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The Spanish Arrive
Before the 16th century the land now known as Argentina was sparsely populated by a range of Indigenous American groups, such as Quechua, Guaraní and Mapuche, although the number of people living in the territory was relatively small compared to the Incas of Peru or the Aztecs of Mexico.
The first real interaction with European conquistadores occurred in 1536, when aristocrat Pedro de Mendoza landed on the southern shore of the Río de la Plata and named his settlement Puerto Nuestra Señora Santa Maria del Buen Aire – one day to grow into modern Buenos Aires. The expedition was largely a disaster; the 1600 men that accompanied Mendoza came too late to plant crops, and to feed themselves bullied and stole from the indigenous settlements in the area. This led to fighting and starvation for the colonists, and a swift retreat – Mendoza fled back to Spain while those who hadn’t perished through hunger or war carried on to modern-day Paraguay.
1580 however saw a more successful colonisation of Buenos Aires by Juan de Garay, and a settlement was established. However the centre of Argentina at this time was undoubtedly the north, located much closer to the glittering colony of Peru and the silver mines of Potosí; the area flourished while Buenos Aires remained a backwater, banned from trading independently of the Spanish crown.
Later the Spanish raised the status of this region by establishing the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata in 1776. This short-lived viceroyalty comprised today’s Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay, as well as much of present-day Bolivia.
Buenos Aires became a flourishing port only after the creation of the viceroyalty, as the revenues from Potosí, the increasing maritime activity in terms of goods rather than precious metals, the production of cattle for the export of leather and other products – and other political reasons – made it gradually become one of the most important commercial centres of the region.
The viceroyalty was, however, short-lived due to lack of internal cohesion among the many regions of which it was constituted and to lack of Spanish support. It collapsed when Napoleon successfully invaded Spain and overthrew the Spanish monarchy.
The failed British invasions of the Río de la Plata in 1806 and 1807 had also boosted the confidence of the colonists after they had successfully stood up against a stronger invading army without receiving military support from the colonial power.
After the British invasions were successfully repelled, mixed sentiments dominated the settlers. Pride at having defeated the imperial power was tempered by frustration at the incompetence and impotence of their Spanish colonial masters. This growing nationalist sentiment, combined with the growing independence movement all over South America and the influence of such thinkers as Simon Bolivar, led a group of influential creoles in Buenos Aires to rebel against the Spanish authorities on 25th May 1810, forming the Primera Junta (first government).
Military campaigns led by General José de San Martín between 1814 and 1817 gave more strength to the factions that supported the independence movements. Argentines revere San Martín, who campaigned in Argentina, Chile, and Peru, as the hero of their national independence. On 9th July 1816, a Congress gathered in Tucumán and finally issued a formal declaration of independence from Spain. Bolivia declared itself independent in 1825, and Uruguay was created in 1828 as a result of the Argentina-Brazil War.
Independence was, however, just the start of the struggle for Argentina. The country was split between Federalists, mostly rich landowners from the interior provinces who wanted a loose confederation of strong, independent provinces, and Unitarists, who favoured making the port of Buenos Aires the focus of the nation and centralising power in the one area.
Following the defeat of the Spanish, the Unitarists waged a lengthy conflict against Federalists to determine the future of the nation. The dominant figure of this period was the federalist Juan Manuel de Rosas. Rosas was far more concerned with establishing his own dominance in Buenos Aires than with any principled federalism. He developed a paramilitary force of his own, La Mazorca (‘the Corncob’), which earned the federalists the derogatory nickname of mazorqueros, while they preferred to be known as The Holy Federation. This feared band was also nicknamed más horca (‘more gallows’), which is a homophone of La Mazorca in Spanish.
General Justo José de Urquiza, a defecting federalist supported by Uruguay and Brazil, defeated Rosas during the battle of Caseros. Argentine national unity was at least nominally established, and a constitution promulgated in 1853. The constitution was strongly defended in moving oratory by the patriot and Franciscan Mamerto Esquiú, after whom one of the country’s departments is named.
