Monday, March 19, 2012

Marysa Navarro's Evita

A review of Evita (edición corregida, 2005) by Marysa Navarro


Marysa Navarro’s biography of Eva "Evita" Perón was first published in 1982, and she published an updated edition in 2005. It's a careful work aimed at establishing the biographical facts about the woman who became a living legend and remained a powerful political myth long after her death, and at describing her political role during her lifetime in the context of Juan Peron's political leadership and the development of the Peronist movement in Argentine politics.

María Eva Duarte was born in 1919 into the second family of Juan Duarte, an official in the province (state) of Buenos Aires, not to be confused with the City of Buenos Aires, which is the province of the Federal District. Eva and her four siblings were the second family in the since that Duarte was married and had a family with his wife, and also a family with Eva’s mother, Juana. The circumstances of her family situation, and the family’s economic struggles after her father died when she was six no doubt contributed to her later passion for the poor and the working class, though many kids growing up in similar circumstances developed no comparable passion.


At age 15, Eva moved to the City of Buenos Aires to pursue a career as an actress. Navarro avoids much speculation about the many versions of Eva’s earlier years that circulated, some of them decidedly intended to detract from her later prestige and influence. But it’s clear from her account that Eva’s move to Buenos Aires was voluntary on her part and that it showed a considerable amount of drive, ambition and personal courage. In Buenos Aires, she struggled for years, living from various stage productions. She eventually made her way into film and into the field where she had her greatest success in acting, radio theater.

Eva met Juan Domingo Perón (1895-1974) in 1944 and became his girlfriend and partner, marrying him in 1945. The widowed Perón was the Minister of Labor, Minister of War and vicepresident under the military government of Edelmiro Julián Farrell, which had originally taken power in 1943 from a democratic but very corrupt government that held sham elections. Eva enjoyed an unusual role in that she was often present at meetings of government officials and politicians where wives were normally not present, much less girlfriends.

Perón was aggressive in promoting the rights and power of labor unions and in pressing for social legislations protecting workers and increasing their wages and salaries, which made him particularly popular among workers. Other members of the military junta were both dubious enough of his pro-labor positions and jealous enough of his mass popularity that he was placed under arrest on October 9, 1945, beginning a crisis that became a founding myth of the Peronist movement. The union movement mobilized on a massive scale on Perón’s behalf, persuading the junta to release him and return him to office. The newly-freed Perón appeared to a massive crowd of workers gathered in Buenos Aires on October 17, which thenceforth became an official date of celebration for the Peronist movement. He married Eva four days later.

Elected President in Feburary 1946 with 56% of the vote, he presided over a newly-installed democratic government. Re-elected in 1951, his new term began in 1952, which would also be the year that Eva died of cancer, he served until 1955, when a reactionary military coup removed him from power and he went into exile in Spain. It was during the 1945-52 period when Eva became “Evita”, the tribune of the workers, the “descamisados” as she called them (literally, “the shirtless”).

The actions that made Eva into “Evita” were primarily her European trip in …, her work at the Labor Ministry as Perón’s unofficial but genuinely influential representative, her founding and leadership of the Peronist women’s party Partido Peronista Feminino, her leadership of the charitable Fundación Eva Perón and her impassioned speeches in campaigns, the radio and many public appearances on behalf of Perón and his movement.

Some of Ronald Reagan’s critics to this day mock his background as an actor. But if they had paid more attention to Evita’s career, they might have reflected that an actor’s skills are exceptionally useful in mass politics. She knew how to stage herself, and that’s an important skill for anyone really, but especially for a politician who has to appeal to large numbers of people who he or she will never meet personally.

Navarro carefully recounts Evita’s meeting with descamisados who came to her at the Labor Ministry with appeals for help of various kinds. The Fundación Eva Perón was financed largely by contributions from individuals and businesses, though it had enough substantial support from the government that Navarro considers it as an quasi-official governmental institution. And it’s accomplishments in setting up nursing schools, clinics, residences for unmarried working women, and individual housing for poor families, among its many functions, is genuinely impressive.

Evita’s oratory on behalf of Perón, his Partido Justicialista (PJ), the Peronist movement, the unions and the descamisados was also extremely popular among those groups, and was a key aspect of his influence and fame. Peronism was and is a particularly complex political phenomenon, but it was very much part of Evita’s life story, just as she was of its. The Peronist movement during its formative years doesn’t fit easily into a left-right schema. (Nor in its later years, for that matter.) It combined authoritarian elements with genuine pro-labor and democratic elements.

Perón himself admired Benito Mussolini’s Fascist movement and government in Italy. And we see some similar elements in the aspects of Evita’s career that Navarro chronicles: the cult of the Leader around Perón; prolific demagoguery; press censorship; pronounced anti-Communism.

On the other hand, Perón was democratically elected in both 1946 and 1951 in competitive elections. When his government and the Argentine democracy was overthrown in 1955, it was by a military coup backed by opposition leaders who never tired of calling Perón a dictator and totalitarian. Labor unions were independent and a powerful force advocating for the rights of workers, despite Perón’s success at getting labor leaders installed friendly to Perón and his party – which they had good reason to be. Unlike in Fascist Italy, Perón’s policies were aimed at increasing the wages and improving the working conditions of the working class, not at subordinating them to whims of their bosses. One of Perón’s signature achievements was establishing the vote for women in Argentina.

