But Perón had many detractors and no interest in hearing from them, a fact many present-day loyalists prefer to forget. He silenced critics, imprisoned opponents and pretty much destroyed any semblance of a free press by nationalizing radio networks and shutting down opposition newspapers. He also played a key role in making Argentina a haven for Nazis. It's estimated that somewhere between 3,000 and 8,000 Germans, Austrians and Croatians with links to the Nazis entered the country in the postwar period; about 300 were said to be war criminals.
Evita, Argentina's most beloved first lady, often acted as a mediator between unions and her husband's administration and helped poor people through an eponymous foundation that built schools and provided medical care, housing and food. She pushed for women's suffrage, obtained in 1947. She died of cervical cancer in 1952 at age 33. "Evita Vive" (Evita Lives) is still a common graffito in the streets of Buenos Aires. Her much-visited grave is inside the Duarte family tomb at the Recoleta Cemetery, and the Evita Museum, located in a former home for destitute single mothers that she founded, displays several of her flamboyant dresses and tells the story of her rise from actress to powerful politician and cult figure.
Juan Perón was toppled by a military coup d'état led by Eduardo Lonardi in 1955, but in 1973 he returned from exile in Spain and won the presidency a third time. He died of a heart attack in 1974 at age 78. His body lies in a mausoleum in the Quinta de San Vicente, the country house he bought with Evita about 40 miles from the capital. The house is open to visitors on weekends.
Perón's third wife, Isabel, who was his vice president during his third term, led the government for nearly two years after his death. Then, in 1976, the military ousted her—the beginning of modern Argentina's darkest days.
The post-Perón military government—led for the first five years by Jorge Videla and for another two by a succession of two generals—imprisoned, tortured and murdered government critics and activists. As many as 30,000 people disappeared, human rights groups say. The military's invasion of the British Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) in 1982, which Argentina had long claimed, was a move calculated to galvanize support for the regime; it backfired when Great Britain, to the junta's surprise, moved quickly to defend the territory. Popular uprisings and dissent within the army forced President Reynaldo Bignone to call for elections, held in 1983.
Initially, the elected government of Raúl Alfonsín (who died this past March at age 82) was inclined to prosecute military leaders behind the atrocities, but under pressure from the armed forces he approved amnesty laws in 1986 and 1987 that put an end to most of the ongoing trials. President Carlos Saúl Menem, who came to power in 1989, signed pardons in 1989 and 1990 that freed convicted officers to "close a sad and black period of national history." Tens of thousands of outraged people protested the pardons.
Argentines soon began openly acknowledging events of the recent past. In a pivotal event, Adolfo Scilingo, a retired navy captain, became the first former officer to state publicly that the military regime killed so-called subversives, saying in 1995 that prisoners had been drugged and thrown from airplanes into the sea. "In 1996, 1997 things began to change and there started to be an opening to talk about the issue," says Alejandra Oberti, of Open Memory, a group dedicated to increasing awareness of the dictatorship's horrors. In 1998, the city's legislature approved a law to create Memorial Park, which would include a monument to commemorate the victims of the dictatorship.
After the 2001 economic crisis, Argentina lived through a series of short-term presidents until Néstor Kirchner was elected in 2003 and served four years, emphasizing human rights. (In 2005, Argentina's Supreme Court declared the amnesty laws unconstitutional. New trials of former military officers implicated in human rights abuses began in July 2007.) Argentina's current president is Kirchner's wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, a lawyer and former senator. She has promised to prosecute government officials involved in political killings.
The new political and legal climate has emboldened human rights advocates. "For so many years we had to put up with people closing the door on our faces whenever we went to ask for something," said Mabel Gutierrez, leader of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared for Political Reasons. In 1978, her 25-year-old son, Alejandro, vanished. Mabel Gutierrez died of a heart attack this past April at age 77.
Adjacent to the Memorial Park is the Monument to the Victims of State Terrorism, inaugurated in 2007. The site, still under construction and due to open this year, is reminiscent of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. It consists of a walkway with tall walls that list each known victim and the year he or she disappeared.