Like all Latin American countries, Argentina has a tumultuous history, one tainted by periods of despotic rule, corruption and hard times. But it’s also an illustrious history, a story of a country that was once one of the world’s economic powerhouses, a country that gave birth to the tango, to international icons like Evita Perón and Che Guevara, and to some of the world’s most important inventions (the public bus, the coronary bypass and the ballpoint pen all come to mind). Understanding Argentina’s past is paramount to understanding its present and, most importantly, to understanding Argentines themselves.
- Native peoples
- Enter the Spanish
- Northwest supremacy
- The Jesuits
- Buenos Aires: bootlegger to boomtown
- Independence & infighting
- The reign of Rosas
- The fleeting Golden Age
- The Perón decade
- Perón’s exile & return
- The Dirty War & the disappeared
- The Falklands/Malvinas war
- Aftermath of the Dirty War
- The Menem years
- ‘La crisis’
- Argentina today
Human migration to the Americas began nearly 30, 000 years ago, when the ancestors of Amerindians, taking advantage of lowered sea levels during the Pleistocene epoch, walked from Siberia to Alaska via a land bridge across the Bering Strait. Not exactly speedy about moving south, they reached what’s now Argentina around 10, 000 BC. One of Argentina’s oldest and impressive archaeological sites is Cueva de las Manos (Cave of the Hands) in Patagonia, where mysterious cave paintings, mostly of left hands, date from 7370 BC.
By the time the Spanish arrived, much of present-day Argentina was inhabited by highly mobile peoples who hunted the guanaco (a wild relative of the llama) and the rhea (a large bird resembling an emu) with bow and arrow or boleadoras – heavily weighted thongs that could be thrown up to 90m to ensnare the hunted animal. (Today, replica boleadoras are sold at artisan shops throughout the country – pick up a set and give them a hurl at a stationary object for an idea of the skill required to take down a guanaco!)
The Argentine pampas was inhabited by the Querandí, hunters and gatherers who are legendary for their spirited resistance to the Spanish. The Guaraní, indigenous to the area from northern Entre Ríos through Corrientes and into Paraguay and Brazil, were semisedentary agriculturalists, raising sweet potatoes, maize, manioc and beans, and fishing the Río Paraná.
Of all of Argentina, the northwest was the most developed. Several indigenous groups, most notably the Diaguita, practiced irrigated agriculture in the valleys of the eastern Andean foothills. The region’s inhabitants were influenced heavily by the Tiahanaco empire of Bolivia and by the great Inca empire, which expanded south from Peru into Argentina from the early 1480s. In Salta province the ruined stone city of Quilmes is one of the best-preserved pre-Incan indigenous sites, where some 5000 Quilmes, part of the Diaguita civilization, lived and withstood the Inca invasion. Further north in Tilcara you can see a completely restored pucará (walled city), about which little is known.
In the Lake District and Patagonia, the Pehuenches and Puelches were hunter-gatherers, and the pine nuts of the araucaria, or pehuén tree, formed a staple of their diet. The names Pehuenches and Puelches were given to them by the Mapuche, who entered the region from the west as the Spanish pushed south. Today there are many Mapuche reservations, especially in the area around Junín de los Andes, where you can still sample foods made from pine nuts.
Until they were wiped out by Europeans, there were indigenous inhabitants as far south as Tierra del Fuego, where the Selk’nam, Haush, Yaghan and Alacaluf peoples lived as mobile hunters and gatherers. Despite frequently inclement weather they wore little or no clothing, but constant fires (even in their bark canoes) kept them warm and gave the region its Spanish name, Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire).
Just over a decade after Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón in Spanish) accidentally encountered the Americas, other Spanish explorers began probing the Río de la Plata estuary. (Columbus was actually Italian, but he was sailing under the Spanish flag). Most early explorations of the area were motivated by rumors of vast quantities of silver. Spaniard Sebastian Cabot optimistically named the river the Río de la Plata (River of Silver), and to drive the rumors home, part of the new territory was even given the Latin name for silver (argentum). But the mineral riches that the Spanish found in the Inca empire of Peru never panned out in this misnamed land.
