Prior to European contact, Argentina’s indigenous peoples were far less numerous and generally had less-developed cultures than indigenous peoples in Mexico and Peru. Most were hunter-gatherers. Some highly developed indigenous peoples lived inland, far away from the coast. The Diaguita of western and northwestern Argentina practiced agriculture. Their societies and cultures bore traces of influence from the Inca Empire. In northeastern Argentina, bordering on contemporary Paraguay, the Guaraní peoples practiced slash-and-burn agriculture, clearing forestland by cutting down and burning the existing vegetation.
The Colonial Era
In 1516 the Spanish navigator Juan Díaz de Solís, then searching for a southwest passage to the East Indies, piloted his ship into the great estuary now known as the Río de la Plata. He claimed the surrounding region in the name of Spain. Sebastian Cabot, an Italian navigator in the service of Spain, visited the estuary in 1526. In search of food and supplies, Cabot and his men went up the Paraná River close to the site of the modern city of Rosario. They constructed a fort and explored up the river as far as the region now occupied by Paraguay. Cabot, who remained in the river basin for nearly four years, obtained small quantities of silver from the native peoples. He named the estuary the Río de la Plata, which is Spanish for “silver river.”
In 1536 Pedro de Mendoza, a Spanish soldier appointed as the military governor of all land in South America south of the Río de la Plata, founded Buenos Aires. The members of his expedition encountered hostile indigenous peoples, severe hardships, and great difficulties in obtaining food. They abandoned the site in 1541.
Throughout the 17th century and most of the 18th century Spain funneled all overseas trade with its colonies through Lima, where the viceroy resided. Despite the advantages of Buenos Aires as a more direct link between Europe and the colonial settlements east of the Andes, the Río de la Plata area was legally closed to all overseas trade. The Spaniards in the area lived on small subsidies from the Spanish government and from an illegal silver trade with Peru. They exploited the enormous herds of wild cattle descended from animals the Spanish brought to the region decades earlier.
In 1776 Spain made Buenos Aires the capital of the newly formed Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata, a region comprising present-day Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Spain also allowed trade. Free at last from the control of Lima, Buenos Aires began to prosper, not only through legal trade with Spain and other Spanish colonies, but also through a brisk illegal trade. The La Plata region then began exporting Peruvian silver and cattle hides from the wild herds of the Pampas, and Buenos Aires became a major port for importing African slaves. These changes attracted Spanish merchants and a large number of senior Spanish administrators to Buenos Aires.
End of Spanish Rule
After about 20 years of economic expansion and stability, the La Plata region attracted the attention of Britain, which was at war with France and Spain. In 1806 a British fleet attacked Buenos Aires. The British took control of the city, but a citizen militia quickly ousted them. The following year the British tried to regain control of the city but failed. The defeat of the British filled the citizens of Buenos Aires with confidence in their fighting ability.
Revolutionary sentiment in La Plata escalated after the French emperor Napoleon overthrew and imprisoned King Ferdinand VII of Spain in 1808. The people of Buenos Aires refused to recognize Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother, as Ferdinand’s legitimate successor. On May 25, 1810, they rejected Bonaparte’s rule by overthrowing the government and installed a provisional governing council in the name of Ferdinand VII.
The new government launched a military campaign to win the support of the cities in the interior. The campaigns of 1810 marked the beginning of the wars of independence that continued for more than a decade. Argentina declared independence in 1816, although the revolutionaries did not finally defeat the Spanish in South America until 1824. See also Latin American Independence.
The Unitarians and Federalists
In the northern city of Tucumán, on July 9, 1816, a congress of delegates from the Argentine provinces declared the independence of the United Provinces of South America (later called the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata). However, the delegates failed to establish a stable government. A long struggle ensued between the people of Buenos Aires, who wanted to unify the country with Buenos Aires as the capital, and the people of the interior provinces, who did not want to be dominated by Buenos Aires. People in Buenos Aires who mostly favored a centralized system were known as Unitarians, while those in the provinces who wanted a loose confederation with provincial self-government were known as Federalists. Friction between the two factions mounted steadily, culminating in a civil war in 1819 and the so-called year of anarchy in 1820 when provincial forces invaded and occupied Buenos Aires. Peace was restored in 1820 but the central issue, formation of a stable government, remained unresolved.
