Argentina: The Brothels Behind the Graveyard

Argentina; drawing by David Levine

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.…

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