Argentina is a roller-coaster ride, though its citizens may be well accustomed to its loops from boom to bust. Yet the appeal of constant drama has worn thin. With President Mauricio Macri, the country is moving to the right of its longtime Kirchnerist politics. While the buzzword is recovery, the public remains more reticent than optimistic. Many protest the new austerity measures while the government attempts to curb rampant inflation. Meanwhile, Pope Francis continues his revolutionary trajectory on the world stage.
A New Beginning, a Divided People
In December, 2015 Mauricio Macri grabbed the reins of the Argentine presidency in an electoral upset, narrowly beating Cristina Kirchner's candidate to end 12 years of populist-style government. Buenos Aires' mayor since 2007, this pro-business, free-market-reform candidate was also a former president of the Boca Juniors fútbol team.
Macri dove into drastic changes: controls over foreign currencies were abolished (essentially ending the black market for US dollars) and export taxes were lowered to boost agricultural trade. Argentina hopes to encourage economic growth and bring back foreign investment while reducing its unsustainable inflation rate. The administration also plans to strengthen ties with economic powers such as Brazil and the USA. For the business sector, the time has come for Argentina to open up to the world and put an end to a long era of economic isolation.
But not all are confident. Reopening the import market has been to the detriment of national industry. Many citizens feel the cuts go too close to the bone and will disproportionately affect the vulnerable, cutting hard-won social-support systems. Between 28% and 30% of the populace live below the poverty line. Pension cuts go right to the heart of the populace. It's an about-face from the previous government, which implemented heavy state intervention and spending and made strides in individual rights.
Argentina is a divided society: la grieta, a widening gap, has opened between those who favor a stronger state with more protections for its citizens and those who believe that the way to progress lies in supporting the free market. Even families and friends find themselves on separate sides of the divide. If there is one unifying principle, it's that just about everyone is certain about corruption and cynical about politics.
Argentina has begun to find closure with the darker chapters of its past. In November, 2017 a five-year trial delivered long-overdue justice to families and friends of victims of the military dictatorship. Former military officers were indicted for torture, murder and the forced disappearances of 759 people at the ESMA naval facility, with many sentenced to life in prison. These reckonings continue the work of initial trials in 1983 in healing some deep wounds in Argentine society.
Argentine politics continues to be relentless in its drama. In December 2017 an Argentine judge charged Cristina Kirchner with treason, alleging that her government covered up evidence in the largest terrorist attack in the country's history in order to facilitate business deals with Iran. These allegations come on top of corruption charges against her administration. Kirchner has denounced the charges as an attempt to discredit her party and person by the current administration, as meetings with Iranian officials had congressional approval.
The People's Pope
After Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, was named pope in March 2013 he took the name Francis I. Not only was he the first pontiff to bear that moniker, he was also the first to hail from the Americas and the first to belong to the Jesuit order. It’s a fair bet that he’s also the first pope to have grown up drinking mate, tangoing at milongas and ardently supporting the San Lorenzo fútbol club.
Bergoglio was a humble man who had eschewed the archbishop’s palace in Olivos, remaining in his modest apartment and getting around Buenos Aires by bus and the Subte. As pope he has continued these habits, emulating his namesake and personal hero, the saint from Assisi who once renounced all worldly possessions. This humility, coupled with the very personable humanity Francis displays, has made him an extremely popular pontiff after decades of corruption and sex-abuse scandals had alienated parishioners.
Some of Francis' declarations have created controversy within the religious establishment and with political conservatives. He has criticized capitalism and consumerism, and supported action on climate change and preserving the environment. Nonetheless, his views still oppose the ordination of women, abortion and same-sex marriage, though he notably addressed homosexuality by asking, 'Who am I to judge?'
It is fascinating to see an expressive and forthright Argentine sensibility in the Vatican. By brokering diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba, speaking up for compassion, and reaching out to other religions, Pope Francis has earned a following beyond the faithful.
Best in Print
Fever Dream (Samanta Schweblin; 2014) A young woman languishes in a clinic in this novel shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
Kiss of the Spider Woman (Manuel Puig; 1976) Two prisoners develop a relationship in a Buenos Aires prison; also an Oscar-winning 1985 film.