Growth and Immigration
By 1859, the unity of Argentina was largely secured, although it would be two decades more before the centralists completed their victory over the federalists. In 1862, the National Assembly selected the liberal politician Bartolomé Mitre as president; in 1868, he was succeeded by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento.
During this period (1865–70), the War of the Triple Alliance was fought by Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay against Paraguay.
In the following decade, General Julio Argentino Roca established Buenos Aires’s dominance over the pampas (a military operation known as Conquest of the Desert) and the unitarios victory over the federalists; in 1880, Roca became president. He remains a controversial figure in Argentine politics; some choose to remember him as a great patriot who went on to secure the lands of Patagonia – others as a genocidal maniac who exterminated the native people of these lands to do so.
After this time the nation, and especially the port of Buenos Aires, experienced great economic growth and prosperity. Argentina became the ‘bread basket’ of the world, exporting tonnes of beef, wheat, leather and other products to Europe and the Americas. They were aided by extensive British investment, which brought the railway throughout the country to transport produce to the docks of La Boca. British influence remains throughout Buenos Aires Province; the railway system may have shrunk, but names such as Hurlingham, Banfield, and Billinghurst, which still adorn streets and neighbourhoods, and the nationwide love for football hint at this legacy.
This growth was accompanied by mass immigration from Europe, most notably from Spain and especially Italy. Millions of immigrants arrived in the second half of the 19th century, turning Buenos Aires into a major world population centre and creating a uniquely Argentine culture: a fusion of Italian and Spanish which filters into everything from language to the cuisine of modern Argentina. Immigrants arrived to work the fields of the pampas, the docks of the capital and in the growing industrial sector located throughout the Rioplatense area.
The belle époque of Argentina was however not to last. These years of prosperity ended with the Crash of 1929 and the ensuing
worldwide Great Depression. In 1930, a military coup, supported by the Argentine Patriotic League, forced Radical President Hipólito Yrigoyen from power, and replaced him by General José Félix Uriburu. Support for the coup was bolstered by the sagging Argentine economy as well as a string of bomb attacks and shootings involving radical anarchists, which alienated moderate elements of Argentine society and angered the conservative right, who had long been agitating for decisive action by the military forces.
The military coup initiated the period known as the ‘Infamous Decade’, characterised by electoral fraud, persecution of the political opposition and generalised government corruption, against the background of the Great Depression.
Civilian government was re-established in 1937, but it was weak and perceived as corrupt by many. Another military coup followed in 1943, possibly due to concerns from a rabidly anti-communist and fascist-sympathetic military that Argentina was to ally itself with the Allies and Soviet Union in World War Two. Argentina however stayed nominally neutral through the war and in 1945 held new elections to elect a civilian government. The winner was another military man: a general named Juan Domingo Perón.
The Perón Years
Perón’s ascendancy would change Argentina forever, both because of the specific reforms he enacted during his three terms in office, and because of the vacuum of power that he left during his exile and eventually after his death.
With early reforms attempting raise the living standards of the poor and to strengthen and diversify the Argentine economy, Perón’s presidency functioned as a sort of populist dictatorship. The general had come into power largely due to the backing of the labour unions, and he made sure to return the favour once in office. Perón introduced labour courts and stacked his cabinet with union leaders, who often intervened on behalf of the General Conference of Labour (CGT), the country’s biggest union. Union membership to surge from 500,000 in 1945 to 2 million in 1950, with working days lost to strikes ballooning as well, from 500,000 in 1945 to 3 million in 1947.
Perón’s economic policies aimed to create an independent, autonomous Argentina free from Cold War divisions that divided the world into two spheres. He focused largely on developing the county’s infrastructure by modernizing the railways, building roads in the interior, completing a 1,700km gas pipeline, expanding the electrical grid, building a new international airport, and constructing 8,000 schools and 4,200 healthcare facilities. He also nationalised the Central Bank, the railways, universities public transportation, the merchant marine, and various small airlines.
