Sunday, 24 April 2011

Eva Perón: The Public Death of a Legend

The first sign that all was not well with Argentina's controversial First Lady came when she did not attend the Flag Day ceremonies in Buenos Aires on June 19th, 1952. When she failed to appear at any of the festivities for Argentina's Independence Day three weeks later, her millions of devoted followers began to get agitated. Initially, the government's doctors tried to downplay rumours that Evita was seriously ill and instead claimed that she was simply recovering from exhaustion. However, news that Evita had left Buenos Aires and was instead lying in a sickbed in the Quinta de Olivos, the presidential countryside palace, soon leaked to the press and by the end of the second week of July, Argentina was tottering on the edge of a communal nervous breakdown at the idea that the President's thirty three year-old wife might be about to die.

In Congress, fifty-nine politicians made impassioned speeches praising Evita's patriotism, her devotion to the cause of Peronism and her tireless care for the Argentine poor. Mafalda Piovano, a female politician recently elected to Congress thanks to Evita's campaign against male-only suffrage, collapsed during her speech and screamed out, "Oh God, we beseech you to return to Eva Perón the health she sacrificed to save us!" Then, Congresswoman Piovano fainted and by the time she had regained consciousness, the President of the Chamber, Hector Campora, was proposing that Congress bestow upon Evita the new title of "Spiritual Leader of the Nation." The motion passed.

Out in the streets, the reactions of Evita's followers - her beloved "descamisados" - was even more frenzied. It would be wrong to characterise their devotion to her as simply the displaced religious loyalty of simple peasants, dazzled and manipulated by Evita's beauty and glamour. Undoubtedly, there was an element of that; the story of Eva Perón is one of history's great rags-to-riches stories and to the Argentne working-classes there was something almost magical about the farmer's daughter from Junín who had become model, then movie star, then first lady. Always dressed in the height of fashion, for half a decade Evita was glamour personified for many of Argentina's disadvantaged. However, she was not just loved for her beauty and the Dior-stocked wardrobe she flaunted at every public appearance. She was also applauded for her role in supporting a woman's right to vote and, most importantly of all, for her work with the Eva Perón Foundation. Having commandeered the entire Argentinean social welfare programme during her husband's first term in office, Evita had transformed it into a charitable foundation with her name on it and then authorised one of the most extensive expansions of social welfare in modern history, despite a global recession. Capitalising on her own celebrity, Eva encouraged Peronists to donate generously to the foundation and even insisted that all employed workers give one day's wage to the foundation per calendar year. The money kept rolling in and with access to both the treasury and donations from her supporters, Evita had been able to turn the foundation into one of the biggest charitable enterprises in human history. Allegations that she was siphoning off funds to a secret Swiss bank account are almost certainly untrue and if money was deducted for expenses, it must have been tiny in comparison to what was being handed out. A more valid criticism was that the foundation was contributing to the national deficit and that Evita had become so completely convinced of her identity as saviour of the nation's poor that she was basically, and sometimes literally, throwing money at anyone who asked for it, in a wasteful, recession-bolstering display of government over-spending. For Evita, of course, none of this mattered. She wasn't an accountant, nor did she have any interest in anything that even smacked of criticism. She was adored, she was loved and everywhere she went, she was mobbed by hysterical crowds. Of all the many people who believed in the legend of Eva Perón, it's difficult to imagine a more zealous believer than Evita herself. 

The work and the criticisms of the Foundation and Peronism's social welfare programme are dramatised below in the song And the Money Kept Rolling In from the 1996 movie adaptation of the movie Evita, starring Antonio Banderas as the narrator and Madonna as Eva Perón. Aside from Madonna's physical resemblance to the real Evita, I think this song brilliantly captures the tidal wave of enthusiasm surrounding Eva's charity and social welfare programmes. People before profit or gross fiscal irresponsibility?

It had been the eighteen or nineteen-hour days she had been putting in overseeing the foundation and making public appearances, coupled with the exhausting work of helping her husband campaign for a second term in office, which had made Evita ignore the aches and pains she had been experiencing for the best part of two years. By the time her aides finally convinced her to take some time off for a check-up, it was too late to do anything to treat the cancer which would kill her. She made her last public appearance on June 4th, 1952 to stand by her husband's side as he was sworn in as President of Argentina for another six years. Juan Perón had won by a landslide, with sixty-six percent of the popular vote. But it was much more Eva's triumph than Juan's. Perón's numbers had come from the fact that for the first time in Argentina's history, women were allowed to vote, thanks in part to the First Lady's constant lobbying. Many of these first time voters had been voting for the First Lady, not the President. And throughout the presidential swearing-in, the entire chamber could hear the sound of one hundred thousand spectators outside chanting "Viva Evita!" The re-elected president's name was hardly mentioned at all. 