In Patagonia (Bruce Chatwin; 1977) Evocative writing on Patagonia’s history and mystique.
The Motorcycle Diaries (Ernesto Che Guevara et al; 1993) Based on the travel diary of the Argentine-born revolutionist.
Vineyard at the End of the World (Ian Mount; 2012) This winemaking history shows how Malbec made its name.
Best on Film
La historia oficial (The Official Story; 1985) Oscar-winning film on the Dirty War.
Nueve reinas (Nine Queens; 2000) Two con men chasing the big score.
El secreto de sus ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes; 2009) Thriller that won the 2010 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
Relatos salvajes (Wild Tales; 2014) Black comedy showcasing six short, entertaining stories.
Vino para robar (To Fool a Thief; 2013) A fun caper movie filmed against the stunning backdrop of Mendoza.
Best in Music
Volver (Carlos Gardel; 1934) Tango's heart-clutching classic.
Tango: Zero Hour (Ástor Piazzola; 1986) Virtuoso nuevo tango.
Todo Cambia (Mercedes Sosa; 1990) South America's folk goddess.
Piano Bar (Charly Garcia; 1985) Rousing rock.
Sus Grandes Exitos (Los Chalchaleros; 1974) Folkloric musica Salteña.
Salvese Quien Pueda (Juana Molina; 2002) Avant-guarde BA.
Honestidad Brutal (Andres Calamaro; 1999) Raw, sarcastic rock.
Sur o No Sur (Kevin Johansen; 2002) Argentine-American alt rock.
Me Veras Volver (Soda Estereo; 2007) Comeback of a rousing rock trio.
A vast country holding a diverse population, Argentina has a tumultuous past, at points tainted by periods of despotic rule, corruption and hard times. But its history is also illustrious, the story of a country that fought off Spanish colonial rule to become a world economic powerhouse – for a while. Argentina gave birth to international icons such as the gaucho, Evita Perón and Che Guevara. Understanding its past is essential to understanding its present and even Argentines themselves.
- 10,000 BC
Humans, having crossed the Bering Strait approximately 20,000 years earlier, finally reach the area of modern-day Argentina. The close of one of the world’s greatest human migrations nears.
- 7370 BC
Toldense culture makes its first paintings of hands inside Patagonia’s famous Cueva de las Manos. The paintings prove humans inhabited the region this far back.
- 4000 BC
The indigenous Yahgan, later referred to as Fuegians by the English-speaking world, begin populating the southernmost islands of Tierra del Fuego. Humans could migrate no further south.
- AD 1480s
The Inca empire expands into present-day Argentina’s Andean northwest. At the time the region was inhabited by Argentina’s most advanced indigenous cultures, including the Diaguita and Tafí.
Pedro de Mendoza establishes Puerto Nuestra Señora Santa María del Buen Aire on the Río de la Plata. But the Spaniards anger the indigenous Querandí, who soon drive the settlers out.
Francisco de Aguirre establishes Santiago del Estero, furthering Spain’s expansion into present-day Argentina from Alto Perú. Today the city is the country’s oldest permanent settlement.
The city of Mendoza is founded by Spaniards during their push to establish access to the Río de la Plata, where Spanish ships could deliver more troops and supplies.
The city of Córdoba is founded by Tucumán governor Jerónimo Luis de Cabrera, establishing an important link on the trade routes between Chile and Alto Perú.
Buenos Aires is re-established by Spanish forces, but the city remains a backwater for years, in comparison with the growing strongholds of Mendoza, Tucumán and Santiago del Estero.
Jesuits begin building missions in northeast Argentina, including San Ignacio Miní (1610), Loreto (1632) and Santa Ana (1633), concentrating the indigenous Guaraní into settlements known as reducciones.
The Spanish Crown expels the Jesuits from all of New Spain, and the mission communities decline rapidly.
Spain names Buenos Aires the capital of the new viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata. The territory includes the areas of present-day Paraguay, Uruguay and the mines at Potosí (Bolivia).
Attempting to seize control of Spanish colonies, British forces raid Buenos Aires in 1806 and in 1807. Buenos Aires militias defeat British troops without Spain’s help, which kindles ideas of independence.
