Before the Spaniards arrived, about 20 Amerindian groups comprising some 300,000 people lived in the region now called Argentina. They were mainly nomadic hunter-gatherers, although the Guardant practiced slash-and-burn agriculture.
Spaniards arrived in Argentina in 1516. They called the region "La Plata" (literally "silver") under the mistaken impression that it was rich in silver. Colonists from Chile, Peru, and Asuncion (in present-day Paraguay) created the first permanent Spanish settlements in Argentina, including Buenos Aires in 1580. In 1776, Río de la Plata became a vice-royalty, with Buenos Aires as the main port and administrative center.
During the early colonial period, there was little interest in Argentina. The region had no mineral wealth, and Spaniards overlooked the fertile soil and temperate climate of the region. As a result, Buenos Aires had a population of only about 25,000 at the time of the viceroy's arrival. The Spaniards could not afford to ignore Buenos Aires by the late 1700s, when the city was growing rapidly thanks to illegal trade financed by British interests. Goods were smuggled to Brazil and the Caribbean Islands. Spain worried about British and Portuguese expansion and sought to control trade and collect more taxes from the growing commerce.
In May 1810, following the example set by Spanish cities after the capture of King Ferdinand VII by the French, Buenos Aires held an open town meeting (Cabildo Abierto). A junta was elected, which deposed the viceroy and declared itself in authority. On 9 July 1816, a congress of provincial delegates in San Miguel de Tucumán signed a declaration of independence, and in 1817, Gen. José de San Martín led an army across the Andes to liberate Chile and Peru.
After independence, Buenos Aires was a major force in the region, and strongmen (caudillos) from the surrounding provinces attempted to curb its power. The internal power struggle lasted until Juan Manuel de Rosas became governor of Buenos Aires Province. He imposed order and centralism from 1835 until 1852, when the forces of Gen. Justo José de Urquiza defeated him. A new constitution was adopted in 1853, and Urquiza was elected president in 1854. The struggle for power between Buenos Aires, the hub of commercial activity for the country, and the provinces that provide the raw materials, continued through the late 1800s. It was not until 1880, when the city was named the federal capital, that regional peace was achieved. By then, Argentina was becoming a modern nation, with new railroads and roads under construction. Thousands of European immigrants flocked to the country each year looking for a better life. Buenos Aires alone grew from 90,000 people in 1851 to 1.3 million by 1910, when the city was called the "Paris of South America."
Social conflicts always had been part of Argentina's history, but they intensified during the late 19th century as the gap between the wealthy classes and the poor widened. The National Party, under the leadership of Gen. Julio Roca (who served two terms as president, 1880–86 and 1898–1904) and supported by the military and landowners, dominated the nation. To combat this powerful coalition, a middle-class party called the Radical Civic Union (Unión Cívica Radical) was formed. The Radicals stressed democratic practices and attempted to expand the political system beyond its elite-restricted boundaries. The Radicals' efforts came to fruition in 1916, when Hipólito Yrigoyen was elected president for a six-year term. But little changed for the working classes. Most workers could barely afford to feed their families during this time, despite the tremendous affluence of the upper class. Workers who sought to improve their working conditions were suppressed. A violent army attack against striking metalworkers in 1919 came to be known as "La Semana Trágica" (The Tragic Week). Yrigoyen sat out for a term, and was reelected president in 1928, but he didn't last long. An economic crisis precipitated by the world depression led to a military coup in 1930.
For the next 13 years, Argentina was ruled by the old conservative oligarchy. The military-landowner alliance brought both economic recovery and political corruption, as well as the exacerbation of social tensions. Particularly divisive was the matter of Argentina's foreign relations. While opening Argentina to trade with Europe improved the economic picture, many felt that the leadership had sold out to foreign interests. Argentina's careful neutrality toward the Axis powers masked considerable Fascist sympathies, further dividing the nation.
Another military coup in 1943 brought to power an even more Axis-sympathetic group but also launched a new era in Argentine politics. Argentina had undergone an industrial expansion, accelerated by the war. This expansion led to the formation of a large blue-collar workforce, which in 1943 came under the direction of the military head of the Labor Department, Col. Juan Domingo Perón. Perón used his new constituency to build a power base that allowed him in 1946 to be elected president, while his supporters won majorities in both houses of congress. Perón, it was later reported, allowed many Nazi German leaders to hide in Argentina.
