History of Argentina

People are thought to have inhabited the area now known as Argentina as early as 10,000BC, however the indigenous communities within Argentina were less numerous than those in countries nearby such as Peru and Bolivia. Nomadic indigenous communities were predominant especially in the southern regions of Argentina; for example, the Mapuche were present in central and southern parts of Argentina and across the border in Chile. The northern region of Argentina hosted the most developed indigenous communities, largely due to the influence from the Incan Empire in Peru and other indigenous peoples in Bolivia.

Colonial Era

The earliest reported European contact with Argentina took place in 1502 and again in 1516 in locations along the Rio de la Plata. Permanent communities were not established because the site of present-day Buenos Aires was originally considered unfavourable for human habitation - the harsh conditions, presence of disease and the unwelcoming Querandí communities ensured that Europeans did not create an enduring settlement until 1536 (of course, it is equally important to recognise the oppression and disastrous consequences that European contact had for indigenous communities in present-day Argentina). However, even this site was deserted within four years and Buenos Aires/Argentina remained off the radar in terms of importance to the Spanish Empire for some considerable time (emphasis was placed on the mineral-rich regions further north in the continent, particularly in Bolivia and Peru). In the late eighteenth century (1770s) the strategic significance of Buenos Aires increased, largely because of its status as a port which was increasingly influential in the movement of valuable resources to Europe.


Independence Buenos Aires and more specifically the city's militias (importantly without Spanish assistance) repelled several hostile assaults by the British in the early nineteenth century. The ability to defend the city buoyed the self-belief of the city's residents, at the same time as other revolutions were occurring in different parts of the world. This led to a declaration of independence from Spain on the 25th May 1810, an event which is recognised in the principal square in Buenos Aires or Plaza de Mayo.

However, the city and the rest of the country were highly divided at this time and there were differing views about the future form of an independent Argentina which inevitably led to conflict. Official independence was agreed in 1816 in Tucuman but stability remained a distant dream. Bitter in-fighting took place between the Federalists who demanded that more power be given to the provinces and the Unitarists who called for centralisation of the state in the capital Buenos Aires. These opposing views led to a long-lasting conflict which only started to show signs of abating in 1853, when Argentina's first president developed the country's national constitution bringing some semblance of unity.

The Confederacy and the Republic

Nevertheless, the differences of opinion were not fully reconciled and opposing ideas about the nature and governance of an Argentine state continued to create tension. 1859 saw the nation officially unified and in 1862 Buenos Aires became the capital city. The next president of Argentina, Bartolomé Mitre, made development of the state a priority through the construction of a transportation network, industry and by promoting the nation as an attractive destination for immigrants.

The Dawn of the Modern Age

The final decades of the nineteenth century were a period of significant development in the city of Buenos Aires assisted by large immigrations from various European countries (most notably Spain and Italy, although from many other countries in the east of Europe as well). This surge in development helped Argentina become one of the most prosperous societies in the world at this time. The capital city began to change in an aesthetic sense, with the construction of grand Parisian-style avenidas, squares and public buildings. Political rights were increasingly liberalised and in 1912 the vote was given to the majority of Argentina's male population. Whilst World War I created severe global economic problems which also affected Argentina, the country was still in an extremely healthy position in the 1920s with one of the world's highest average GDPs per capita.

The Rise of Juan Peron

The Rise of Juan Peron This relative historical wealth made Argentina's ensuing economic fall from grace all the more severe. This instability led to the installation of a dictatorship backed by the military in 1930 and conditions in the following years were ripe for a social revolution. The politico-economic circumstances, along with the power of labour movements and the growth in urban populations, were critical variables in helping increase the popularity of Juan Peron and his Peronist ideals. Peron held a position in the Labour Department under another military dictatorship which started in 1943. He became increasingly influential and popular in these years, meeting his second wife Eva Peron (Evita), who played a crucial role in him being elected president of the nation in 1946.

A highly important figure in Argentine history revered by some, Evita had an ability to engage with the masses which saw her gain the support of different labour organisations. Peron's leadership was marked by a mixture of authoritarian and democratic tendencies. In a positive sense it did increase the political rights of those who didn't previously have a voice - in particular women and the working-classes. However, Peron began to experience problems in the early 1950s, influenced by the death of Evita in 1952 and the country experiencing severe levels of inflation. He was forcibly ousted in yet another military coup in 1955, leading to his political exile in Spain.

