TONY LEON: Thoughts on icon Eva Perón
Ahead of the staging of the musical Evita, Tony Leon, SA ambassador to Argentina from 2009-2012, reflects on the life and legacy of Eva Duarte Perón
I am delighted that my good friend Pieter Toerien will again be staging a new version of the acclaimed musical opera, Evita, in SA later this year. He has asked me to share some reflections on the brief life and extraordinary global and country effect of Eva Duarte Perón, known universally as "Evita".
When I arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in late 2009 to take up my post as SA ambassador, Evita had been dead for more than 57 years. She died of cervical cancer in 1952, at the incredibly young age of 33. (The diagnosis had been hidden from her.)
Yet, the iconoclasm of Evita and her memory loomed over Argentine politics and her country like a giant shadow. President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, to whom I presented by credentials, saw herself as the political embodiment of Evita. Monuments, street demonstrations and much of the boisterous political discourse were refracted through the lens of Evita and her husband, Juan Domingo Perón, who served as president of Argentina in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and again, briefly, in the mid-1970s.
When I wrote a memoir on my years in Argentina — The Accidental Ambassador: From Parliament to Patagonia — I was so vividly aware of the phantom the Peróns cast over the huge and wealthy, but in so many ways unhappy, Argentina, that I headlined the chapter on its politics, "Vote for a better yesterday".
But one of the reasons for the enduring popularity of the musical Evita is that, in so many ways, the story of Eva Perón has some very modern, and indeed some deep parallels with where both SA and the world find themselves in 2017.
Evita never held any formal title or high office beyond that of first lady of Argentina. But she was in huge and consequential ways the rocket fuel that allowed her husband to orbit the political firmament of the country way above any of his contemporaries and, arguably, any of his successors. The political vehicle the Peróns established is formally called the Justicialist Party, but every member and minister and president who has served under its banner is still called a "Perónist".
Evita, in many ways, prefigured the rise of populism that we see all around us today. Decades before social media was invented, she used her fame in the most dominant medium of her age — as a radio star — to climb the ladder to social prominence and catch the eye of thrusting army colonel Juan Perón, whom she was soon to marry.
But it was her resentment against the circumstances of her birth — she was the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy landowner, raised in poverty — that provided her political mission with passion and purpose. Indeed, as we see in the inequality of the world today, the Argentina of her youth was perhaps controlled and owned by relatively few families. And in the 1920s, when she was a child, it was also one of the wealthiest countries on the planet.
In her ghosted autobiography, La Razón de Mi Vida (which was prescribed reading for every schoolchild during the first Perón government of 1946-1955), Evita made the resentments about the causes of her poverty plain. She wrote: "And the strange thing is that the existence of the poor did not cause me as much pain as the knowledge that at the same time there were people who were rich."
If populism today is defined as identifying one set of villains for a country’s problems (such as "white monopoly capital") or simplistic solutions (such as "give back the land"), then in many ways Evita was an early outlier of this brand of rhetoric. Indeed, there was much good that she did in her few years in the centre of power, involving rights for women and workers, charitable acts, and institutions targeting the most needy and destitute. But, like that of all populist movements, the current had a dark and dangerous undertow.
You get a real sense of the negatives that Evita’s brand of politics created through the narrator of the musical — another famous Argentinian, Che Guevara.
But shortly before the musical was first conceived by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, another famous writer, Nobel laureate VS Naipaul, visited Argentina in 1974. He perfectly captured the "hate as hope" brand of politics perfected by the Peróns. His short story, The Return of Eva Perón, could have been describing some of the background noise in SA — then and today. He wrote: "Eva Perón devoted her short political life to mocking the rich, the 400 families who among them owned most of what was valuable in the million square miles of Argentina. She mocked and wounded them as they had wounded her; and her later unofficial sainthood (as ‘Santa Evita’) gave a touch of religion to her destructive cause ... And in the end that was why Argentina (in 1973) virtually united in calling Juan Perón back, though the first period of his rule had ended in repression and disaster, and though he was very old and close to death ... He had become the quintessential Argentine: like Eva before him, like all Argentines, he was a victim, someone with enemies, someone with that pain about others."
Of course, there is so much to enjoy in this spectacular show — the riveting music, captivating score, fine costumes, staging and our world-class actors. But beyond the spectacle, there are deep and sometimes disturbing lessons and parallels to draw from the very drama of Evita’s life itself.