May 20, 2011 / 5:30 PM / in 7 years

Argentines savor politics at Peronist cafes

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters Life!) - Dapper in a dinner jacket, a life-sized statue of Gen. Peron has a permanent table at “A Coffee with Peron,” one of several theme cafes cashing in on nostalgia for the former president and his wife Evita.

<p>Lorenzo Pepe, director of the Juan Peron institute, gestures as he sits next to a statue of former Argentine President Juan Peron at the "Un cafe con Peron" (A coffee with Peron) restaurant in Buenos Aires May 8, 2011. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci</p>

Coffee and politics have long mingled in Buenos Aires’ famous corner cafes, but the Peronist bars are drawing a new crowd of politicians, youth activists and curious tourists as the country gears up for a presidential election in October.

“Peron has always been in fashion but now more than ever I see the new generations’ passion about him,” said Lorenzo Pepe, 83, director of a government-funded institution that preserves Peron artifacts, as he sipped an espresso.

“A Coffee with Peron,” which opened late last year, is housed in a restored cottage that used to be home to the strongman leader’s butler and Evita’s caretaker.

It lies on the site of the former presidential residence in Buenos Aires, which was demolished after Evita’s death at the age of 33 to build the national library.

Pepe, who met Juan Domingo Peron during the leader’s exile in Spain in the late 1960s, said nostalgia for the heyday of Peron and Evita was rekindled by the recent death of former President Nestor Kirchner, a life-long Peronist.

Besides the statue, Peron’s books, handwritten letters and propaganda posters adorn the cafe.

With the glamorous Evita by his side, Peron nationalized railroads and utilities and expanded worker benefits, earning him hero status among many working-class Argentines.

Although he was reviled by his critics as an authoritarian and was forced to live in exile for almost two decades, Peron remained Argentina’s leading political figure from his first presidential term in 1946 to his death in 1974.

Peronism, the fragmented political movement that bears his name, remains Argentina’s dominant force decades after his death, claiming the loyalty of politicians from the left and the right.

Center-left President Cristina Fernandez, Kirchner’s widow, is another life-long Peronist, and the current nostalgia could help her if she decides to run for re-election on October 23. Her popularity has already surged since her husband’s death.

<p>A waitress lights a candle of a shrine for Eva Peron, wife of former Argentine President Juan Peron, at the Peron, Peron restaurant in Buenos Aires May 19, 2011. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci</p>

‘PERON, PERON’

At “Peron, Peron” in the trendy Palermo neighborhood, the Kirchners’ supporters -- so-called Kirchneristas -- can talk politics while tucking into a smoked pork dish called “Capitalist Pig” or, for the calorie-conscious, a “Diet Peronism” salad.

“Many Kirchneristas are too young to know about Peronism but here they find out about Peron and his wife Eva,” said Daniel Narezo, 41, owner of the “Peron, Peron” bistro.

One of them is Maximiliano Alvarenga, 31, a member of the Peronist Youth group and a regular at the bar.

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“Young people have a key role in politics right now. We’re in love with politics thanks to President Kirchner,” Alvarenga said. “At my age, I only know about Peronism through what I’ve been told so this cafe means a lot to me because it connects me with everything that has to do with the movement.”

The connection sometimes goes beyond politics. At the cafe, there is an Evita shrine with lit candles, pictures and hand-written prayers for a spot of after-dinner hero worship.

“This cafe is my homage to Peron and Evita,” said Narezo, who was wearing a T-shirt carrying the image of another famous Argentine, revolutionary leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

On the other side of the city in Bohemian San Telmo, the Peronist spirit is strong but it has a more working-class flavor.

“El General,” a restaurant-cafe that reopened late last year, is run by a workers cooperative that eschews bosses, and the waiters, cooks and cleaners all get a share of the profits.

The cafe’s walls are adorned with black-and-white pictures of Peron raising the national flag, riding his Pinto horse and reading a newspaper next to Evita.

The Peronist march, an anthem that Peronists still sing at meetings and during political rallies, blares out of speakers every day here and customers get up from their seats to sing along.

“Even if it’s a passing trend, it’s positive because young people can always learn something new about Peron,” union leader Hugo Fucek, 54, said as he finished a juicy “General” steak at lunchtime.

Editing by Helen Popper and Patricia Reaney

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