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Evita - Sinner or Saint? The jury's still out.
on 28 August 2009
Having read Mary Main's spiteful 1952 "biography" of Eva Perón - Evita: The Woman with the Whip (on which Evita the musical was loosely based) I wanted to find out more about this enigmatic woman who appears to be up there with Princess Diana, Che Guevara, Mother Teresa and the Virgin Mary in the cultural icon stakes. This book by Fraser & Navarro did the trick to some extent, although there is so little concrete evidence about Eva's life and motives that even they have to resort to hearsay and speculation at times. But they do at least acknowledge this and cite their references, unlike Mary Main.
Eva Maria Ibarguren was brought up in extreme poverty in rural Argentina and subjected to the stigma of illegitimacy, as shortly after she was born her father left her mother to bring up his five children unsupported and returned to his legal wife and family. In 1935, at the age of 15, Eva went to Buenos Aires, determined to become an actress. (The tango singer she tagged along with in the musical is probably a myth.) She achieved her goal and by 1942 earned enough from film, TV and radio work to have her own apartment in an exclusive area of town. She met Juan Perón, then Secretary of Labour, when he was organising relief funds for the victims of an earthquake. Within a very short time they were living together, which scandalised Argentinian society, but Perón, who was relatively new to politics having come from a military background, does not seem to have been particularly bothered and introduced Eva to all his friends and colleagues. Eva appears to have worshipped him because of his stated commitment to social justice for the poorest of the working class (los descamisados, "the shirtless ones"), with whom she still closely identified despite her own success.
They got married when Peron decided to stand in the 1946 presidential elections, as it was thought that "living in sin" would damage his election chances. Using her fame as a radio broadcaster she campaigned heavily for Peron, who won convincingly. Although by now wealthy and clothed in furs and jewels, she stressed her humble origins in the propaganda broadcasts and won the hearts of the descamisados, who nicknamed her "Evita".
Eva went without Juan on an extravagant European "goodwill" tour, in which she was feted lavishly by Franco in Spain. This led to claims of fascist sympathies from the Peróns' critics . Fraser & Navarro point out Franco's invitation had initially been to Juan, as Spain needed to import wheat from Argentina. However Perón wanted to improve Argentina's relations with the USA and the United Nations so he sent Eva instead, and other countries (France, Italy, Switzerland) were added to the tour so it didn't look as though Spain was being singled out. She supposedly turned down the planned visit to the UK when she heard that the Royal Family wouldn't be there to greet her in Buckingham Palace (they would have been on their summer holidays in Balmoral at the time), and Eva took this as a snub.
On her return, she began to cultivate a less frivolous image and founded the Eva Peron Foundation to redistribute wealth collected from private businesses and labour unions to the poor. The resources of the Foundation were vast and she remained in total control, building lavish hospitals, schools and children's homes and dispensing largesse in person to those who came directly to her for aid. It was in effect a one-woman welfare state. It is not hard to see why she was so adored by the poor and loathed by the wealthy society women who had previously been responsible for administering charity to the needy via the moribund Sociedad de Beneficencia.
In 1951 Eva developed cancer of the uterus but continued to work long hours travelling the country and working for the Foundation. When she died a year later, after turning down the pleas of the descamisados (who were unaware of her illness) to stand for Vice-President, half the country went into deep mourning for many days - on a parallel with the death of Lady Diana Spencer in England, perhaps. Her body was specially embalmed so the mourners could file past and pay their last respects. Following Perón's subsequent fall from power her body was whisked off to Italy out of harm's way until it was returned 23 years later by Juan's widow, Isabel, who had become president after his death.
Evita's combination of immense power and political naivety was a bit like giving an atom bomb to a five-year-old to play with. There is no doubt that she had a ruthless streak and because of her position as the President's wife she could destroy the careers and businesses of anyone who crossed her, for example by not being sufficiently generous in their donations to the Foundation. Her obsession with handing out money to the needy may well have originated from a desire to be loved, rather than genuine concern for their welfare, due perhaps to having been abandoned by her father and rejected by his legal family at his funeral. Her obsession with the trappings of wealth - furs, jewels, fine gowns - is understandable for a little girl who grew up wearing her sisters' hand-me-downs. But she wanted everyone to have what she had worked for; the Foundation hospitals had to be as luxuriously appointed as the private clinics so there was no distinction between rich and poor in healthcare. Saint or sinner then? The jury's still out, but I'd say she was probably a bit of both.