Pope Francis is looking relaxed and playful, seated on a red velvet sofa with a battered brown concertina in his hands, a large medallion draped across his cassock in place of a stole.
Juan and Evita Perón, Argentina’s most famous political couple, relax on another sofa under the watchful gaze of current vice-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. To the right, Tita Merello, the legendary tango dancer, reclines in a black cocktail dress, a fur around her neck.
This life-size tableau takes centre stage at Las Palabras (Words), an extraordinary collection of several thousand objets trouvés amassed in a home-garage workshop by Eduardo Valdés, one of Argentina’s best-connected politicians, a Peronist congressman and lawyer.
Adjoining his house in the Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Almagro, Valdés has created a unique, invitation-only café-bar, evoking the 1950s heyday of Peronism.
The makeshift venue features a large, well-stocked bar and separate kitchen, which Valdés uses to entertain privately top figures from Argentina’s government and the Latin American left. Such private drinking dens are rare among the ruling classes, who generally prefer to gather in each other’s city or country residences.
“Las Palabras is a meeting place, a place to converse, a homage to communication,” says Valdés in his characteristically expansive manner. “In it is to be found a synthesis of all the cafés I came across with my friends.”
Peronism is one of the world’s most potent political movements. The death of its founder decades ago in 1974 has failed to dim the enduring appeal of General Juan Domingo Perón’s populist message. Founded in the 1940s to pursue social justice, it is comparable in the duration of its political spell only to Castroism in Cuba.
So it seems appropriate that Argentina’s Peronist president Alberto Fernández and his deputy Cristina Fernández de Kirchner enjoy private celebrations and political meetings in a drinking den shrine to Peronist Argentina.
President Fernández is a frequent visitor and Valdés has just taken delivery of a life-size waxwork of his old friend, who is depicted seated on a wooden keg playing the guitar with his beloved Collie dog Dylan — a social-media sensation during last year’s election campaign — sitting next to him. “We were students together when I was 18,” Valdés says.
As if to underline the strength of his connections, his mobile phone rings and he takes a call from the secretary-general of the presidency, Julio Vitobello, another old friend. The topic of conversation is a social gathering at the presidential country residence Olivos and the two men discuss the guest list, which includes the president, his chief of staff, a cabinet minister and Peronist legislators.
Valdés says he likes to bring people together: “I admire that in the Pope, the construction of bridges and the destruction of walls.”
The prominent presence of the Argentine Pope in Las Palabras reflects another strong personal connection: Valdés became friends with Jorge Bergoglio when the latter was archbishop of Buenos Aires and later served as Argentina’s ambassador to the Holy See.
“We made that Pope ourselves,” the politician says, of the concertina-playing figure on the stage. “I bought a rubber mask of the Pope, which I loved, and took a mannequin which they use in shops to display clothes.”
“The Pope is a very porteño Pope,” Valdés adds, using the adjective that describes residents of Buenos Aires. “He likes to travel by metro. He went to the most humble neighbourhoods.”
Francis features again in the glass-fronted display cases that line the walls of Las Palabras, with a white papal skullcap on display close to a can of Coca-Cola bearing the Italian national colours, football memorabilia and various photographs of the pontiff, including one in which he stands with Valdés.
The Pope has an affinity with Peronism, and played a behind-the-scenes role in bringing Alberto Fernández and Cristina together to fight the most recent election successfully on a joint ticket. Valdés, however, deftly moves away from the suggestion that the pontiff is himself a Peronist, pointing out that the Catholic Church’s social doctrine predated Peronism.
Others are more direct about the connection. When President Fernández visited the Pope in Rome shortly after taking office, his party celebrated mass in the Vatican crypt and the Argentine bishop officiating told the worshippers that “Perón would never have imagined in his wildest dreams that nearly half a century after his death he would have put a Pope in place”, according to one person present at the time.
Valdés is as passionate about Peronism as he is about collecting. “Peronism is the possibility for people to live decently,” he says. “In Argentina that name is recognised as the moment when the humblest people started to live better.”
But critics of Peronism point to the fact that the party dominated Argentine politics for much of the past century, so must be largely responsible for the country’s long period of economic decline — Argentina was one of the richest countries in the world at the turn of the 20th century.
Its most acerbic detractors claim that Peronism’s reliance on votes from poorer Argentines has led it to set up a clientelist system that has not only bankrupted the state, but ultimately led to increasing poverty — they call it “a factory of the poor”.
Collecting began early in Valdés’s life, starting with books. The Spaniards who fled their homeland for Argentina after the civil war in the 1930s brought with them a passion for literature.
In Buenos Aires, they built publishing houses that brought out beautifully printed, leather-bound editions of the classics, a selection of which were snapped up by the young Valdés for a song when Argentina was undergoing one of its periodic economic crises.
“I began with a mania for preserving books,” he explains. “I don’t have money, all my money is spent on this. Many people save money in banks but I buy crazy things, for example that Wincofone.”
