18th - 19th century

Vice-royalty of La Plata: AD 1776-1810

For the first two centuries of the Spanish empire the vast region draining from the Andes to the river Plate at Buenos Aires is the least regarded part of Latin America. It lacks the gold or silver which attract adventurers across the Atlantic to Mexico and Peru. There is no direct link with Spain, all official contact being through the viceregal capital at Lima. Most of the early settlements are established by colonists moving into the region from Peru or Chile. In 1726 Buenos Aires has a population of only 2200.

But the area's status gradually improves during the 18th century, particularly after an administrative reorganization in 1776.

Until this time the region has been part of the Viceroyalty of Peru, administered at very long range from Lima. In 1776 the entire area, from the eastern Bolivian highlands through Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina to the southern tip of the continent, is given separate status as the Viceroyalty of La Plata with its capital at Buenos Aires.

The people of Buenos Aires discover an exciting new sense of pride in 1806, after a British fleet arrives and captures the city. The Spanish viceroy flees ignominiously, whereupon Creole militia led by Santiago de Liniers expel the intruders on their own. For three years Liniers rules in place of the absent viceroy. Buenos Aires is now in the mood to seize any future opportunities.

Argentina and San Martín: AD 1810-1816

Argentina takes its first step towards independence more easily than most other regions of the Spanish empire, partly because of the Events of 1806-9 in Buenos Aires. When developments in Spain in 1808 force a choice of allegiance, a cabildo abierto (open town meeting) in Buenos Aires on 25 May 1810 quickly decides to set up an autonomous local government on behalf of the deposed Ferdinand vii.

However this first step is soon followed by violent conflict with opposing royalist forces elsewhere in the province. News of this conflict brings back to Buenos Aires an Argentinian-born officer serving in the Spanish army, José de San Martín.

When San Martín reaches Argentina in 1812, the patriot army is under the command of Manuel Belgrano, a Buenos Aires lawyer who has had his first military experience as a member of the Creole militia in 1806. In the early years of the war of independence Belgrano has successes against royalist troops in the foothills of the Andes in the extreme northwest of Argentina, at Tucuman (1812) and Salta (1813). But he is defeated further north, in Bolivia, later in 1813. In 1814 he is replaced as commander by San Martín.

These battles have all been close to the main source of royalist strength, the rich and conservative viceroyalty of Peru. San Martin concludes that Latin America's independence will never be secure until Peru is conquered.

The independence of Argentina is formally proclaimed on 9 July 1816, abandoning any pretence that the junta has been governing on behalf of Ferdinand vii. (The decision is simplified by the reactionary and incompetent rule of the Spanish king after he recovers his throne in 1814.) Meanwhile San Martín is assembling and training an army for his long-term plan of campaign against Peru. He has decided on a two-pronged attack, beginning with an invasion of Chile.

He already has an important Chilean ally in Bernardo O'Higgins, a soldier closely involved in the beginnings of the independence movement in Chile but from 1814 a refugee in Argentina.

United Provinces of the Rio de la Plata: AD 1816-1828

San Martín marches west into Chile in January 1817, a few month's after the formal declaration of full Argentinian independence. He leaves his compatriots in Argentina with the task of forming a nation out of what has been the vast but relatively uncentralized viceroyalty of La plata.

The ambitions of many in Buenos Aires are that their city should remain the capital of the entire viceroyalty. But in 1817 this already looks a forlorn hope. Paraguay has resolutely gone its own way in 1811 and by 1814 is a region almost impenetrable to outsiders. Uruguay becomes a battle ground between Argentina and Brazil, until in 1828 both accept it as an independent buffer state between them.

This leaves a large area, consisting mainly of the great alluvial plain between the Andes and the Atlantic which forms the greater part of modern Argentina. But even this proves hard to hold together, with inland regions strongly resisting every attempt by Buenos Aires to prevail as a capital city.

