Oct 082015


Today is the birthday (1895) of Juan Domingo Perón, Argentine military officer and politician. I’m deeply ambivalent about this post because there are a lot of things not to like about Perón. But he, and his second wife, Eva, are immensely popular in Argentina to this day, and his political legacy remains an important component of Argentine life. So, I am not going to talk about Perón as a person so much as his ideology and its long shadow in 20th and 21st century Argentina. Let’s make sure we put the bad stuff first, as is my wont when discussing difficult material. Perón sympathized with fascist countries. He was an admirer of Mussolini, and during his exile from Argentina after 1955 he spent the bulk of his time in Franco’s Spain. Yet, his respect for certain fascist ideas was not uncritical. He did believe in patriotic nationalism, but he did not believe in racism, nor in limiting immigration. From the outside it may seem paradoxical that in post-war years he welcomed Nazis and Jews, yet this fact is one small part of the complexity of Perón and Peronismo (his socio-political philosophy).

I can’t say that I fully understand Peronismo (or Peronism) even now after years of trying. Nowadays there are right-wing and left-wing Peronistas (Peronists). The current government is Peronist, but it is nothing like the Peronist movement of the early 1950s. For me Peronismo is a very strange umbrella under which crowds a whole spectrum of political views. More than anything else Peronismo is a cult of personality more than a definable set of viewpoints – focused now more on Eva than Juan. The Peróns’ followers praised (and still praise) their efforts to eliminate poverty and to dignify labor, while their detractors considered them demagogues and dictators.


Peronismo is also called Justicialismo, the latter name giving rise to the party name Partido Justicialista (Justicialist Party), ultimately derived from justicia social (social justice), one of the three “flags” of Peronismo. The pillars of the Peronist ideal, or the “three flags”, are social justice, economic independence, and political sovereignty. Peronismo can be described as a third position ideology, since it rejects the extremes of capitalism and communism. Peronismo espouses corporatism and thus aims to mediate tensions between the classes of society, with the state responsible for negotiating compromise in conflicts between managers and workers.

It is, however, a generally ill-defined ideology; different, and sometimes contradictory sentiments are expressed in the name of Peronism. Today, the legacy and thought of Perón have transcended the confines of any single political party and bled into the broader political landscape of Argentina, therefore Peronists are usually described as a political movement. Traditionally the Peronist movement has drawn its strongest support from the working class and sympathetic unions, and has been characterized as proletarian in nature. From the perspective of opponents, Peronism is an authoritarian ideology. Perón was often compared to fascist dictators, accused of demagoguery, and his policies derided as populist. Proclaiming himself the embodiment of nationality, Perón’s government often silenced dissent by accusing opponents of being unpatriotic. The corporatist character of Peronism drew attacks from socialists who accused his administration of preserving capitalist exploitation and class division. Conservatives rejected its modernist ideology and felt their status threatened by the ascent of the Peronist apparat. Liberals condemned the Perón regime’s arbitrariness and dictatorial tendencies.


Defenders of Peronism also describe the doctrine as populist, albeit in the sense that they believe it embodies the interests of the masses, and in particular the most vulnerable social strata. Admirers hold Perón in esteem for his administration’s anti-imperialism, and non-alignment, as well as its socially progressive initiatives. Amongst other measures introduced by Perón’s governments, social security was made universal, while education was made free to all who qualified, and working students were given one paid week before every major examination. Vast low-income housing projects were created, and paid vacations became standard. All workers (including white-collar employees) were guaranteed free medical care and half of their vacation-trip expenses, and mothers-to-be received three paid months off prior to and after giving birth. Workers’ recreation centers were constructed all over the country, including a vast resort in the lower Sierras de Córdoba that included eight hotels, riding stables, swimming pools, movies, and scores of cabins.

Since 1946, Peronist candidates have won 9 of the 11 presidential elections that they have not been banned from participating in. As of 2015, Perón was the only Argentino to have been elected president three times. Perón’s ideas were widely embraced by a variety of different groups in Argentina across the political spectrum. Perón’s personal views later became a burden on the ideology; for example, his anti-clericalism did not strike a sympathetic chord with upper-class Argentinos.