- May 25, 1810
Buenos Aires declares its independence from Spain, although actual independence is still several years off. The city names the Plaza de Mayo in honor of the event.
- July 9, 1816
After successful independence movements throughout South America, the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata (Argentina’s forerunner) declares formal independence from Spain at Tucumán.
Federalist caudillo Juan Manuel de Rosas becomes governor of Buenos Aires province and de facto ruler of the Argentine Confederation. He rules with an iron fist for more than 20 years.
Federalist and former Rosas ally Justo José de Urquiza defeats Rosas at the Battle of Caseros and, in 1853, draws up Argentina’s first constitution.
Bartolomé Mitre is elected president of the newly titled Republic of Argentina and strives to modernize the country by expanding the railway network, creating a national army and postal system, and more.
The War of the Triple Alliance is fought between Paraguay and the allied countries of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. Paraguay is defeated and loses territory.
More than 150 Welsh immigrants traveling aboard the clipper Mimosa land in Patagonia and establish Argentina’s first Welsh colony in the province of Chubut.
Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, an educator and journalist from San Juan, is elected president. He encourages immigration to Argentina, ramps up public education and pushes to Europeanize the country.
The Argentine economy booms, immigration skyrockets as Italian and Spanish immigrants flood in, and Buenos Aires’ population grows from 90,000 to 670,000. The tango emerges in Buenos Aires.
Novelist and poet Ricardo Güiraldes publishes Don Segundo Sombra, a classic work of gaucho literature evoking the spirit of the gaucho and its impact on Argentine society.
Juan Perón is elected president and makes changes to the Argentine political structure. Eva Perón embarks on her social-assistance programs to help lower-class women and children.
Eva Perón dies of cancer on July 26 at age 33, one year into her husband’s second term as president. Her death would severely weaken the political might of her husband.
After the economy slides into recession President Perón loses further political clout and is finally thrown from the presidency and exiled to Spain after another military coup.
Under the leadership of General Jorge Videla, a military junta takes control of Argentina, launching the country into the Dirty War. In eight years an estimated 30,000 people ‘disappear.’
With the economy on the brink of collapse once again, General Leopoldo Galtieri invades the Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas, unleashing a wave of nationalism and distracting the country from its problems.
After the failure of the Falklands War and with an economy on the skids, Raúl Alfonsín is elected the first civilian leader of the country since 1976.
Peronist Carlos Menem succeeds Alfonsín as president and overcomes the hyperinflation that reached nearly 200% per month by instituting free-market reforms.
Fernando de la Rua succeeds Menem as president, inheriting a failing economy. Agricultural exports slump and strikes begin throughout the country. The IMF grants Argentina US$40 million in aid.
Interim president Eduardo Duhalde devalues the peso, and Argentina defaults on a US$140-billion international debt (US$800 million owed to the World Bank), the largest default in history.
Néstor Kirchner is elected president of Argentina after Carlos Menem bows out of the presidential race, despite winning more votes in the first round of elections.
Former First Lady Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is elected president.
Néstor Kirchner dies suddenly, dealing a serious blow to the Kirchner dynasty. Many thought he would run for president in 2011, and likely win.
Cristina Kirchner wins the presidential re-election race; her politics move away from the traditional Justicialist Party, favoring young upstarts La Cámpora, led by her son Máximo Kirchner.
Inflation is running at about 25%, though the government's official figures say that it's less than 10%. Kirchner passes a law restricting the sale of US dollars, creating huge black-market demand.
- January 2015
State prosector Alberto Nisman is found shot dead in his apartment. He had accused Cristina Kirchner of covering up 1994's AMIA (Jewish community center) bombing investigation.
- November 2015
Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri wins the presidential election against Daniel Scioli, in Argentina's first-ever presidential run-off vote.
• November 2017
A naval submarine with 44 crew members disappears off the coast of Patagonia: its fatal malfunction alerts the public to the deteriorating military infrastructure.
Many different native peoples ranged throughout what became Argentina. On the pampas lived the hunter-gatherer Querandí, and in the north the Guaraní were semisedentary agriculturalists and fishermen. In the Lake District and Patagonia, the Pehuenches and Puelches gathered the pine nuts of the araucaria, while the Mapuche entered the region from the west as the Spanish pushed south. Today there are several Mapuche reservations, mostly in the area around Junín de los Andes.
