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Argentina: The Brothels Behind the Graveyard

The prophecy—according to some old Argentine book of prophecies, which I often heard about but never saw—was that Perón would be hanged by his followers in the Plaza de Mayo, the main square in downtown Buenos Aires. But Perón died with his legend intact. MURIO, he is dead: the headline filled half the front page of Crónica, a popular Buenos Aires newspaper; and there was no need to give the name.

He was in his seventy-ninth year and in the ninth month of his third presidency; and his legend had lasted for nearly thirty years. He was the army man who had moved out of the code of his caste and shaken up the old colonial agricultural society of Argentina; he had identified the enemies of the poor; he had created the trade unions. He had given a brutal face to the brutish land of estancias and polo and brothels and very cheap servants. And his legend, as the unique revolutionary, survived the incompetence and plunder of his early rule; it survived his overthrow in 1955 and the seventeen years of exile that followed; it survived the mob-killings that attended his triumphant return last year; and it survived the failure of his last months in office.

The failure was obvious. Perón could not control the Argentina he had called into being twenty years before. He had identified the cruelties of the society, and yet he had made that necessary task seem irresponsible: he had not been able to reorganize the society he had undermined. And perhaps that task of reorganization was beyond the capacities of any leader, however creative. Politics reflects a society and a land. Argentina is a land of plunder, a new land, virtually peopled in this century. It remains a land to be plundered; and its politics can only be the politics of plunder.

Everyone in Argentina understands and accepts this, and in the end Perón could only offer himself as a guarantee of his government’s purpose, could only offer his words. In the end he had become his name alone, a presence above it all, above the people who acted in his name, above the inflation and the shortages and the further steep decline of the peso, the faction fights, the daily kidnapings and the guerrilla shoot-outs, the strong rumors of plunder in high places: above the Argentina whose brutality and frenzies he had divined and exploited, the Argentina he had returned to save, and which he now leaves behind him.

He was very old, and perhaps his cause had become more personal than he knew: to return to his homeland and to be rehabilitated. He made his peace with the armed forces, which had previously stripped him of his rank. He made his peace with the Church, against which, in his second presidency, he had warred: he was to die holding the rosary given him by Pope Paul. He came back from exile a softened man, even philosophical, with ideas about ecology and the environment and the unity of Latin America (“By 2000 we shall be united or dominated”). But these ideas were remote from the anxieties of his followers and the power conflicts of the country. And toward the end he seemed to recognize that the country was beyond his control.

Two years ago, when the military still ruled, everyone was a Peronist, even Maoist priests and Trotskyist guerrillas. Perón, or his name, united all who wanted to see an end to military rule. But inevitably, when Perón began to rule, it became necessary to distinguish the true Peronists from the “infiltrators.” And the man who had returned as a national leader, as the “conductor” of all the warring elements of the movement that carried his name, began once again, like the old Perón, to detect enemies. There were enemies on the left, among the guerrilla groups who had helped to bring him back to power. There were enemies on the right. So many people were seen, as the months passed, “sabotaging the current political process.” Week by week the semi-official El Caudillo identified new enemies. So many enemies: toward the end it was possible to detect in Perón’s words the helpless, aggrieved tone of his writings after his overthrow in 1955.

On June 10 Perón’s wife, the vice president, in a speech printed the next day in full-page advertisements in the newspapers, spoke of the speculators and hoarders and other “executioners of the nation” who were responsible for the shortages and the high prices. Perón couldn’t do it all, she said: and she wondered whether the country wasn’t failing Perón. On June 11 Perón’s former secretary, companion, and soothsayer, López Rega, now minister for social welfare, spoke more clearly. He told a group of provincial governors: “If General Perón leaves the country before his mission is accomplished, he won’t be going alone. His wife will go with him, and your humble servant (este servidor).”

Perón, Rega said, couldn’t do it all, and he shouldn’t be expected to. “The philosophy of Justicialism isn’t only a matter of shouting Viva Perón. It means taking to heart the meaning of this philosophy, which is simply that we should all, without question, comply with the objectives of greatness and fulfillment so that we might have a happy nation.” Meaningless words—the translation is the best I can do; but after the identification of enemies it was perhaps the only way Peronism could be defined.