The struggle between Unitarists (favouring centralization) and Federalists (demanding autonomy for the regions) becomes the main political issue in the early years of the republic. But the question is somewhat academic from 1835 during the dictatorship of Juan Manuel de Rosas - paradoxically the leader of the Federalists, yet a man with the personal power to control every region of the nation.

Rosas and Urquiza: AD 1835-1861

Argentina is geographically unlike other south American nations, with its vast open plains (the pampas, from an Indian word meaning a flat place) on which cattle are herded in Spanish imperial times by tough mestizo cowboys or gauchos (again probably from an Indian word, for vagabond).

This is the tradition which produces Juan Manuel de Rosas, the first strong man of independent Argentina. He is not himself a gaucho, for he comes from a noble Spanish family and owns extensive ranches, but he lives among the cowboys and trains them to his own tough standards. In the early years of independence he wins a formidable reputation as a leader of irregular troops.

In 1829 Rosas is elected governor of the province of Buenos Aires. By 1835 he has successfully imposed his will on all the other local governors. His status is now officially raised to that of dictator. Making effective use of personalismo (his portrait even features sometimes on church altars), he imposes on Argentina a brutally repressive conservative regime.

Rosas follows a vigorously nationalistic policy which pleases his people (he reacts strongly, for example, to the British seizure of the Falklands), but he goes too far when he intervenes in a Uruguayan civil war - lending his assistance in 1843 to a siege of Montevideo which eventually lasts for nearly nine years.

This embarrassment, together with Rosas' failure to provide the provinces with a federal constitution, leads to his being toppled in 1851 by one of his own provincial governors, Justo José de Urquiza.

Urquiza gathers an army to raise the siege of Montevideo and defeats an army loyal to Rosas at Caseros in February 1852. He then calls a convention which provides Argentina, in 1853, with the required constitution. Urquiza is elected president in 1854 for a six-year term. The first capital, in a rotating sequence, is to be Paraná. But there is one glaring omission from this new confederation. Buenos Aires, insisting on leadership of the nation or nothing, refuses to join.

The issue is again resolved on the battlefield. In 1861, at Pavón, the provincial troops of Buenos Aires under Bartolomé Mitre defeat the national army under Urquiza. In the following year Mitre (a distinguished author and historian as well as soldier) is elected president. He moves the capital to Buenos Aires, where it has remained ever since - though its status as permanent capital is not formally accepted until 1880.

Argentina, after fifty years of independence, has finally established its political identity. Meanwhile its economic nature is about to undergo a transformation.

From gauchos to peones: late 19th century

The Argentinian pampas has traditionally been a lawless area, the preserve of wild cattle and horses (descendants of animals which have escaped from Spanish domestic use) and of equally wild Gauchos. The only indigenous inhabitants of the area, the American Indians, are nearly exterminated by the colonists in a series of 19th-century wars. In 1878-9 the remaining Indians are either killed or are driven south into Patagonia in a campaign commanded by Julio Roca, a general who is voted into the presidency of Argentina in 1880 on the strength of this success.

His victory over the Indians is a significant step in a process which is steadily transforming the pampas.

As elsewhere in the world during the 19th century, the arrival of the railway opens up remote regions. Agricultural labourers can be easily attracted into previously inaccessible areas, and their products can be cheaply transported out. At much the same time Barbed wire becomes available to fence in large areas. The owners of the great estancias (ranches) realize that wild herds and Gauchos are an uneconomic use of these rolling acres. Far more profitable is the breeding of cattle and sheep; and in many parts of the pampas an even higher yield can be derived from harvests of wheat and corn.

The gaucho is no longer needed. The demand, in his place, is for peones or farm labourers.

With this new window of economic opportunity, the Argentinian government encourages immigration from Europe. By far the largest group of new arrivals are from Italy and Spain, with the Italians slightly the more numerous of the two. But there are also appreciable numbers of French, Germans, Poles, Turks and Russian Jews (more than three million newcomers arrive from Europe between 1860 and 1940).