These reforms endeared the nation’s poor to Perón, a bond that was largely created by his dynamic young wife, Eva Duarte Perón. Evita’s humble origins (she had worked her way out of rural poverty to become a successful radio actress), abundant charisma, and ostensibly genuine interest in the suffering of the descamisados (the shirtless ones) made her a hero of the disenfranchised. She ran the Ministries of Labour and Health, led the campaign that achieved women’s suffrage in 1947, and founded the Eva Perón Foundation, a charitable organisation that built schools, houses, hospitals and orphanages and provided staples like shoes and cooking pots to the down-and-out.
But by the early 1950s, Perón’s fortunes started to fall. Evita succumbed to cervical cancer in 1952, and upper class Argentines began to organise in opposition to the president, with wealthy students protesting behind the slogan “no to the cheap shoe dictatorship!”. The economy suffered because of bad trade agreements and a US embargo, exports fell sharply, and a 70% devaluation of the peso led to recession and high inflation. Perón was eventually forced to borrow US$125m to protect the Central Bank from insolvency.
As opposition mounted, Perón’s regime became increasingly repressive, censoring newspapers and rooting out opposition, including firing of 1,500 university faculty, which led to Jorge Luis Borges’ infamous appointment as a “poultry inspector”. A number of coups were attempted, including an incident on 15th June 1955 incident in which the navy bombed the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires while the president was speaking, killing 364 Argentines.
On 16th September 1955, a Catholic nationalist faction of army and navy led a successful coup that they dubbed the Revolución Libertadora (Liberating Revolution), which seized the country within three days and forced Perón to flee to Paraguay via a gunboat.
A Power Vacuum
After seizing power, the Revolución Libertadora laboured to destroy the hold that Perón and Evita had on the country’s working class even in exile and death, respectively. Uttering the fallen leader’s name was made illegal, as were displaying memorabilia and supporting Peronism in general, a loosely defined umbrella term for the jumble of left- and right-wing policies of the previous government. The armed forces purged suspected Peronists from the army, reversed social reforms, and persecuted union leaders.
Peronist resistance groups began to form in opposition to the new government. A number of attempted coups were violently repressed.
After a 1956 attempt, Juan José Valle and a number of military leaders were executed along with 20 civilians whose bodies were tossed in the León Suarez dumping ground.
Though the Perón-backed Arturo Frondizi was elected president in 1958, over the next 15 years, Argentina experienced a dizzying alternation of civilian and military regimes, all violently repressive to various degrees. Guerrilla groups began to form, with both left- and right-wing organisations claiming to represent Perón. Though the exiled leader was alive and well in Francoist Spain, he had become a sort of mythical political spectre in his absence, evoked as the inspiration for a wide range of contradictory ideologies.
Many of these guerrilla groups were solidified by a 1969 protest that came to be known as the Cordobazo. At the time, Argentina was under the rule of General Juan Carlos Onganía, who had outlawed the right to strike, suspended workers’ wages, and implemented a law to repress pro-Communist activity after seizing power during a 1966 coup. Onganía’s corporatist policies and repressive tactics led to a month of protests throughout the country in May 1969 culminating on the 29th, when the citizens of Córdoba staged a general strike organised by pro-union students and workers. After the police killed a participant, the other protesters rioted throughout the city, burning down administrative centres and the headquarters of foreign-owned firms. In response, Onganía sent the military to quash the protests, raided the headquarters of the General Confederation of Argentine Labour (CGTA) and had its leaders arrested and prosecuted. Though Onganía demonstrated his power, the dictatorship’s brutal repression of the protest actually solidified the anti-government sentiment throughout the country. Moreover, the alliance between students and trade unions was established, and a number of important guerrilla groups were inspired to become organised and stage more decisive actions.
Argentina’s principal guerrilla groups included the Peronist Uturuncos, the Guevarist People’s Guerrillas Army (EGP), the Peronist Montoneros, the communist Armed Revolutionary Forces (FAR) and the Marxist People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP). The armed factions staged frequent demonstrations and violent actions throughout the country, including the Montoneros’ 1970 kidnapping and execution of Pedro Eugenio Aramburu, a former president and leader of the 1955 coup. Soon, deadly clashes between these groups and whatever government was in power at the moment became an almost weekly occurrence. Guerrillas, military officers, and civilians were all killed in staggering numbers.