The wife had spoken, the secretary had spoken. The next day Perón spoke himself. Abruptly, at a meeting where he had been expected to talk of other things, he announced that he was fed up and disheartened, and that if he didn’t get more cooperation he was willing to hand over the government to people who thought they could do better.

The trade unions responded immediately. They asked their members to stop work. In the Córdoba hills, where I was, the bus drivers didn’t even know what it was all about or where the action was; they only knew, strikehardened union men, that the buses weren’t going to run after midday. The action, as it turned out, was confined to Buenos Aires, where in the Plaza de Mayo a great union rally was swiftly conjured up. Perón addressed the rally and received their applause; he pronounced himself satisfied, and it was assumed that he wasn’t after all going to leave the country to stew in its own juice. The whole cabinet resigned that evening: one or two ministers gave grave interviews. It seemed at least that some treachery was going to be exposed and that some heads were going to roll. But no heads rolled: the whole cabinet was reappointed.

It was a curious event: so well prepared, so dramatic in its effect, and then entirely without sequel. The newspapers, full of crisis one day, reporting the entire republic in a state of tension, the next day forgot about it. Newspapers are like that in Argentina. It was Perón’s last demagogic act, his last political flourish. And no one will know what, if anything, lay behind it, whether illness and death put an end to some new development, something that was going to make clear the purpose and plans of the new government. It was what people were waiting for. No one knew what was happening in Argentina; and some people were beginning to feel that there might be nothing to know.

The mystery isn’t the mystery of Perón alone, but of Argentina, where the political realities, of plunder and the animosities engendered by plunder, have for so long been clouded by rhetoric. The rhetoric fools no one. But in a country where government has never been open and intellectual resources are scant, the rhetoric of a regime is usually all that survives to explain it. Argentina has the apparatus of an educated, open society. There are newspapers and magazines and universities and publishing houses; there is even a film industry. But the country has as yet no idea of itself. Streets and avenues are named after presidents and generals, but there is no art of historical analysis; there is no art of biography. There is legend and antiquarian romance, but no real history. There are only annals, lists of rulers, chronicles of events.

The sharpest political commentator in Argentina is Mariano Grondona. He appears on television, and is also said to be of a good Argentine family. At the end of May Gente, a popular illustrated weekly, interviewed Grondona and asked him to analyze the events of the past year: the year of the disintegration of Peronism as a national movement, the year of the detection and casting-out of enemies. Gente considered Grondona’s views important enough to be spread over five pages.

To understand Argentine history, Grondona said, it was necessary to break it up into epochs, épocas. Since independence in 1810 there had been seven epochs. Seven republics, almost: Argentina had to be seen as having a French-style history, a Latin history. The Latin mentality worked from principles; it exhausted one set of principles and moved through upheaval to a new set. Anglo-Saxons, more pragmatic, didn’t define their principles. They were therefore spared periods of chaos; but at the same time they didn’t “enjoy those magnificent moments in which everything is remade,” esos instantes magnificos en que todo recomienza.

The fifth epoch of Argentina history, from 1945 to 1955, was the epoch of Peronism. The sixth epoch, from 1955 to 1973, was the military epoch, the epoch of the exclusion of Peronism. The seventh epoch, beginning in 1973, was the epoch of revived institutions, the epoch of the return of Peronism. This last epoch, though only a year old, had been confusing: but it would be less so if it were divided into etapas, stages. Perón, like Mao, lived “in stages.” Peronism had first to pass through a “smiling” stage, when it was looking for power, then an embattled stage, when it was fighting for power, and then an apparently establishment stage, when it had achieved power. A number of Peronists had remained stuck at the second, embattled stage; that was why they had to be got rid of.

There is no question, in Grondona’s analysis, of people either acting badly or being badly treated. The people who had come to grief during the Peronist year simply hadn’t understood this Argentine business of épocas and etapas. Some of them had got their etapas badly mixed up—like the dentist who had become president as Perón’s nominee, but had then been deemed a traitor and dismissed.

Other difficult events of the year became clearer once it was understood that an etapa itself consisted of great days, jornadas; and there were jornadas, apparently chaotic, that could be broken up into phases, fases. “We are accustomed to this pattern of épocas and jornadas…. There will be other epochs and other great days. I am convinced of that. All that we can ask of this one is that it should fulfill its historical duty.”

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