Peronismo is often regarded as a form of corporate socialism, or “right-wing socialism”. Perón’s public speeches were consistently nationalist and populist. It would be difficult to separate Peronism from corporate nationalism; Perón nationalized Argentina’s large corporations, blurring distinctions between corporations and government. At the same time, the labor unions became corporate, ceding the right to strike in agreements with Perón as Secretary of Welfare in the military government from 1943–45. In exchange, the state was to assume the role of negotiator between conflicting interests. Now the unions are at odds with the current president, Cristina Kirchener, who likes to cultivate the image of Eva Perón as well as evoke the image of Peronist Argentina of the 1950s, but with none of the charisma or ideology.


Perón and his administration resorted to organized violence and dictatorial rule. Perón showed contempt for any opponents, and regularly characterized them as traitors and agents of foreign powers. Perón maintained the institutions of democratic rule, but subverted freedoms through such actions as nationalizing the broadcasting system, centralizing the unions under his control, and monopolizing the supply of newspaper print. At times, Perón also resorted to tactics such as illegally imprisoning opposition politicians and journalists, including Radical Civic Union leader Ricardo Balbin, and shutting down opposition papers, such as La Prensa.

Peronismo also lacked a strong interest in matters of foreign policy other than the belief that the political and economic influences of other nations should be kept out of Argentina. On the positive side, his isolationism meant that he opposed participation in foreign wars. Early in his presidency, Perón envisioned Argentina’s role as a model for other countries in Latin America and beyond. Such ideas were ultimately abandoned. Despite his oppositional rhetoric, Perón frequently sought cooperation with the United States government on various issues.

Perón’s admiration for Benito Mussolini is well documented and many scholars categorize Peronismo as a fascist ideology. Carlos Fayt writes that Peronismo was just “an Argentine implementation of Italian fascism”.] Hayes reaches the conclusion that “the Peronist movement produced a form of fascism that was distinctively Latin American”. One of the most vocal critics of Peronismo was the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. After Perón ascended to the presidency in 1946, Borges wrote:

Dictatorships breed oppression, dictatorships breed servility, dictatorships breed cruelty; more loathsome still is the fact that they breed idiocy. Bellboys babbling orders, portraits of caudillos, prearranged cheers or insults, walls covered with names, unanimous ceremonies, mere discipline usurping the place of clear thinking… Fighting these sad monotonies is one of the duties of a writer. Need I remind readers of Martín Fierro or Don Segundo that individualism is an old Argentine virtue.

Perón’s ideology was economic and political in character and did not have the racism of Nazi Germany, though he was sympathetic to the Nazi government in some respects. Peronismo did not have anti-Semitic or other racial biases. The Jewish Virtual Library writes that while Juan Perón had sympathized with the Axis powers, “Perón also expressed sympathy for Jewish rights and established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1949. Since then, more than 45,000 Jews have immigrated to Israel from Argentina.” In the book Inside Argentina from Perón to Menem author Laurence Levine, former president of the US–Argentine Chamber of Commerce, writes: “although anti-Semitism existed in Argentina, Perón’s own views and his political associations were not anti-Semitic”. While Perón allowed many Nazi criminals to take refuge in Argentina, he also attracted many Jewish immigrants. Argentina has a Jewish population of over 200,000 citizens, the largest in Latin America and one of the largest in the world.


In the final analysis I have to say that Peronismo is very difficult to understand, partly because of the complex character of Perón himself, and partly because of the shifting sands of Argentina’s political landscape. Ask 1,000 Argentinos for a definition of Peronismo and you will get 1,000 answers. In theory Peronismo embraces social justice, but not often in practice. On the surface Argentina is not a racist country but under the surface there are problems, particularly with the indigenous populations (especially in the north), occasional violence against Jews (who have a complex love/hate relationship with Israel), and a largely unspoken history of genocide against Afro-Argentinos. Any black people you see on the streets of Buenos Aires nowadays are almost certainly new immigrants from West Africa.

Argentina is a nation of immigrants, and unlike the U.S., for example, is not ambivalent about new immigration. Buenos Aires has well established neighborhoods for Chinese and Korean immigrants who peacefully co-exist with the rest of the population. The cuisine reflects this multiculturalism, particularly when it comes to restaurant food. The Italian influence is obvious there. All Italian dishes, notably pizza and pasta, have an Argentine twist, such as the heavy, and very popular combination of ravioli with beef stew or estofado.


