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Information About Argentina

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Argentina: a quick guide to a diverse history


Indigenous Peoples of Argentina
Before the arrival of the Spanish, various indigenous groups sparsely populated Argentina, including the Diaguita in the southeast, the Guaraní in the east, the Quechua in the north, and the Tehuelches (from which the Mapuche tribe originates) in Patagonia.  The native populations of the south primarily hunted and fished, while the peoples populating the northern regions developed an advanced material society based on agriculture.  After 1500, Europeans began arriving, beginning with Amerigo Vespucci in 1502. This caused the eventual decimation most of the indigenous population; today there are few indigenous people left in the country.

Buenos Aires was first established as Ciudad de Nuestra Señora Santa María del Buen Ayre (City of Our Lady Saint Mary of the Fair Winds) on February 2, 1536 by the Spanish explorer Pedro de Mendoza. The original city was in the suburb of San Telmo, south of the city center.  The importance of Buenos Aires as a port was, initially, hampered by Spanish politics.  Spain insisted that all trade in the Viceroyalty of Peru leave through Lima’s port, creating a black market culture in Buenos Aires and keeping the city relatively small.  Then, in 1776, Buenos Aires became the main port of the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la La Plata, which consisted of modern day Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia, and Argentina.  As the capital of this new viceroyalty, Buenos Aires became a flourishing port.  The growing wealth of the city tempted the British to invade it in 1806 and again in 1807, neither time successfully.

On the 25th of May, 1810 the citizens of Buenos Aires declared their autonomy and invited the other parts of the viceroyalty to join them.  Independence was a long process; Argentina declared itself officially independent in 1816 but it was not until 1824, after much fighting, that the Spanish recognized defeat.  Soon after, in 1825, England officially recognized Argentina and began an important—and complicated—relationship of trade, territory, and migration.

After independence, the country experienced constant civil war.  The Unitarians wanted to bring the provinces and Buenos Aires together, but the Federalists feared domination by the already powerful city.  Juan Manuel de Rosas became the central historical figure in this conflict, ruling the province of Buenos Aires from 1829 to 1852 essentially as a dictator and using his power to control the outlying provinces.  General Justo José de Urquiza, a fellow federalist, eventually overthrew Rosas and oversaw the creation of a constitution in 1853.

European Immigration
After this period of political turmoil, Argentina’s economy boomed.  From 1880 to 1945, railroads were built and exports soared as crops and livestock were transported more easily from the provinces to Buenos Aires. Argentina soon became one of the ten richest countries in the world, but that wealth was still largely in the hands of foreign companies who had provided the capital for the railroads and other infrastructure.  Throughout the late 19th century and into the 20th, Argentina was shaped by Europe both financially and culturally.  More than three million people emigrated during this period, most substantially from Italy and Spain as well as France, Germany, Poland, Turkey, and Russia.  As these people brought their religions, cuisines, and art with them, Argentina became more identified with Europe and the United States than it did with Latin America.

During these times of change and growth for the country, money and power continued to stay in the hands of a few—around 300—families.  Economic inequality helped foster the development of the Socialist and Radical parties in the 1890s, which campaigned vociferously against the corrupt governments of the time.  In 1916, the country held its first free, popular election, electing President Hipólito Yrigoyen, but this period of stability and freedom was short lived.  In 1930, the military overthrew the democratic regime and the country proceeded to fluctuate between military and civilian rule.

The Influence of Perón and Evita
The most successful and now iconic of the leaders of this period was Juan Domingo Perón.  During his career in the military, as he rose from colonel to Secretary of War, he focused on unions as a new source of power in the nation.  When he was jailed in 1945 by a military afraid of his popularity, unions led a massive protest that led to his release and his rise in power.  He was elected president in 1946 and again in 1952.  Calling himself a populist, he worked to raise wages, create a social security system, and greatly expanded the unions.  His wife, Evita Perón, a former actress of working class origins, aided Perón enormously.  She successfully got the vote for women in 1947 and was beloved in her time as she still is by many today.  Her death from cancer in 1952 was a personal as well as political blow to Perón and his presidency.

On June 16, 1955, a splinter faction of the navy bombed the Plaza de Mayo area, killing some 364 civilians.  A military uprising followed, exiling Perón, though even out of the country he remained popular.  In the years that followed, Peronist and Anti-Peronist factions fought for power over the country, resulting in many massacres.  In 1973, Perón returned to the presidency but died within a year of assuming power.  His third wife, Isabel Peron, succeeded him, but she neither as popular nor as successful as Juan or Evita.  On March 24, 1976 a military coup removed her from office and a military government took charge of the country, beginning the period that would become known as the Dirty War.

The Dirty War
During the Dirty War, members of opposition and leftist groups were kidnapped and murdered.  Some were killed openly, but most were simply “disappeared” by the government, creating the term desaparecidos for the students, intellectuals, and labor organizers who were never seen again. In 1977, the mothers of the taken began protesting; now known as the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, these women still protest today for justice.Numbers vary, but human rights groups estimate that as many as 30,000 Argentines were killed during this time.

As the military waged its silent war, they also attempted to save the failing Argentine economy.  They tried to encourage foreign investment by implementing pro-market reforms and deregulation.  However, as foreign debt amassed and human rights abuses become more obvious, the junta tried to distract the country from its problems by invading the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) in 1982.  Soundly defeated by the British, the junta lost all credibility and the country began to return to more liberal, civilian rule. 

Return to Democracy
In 1983, the Argentine people were able to return to the polls, where they elected President Raúl Alfonsín.  A few years later, Alfonsín was replaced by Carlos Saul Menem in a democratic election, increasing Argentine and international faith in the durability of their democracy.

In office, Menem put an end to the inflation plaguing Argentina by pegging the peso to the dollar.  He also implemented a controversial privatization program that re-privatized many services nationalized by Perón.  There was a significant increase in investment and growth with stable prices through the 1990s, but this period of economic prosperity was short lived.  Foreign debt increased enormously as state companies and services were privatized and the total liberalization of the Argentine market to foreign goods resulted in the collapse of local industry.  As the situation worsened, the government was forced to take a series of drastic measures including freezing bank accounts to stop the flow of capital out of the country and to quell the growing debt crisis.  Argentina defaulted on its 155 billion dollar debt and, in December 2001, the economy collapsed.  The peso was devalued and the savings of Argentine’s disappeared overnight.

In the aftermath of the crash, the president at the time, La Rua, was forced to step down and three Argentine presidents followed in the following week.  January 1, 2002, Eduardo Duhalade became interim president, and in 2003 Nestor Kirchner was democratically elected president.  His presidency, lasting from 2003 to 2007 has been controversial in many ways.  Leader of the Peronist party, he ran the country powerfully and there were often allegations of corruption within his government.  His economic policies stimulated growth, improving income distribution and cutting poverty and unemployment.  While the GDP has been rising, the last few years have also seen considerable inflation, suggesting that the Argentine economy is recovering but certainly not recovered.

On December 10, 2007 Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, wife of Nestor Kirchner was sworn in to office as Argentina's first elected female President. Though Fernández has placed a renewed emphasis on improving foreign relationships, recent corruption scandals, such as the “Antonini suitcase scandal” regarding the suspected smuggling of cash from Venezuela in support of Fernández’s campaign, continue to threaten those relations. It is yet to be seen how the current administration will deal with these issues along with the unresolved and pressing issues of inflation and energy shortage.

The above brief outline of a complicated history has been provided by Argentina's Travel Guide.
For more information on Argentina, follow the links above or visit Argentina's Travel Guide.

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