The first real attempt at establishing a permanent settlement on the estuary was made by Spanish aristocrat Pedro de Mendoza in 1536. He landed at present-day Buenos Aires and, not one to mince words, named the outpost Puerto Nuestra Señora Santa María del Buen Aire (Port Our Lady St Mary of the Good Wind). After the colonists tried pilfering food from the indigenous Querandí, the natives turned on them violently. Within four years Mendoza fled back to Spain without a lick of silver, and the detachment of troops he left behind beat it up river to the gentler environs of Asunción, present-day capital of Paraguay.
Although Spanish forces reestablished Buenos Aires by 1580, it remained a backwater in comparison to Andean settlements founded by a separate and more successful Spanish contingency moving south from Alto Perú (now Bolivia). With ties to the colonial stronghold of Lima, capital of the viceroyalty of Peru, and financed by the bonanza silver mine at Potosí, the Spanish founded some two dozen cities as far south as Mendoza (1561), all during the latter half of the 16th century. Santiago del Estero, founded in 1553, is the country’s oldest permanent settlement. The main force in this northward orientation was the protectionist King of Spain, whose mercantile policy decreed that commerce between Spain and the colonies had to be routed through Lima.
The two most important population centers at the time were Tucumán (founded in 1565) and Córdoba (1573). Tucumán lay in the heart of a rich agricultural region and supplied Alto Perú with grains, cotton and livestock. Córdoba became an important educational center, and Jesuit missionaries established estancias (ranches) in the surrounding sierras to supply Alto Perú with mules, foodstuffs and wine. Córdoba’s Manzana Jesuítica (Jesuit Block) is now the finest preserved group of colonial buildings in the country, and several Jesuit estancias in the Central Sierras are also exquisitely preserved. These sites, along with the central plazas of Salta (founded in 1582) and Tucumán, boast the country’s finest colonial architecture.
Northeast Argentina, along the upper regions of the Río Uruguay and Río Paraná, was colonized later with the help of Jesuit missionaries, who concentrated the indigenous Guaraní in settlements. Starting around 1607, the Jesuits established 30 missions, including the marvelously preserved San Ignacio Miní, which should be on every architecture-lover’s hit list.
Perhaps as many as 100, 000 indigenous people lived in the Jesuit settlements, which resembled other Spanish municipalities but operated with a political and economic autonomy that did not apply to other Iberian settlers. Wary of the Jesuits’ accumulating wealth and power, the Spanish crown expelled them in 1767, and the mission communities disintegrated rapidly, almost fading into the wilderness.
As the northwest prospered, Buenos Aires suffered the Crown’s harsh restrictions on trade for nearly two centuries. But because the port was ideal for trade, frustrated merchants turned to smuggling, and contraband trade with Portuguese Brazil and nonpeninsular European powers flourished. The increasing amount of wealth passing through the city fueled much of its initial growth.
With the decline of silver mining at Potosí in the late 18th century, the Spanish crown was forced to recognize Buenos Aires’ importance for direct transatlantic trade. Relaxing its restrictions, Spain made Buenos Aires the capital of the new viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata – which included Paraguay, Uruguay and the mines at Potosí – in 1776.
Although the new viceroyalty had internal squabbles over trade and control issues, when the British raided the city in 1806 and again in 1807, the response was unified. Locals rallied against the invaders without Spanish help and chased them out of town.
The late 18th century also saw the emergence of the legendary gauchos of the pampas. The South American counterpart to North America’s cowboys, they hunted wild cattle and broke in wild horses that had multiplied after being left behind by previous expeditions on the Río de la Plata.