Perón made sweeping political, economic, and social changes. His ideology was an unusual blend of populism, authoritarianism, industrialism, and nationalism. His strong personal appeal was buttressed by the charm of his wife Eva ("Evita"), a woman of modest upbringing who captivated the masses with her work on behalf of the poor. Peronist rhetoric stressed the rights of descamisados (literally "shirtless"), the poor of Argentina.
Perón sought to establish a foreign policy that allied Argentina with neither the West nor East, while acting as protector of weaker Latin American nations against US and British "imperialists." He coined a new word to describe his approach: "justicialismo," roughly translated as "essence of justice." After reelection in 1951, Perón became increasingly dictatorial and erratic, especially after the death of Evita a year later. Economic hardship led to reversals in policy that favored the old oligarchy. Newspapers were shut down and harassed. Perón legalized divorce and prostitution, and began to incite violence against churches. Finally, a military group took over in September 1955.
For the next 20 years, Argentina felt the shadow of Perón. From exile in Spain, Perón held a separate veto power. Under the military's watchful eye, a succession of governments attempted unsuccessfully to create a new political order.
The first of these efforts came from Gen. Pedro Eugenio Aramburu, who repressed Perón's followers and declared their party illegal. After two years of provisional government, elections were held. Rival factions of the old Radical Civic Union competed in a contest won by Arturo Frondizi of the more left-leaning UCRI. With the initial support of the Peronistas, Frondizi attempted to balance that support with the military, which grew nervous at the mention of Peronism. Frondizi curbed inflation through an austerity program and increased Argentina's petroleum production by extending concessions to foreign companies. These economic measures helped increase political tensions, and in the elections of 1961 and 1962, Peronist candidates, running under the banner of the Justicialist Front (Frente Justicialista), won sweeping victories. A military junta removed Frondizi from the presidency in March 1962 and annulled the elections, thus denying governorships to the supporters of Perón. Divisions among the military leaders kept the nation in a state of tension until mid-1964, when new elections were held. Dr. Arturo Illía of the rightist UCRP won the presidency. Illía's administration was beset by rising government debt, inflation, labor unrest, and political agitation, but was most seriously threatened by the military. The chief of the armed forces, Lt. Gen. Juan Carlos Onganía resigned in November 1965, after Illía appointed a Peronist sympathizer as war minister.
In June 1966, following election victories by the Peronist faction, the military leaders installed Onganía as President. Onganía dissolved the nation's legislative bodies and suspended the constitution. Onganía announced a revolutionary program to restore economic prosperity and social stability, saying that only after this restoration would the democratic system be reestablished. Inflation was cut by means of rigid wage controls, and by the end of 1969, the economy was growing at a rate of 7% annually. His economic policies were overshadowed, however, by growing political tension. With the help of the military, strict controls were imposed on the press and all means of mass communication. Students led in denouncing these repressive policies, and in the early months of 1969, violence erupted in Córdoba and Rosario.
Dissatisfaction mounted early in 1970, and acts of terrorism increased. Several groups were active, some of which claimed to be Peronist, others Marxist, still others claiming to be both. The most serious incident was the kidnapping and killing of former President Aramburu by a Peronist group. Although President Onganía stiffened in response to the disorder, it was becoming clear that Argentina would never be stabilized without the participation of the Peronists. For his part, Perón encouraged these groups from abroad.
In June 1970, a junta of high-ranking military officers removed Onganía, and began to move toward democratic reform. Under two ensuing military governments, preparations were made for elections that would include the Peronists, now organized as the Justicialist Liberation Front (FREJULI). In general elections held in March 1973, the winner was Dr. Héctor J. Cámpora, whose unofficial slogan was "Cámpora to the presidency; Perón to power." Cámpora was elected president with 49% of the vote, while FREJULI won a congressional majority and 11 of the 22 provincial governorships. However, Cámpora, who assumed office in May 1973, was no better able than his predecessors to cope with a rising tide of terrorism, much of it from extreme Peronist factions. After a consultation with Perón in Madrid, Cámpora announced his resignation, effective in July.
