I’m betting most Argentines don’t think much of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1978 musical Evita. As one young Argentine woman – well-read, worldly and a Master’s degree candidate – told me, the musical and the later movie that starred Madonna presented “the upper class view of Eva Peron.”
The young woman confessed to having “become a believer” in the good done by the spectacularly controversial wife of the late Argentine dictator Juan Peron. Not all her family agreed, she said. Her grandfather had come to loathe Juan and Evita after his property was confiscated. So it goes with the woman who is still called the “spiritual leader” of Argentina.
Lest one think that Evita and all she represents have become quaint historical footnotes, consider this: Current Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, a Peronist, presented her state of the nation speech to Congress on March 1. CFK, as she is called, spoke for 96 minutes and her talk was preceded, as the Buenos Aires’ English language paper noted, by the Peronist chant from the gallery. One might argue that CFK is the ultimate heir of Eva Peron’s influence that reached its zenith just before her death in 1952. Evita had designs on becoming Juan’s vice president, before her fatal illness sapped her physical and political strength. CFK, once an Argentine senator, succeed her husband as president and may just be keeping the seat warm for him to return in 2011. The current president often rules by decree, seems to ignore the rulings of the courts and has her own mini-cult of personality. Evita does live.
Juan Peron somehow was able to accumulate power by appealing simultaneously to the far right and the far left. His wife helped him by establishing her own independent power base. She formed a foundation and shoveled money at the working class – “the shirtless ones.” Not unlike an Argentine Huey Long, the Peron’s built schools, vacation facilities for workers, hospitals, even the amusement park that is said to have influenced Walt Disney’s ideas for Disneyland. They also accumulated enormous power, ruled by decree and personality and drove the country’s economy into the ditch.
Still, the power of Evita lives. In the end of the world town of Ushuaia, the local Peronists maintain a very public monument to Evita. Decked out in haute couture, her photograph is prominently displayed in a Buenos Aires hotel lobby. No Argentine politician dares use the famous balcony on the Pink House – the presidential building -where Juan and Evita spoke to massive rallies. The symbolism would just be too powerful. Evita’s modest tomb – modest at least by this cemetery’s standards – at Recoleta is always surrounded by those who see a visit to the grave as a pilgrimage. The faithful leave bundles of fresh flowers.
There is nothing even remotely like the power of Evita in American political culture. An equivalent would be a cult-like following, years after their deaths, for a Jackie Kennedy or a Hillary Clinton. Evita is in a class of one, even though her reign was a short one, really, only six years.
For years after Juan Peron’s overthrow by the military – another irony, he got his start as a junior officer visiting Mussolini’s Italy – any mention of the famous pair was outlawed, the party was made illegal and Eva’s embalmed remains made a tour of Europe before finally returning to Buenos Aires. But, nearly 60 years after her death, as the song goes, she has never really left.
As for that song – Don’t Cry For Me Argentina – I only heard it once here. An extremely talented trio of musicians struck it up during a dinner performance in a city far from the capitol. Maybe they like the song. Or, maybe they know that Americans think of the lyrics when they think of Argentina. Or, maybe they just get the whole Evita thing – whatever it is.