Toward the end of the 18th century, criollos (Argentine-born colonists) became increasingly dissatisfied and impatient with Spanish authority. The expulsion of British troops from Buenos Aires gave the people of the Río de la Plata new confidence in their ability to stand alone. After Napoleon invaded Spain in 1808, Buenos Aires finally declared its independence on May 25, 1810. To commemorate the occasion, the city’s main square was renamed Plaza de Mayo.
Independence movements throughout South America soon united to expel Spain from the continent by the 1820s. Under the leadership of General José de San Martín and others, the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata (the direct forerunner of the Argentine Republic) declared formal independence at Tucumán on July 9, 1816.
Despite achieving independence, the provinces were united in name only. With a lack of any effective central authority, regional disparities within Argentina – formerly obscured by Spanish rule – became more obvious. This resulted in the rise of the caudillos (local strongmen), who resisted Buenos Aires as strongly as Buenos Aires had resisted Spain.
Argentine politics was thus divided between the Federalists of the interior, who advocated provincial autonomy, and the Unitarists of Buenos Aires, who upheld the city’s central authority. For nearly two decades bloody and vindictive conflicts between the two factions left the country nearly exhausted.
In the first half of the 19th century Juan Manuel de Rosas came to prominence as a caudillo in Buenos Aires province, representing the interests of rural elites and landowners. He became governor of the province in 1829 and, while he championed the Federalist cause, he also helped centralize political power in Buenos Aires and required that all international trade be funneled through the capital. His reign lasted more than 20 years (from 1829 to 1852), and he set ominous precedents in Argentine political life, creating the infamous mazorca (his ruthless political police force) and institutionalizing torture.
Under Rosas, Buenos Aires continued to dominate the new country, but his extremism turned many against him, including some of his strongest allies. Finally, in 1852, a rival caudillo named Justo José de Urquiza (once a staunch supporter of Rosas) organized a powerful army and forced Rosas from power. Urquiza’s first task was to draw up a constitution, which was formalized by a convention in Santa Fe on May 1, 1853. Urquiza became the country’s first president. The Constitution (still in force today despite its frequent suspension) pointed to the triumph of Unitarism, and subsequent economic developments confirmed Buenos Aires’ power in the coming decades. In 1862 Buenos Aires was declared the capital of the Argentine Republic.
Argentina’s second president, Bartolomé Mitre, was concerned with building the nation and establishing infrastructure, but his goals were subsumed by the War of the Triple Alliance (or Paraguayan War), which lasted from 1865 to 1870. Not until Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, an educator and journalist from San Juan, became president did progress in Argentina really kick in. Sarmiento is still revered for his promotion of education, and his childhood home in San Juan is now a lovely museum, honoring the man and displaying his colonial-style home.
Buenos Aires’ economy boomed and immigrants poured in from Spain, Italy, Germany and Eastern Europe. The city’s population grew more than sevenfold from 1869 to 1895. The new residents worked in the port, lived tightly in the tenement buildings and developed Buenos Aires’ famous dance – the tango – in the brothels and smoky nightclubs of the port. Basque and Irish refugees became the first shepherds, as both sheep numbers and wool exports increased nearly tenfold between 1850 and 1880.
Still, much of the southern pampas and Patagonia were inaccessible for settlers because of fierce resistance from indigenous Mapuche and Tehuelche. Argentina’s next president, Nicolás Avellaneda, took care of that. In 1879 Avellaneda’s Minister of War, General Julio Argentino Roca, carried out a ruthless campaign of extermination against the indigenous people in what is known as the Conquista del Desierto (Conquest of the Desert). The campaign doubled the area under state control and opened up Patagonia to settlement and sheep. Junín de los Andes’ Vía Cristi memorial is likely the region’s most impressive and moving tribute to the Mapuche lives lost in this ‘war.’
By the turn of the 20th century Argentina had a highly developed rail network (financed largely by British capital), fanning out from Buenos Aires in all directions. Still, the dark cloud of a vulnerable economy loomed. Because of inequities in land distribution, the prosperity of the late 19th century was far from broad. Industry could not absorb all the immigration. Labor unrest grew. As imports surpassed exports, the economy showed signs of stress. Finally, with the onset of the Great Depression (Great Slump), the military took power under conditions of considerable social unrest. An obscure but oddly visionary colonel, Juan Domingo Perón, was the first leader to try to come to grips with the country’s economic crisis.