Perón, who had returned to Argentina in June 1973, ran for the presidency and took 61.9% of the vote in a special election in September. His running mate was his third wife, María Estela ("Isabel") Martínez de Perón, a former exotic dancer. There was no magic left in the elderly Perón. He cracked down on the very terrorist groups he had encouraged, but the economy sagged. When he died in July 1974, his widow succeeded to the presidency.
Isabel had none of Evita's appeal, and her administration plunged Argentina more deeply into chaos. The first year of Isabel Perón's regime was marked by political instability, runaway inflation, and a renewal of guerrilla violence. In September 1975, Perón vacated her office for 34 days, ostensibly because of ill health. During her absence, the military strengthened its position. In March 1976, she was arrested in a bloodless coup, and a military junta consisting of the commanders of the army, navy, and air force took over. The leading member of the junta was Army Commander Lt. Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla, who became president.
The junta dissolved Congress, suspended political and trade union activity, and mounted a concerted campaign against leftist guerrillas. For seven years, the military attempted to "purify" Argentina by imprisoning, torturing and executing leftists, Peronists, trade unionists and members of other political parties deemed divisive. Military officers also kidnapped the babies of the "disappeared" and gave them to officers or released them to adoption agencies. Meanwhile, they attempted a complete liberalization of the economy, including the privatization of banking and industry. However, the military was never able to solve the problem of inflation, which remained in triple digits for most of this period.
In March 1981, Gen. Roberto Viola succeeded Videla as president, and in December, Lt. Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri took over. Troubled by economic woes and lacking any political support from the general populace, the military turned to foreign affairs in an attempt to gain support. In April 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, claiming sovereignty over them, but in the ensuing war with the United Kingdom, Argentina's armed forces were routed, surrendering in June. The defeat led to Galtieri's resignation, and a new junta was formed in July under Maj. Gen. Reynaldo Benito Antonio Bignone. Liberalization measures during the remainder of 1982 led to strikes and anti-government demonstrations, including a one-day general strike in December in which 90% of the work force reportedly took part. In addition to demands for a return to civilian rule, more and more Argentines demanded to know the fate of at least 10,000 and perhaps as many as 30,000 persons who had "disappeared" during what came to be known as the "dirty war" of 1976–83. Today, official government figures for the "disappeared" stand at 10,000, but human rights groups believe it is much higher.
In elections for a civilian president held in October 1983, the upset winner was a human rights activist from the UCRP, Dr. Raúl Alfonsín. After taking office in December, Alfonsín called for a new inquiry into the "disappearances" and ordered the prosecution of former junta members. In December 1985, five were convicted, including Lt. Gen. Videla. The legacy of the "dirty war" preoccupied the Alfonsín government. The president saw the need to close the 50-year cycle of military intervention and political instability by building a stable democracy. However, the political reality of Argentina could not be changed by wishes. The human rights trials of leading military officers irked the military, and in April 1987, an abortive military uprising spread to a number of bases. Although Alfonsín refused to yield to the rebels, he soon afterward retreated from his position, getting approval from Congress for a law that would limit the trials to a few superior officers, thereby accepting the defense of "taking orders" for the lower-ranking officers.
The Alfonsín administration also acted to halt rampant inflation with the "Austral Plan" of mid-1985, which froze wages and prices and created a new unit of currency, the austral, to replace the beleaguered peso. The initial success of the plan was weakened by a resurgence of inflation and labor intransigence over wage demands. With the failure of the Alfonsín administration to stabilize the economy or bring military leaders to justice, Argentines sought change from an old source: the Peronists. In May 1989, Carlos Saul Menem, running under the Justicialist banner, was elected with 47% of the popular vote. Menem was to have taken office in December, but the Alfonsín government was in such dire straits that the president resigned in July and Menem was immediately installed. This was Argentina's first transfer of power between democratically elected leaders in more than 60 years.