In the 1820s the Unitarians of Buenos Aires under Bernardino Rivadavia tried to establish a centralized government. A man of liberal views, Rivadavia aspired to modernize Argentina. However, he became distracted when his army challenged Brazil for possession of the east bank of the Río de la Plata. The war between Argentina and Brazil ended in stalemate, and both countries guaranteed the independence of the east bank, which became the independent nation of Uruguay in 1828. Rivadavia was deposed, and Argentina collapsed into bankruptcy and civil unrest.
In 1829 dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas took power in Buenos Aires. A Federalist, Rosas cemented friendly relations with other provinces, winning broad support from fellow caudillos (dictators) and from the small armies of gauchos (cowboys) who dominated the provinces. He established an iron grip over Buenos Aires, demanding rigid obedience of the population and commonly murdering anyone who dared to resist. With few exceptions, his surviving enemies fled abroad. From Chile and Uruguay, and as far away as France and the United States, Rosas’s enemies waged a propaganda war against him. They denounced Rosas for his repressive policies and for failing to promote economic development.
In 1852 General Justo Urquiza, a former governor of Entre Ríos province, led an uprising that toppled Rosas. Urquiza received assistance from exiled Unitarians in Uruguay and from Brazil. In 1853 Argentina adopted a federal constitution, and Urquiza became the first president of the Argentine Confederation. However, Buenos Aires refused to acknowledge Urquiza’s authority and reinstituted self-rule. The main dispute concerned finances. Buenos Aires collected nearly all the country’s revenues from foreign trade, but its leaders refused to hand over the revenues to the Confederation.
Formation of the Republic
In 1859 hostility between Buenos Aires and the Confederation flared into civil war. The Confederation initially proved stronger. Following defeat in the Battle of Cepeda in 1859, Buenos Aires agreed to join the Confederation. In 1861 civil war erupted again, and in the Battle of Pavón the forces of Buenos Aires under General Bartolomé Mitre defeated the army of the Confederation under Urquiza. As the Confederation collapsed, Mitre created the Republic of Argentina. In 1862 the provinces elected Mitre president of the republic. He ruled under an amended version of the constitution of 1853 and made Buenos Aires the nation’s capital.
As president, Mitre pledged to develop Argentina economically through railroad construction and European immigration. He faced lingering opposition in the interior to a political system dominated by Buenos Aires, but conflict with Paraguay brought war on a large scale. In 1865 Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay declared war on Paraguay. This conflict, known as the War of the Triple Alliance, continued for almost five years until Paraguay was largely destroyed. Despite almost continual warfare, the Argentine economy grew until an economic depression occurred in the mid-1870s.
In 1879 General Julio A. Roca led an invasion of the southern Pampas, known as the Conquest of the Desert, in which his troops subdued and destroyed the indigenous peoples and opened vast new areas for grazing and farming. This campaign marked the beginning of a decade of unprecedented expansion. In 1880 Roca was elected president. Unlike Mitre, who dominated the country from Buenos Aires, Roca drew his power mainly from the provinces, and his victory provoked his opponents in Buenos Aires into revolt. Backed by the army, Roca’s followers put down the rebellion. To placate the people of Buenos Aires, Roca’s government made the city a federal district. This move effectively separated the city of Buenos Aires from the province of the same name.
Era of Prosperity
In the 1880s Argentina made rapid economic progress. British capital financed one of the largest railroad systems in the world. European immigrants flowed into Argentina; by 1914 nearly 6 million people had come to the country. Argentina became a major exporter of wool, wheat, and beef. In the first decade of the 20th century, Argentina became the richest nation in Latin America, its wealth symbolized by the opulence of its capital city. The growth of Argentina occurred rapidly but not smoothly. Following a steep upturn in growth during the late 1880s, the economy crashed in 1890. Five years elapsed before growth finally resumed.
