In Latin America, dead leaders become icons


A vintage electoral propaganda poster of late president Juan Peron, hangs at the Museum of the Bicentenary in Buenos Aires. (SERGIO GOYA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
October 21, 2011

Like Argentina’s great populist hero, Juan Peron, the late former president Nestor Kirchner united a nation. As his successor and widow, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, puts it, he is now an icon for having lifted Argentina from a humiliating economic collapse a decade ago.

A heart attack felled Kirchner last October. But he lives on in the consciousness of his Peronist party — his name invoked at rallies and his memory brought up in every speech by Fernandez de Kirchner as she runs for reelection in Sunday’s presidential election.

“He is watching, he is here, isn’t he?” Fernandez de Kirchner, dressed in black and holding back tears, said at one recent rally. “Tell me that it’s so.”

The crowd shot back in song: “He’s here, he’s here, Nestor is here!”

As it did decades ago with Peron and his famous wife, Eva, Argentina is elevating a fallen hero. It comes just in time for an election that Fernandez de Kirchner, who won the presidency in 2007, is expected to easily win in a country enjoying strong economic growth and low unemployment.

But in Latin America, it is not just here and not just at election time when long-dead leaders are crowned as icons and the glories of the past are celebrated.

From Venezuela to Central America to Mexico, governments or political movements have in recent years expended time and resources to stage increasingly extravagant ceremonies commemorating the patriots of the past. In some recent cases, they have literally dug up martyred heroes, to examine their remains or move them to more imposing resting places.

Some pundits say it’s nothing less than necrophilia, evident in everything from literature to public holidays to the symbolism used by governments across Spanish America.

“There’s something that is sometimes a bit morbid about it, and in that sense, it is something that holds countries back,” said Luiz Felipe Lampreia, a former Brazilian foreign minister deeply familiar with the culture of Brazil’s neighbors. “I think that’s the case in Argentina, certainly. Argentina has this cult of the dead, which is also found in Mexico. It diverts attention to the past and to things that have somehow been frozen in history.”

‘More alive than ever’

Perhaps nowhere has the cult of glorifying a forefather been taken to such extremes as in Venezuela. There, President Hugo Chavez named a special commission, composed of cabinet ministers, to determine the cause of death of Simon Bolivar. Chavez says the Liberator was slain, although historians attribute Bolivar’s death in 1830 to tuberculosis.

“He is alive with us,” Chavez said in July after months of investigation, including the exhumation of Bolivar’s bones, failed to prove the president’s hypothesis. “He’s more alive than ever.”

In Mexico, President Felipe Calderon ordered the exhumation last year of a dozen independence-era heroes. In Central America, three countries recently bickered over the resting place of 19th-century Gen. Francisco Morazan, who helped free the region from Spanish colonialism.

Even in Chile, widely considered Latin America’s best-governed country, the bones of Socialist president Salvador Allende were taken from his coffin in May to determine whether he committed suicide or was slain in a CIA-backed coup in 1973. Not surprisingly, he was found to have shot himself as Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s forces closed in, as had long been believed.

Andres Oppenheimer, who published a book last year about the region’s mythmaking, said rallying people around iconic figures offers a sense of identity. But he says some countries spend too much time pondering the past instead of preparing citizens for an increasingly globalized economy.

“I am not saying that we shouldn’t look back,” said Oppenheimer, author of “Enough with the History: The Latin American Obsession with the Past.” “What I am saying is that when that turns into an obsession, and consumes most of their energy, that distracts them from working on the big issues of the future.”

Not all observers of the region go so far.

Luis Alberto Moreno, president of the Inter-American Development Bank, said better governance and an adherence to sound fiscal policies have helped the region weather the recent economic crises brewed in the United States and Europe. But Moreno, who in a new book says that this could be a Latin American decade, acknowledges that the region could be more forward-thinking.

“I worry about this idea that we’re somehow looking at the past more than looking at the future,” said Moreno, speaking from his office in Washington.

The country that wraps itself in the past, perhaps more than any other in Latin America, is Argentina. Bookstores are filled with tomes on Peron, whose nationalistic, state-driven movement still enthralls followers today. Plays and movies abound on the strongman, who died in 1974, and his charismatic wife, Evita.

These days, Peron has company in Kirchner, who inherited a bankrupt country when he was elected in 2003 and oversaw Argentina’s fast economic rebound.

In Kirchner’s home town, Rio Gallegos, in the country’s frigid, remote south, a new mausoleum is being inaugurated Thursday. The country’s press has noted that it is three stories high, eclipsing the tombs of leaders ranging from Winston Churchill to Martin Luther King and Gandhi.

The effort to tie Kirchner to Peron and, by extension, Fernandez de Kirchner has been a boon to her campaign, which has surged over the past year. The tears she sheds in campaign events are real, Argentines say, but the Peronist movement has done all it can to mythologize Kirchner.

At Peronist rallies, euphoric supporters talk of how Kirchner and, now, his wife have become the true caretakers of the movement that Peron began in the 1940s.

“After being forgotten for so many years, the banner of Peronism, Nestor came and has carried it forward,” said Franco Argonz, 25, a political science major at a local university.

“Cristina,” he said, “is going to deepen this political movement.”

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