In Argentina, Anger Over the New Peronist Chic

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The Buenos Aires neighborhood of Palermo Hollywood is home to many of Argentina's top film and television studios. Even a U.S. cinema giant like Francis Ford Coppola, director of the Godfather films, has a home there. It's also known for expensive restaurants and boutique designer shops. In other words, it's the sort of milieu that die-hard Peronists — the followers of working-class champions General Juan Perón, who ruled Argentina from 1946 to 1955 (and 1973-74) and his wife Eva Duarte — call the domain of "Gorillas," their disparaging name for anti-Peronists.

So it's quite unexpected to find an establishment there called Perón-Perón, which recently opened in "Gorilla" territory. Says owner Daniel Narezo, beaming as he sits at one of his tables, "My restaurant is a Peronist stake driven through the heart of Palermo Hollywood." Yet contrary to all expectations, this "resto-bar" decorated with mementos and photographs of Perón and "Evita" looks poised to upend the city's notion of cool. Even with a reservation, you're likely to have to jostle for a table on the sidewalk, and you'll often have to vie with both veteran Peronist politicians and young trend-setters to get it.

But does this winning formula suggest that the Peronists are betraying their populist posture, or just giving it a chic makeover? The music from the loudspeakers is interspersed with startling remixes of Evita's fiery speeches to the Peronist masses, reset to hip-hop beats. On the menu, a once-revered Perón maxim — "Where there is a need there is a right" — heads the list of desserts. The salads fall under "Peronismo Light," which also happens to be the condescending label that older, more traditional Peronists have pinned on 21st-century Peronists, who get accused of co-opting 1950s Peronist mythology while stripping it of its substance. Either way, Narezo calls the mix of earnest politics and stylish cuisine "the Peronist party."

Such light-hearted use of iconic Peronist imagery would have until recently been considered downright blasphemous. Officially proclaimed by Congress to be the "Spiritual Leader of the Nation" a few months before her death from cancer in 1952 at age 33, Evita is still considered a quasi-saint by many in Argentina. Yet at Perón-Perón, a makeshift altar to Evita, adorned with candles and flowers, sits incongruously among tables where curious tourists clink champagne glasses.

Perón himself died in 1974, making him a remote figure to the large cohort of Peronists under 40 today. They still march through Argentina's streets for social justice, but they call themselves "Kirchneristas" — or more simply, "K" youths — declaring their allegiance instead to the new power-Peronists: President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, 58, and her husband and presidential predecessor Néstor Kirchner, who died of a heart attack just last year at age 60. Narezo, who is 42, welcomes the young Kirchneristas — fashionable, Internet-savvy and often moneyed — but concedes that they "are not true Peronists."

Peronist old-timer Ramón Landajo, 83, who served as Perón's personal secretary during his first presidency, is harsher. "They're not Peronists at all," he grouses. "We've got to return to the origin, to Perón." But that's as politically impractical as expecting young U.S. Democrats today to recapture the aura of Franklin Roosevelt or even John Kennedy. In Argentina, where 25% of the population is between 20 and 35, "K" supporters could tip the October presidential election, when Fernández hopes to win a second term in office.

For starters, they've elevated the letter "K" to the level of a party emblem. One of their blogs is titled "Argentine Republik;" another sings the praises of "Kristina Kirchner;" and on one of their many Facebook profiles, a young supporter states her political views as "kkkkkkk." Their Twitter feeds and YouTube videos compete with Argentina's mainstream media, which the "K" crowd often distrusts as "Gorilla," or anti-Peronist, fare.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, at one of their many weekly gatherings across the nation, about 500 young Kirchner supporters marched through the middle-class Buenos Aires neighborhood of Caballito chanting, "Hey, Gorilla, we're not going to say it again, if you touch Cristina, there's going to be big trouble." The President welcomes the support. "These young people are watching my back," Fernández said in a recent speech before a similar crowd in the town of El Calafate in southern Argentina.

Maybe old-guard Peronists, "K" youths and anti-Peronists could resolve their differences over a glass of Malbec at Peron-Peron. After all, despite her populist appeal among the descamisados, or "shirtless" working class, Evita loved high fashion, as does Fernandez, as much as any Buenos Aires socialite does. "It may seem frivolous, this trendy bar in a 'Gorilla' neighborhood, but my guiding principle has always been to imagine what Evita would have thought to be right," says Narezo. "And I think Evita would have been pleased with this restaurant."