Juan Perón emerged in the 1940s to become Argentina’s most revered, as well as most despised, political figure. He first came to national prominence as head of the National Department of Labor, after a 1943 military coup toppled civilian rule. In this post he organized relief efforts after a major earthquake in San Juan, which earned praise throughout the country. In the process he also met Eva (Evita) Duarte, the radio actor who would become his second wife and make her own major contribution to Argentine history. With the help of Evita, Perón ran for and won the presidency in 1946.
During previous sojourns in fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, Perón had grasped the importance of spectacle in public life and also developed his own brand of watered-down Mussolini-style fascism. He held massive rallies from the balcony of the Casa Rosada, with the equally charismatic Evita at his side. Although they ruled by decree rather than consent, the Peróns legitimized the trade-union movement, extended political rights to working-class people, secured voting rights for women and made university education available to any capable individual.
Economic difficulties and rising inflation undermined Juan Perón’s second presidency in 1952, and Evita’s death the same year dealt a blow to both the country and the president’s popularity. In late 1955 a military coup sent him into exile in Spain and initiated nearly three decades of catastrophic military rule.
During their exile, Perón and his associates constantly plotted their return to Argentina. In the late 1960s increasing economic problems, strikes, political kidnappings and guerrilla warfare marked Argentine political life. In the midst of these events, Perón’s opportunity to return finally arrived in 1973, when the beleaguered military relaxed their objections to Perón’s Justicialist party (popularly known as the Peronistas) and loyal Peronista Hector Cámpora was elected president. Cámpora resigned upon Perón’s return, paving the way for new elections easily won by Perón.
After an 18-year exile, Perón once again symbolized Argentine unity, but there was no substance to his rule. Chronically ill, Perón died in mid-1974, leaving a fragmented country to his ill-qualified third wife – and vice president – Isabel.
In the late 1960s and early ’70s, antigovernment feeling was rife, and street protests often exploded into all-out riots. Armed guerrilla organizations like the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP; People’s Revolutionary Army) and the Montoneros emerged as radical opponents of the military, the oligarchies and US influence in Latin America. Perón’s bumbling widow, Isabel, along with her adviser, José López Rega, created the Triple A (Alianza Argentina Anticomunista), a death squad to take on the revolutionary groups. With increasing official corruption exacerbating Isabel’s incompetence, Argentina found itself plunged into chaos.
On March 24, 1976, a bloodless military coup led by army general Jorge Rafael Videla took control of the Argentine state apparatus and ushered in a period of terror and brutality. Videla’s sworn aim was to crush the guerrilla movements and restore social order, and much of the Argentine press and public gave their support. During what the regime euphemistically labeled the Process of National Reorganization (known as El Proceso), security forces went about the country arresting, torturing, raping and killing anyone on their hit list of suspected leftists.
During the period between 1976 and 1983, often referred to as the Guerra Sucia or Dirty War, human-rights groups estimate that some 30, 000 people ‘disappeared.’ To disappear meant to be abducted, detained, tortured and probably killed, with no hope of legal process. Ironically, the Dirty War ended only when the Argentine military attempted a real military operation: liberating the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) from British rule.
Under military rule, Argentina’s economy continued to decline and eventually collapsed in chaos. El Proceso was coming undone.
In late 1981 General Leopoldo Galtieri assumed the role of president. To stay in power amid a faltering economy and mass social unrest, Galtieri played the nationalist card and launched an invasion in April 1982 to dislodge the British from the Falkland Islands, which had been claimed by Argentina as the Islas Malvinas for nearly a century and a half.
