October 17, 2006

Body of Argentina's Peron to move to $1.1 million crypt

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) -- Juan Domingo Peron, who dominated Argentine politics like no other 20th-century leader with the glamorous Evita at his side, was to be buried Tuesday for a third time since his death in 1974.

Peron's body was taken in a funeral van early Tuesday to a union hall for a midday tribute. Later Tuesday, the remains were to be escorted to a new $1.1 million mausoleum in the cattle-ranching countryside, where supporters hope the body of his famous first lady will join him one day.

Relatives of the late Eva Peron, or Evita, have opposed moving her coffin from her family's tomb in Buenos Aires' downtown Recoleta cemetery, where it has remained since a bizarre drama involving two trans-Atlantic crossings since her death from cancer in 1952 at age 33.

As Argentina's power couple, the Perons cultivated an enormous working-class following by redirecting agricultural wealth to legions of urban poor through projects to build schools, hospitals and homes. Peron was elected president three times and died in office on July 1, 1974, at the age of 78.

President Nestor Kirchner and other members of the ruling Peronist party are expected to join Tuesday's ceremonies. But the movement that bears Peron's name has suffered deep fissures over how to advance his political legacy, and former presidents Carlos Menem and Eduardo Duhalde, among other party rivals, were expected to skip the proceedings.

Thirty-two years after Peron's death, supporters say he deserves a resting place befitting a national hero, a place more grand than the Peron family crypt in the crowded Chacarita cemetery where grave robbers broke in and stole his hands in 1987.

Workers tore a hole in his crypt Monday to remove the heavy metal coffin horizontally and avoid further damage to his corpse, said Alejandro Rodriguez Peron, nephew of the late military strongman.

Peron's body will now rest in a marble sarcophagus set in a lofty, modern atrium at his former weekend estate in San Vicente, 30 miles southwest of Buenos Aires. Visible through a window, a towering eucalyptus tree stands guard.

The estate is named "Oct. 17" after the date in 1945 when Peron -- then vice president and secretary of war -- was released amid massive protests after opponents in the military threw him in jail on accusations of conspiring against a previous government. Peron went on to win the first of three elections in February 1946.

An authoritarian leader who also had his enemies, Peron radically reshaped Argentina's economic and political life by nationalizing railroads, utilities and other industries to bankroll state programs for the poor and working classes.

The young, blond Evita became a national icon, and after her death, her body lay in state in Congress for weeks as hundreds of thousands of mourners thronged to her coffin's open viewing.

When military leaders overthrew Juan Peron in 1955, they were apparently so worried about a death cult that they secretly moved Evita's body to an unmarked grave in Italy. In 1971 it was delivered to Juan Peron's home in exile in Spain.

Peron returned to Argentina soon after and ruled briefly until his death. He was succeeded by his third wife, Isabel, who brought Evita's body to rest by his in the presidential residence in Buenos Aires. But after she too was ousted in a 1976 coup, the military quietly dispatched both bodies to their families' respective crypts.

Controversy continues to surround Juan Peron more than three decades after his death, as his remains were subjected on Friday to DNA sampling in a patrimony case. Martha Holgado, 72, who says she's the product of a brief affair between Peron and her mother, told The Associated Press she's certain the tests will prove she is Peron's daughter.

Peron never publicly acknowledged her as a daughter, and critics have long scoffed at her claims.

Funeral director Dr. Ricardo Peculo, who examined Peron's remains last week, said the body was well preserved for a three-decade-old corpse and required no "reconstruction" before Tuesday's events.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press