The Wincofone is an Argentine-made record player that enlivened homes in the 1960s and 1970s; the young Valdés danced to its tunes. Music is another of his passions; beyond Argentine tango, the walls of Las Palabras are lined with album covers from music’s greats.
Somewhat improbably for a place dedicated to Latin American stars, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley are among them. “Elvis made me happy when I was young and I danced rock and roll,” Valdés says. “Sinatra too. But in reality, those two are infiltrators”.
Literary voices are well represented in Las Palabras, with rows of album covers mounted along the walls from Pablo Neruda, Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez reading their work. There is a revolutionary too: Che Guevara making speeches recorded in Havana before his fateful last trip to Bolivia to stir revolt.
Given Valdés’s prodigious political connections, it is no surprise to learn that Las Palabras has drawn a Who’s Who of the political left not just from Argentina, but the whole of Latin America.
The ex-presidents of Brazil (Dilma Rousseff), Paraguay (Fernando Lugo), Uruguay (José “Pepe” Mujica) and Ecuador (Rafael Correa) have all visited. To make his point, Valdés shows a video of Correa dancing at a birthday celebration.
Cristina Fernández held her birthday party at Las Palabras two weeks before our visit and posters from the celebrations were still visible, showing the veteran politician with her daughter Florencia under the words “Happy Birthday Cristina, thank you for so much love”.
The daughter of a bus driver who rose to become president from 2007 to 2015, Cristina is a divisive figure in Argentina after her administration ended in economic crisis and allegations of widespread corruption.
But Valdés is clear where his loyalties lie: “I don’t know whether Cristina is the new Evita Perón but Cristina is the most genuine thing in Peronism alive today.”
Behind the well-stocked bar, Valdés picks up an Action Man-style doll dressed to look like Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s former president, and sighs. “I can’t get him to talk at the moment. That is most unlike Chávez.”
Everything in the collection at Las Palabras, Valdés claims, is kept in working order, whether an animated puppet theatre of Beatles figurines who play “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (found in Uruguay), wind-up gramophones from the early 20th century or a stylish Porsche-engined coupé in the entrance from the heyday of the Peronist car industry.
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The politician puts his success in collecting down to his close links with Buenos Aires’ army of cartoneros — informal workers who sift through the city’s rubbish for recyclables and have furnished him with most of his prize finds.
“I see myself not so much as a collector but as a flea-market enthusiast,” he says. “I rely a lot on the scavengers . . . when there is hunger in Argentina, there are a lot of them and they bring me things which people have thrown out in the street”.
But Las Palabras has a purpose beyond being an Aladdin’s Cave of curios; it has also played a key role in uniting the sparring wings of Peronism to win power.
“Las Palabras is like its owner: hospitable, broad-minded, full of surprises, interminable and generous,” says Jorge Argüello, Argentina’s ambassador to the US and an old friend of Valdés.
“There is nowhere like it in Buenos Aires . . . Eduardo and his cave are a bridge, a bridge between people, histories and different [cultures]. At the tables of Las Palabras, the unity of Peronism was forged that took Alberto Fernández to the presidency of the republic.”
Michelangelo, Maradona and ‘the hand of God’
Of the thousands of curiosities in Eduardo Valdés’s “cave”, as he and those who frequent the place like to call it, one is particularly special, reports Benedict Mander.
Although many of the items in this Peronist sanctuary have an intriguing back-story, the military uniform that (one of multiple figures of) Juan Domingo Perón is dressed in tells a tale so typical of Argentina’s vicissitudes.
Valdés happened upon it by chance when tipped off by a rubbish-comber friend who in turn had heard about it from the doorkeeper of a nearby block of flats. The navy blue suit with gold epaulettes and cuffs had been given to him by the family of a recently deceased general, who had acquired his souvenir in shady circumstances. Fearful that it could bring trouble, they simply palmed it off on the unsuspecting caretaker. Initially sceptical about its authenticity, Valdés says that his doubts were laid to rest after checking with experts.
Among the other Peronist paraphernalia scattered around the converted workshop, an irreverent mural is also revealing. Not only because Argentina’s former ambassador to the Vatican chose to put on his ceiling a parody of Michelangelo’s fresco of the Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel, but also because it strikes at the heart of one of the great debates still raging in the football-mad country today: who is greater, Diego Maradona or Lionel Messi?
By having the avowedly Peronist Maradona take the place of Michelangelo’s God — and the politically insipid Messi as a mere mortal — it seems clear where Valdés’s preferences lie. The picture is also a mischievous nod to Maradona’s goal scored with his hand against England in the 1986 World Cup, which the midfielder called “the hand of God”.
Valdés’s jocular irreverence is on display elsewhere: look closely, and you will spot a playing card-sized picture of President Alberto Fernández portrayed as Saint Francis of Assisi — the saint whose name was adopted by the Argentine Pope — gazing piously up into the sky.
Michael Stott is the FT’s Latin America editor; Benedict Mander is its Southern Cone correspondent based in Buenos Aires
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