The battle over Eva Peron´s final resting place remains as uncertain as her political career was controversial.
Her mausoleum, ironically for a champion of the poor situated in an upmarket area of Buenos Aires, draws thousands of visitors daily. She is surrounded in death by the bodies of those establishment figures who despised her for aiding the descamisados (shirtless ones).
First lady at 26, Evita died of cancer aged 33 on July 26, 1952. Her corpse then embarked on a macabre odyssey.
Proclaimed “spiritual chief of the Argentine nation” by Congress, Evita was born Maria Eva Duarte on 7 May 1919 in the village of Los Toldos. She came to Buenos Aires as a teenager and hopeful actress. There she met and married Juan Peron. “It´s one of history´s strange facts that neither had children yet there are so many devoted to their memory,” Pablo Varquez, co-ordinator of the Evita museum, said.
The museum, a former refuge for single mothers that Evita established, opened in 2002, does a brisk business in blurring the lines between myth and reality.
Her image enabled Peron’s third wife to become the first female president of Argentina, and continues to influence politics.
For many Argentines, she was an anti-democratic populist, who used her position for cynical personal gain. Argentina’s chronic social and economic problems can be traced back to Peronism, they claim.
Pictures of Evita with children and dignitaries adorn the museum walls, dresses that she wore on important occasions are displayed but there is no hint of criticism about the woman who still deeply divides the nation.
“A young woman, it is import! ant to understand the context of her time,” Varquez said. ”She looked after her political allies but with her foes, and she had many, she was ruthless.”
Of today´s politicians “President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela most closely resembles her,” Valquez said. When challenged as to Evita´s legacy, vagueness surfaces. “Compassion for the less well off, giving the poor a voice. Peronism comes from the heart as well as the mind.”
It may be easier to define what Peronism is not. It is not liberal and it is not communist.” It is still a driving force in Argentine politics and a Peronist, Cristina Kirchner, is president.
But it has deep faultline. Without a clear ideology it risks factionalism and splits are evident today with at least three national politicians claiming to carry the banner of true Peronism.
Juan and Eva Peron both realised the political benefits of organising the working class into a political force and launched them on a collision course with the establishment. Juan Peron was overthrown three years after Evita´s death.
“When the military took power they tried to destroy Peronism,” Valquez said. “Even to mention her name publicly could bring arrest. They banned all mention of her in newspapers, magazines or on the radio.” Consequently her resting place carried huge political significance. “The military did not want a her burial site to be a rallying pace for the masses.”
And so began a macabre two-decade-long battle for possession between political forces as the embalmed body was transported within Argentina, to Italy and Spain and then back to Argentina.
The location of Eva’s body was a mystery for 16 years after Juan fled to exile in Spain in 1955.
Finally, in 1971, Eva’s body was discovered in a grave under a false name outside Rome. The body was flown to Spain where Peron kept the corpse in an open casket on the dining room table.
Peron was now married to his third wife Isabel who combed the corpse’s hair in a daily act of devotion.
In 1974, Juan returned to power as president of Argentina but died that year. Isabel succeeded him and returned Eva’s body to Argentina where it was briefly displayed next to Juan’s body before he was buried elsewhere. In 1987, thieves broke into his tomb and sawed off his hands.
Isabel was overthrown in 1976. The new military leaders had Evita´s corpse intered in the Duarte family tomb under three plates of steel and seven meters of concrete in the Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires.
Now some Peron supporters want a new mausoleum to house both bodies.
But digging up Evita´s body at a time of a Peronist government grappling with harsh economic realities could cause a public outcry. At the very least it would be accused of opportunism by trying to revive the memory of Evita for political advantage.
Evita´s tomb is said to be secure enough to withstand a nuclear attack whether can it be called the final resting place of a moveable political corpse is not so certain.
TOM CLIFFORD can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org