Overnight, the move unleashed a wave of nationalist euphoria that then subsided almost as fast. Galtieri underestimated the determined response of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and after only 74 days Argentina’s ill-trained, poorly motivated and mostly teenaged forces surrendered ignominiously. In 1983 Argentines elected civilian Raúl Alfonsín to the presidency.
In his successful 1983 presidential campaign, Alfonsín pledged to prosecute military officers responsible for human-rights violations during the Dirty War. He convicted high-ranking junta officials for kidnapping, torture and homicide, but when the government attempted to also try junior officers, these officers responded with uprisings in several different parts of the country. The timid administration succumbed to military demands and produced a Ley de la Obediencia Debida (Law of Due Obedience), allowing lower-ranking officers to use the defense that they were following orders, as well as a Punto Final (Stopping Point), beyond which no criminal or civil prosecutions could take place. These measures eliminated prosecutions of notorious individuals such as Navy Captain Alfredo Astiz (the Angel of Death), who was implicated in the disappearance of a Swedish-Argentine teenager and the highly publicized deaths of two French nuns.
In December 1990 president Carlos Menem pardoned Videla and his cohorts even though the Argentine public overwhelmingly opposed it. During the 1995 presidential campaign, Dirty War issues resurfaced spectacularly when journalist Horacio Verbitsky wrote The Flight: Confessions of an Argentine Dirty Warrior (1996), a book based on interviews with former Navy Captain Adolfo Scilingo, in which Scilingo acknowledges throwing political prisoners, alive but drugged, into the Atlantic. In January 2005 Scilingo went to trial in Spain, facing numerous counts of human-rights abuses and becoming the first official associated with El Proceso to be tried abroad. He was convicted of crimes against humanity by the Spanish Supreme Court and is currently serving 30 years in prison (although he was sentenced to 640 years, 30 is the legally applied limit in Spain). In 2007 the Spanish upped his sentence to 1084 years.
Other than Scilingo, few have been convicted for crimes perpetrated during the Dirty War. One exception was the conviction of Héctor Febres, who worked at Buenos Aires’ Naval Mechanics School, the country’s most notorious detention center. In December 2007, days before he was to be sentenced in Argentina for human-rights violations, Febres was found dead from cyanide poisoning in his prison cell. Most of the criminals of El Proceso, however, still walk the streets, either in Argentina or abroad.
As frightening and as recent as this chapter in Argentine history is, most Argentines feel an atrocity such as the Dirty War could never happen again. Today, after more than 20 years of civilian rule, many visitors to the country find themselves amazed that it did happen.
Carlos Menem, whose Syrian ethnicity earned him the nickname ‘El Turco’ (The Turk), was elected president in 1989. Menem quickly embarked on a period of radical free-market reform. In pegging the peso to the US dollar, he effectively created a period of false economic stability, one that would create a great deal of upward mobility among Argentina’s middle class. Despite the sense of stability, his policies are widely blamed for Argentina’s economic collapse in 2002.
Menem’s presidency was characterized by rampant government corruption and the privatization of state-owned companies. He sold off YPF (the national oil company), the national telephone company, the postal service and Aerolíneas Argentinas, all to foreign companies, and much of the profit was never accounted for.
Menem changed the constitution to allow himself to run for a second term (which he won), and unsuccessfully tried again so he could run for a third term in 1999. Amid accusations of corruption, Menem finally stepped down.
Adding to his scandals, Menem married Chilean Cecilia Bolocco, a former Miss Universe and 35 years his junior. In 2001 he was charged with illegally dealing arms to Croatia and Ecuador and placed under house arrest. After five months of judicial investigation, the charges were dropped and Menem was released from house arrest; the following day he announced he would run again for president. In 2003 he did, only to withdraw after the first round.
At the end of Menem’s second term in 1999, the country faced economic crisis. Fernando de la Rua succeeded Menem in the 1999 elections, inheriting an unstable economy and US$114 billion in foreign debt. With the peso pegged to the US dollar, Argentina was unable to compete on the international market and exports slumped. A further decline in international prices of agricultural products pummeled the Argentine economy, which depended heavily on farm-product exports.