Peronist vs. Anti-Peronist Forces

The following decades (1950/60s) lacked any sense of stability and witnessed numerous military coups and a surge in social unrest, as well as stark divisions between supporters of Peronism and those opposed to its ideals. The cycle of military interventions finally ended in 1973 when Argentina had a general election for the first time in a decade. Peron was not allowed to stand as a presidential candidate but the Peronist representative Hector Campora won, which led to calls from all political sides for the return of Juan Peron. He returned in June 1973 and was installed as President in the following months. Peron passed away in July 1974 and his then wife Isabel took on the presidency but her leadership lacked any political unity and was hindered by a severe economic slowdown and increasing levels internal violence within Argentina.

The Dirty War

The intervention of the military, a regrettable feature of Argentine society in the previous decades, returned in 1976 when Isabel Peron was ousted from the presidential palace, the Casa Rosada. This coup brought an even more brutal form of terror to Argentina which saw the military strive to 'wipe out' any people or organisations which opposed its ideologies (known as the Dirty War). This reign of terror affected university lecturers, students and those people in worker's groups who might not fall into line with the military and its ideals. Some 30,000 people are thought to have been killed or simply disappeared in the seven long years of military rule which ended in 1983. People who held political beliefs which contradicted those of the state were imprisoned, tortured or simply thrown from the back of military aircraft over the Rio de la Plata, leaving families with little chance of finding out what had happened to their absent relations. This shocking abuse of human rights scars Argentine society to this day and relatives of those who were 'disappeared' continue to protest in cities up and down the country, demanding that more information be made available about the whereabouts of their loved ones.

A Return to Democracy

The military junta lost credibility in the early 1980s due to increasing exposure of its human rights record, the desperate economic conditions and humiliating defeat at the hands of the UK in the Malvinas War. Argentina had democratic elections in 1983 which saw Raul Alfonsín installed as president for the ensuing six years. Perhaps most noteworthy was Alfonsín's commitment to making military staff responsible for crimes committed during the years of the dictatorship and attempts to locate disappeared individuals (or at the very least to learn more about their fate).

Despite these positive developments the government of this era experienced familiar problems with rampant inflation and the task of keeping the ever-influential armed forces in check. This was a period when democracy was being established in the nation-state and its consolidation was by no means straightforward. In part, as a result of these difficulties, Alfonsín and his government exited office earlier than planned after elections were won by Carlos Menem in 1989.

The '90s

As with many influential figures in Argentine history, Carlos Menem splits opinions wildly. He took a neoliberal approach to politics which saw the unrelenting privatisation of formerly nationally-owned enterprises, an act which seemed to totally contradict his Peronist roots. Changes to the national constitution enabled Menem to stand for re-election, elections which he subsequently won. In contrast to Alfonsín, Menem's tenure saw military officers from the years of the dictatorship pardoned and families seeking justice for their relatives were left increasingly frustrated. Fernando de la Rua won the following presidential elections in 1999 and his government was largely sympathetic to the neoliberal policies of Menem's administration.

The Argentine Economic Crisis

However, a crushing economic recession which had started in the latter years of Menem's tenure was to hit Argentina hard soon after. The IMF was insistent that Argentina had to meet its debt payments, payments which it was finding increasingly hard to repay. In late 2001 the value of the peso dropped dramatically and amidst fears of capital flight, laws were introduced which limited the money people could take from their bank accounts for the next twelve months. In particular, this had consequences for the middles classes of Argentine society as they saw their investments frozen.

These measures incensed many Argentines across the country and people took to the street to protest en masse - the protest was known as the cacerolazo (so-called as the majority of people were banging pots and pans). The rioting and unrest turned violent and there were clashes with the police which resulted in the deaths of numerous protestors. Eventually the president resigned and left the Casa Rosada and this sparked an extraordinary chain of events which saw several different presidents installed in a matter of weeks. Eventually in January of 2002 Eduardo Duhalde was named president and he was forced to make many difficult economic decisions, including the devaluation of the peso. A period of dramatic inflation and high unemployment followed and the devaluation of the peso relative to the US dollar continued apace into 2002.

This was an extremely unstable period for many Argentines and there were continuing protests as more people saw their economic situation take a turn for the worse. Duhalde did eventually manage to stabilise the country, relatively-speaking and he called for elections in 2003. These elections were won by the Justicialist candidate Nestor Kirchner, who promptly removed the amnesty laws for military officers who had been accused of torture and abuse during the years of the dictatorship. He also re-structured the nation's debt with the IMF and shifted Argentina's foreign policy away from alignment with the US to consolidating regional ties with other Latin American nations. Nestor Kirchner did not stand for a second term in 2007 and the following elections were won by his wife Cristina Kirchner. She won the elections by a large majority and made history by being the first officially elected premier of Argentina. Once again, Argentines have starkly different views as to the efficacy of her government but Argentina's socio-economic outlook is arguably more stable now than at the turn of the century.
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