Saturday, February 19, 2011

¿Mañana es San Néstor?

Personality politics and demagogic spectacle have long played major roles in Argentine public life. The epitome of this, of course, was the way Juan Domingo Perón and his wife Eva Duarte summoned their partisans to the Plaza de Mayo, promoting a populist agenda that made them objects of reverence to a large segment of the public. It’s no accident that the late journalist and novelist Tomás Eloy Martínez titled his fictional biography Santa Evita. In a similar vein, Mariano Ben Plotkin chose Mañana es San Perón for his cultural history of Peronist Argentina.

In English, Plotkin’s title means “Tomorrow is Saint Perón’s Day,” and the book deals with the way in which Peronism transformed Argentina’s political culture - or, rather, how it advanced already existing authoritarian trends in the country through its manipulation of cultural symbols. According to a summary in the American Historical Review, Plotkin “aims to describe the development of the mechanisms used by the regime to promote political consensus and mobilization: the myths, symbols, and rituals employed to strengthen its legitimacy; and the techniques of Peronist bureaucrats to invest the persons of Perón and his wife with charisma…”

Martínez, (who also wrote The Perón Novel, a fictional memoir of the caudillo), once referred to his fellow Argentines as “cadaver cultists” who honored their most famous figures not on the day of their birth, but of their death. That was apparent when, in July of 2002, adoring Peronists thronged the Cementerio de la Recoleta on the 50th anniversary of Evita’s death (pictured above), even as the Museo Evita opened its doors simultaneously in Palermo (only about two blocks from the apartment we had just purchased).

The latest figure in the parade of Peronist symbols may be former President Néstor Kirchner, who died suddenly of heart failure last October 27th. Less than two months after his death, the main street of his hometown of Río Gallegos was renamed in his honor and, on passing through Río Gallegos a few days ago, curiosity prompted me to visit his family crypt in the local cemetery.

Nearly surrounded by tributes, with a guard always on duty, Kirchner’s tomb (pictured at top) has already become something of a pilgrimage site, and the municipal tourist office readily marked it on the map for me. With its banners, testimonials and floral wreaths, it’s dominantly a political tribute at present, but that doesn’t mean that at some point Kirchner won’t acquire the same secular sainthood that the Peróns now enjoy. Certainly Kirchner and his wife, the current president Cristina Fernández, considered themselves heirs of the Perón legacy, however complex and contradictory that legacy may be.

Certainly the Peronist government of Buenos Aires province thinks the same way: recently, it introduced a measure that makes disorderly street politics part of civic education: graffiti, picketing (blocking roads and highways), and escraches (public shamings) are to become part of secondary school curricula. Meanwhile, as I passed through the coastal town of Piedra Buena, I photographed a campaign billboard asserting that mayor Pepe Bodlovic would be “always with Néstor.” Perhaps he’s so distraught at his ally's demise as to want to join him? Or could this indicate an early step toward sainthood?

That said, according to Nicolás Kugler, my assistant in updating the current edition of Moon Handbooks Patagonia, not everybody in Río Gallegos is enthusiastic about the renaming of the former Avenida General Roca. For what it’s worth, on the updated city map that the municipal tourism office proudly showed me, it’s still Avenida Roca.

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