In 1949 the most familiar scene in Argentina was the one played out almost daily at the Ministry of Labor in Buenos Aires. There, under the glare of camera lights, a former radio star and movie actress, now the most powerful woman in South America, would enter her office past a crush of adoring, impoverished women and children. Evita Peron, the wife of President Juan Peron, would sit at her desk and begin one of the great rituals of Peronism, the political movement she and her husband created. It was a pageant that sustained them in power. She would patiently listen to the stories of the poor, then reach into her desk to pull out some money.
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Or she would turn to a minister and ask that a house be built. She would caress filthy children. She would kiss lepers, just as the saints had done. To many Argentines, Evita Peron was a flesh-and- blood saint; later, 40,000 of them would write to the pope attesting to her miracles. She was born on May 7, 1919, in Los Toldos, and baptized Maria Eva, but everyone called her Evita. Her father abandoned the family shortly after her birth. Fifteen years of poverty followed and, in early 1935, the young Evita fled her stifling existence to go to Buenos Aires. Perhaps, as some have said, she fell in love with a tango singer who was passing through. She wanted to be an actress, and in the next few years supported herself with bit parts, photo sessions for titillating magazines and stints as an attractive judge of tango competitions. She began frequenting the offices of a movie magazine, talking herself up for mention in its pages. When, in 1939, she was hired as an actress in a radio company, she discovered a talent for playing heroines in the fantasy world of radio soap opera. This was a period of political uncertainty in Argentina, yet few people were prepared for the military coup that took place in June 1943. Among the many measures instituted by the new government was the censorship of radio soap operas. Quickly adapting to the new environment, Evita approached the officer in charge of allocating airtime, Colonel Anibal Imbert. She seduced him, and Imbert approved a new project Evita had in mind, a radio series called Heroines of History. Years later, people would say that Evita had been a prostitute. Six months after Evita met Imbert, an earthquake struck Argentina. Colonel Juan Peron, the secretary of labor in the military government, launched a collection for the victims. He arranged for the Buenos Aires acting community to donate its time for an evening’s entertainment, with the proceeds going to disaster relief.
Evita was present on the big night, and she wanted to meet the colonel. Peron had risen quickly in the government and had accomplished a major coup with the unions, essentially taking control of them. But Evita probably knew nothing of this. Not political in the conventional sense, she was attracted instead by the colonel’s dashing figure and his aura of power. They talked for hours and left together. Within days Evita had moved into Peron’s apartment. In February, Peron engineered the ouster of the president and took over the war ministry for himself. Evita continued her radio portrayals of famous women, but her ambitions lay in the movies. She wanted Peron to help her in her film career, and he did by procuring the film itself, a commodity difficult to obtain during World War II. He offered it to a movie studio in exchange for Evita’s starring role in a film. When she arrived for the first day of filming, it was in a war ministry limousine. Four months into their relationship, Evita was named president of a new actors’ union Peron had created. (Any actors who wanted to work were obliged to join.) Soon afterward, she began a daily radio broadcast called Toward a Better Future. It was government propaganda, and it was the first time Evita’s dramatic talents had been harnessed to advance the political interests she was picking up from Peron. When World War II ended in 1945, Peron, then vice president, became a target of demonstrations because of his widely known fascist sympathies. In the fall of 1945, the army demanded his resignation, saying he was a lightning rod for discontent.