Menem abandoned his party's traditional support of state enterprises; he cut government spending and generally liberalized the Argentine economy. He also pardoned and released top military leaders. In May 1995, following a first term marked by economic success and political stability, Menem was reelected to a second four-year term. He weathered Argentina's 1995–96 economic recession with the aid of Domingo Cavallo, one-time economy minister and architect of Argentina's anti-inflation plan. Despite the economic successes, many Argentineans grew tired of Menem and alleged corruption in his administration. Menem also couldn't keep his private "playboy" life apart from politics, and began showing the traits of a caudillo by pressing for changes to the constitution so he could run for a third term in 1999. His bitter rival and critic, Eduardo Duhalde, prevailed and represented the Justicialists in the 1999 presidential election. For Duhalde and his fellow Peronists, a downturn in the economy came at a bad time. In 1999, Argentina entered a recession and saw its GDP decline by 3%. The economy was affected by downturns in the Russian and Asian economy and devaluation in neighboring Brazil, one of Argentina's biggest trading partners. Unemployment reached 14%. Menem didn't help his party's cause. He seemed more intent in undermining Duhalde while he actively appeared to be campaigning for a third term in 2003.
In the meantime, Fernando de la Rúa Bruno, the popular mayor of Buenos Aires, had balanced the city's budget and even managed to increase and improve services. A leader of the Unión Cívica Radical, de la Rúa aligned his party with a new political movement called Frente del País Solidario (Frepaso) or Front for a Country in Solidarity, an amalgamation of several center-left parties. Together, they created the Alianza (alliance), and backed de la Rúa for president. De la Rúa's conservatism and successes in Buenos Aires got the attention of voters. He provided a sharp contrast to the excesses of the bon vivant Menem. De la Rúa even emphasized his own boring demeanor in political campaigns. A serious president would take the country's problems seriously, his aides stressed. The campaign worked. In October 1999, voters gave de la Rúa 48.5% of the vote. Duhalde received 38.1%.
After taking office in December, de la Rúa declared a national economic emergency. By March 2000, he had pushed through Congress a new budget that sliced in half the fiscal deficit. He promulgated new laws to weaken the bargaining power of unions as he continued to push for his plan to make the country more competitive. But he faced many battles. While the Alianza held on to a slim majority in the lower Chamber of Deputies, the Senate remained in control of the Justicialists. Partially because of his inability to restrict spending by provincial governors and because he had little maneuvering space to adopt policies that could stimulate growth, de la Rúa could not overcome the economic crisis and the government was eventually forced to devalue the currency against the dollar. Social and political chaos ensued with the economy going into its worst recession in decades. After his party lost the midterm elections in 2001, President de la Rúa popularity continued to fall and the economic situation became unbearable. After protests turned violent in Buenos Aires in December 2001, looting and chaos erupted, followed by police repression. De la Rúa was forced to resign from the presidency. After a few weeks of political instability, the Senate chose Eduardo Duhalde, who had been elected to the Senate in the 2001 midterm election, as a temporary president. Duhalde governed until May 2003, when Néstor Kirchner, elected in April, was inaugurated president. Although former president Carlos Menem obtained the first plurality of votes in the first round among a handful of other presidential candidates, the former president withdrew less than a week before the runoff when it became clear that Kirchner, who came in second with 22% of the vote, would win by a landslide. Kirchner was a little-known governor from the southern province of Santa Cruz, but he successfully captured the growing anti-Menem sentiment. In addition, Kirchner was widely seen as Duhalde's favorite and many expected him to carry on Duhalde's policies.
In the end, the 2003 presidential election turned out to be a contest between the two Perónist rivals, Menem and Duhalde. Although Duhalde's candidate became president, Menem's withdrawal prevented Kirchner from winning a majority of votes in the runoff election. With his legitimacy weakened and his independence of Duhalde under doubt, Kirchner became president of a country in the midst of an economic, social and political crisis. The economy shrank by 14% in 2002 and official unemployment remained at 25%. With a mounting foreign debt and financial obligations to foreign lenders that will be difficult to meet, President Kirchner faced the challenge of assuring Argentines and the world that he had the leadership skills, political muscle and will needed to lead his country out of the turmoil. During his first weeks in office in 2003, Kirchner combined the continuation of Duhalde's economic policies with the anti-corruption initiatives. Yet, his success depended on his ability to reunite the Justicialista party.