The Corpse at the Iron Gate

Buenos Aires, April-June 1972

Outline it like a story by Borges.

The dictator is overthrown and more than half the people rejoice. The dictator had filled the jails and emptied the treasury. Like many dictators, he hadn’t begun badly. He had wanted to make his country great. But he wasn’t himself a great man; and perhaps the country couldn’t be made great. Seventeen years pass. The country is still without great men; the treasury is still empty; and the people are on the verge of despair. They begin to remember that the dictator had a vision of the country’s greatness, and that he was a strong man; they begin to remember that he had given much to the poor. The dictator is in exile. The people begin to agitate for his return. The dictator is now very old. But the people also remember the dictator’s wife. She loved the poor and hated the rich, and she was young and beautiful. So she has remained, because she died young, in the middle of the dictatorship. And, miraculously, her body has not decomposed.

“That,” Borges said, “is a story I could never write.”

But at seventy-six, and after seventeen years of proscription and exile, Juan Perón, from the Madrid suburb known as the Iron Gate, dictates peace terms to the military regime of Argentina. In 1943, as an army colonel preaching a fierce nationalism, Perón became a power in Argentina; and from 1946 to 1955, through two election victories, he ruled as dictator. His wife Eva held no official position, but she ruled with Perón until 1952. In that year she died. She was expensively embalmed, and now her corpse is with Perón at the Iron Gate.

In 1956, just one year after his overthrow by the army, Perón wrote from Panama, “My anxiety was that some clever man would have taken over.” Now, after eight presidents, six of them military men, Argentina is in a state of crisis that no Argentine can fully explain. The mighty country, as big as India and with a population of 23 million, rich in cattle and grain, Patagonian oil, and all the mineral wealth of the Andes, inexplicably drifts. Everyone is disaffected. And suddenly nearly everyone is Peronist. Not only the workers, on whom in the early days Perón showered largesse, but Marxists and even the middle-class young whose parents remember Perón as a tyrant, torturer, and thief.

The peso has gone to hell: from 5 to the dollar in 1947, to 16 in 1949, 250 in 1966, 400 in 1970, 420 in June last year, 960 in April this year, 1,100 in May. Inflation, which has been running at a steady 25 percent since the Perón days, has now jumped to 60 percent. Even the banks are offering 24 percent interest. Inflation, when it reaches this stage of take-off, is good only for the fire insurance business. Premiums rise and claims fall. When prices gallop away week by week fires somehow…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.