Magazine article New Internationalist

The Hand of God: Argentine Nationalistic Fervour Rests on Symbol and Myth

Magazine article New Internationalist

The Hand of God: Argentine Nationalistic Fervour Rests on Symbol and Myth

Article excerpt

ARGENTINA is obsessed with the dead bodies of the famous. Evita Peron's corpse endured a 16-year secret journey across the world in a battle for possession between political forces. The hands of the bodies of Juan Peron and Che Guevara have been mysteriously sawn off. When Peron's mutilation was discovered in 1975, labour unions organized a protest that was attended by 50,000 people.

There are no better examples of collective delirium than the mass convulsions of the Argentine people at the funerals of Gardel and Evita, and the return of Peron in 1973,' says historian Juan Jose Sebreli.

For the past century the common goal of trying to be 'different' and superior to the rest of Latin America has defined the nation. It is a strange breed of nationalism, a kind of collective narcissism developed into a caricature of arrogance.

This imaginative and highly emotional sense of patriotism is vulnerable to manipulation. Juan Peron himself, seen as the father of the modern Argentine state, was the first to take advantage of its psychological potential. At a time when immigrant society was hankering for a reference point, he rallied the nation around a simple notion: that Argentina was leading the noble battle against the economic imperialism of Britain and the US and was on its way to becoming the greatest country in the world.

Peron was forced into exile by jealous militaries in 1955 but 15 years later, in the intense political atmosphere of the early 1970s, both the left-and right-wing public demanded the return of their saviour. His arrival in 1973 provoked mass delirium. Peron spent his last days in power holding 70 per cent of the vote.

Juan Sebreli explains Peron's popularity as a kind of irrational attraction. He swears that even those groups - intellectuals, middle classes - who were loath to defend his totalitarian style were irrationally attracted to him. 'A whole generation, my whole generation, is indissolubly attracted to Peronism forever.' It was Peron as a symbol, not the force of his reforms, that was the source of his power. For the sentimental, melancholic and insecure, Peronism provided more than just the singular satisfaction of Fatherland or Mother-country. Evita and Juan offered a full Parent-nation.

Evita perhaps was the decisive ingredient in the personal myth of Peronism,' remembers Sebreli. Although her sordid past was deplored by the Church and the traditional elite, for ordinary people she was a romantic heroine whose fate allowed her to take vengeance against the society that at one time humiliated her. Although the difference between the ruthless social-climbing Evita and her image as giver to the people was glaringly obvious, Sebreli claims the public invented lies to justify their own worship of her: 'They said all the jewels she wore were stolen from rich people and would one day be donated to the public.'

Today, although President Carlos Menem was first elected in 1989 on a Peronist platform, the Peronist ideal of the nation-state is in crisis - and with it the concept of nationalism which proved most convincing to the people. Young people nowadays associate the word nationalism either with the uncontrollable left-wing 'craze' of the 1970s or with Nazionalism, the vented-up, sinister militaristic fantasies which left the country in ruins during the early 1980s.

Under the present ultra-liberal economy of President Menem's Government the old cultural symbols that inspired pride are disappearing. …

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