The Morbid Afterlife of Juan Perón

On Scene: Thirty-two years after his death, the remains of Argentina's icon will be moved for a third time — and a posthumous paternity suit will be settled. Now, his supporters want Evita moved, too

There was a gut-wrenching moment for Argentina's Peronists last Friday morning as genetic experts descended into the stone tomb of the Per�n family in Buenos Aires, where they extracted bone samples from the remains of revered former President Juan Per�n. The purpose of disturbing his resting place was a DNA test to settle a long-standing paternity suit filed by a woman claiming to be his daughter.

The spectacle of forensic experts working on the desiccated but still recognizable remains of "El General," who died in 1974, was too much for Alejandro Rodr�guez Per�n, the 45-year-old great-nephew of the legendary populist leader and custodian of the modest crypt at the Chacarita cemetery. Rodr�guez Per�n had previously insisted, "Per�n had no children, he was sterile," and Friday's intrusion saw him so overcome by emotion that he fainted half way through the proceedings.

Behind the DNA extraction is Martha Holgado, a 72-year-old woman bearing an uncanny resemblance to Per�n, who claims that the then colonel and her mother Mar�a Cecilia Demarchi had conducted a brief affair in 1933, which resulted in her conception. "It was an open secret in the Peronist movement that Per�n had a daughter," says Ms Holgado.

But old-time Peronists scoff at the claim. "We never heard anything of the kind," says 84-year-old Antonio Cafiero, a former member of Juan Per�n's cabinet and a friend to his wife Evita during the early 1950s. "Per�n was not the kind of person who would have kept such a thing hidden."

But Ms. Holgado claims that until Per�n's death in 1974, she and Argentina's foremost political icon carried on a secret father-daughter relationship. When Per�n went into exile in 1955 after being ousted by his fellow military, Ms. Holgado says she followed him to Panama. There she says she met her nemesis, the cabaret dancer Mar�a Estela Mart�nez, who went on to marry Per�n before becoming better known under her stage name "Isabelita" and succeeding Per�n as president in 1974-76 after his death in office.

Until now, "Isabelita", who lives in Madrid after being ousted by the military in 1976, had managed to block Ms Holgado's 13-year legal struggle to prove she is Per�n's daughter, refusing to permit the removal of DNA samples from Per�n's corpse. But last week, the court handling Ms. Holgado's paternity suit refused permission for Per�n's remains to be moved to a specially-built mausoleum before bone samples were extracted first, because plans to re-embalm his remains could render them unsuitable for DNA testing later.

"We've won!" exclaimed Ms. Holgado at her downtown Buenos Aires apartment, adorned with photos of Per�n, last Wednesday afternoon, after lawyers for Per�n's widow granted permission for the procedure. With the DNA samples extracted, the way is now open for the remains to be transported by motorcade to a new resting place, on Tuesday, the anniversary of the 1945 popular uprising that catapulted Per�n to power.

Per�n's supporters hope the new mausoleum at San Vicente will be the final resting place for a corpse that has been unusually mobile. During a massive outpouring of national grief upon his death in 1974, Peron's preserved remains were displayed for thousands to pay their respects at the National Congress in Buenos Aires, before they were moved to the presidential residence in the suburb of Olivos, where they rested alongside the remains of his wife Evita Per�n, who had died of cancer in 1952. Then, following the 1976 military coup that deposed his widow "Isabelita," Per�n's body was moved to the modest Per�n family vault in Chacarita cemetery, where they were visited by the geneticists last Friday. Evita's remains, meanwhile, were moved to the upscale Recoleta cemetery, where they have remained since, under thick layers of steel plate to protect them from would-be tomb raiders.

While they may differ on everything else, Holgado and Rodriguez Per�n agree that Peronists are seized by a morbid obsession with the remains of their erstwhile leader. "My father is being used as a war trophy, all those politicians jostling to have their photo taken alongside his coffin," says Holgado.

Adds Rodriguez Per�n, who holds a modest job in a van hire firm, "We are a very morbid country. I understand the argument that his body should not be re-embalmed, but at the same time, I am in favor of his body being kept intact, vacuum-sealed, so that it can still be recognizable 300 years from now."

The next morbid challenge for Per�n loyalists is to have Evita's remains moved to a specially-prepared niche alongside her husband's in San Vicente. "Evita's one surviving sister refuses to grant us permission," regrets Cafiero, who is nonetheless adamantly against "Isabelita" — "respected" rather than loved by even the most fervent Peronists — eventually joining Per�n in San Vicente after her death. Says Cafiero, "Isabelita is not of the same political stature as Per�n and Evita."

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