Vitel tonné (vitello tonnato in Italian) is of Italian Piedmontese origin, very popular at Christmas Eve meals in Buenos Aires. It is a dish of cold, sliced veal covered with a creamy, mayonnaise-like sauce that has been flavored with tuna. It is served chilled or at room temperature, and is considered very elegant. It is prepared at least a day (or more) in advance by braising or simmering a piece of veal from the back leg, which is then cut into thin slices. For the sauce, originally fresh white tuna (in most cases now canned tuna is used to reduce cost and preparation time) is simmered until fully cooked in white wine, cider vinegar, white onion, and garlic, and then puréed with a mix of olive oil and egg yolks in an electric blender or food processor to form a thick mayonnaise. For the mayonnaise a variety of seasonings can be used, including anchovies, cayenne pepper and lemon juice. The thick, smooth purée is then somewhat thinned with a little water and cooking liquid from the veal and a few capers are stirred in. Some of the sauce is spread out on a serving platter and the cold slices of veal are arranged in a single layer on top. The rest of the sauce is then poured over the veal so that it is, completely covered. The dish is allowed to refrigerate for a period up to 5 days to fully develop the flavor.

May 072014


Today is the birthday (1919) of María Eva Duarte de Perón, the second wife of Argentine President Juan Perón (1895–1974), First Lady of Argentina from 1946 until her death in 1952, and officially recognized as Spiritual Leader of the Nation. She is formally referred to as Eva Perón, but in Argentina she is always known by her diminutive, Evita. Argentinos rarely use diminutives; they are reserved for family and others who are exceptionally intimately close. No one here EVER uses my diminutive. Nicknames are used instead of diminutives by friends and associates to express familiarity. So the fact that people in Argentina call her Evita to this day indicates just how close they feel to her. She is embedded in the soul of every Argentino, like tango and the gaucho, and if you are not Argentino you will never grasp the feeling. You might get it intellectually, but not with your soul. In fact for outsiders to refer to her as Evita is slightly insulting.

In her day Evita evoked deep passions. Some people saw her as a saint, others as a scheming, self serving egoist. Some saw her as the savior of the poor, others as someone who used her charities to enrich herself. She was loved by the people, and despised by the military. She has been characterized as a sincere, genuine, loving woman, and also as a superb actress whose public image was carefully crafted to fool the people. This is a blog post and not a book, so I cannot get into all I think about this. Instead, I will try to dissect for you, in brief, how I understand the period when she succumbed to cancer and died. As an anthropologist and Argentino I would like to help you with some context to better understand those days. First a little background.

On 9 January 1950, Evita fainted in public and underwent surgery three days later. Although it was reported that she had undergone an appendectomy, she was diagnosed with advanced cervical cancer. Fainting continued through 1951, with extreme weakness and severe bleeding. By 1951, it had become evident that her health was rapidly deteriorating. Although her diagnosis was withheld from her by Juan, she knew she was not well. She underwent a secret radical hysterectomy in an attempt to eradicate her advanced cancer, but it had already metastasized.


On 17 October 1951 Evita delivered her final public speech. Here are two video clips of segments of her speech to give you a sense of the woman. She was so weak by then that Juan had to support her much of the time.

On 4 June 1952, Evita rode with Juan in a parade through Buenos Aires in celebration of his re-election as President of Argentina. She was so ill by this point that she was unable to stand without support. Underneath her oversized fur coat was a frame made of plaster and wire that allowed her to stand. She took a triple dose of pain medication before the parade, and took another two doses when she returned home. In a ceremony a few days after Juan Perón’s second inauguration, Evita was given the official title of “Spiritual Leader of the Nation.”

After the hysterectomy the cancer returned rapidly. She was the first Argentine to undergo chemotherapy (a novel treatment at that time). Despite all available treatment, she became emaciated, weighing only 36 kg (79 lb) by June 1952. Evita died at the age of 33, at 8:25 p.m., on 26 July 1952. The news was immediately broadcast throughout the country, and Argentina went into mourning. All activity in Argentina ceased; movies stopped playing; restaurants were closed immediately and patrons were shown to the door. A radio broadcast interrupted the broadcasting schedule, with the announcer reading, “The Press Secretary’s Office of the Presidency of the Nation fulfills its very sad duty to inform the people of the Republic that at 20:25 hours Mrs. Eva Perón, Spiritual Leader of the Nation, died.”


