Indigenous Peoples of Argentina
A number of indigenous groups sparsely populated the area now known as Argentina before its colonization by Europeans in the early 1500s. The Diaguita populated the southeast part of the country, and the Guaraní peoples lived in the east. The Quechua peoples lived in the northern regions, and the Tehuelches (from which the Mapuche tribe originates) inhabited Patagonia. The native populations of the south primarily hunted and fished, but the peoples populating the northern regions developed an advanced material society based on agriculture.
Arrival of the Spanish
Amerigo Vespucci’s voyage to the new world in 1502 brought some of the earliest Europeans to the region via Peru, since Lima was the capital of Spain’s Viceroyalty in America. Modern day Argentina began as a subordinate of this Viceroyalty, although the search for a new maritime route to Asia and the East Indies led to the voyage of Juan Díaz de Solís to the Rio de la Plata in 1516. Other explorers followed, and in 1536, the small settlement of Buenos Aires was created. In response to their lands being occupied by settlers, native populations battled the Europeans for control of the area, leading to an abandonment of Buenos Aires and the creation of Asunción as the new lead city of the Rio de la Plata region. However, the settlers eventually re-grouped, and in 1580, Buenos Aires was re-founded. Continued success in defending themselves against the attacks of native populations led to the settlers securing the territories that ultimately became semi-independent underneath the Viceroyalty of Peru.
The natural ports on the Rio de la Plata could not be exploited because all business and communication was to be conducted via the Viceroyalty’s capital in Lima, hampering commerce originating from the area. By 1726, Buenos Aires’ population was still only 2,200, and smuggling goods from the region became an accepted form of doing business.
A New Capital
Worries about the defense of the areas south of Peru led to the formation of the Río de la Plata Viceroyalty in 1776, constituted of modern day Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay. Buenos Aires was declared the capital of the new Viceroyalty, increasing the status of the region, and paving the way for its economic growth.
Buenos Aires became a flourishing port. The economy grew as a result of the legitimate export of precious metals and leather, making Buenos Aires an attractive place for a land grab. In 1806 and 1807, the British attempted to invade Buenos Aires. After the Spanish fled, colonist militias held off the British invaders, further boosting the confidence of the settlers.
The Viceroyalty did not stay together for long due to developments in Spain, internal struggles among the regions it loosely held together, and the liberal ideas brought to the region from the French Revolution and the American Revolutionary War. In 1810, following an open town meeting, Buenos Aires set up an autonomous local government, a junta, and invited the surrounding provinces to join. A formal declaration of independence was delayed given differing opinions of the many factions that made up the region at the time, and in 1811, Paraguay went ahead and declared its independence. The region claimed independence from Spain in 1816, and Bolivia and Uruguay subsequently declared independence in 1825 and 1828 respectively. Spain fought unsuccessfully to keep its claim on Argentina, and was finally defeated by the Argentines in 1824. The United Kingdom formally recognized Argentina’s independence in 1825 and began an important commercial relationship leading to significant British foreign investment in the country.
Argentina’s early history as a nation was dominated by disagreement between various factions on how the country was to be ruled. The Unitarians wanted to unify the country, while the Federalists resented the oligarchy of Buenos Aires and had no intention of being dominated by them. The period following Argentina’s declaration of independence was an almost permanent state of civil war.
Argentina’s First Dictator
Juan Manuel de Rosas came to power during this time. He came from a noble Spanish family, owning a vast array of ranches throughout the country. In the early years of independence, he gained a reputation as a leader of irregular militia. In 1829, he was elected as the governor of Buenos Aires, and ruled the country between 1829 and 1852 with a brutally repressive conservative regime thanks in part to the paramilitary force he created called “La Mazorca.” His nationalistic policies and ultimate failure to create a federal constitution lead to him being toppled by another Federalist and one of his provincial governors, José de Urquiza, with support from Uruguay and Brazil. Argentina’s federal constitution was promulgated in 1853.
During this period, Argentina’s culture and population were heavily shaped by Europe, as immigrants from Europe, primarily Spain and Italy, provided the majority of newcomers to Argentina from the mid 1800s through 1930. More than three million people, including French, Germans, Poles, Turks and Russian Jews immigrated to Argentina from Europe from 1860 through 1940.
Economic Growth and Political Instability
The country experienced rapid economic growth in the late 1800s thanks to an infusion of foreign capital, new immigrants, and successful exploitation of Argentina’s abundant natural and agricultural resources. At one point, Argentina was one of the 10 richest countries in the world. The vast wealth of the country was not widespread; the engine of the economy, the fertile regions of the pampas were divided into estancias of hundreds of thousands of acres each, owned by a select group of fewer than 300 families. The creation of the Argentine Rural Society in 1866 and the election of Julio de Rocca in 1880 created a situation where political power remained within a small circle of friends and relations within the Rural Society for three decades.
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.
By the early 1900s, the ruling group reluctantly allowed for electoral reform, given the permanent state of political unrest in the country at the time. Despite the reforms, in 1916, a leader of the Radicals was elected as President, in the country’s first free election in history. The Radical party led the country for 14 years, promising reforms they ultimately could not deliver, and alarming the ruling class that was closely aligned with the military. The stage was set for tension between conservative and populist sectors of the population for the next 60 years.
The Dirty War and The return to democracy
Military dictatorship ruled the country with an iron fist from 1976 to 1983. General Leopoldo Galtieri took the reins of the draconian military junta in 1981 but its power was unraveling: the economy was in recession, interest rates skyrocketed and protesters took to the streets of Buenos Aires.
During the Guerra Sucia (“Dirty War”) the military regime that controlled Argentina from 1976 until 1983 covertly tortured and killed several thousand civilians in an attempt to purge the country of alleged left-wing radicals; one group in Buenos Aire, the Grandmothers and Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, called attention to the fates of their family members and other desaparecidos (disappeared persons) by holding weekly vigils on the square fronting the Casa Rosada. A year later, Galtieri tried to divert national attention by goading the UK into a war over control of the Falkland Islands, known in Argentina as Las Islas Malvinas. The British had more resolve than the junta had imagined and Argentina was easily defeated. The greatest blow came when the British nuclear submarine Conqueror torpedoed the Argentine heavy cruiser General Belgrano, killing 323 men.
Embarrassed and proven ineffectual, the military regime fell apart and a new civilian government under Raúl Alfonsín took control in 1983. Alfonsín enjoyed a small amount of success and was able to negotiate a few international loans, but he could not limit inflation or constrain public spending. By 1989 inflation was out of control and Alfonsín left office five months early, when Carlos Menem took power.
In the early 2000s Buenos Aires was greatly affected by Argentina’s faltering economy. In 2001 the country suffered a massive economic collapse after defaulting on its foreign debt payment. Inflation increased by 50 percent, and the unemployment rate in Buenos Aires reached an all time high. Porteños with savings accounts or investments lost significant amounts of money. Social services were cut and pension payments were delayed. Violent protests occurred in the city streets as porteños and others demonstrated their dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the economy.
By 2004 Buenos Aires had recovered from the crisis, and its economy was booming again. Despite numerous obstacles at the beginning of the 21st century, Buenos Aires exhibited signs of social improvement and a burgeoning economy, especially in response to developments in technology and the city’s increasing globalization. Internet cafés have proliferated since the 1990s, demonstrating the city’s growing electronic connectivity to the rest of the world. Moreover, Buenos Aires has remained the cultural heart of Argentina, shaping much of the country’s identity through education, art, publishing, and locally produced television shows, advertising, radio programs, and movies.