In 1972, more than 114 political prisoners being held in a federal penitentiary in the city of Trelew staged a prison break. The plan had been to head to a nearby airfield, board a plane to Chile, and then eventually make it to Cuba. The prisoners divided themselves into three groups: six leaders who included founding members of the Montoneros, FAR, and ERP; a group of 19 charged with stabilising the prison; and a final group of 89 who would leave last. But due to some miscommunication, only the group of six leaders made it to the plane on time, taking off just as the second group arrived. The 19 proceeded to take over the airport for 24 hours, and were even able to talk to lawyers, doctors, and journalists. After finally agreeing to go back to the prison, the group of 19 were taken to a military base, tortured, and machine gunned down. Three managed to survive. The event came to be known as the Trelew Massacre. The incident was the first open killing of untried civilians by those in government. This event led to the decline of the dictatorship and the return of Perón from exile just a year later.
On 20th June 1973, Juan Domingo Perón returned from exile to take the place of a Peronist placeholder who had been elected in March. An estimated 3.5 million supporters from across the political spectrum flocked to Ezeiza airport to greet him, including the left-wing Montoneros and Peronist Youth Organisation and the right-wing unionist organisations. But instead of greeting their returned leader, the right-wing sectors opened fire on the leftists to claim Perón for their own, resulting in at least 13 deaths. The tragedy marked the end of the alliance between left- and right-wing factions of Peronism and put an end to the movement’s inherent political contradictions. It also was an ominous sign of Perón’s own shift to the right during his third and final term.
When Perón assumed the presidency in October, he inherited a weak economy plagued by inflation and crippled by the 1973 oil crisis. Social conflict raged as well, with right- and left-wing Peronist factions involved in perpetual armed conflicts that formed a sort of underground civil war. The violence came from within the administration as well. As Minister of Social Welfare, Perón’s advisor José López Rega diverted funds to the Triple A (Anti-Communist Alliance of Argentina), who formed a death squad that killed left-wing and moderate Peronists alike. The Montoneros became increasingly isolated, largely due to negative comments from Perón himself, and eventually went underground.
When Perón died at the age of 78 on 1st July 1974, his wife and vice president, María Estela Martínez de Perón (“Isabelita”), assumed power. Armed struggle increased, and in 1975 Martínez de Perón signed a number of decrees enabling the military and the police to “annihilate” left-wing subversion, most prominently the ERP.
In 1976, Martínez de Perón’s political weakness resulted in a military junta leading a coup. On 24thMarch she was removed from office and sought exile in Spain while a military dictatorship once again took power in Argentina.
The Dirty War
From 1976-December 1983, Argentina was run by four ‘junta’ regimes that formed the country’s final dictatorship. Often referred to as The Dirty War, this period is widely recognised as one of the bloodiest historical episodes of the 20th century.
The dictatorships first president was Jorge Rafael Videla, who argued that repression was justified as a necessary means to end guerrilla activity and maintain political stability. Calling the new regime’s actions the ‘National Reorganisation Process’, the dictatorship found initial support in Argentines who had grown weary of their country’s seemingly endless instability and violence. The rise of the junta resembled a general trend in Latin America at the time, in which authoritarian right-wing regimes rose to power, often backed by the US government as part of Plan Condor, an anti-communist foreign policy initiative.
But the junta went beyond re-establishing order or enacting capitalist reforms. Instead, it led a campaign of terror that aimed to purge
the country of ideological opposition by systemically kidnapping, torturing and killing thousands of labour organisers, students, activists and intellectuals. While some of those were ‘disappeared’ had actually been involved in the ERP or the Montoneros, many had done little by way threatening public order, and simply had the misfortunate to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Still, they were taken, usually in the middle of the night, and taken to secret government detention centres to be tortured and killed, leaving their friends and families without a clue as to what had happened. (One of the most infamous clandestine torture centres was a naval centre in Buenos Aires called ESMA, which stayed open as a training facility until 2004). These people came to be known by the chilling euphemism “los desaparecidos” or “the disappeared”.
