on the World Today
A FEW days after the death on July 26 of Maria Eva Duarte de Perên, first lady of Argentina, some Argentine of unknown political affiliations was responsible for a sobering elegiac judgment. “In life Perón made use of her to the limit,” he said. “Now he must use her even more in death. His power depends on it.”
This caustic view of the practical politics surrounding the orgy of public grief over Evita Perón’s pain-shrunken body was so widely circulated among even the more sophisticated mourners that it was quoted in intelligence reports from Buenos Aires to various foreign offices elsewhere.
The cynicism had merit. It blew down certain wishful anticipators of trouble in Argentina — including a few American columnists — who behaved a good deal as they might have if Adolf Hitler had been gathered to his fathers on the brink of World War II. They predicted a quick army coup or popular revolt over economic hardships, perhaps to be followed by the flight of Perón to some pelf-lined refuge in Europe, leaving the government to an army or labor junta and the country to the risks of civil war between these elements.
Instead, the Perón regime soon began improvising a cult of Evita as patron saint of public spending, labor pampering, and largesse to the underprivileged. And behind the cult, observers could see preparations going on for steady resistance to whatever economic difficulties and political stress and strain might develop. Evita’s secular sanctification has been, in effect, a super-loud-speaker announcement of the determination of Peronist totalitarianism to carry on.
Perón’s welfare foundation
Every move of the widower President since Evita’s death has borne out this estimate. Even during the lying-in-state period the first ten days in August, Perón began rebuilding his fences with the government-dominated Argentine labor movement.
He made several visits to the Ministry of Labor, which he himself had headed during his rise to power in the administrations of the military provisional presidents, Generals Ramirez and Farrell, from 1943 to 1946. He began dropping in for sessions of the sixteen-man board of the top Argentine labor organization, the General Confederation of Workers (CGT). If the CGT board members have been, as most Argentines maintain, Evita s hand-picked selections, Perón thus put himself in a strategic position to act in the event of any internal struggles for power.
Perhaps even more important, Peron took over, by public announcement, his wife’s post as head of the Eva Perón Welfare Foundation, as well as chief collector and dispenser of its vast relief funds. The Welfare Foundation is the showy public charity of Argentina for which, by forced contributions from both workers and employers during the past several years, nearly $100,000,000 has been collected, an unprecedented sum for Latin America.
Evita continuously dramatized the Foundation’s operations by keeping herself available for interviews with alms-seekers, and by doling out in frequent public stage appearances such alluring awards as large security allowances in cash to superannuated laborers, abandoned wives, and unwed mothers, vacations for jobless working girls, and holidays in model nurseries for underprivileged children.
In these ways, the Welfare Foundation has become a main link between the Perón regime and its original following among the descamisado (shirtless) Argentine proletariat. Perón’s taking over the limelight in its operations is thus a stroke of shrewd politics. No mere man can dispense the Foundation’s favors with quite the Cinderella glamour which Evita achieved, but Perón, no mean political actor, at least has a chance to establish himself through direct showmanship in its benefactions as the descamisados’ favorite “father image.”
Some of his post-mortem stratagems required more finesse. For instance, Perón advertised his old professional affiliation with the army by wearing his brigadier-general’s uniform when he marched in the funeral procession. During the first few weeks he avoided making any new appointments of political consequence.
Plainly, the President was in no hurry to conciliate the military politicians who have resented from the beginning the first lady’s influence on the regime and who were credited a year ago with having defeated her ambitions to be elected to the vicepresidency. Neither was he inclined to make any patronage concessions to the sizable factions of Peronist party leaders who have been griping increasingly for years about the large number of top government posts which have gone to Evita’s chosen political friends and henchmen. If any revisions of the power structure in Argentine politics in these respects are eventually to be attempted, they apparently will have to wait until Perón has built up his hold on labor and the descamisados.
Grief as a political weapon
Meanwhile, the process of sanctifying Evita has been pursued with garish energy and notable adroitness. During the first few days after her death, the people of Buenos Aires abandoned themselves to a mourning orgy rivaling any previous records in modern civilization.
The capital, with its population of 3,000,000, became a city of closed grocery shops. Restaurants and hotels suspended service, and hundreds of thousands went hungry. When Evita’s body was brought to lie in state in the new Ministry of Labor building, millions fought for places in the queues, several thousand were hurt, and some died of their injuries and emotional strains.
The vast grief scene was carefully stage-managed for political purposes. At the height of the disturbances, Perón himself announced that the body would lie in state for two months or longer, if this were necessary to provide every Argentine from the remotest provinces with an opportunity to pay respects to it.
Various versions of Evita’s last words were released by the government press and underlined the regime’s concern for the underprivileged. She was represented as pleading with Perón in her last agonies to be true to his political creed of “justicialism” and never to abandon “my poor.” The feeling of her having sacrificed her life in the people’s service was fostered by reports of the outcry that she was “so small to suffer so.” She was quoted as repeating in half-delirium a favorite bit of imagery from her speeches — that Perón was “the sun" of Argentine life from whom all social benefits and human generosities flowed.
Political objectives played an even more direct part in the formal funeral arrangements. Choice of the Labor Ministry building for Evita’s lyingin-state emphasized the ties of the regime with labor. During the second week in August her body was placed in a crypt, appropriately consecrated by the church authorities, in the CGT headquarters in Buenos Aires.
There it will lie until a permanent shrine is completed, tentatively planned as the most grandiose memorial to a political celebrity since the unfinished Palace of the Soviets to Lenin. But even here no burial in the literal sense is contemplated. Perón has summoned a crew of German embalming technicians to Argentina, who have contracted to process the late first lady’s remains for public display to future generations, in a state, as the heavy professional phrase goes, of “absolute corporeal permanence.”
