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Evita and Propaganda: Selling an Argentinian Dictatorship

The propaganda effort made by the Argentinian dictators, Juan and Eva Perón
to win the gratitude and affection of the entire population
Little Cachito, eight years old, sat sadly on the corner watching the other
boys play football. He couldn’t join them because his big toe had broken
through his worn-out shoes. Far worse, though, his mother had been confined
to bed for three months and needed an operation. This left the family so poor
that there would be no Christmas presents. Cachito took it like a man, even
though he had been good all year and desperately wanted a football, but his
little sister couldn’t understand why the Three Wise Men wouldn’t be bringing
her a doll. As he joined some friends, they started to talk about the
presents they were expecting; Cachito left without a word. On his way home,
he saw some strange men sticking up a poster of a happy child with an armful
of toys. He burst out crying, to the surprise of the men, who soon learned
his situation. They told him not to worry: thanks to the Maria Eva Duarte de
Perón Social Aid Foundation, all the children in Argentina, even the poorest,
would have Christmas presents. They accompanied him home and explained to his
father what he had to do. The next day, a happy Cachito told his playmates
that he was going to get his football. One of them, the son of the
pharmacist, rudely remarked that his father should pay his bills before
buying presents; but Cachito proudly responded that the gift was coming from
Evita, and led the surprised children to the poster. What seemed impossible
for Cachito turned into reality, as so often happens now that justice and
truth are ensuring the happiness of the Argentine people.

This touching story is one of thousands of examples of the propaganda which
the regime of Juan Perón, president of Argentina 1946-55, issued in an
unending barrage. Perón is famous as a dictator, but he was a freely-elected
one. He won election by a substantial majority in 1946, thanks to his
well-established base in the trade unions and army. Since the success of his
regime depended on this uneasy alliance, he made every effort to broaden its
base by an extensive and heavily advertised programme of social welfare.
Throughout its decade of power, the Peronist regime pumped out propaganda of
every kind, exploiting every medium, in a massive effort to rally Argentina
behind him and to maintain and strengthen his ever-tightening grip on power.

Perón proclaimed that he had created a nation that was ‘socially just,
economically free and politically sovereign’. The first element was the
centrepiece, representing the benefits that flowed to the workers, to women
and children, the poor, the aged, and the weak. Perón took special pride in
the rights which his new constitution guaranteed to the workers and the aged,
and in the social welfare and public works that helped everyone. His chief
agent was his wife, Evita, whose richly endowed Foundation extended charity
throughout the land and provided a unique personal connection between ruler
and ruled. Social welfare formed part of the broader scheme that included
nationalisation of the railways and public utilities, ending foreign debt,
granting women the vote and maintaining a powerful modern army. These are the
constant themes of the propaganda.

In a sense Perón’s regime began on October 17th, 1945, when a massive popular
demonstration brought him back from momentary eclipse and exile. Vast crowds
of workers poured into the heart of Buenos Aires demanding the return of the
man whose policies, as minister of Labour and Welfare, had brought them many
genuine benefits and created strong bonds of loyalty. After Perón became
president in June 1946, the anniversary of October 17th was his grandest
celebration, as he personally addressed the enthusiastic crowd that filled
the vast Plaza de Mayo in front of his palace. For a week beforehand, the
radio advertised the occasion and schoolteachers expounded the significance
of the day. At first, the anniversary commemorated a specific event and was
followed by a holiday popularly known as St. Perón’s day. It featured a
dialogue between president and people. Soon, though, it became a ritual whose
primary purpose was to express loyalty to the regime. Perón would list the
accomplishments of the year and ask the people whether they were happy. The
answer, of course, was an enthusiastic ‘Yes’. This personal relationship
between president and people was an essential means of control: Perón
established a rapport with the crowd, filled them with good news and sent
them away happy, knowing that the government was responding to their needs.
Likewise, he took over the celebrations for May Day, the workers’ prime
holiday, converting it from a socialist to a Peronist occasion, another
vehicle for reaching the mass of the people and receiving their gratitude.

Perón had experienced and admired the technique of vast rallies addressed by
the head of the state when he was posted to Italy in 1939-40 and saw
Mussolini’s performances in the Piazza Venezia. He used his own ability to
reach and move the people for a variety of special occasions. 1948 brought
one of the greatest, when a million people assembled in front of Buenos
Aires’ main station to hear the good news that the entire railway system now
belonged to Argentina. This enormously expensive and unprofitable acquisition
was made to look like one of the greatest benefits the country could receive.
Frequently, during moments of doubts or crisis, Perón held special rallies of
the workers to gain their support or reinforce their faith through direct
personal contact.