The early 20th century in Argentina had some features in common with the 1880s and 1890s. A period of economic disruption followed an era of rapid growth. From 1901 to 1913, Argentina achieved greater prosperity. The population swelled, particularly in Buenos Aires. In response to social unrest in urban areas, the conservative ruling class adopted political reforms. In 1912 legislation known as the Sáenz Peña law democratized the political system by granting universal male suffrage (right to vote). This law enabled wider political participation for the middle class and segments of the working class. In 1916 the Radical Party under Hipólito Irigoyen took power.
At the time of Irigoyen’s election, Argentina was suffering the ill effects of World War I (1914-1918). In the early stages of the war, European countries imported fewer Argentine products, which caused a recession in Argentina and resulted in declining living standards for workers. Workers held strikes to protest economic conditions, and in early 1919 the army fired on the participants of a widely supported general strike. People who opposed the strike also attacked the Jewish community of Buenos Aires in an episode known as the Tragic Week. Instability continued until 1924 when Argentina experienced another burst of rapid prosperity sustained by foreign investment, immigration, and rising exports.
The Great Depression and World War II
The world economic crisis that began in 1929 had serious repercussions in Argentina. In 1930 a military coup ousted Irigoyen’s second administration and instituted a brief military dictatorship. Falling foreign trade and unemployment intensified the prevailing sense of insecurity. In the 1930s earnings from agriculture declined, and thousands of people were forced to leave rural areas. They moved to cities, especially Buenos Aires. Former farm workers joined an emerging manufacturing economy that developed as imports declined. Economic conditions improved substantially during the administration of General Agustín P. Justo from 1932 to 1938, but political unrest continued.
During the 1930s Argentina had a very active right-wing nationalist movement that its opponents denounced as pro-fascist (see Fascism). The appeal of liberal democracy declined as the lure of authoritarian dictatorship grew. In 1943 a nationalist military junta, suspecting that the government was about to abandon its policy of neutrality and join the Allied Powers in World War II, overthrew the president.
The coup of 1943 dethroned the political system instituted almost a century earlier with the constitution of 1853. Right-wing nationalists led the new government. President Pedro Ramírez abolished all political parties, suppressed opposition newspapers, and stifled the remnants of democracy in Argentina. Then in 1944 Allied pressure forced Ramírez to break diplomatic relations with Germany and Japan. Local opposition to the break led to the president’s fall and instatement of another military government committed to neutrality.
The Perón Era
During this period, army colonel Juan D. Perón emerged as the leading figure in Argentine politics. Perón achieved prominence as an instigator of the 1943 coup. He increased his influence by serving as secretary for labor and social welfare under Ramírez and by enlisting the support of organized labor. Perón found his main support among poor urban industrial and agricultural workers, popularly known as descamisados (Spanish for “shirtless ones”). He founded a new political movement later named the Justicialist Party, also known as the Peronist Party. Perón promised his supporters, known as Peronistas, that the Peronist Party could achieve social justice by rapidly improving living conditions. In 1944 and 1945 Peronism emerged as a powerful mass movement.
In October 1945 Perón married the former actress Eva Duarte. As first lady of Argentina, Eva Perón, known as Evita, managed labor relations and social services for her husband’s government until her death in 1952. Adored by the masses, which she manipulated with great skill, she became, as much as anyone, responsible for the enduring popular following of the Perón regime.
Following his election as president in 1946, Perón put forth an ambitious five-year plan to expand the economy through industrial production and to increase government control over the national economy. His government built steel mills, textile mills, and other factories. It also nationalized the banking system and private companies such as the British-owned railroads and the U.S.-owned telephone company.
During its first two years, the plan appeared brilliantly successful as industrial output increased and wages climbed. Problems emerged in 1948 when European countries began importing fewer Argentine products, and both industrial production and living standards stagnated. The Perón regime lost much of its initial popularity and resorted to force and threats to uphold its position.