Peron acceded, reluctantly. But he refused to go quietly. Peron controlled the unions, and the unions controlled millions of men. Appearing inearly October before 15,000 unionists (Evita was present), he announced that his last act as secretary of labor-a post he still held-would be to grant a general wage increase. His pandering won loud cheers as he exhorted the crowd to “carry on our triumphal march!” That evening Peron learned that he was going to be arrested by the army, which could not risk leaving the popular leader on the street. He and Evita fled Buenos Aires but were apprehended a short time later. They were driven back to the capital, where Peron was put aboard a navy boat and spirited away. Evita and Peron had made no secret of their relationship, despite his being the most visible man in a country where even the ruthless bowed to Catholic convention. Now a group of women gathered at their apartment building to shout insults at Evita. One woman spat on the doorstep. Uncowed, Evita left the apartment to try to get Peron out of prison. But she could not even learn where he was being held, that became the great mystery in the streets of Buenos Aires. Where was Peron? He passed a letter out of prison, and it was published in the newspapers. He also managed to have himself transferred to Buenos Aires for medical attention, thus contriving to be in the city because he knew about plans to free him already underway. Many have claimed that Evita set these plans in motion by offering herself to union leaders. All that is known for sure is that in the early-morning hours of October 16, groups of workers began walking toward the center of the capital. Hundreds of thousands of people moved with such deliberateness that the government could do nothing without shedding blood. The crowd was demanding only one thing-Peron. Listening to the demonstrators outside, Peron smugly told his captors to reinstate him or risk a major uprising. They agreed, and that evening Peron spoke to 200,000 people from the balcony of the presidential palace. He told them to disperse peacefully, but with this order in mind: they were not to go to work the next day-October 17-but to celebrate their victory instead. For many years to come, October 17th would be the great day of Peronist Argentina, transformed by government propaganda into a glorious and bloody workers’ revolution. Four days later, Peron and Evita were married. Peron soon won the presidency.
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The very day he was sworn in, Evita caused a scandal. Still the movie star, she appeared at the inaugural ball in a dress that left her shoulder-the one practically touching the cardinal in attendance-entirely bare. More than two years at Peron’s side had taught her a great deal about politics. Evita quickly became the darling of the Argentine media. Their approval was hardly surprising. After all, her husband controlled them. By 1947, he had already replaced the justices of the Supreme Court with his own appointees, including Evita’s brother-in-law. In his second term, police torture would become routine. But to win re-election, he needed a new constitution, one that did away with the one-term limitation on the presidency. He pushed that reform through in March 1949. Another innovation Peron sponsored -just as calculated and one for which Evita was widely credited-was women’s suffrage. No one could argue with women’s suffrage; it was long past due. But when the law was enacted, the full power of the propaganda machine went to turning newly enfranchised women into Peron handmaidens. Such comments went far toward creating a cult of personality around Juan Peron. Evita had learned her part so well that, even if she did not write most of the lines, she improvised to perfection. She would build upon in every speech: “Peron is everything…We all feed from his light.” People were increasingly feeding from the light of Evita Peron as well. In 1948 a foundation was created in Evita’s name. Its object was to advance social charity, and while it frequently resorted to extortion the foundation was a phenomenal success. From the idea of the foundation sprang a range of programs designed to advance the Peronist cult of personality: youth sports leagues with Evita’s profile on every uniform, hospitals with her initials on the linen, polio vaccines that bore her name. It was around this time that Evita began her almost daily sessions with the poor. By 1951 her name was being advanced for the vice presidency, and in August a labor meeting was called to endorse a Peron-Peron ticket. But on August 22, Evita went on radio to renounce the post. She wanted only a supporting role in Peron’s “marvelous chapter in history.”
The date of her renunciation became the second great day of Peronism. The government portrayed it as an act of supreme selflessness. Only a month later, Evita was diagnosed with cancer of the uterus. When news of her illness got out, people began holding special masses. Miracles were reported. She died professing love for her people and receiving their expressions of devotion in return. In such an atmosphere, Peron’s re-election itself became a sort of ritual, so that when Evita voted from her hospital bed, the nurses fell to their knees and kissed her ballot box. After the election, a biopsy revealed that the cancer had spread. In June 1952, Peron’s congress named Evita the Spiritual Leader of the Nation. Her own final contribution to that deification came in her will, in which she wrote that she wanted “the poor, the old, the children, and the workers to continue writing to me as they did in my lifetime.” She died on July 26, 1952, at the age of 33. A specialist was brought in to embalm the body and make it “definitively incorruptible.” Evita’s body lay in state for 13 days-and even then the crowds showed no sign of diminishing. In the decades that followed, Peronism continued to occupy a place in Argentine political life, taking the form mainly of anti-government terrorism. In 1971, after a number of demands by terrorists, the Argentine government agreed to return Evita’s body. It was shipped to Peron in Spain. That year, Peron was allowed to return to Argentina; two years later he was president again. He died in office, and it was his wife and successor, Isabel, who brought Evita’s body back to Argentina, in the hope that the aura of a saint would again dazzle the public.