Until they were wiped out by Europeans, there were indigenous inhabitants as far south as Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire), where the Selk’nam, Haush, Yahgan and Alacaluf peoples lived as mobile hunters and gatherers. Despite frequently inclement weather, they wore little or no clothing; frequent fires kept them warm and gave the region its name.
Of all of Argentina, the northwest was the most developed. Several indigenous groups, notably the Diaguita, practiced irrigated agriculture in the valleys of the eastern Andean foothills. Inhabitants were influenced by the Tiahuanaco empire of Bolivia and by the great Inca empire, which expanded south from Peru from the early 1480s. In Salta province the ruined city of Quilmes is one of the best-preserved pre-Incan sites.
Enter the Spanish
Just over a decade after Christopher Columbus accidentally encountered the Americas, other European explorers began probing the Río de la Plata estuary. Most early explorations of the area were motivated by rumors of vast quantities of silver. Spaniard Sebastian Cabot optimistically named the river 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 in 1536, by Spanish aristocrat Pedro de Mendoza. He landed at present-day Buenos Aires, but after the colonists tried pilfering food from the indigenous Querandí, the natives turned on them violently. Within four years Mendoza had fled back to Spain without a lick of silver, and the detachment of troops he left behind headed upriver to the gentler environs of Asunción, present-day capital of Paraguay.
Although Spanish forces had re-established Buenos Aires by 1580, it remained a backwater in comparison to Andean settlements founded by a separate and more successful Spanish contingent moving south from Alto Perú (now Bolivia). With ties to the colonial stronghold of Lima and financed by the bonanza silver mine at Potosí, the Spanish founded some two dozen cities as far south as Mendoza (1561) during the latter half of the 16th century.
The two most important centers 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 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 preserved. These sites, along with the central plazas of Salta (founded in 1582), boast the finest colonial architecture.
Buenos Aires: Bootlegger To Boomtown
As the northwest prospered, Buenos Aires suffered the Crown’s harsh restrictions on trade for nearly 200 years. 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 wealth passing through the city fueled 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.
The new viceroyalty had internal squabbles over trade and control issues, but when the British raided the city in 1806 and again in 1807 (in an attempt to seize control of Spanish colonies during the Napoleonic Wars), the response was unified. Locals rallied against the invaders without Spanish help and chased them out of town.
The Spanish slave trade in the 18th and 19th centuries brought a significant African population to Argentina, particularly Buenos Aires province, to labor in agriculture, livestock and domestic work. While cholera and yellow fever epidemics, as well as their participation in the Argentine War of Independence, wiped out much of the population, Africans made significant contributions to Argentine culture.
The late 18th century also saw the emergence of the gauchos of the pampas. The South American counterpart to North America’s cowboys, they hunted wild cattle and broke in wild horses whose numbers had multiplied after being left behind by expeditions on the Río de la Plata.
Independence & Infighting
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.
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 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 almost 20 years bloody conflicts between the two factions left the country nearly exhausted.
The Reign of Rosas
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 proclaimed that all international trade be funneled through the capital. His reign lasted more than 20 years (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.
The Fleeting Golden Age
Elected the Republic of Argentina’s first official president in 1862, Bartolomé Mitre was concerned with building the nation and establishing infrastructure. His goals, however, were subsumed by the War of the Triple Alliance (or Paraguayan War), which lasted from 1864 to 1870. Not until Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, an educator and journalist from San Juan, became president did progress in Argentina really kick in.
Buenos Aires’ economy boomed and immigrants poured in from Spain, Italy, Germany and Eastern Europe. The new residents worked in the port area, lived tightly in the tenement buildings and developed Buenos Aires’ famous dance – the tango – in the brothels and smoky nightclubs of the port. Elsewhere in the country, 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 resistance from indigenous Mapuche and Tehueche. In 1878 General Julio Argentino Roca carried out an extermination campaign 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 Patagonia to settlement and sheep.