Perón ran the government through the party that he firmly controlled. Its
huge majorities in parliament allowed him to pass any bill, and its members
were under tight discipline. Since the party was completely new and grew
rapidly, the members needed instruction. Party leaders attended courses, the
highest given by the president and his wife and published as Political
Leadership and History of Peronism. These were required reading for party
members, who were also exposed to a mass of books, pamphlets and manuals that
proclaimed the official doctrine of Justicialism. Although its complex
tenets, which involved striving for a balance between idealism, materialism,
individualism and collectivism, may have been clear to very few, these works
were much simpler. The Peronists’ Manual, the basic text for party members,
consisted largely of quotations and directives from the General along with an
explication of party organisation. Other volumes, with titles like Spiritual
Forces of the Peronist; Peronists, Let Us Meditate; or The Message of New
Argentina, offered Perón’s thoughts on a vast range of abstractions usually
beginning or ending with ‘General Perón has said’. This material was produced
in huge quantities in a form that anyone could understand, especially since
it presented no complex or even coherent doctrine but rather the General’s
satisfyingly simple responses to questions and problems. Magazines for the
faithful provided another form of propaganda: New Argentina was filled with
news and photos of the ruling couple and their activities, while the more
sophisticated, well illustrated Peronist World presented current events
through the eyes of the party. Both circulated widely, and had their own
publishing houses that produced volumes of Perón’s sayings or poems
celebrating the New Argentina. Everybody, Peronist or not, constantly heard
the words of the party song ‘The Peronist boys’ with its rousing refrain:
‘Perón, Perón, how great you are; My general, how much you are worth; Perón,
Perón, great leader, you are the First Worker.’

When Perón granted Argentina’s women the vote in 1947, he opened a new field
for propaganda. The regime could now boast of its great success in breaking
with tradition (in fact, there had been agitation for female suffrage long
before Perón) and portray itself as progressive in every way. On a more
practical level, Evita organised the Women’s Peronist Party which trained
thousands of devoted, even fanatical agents, teaching them that for a woman,
to be a Peronist meant above all loyalty to Perón, subordination to Perón and
blind trust in Perón (this was no feminist programme). They went out to the
most remote corners of the country proclaiming the party’s doctrine and
setting up branches. These organisations, one of Perón’s most effective means
of spreading propaganda, were a major factor in winning elections and
controlling the population.

Perón naturally used the media to reach the people. Here, he inherited a
favourable situation since the previous military regime had already
established firm censorship of the press, radio, film and stage. Perón
maintained and took advantage of the restrictions to reduce the voice of
opposition and leave the field free for his own propaganda. Radio programmes
and newsreels regularly featured the President, his wife or suitable
government messages and kept out the opposition. Perón made a two-pronged
attack on the press, in order to turn it into a mouthpiece for his regime. He
used legalistic harassment to close down many papers or to intimidate their
owners into following his line. This campaign culminated in the notorious
closing of the internationally famed and anti-Peronist La Prensa in 1951. At
the same time, using money loaned by the recently nationalised central bank
and a rich supporter, Evita bought her own paper, Democracia. It became the
clearest voice of the regime, constantly featuring the President’s wife in an
array of stories and photos together with national and international news
from a Peronist viewpoint. Evita and her friends also formed a corporation
that eventually bought up most of the capital’s papers, as well as a radio
network and numerous magazines. All of them advertised Peronist policies and

The military regime had already created the Sub-Secretariat of Information
and Press, which became Perón’s main propaganda agent. This body was the
liaison between government and the media and one of the most prolific
publishers in the country, issuing everything from elaborate picture books to
thin brochures, as well as posters, placards, postcards and photos of the
President and his wife, and all kinds of souvenirs and campaign material.
>From 1949 to mid-1951 it produced 33 million individual items, enough to
reach every man, women and child twice over. Most of it was distributed

Although presented as simply providing information, these publications were
almost always propagandistic. They included large and lavishly illustrated
folios like The Argentine Nation: Just, Free, Sovereign (800 pages) and
Argentina on the Move (over 200 large photos) both published in 1950, which
provided detailed accounts of the regime’s accomplishments. The bulk of the
publications advertised Peronist policies and especially its achievements in
social welfare, often as illustrated pamphlets with attractive coloured
covers. Many others dealt directly with the President, offering quotations
and collections of his thoughts, details of the benefits he had brought
Argentina, and descriptions of ceremonial occasions such as receiving foreign
leaders, celebrating anniversaries or meeting his followers. A few titles
will illustrate the general tone: How PERÓN Gets It Done; A Happy People
Acclaims Perón; Homage of Argentine Youth to General Perón; The Social
Mystique of Eva Perón; Political Activities of Eva Perón; The Workers Gain
Their Freedom; October 17th: Day of Loyalty. Inevitably the cover or
frontispiece would bear the portrait of the President and usually his wife.

