Argentine nationalistic fervour rests on symbol and myth. As Amaranta Wright points out,
this can be impossibly romantic – or eerily macabre.
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 José 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 élite, 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. As the once-sacred customs of late-night Tango-bar prowling, local cinema, literature workshops and cabaret disappear into the sea of burgers, pop music and virtual-reality arcades, only a few mutterings can be heard which signal the awareness of a pais vendido – a ‘country sold out’. The symbols of economic imperialism that Peron cast as the enemy are now welcomed.
‘I’m glad we are not a nationalist country,’ says 19-year-old Estevan. ‘It would mean marching up and down school yards in military uniform and saluting the flag. Nobody believes in those things any more.’
President Menem’s ‘opening up’ to the global economy has also ensured the displacement of Argentina’s traditional institutions. The Army is at its weakest point in history, the Catholic Church is losing its hold in the face of new Protestant-influenced denominations. People are resigned to the fact that Argentina never fulfilled the promises it was supposed to. It is just a no-good country like the rest of Latin America.
For a country that prided itself on being better than its neighbours, the new sensation is difficult to swallow. The immigrants who now flow into Buenos Aires bear the brunt of a new xenophobia. While the presence of US businesses is seen as something of an honour, the Chileans are resented. As one young banker whined: ‘They’ve always wanted our land, and since they can’t get that they are trying to steal our money’.
On the surface Argentine society appears to be wallowing in indifference and cynicism. National pride is a shadow of its former self. Taxi-drivers and workers who once boasted Argentina’s greatness will today insist that Argentina is a ‘pais de mierda’ – country of trash. Old left-wing political enthusiasts like Andres Wappner, embittered at the betrayal and catastrophic repression of ‘national socialism’, go as far as to say: ‘This country doesn’t exist. It has borders and a flag but that’s where it ends.’
Menem copes with all this by playing to the imaginary desires of the public very much as Peron did. He points to the shopping mall, renovated docklands and new tourist trains and claims that they signal Argentina’s emergence as a First-World Power.
In his second election victory, he no longer relied on Peronist nostalgia. But his playboy image – playing golf or hosting Claudia Schiffer at moments of political crisis – and the flaunting of his wealth before a nation facing severe economic hardship holds a perverse attraction to the masses. Like Peron, Menem is pure charisma.
And just as Peron had Evita by his side to rally the people to his vision, Menem has Maradona. It is arguable how much impact the footballer’s declaration of support for Menem had during the last political campaign. But it is clear that when it comes to Maradona the famous Argentine fervour returns like a cyclone. Just as the image of Evita could not be tainted by the Church’s moralistic criticisms, when the vices of Maradona are exposed the public rally to his defence.
That Maradona has become a national idol is no surprise. After all, it was his ‘Hand of God’ goal which helped Argentina win the 1986 World Cup and restored a piece of national pride. Just a mention of that magic moment today will put a gleaming smile on the face of any Argentine, no matter what class. It doesn’t take much imagination to wonder what will happen to that hand once he is dead and gone.
Amaranta Wright is a freelance journalist working in Buenos Aires.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996
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