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. Industry could not absorb all the immigration, labor unrest grew and imports surpassed exports. Finally, with the onset of the worldwide Great Depression, 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. With the help of his second wife, Eva Duarte (Evita), he 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. Of course, many of these social policies made him disliked by conservatives and the rich classes.
Many Nazi fugitives, including former SS officials, were welcomed to Argentina by Perón. Most assumed quiet lives of anonymity. In 1960 Adolf Eichmann, the mastermind of the Nazi final solution logistics, was taken off the streets by Mossad agents to stand trial in Israel. Josef Mengele fled onward to Paraguay.
Economic hardship and 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 1955 a military coup sent him into exile in Spain. Thirty years of catastrophic military rule would follow.
During his exile, Perón plotted his 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 returned to Argentina and was voted president again in 1973; however, after an 18-year exile, there was no substance to his rule. Chronically ill, Perón died in mid-1974, leaving a fragmented country to his ill-qualified third wife, Isabel.
The Military Dictatorship & the Disappeared
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, antigovernment feeling was rife and street protests often exploded into all-out riots. Armed guerrilla organizations emerged as radical opponents of the military, the oligarchies and US influence in Latin America. With increasing official corruption exacerbating Isabel Perón's incompetence, Argentina found itself plunged into chaos.
On March 24, 1976, a 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. During what the regime euphemistically labeled the Process of National Reorganization (known as 'El Proceso'), security forces went about the country arresting, torturing and killing anyone on their hit list of suspected leftists.
During the period between 1976 and 1983, often referred to as the Guerra Sucia (Dirty War), human-rights groups estimate that 30,000 people ‘disappeared.’ Ironically, the Dirty War ended only when the Argentine military attempted a real military operation: liberating the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) from British rule.
The Falklands War
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 its own Islas Malvinas for nearly 150 years. Since it had been a British colony from 1841, a majority of the islands' residents were English speakers who favored British sovereignty.
However, Galtieri underestimated the determined response of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. After only 74 days Argentina’s ill-trained, poorly motivated and mostly teenaged forces surrendered ignominiously. The military regime collapsed, and in 1983 Argentines elected civilian Raúl Alfonsín to the presidency.
Aftermath of the Dirty War
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 try junior officers, these officers responded with uprisings in several parts of the country. The timid administration succumbed to military demands and produced the 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 the Ley de Punto Final (Full Stop Law), declaring dates beyond which no criminal or civil prosecutions could take place. At the time these measures prevented the prosecution of notorious individuals; in 2003, however, they were repealed.
Dirty War crime cases have since been reopened. Since 2003, several officers have been convicted for Dirty War crimes. Despite these arrests, many of the leaders of El Proceso remained free, both in Argentina and abroad. In late 2017 the federal court in Buenos Aires made a final reckoning in the several-years-long ESMA detention center trials, indicting 54 people and sentencing 29 former military officials to life in prison for kidnapping, torture and murder.
The Menem Years
Carlos Saúl Menem was elected president in 1989, and 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. However, his policies – which included privatization of state-owned companies – are widely blamed for Argentina’s economic collapse in 2002, when the overvalued peso was considerably devalued.
Menem’s presidency ran until 1999, and in 2003 he made another presidential bid – only to withdraw after the first round. He then became a senator for his home province of La Rioja in 2005 (but two years later failed to win the governorship). All the while, Menem's post-presidential career was characterized by scandals. In 2001 he was charged with illegally dealing arms to Croatia and Ecuador; after five months of judicial investigation, the charges were dropped (in 2008 the charges were reinstated, though he was later acquitted). In 2009 he was indicted for bribery and obstruction of justice in relation to the 1994 bombing of AMIA, a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. That trial is still pending, though in December 2015 he was sentenced to 4½ years in prison for embezzling public funds back in the 1990s. It appears Menem's golden political years are over.
Fernando de la Rua succeeded Menem in the 1999 elections, inheriting an unstable economy and US$114 billion in foreign debt. With the Argentine 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. After attempted debt swaps and talk of devaluing the peso, middle-class Argentines began emptying their bank accounts. Cavallo responded by placing a cap of US$250 per week on withdrawals, but 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 in protest against de la Rua’s handling of the economic situation. Rioting spread throughout the country and President de la Rua 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 and announced that Argentina would default on US$140 billion in foreign debt, the biggest default in world history.
