Crying for Evita Fifty years later, Argentines reassess Peron's

Saturday, July 27, 2002

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- Fifty years after the radio bulletin that rocked a nation with the news that their beloved "Evita" had died of cancer at 33, Argentines mourned her death anew Friday.

Thousands filed past the black marble crypt of Maria Eva Duarte de Peron, Argentina's most famous first lady, to mark the anniversary of her death on July 26, 1952.

Clusters of Argentine workers, the elderly and others wearing lapel pins in national colors left bouquets at the grave site in Buenos Aires' Recoleta cemetery.

"Evita represented social justice, generosity, love and dedication for the poor -- all the things that none of our politicians have today," said Rafael Ton, wearing an Argentine flag embossed with Evita's smiling face. "She's not Madonna, she's not the Hollywood film, she's not the musical. She's much more than that."

Freed her future husband

Born into rural poverty, Evita was a screen actress when she met strongman Juan Domingo Peron in 1944. Peron, a member of the military government with a growing appeal among the working class, was arrested in October 1945. Evita mobilized marches that won his freedom and, days later, married him.

Over the next seven years, the couple dominated Argentina. By the time of Evita's death, she was regarded by many as a saint, but reviled by others as power-hungry and ruthless.

Controversial even in death, Evita's embalmed remains were placed in an anonymous grave when Peron was toppled in 1955. They were eventually sent abroad before being returned in 1974.

Disagreements over Evita's legacy continued for decades in a country torn between right and left, haves and have-nots.

Now, 50 years on and with books, movies, plays and a new exhibition on her life, Argentines are beginning to form a consensus about Evita.

"There were those who adored her as a saint and those who saw her as the reincarnation of the devil," said Cristina Alvarez Rodriguez, head of the National Institute of Historical Investigations of Eva Peron and Evita's great niece.

"Today those passions have dampened and Argentines now look back on a historic figure -- a human being, who did good things but also had faults, but someone who built and left much for Argentina."

The 'shirtless ones'

Under Peron, the vote was extended to the working class and, in 1951, thanks to Evita's influence, to women. Evita worked tirelessly for the poor -- the "descamisados" or "shirtless ones." She oversaw the building of schools, hospitals, old-age homes and orphanages.

For Argentines now confronted by economic crisis and a political class widely criticized as incompetent, Evita's commitment and energy still inspire.

"I'm not sure we need the same ideas now -- times have changed. But we do need someone sincere and capable as Eva was," said Sebastian Marinelareno, a 23-year-old electrician from Evita's hometown of Los Toldos. "She was a woman who stood up for people and won their affection."

Still, she had another side.

She lived a life of opulence and, critics complain, rarely did anything that did not serve her political ambitions.

"She was a woman of action who imposed her ideas and could be authoritarian," historian Roberto Diluca said. "She did things that were unjustified -- attacks on opponents, the suppression of the press. But on balance, the good outweighs the bad."

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