In 1949 Perón put through a new constitution permitting the president to succeed himself in office. When the Peronistas renominated Perón as the presidential candidate for 1952, the opposition parties and press grew increasingly critical of the government. The Perón government responded with legislation authorizing prison terms for people who showed “disrespect” for government leaders, as well as measures curbing the freedom of the press. Many opponents of the regime were jailed. In 1951 the government took over the newspaper La Prensa, a leading critic of the Perón government. The political parties that opposed Perón in the presidential elections faced growing restrictions. Unsurprisingly, Perón easily won reelection, and the Peronistas gained an overwhelming majority in the Chamber of Deputies.
In 1953 the government inaugurated a second five-year economic plan emphasizing agricultural output as opposed to all-out industrialization. That year produced increased agricultural exports and the first favorable trade balance since 1950, but the economy suffered from severe inflation. As political tensions grew, in 1954 Perón accused a group of Catholic priests of plotting against the government. In retaliation the government enacted several anticlerical measures, which included legalizing divorce and prostitution. The schism between the church and the Perón government steadily widened.
On June 16, 1955, opponents of the Perón government in the Argentine navy and air force launched a revolt in Buenos Aires that led to the bombing of the downtown area and killed many people. The army remained loyal, however, and the uprising collapsed. Tension continued to increase, and on September 16 insurgents in all three branches of the armed forces staged a rebellion. After several days of civil war and more casualties, Perón resigned. On September 20 the insurgent leader Major General Eduardo Lonardi took office as provisional president, promising to restore democratic government. Perón went into exile, first in Paraguay and later in Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and finally Spain.
After less than two months the Lonardi government fell in a coup led by Major General Pedro Eugenio Aramburu. Aramburu restored the constitution of 1853 and persecuted the Peronistas, particularly those in the labor unions. The government banned the Peronist Party from participating in the 1958 elections, and Arturo Frondizi of the Radical Party won the presidency with Peronist and Communist support. By 1960 Frondizi had achieved a degree of economic stability. However, he found it difficult to curb labor unrest and inflation, and his popularity declined throughout 1961. In the 1962 election, Frondizi allowed the Peronist Party to participate, and it polled about 35 percent of the vote. The prospect of the Peronistas returning to power triggered the military to overthrow Frondizi. Argentina returned to civilian rule the next year after Arturo Illía, a moderate, became president. He promoted a program of national recovery and regulation of foreign investment. However, he was unable to control inflation.
In 1966 another military coup occurred, and the military set up a government under General Juan Carlos Onganía, who sought radical change. Onganía pledged to rescue the economy, reform the social structure, and then restore “true” democracy purged of Communist and Peronist influences. His government dissolved the National Congress and disbanded all political parties. Onganía’s program enjoyed great success but suddenly collapsed in mid-1969 when workers and students in the city of Córdoba held massive demonstrations.
The country shook as waves of popular unrest hit many of its leading cities. Guerrilla groups made up of leftists and Peronistas carried out audacious assassinations and kidnappings. Eventually, the military named General Alejandro Agustín Lanusse president; he took office in early 1971. The Lanusse government pledged a return to civilian rule and promised to hold elections. Violence continued in the form of strikes, popular riots, and terrorist activities, and the economy suffered renewed crisis. In an effort to stem the opposition, Lanusse allowed the Peronistas to participate in the election. In the 1973 election Hector J. Cámpora of the Peronist Party was elected president with almost 50 percent of the vote.
Return and Death of Perón
The return of civilian government failed to curb political conflict. Leftist and Peronist terrorism escalated. Rightist vigilantes, also pledging support for Perón, kidnapped and murdered opponents. In June 1973 Perón returned to Buenos Aires, but a violent fight broke out at the airport where he landed and resulted in about 400 deaths. Cámpora then resigned. Perón won the presidency in September elections with more than 60 percent of the vote. His third wife, Isabel de Perón, became vice president.
The physical strain of the presidency proved too much for the aging Perón, who died on July 1, 1974, leaving his wife as the first female chief executive in the Western Hemisphere. During her brief presidency, political and economic conditions deteriorated rapidly. In 1975 terrorist activities by right- and left-wing groups resulted in the deaths of more than 700 people. The cost of living climbed steeply, and strikes and demonstrations continually threatened stability. In 1976 a military junta, led by Lieutenant General Jorge Rafael Videla, seized power, dissolved the National Congress, and proclaimed martial law.
