Her rags to riches story is tied inextricably to politics. She loved to be close to power; the more she had of it herself, the more she felt entitled to another dose of it. She craved attention and adoration so much that she once admitted, “My biggest fear in life is to be forgotten.”
She demagogued her way to a cult following among those who depended on the favors she dispensed and stepped on anyone who stood in her way. A law which obstructed her ambitions was, in her view, a law to be bent or broken. Any fair assessment of her must note that she delivered numerous vapid harangues and gave away lots of other people’s money, but she never invented, created or built anything.
No, I’m not talking about Hillary Clinton. The woman I have in mind, however, was sort of the Hillary Clinton of Argentina. Her name was Eva Perón, known affectionately by admirers as “Evita.” She is not yet forgotten, a sad fact that requires a refresher on just who she was and what she stood for.
Evita, the popular 1978 stage production featuring the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, followed 18 years later by the film adaptation starring Madonna (whose last name escapes me), glamorized Eva for new generations the world over. Who hasn’t heard the chart-topping single, “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” a dozen times?
In May 1919, she was born Eva Duarte, the out-of-wedlock daughter of a working-poor mother and a philandering rancher who abandoned them early. Suffering poverty and the stigma of illegitimacy in rural Argentina, she ran off to Buenos Aires at the age of 15 with dreams of becoming an actress. For the next decade, she earned a modest living as a B-grade actress in a few films and on radio. Her life took a fateful turn in January 1944 when, at the age of 25, she met Argentina’s Secretary of Labor and future President, Army Colonel Juan Perón. A year before, Col. Perón was a key figure in a military coup that deposed President Ramón Castillo. Eva became the colonel’s second wife in October 1945.
She would live only another seven years, but it’s hard to imagine a more eventful period. Three months after their marriage, Juan was elected President of Argentina and his new wife, nearly 25 years his junior, became First Lady. Together, they trashed an economy and eroded a nation’s liberties.
The Perón regime expanded the power of labor unions, spent lavishly on welfare schemes and waged class warfare against the rich. For a brief time, it seemed to work. Argentina was one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and easily the richest in South America. More cronyism and bigger government appeared affordable but such things always set in motion trends and policies that are unsustainable. It wasn’t long before the debts, deficits and paper money, on top of higher taxes and crippling labor turmoil, drove the peso down and the economy with it. As Britain’s Margaret Thatcher put it, “The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.”
Socialism of the fascist variety was exactly what Perón and the Perónists were building, though it didn’t “mature” into the full-throated form of the Hitler or Mussolini or Hugo Chavez types. To the core, it was nationalist, populist, interventionist, demagogic and authoritarian.
More ominous even than its economic policy were the regime’s assaults on civil liberties. Many of those attacks were indirect and wrapped in velvet. The charismatic colonel and his devoted cheerleader, Eva, always claimed that whatever they did was “for the people,” especially the poor descamisados or “shirtless ones.”
In their biography, “Evita: The Real Life of Eva Perón,” Nicholas Fraser and Marysa Navarro quote an opposition attorney who described Juan Perón’s ruling style this way: “He is subtle, devious, charming. He does not come out into the open and crack skulls…He does his work silently and cynically. You see, there is so little we can put our hands on these days—everything he does is in the name of ‘democracy’ and ‘social betterment’—and yet we sense the smell of evil in the air, and the thin edge on which we walk.”
Juan Perón dissolved the Labor Party that elected him and formed his own, which he dubbed the “Perónist Party.” If you opposed the move, you were politically excommunicated, jailed or worse. One legislator who decried the emergence of Peron’s “totalitarian junta” found himself repeatedly attacked in the streets of Buenos Aires by Perónist thugs. “Where the law made the strategy of legal coercion possible, Perón made use of it; otherwise he resorted to dire threats and petty intimidation,” report Fraser and Navarro.
Newspapers that criticized the Peróns were frequented by government inspectors who issued fines and mandates on trumped-up charges such as abuse of workers or tax evasion. One was shut down altogether simply for using “noisy” trucks to distribute its papers. By 1948, the government took monopoly control of all printing ink and used it to intimidate the remaining private publishers. “Without fanaticism” declared Eva, “we cannot accomplish anything.” And she meant it.
Eva even went into the newspaper business herself. In 1947, the central bank was pressured to grant her a low-interest loan to buy the tabloid, “Democracia.” Thereafter, it faithfully published Juan’s boring speeches and Eva’s silly lectures on how housewives could deal with rising prices as the peso plummeted.
Once her tabloid was re-staffed with Perón loyalists, Eva was free to regale the nation with her omnipresence. Biographers Fraser and Navarro write,
These were years in which Evita was incessantly in the public eye. No occasion—the opening of a swimming pool, a factory, a trade union building, a presentation of a medal, a lunch with a visiting foreigner—was too trivial for her presence. If a company launched a new product, it would require her sponsorship and thus the government’s approval. If a sportsman, a football player or motor-racing driver left the country or returned, then he too was required to be photographed with Evita…
Evita’s cult ofPerónprobably first occurred in her speeches to shore up her own political identity and to reflect her own real admiration forPerón, but by 1949, the cult was institutionalized, and Evita was its priestess.
Her husband was more than just another Latin caudillo, gushed Eva; he was the “ideal incarnate.” Her hype was both shameless and boundless. “Perón is everything,” she declared. “He is the soul, the nerve, the hope and the reality of the Argentine people. We know that there is only one man here in our movement with his own source of light and that is Perón. We all feed from his light.”