Evita Perón, the subject of many of these publications, was herself the best
propaganda the regime ever had. Her activities gave the Perón machine its
unique aspect. In 1948, she established the Eva Perón Foundation whose
business was to help the needy in every possible way. Although nominally an
independent organisation, it carried out much of the work of the state,
especially in reaching marginal people who had normally received no benefits
from the government. By 1950, the Foundation employed 14,000 people
(including 6,000 construction workers and twenty-six priests) and controlled
assets of some $200 million. With this, it built housing, hospitals, schools,
rest homes for the workers and the aged, and holiday camps for poor children.
Its projects took priority over those of the government. It was most famed
for its charity and for Eva’s personal role. Every year, the Foundation sent
out five million toys and four million bottles of cider and pieces of cake as
Christmas presents. Each bore a message from the president and his wife.
Together with half a million sewing machines, 400,000 pairs of shoes and
200,000 cooking pots, these gifts reached directly to the heart of the people
and made an indelible impression. Forty years later, people were still
speaking with deep feeling of the gifts they or their families had received
from the Foundation. Every gift, of course, affected neighbours, family, and
friends, who would become aware of the benefits Perón and Evita were
providing. This policy, viewed by its critics as a lottery rather than a
systematic charity, had no precedents in Argentina, where social welfare had
been extremely limited. It established a direct bond between the state and
its poorest subjects, greatly reinforced by Evita’s personal involvement.

Every morning, Eva Perón arrived at her office to receive petitioners whose
queue stretched for blocks around the building. Each had sent in a letter
asking for help, and many had been given an appointment. When they approached
the Señora, she would greet them with an embrace (however scrofulous or
foul-smelling they might be, often to the consternation of her assistants and
attending officials) and listen patiently to their problems. These she would
try to solve on the spot, ordering anything from pots and pans to a new house
to be given. Then she would hand over 50 pesos for transport and receive the
next supplicant, often staying in the office late at night until she had seen
the last one. Every day, she saw hundreds of the hopefuls and the desperate
and tried to fulfill their needs. Although they were only a fraction of the
needy (the Foundation received 12,000 letters a day), the impression of this
personal touch was invaluable as propaganda. For most of the poor, the
government had been distant and unsympathetic. Suddenly, they found
themselves face to face with a beautiful young woman of the highest rank.
They never forgot, to such an extent that Eva’s memory long survived her (she
died in 1952) and reinforced Perón’s position.

Eva’s direct individual contact with the most humble was a crucial part of
the regime’s personal involvement with the people, an activity, of course,
which it advertised heavily. Her activities formed a perfect complement to
Perón’s less personal mass meetings, where he could establish a rapport with
thousands or even a million at a time, but only in so far as each individual
merged into the crowd.

There was hardly a place in Argentina where the public works of the regime
were not visible, whether in the form of a school or hospital, a railway or a
canal. Since virtually all of them bore the name of the President, his wife
or some close associate, each was a piece of propaganda set in steel or
stone. The buildings, as well as the works that described and praised them,
stood as living proof of the benefits that Peronism was bringing to
Argentina. Significantly, the tallest building in Buenos Aires, itself
proclaimed the Capital of Justicialism, belonged to Eva’s publishing company,
while the most sumptuous, built in a neoclassical style and adorned with
statues of Evita, was the headquarters of the Foundation. It stood in a
working-class neighbourhood, adjacent to the trade union federation whose
building, like so many others, bore the huge motto: PERÓN ACCOMPLISHES; EVA
DIGNIFIES. Workers might catch their train home at the Presidente Perón
station to ride on the newly nationalised railways, perhaps to suburbs called
Barrio Presidente Perón or Ciudad Evita. Everywhere they went, they would be
reminded of the name and nature of the regime.

Had the regime lasted long enough to turn its architectural dreams into
reality, the capital’s inhabitants would have been dwarfed by the Monument to
Eva Perón. Planned for the very centre of the city, it was to consist of an
enormous column containing the burial chamber of Evita, and crowned by the
titanic statue of a worker who looked remarkably like Perón. The interior was
to be filled with symbolic statuary representing the glories of the regime.
It would have stood taller than the Statue of Liberty in New York or that of
Christ in Rio de Janeiro. It was perhaps the concrete answer to a proposal to
create a truly Peronist architecture by erecting huge buildings in the form
of statues of Juan and Eva.