Amnesty International reported in 1979 that 15,000 people had been disappeared, while the 1984 National Commission on the Disappeared counted 9,000 deaths (though they relied on disappearances that had been officially reported). Today Argentine human right activists put that number at 30,000.
While both political parties and freedom of press were heavily censored, more and more protesters emerged. Mothers of the disappeared began to assemble every Thursday at Plaza de Mayo, in front of the presidential palace, demanding to learn their children’s fate. This group gained the attention of the foreign press and international human rights organisations, and was eventually dubbed the Madres de Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo). The were soon joined by the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo), who sought to recover their grandchildren whose mothers had been kidnapped while pregnant, were born in concentration camps and adopted – often by the very officers responsible for their parents’ deaths. These protesters were the only visible oppositional presence in Argentina that reached the international stage, and became important protagonists in the transition to democracy.
In the early 1980s, the dictatorship began to crumble as it became clear to both the world and the Argentine people that the government was behind the tens of thousands of kidnappings. The junta, facing increasing opposition over its human rights record, as well as mounting allegations of corruption, sought to appease domestic critics and rouse national pride by launching a campaign to regain Las Islas Malvinas (the Falkland Islands), a cluster of islands off of the Argentine coast that had been controlled by Britain since 1833.
The junta believed that it would be relatively easy to reclaim these islands, assuming that the UK was unlikely to rise to the challenge. Instead, the endeavour ended in an embarrassing defeat when the British military overcame the young, under-trained Argentine army after 74 days. Overall, 649 Argentines and 257 Brits lost their lives.
This unexpected loss was the final blow for the military regime, and in 1982, it restored basic civil liberties and retracted its ban on political parties. The dictatorship finally concluded with general elections in October 1983, ending seven years of violence, repression and corruption.
Raúl Alfonsín, a lawyer and statesmen from Buenos Aires province, received 52% of the vote and assumed the presidency on 10th December 1983. Five days into his term, Alfonsín established the National Commission on the Disappeared (CONADEP), which aimed to investigate the fate of citizens who had been kidnapped and killed during the dictatorship. In a 50,000-page report, the investigation concluded that almost 9,000 people had been forcefully disappeared between 1976 and 1983. The report conceded that the actual number of disappeared could be much higher, considering that this number was based on disappearances that had been officially reported, excluding those whose families could not file a report for whatever reason, or those whose entire families were disappeared. Most commentators now agree the number of disappeared to be in the region of 30,000. For many, it seemed as though justice would finally be exacted on those responsible as the country entered a new era of leadership.
The 1985 Trial of the Juntas found the heads of the dictatorship (including former Presidents Jorge Rafael Videla, Roberto Eduardo Viola and Leopoldo Galtieri) guilty of human rights violations and sentenced them to life imprisonment. But the quest for justice was cut short with the passage of Full Stop Law (Ley de Punto Final) in 1986, which gave amnesty to all acts committed before 1983 and prevented the investigation or prosecution of any person accused of political violence. Coupled with the Law of Due Obedience (Ley de Obediencia Debida), which exempted subordinates from punishment for carrying out the orders of a superior, none of the guilty could be tried until the National Congress repealed the laws in 2005.
While Congress grappled with the dictatorship’s aftermath, hyperinflation and an increasing debt burden put the economy on a path to destruction. Alfonsín attempted to stabilize the currency by replacing the peso with the austral in 1985, but the effects were modest and short-lived. Inflation continued to rise, real wages continued to decline, and social unrest ensued. Alfonsín left office months before his term ended.
The Menem Years
With the economy collapsing, Carlos Menem took charge of the country and implemented unprecedented state reforms characterized by economic openness, privatizations, impunity, and corruption.
Menem pardoned ex-junta members who were sentenced for crimes against humanity in 1985. Terrorist attacks against the Israeli
embassy and AMIA, a Jewish community organization, happened in 1994 and were likely provoked by Menem’s support of United States foreign policy. Menem increased the number of Supreme Court justices by four and was able to stack the court with a majority in his favour, which, combined with heavy use of presidential decrees, concentrated enormous power in the executive branch.
