. Yet Argentine officials are so threatened by Isabel peron, as she is commonly known, that they obviously have no intention of letting her say a word in public here about anything -- especially politics.

It is not her charisma that worries them, or her powers of oratory; by most reports, she is not long on either. It is her name. Her name is an affront. rHer name is a daily reminder of what, from a certain military perspective, is the most infuriating phenomenon in modern Argentine political history.

They exiled him, reviled his memory, silenced his followers, killed much of the left wing of his party, banned public discussion of his ideas, took over his government and locked away his wife, but they cannot exorcise the spirit of Gen. Juan Domingo Peron.

Five years after a coup by military men who vowed that Peronists would never take power again, Argentina, by general consensus, is crawling with Peronists. They are scattered from Buenos Aires into the fields and small cities of the western provinces: The ex-senator in his living room, with his chandelier and his marble-topped coffee table. The ceramics worker in his factory, the orange light of the brick kilns flickering across his face. The young cane cutter in the far northern sugar fields, his chin still dripping with the juice of a cane stalk he squeezed over his open mouth. The cab driver, the restaurant waiter, the unemployed metallurgical worker, the young arrogant woman who dismisses everything un-Argentine with a wave of her hand -- "Chile doesn't exist, Uruguay doesn't exist, the English don't know how to eat, the French are so full of themselves" -- and then looks surprised when you ask her political affiliation. "Peronist, of course." She could not have been more than 16 years old when Juan Peron died.

The common political wisdom in Argentina -- although in the absence of polls or voting there is no way to prove it -- is that if elections were held tomorrow, the Peronists would win. That has a lot to do with why there will be no elections tomorrow. When a recently retired army general, now a government official, was asked not long ago how many high-ranking army men he thought were dead set against any Peronist return, he replied without hesitation, "I would say almost all."

By the time Juan Peron died seven years ago at the age of 78, he was the singular political phenomenon of 20th century Argentina. His first presidency, from 1946 to 1955, was the culmination of his stewardship of the labor ministry, which he had used to develop a massive political base among Argentina's largely immigrant and disenfranchised working class. He spent 18 years in exile after the disgusted Argentine military threw him out of office. When he was allowed to return in 1972 he immediately began political maneuvering again, and within a year an overwhelming vote had swept him back into the presidency.

His vice president was the dancer he had met in Panama and married in Spain, and when Peron died in office in 1974, the widowed dancer, Isabel Peron, became president of Argentina. Her administration, which ended the night a military helicopter took her into custody, lasted less than two years.

Among Peronists, Juan Peron is still "the general," and a stranger inquiring about the movement may on occasion have to wait while the appropriate passage from one of the speeches of "The General" is consulted and read aloud. No other leader has gripped modern Argentina the way Peron did. Nationalistic, authoritarian and possessed of a public presence and personal spell the unnerved even his opponents, Peron built up Argentine industry and labor benefits so dramatically that he made permanent supporters of most of the country's working class -- and their children, who remember to this day what their father told them about the better times under Juan Peron.

"For the first time in our lives, we had social work and free medical care, and my father had a decent salary," said a Peronist activist in the sugar industry-dominated northern city of San Miguel de Tucuman, where the sugar workers' union was set up under Peron. "We had a chance at paid vacations in the vacation colony at the river -- there's still a complex there built by the Peronists -- I was a boy, and they had every kind of children's recreation. Good food, swimming pools, toys, coaches to teach you certain sports. And the labor legislation protected my father's job security. All this was legislated by Peron."

Just how Peron accomplished these things -- by genuine structural chance or by squandering the riches from the country's post-World War II economic bloom -- has been furiously debated in Argentina for the last 35 years. Anybody who wants to begin understanding why modern Argentina is such a political disaster should start by listening to Peronists and non-Peronists hurl verbal assaults at each other.

Says the military, which on this particular issue is backed by many otherwise antimilitary middle- and upperclass Argentines: The Peronists have no program. The Peronists have no real leader. The Peronists are corrupt, built shoddy industries that could not sustain themselves, seek to fatten labor unions at the expense of the nation's long-term economy, twice brought the nation near ruin, and take their name from a man who borrowed parts of his governing style from Adolf Hilter and Benito Mussolini.

Say the Peronists, after repeated assurances that their names will not be used: The military has no program. The military killed thousands of labor organizers and shop stewards during the so-called "war against subversion," not because they were suspected subversives, but because they were Peronists. The government is corrupt, seeks to fatten international banks and currency speculators at the expense of working people, and wants to turn Argentina into a nation of beef and grain exporters where national industry is gradually strangled by competition from abroad.

"We left the country with money," cried a sleek-haired, olive-skinned Peronist organizer warming his feet by the coals of a living room fire. "And these guys have left it with -- what? Industries closing. Men out of work. A $3 billion balance of payments deficit as of last December!"

There are certain grand ideas most Peronists agree on: that Argentina's working class must get a larger share of the nation's economy; that national industries must be favored and built up rather than letting them die out under the pressures of international competition; that Peronism promises more "social justice" and "participation of the people" than the more centrist and middle-class Radical Party or any of the smaller parties now awaiting a return to political activity in Argentina.

But there is so little consensus as to what that means in practice that Isabel Peron became crucial to the movement during her years of house arrest. They could not agree on a potential presidential candidate, an economic platform, a party structure or a national political vision, but they were all quite emphatic about wanting the release of Isabel Peron, still the titular president of the Peronists' political party. That is why the government ushered her out of the country so fast, and why in the foreseeable future -- with Peronists still being arrested and briefly detained by the dozens when they tried to meet en masse -- the government is not likely to allow Peron any hint of an active political role in Argentina.

"There are Nazi Peronists, liberal Peronists, center-right Peronists, Peronists of the left and of the extreme left -- it runs the whole gamut," a respected Argentine political writer said over his steak and red wine the other night. One of his dinner companions, a Peronist attorney, was asked if there was anything at all that really bound the whole movement together.

"The past," the attorney said, looking momentarily mournful. "We share the past."