The “Process of National Reorganization,” as the new military junta called its program, proved more repressive than any previous government in Argentina. The armed forces and the police hunted down opponents and imposed a reign of terror on the population in what became known as the “dirty war.” An estimated 30,000 people disappeared into secret prisons and were executed after weeks of torture. They became known as the desaparecidos (Spanish for “disappeared ones”)—people who vanished without trace under the military government.
When a new military government under General Roberto Viola took over in 1981, the Argentine economy collapsed completely. The government devalued the currency, which led to a flight of foreign capital. At the end of 1981 General Leopoldo Galtieri overthrew and replaced Viola. Unable to control the economy, Galtieri feared an outbreak of popular opposition and the resurgence of leftist opposition. Signs of popular protest appeared in 1982 when the hitherto repressed unions organized street demonstrations against the government.
Galtieri sought to deflect the popular challenge by seizing the Falkland Islands, known in Argentina as the Islas Malvinas, territories that Argentina claimed but Britain had occupied since 1833. On April 1, 1982, Argentine troops forced a token British force to surrender and took possession of the islands. The apparent success of the campaign converted swelling opposition to the government into massive popular support. However, Britain struck back and dispatched a large military and naval force to the South Atlantic. Many efforts to settle the conflict through diplomacy failed. In early June 1982 British troops landed on the islands. In three weeks, they defeated the poorly led, often starving Argentine soldiers.
Within days of the surrender, Galtieri resigned. Another junta announced elections while trying to protect military officers from reprisals as they left the government. A year after the Falkland Islands debacle, the elections of 1983 brought an unexpected result. As the Peronistas remained divided, the smaller Radical Party under Raúl Alfonsín gained its first absolute majority since 1928.
The Alfonsín Government
By December 1983, as Alfonsín took power, military rule had been totally discredited. Throughout Argentina, a determination prevailed to make democracy successful. Despite his strong support, Alfonsín faced some daunting obstacles. The economy remained mired in recession, and the country faced a massive foreign debt. To pay the debt, the government had to restrict imports and create a large trade surplus, but in doing so it limited the recovery of the manufacturing sector by preventing the acquisition of necessary parts and supplies.
The government established a national commission to examine the fate of the desaparecidos of the mid-1970s. In 1985 the government supported indictments of the military leaders from 1976 to 1983. Lengthy trials ended in long prison terms for Videla, Galtieri, and several other former military leaders. However, the military opposed these trials, and military protests led the Alfonsín government to pass a law that granted amnesty to lower-ranking military officials for atrocities committed during the “dirty war.”
Alfonsín faced growing opposition from the unions and the church, along with economic unrest. In 1985 the Alfonsín government introduced the Austral Plan in an effort to stop inflation by freezing prices and wages, but labor opposition gradually undermined the plan. Strikes forced the government into conceding higher wages, and inflation mounted once more. Alfonsín’s popularity drained away.
The Menem Government
In 1989 Carlos Menem, the presidential candidate of the Peronist Party, won a landslide election victory. Before Menem took office, another wave of hyperinflation struck, and mobs of poor people looted supermarkets in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area. Facing more outbreaks of military unrest and renewed leftist activity, Alfonsín abandoned his office before his term expired, and Menem was sworn in as president.
As president Menem set a new direction for Argentina’s economic policy. Campaigning for the presidency, he appeared to be an old-style Peronista, promising more government control and higher wages. However, Menem changed his position in response to hyperinflation. To rescue the economy, he had to seek external financial support from organizations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF). He could only obtain such support by promising to undertake drastic economic reform. Menem announced a cabinet dominated by so-called neoliberals, who supported a free-market economy and minimal government interference.
The neoliberals argued that the main cause of Argentina’s long economic decline lay in the excessive role of government in the economy. They argued that cuts in the public sector were essential first steps to restore the country’s economic health. A growing public acceptance of such ideas represented a revolutionary change of attitude in Argentina. From Perón’s time, the country stood out as a model of state ownership and government intervention. State corporations dominated large areas of the economy, including many manufacturing sectors as well as transportation and utilities. National and local governments provided the main source of employment. The government regulated wages and prices and protected manufacturing through high tariffs. The government also influenced social development through numerous subsidies to social welfare programs.