Enter Néstor Kirchner
Duhalde’s minister of economy, Roberto Lavagna, negotiated a 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, but prices at home skyrocketed, plunging more of Argentina’s already shaken middle class into poverty.
A presidential election was finally held in April 2003, and Santa Cruz Governor Néstor Kirchner emerged victorious after his opponent, former president Carlos Menem, bowed out of the election.
By the end of his term in 2007, Kirchner had become one of Argentina’s most popular presidents. He reversed amnesty laws that protected members of the 1976–83 junta against being charged for atrocities committed during the Dirty War. He took a strong stance against government corruption and steered the economy away from strict alignment with the US (realigning it with 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.
But not everything was bread and roses. The fact that Argentina had repaid its debt was fantastic news indeed, but economic stability didn’t necessarily follow. In fact, a series of problems ensued during Kirchner’s presidency: high inflation rates caused by a growing energy shortage, unequal distribution of wealth, and a rising breach between rich and poor that was slowly obliterating the middle class.
However, things were going well enough for Kirchner. When the presidential seat was up for grabs in 2007, Argentines expressed their satisfaction with Kirchner’s policies by electing his wife, well-known senator Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, as president. Cristina won the presidency with a whopping 22% margin over her nearest challenger and became Argentina’s first elected female president.
The Trials & Tribulations of Cristina
Weak opposition and her husband’s enduring clout contributed to Cristina’s clear-cut victory, despite the lack of straightforward policies during her campaign. While this was not the first time Argentina had had a female head of state (Isabel Perón held a brief presidency by inheriting her husband’s term), Cristina was the first woman to be elected president by popular vote in Argentina. As a lawyer and senator she was often compared to Hillary Clinton; as a fashion-conscious political figure with a penchant for chic dresses and designer bags, she also evoked memories of Evita.
On October 27, 2010, Néstor Kirchner died suddenly of a heart attack. It was a disaster for the Kirchner dynasty, but the country rallied around Cristina’s sorrow and she was easily re-elected in early 2011. Her platform appealed to the populist vote, promising to raise incomes, restore industry and maintain Argentina's economic boom. The approach worked like a charm, but her acclaim wasn't to last.
From October 2011, in an effort to curb capital heading overseas, the government required Argentines to substantiate their purchases of US dollars. This is what had created the black market for US dollars, which are highly sought after as a stable currency. And the real-estate market stalled, since purchases were pretty much always transacted in US dollars.
Cristina’s tumultuous presidency was laced with scandals, unpopular decisions and roller-coaster approval ratings, along with inflation unofficially estimated at up to 30%. Yet her presidency also saw some positive sides, including a stronger economy during the first part of her tenure, the strengthening of certain social programs, and the legalization of same-sex marriage in July 2010.
Feature: Evita, Lady of Hope
‘I will come again, and I will be millions.’
Eva Perón, 1952
From her humble origins in the pampas to her rise to power beside President Juan Perón, María Eva Duarte de Perón is one of history's most revered political figures. Known affectionately as Evita, Argentina’s most beloved First Lady even eclipsed the legacy of her husband, who governed Argentina from 1946 to 1955.
At the age of 15 Eva Duarte left her hometown of Junín for Buenos Aires. Looking for work as an actor, she eventually landed a job in radio. In 1944 she attended a benefit at Buenos Aires’ Luna Park and met Colonel Juan Perón. He fell in love with her and they married in 1945.
Shortly after Perón won the presidency in 1946, Evita went to work in the office of the Department of Labor and Welfare. During Perón’s two terms, Evita empowered her husband through her charisma and outreach to the nation’s poor, who came to love her dearly. She built housing for the poor, created programs for children, and distributed clothing and food items to needy families. She campaigned for the aged, offered health services to the poor and advocated for a law extending suffrage to women.
Perón won his second term in 1952, but that same year Evita – at age 33 and at the height of her popularity – died of cancer. It was a blow to Argentina and her husband’s presidency.