Strange, isn’t it, that the statist Left always claims to be for “the people” as it bestows enormous, concentrated political power on a very few. Also, the statist Left often ridicules faith in a deity but then demands faith in an anointed mortal. Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Ceausescu, the Kims of North Korea—the very worst of them—all expected their subjects to fawn over them.
Eva loved herself almost as much as she loved Juan. In a two-month tour of Europe, the 29-year-old First Lady spent a small fortune on the best of everything, from hotels to cars to dresses. Wherever she went, she demanded the highest awards and honors each country offered. British diplomats regarded her as “a corrupt egomaniac presiding over a pantomime regime,” according to journalist Neil Tweedie of The Telegraph.
Eva formed her own political party, just as her husband did. Called the “Perónist Women’s Party,” it wasn’t aimed at empowering the newly-enfranchised females of Argentina but rather, it was intended to consolidate power in the hands of Juan and Eva. “To be a Perónist,” she told its first assembly, “is, for a woman, to be loyal and to have blind confidence in Perón.” No kidding.
My long-time Argentinian friend (and fellow Grove City College alum), Eduardo Marty, President of Foundation for Intellectual Responsibility in Buenos Aires, told me, “The most ugly sentence coming from Eva was one that parallels the reasoning of Karl Marx: Where there is a need, there is a right. She was an expert in manipulating the media and education.”
If you needed it (or just really wanted it and were loyal to Perón), you were entitled to it and Eva would get it for you. She routinely bullied private businesses to cough up cash or goods so she could redistribute the loot. She steered public tax money to her pet causes and loyal friends, always reminding them who they owed allegiance to. It never mattered to her what the economic cost of her largesse was because, after all, she was “doing good.” She once said, “Keeping books on social aid is capitalistic nonsense. I just use the money for the poor. I can’t stop to count it.”
In reporting on her European tour in 1947, Time magazine made the mistake of mentioning what had heretofore been verboten in Argentina, namely, that Eva had been born out of wedlock. She made sure the magazine was banned for months.
Socialists love “infrastructure” spending and Juan Perón didn’t disappoint them in this regard. His administration made massive investments in public housing, hospitals, schools, dams, roads and the electric grid. In spite of the waste and corruption that came with the spending, many Argentinians still fondly credit him with such “modernizations.” But to civil and economic libertarians, improvements in Argentine life could have been accomplished better and cheaper and without the heavy hand of authoritarianism, and certainly without Eva’s incessant cultism.
The Juan and Eva circus performed to big crowds year after year. Juan would consolidate power while Eva bought constituencies with both public and private money. He was the ringleader and she was the impresario who glorified it all. Proving that if you rob Peter to pay Paul, you can count on the support of Paul, they built a political empire that was headed for re-election (one way or the other) in 1952—until tragedy struck.
Eva was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1950. A year later, believing she could overcome it, she angled for the vice-presidency before publicly declining to run on the ticket with her husband in 1952. Her health quickly deteriorated and in July of that year, just weeks after Juan’s successful re-election, she died at the age of 33. The “Spiritual Leader of the Nation”—an official title bestowed upon her by her husband—was gone. In the crush of mourning throngs eager to view her corpse, eight people were killed and several thousand were injured.
The Perónist drama didn’t end with Eva’s death. While awaiting internment, her body disappeared and didn’t show up again for 16 years, after a long stint in a crypt in Milan, Italy. With the economy reeling from soaring inflation, corruption, and statist controls, Juan Perón was overthrown in 1955. The military dictatorship that followed banned the possession of pictures of the Peróns as well as any public mention of their names.
After 18 years in exile, Juan Perón returned to Argentina in 1973, got himself re-elected as President for a third time, then died the following year. His third wife, Isabel, was also his vice president. She became president upon his death (and held the office for nearly two years until a military coup in 1976). At 87, Isabel is still living today. In 1987, Juan’s grave was desecrated and in a crime as yet unsolved, his hands were cut off with a chainsaw. Again, no kidding.
You’re probably thinking at this point that the Peróns were weird in both life and death—and you’d be right.
Perónism never completely died out in Argentina. Economist Nicholas Cachanosky—a native Argentinian and now an economist at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, Colorado says, “the figure of Evita Perón is today like a religious myth: Her populist use of the poor remains concealed behind the false but strong image of a devoted politician. She played an important role in the political propaganda that supported Juan’s political ambitions and their ideology is embedded one way or another in almost every political movement in Argentina. Her early death contributes to her image of a martyr in the class warfare of the poor against the wealthy.”
The legacy of the Peróns and Perónism is a costly one, for which Argentina is still paying the price. It’s ranked #144 in the Index of Economic Freedom, in spite of the efforts of a recent government to reverse the negative effects of many Perónist policies. So much damage could have been avoided if this warning of F. A. Hayek was heeded when he wrote The Road to Serfdom in the 1940s:
To undertake the direction of the economic life of people with widely divergent ideals and values is to assume responsibilities which commit one to the use of force; it is to assume a position where the best intentions cannot prevent one from being forced to act in a way which to some of those affected must appear highly immoral. This is true even if we assume the dominant power to be as idealistic and unselfish as we can possibly conceive. But how small is the likelihood that it will be unselfish, and how great are the temptations!
Because of Juan and Eva Perón, decades after they held power, I still cry for Argentina.