Anyone at that ceremony must have known Evita was dying. Her beauty had nearly vanished, although, as ever, she was immaculately styled. The First Lady's emaciated, cancer-ravaged frame was hidden by an ankle-length mink coat and as soon as Perón had taken the oath on the Bible to uphold the constitution, Evita, by now shaking in physical agony, was helped into the presidential limousine and whisked back to her sickbed at Quinta de Olivos.

As hundreds gathered outside the palace in a candle-light vigil for the First Lady, anti-peronists, of which there were many, were having a field day. Evita's fiery devotion to Peronism and her vicious hatred of its opponents had turned her into much more a target for their abuse than her husband. Communist youths painted jeering slogans on street corners like, "Viva cancer!" And the army and the upper-classes, who had loathed "That Woman" waited with ill-concealed glee for the moment when the social climbing prima donna breathed her last. They should have been more careful, because the First Lady's followers would turn with a frenzied blood-lust on anyone who insulted "Santa Evita" in the days to come.

Despite the fact that their marriage is often presented as one of mutual convenience, President Perón seemed genuinely grief-stricken at his wife's imminent death. Cynics have claimed that part of his misery may have been because he knew that without his wife's luster, his regime was doomed. Yet, clustered at Evita's bedside with her mother, brother and three sisters, the President certainly seemed genuinely distraught. As more and more painkillers were pumped into Evita's body, he sat holding her hand and crying. 

But even here, Evita's obsession with appearance had not gone away. Through the pain and the medication, she managed to leave instructions on how she wanted her nails manicured when it came time to embalm her body and she was tormented by the fear that she would be forgotten. Eva Perón's life is often presented as many things - that of "the greatest social climber since Cinderella," a hard-as-nails manipulator, fascist corruption or a beautiful young woman in love with her country. But when looked at it closely and dispassionately, it's hard to escape the conclusion that what it really is, is a story of fame. Eva Perón needed to be the centre of attention, she needed to be adored, she needed to be an icon and all in the hope of removing the psychological sting of a childhood spent in poverty, when she and her sisters had been tortured by local bullies because they were illegitimate. All Evita ever wanted to be, deep down, was famous and loved by millions. Like some iconic modern-day pop stars, who seem to have an intense, almost symbiotic relationship with their fans, Eva Perón loved the people because they loved her; they loved her, because she loved them. It was a deep and visceral relationship on both parts. Evita had kissed and hugged people riddled with tuberculosis, cholera, typhoid, leprosy and syphilis. She had genuinely not seemed to care about her own physical well-being when it came to giving her public a magical moment and of making them feel part of the communal sparkle of the Eva Perón story

Through the pain and the spiritual devotions she went through with her priest and confidante, Father Benitez, she struggled to accept her impending death with the resignation she knew she should show as a good Catholic. She told Father Benitez that she didn't think she would ever get sick, because God would have been so pleased with the work she had done for the poor. "Now God sends me this," she wept. "It is too much, but if it is His work, it must be accepted." She wanted to be buried with the rosary the Pope had given her during her state visit to Rome a few years earlier. Even with the prayers and the attempts at resignation, however, as the end approached, Evita twisted and turned with panic at the idea that the people here on earth would forget her. She had said once before that it was her single greatest fear. More than anything, she did not want to become a nothing again. So to soothe her distress, her husband gave her a gift of one last piece of jewellery. 

Evita Perón already had a sizeable jewel collection, but the collar given to her by her husband before she died topped them all. It was the Collar of the Order of San Martin, which by law was something only heads of state were supposed to be given. Perón didn't care and neither did half the nation. The collar made for Evita was different to most of the Collars of San Martin, which typically consisted of a medal hung on a satin ribbon. Evita's collar was made of 758 diamonds, rubies and emeralds, linked together by over four thousands gold and platinum links. The medal itself was made of diamonds, emeralds and golds. With her skin aching from the pain of the new technique of chemotherapy which had failed to save her, there was no question of her ever being able to wear this fantastic creation. But that wasn't the point of the collar. The Collar of the Order of San Martin endowed the possessor with the right to have a state funeral and as she slipped into unconsciousness, Evita finally knew that she would have the goodbye she had always wanted. Her funeral would be every inch as public as her life had been.

At twenty-five minutes past eight on the evening of July 26th, 1952, the church bells began to ring mournfully throughout the country as the radio announced that Evita had "entered immortality" and the Argentinean government ordered three days of mourning and for the First Lady's body to be prepared for its lying in state. For the last time, they had seriously underestimated Evita's hold over the public's imagination and what happened next was one of the great displays of populist sentiment in human history. To Evita's detractors, it was obscene, vulgar and even frightening. To her supporters, it was no less than she deserved. 


  1. liked it a lot. never before read details. thank u ! k.

  2. An interesting article, considering the source.


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