Although remembered for extending social justice to those she called the country’s descamisados (shirtless ones), Evita and her husband ruled with an iron fist. They jailed opposition leaders and newspapers, and banned Time magazine when it referred to her as an ‘illegitimate child.' However, there is no denying the extent to which she empowered women at all levels of Argentine society and helped the country’s poor.
Today Evita enjoys near-saint status. Get to know her at Museo Evita, or visit her tomb in the Recoleta cemetery; both are in Buenos Aires. Or read her ghostwritten autobiography La razón de mi vida (My Mission in Life; 1951).
Feature: Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo
In 1977, after a year of brutal human-rights violations under the leadership of General Jorge Rafael Videla, 14 mothers marched into the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires. They did this despite the military government’s ban on public gatherings and despite its reputation for torturing and killing anyone it considered dissident. The mothers, wearing their now-iconic white head scarves, demanded information about their missing children, who had ‘disappeared’ as part of the government’s efforts to quash political opposition.
The group, which took on the name Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo (The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo), developed into a powerful social movement and was the only political organization that overtly challenged the military government. Las Madres were particularly effective as they carried out their struggle under the banner of motherhood, which made them relatively unassailable in Argentine culture. Their movement showed the power of women – at least in a traditional role – in Argentine culture, and they are generally credited with helping to kick-start the re-establishment of the country’s civil society.
After Argentina’s return to civilian rule in 1983, thousands of Argentines were still unaccounted for, and Las Madres continued their marches and their demands for information and retribution. In 1986 Las Madres split into two factions. One group, known as the Línea Fundadora (Founding Line), dedicated itself to recovering the remains of the disappeared and to bringing military perpetrators to justice. The other, known as the Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo, held its last yearly protest in January 2006, saying it no longer had an enemy in the presidential seat. Línea Fundadora, however, still holds a silent vigil every Thursday afternoon in remembrance of the disappeared – and to protest other social causes.
And there is hope: in 2014 one of the most famous and respected grandmothers, Estela Carlotta, finally found her grandson after 36 years of searching. Argentina cried with her in joy – and perhaps in the hope of more future reunions.
Sidebar: The Mission
The Mission (1986), starring Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons, is an epic film about the Jesuit missions and missionaries in 18th-century South America. It’s the perfect kickoff for a trip to northern Argentina’s missions.
Argentina's native peoples hunted guanaco and ñandú (a large bird resembling an emu) with various weapons, including boleadoras. These weighted balls were thrown to ensnare a prey's legs. Today, replica boleadoras are sold at artisan shops throughout the country.
Sidebar: Post Independence
One of the best-known contemporary accounts of post-independence Argentina is Domingo Faustino Sarmiento’s Life in the Argentine Republic in the Days of the Tyrants (1868). Also superb is his seminal classic Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism (1845).
Sidebar: The Perón Novel
Tomás Eloy Martínez’ The Perón Novel (1998) is a fascinating, fictionalized version of the life of ex-president Juan Perón, culminating in his return to Buenos Aires in 1973.
Sidebar: Funny Dirty Little War
Hectór Olivera’s 1983 film Funny Dirty Little War is an unsettling but excellent black comedy set in a fictitious town just before the 1976 military coup.
The Falklands War is still a somewhat touchy subject in Argentina. To avoid any verbal brawls, it's polite to call them the ‘Malvinas’ instead of the ‘Falklands.’
Sidebar: Never Again
Nunca más (Never Again; 1984), the official report of the National Commission on the Disappeared, systematically details military abuses from 1976 to 1983 during Argentina’s Dirty War.
Sidebar: El Turco
Carlos Menem’s Syrian ancestry earned him the nickname ‘El Turco’ (The Turk). In 2001 he married Cecilia Bolocco, a former Miss Universe who is 35 years his junior; they’re now divorced.
Sidebar: New Words
At least two terms came about due to Argentina’s economic crisis: el corralito (a small enclosure) refers to the cap placed on cash withdrawals from bank accounts during ‘La Crisis,' while cacerolazo (from the word cacerola, meaning pan) is the street protest where angry people bang pots and pans.
Sidebar: Darwin in Patagonia
Between 1833 and 1835, Charles Darwin explored Argentina during his voyage around the world as a young naturalist. He observed human customs, local flora and fauna, fossils and geological aspects of the region.