Led by Domingo Cavallo, who became minister of the economy in 1991, the Menem administration wanted to increase foreign investment and economic growth. To accomplish this, it reduced tariffs and subsidies and sought to stabilize federal revenues through tax reform. In an effort to eliminate national deficits the government brought the federal budget more closely into balance, although it put more responsibilities on local authorities, which resulted in spending increases in the provinces. The government also sold numerous state-owned corporations to private investors. Privatized corporations included Aerolíneas Argentinas, the national airline, and YPF (Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales), the state oil monopoly.
Cavallo also sponsored an initiative to try to control inflation. The government linked the exchange value of the Argentine peso to the U.S. dollar on a one-to-one basis. Known as convertibility, this plan attempted to eliminate inflation by linking the supply of local currency to dollar reserves. To make convertibility work, the government had to stop printing money and devaluing the peso.
Privatization and convertibility gained popular acceptance during a period of rapid economic growth in the early 1990s. However, they lost popularity later in the decade as the growth rate fell. Critics argued that privatization substituted foreign-owned private monopolies for public monopolies and that convertibility intensified the recession by overvaluing the peso. Attempts to reduce public spending proved unpopular from the start.
In 1994 Argentina revised its constitution to allow the president to seek a second consecutive term. Menem won reelection in 1995, and he served as president for a longer stretch than any of his predecessors. He displayed great skill in steering the Peronistas into accepting policies directly opposite to those of Perón. Under Menem the standard of living of many Argentines either fell or stagnated. Critics denounced Menem’s government as corrupt and depicted the regime as a new oligarchy, a government in which power is vested in a few individuals. Nevertheless, the president retained much of his popularity until his term ended in 1999.
In the 1999 presidential election Fernando de la Rúa, a Radical who headed the center-left Alliance coalition, defeated Eduardo Duhalde, the Peronist candidate. De la Rúa, a former mayor of Buenos Aires, was determined to continue the economic policies of Menem, but he faced growing difficulties as the economy remained mired in recession. The de la Rúa administration remained heavily dependent on external financial support. In August 2001 devaluation of the peso appeared imminent until the Inter-American Development Bank provided a loan of $502 million. At that time, the economy was suffering a third year of continuous decline.
De la Rúa’s government instituted an austerity program, which included slashing government salaries and seizing pensions to pay creditors. In December 2001 protests and riots broke out in the streets of Buenos Aires and throughout the country in response to the austerity program and the country’s high unemployment rate. More than 20 people were killed in the protests. Shortly after the protests began, de la Rúa resigned as president. Three politicians served briefly as president before the National Congress chose Eduardo Duhalde of the Peronist Party as president in January 2002.
In one of his first acts as president, Duhalde ended the practice of convertibility. Many critics believed this practice had contributed to the country’s economic problems by causing the peso to be overvalued. With an overvalued currency, Argentina’s imports and exports became more expensive, and the country sold fewer goods abroad. By ending the practice of pegging the peso to the U.S. dollar the government was able to sharply devalue the peso, making the cost of Argentina’s products more competitive on the global market. Argentina also defaulted on more than $80 billion of its public debt early in 2002.
Duhalde served as president until 2003, when Argentina held a presidential election. In the first round, former president Carlos Menem of the Peronist Party finished first but he did not win enough of the vote for an outright victory. Menem then faced a run-off election against fellow Peronist Néstor Kirchner, the governor of Santa Cruz province. Before the runoff took place, however, Menem withdrew from the race after polls indicated that he would not win. Menem’s withdrawal gave the presidency to Kirchner, who pledged to improve the country’s economy by creating jobs and protecting the country’s industrial sector. Kirchner restructured Argentina’s debt, offering new bonds to creditors on terms favorable to the government.
David Rock reviewed the History section of this article.
"Argentina," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2006
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