Saturday, May 13, 2017

Have Coffin, Will Travel

Juan Perón came to power in Argentina in 1946, largely by being the first to understand the rise of the working class and the effective use of communications.  When he was elected (despite the best efforts of the US State Department), Argentina was sitting on tremendous cash reserves and had a booming economy.   It didn’t take long for Juan and Eva Perón to blow through that surplus.

As a populist President, his wife, the diminutive Eva (or Evita as she was popularly known) was positioned as the Mother of the Country, publicly granting financial gifts to the poor--even as the Peróns siphoned money off to Swiss Banks while destroying the financial wealth of the country. 

By 1951, the Perón rule was obviously coming to an end.  A country known for its endless rolling wheat fields and limitless cattle herds was rationing food and subjecting the populace to “wheatless” and “meatless” days.

The elections slated for 1952 were pushed forward to 1951, and during the campaign one of the candidates for the presidency was arrested and another was shot.  Evita—now in a hospital and being treated for cervical cancer—proclaimed that anyone who did not vote for Perón was a traitor. Thirty-six percent of those voting in November met Evita's criterion for treason since Perón received only 64 percent of the votes cast--at least according to official accounts.

By June 1952, Evita was out of the hospital, but weighed only 80 pounds and was obviously ailing. Vast crowds of women surrounded the presidential home, praying on their knees for a miraculous recovery.  Despite this effort, on July 26, 1952, Evita, 33, died of a disease she was probably never told she had.  Two million hysterical mourners attended the funeral services that lasted for thirteen days.

Finally, Evita’s body was moved into the Ministry of Labor’s building where her body began a very long embalming process.   Dr. Pedro Ara began pumping the cadaver with alcohol, glycerin, and plasticizers—a process that lasted almost two years.  Unlike most mummification processes, Dr. Ara left all of Evita’s internal organs in place.  His goal was to preserve a perfect Evita for all time. 

During the long process, Dr. Ara practiced, making both wax and vinyl replicas of Evita.  In essence, he made a small army of life-sized Evita Barbie dolls.

In the meantime, the government began planning the largest memorial for a dead woman since the Taj Mahal.  The monument never got past the stage of digging a huge hole in the ground, but when finished, the monument was supposed to be larger than the Statue of Liberty.

Lonely, Juan Peron passed the time with a small squad of teenage girls whom he gifted with matching motor scooters.  Let’s not judge, remember, Juan was a grieving widower.

While all of this was going on, the labor unions of Argentina began petitioning Pope Pius XII to begin the proceedings for Evita Perón's canonization.  The annual request—and its subsequent denial—has been repeated annually ever since.  Who knows, since the current pope is not only an Argentine but a past Perónista Party supporter, who knows what is in the future?

As the last wheel fell off the economic wagon of Argentina in 1955, a new general took over in a military coup, and Juan Perón fled the country.  During his travels afterward, he met Isabel Martinez, a Panamanian nightclub dancer with a fourth grade education, and she accompanied him to Madrid, Spain.  President Franco had offered his fellow Fascist a home in exile.  Since the Catholic people of Spain frowned on the former dictator living with a teenager who wasn’t his wife, Juan married for the fourth time. 

Meanwhile, back in Argentina, the military was afraid that the body of Evita might become a rallying point for a new army of Neo-Perónistas.  They confiscated the body and ordered its destruction, but the military officer assigned the task couldn’t bring himself to destroy Evita.  Well, not all of her.  He was a little skeptical that the plastic dummy in the glass coffin was real, so he cut off one of the fingers to see if it was real.  It was. 

First, the body was moved to a wooden coffin which was hidden in a wooden packing crate.  Then, the body was hidden in the municipal water works, but the secret leaked out, and when mourners started showing up, the crate was moved to various military offices before finally being shoved into the back of a windowless van and parked in an alley behind a theater.  When flowers and candles began appearing next to the van, the crate was moved to a Major’s home and hidden under old newspapers in the attic.  The pressure of having Evita in the attic must have weighed heavily on the major, since he shot his pregnant wife one night, supposedly in the mistaken belief that revolutionaries were breaking into his home to liberate Mrs. Perón.

Note.  I don’t know about you, but I have these mental images of an army marching into Buenos Aires to do battle, carrying the coffin of Evita in the van, sort of like it was the Ark of the Covenant.

Finally, the military leadership of the country decided it was time to move Evita completely out of the country.  Shipping off the various vinyl and wax duplicate corpses to various Argentine embassies as decoys, the real coffin was shipped by cargo ship to Italy where it was buried in a cemetery outside of Milan in a grave marked ‘Maria Maggi”.  Naturally, it didn’t stay there long.

Meanwhile, the former president of Argentina, Pedro Eugenio Aramburu (the general who had ousted Juan Perón in 1955), was kidnapped and executed by supporters of Juan Perón.  A few years later, they stole his corpse and offered to trade his body for that of Evita. 

In 1971, when yet another general staged his own military coup against his former military comrades, he took over a country that was yearning for the good ol’ days of a past that had never existed.  Desperate for support, the new president made a deal for the endorsement of Juan Perón, who was still exiled in Spain.  For $50,000 in cash, the restoration of his lost citizenship, and the return of the body of Evita, Perón heartily endorsed the new president.  This was a monumentally stupid move on the general's part, since all it did was legitimize Perón in the eyes of his supporters.

Spanish and Italian police accompanied the hearse bearing Evita’s body to Perón’s home in Madrid, where the former President had had the world’s largest Barbie doll placed in an open coffin on the coffee table.  Nightly, Juan’s third wife, Isabel combed her hair.  According to one source, he occasionally had Isabel lie on top of the coffin to absorb the “energy” from Evita.

By 1973, Perón was once again elected president and returned to Argentina, leaving Evita in Madrid.  When Juan died in 1974, his wife Isabel briefly became the president--the first female president of a country anywhere in the world.  Anxious to appease the country’s Perónistas, she had Evita shipped from Madrid to Buenos Aires where Evita lay in state at the Casa Rosada (the pink house is the Argentine equivalent of the American White House).  Within days, the body of former President Aramburu was found abandoned on a Buenos Aires street.

By now, Evita needed a "little" repair.  For too many years, the crate had been left standing upright, so her feet were broken.  There was also evidence that someone had opened the coffin on occasion and had hit her with something.  Her nose was broken, and well….as it says on a box of cereal, “Some settling of contents many have occurred during shipping.” 

Who do you call to fix a really big Barbie Doll?  It may give you some idea of her condition when I tell you they called in an Art Historian. Really! There are lots of pictures!

Eventually, the coffins of both Juan and Evita were put on display one final time in 1976, and once again, the people of Argentina stood in long lines to gaze down on the remains of their beloved former dictators.

When the military finally had the next,  inevitable coup in 1976, they quickly put Isabel under house arrest, and scooped up the coffin of Evita.  It was time to permanently settle a problem that had needed a solution ever since the woman had died, twenty-four years previously.  Separating the couple forever, Evita was taken to her father’s family vault and buried under three steel plates and 18 feet of concrete, deep enough to survive a direct nuclear hit.  Ironically, she is located in Recoleta Cemetery, fairly close to the grave of President Aramburu.

Come the Apocalypse, the only thing left on Earth will be cockroaches and Evita. 

All of that concrete and steel was probably a good idea.  In 1987, vandals broke into the tomb of Juan Perón and sawed off his hands.  They have not yet been recovered.

1 comment:

  1. It's amazing how much socialists love their dictators, no matter how much their leaders make them suffer.