A nation seeks salvation in Evita

SHE was the icon who inspired adoration among a penniless nation, even as she toured the shanty towns in her patent leather high-heeled shoes and Christian Dior suits. One of the world’s most famous musicals commemorates her life; Madonna took on her role in the film version.

Eva Peron dominated post-war Argentina. Now, 50 years after her death from cervical cancer - at the age of 33 - she is back on the streets of her beloved country with a vengeance.

In Buenos Aires, it is almost as if the words of the song, Oh What A Circus, have come true: "You were supposed to have been immortal. That’s all they wanted, not much to ask for."

For the March 2003 elections, Evita is dominant, a ghostly voice from the past to represent the increasingly poverty-stricken masses.

As the country struggles with its most desperate economic plight for decades, politicians of all hues are evoking her memory, and she is so much the defining image of the campaign that one could almost imagine she was running for President.

Election posters of the "saint of the poor" hang everywhere in Buenos Aires, and it is not just Peronists who are using images of the national heroine, rather than themselves, to promote their candidacy. Most of its people have lost all faith in their politicians, who are largely seen as corrupt.

Widely disillusioned by a decade of free-market reforms, which are blamed for dragging more than half the population into poverty, the nation has taken a collective look backwards, to the days of populism and nationalism best symbolised by Evita.

The former cabaret dancer rose to fame as the wife of General Juan Domingo Peron and became the driving-force behind his populist government of the 1940s. She was relegated to the history books while Argentines in the 1990s enjoyed a consumer boom on the back of the market reforms.

Now, with the nation in financial turmoil, the people are calling her name again.

Rodolfo Rodriguez Saa, a staunch Peronist and the front-runner in the presidential campaign, has lured voters with vows that he will turn the clock back on freemarket reforms and follow in the footsteps of the former First Lady by nationalising industry and providing food handouts to the poor.

The otherwise uncharismatic candidate owes his standing in the polls almost entirely to the fact that he is using Evita as his banner. He is best-known as the interim president who held on to power for only three days during December riots that marked the collapse of the Argentine economy.

Former president Carlos Menem, too, has managed against all odds to mount a campaign on the back of Eva Peron’s legacy. Although he is blamed for many of Argentina’s current problems, and despised by many for the shameless corruption which marked his ten years in power, the 70-year-old has stayed in the running.

This is largely because his wife, Cecilia Bolocco - a former Miss Universe who is 30 years his junior - has been at the forefront of the campaign, saying her mission was to step into Evita’s shoes.

Christina Alvarez Rodriguez, who heads a historical research centre dedicated to her great-aunt, said: "Evita never really left the collective conscience of Argentines. But the current crisis has led so many people to look to her for hope.

"She was the woman who fought for the dignity of the poor and became the spokeswoman for social justice, something which we lack in Argentina. That is why we are seeking her out again."

A museum recently set up in Evita’s memory is drawing bigger crowds of pilgrims than most churches in Buenos Aires. It houses memorabilia including her suits and high-heels.

The museum, in an old colonial mansion that once housed a half-way house for prostitutes set up by Evita, was meant as a tourist attraction, but it has become a shrine for her growing following. Thousands have flocked to lay flowers at a bronze cast of Evita lying in state at her funeral 50 years ago, sited in the museum’s patio.

She has even become the main theme at an art exhibition in a gallery in the luxurious district of La Recoleta in Buenos Aires.

Several statues in Evita’s memory have been erected in parks across Buenos Aires in the past months. "She was a woman of great strength and in many ways echoed the pride and strength of Argentines who felt powerless in the face of the political and economic system of her time," said the curator of the recently opened Evita Museum.

"Once again many Argentines are feeling powerless and lost. This time we may not have her with us but we have her legacy to look to."

SAINT OF THE POOR QUEEN OF DAYTIME TV

EVA PERON

Known as: Evita.

Early life: Born 7 May, 1919, in the town of Los Toldos, the youngest of five children. Started school at eight, because she was previously too small to wear the obligatory white smock uniform. Father died in a car crash when she was six.

Career: Ran away to Buenos Aires with a celebrated entertainer. Sought stardom in radio, television and film before meeting Colonel Peron while hosting a fundraiser for earthquake victims.

Husband: Colonel Juan Peron, Former president of Argentina.

Style: Enjoyed the finer things in life, with a Hollywood-like panache. Often draped in Christian Dior, loved patent leather, high-heeled boots.

Achievements: National icon. She formed her own charitable foundation, built clinics and hospitals and won the right for women’s suffrage, but was decried as a fascist on a tour of Europe.

Inspiration for: A nation, a musical, a film and many books.

High point: In 1951, facing cervical cancer, she addressed more than a million people who call on her to run for office as her husband rallies for a second term as president. "I will do as the people ask," she replies, shedding a tear.

Low point: On 26 July, 1952, a hushed Argentina heard Eva Peron, the "spiritual leader of the nation", had died, aged 33.

Quote: Regarding herself as a "bridge" between the people and the president, she said: "I am Eva Peron, the wife of the president, whose work is simple and agreeable ... and I am also Evita, the wife of a leader of a people who have deposited in him all their faith, hope and love."

CECILIA BOLOCCO

Known as: Reina (the Queen).

Early life: Born 19 May, 1965, in Santiago, Chile, she also has four siblings. She completed one year of a civil engineering degree at exclusive Santiago College.

Career: Wide range of television work in Chile, where her popular shows give her a status similar to that enjoyed by British prime-time legend Cilla Black. In La Buena Vida, she peeps into the glamorous lifestyle of stars such as Paloma Picasso and Julio Iglesias. She anchors Latin American CNN and is a mainstay of Chile’s charity telethon.

Husband: Carlos Menem, 70, Former president of Argentina.

Style: High heels, bathing costumes and evening wear.

Achievements: In 1987, she won Miss Chile and later Miss Universe.

Inspiration for: A generation of red-blooded Latin men and wannabe Latino Cillas.

High point: Winning Miss Universe, and an acting debut in a "telenovela", or soap opera, shown in 70 countries, Low point: Enrages a nation when she appears on the cover of an Argentine magazine, wearing nothing but the national flag (in fur) and an Evita-style blonde bun.

Quote: Espousing future work with children and the rain forest, she said at her pageant win: "I want to thank God, my family and all the Chilean people. Without them, without you and without knowing that I carried all of you in my heart, I would not have the strength to win."