By 2001 the Argentine economy teetered on the brink of collapse, and the administration, with Minister of Economy Domingo Cavallo at the wheel, took measures to end deficit spending and slash state spending, including employee salaries and pensions. After attempted debt swaps and talk of devaluing the peso, middle-class Argentines began emptying their bank accounts. Cavallo responded to the bank run by placing a cap of US$250 per week on withdrawals, a measure that would become known as ‘el corralito’ (meaning small enclosure or playpen). It was the beginning of the end.
By mid-December unemployment hit 18.3% and unions began a nationwide strike. Things came to a head on December 20 when middle-class Argentines took to the streets banging pots and pans, in what became known as the cacerolazo (from the word cacerola, meaning pan), in protest of De la Rua’s handling of the economic situation. Rioting spread throughout the country, leaving more than 25 dead, and President de la Rua finally resigned. Three interim presidents had resigned by the time Eduardo Duhalde took office in January 2002, becoming the fifth president in two weeks. Duhalde devalued the peso in January 2002 and announced that Argentina would default on US$140 billion in foreign debt, the biggest default in world history. For Argentina it was ‘la crisis, ’ an economic collapse that sent poverty skyrocketing and foreign investors running.
After a low of AR$4 to the US dollar, Duhalde’s Minister of Economy, Roberto Lavagna, stabilized the peso at about AR$3 to the dollar and negotiated a take-it-or-leave-it deal with the IMF in which Argentina would pay only the interest on its debts. Simultaneously, devaluation of the peso meant that Argentina’s products were suddenly affordable on the world market, and by 2003 exports were booming. The surge was great for the country’s GNP (its growth rate of nearly 9% was Latin America’s largest), but prices at home skyrocketed, plunging more of Argentina’s already shaken middle class into poverty – and those already in poverty into dire economic straits.
A presidential election was finally held in April 2003, and Santa Cruz Governor Nestor Kirchner emerged victoriously (and by default) after his opponent, former president Carlos Menem, bowed out of the election. Although Menem emerged from the first round of voting with more percentage points than Kirchner, it quickly became clear that Menem would lose horrendously.
By the end of his term in 2007, Kirchner – known affectionately as ‘K’ – had become one of Argentina’s most popular presidents ever. Risking backlash from the military, Kirchner immediately reversed amnesty laws that protected members of the 1976–83 junta against being charged for atrocities committed during the Dirty War, and by 2008 several higher-ups had been arrested, tried and charged in both Argentina and Spain. He took a heavy stance against government corruption, impeaching two supreme-court justices and forcing the resignation of another. He steered the economy away from strict alignment with the US and realigned it with that of Argentina’s South American neighbors. And in 2005 he paid off Argentina’s entire debt to the IMF in a single payment. By the end of Kirchner’s presidency in 2007, unemployment had fallen to just under 9% – from a high of nearly 25% in 2002.
Despite Kirchner’s successes and the recovery of the Argentine economy –not to mention the great rise in optimism nationwide – poverty and inflation remain serious issues. Many from Argentina’s middle classes have regained their footholds, but many others, particularly those who were already living at or below the poverty line, have found their economic shackles impossible to break.
In 2007 Kirchner’s term was up, but he wasn’t through with politics. His wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, easily won the nation’s highest office – becoming Argentina’s first elected woman president. Her tenure has been much rockier than his, however, and has seen the occasional corruption scandal, a major tax-hike conflict, high inflation rates and a worsening economy. With time still left in her term, the country can only hope these problems are merely bumps in the road towards recovery – yet again.
After the boom years, Argentina’s inflation remains high and the economy continues to sputter. The country teeters on the edge of recession, but there is also good news for travelers – a weakening peso means that hard currency goes a long way.
Cristina Kirchner lost much of her power during the June 2009 legislative elections. Her husband, ex-president Néstor Kirchner, later resigned as the leader of the Peronist party, soundly ending their hopes for an extended political dynasty.