Former Argentine president Maria Estela Martinez de Peron was released from house arrest this afternoon, ending five years of imprisonment by the Argentine military government that ousted her from the presidency.
An ardent crowd of Peronist supporters awaited the ex-president outside the federal courthouse here, roaring her nickname in unison as she was whisked into a waiting police cortege: "I-sa-bel! I-sa-bel!" With motorcycle escorts clearing the way through the afternoon traffic, Peron was driven to a landing pad and flown by helicopter to the suburban Buenos Aires chalet where she has spent the last three years of her captivity.
Former Peronist senator Juan Labake, who recently traveled to the United States to press for Peron's release, said in a telephone interview that some time before Thursday the 50-year-old ex-president would leave Argentina for Spain. She had been offered refuge both by Omar Torrijos, leader of Panama's National Guard, and Pilar Franco Bahamonde, sister of the late Spanish leader Generalissimo Franciso Franco. There had been speculation that Peron would stop at least briefly in Panama, but Labake said she would fly directly to Spain, arriving either in Madrid or in a Mediterranean coastal city where she has friends waiting to take her in.
"She wants to go to Spain to rest, physically and spirtually, before making any political contact," Labake said. "If possible, she wants to visit the pope, and she also wants to go to Panama for a visit to thank Gen. Torrijos for his concern for her."
It was in Spain that Isabel Peron sat out nearly 18 years of exile with her husband, the remarkable Gen. Juan Domingo Peron. Overthrown by the military in 1955, Peron met Isabel, then a nightclub dancer, in Panama shortly thereafter. They were married in Spain, and when Peron finally came back in 1972 -- first to Argentina, and then to the Argentine presidency -- Isabel Peron was presented as his political partner, much like Peron's first wife, Eva, who had died of cancer in 1952.
Isabel Peron was elected vice president on her husband's ticket in 1973. When he died nine months later she was immediately sworn in as president, and within less than two years the military declared that the country was caving in under political violence and economic chaos. A helicopter took Isabel Peron into custody at midnight on March 24, 1976.She has been in prison or under house arrest ever since, prohibited from speaking publicly or seeing anyone but relatives and lawyers.
The charges against Isabel Peron, involving fraud and embezzlement during her presidency, have over the last five years become less important than the political ramifications of her imprisonment. As the titular head of the fragmented by massive Peronist movement, she has become the subject of heated debate that stretches from the most hard-line Argentine generals to the working class Peronist leaders of the northwestern provinces.
Releasing Isabel Peron, many Argentines have said, would give a politically active figurehead to the Peronists, who currently have no political leader with the presence and mass support to unite the movement. Isabel Peron is not considered a particularly charismatic or capable politician -- by the end of her presidency many Argentines looked upon her as a sad, weepy woman overwhelmed by the times -- but she carries the name and direct memory of Juan Peron, who for all his passionate detractors still commands more loyalty than any other politician in modern Agentine history.
The release of Isabel Peron had become a rallying cry for Peronists, who have profound disagreements about many other things.
Among the military men, many of whom blame Peronism for the perilous state of Argentina's economy and political system, some of the harder-line officers were believed to be dead set against releasing Peron.
Although it is difficult, in Argentina's climate of rampant rumors, to know precisely who in the government fought for and against her liberty, it is possible that the release will heighten tensions among those military officers who are unhappy about President Roberto Viola's rapidly conciliatory attitude toward the Peronist movement in general.
A judge today found Peron guilty of the last charge against her, illegally transferring a public building to her party while she was president. Her release, on "conditional" liberty, was ordered on the grounds that she had already served more than two-thirds of her total seven-year, 11-month sentence for that offense and an earlier conviction of misuse of charity funds. Under Argentine law, a prisoner who has already served two-thirds of his sentence may ask for early release.
In a more normal case, according to one Peronist leader, "conditional" liberty means the prisoner may not leave the country without special permission. In this case, Isabel Peron is essentially being bustled out of Argentina to defuse the political impact of her presence. Legally, the Peronist said, there are no restrictions on how long she must remain outside the country.
"The judge has to let her back in, but in Argentina the juanta stands above the judge. And if the junta says she can't come back, she can't come back."