• U.S.

The World: PERONISM: Our Sun, Our Air, Our Water

4 minute read

DURING a political rally in Argentina in 1954, one of Juan Domingo Perón’s followers questioned the dictator about his health. Before Perón could reply, a zealous aide shouted, “We’ll have Perón for a hundred years!” Added el Líder himself: “You’ll have Perón for five thousand years, for even though I disappear, my doctrine will continue.”

Hyperbole aside, Peronism has proved to be an amazingly durable factor in Argentine politics. In part it is the remainder of the political movement founded by Perón after he first assumed power in 1946; it is also a disparate fusion of factions united primarily by their opposition to a succession of right-wing military governments. Perón’s Justicialista Party includes neofascists, far-left urban guerrillas called montoneros (bushfighters) and unionists. If united, it could probably deliver as much as 50% of the vote in next year’s general election.

In part, Peronism is also a personality cult—in fact, a split-personality cult—built around the twin legends of the deposed dictator and his dead second wife Eva, whom the Argentine descamisados (shirtless ones) have enshrined as a secular saint. “Perón y Evita,” are an enduring political force in Argentina. Walls in Buenos Aires are plastered with fresh posters of a sleek and inspiring Evita Perón, “flag bearer of the workers, 1952-1972.”

What primarily motivated Juan Perón was political opportunism, not the making of a new social order. But, he created an ideological façade that promised the people social change, social justice, economic independence from foreign powers and political sovereignty. Perón called this ideology “justicialismo,” a “middle way” between Communism and capitalism.

To his credit, Perón gave a sense of dignity to the workingman for the first time in Argentine history. Because he ruled during the postwar boom when the treasury contained a huge foreign-exchange surplus, Perón was able to raise wages and build hospitals, clinics and schools. He passed laws granting severance pay to discharged workers and extending social security; he also instituted the eight-hour day for farm laborers. Perón nationalized the British-owned Argentine railroads, retired the entire foreign debt, and by 1947 boasted a fivefold increase in industrial production during his regime. Fraudulent bookkeeping concealed the fact that his spending programs had driven Argentina to the verge of bankruptcy.

On his trips into the countryside, Perón carried gifts for everybody—candy, bakery goods, a kilo of meat, a pair of shoes. Rarely did peasants realize that the gifts had been “requisitioned” from local shopkeepers. But they were ready to cheer when Evita told them, “There is only one Perón. He is God for us, so much so that we cannot conceive of heaven without Perón. He is our sun, our air, our water, our life.”

The badly educated and illegitimate child of poor parents, blonde, mercurial Evita became Juan Perón’s mistress while he was still an army colonel. In her early efforts to aid the poor in her husband’s behalf, she was snubbed by the leading ladies of Buenos Aires society. So she organized the Eva Perón Foundation, to which her husband’s government quickly granted sole control of all charitable activities. More than $100 million per year passed through her hands, and with a minimum of accounting. As Evita once explained: “Keeping books on charity is capitalistic nonsense. I just use the money for the poor. I can’t stop to count it.” When she died of cancer in 1952, her followers, who had dubbed Evita la Madona de America, sought to have her canonized as a saint of the Roman Catholic Church.

Perón’s gospel survived because it was—and may still be—the only available outlet for social discontent. There is something singularly pathetic about a national dream based on an aging onetime dictator and the memory of a woman who has been dead for 20 years. But for Argentina’s shirtless ones, there is no alternative to a succession of barracks-room coups that for decades have blocked genuine social progress.

Perón himself has explained the endurance of his movement as well as anyone else. “It is not that we were so good. But those who came after us were so bad that they make us seem better than we were. So today there are more justicialistas than ever before.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com