Perón exploited every means from skyscrapers to postage stamps to spread his
message. Stamps were especially useful since they are objects that everyone
has to use and can also be noticed by the recipient, at home or abroad.
Stamps of the period celebrated October 17th, Perón’s inauguration,
nationalisation of the railways, Perón’s Five Year Plan for economic
development, the new Peronist constitution, women’s suffrage and, after her
death, Eva Perón. Here, too, was the unambiguous message that the regime was
constantly working for the benefit of the people.

Children are prime collectors of stamps, and highly susceptible to properly
phrased propaganda. Perón made every effort to ensure that they would grow up
to be good Peronists. At first, small story books were distributed free in
the schools. Many were child-sized booklets like the story of little Cachito,
or one called The Master’s Lesson. In this, a teacher goes back to his old
elementary school and listens to the master who is telling the children about
the poverty and injustice of the past. Then, they learn, a man of
intelligence and vision, JUAN PERÓN, appeared, sent by the hand of God, and
with him a truly marvellous woman, EVA PERÓN. The teacher went on to explain
the improvements brought by the new regime. At the end, his colleague
proclaimed it the best lesson he had ever heard. Similar stories were
collected into the two little volumes called The Argentine Good Fairy, a
series of emotionally charged vignettes of poverty and suffering relieved by
the Eva Perón Foundation. Skilful use of language any eight-year-old child
could understand filled a colourfully illustrated pamphlet describing Perón’s
Five Year Plan by a series of contrasting, before and after, pictures:
typically, ragged rural urchins too poor to attend school, and happy
well-dressed ones walking through the schoolhouse door. The General Perón
Children’s Library included more sophisticated books for a slightly older
audience such as Stories of the Seventeenth of October, which featured young
workers and old veterans who had participated, and children who heard about
the heroic events of that glorious day. In addition, satirical poems and
dialogues illustrated with cartoons poked fun at the enemies of the regime
and showed their errors.

Meanwhile, the old pre-Peronist schoolbooks remained untouched. It was only
in 1953, when the regime was becoming more totalitarian and converting
Peronism into a pseudo-religion, that a new series was issued. Their message
was impossible to escape. Children learned to read by pronouncing the
syllables Pe-rón and E-vi-ta, names they loved as much as mama and papa; they
attend a school named Evita and remember her in their prayers. Girls play
with dolls given by Eva; little boys want to imitate the First Worker.
Virtually every reading deals unrelentingly with the Peróns and their
accomplishments, leaving little space for the kind of stories children
normally enjoy. The second-year reader opens with a prayer (these were issued
after Eva’s death): Little Mother, who art in heaven, good fairy smiling
among the angels, Evita: I promise to be good as you wish, respecting God,
loving my country, loving General Perón, studying and being in every way the
child of your dreams: healthy, happy, educated and clean hearted. Looking at
your portrait, like one who swears an oath, I make this promise to you. Even
more, I ask you: have confidence in your child, Evita!

In addition there were readings from Eva’s vapid ghost-written autobiography,
The Account of My Life, which became required reading at all levels and the
main text at higher levels. Special explanatory commentaries were written for
the teachers who had to transmit its messages to small children.

By the time these books were published, the Perón regime was entering its
final phase. The heavy-handed and pseudo-religious propaganda reflects the
final campaign of the government to bring everyone under its control. Trouble
came when Perón created the Union of Secondary School Students, designed to
indoctrinate youth. Perón’s generous attention to the teenage girls of this
organisation caused endless scandal, and his opposition to the
well-established Catholic youth organisations brought a fatal conflict with
the Church. Here Perón met his match. Despite a decade of Peronist
propaganda, the Church still retained a hold over much of the population and
became a focus of opposition. Two months after Peronist mobs burned the
cathedral and other churches in Buenos Aires, Perón was on a gunboat heading
for long years of exile. Ironically, though, his propaganda may have had the
last laugh, for the anti-Peronist regimes of the 1960s came under savage
attack from radical youths who adored the memory of Evita and longed for the
social justice Perón had so loudly proclaimed. The teenagers who chanted
slogans about Evita were the very ones who had been most exposed to Peronist
propaganda, which had effects perhaps far different from those its makers

Further reading
Mariano Plotkin, Manana es San Peron: propaganda, rituales polticos y
educacion en el regimen peronista (19461955)(Buenos Aires: Ariel Historia
Argentina, 1994); George Blanksten, Peron’s Argentina(University of Chicago
Press, 1953); Robert Crassweller, Peron and the Enigmas of Argentina (Norton,
1987); Joseph A. Page, Peron, a Biography (Random House, 1983).

Professor Clive Foss teaches history at the University of Massachusetts and
is the author of Juan and Evita Perón , (Sutton, 1999)

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