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Evita Peron - "Saint or Courtesan"


Robert Van Dine

Maui, Hawaii. October 1998

While "Evita" the movie is artistically exceptional, it is not a historically accurate portrait of Evita.

During my time in Washington D.C., I became quite close to a former Argentinean ambassador to the United States, who was as well the former Secretary of the Organization of American States (OAS). The Ambassador was a career diplomat from a well-known Argentinean family. His family is the largest wine producer in Latin America and is often referred to as "the Mondavi's of South America". We dined together usually once a week and conversations almost always included Argentina and the Perons - while always a diplomat, I became suspect, from an occasional slip or two, that he was a closet "anti-Peronista"

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By way of a brief background:
The constitutional "radical" government of 1943 was in serious trouble since they has been in power for almost 50 years and as it was explained to me "they had run out of radical ideas". Along comes an Army Colonel, Juan Peron, who was talking about new ideas in the same way that Roosevelt discussed "the New Deal". His popularity soared so much so that he was put in jail because of this popular support.

It was about this time that he met Evita, as to how, there seems to be many versions but certainly not in the manner, which the movie suggests.

However, in order to understand Evita, a brief background of her childhood is of importance. Evita was an illegitimate child, fathered by Duarte, the owner of the ranch that Evita's mother worked at. The movie does depict an important symbolic scene where Duarte dies in a car crash and Duarte's wife refused to allow Evita to pay her last respects. Some feel that this was the cause of her huge resentment of the rich or upper class and would be a major force for everything she did in her future. The movie seems to gloss over the class difference that made Evita so controversial.

According to the Ambassador, Evita was hated by some and venerated by others - she was much more powerful than the movie depicts. (As an example of her power, she had the Ambassador posted to Moscow in 1945, in a one-bedroom apartment with no heating, seemingly because of the fact that he was of a patrician family.) To some, she was despised as a low class person who did nothing more than sleep her way to the top (not unlike Hollywood). She would often mispronounce words and became the brunt of jokes amongst the upper class in Buenos Aries.

Never the less, Evita was a talented woman. She taught Juan Peron to take off his tie and speak of himself as a "descamisado" (shirtless one) to popular acclaim. She swung the political power for the poor, oppressed to Peron's side, and pushed him to the presidency. Peron had consolidated his power base by reaching out to the trade unions. His glamorous new mistress appreciated his appreciation of the working class. Evita became the sole symbol of the "shirtless ones" and they worshipped her.

In 1946, Peron won the presidency, however make no mistake, Peron was a fascist. His objective was to create an organization ("Justicialismo") whose policy would have something for almost everyone. His strategy was to play one group off against another; his economic policy was to nationalize all private industry. His political policies included purging the Supreme Court, sapping the power of the legislator, muzzling media criticism, and creating a corrupt labor movement.

The war in Europe had just ended and there was a world to feed. Argentina had that food. Exports brought huge sums of money to the Central Bank. This brings us to Evita; she headed the Eva Peron Foundation, which was funded (supposedly) by one day's wages from all the workers. However, according to the Ambassador, the real source of the money for welfare was taken from the Central Bank. Welfare, as doled out by Evita just could not last, and the money ran out. Neither Evita nor Juan had much understanding of economics, they didn't think a country as rich as Argentina could run out of money but it did!

One comment that the ambassador said one evening has always stuck with me, "I think Evita was really true to what she did."

In 1989, I visited Eva Peron's grave (after her body was returned from Europe) and I found it ironic that her body did not rest with the "shirtless ones". But in a tomb in Recoleta, the chicest section of Buenos Aries, to rest along side the patrician families she so despised.