MADRID – Exactly 72 years ago, Eva Peron came to Spain on an official visit, bringing a breath of fresh air to a country that was in the throes of the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco; a Spain that was beginning to recover from the post-civil war hunger thanks to supplies of wheat and meat being sent over by Argentina.
With Spain’s isolated position on the world stage, considered to have the last surviving fascist regime, having Argentina’s support meant the survival of the Franco government in one of its darkest hours. A bread shortage was driving society into a general malaise, with threats of protests and revolts.
“The internal situation in Spain was also very complex, and that’s where the relationship with Argentina is fundamental,” said Jose Antonio Sanchez Roman, a professor in Contemporary History at Madrid’s Complutense Univesity.
“In fact, it has to be said that the relationship was key to the survival of the Franco regime,” he told EFE.
At a time marked by the end of World War II, Argentine President Juan Peron sent 400,000 tons of wheat, 120,000 tons of corn, 8,000 tons of cooking oil, 10,000 tons of lentils, 20,000 tons of frozen meat, 5,000 tons of cured meat and 50,000 boxes of eggs to Spain.
“Those who were anti-Peron argue there is an ideological affinity between Peron and Franco, two regimes considered to be the heirs of fascism,” Sanchez Roman added.
“But in reality they were very different. Both are authoritarian, but unlike Franco, and although (he was) part of a military government, Peron arrived to power through elections, with social policies and a link to the working world that was completely missing from Franco’s regime,” he said.
According to the historian, Peron’s decision to help Spain was intended to “irritate” the United States and demonstrate that his government had an autonomous foreign policy.
And it was in these circumstances that Eva Peron came to Spain, visiting as her husband’s personal envoy upon Franco’s invitation, as a thank you for Argentina’s help.
The trip lasted 18 days, taking her to Madrid and Barcelona, besides smaller cities across the country.
“To a sad country, in black and white, came a women with so much strength, a lot of glamour, very feminist, groundbreaking, strapless necklines, Christian Dior outfits, red lips, red hair, who mobilized the workers, stuck in the throes of the dictatorship, and the women saw her as a breath of fresh air,” journalist Angeles Blanco, author of the 2019 book “Los dos Viajes de Evita” (“The Two Trips of Evita”), explained to EFE.
Her trip to Spain really threw her into the spotlight, according to Blanco. “She came to Spain as Eva Peron and 18 days later left as Evita,” he said.
“She comes to Spain with lots of fears, but she’s aware of her ability to convene and even manages to pull Franco’s strings,” he said. “She gets lots of the things she wants and when she leaves the country and carries on her trip around the rest of Europe, Evita is another woman.”
And she is able to shape some of the “things that were later passed in Argentine legislation, like the women’s vote, which she studied in other countries as part of her European tour,” the writer pointed out.
The day after her arrival, Eva gave a speech on a warm June 8, wearing a fur coat, in front of half a million people gathered on Madrid’s Plaza de Oriente, near the Royal Palace.
But for Blanco, there was a crucial moment during her time in Spain, and that was when she told Franco to either pardon Juana Doña, the last woman condemned to death under the regime, or else she would pull the aid from Argentina.
And Eva’s intervention worked, because Doña’s fate was reduced to a prison sentence.
Doña’s son Alexis Meson said he is “eternally grateful” for Eva’s actions, adding that it was thanks to her he got to spend another 55 years with his mother.
Meson was nine years old when, with the help of his aunt and grandmother, he wrote a letter to Eva via the Argentine embassy in Madrid.
“Eva gave me the gift of my mother for another 50 odd years,” Meson told EFE. “And not any mother, but, aside from all the differences, a mother who was also historic, given that she became a reference in the communist and feminist fight in this country.
“Franco had no choice but to say yes to everything Eva or Peron asked for, and for that reason he changed my mother’s death sentence.”
Doña, who spend 20 years in prisons around Spain, was grateful for Eva’s intervention for the rest of her life.
“She was ideologically very far away from Eva,” said Meson, who has been to Argentina many times over the years.
On one visit, he laid a bouquet of red carnations on Evita’s grave at La Recoleta cemetery in Buenos Aires, where he had “a moment of reflection and gratitude.”
Eva Peron was first lady of Argentina between 1946-1952.
Her life inspired the 1996 movie “Evita,” in which she is depicted by Madonna.