Argentine political theorist José Pablo Feinmann has suggested that Peronism is easier to define by its opponents, the “anti-Peronistas”, than by its supporters. (That’s my reading here of his argument in his “Prólogo” to a history of Peronsim in Página 12 of 25.11.2007) Perón and Evita named that that opponent “the oligarchy”. Navorro quotes Evita’s definition from La razón de mi vida, an autobiography ghostwritten for Evita but one that Evita endorsed as her own and which Navarro accepts as Evita’s statement of her position, though not always accurate about the facts of her life. Evita’s book put it this way:

Y conste que cuando hablo de oligarquía me refiero a todos los que in 1946 se opusieron a Perón: conservadores, radicales, socialistas y comunistas. Todos votaron por la Argentina del viejo régimen oligárquico, entregador y vendepatria. De ese pecado no se redimirán jamás. (p. 357 of Navorro)

[My translation:] And always when I speak of the oligarchy, I refer to all those who in 1946 opposed Perón: conservatives, radicals [i.e., classical liberals ], socialists and communists. They all voted for the Argentina of the old oligarchic regime, submissive and selling out their country. For this sin there will never be redemption.

This is also an example of the passion and demagogic edge of Evita’s rhetoric. Evita typically blasted the oligarchy, for instance, as "traidora y vendepatria" (treacherous and selling out their country) and the like. And working-class voters who supported socialist or communist candidates scarcely fit any usual definition of “oligarchy”, although in that passage she was referring to supporters of the oligarchs as well as the main villains themselves. Oligarchs in the narrow sense referred to the provincial landowners who commanded great wealth from their ranching and agricultural operations, as well as the older established industrial branches of the Argentine urban areas. And, in reality, as Navorro notes, Perón’s support, especially in 1945, was broad-based, including conservatives, liberals, unionists and the occasional renegade socialist and communist. Perón had wealthy backers along with union support, though the workers were clearly his main and most loyal voting base.

Despite Perón’s support for workers and Evita’s fiery polemics against the oligarchy, Peronist ideology framed itself as an appeal above classes and rejected the socialist idea of class struggle as such. Also, Evita’s declaration that voting against Perón was a sin from which there was no redemption, Perón’s government wasn’t rounding up opponents and putting them in concentration camps. In fact, as Navarro makes clear, Evita’s charitable work and advocacy for individual petitioners for assistance was not conditioned on party membership or activity. A plausible case can be made that the violence of the rhetoric in Argentine politics at the time was a sign of the weakness of democratic culture. Still, from 1930 to 1983 the country alternated between democratic governments and military dictatorships of varying levels of brutuality

But in the 1943-55 period, Peronism’s nastier rhetorical barking was worse than its bite, even after a failed coup attempt against Perón in 1951. Nobody was executed as a result of that pathetic little coup attempt. If Perón was trying to mimic Mussolini and Italian Fascism, he only succeeded in establishing a very weak-tea version of it.

Navarro discusses the difficulties presented by the polemical nature of the sources on Evita. On the one hand was Peronist hagiography, on the other extremely hostile polemics for the left parties and the genuine adherents of the oligarchy. The latter contributed a lot of sensationalist gossip. The former mixed her genuine accomplishments with conscious myth-making. One Peronist legend was that Evita organized the massive labor resistance to Perón’s arrest, which culminated in the signature historical event of October 17. This was just not the case.

The real existing María Eva Duarte de Perón of history

One of Perón’s signature achievements for which Evita was also given a larger role in the hagiography than she actually played was the establishment of female suffrage for the first time in Argentina. Evita supported this change and campaigned for it, but she did not initiate it with the government or the Peronist movement as her adorers would claim.

One of the challenging and contradictory aspects of Evita as an historical figure is her pioneering role as a female political leader in Argentina. Not only did she break the mold of the “first lady” of Argentina by becoming a prominent leader and popular idol in her own right. Her role as a female political leader itself was path-breaking in Argentine history, and no doubt opened many minds – and panicked many others – about the capabilities of women as public figures.

And yet she did not consider herself a feminist. Indeed, she took a hostile attitude toward feminism, which she say as an ideology of affluent ladies aligned with the oligarchy. It doesn’t seem accurate to see her as an advocate of a strictly traditional role for other women. She wasn’t an Argentine Phyllis Schlafley or Michelle Bachmann. She did complain bitterly of the unjust wages and lack of opportunities for working men that forced women into the labor force. But she and the Peronist movement backed female suffrage and got it enacted, and they recognized the important part of working women in the labor movement – though the established leadership of the major unions did fully share Evita’s views on that subject. One of the notable functions of her foundation was to provide lodging facilities for single working women. So she played an important role not just as a model for broader possibilities for women but as a direct support for some of those roles. Her role as leader of the Partido Peronista Feminino can also be seen in that light. Though Navarro does relate that Evita failed to develop other leaders within the party, preferring female party officials with a disinclination to show independent leadership.

Kitsch Evita and happy dancing workers

Navarro provides some brief discussion at the end of Evita’s post-mortem role as a symbol for various sides in the Argentine political struggles, an inspiration to Guevarist Argentine guerillas in the 1970s, and eventually musical kitsch in the form of Evita by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.

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