Developing countries in crisis during those years were encouraged to follow a recipe for economic stabilisation and growth called the Washington Consensus, which was promoted by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. After passing two laws in order to implement the new policies, Menem began carelessly privatising state enterprises, involving mass layoffs of public employees and allegations of corruption, and greatly reduced barriers to trade and capital flows. In order to combat inflation, the government imported cheap goods, and tried to tackle the fiscal deficit by raising taxes and tax collection techniques.
But despite higher tax revenues and money received from privatizations, economic stability was elusive. In 1991, Domingo Cavallo, former chief of the Central Bank during the end of the dictatorship, was appointed as finance minister. Cavallo introduced convertibility, which fixed the value of the peso to the dollar, trade barriers were further reduced, and the policies began to bear fruit: inflation slowed, the economy began to grow, and Argentina was again credit-worthy in international markets. Strong economic growth hid high unemployment and the struggle of select industries with an overvalued peso and cheap imports.
After the Olivos Pact, which allowed for Menem to run for reelection, and with the economy in order and increased consumption, the government began to borrow heavily from international markets to cover its fiscal deficits. Argentina became the ‘poster child’ of the IMF and international investors who were seeking the higher returns found in emerging markets. Brazil’s currency devaluation caused Argentina to enter into economic recession in 1999, market exuberance vanished, and after two unsuccessful attempts by the IMF to reassure confidence, the economy would soon be spiralling out of control.
In 1999, unable to stand again after two full terms in office, Menem was replaced by Fernando de la Rúa, of the Union Civica Radical political party.
The Economy Crashes
In December of 2001, just two years after De la Rúa took charge, the economy collapsed. Repeated attempts to turn the economy around were unsuccessful, and despite the IMF granting nearly US$20bn in emergency loans and the return of Domingo Cavallo as economy minister, the situation continued to worsen. Argentina’s debt was unsustainable, fiscal austerity measures proposed by the IMF and agreed to by Argentina’s leaders further crippled the economy, and its ability to borrow on international markets was limited by zapped investor confidence.
Argentina would become host to the largest default in history with US$155bn in foreign debt. Because of cuts in fiscal spending, unemployed workers and pensioners took to the streets with Peronist trade unionists. A freeze on bank accounts known as the corralito brought more citizens to the streets in protest. As the public outcry escalated, so did police brutality. As many as 30 people are thought to have died in clashes with police forces. The protests led to the resignation on 19th December 2001 of President De la Rúa, and he fled the Casa Rosada by helicopter to escape the angry crowds.
By the end of the month, Argentina had gone through four presidents in two weeks.
On 2nd January 2002, the National Congress elected one of the losing candidates of the last presidential race to lead the country out of crisis.
Eduardo Duhalde eliminated the peso-dollar pairing, letting the peso float on the international market, eventually settling at about one third of its value. Pesificación converted bank accounts denominated in dollars to pesos at the official exchange rate, destroying middle class wealth. Businesses closed, and unemployment and poverty soared. Continued protests caused Duhalde to call presidential elections six months early, and he resigned at the end of De la Rúa’s term in 2003.
Into the Present—The Kirchners
Néstor Kirchner, a left-centre governor from Santa Cruz, won the presidency with only 22.2% of the vote after Carlos Menem withdrew
following the first round of voting. Kirchner took office in May of 2003. Assisted by high prices in soy, a devalued currency that increased demand for Argentine exports, and a tourism boom, Kirchner presided over four years of economic recovery and relative stability. He also repealed the legislation protecting war criminals, allowing old and pardoned cases to be reopened.
In 2005, Kirchner negotiated 75% of Argentina’s defaulted debt with foreign creditors in a bond exchange. He realigned Argentina’s foreign policy away from automatic support of the US to a policy focused on regional integration through MERCOSUR, and aligned himself with other Latin American governments in rejecting Washington consensus policies.
In 2007, despite high approval ratings, Néstor Kirchner decided not to run for re-election, but instead helped his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, a popular senator at the time, to become president.
The Argentine economy continues to grow, but politics remain contentious. President Fernández de Kirchner, enjoying high approval ratings early in her term, has since faced strong opposition and criticism of her governing style after supporting laws in conflict with the agricultural and media sectors.