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Eva Peron at 100

8 May 2019

Yesterday (7 May) was Eva Perón’s 100th birthday. One of the most important Latin American leaders of the last century, her reputation in English-speaking countries (“thanks” to a musical extravaganza written by an Englishman), is as a gold-digging fashion plate, not as a feminist, social reformer, and anti-imperialist.

Consider this… the two other women of political note in her time were also “first ladies”… Eleanor Roosevelt and Amalia Solórzano de Cardenas… the other two from wealthy, “connected” families, whereas Eva Duarte — a bastard child from the a backwater town — was, at the age of 26 the most powerful woman in the Americas, and in a country where women still could not vote. In her short career, while never holding elective office herself, she not only brought women’s suffrage to Argentina, but was instrumental in undoing the British control of the Argentine economy (no wonder “Evita” is so bent on making her, despite her evident charm, a monster and greed-head), introducing a national health care system, and created a network of women’s self-help organizations. All within the short period of seven years, the two as she was dying of cancer, but refused to slow down.

Yes, she was married to a admirer of Benito Mussolini and yes, Nazis emigrated to Argentina during the Peronist era… but then again… Mussolini admirers before the war (which was not Argentina’s war) weren’t that uncommon, especially among those who saw the British as their enemy. And… with its large German and Italian speaking immigrant community… mostly working class… as opposed to its smaller (and mostly oligarchal) British and english speaking community, which side would a daughter of the masses be on? As to the Nazis, given that the US, the USSR, and the British had already gotten their pick of the best minds among Hitler’s willing accomplices, there wasn’t much left when it came to importing (even if surreptitiously) the sloppy-seconds of those with usable skills (and a few monsters). As it was, and unusual for Argentina, the Perons were notably anti-anti-Semitic, any anti-Jewish activities during their administration being carried out by the same dissidents who would stage a conservative coup in 1955.

And yes, she loved to wear fashionable clothing and jewelry. Oh well, diamonds are a girl’s best friend. She was born dirt-poor, and — some say — wearing the haute couture of the day was something of a “fuck you” to the oligarchs, as well as a savvy political statement, saying to the masses (her people) that they too, deserved the better. On the other hand, an Italian prelate who had advised her on her charitable activities ( Angelo Roncalli, later Pope John XXIII) said she loved jewelry a bit too much to be a good saint.

The real tragecy of that coup was its attempt to erase the best parts of Eva’s legacy. WHile the could hardly turn the clock back on women’s rights, and only curb those of organized labor, they could go after those whose lives had been made immensely better by her foundation. Yeah, I know… in the musical, the line is “the money came rolling in”. It did… from the unions mostly. The auditors charged with liquidating the Fundacíon Eva Peron under the military dictatorship discoved, much to their chagrin, that the foundation had almost no overhead with only a small, modestly paid administrative staff, although they objected to the money spent on what were considered “luxuries”… which Eva saw as necessities. Orphanages run by the foundation did away with uniforms and gruel for dinner, spending freely to buy childen decent clothes and good food. Housing for displaced families included “luxuries” like comfortable furniture, and there was nice curtains and decent chairs in the “welfare offices” where the poor, the elderly, and single mothers were given direct assistance. She had the funny idea that public housing should be, as she said, “more than adequate”… it should be comfortable and dignified.

It’s noted that not only was the foundation closed, the military brass stole the furniture and wall hangings out of those offices and orphanges (and closed the battered women’s shelters and the retirement villages run by the foundation), but that they destroyed iron lungs bought for polio victims and blood banks, simply to erase the very name of Eva Peron.

Instead of leaving a beautiful corpse (the travels of Eva’s embalmed body from the back room of a union hall, to the basement of a secret policeman to graves under assumed names in Uruguay and Italy, to Spain, and back to Argentina for burial under her birth name, Eva Duarte, is another story), what should have been her greatest legacy was not completely wiped out by the generals in 1955. Throughout Latin America, Eva Peron’s legacy has been movements that worry less about whether political policies are left or right (and to this day, people argue about whether Peronism is left-wing or right-wing, or both, simultaneously), but on whether they give dignity to the people themselves. Including, it seems, some Argentinians of note.

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