Juan Perón: 1895-1974: Former Argentine President
Ascension Of Saint Evita
Evita began to take on a cult status through the Eva Perón Foundation. Its stated mission was to help the needy and with over $200 million in assets and a staff of 14,000 the foundation made a major impact on the psyche of the Argentine public. It built hospitals, schools, old age homes, and low cost housing. At Christmas it sent out millions of gift packages for the poor. According to an article in History Today, "these gifts reached directly to the heart of the people and made an indelible impression. Forty years later, people were still speaking with deep feeling of the gifts they or their families had received from the Foundation." Evita was also always willing to publicly greet her subjects, embracing even the dirtiest of them. The sight of this beautiful blonde leader hugging a humble peasant served to make the people worship her. She was compared to a living saint and after her death there was an unsuccessful push for her canonization.
However, as the presidential couple was courting public approval, Perón was also ensuring absolute power through his increasingly dictatorial behavior. Within weeks of his election the Supreme Court was dismantled. Press crackdowns were next and within a year of Peron's election no anti-government media was in operation. Evita participated as well, using her influence to buy the shut down newspapers and spawn her own Perónist media empire. Using secret police forces, he slowly corrupted the free election process, rigging some elections in favor of his party members and outright arresting non-Perónist candidates in other elections. Though he encouraged the trade and labor unions, he also made sure they were under the govern-ment's wing.
For nearly a decade Perón ruled Argentina, both helping and hurting the country, becoming revered and reviled. But by the late 1940s opposition to his government was hard to ignore. The economy had started to sour and the military was increasingly at odds with Perón's rule. In 1949, desperate to maintain control, Perón nullified the country's 1853 Constitution and rewrote his own, which, among other things allowed him to run for a second six-year term in office. In 1951 he easily won reelection. However disaster was about to fall. His beloved wife Evita—considered to be the compassion behind the Perónist movement—suddenly died. The country was plunged into mourning. Perón had lost not only a wife, but his most powerful political ally. Popular support for his government began to wane. Then in 1954, perhaps threatened by the church's power, Perón began an ill-advised attack against the Catholic church. Catholicism was deeply rooted in Argentina and the public did not approve. Perón legalized abortion and prostitution, and placed the Catholic school system under control of the government. The Vatican responded by excommunicating Perón and his cabinet. This opened the way for Perón's enemies to stage a coup, and on September 19, 1955 Perón found himself on a Paraguayan boat headed for exile in Spain. He would remain there until 1973.
Even from exile Perón continued to wield power in Argentina and the Perónist party remained active in Argentine politics. In 1971 the military government decided to allow free elections to be held once again and in 1973 a Perónist candidate became president and the party once more assumed control of the congress. Perón was immediately invited home, at which point the newly-elected president resigned and a special election was held allowing Perón to take on a third term as President of Argentina. It was a shallow victory. He was nearly eighty and suffering from ill health. Adding to the ignominy of the election, he chose his third wife, Isabel, an ex-dancer with a grade-school education, to be his vice-president. The following year, on July 1, 1974 Perón died of a heart attack. His wife feebly ruled for a little over a year before being ousted by the military. Yet the Perón legacy did not die. On the contrary, the party continues to be active in Argentina and still stirs political passions. In 1987 grave robbers cut off the hands of Perón's corpse, demanding ransom from loyal Perónists. In 1989 a Perónist candidate was elected president and subsequently held two terms in office. Finally, in the political and economical chaos that marked Argentina's entry into the 21st Century, the Perónists are deeply entrenched. As the country struggles to ascend from this quagmire, Perón's namesake party will be there.
Alexander, Robert J., Juan Domingo Perón: A History, 1979.
Page, Joseph A., Peron, a Biography, 1983.
America, February 11, 2002.
History Today, March 2000.
Time, July 20, 1987.
Time International, November 9, 1998.
U.S. News & World Report, November 14, 1988.
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