The Second Death of Perón?

Perón: A Biography

by Joseph A. Page
Random House, 594 pp., $25.00

Juan Perón and the Reshaping of Argentina

edited by Frederick C. Turner, edited by José Enrique Miguens
University of Pittsburg Press, 268 pp., $24.95

Perón, Perón, how great you are.
My general, how much you’re worth!

As the chorus of the Peronist marching song “The Peronist Boys” suggests, there was never any moment in his career when Juan Domingo Perón had to say: “I am not a crook.” Of course the Argentines knew he was a crook. That was one of the reasons why he was so popular.

Perón, Perón, son of a bitch or thief,
We love Perón.

That was another chant popular at Peronist rallies when “El Lider” was living in exile between 1955 and 1973. It was a genuine expression of contempt for the charges of corruption made by the military leaders who had overthrown him and who had forbidden even the mention of his name. Referred to in the press only as “the deposed dictator” or “the fugitive tyrant,” Perón was transformed from a cult into a myth.

There is a difference between a living myth and a dead myth, however, as the first presidential election in their history that the Peronists have lost has just demonstrated. When Italo Argento Luder, the cold fish candidate selected by the trade union bosses, was perceived to be trailing behind Raúl Alfonsín, the leader of the Radical Civic Union (UCR), Peronist campaign tactics changed. It was as if Luder, a smart lawyer-politician from Buenos Aires, and his running mate, Deolindo Bittel, a provincial caudillo, were no longer running. The faithful were being urged to vote for Perón and Evita.

Although the cheering grew louder and the crowds swelled as Luder invoked the memory of “El General” and the immortal Evita, there was something missing. Alfonsín pointed out that both of the Peróns would make excellent candidates but that both, unfortunately for their followers, were dead. The contrast between the warmth and enthusiasm of Alfonsín and the cold-bloodedness of Luder had much to do with the election results. Millions of previously loyal Peronists voted for Alfonsín in preference to two dreary stand-ins for a pair of corpses.

Even though he is dead and lies in the family vault in Chacarita Cemetery under several tons of reinforced concrete poured on his tomb by the military when both he and Evita were reburied after the 1976 military coup, Perón might have won last week’s elections, with or without Evita. The military had the bodies of both Perón and Evita on its hands when Isabel Perón, his third wife, was deposed. Evita’s embalmed body lay, doll-like, on view next to the closed coffin of her husband, in a garish chapel built specifically for the purpose on the grounds of the presidential residence in the Buenos Aires suburb of Olivos. In an act of obvious symbolism the couple were buried apart—Evita behind an armored steel shutter, like the door of a bank safe, in fashionable Recoleta Cemetery among Argentina’s high society where her mother purchased an elegant mausoleum; Perón among the lumpen (and now the tango singers) in sleazy Chacarita.

It was the …

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