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.
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.