Evita was granted a state funeral and a full Roman Catholic requiem mass. Her body was embalmed immediately and lay in state in the presidential residence, La Casa Rosada. People waited in throngs to get a chance to glimpse her. Crowds flooded the streets for a 10 block radius, completely blocking traffic. In all 8 people died, and over 2,000 were treated at local hospitals for injuries sustained in the crush to see her body. On 9 August her body was transferred to the Congress Building for an additional day of public viewing. On Sunday 10 August, after a final Sunday mass, the coffin was laid atop a gun carriage pulled by CGT (Confederación General del Trabajo de la República Argentina) officials. Following was Perón, his cabinet, Eva’s family and friends, the delegates and representatives of the Partido Peronista Femenino—then workers, nurses and students of the Eva Perón Foundation. Flowers were thrown from balconies and windows. Nearly 3 million people attended.

There are two quite distinct interpretations of the spectacle of Evita’s dying in full public display, which I can roughly characterize as the outsider and the insider views. Outsiders (and Argentine cynics) see it as an opportunistic, politically staged drama to milk an ignorant public for sympathy, and to drum up support for a repressive dictatorship. Insiders see it as a genuine outpouring of Evita’s love of the people, and her need both to show herself to them and to hear their expressions of devotion. In tandem with this, Argentinos deeply appreciated their ability to voice their emotions directly to her, and not simply in public demonstrations in her absence. The insider view is almost completely alien to Westerners, even those in Spanish-speaking Catholic countries. Let me be clear. I am not talking about the funeral now. We’ve all witnessed massive state funerals with hundreds of thousands of weeping mourners. I’m talking about the fact that Evita chose to go through the act of dying in front of all the people.

In the 1950’s, and even now, Argentina had two faces. There was the one the world saw – a sort of mini version of Europe located in South America. Buenos Aires has been called the “Paris of the South.” Buenos Aires is, without doubt, the most European of all Latin American cities. This is the Buenos Aires the tourists see. But there is another Argentina that visitors almost never see. This is the Argentina that was forged in the 19th century through wars of independence and bloody civil conflict, through efforts of nation building, and through the long process of creating an economy founded on herding and agriculture. The ethos developed in this era is sometimes called hispano-creole, where creole is a translation of “criollo,” meaning a person of Spanish heritage born in Argentina. This ethos is almost impossible to explain. It has its roots, in part, in Europe, but it is NOT European. It is unique to Argentina. Tango and the gaucho are products of this ethos, and so was Evita. Dying in public is one expression of this ethos.

Catholicism as a whole has a fixation with death, but people in Catholic countries, like Protestants, have a habit of hiding the process of dying away in secret. Hence, Evita’s actions are seemingly incomprehensible and have to be explained away as political drama. But that’s not it. The old hispano-creole tradition sees the time of dying as a time to revel in the splendor of life, made poignant by the fact that death is so near. Evita was celebrating the fact that she had lived a full life that was packed with meaning. I won’t deny that her actions served the peronistas well. But that was not Evita’s primary motivation. Her’s was a desire to be affirmed by the people that the way she had lived her life was the right way, and that she had succeeded in her endeavors. We all could use that in our dying days.

One food typifies the soul of Argentina more than any other – dulce de leche. It is basically sweetened milk that has been boiled and boiled until it is reduced to a thick, creamy, caramelized wonder. It is the taste of my childhood. Various kinds of caramelized milk product are produced worldwide, but dulce de leche is pure Argentina. For most of the late 19th and 20th centuries it was known only to Argentina and neighboring countries. But more recently it has been marketed to countries worldwide largely due to the spread of Argentine immigrants who cannot live without dulce de leche. You can make it yourself, either the long way, that is, by boiling sweetened milk for days (not recommended), or by punching a few small holes in a can of sweetened condensed milk and placing it in boiling water for several hours until you see the milk sputtering from the holes turning dark brown. It’s simpler to buy it if you can, however. In the supermarkets where I shop in Buenos Aires, whole aisles are devoted to the various brands of dulce de leche. You should be able to find it too if you live in a good-sized city; or you can order it online.


Pancakes with dulce de leche (panqueques con dulce de leche) are an Argentine favorite. No need for a formal recipe, just a few simple rules. First you need to make a standard batter as for Argentine tortillas. I’ve given you my video on making the batter before. Here it is again:


Heat butter in a crêpe pan and add a small amount of batter to the pan with a ladle – enough to form a thin layer. Tilt the pan in all directions to make sure the pancake is thin and evenly distributed. When the pancake is spotted golden on the bottom, flip it and do the same for the other side. Turn it out on to a plate, spread with dulce de leche and roll it up. Top with more dulce de leche and whatever else suits your fancy – whipped cream, ice cream, whatever. Repeat.