Monday, July 8, 2013

How Refrigeration Invented Juan Perón

Juan and Eva at the height of their power
The famous stage musical Evita features, among other historic characters, Juan Domingo Perón.  In it, he is portrayed as a weak, self-doubting, and confused army officer subject to the will of a sexually powerful and monumentally ambitious soap opera actress, who goads him with her sharp demands that he be a MAN.  Perón plays Adam to Eva Duarte’s…well, Eve.  This is the Perón most English-speaking people know.

The facts of Perón’s life belie this characterization.  In actuality, when he and Evita met, Perón was the powerful one and Eva, though desperate for success, was only newly arrived from grinding poverty and nearly total rejection by the entertainment industry of her childhood dreams.

Perón, on the other hand, grew up with many more opportunities than Eva ever had.  He was from a Buenos Aires Spanish-Sardinian immigrant family, got a good education, and found power in the Army.  His paternal grandfather was a prosperous physician; his father a fairly successful sheep farmer.  At the age of nine he was sent to boarding school and after graduating, joined the military.  He became an instructor in military history at the Superior War College and even published several treatises on the subject.  Eventually, he was sent as a military attaché to Chile, and in a life changing assignment, posted as a military observer to Italy, Germany, and Spain.

In Europe he learned from masters how a leader might manipulate the populace.  In Rome, he admired the pageantry of Italian fascism and saw firsthand the crowds in the piazzas, chanting, “Duce.  Duce.”

In Berlin, he stood in the Lustgarten and heard Der Fuhrer harangue a vast mob of delirious Germans, who then shouted, “Sieg heil.  Sieg heil.”

Such power, such adulation became the stuff of Perón’s dreams.

So where does refrigeration come into it?  Let’s go back in time and find out.  In the 19th Century, Argentina’s main export was beef.  Huge numbers of cattle were raised on the plains of the Pampas, herded to the port of Buenos Aires, and shipped to Europe—beef on the hoof.  Then, engineers began to figure out how meat could be kept frozen aboard sailing ships.  In 1882, for the first time, a shipment of meat from New Zealand arrived in London still frozen and turned a profit for the company involved.  By 1895, the year of Perón’s birth, slaughtering the beasts, packing the meat, and shipping it on refrigerated ships became the great new technology.  Reefer ships plied international waters (NO, not those kinds of reefers.  This “reefer” was short for refrigeration), and Buenos Aires began to change its way of doing business with the beefeaters of Europe.
The first ship to successfully transport refrigerated meat
Like all big technological advances, the advent of reefer ships caused profound social changes.  Before refrigeration, there were two very different Argentinas: Buenos Aires, the port city of white people—original Spanish settlers and then vast numbers of European immigrants who came as skilled workers to build elegant buildings and manufacture shoes and textiles.  The other was a vast plain, owned by a few families and occupied by brown South American Indians who herded cattle and eked out what existence they could in the largely desolate countryside.
Suddenly, though, at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, there were jobs for unskilled people at the port—in slaughter houses and meat-packing plants.  Hundreds of thousands from the interior came to Buenos Aires in search of work.  They found nasty, difficult job, only hovels to live in, and next to nothing in the way of social services.  Their employers ignored their needs and created fertile ground for Perón on his path to power.
President Farrell and Peron
 before his was deposed
Back in Argentina from his tuition-free education in European populist politics, Perón became part of a military government.  He held three positions: two very prestigious—Vice President and Minister of War.  The third was a post no one thought at all important—Secretary of Labor.  But Juan Domingo knew better.  That rather distained job became the fulcrum he used to lift himself.  He used it to pass regulations requiring better wages for the low-level workers who were doing the beef industry’s dirty work in dreadful slums on the periphery of the “Paris of the South.”  He made sure they got vacations and health insurance.  He was the only person in power who gave a fig about them.  And they knew it.  He saw to it that they did.
The workers' demonstration at the Casa Rosada,
17 October 1945
When chaos broke out after the end of World War II, with crowds demanding the end of the military regime, Perón became the target of those demands.  All those middle class white people demonstrating the plazas and along the avenidas, whether from the left or the right, called for his downfall.  In an attempt to quell the tumult, his fellow officers in the junta deposed him.  Their sop to the populace backfired.  The next thing they knew, all those little brown men from the fringes of the city were in the center, right in front of their elegant Casa Rosada.  And they were chanting—just like those crowds in Rome and Berlin.  But they were shouting the name of their only benefactor: “Perón.  Perón.”


  1. Aha, Annamaria, a subtle promotion for your new release, BLOOD TANGO. I say subtle because this time its a Juan imposter! Just take a look at that final photo in your post and tell me with a straight face that's not Mel Brooks.

    1. Jeff, I had not seen the resemblance until you mentioned it. (Grandpa, what good eyes you have :). The people of Argentina would have been a whole lot better off led by the man who invented "Springtime for Hitler." And thank you for mentioning BLOOD TANGO. I was hoping someone would.

  2. Fascinating connection with the economics of the time. And not dissimilar to the issues that drove Europe to Fascism.

    1. You are so right, Michael. In both instances, those who had the obligation to do the right and generous thing failed to do so and created opportunities for those who would leverage the resultant suffering for their own aggrandizement. When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.