Secular sanctification could hardly go further. But at least one potent Argentine labor organization did not consider it enough. Just before the temporary burial the Food Workers’ Union cabled the Vatican requesting that Evita be considered as a candidate for religious canonization.
The outlook is hardly favorable. There is just now considerable strain between the Perón regime and the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Argentina. Part of this is due to the President’s friendliness toward bills in Congress for legalizing prostitution and divorce, and to alleged dabblings of the Perón social circle in spiritualism. There has been feeling over the way in which the Eva Perón Foundation’s activities have overshadowed the old-line Catholic charities. Powerful churchmen in Argentina and elsewhere have not forgotten that at a Eucharistic Congress in Rosario in 1951, Evita showed up late and made a speech fulsomely praising Perón’s virtues and policies but shockingly scant on references to God and religion.
The Vatican, accordingly, replied politely to the Food Workers that while it was impressed with the dead first lady’s “civic virtues,” it did not at first sight recognize “any of the evidences of heroism required by the church in such matters.”
Breathing spell for Perón
To Perón, the net result of the funeral extravagances, contrived and otherwise, is that he must live the rest of his political life in the grip of a legend. For the immediate future, it can be an extremely useful legend. Tightening up of Perón’s control of labor and the underprivileged, together with the saga of Evita’s sacrificial heroism for her “poor,” should help the President for the time being to weather the storms of economic discontent in the republic.
The miseries of short supply of wheat and meat among a people traditionally well fed, and of inflated prices for the necessites of living, can be better endured if the mourning spirit is kept alive until fair harvests are assured in December and January. At present, with 28 per cent larger wheat plantings than in 1951 and with satisfactory early spring rains over the pampas instead of the devastating drought of the past three years, crop prospects are favorable.
The legend at the same time gives Perón a breathing spell to fend off pressures for political changes in the government, in the Perónist party, and in the labor movement. As an act of devotion to her sacred memory, he can retain Evita’s henchmen — said to occupy close to half the cabinet posts and the top bureaucratic positions, as well as the memberships on the CGT board. If, as the opposition charges, the Eva Perón Foundation has been a major source of graft for government bigwigs and Perónist party leaders, the President now has control of that strategic purse-string.
Less directly, Eva’s death can even assist Perón in recultivating army and navy support. Any moves of this sort will be facilitated by developments of the past year. Following the abortive military putsch against the regime of September 28, 1951, the armed services were pretty well purged of violent Evita-haters. The present top echelons, then, can be fairly well counted on to give the legend fervent lip service. No less important, intelligence reports of the 1951 putsch have indicated strongly that a main reason for its failure was the refusal of the noncommissioned officers, largely drawn from families of Perón’s labor supporters, to go along with the brass in garrison revolts. The same types of noncommissioned officers are still on the job. Perón’s chances of winning the support of the armed services from bottom to top are better than at any other time during his presidency.
On the world and the inter-American scene, Argentine foreign policy as conducted under the Perón regime is virtually an Evita legacy. Indications are that its aggressive combination of agitation against the United States and against the British, power politicking and labor rabble-rousing in Latin America, and insistence upon a “third position” between capitalism and Communism in the world struggle, will be carried on as an essential part of the legend.
Evita, of course, did not originate all these programs and objectives. At most she may have been responsible for efforts in a conference in Paraguay last winter to form an entirely Latin American labor federation, the Latin American Committee for Syndical Unity, under Argentine CGT auspices. But she gave both the “third position” device and Perón’s maneuvers to form an Argentine-dominated bloc of South American nations enough of her blessing for them to be associated with her memory.
Evita’s motives in foreign policy appear, indeed, to have been rooted in an anti-United States bias violent even by Argentine standards. She acquired this, no doubt, the hard way — through the bad press which she received in this country during her rise from a radio bit actress to be the girl friend and then the wife of a president; and subsequently for the staginess of her conduct as first lady. As a result, her death has tended for the time being to deepen ArgentincAmerican antagonisms. Perón by her sanctification is committed more than ever to anti-American power politics.
Meanwhile, to widen the rift, the Perón-controlled press during Evita’s final illness contributed a further gratuitous irritant. It launched a ferocious anti-American propaganda campaign by printing as fact the fantastic charge that publication of a 1951 book by the first lady, La Razon de mi Vida (The Meaning of My Life), had been prevented in the United States by direct orders from the State Department and the White House.
Perón is bound to run into trouble eventually when he comes to face the facts of life in internal administration and domestic economy. Sooner or later leaders of left and right factions in the labor movement are due to engage in a struggle for the places of Evita’s men on the CGT board. Thousands of Perónist party stalwarts are already in the wings, getting ready to clamor for government payroll posts now held by Evita favorites and their followers.
If and when Perón yields to these pressures to the extent of attempting to clean out members of the Evita claque in either the CGT or the government, he is bound to be charged with being false to her sacred memory. His only recourse will be to make the charge first, with sufficient accusations of wrongdoing to make it stick.
If the President leans too openly on the army for support in his labor and political troubles, he is likely to weaken his influence with labor. On the other hand, if he submits too tamely to the CGT Evita faction, he may alienate the army as he did before.
Above these political hazards are the greater dangers inherent in Argentina’s economic situation. Only with good crops, severe retrenchments, and a drastic check upon his inflationary wage and price control policies can Perón put his republic back on the road toward adequate domestic supply and solvency.
But to do this he must break with the Evita legend’s advertisement of his regime as “the sun” of the people’s plenty. The regime’s life expectancy, then, may depend on how much political skill and daring Perón can develop to avoid becoming the permanent prisoner of the legend.