Argentina already has a smaller indigenous Indian population than other parts of continental Latin America. To this it now adds a higher rate of immigration. It becomes the most European republic in south America. But as yet it is one where power and wealth remain in the hands of a very select few.

The Argentine Rural Society: AD 1866-1916

When the Argentinian rural economy begins to develop, in the second half of the nineteenth century, the fertile regions of the pampas are divided into vast estancias owned by no more than 300 families. Each estancia covers hundreds of thousands of acres.

With wealth in so few hands, oligarchy is almost inevitable. Argentine's gilded few ensure that power remains within their own circle by means of an exclusive club, the Argentine Rural Society, founded in 1866. The presidency of Julio Roca in 1880 begins three decades in which the office (together with its material benefits) is passed from hand to hand among a small circle of friends and relations within the Rural Society.

By the 1890s this situation has prompted sufficient outrage for two opposition groups to be formed - the Radical party in 1892 (campaigning on behalf of all shades of political opinion against the corruption of the regime) and in 1895 the specifically left-wing Socialist party.

By 1912 political unrest is so potentially explosive that the ruling group reluctantly concedes electoral reform. There is now to be a secret ballot and universal male suffrage. At the next election, in 1916, the oligarchy is finally removed from power. The new president is the leader of the Radical party, Hipólito Irigoyen.

20th century

Radicals and reactionaries: AD 1916-1946

Irigoyen's success in 1916 brings his party fourteen years in office. It is a period which sets the confrontational pattern of Argentina's political life during the rest of the 20th century.

The Radical party wins wide popular support by representing the interests of the new urban and industrial classes in Argentina's first period of democracy. To a large extent the party fails to deliver its promised reforms, but the very existence of the promises greatly alarms Argentina's traditional ruling class - whose fears are strongly shared in military circles.

Whereas military coups have often occurred elsewhere in Latin America, they have not been part of the Argentinian tradition. Indeed no change of government has been achieved by force of arms since Mitre's winning of power in 1861. But the Radical period comes to an end in 1930 as a result of a coup. Thereafter, for six decades, the tension between populist demands and the military is a constant thread in the fabric of Argentinian life.

The crash of 1929, and the subsequent slump in the export of Argentinian beef and wheat, gives the army its first opportunity. Irigoyen is removed in 1930, half way through his second term as president.

The coup of 1930 introduces sixteen years in which the military either rule directly or use force to control the result of elections. Most of the military leaders incline to fascism, admiring the various European dictators of the time for achieving stablility by totalitarian means. Argentina is the last Latin American country to declare war on Germany in World War II, doing so only in 1945 (at the last possible moment to secure a seat in the new United Nations).

For the last two years of the war the republic is ruled by a new military junta calling itself the GOU (Grupo de Oficiales Unidos, Group of United Officers). The GOU seizes power in 1943.

Since 1930 the pattern of Argentinian politics has been the military attempting to hold in check the populist demands made on behalf of the poorer classes. But now one member of the GOU, Juan Perón, dramatically squares the circle to his own political advantage.

Perón has spent a year (1938-9) on secondment to the Italian army. He has observed at first hand the methods and the appeal of Mussolini, and he has learnt some lessons. After the coup of 1943 he takes the post of secretary of labour and social welfare, a relatively insignificant position but one which suits perfectly his own purposes.

Perón cultivates the support of the masses by intervening on their behalf in strikes, by building personal alliances with union leaders, and by pressing for improvements in wages and holidays, working conditions, health and pensions. He rapidly becomes the hero of the descamisados (the 'shirtless'). His political star rises accordingly. By 1945 his roles within the junta include vice-president and minister of war.

It takes no political genius to recognize in all this Perón's personal ambitions. These ambitions alarm a group of senior officers. They mount a coup in October 1945 and imprison the ambitious Colonel Perón. But they have left their move too late.

Perón and the Peronistas: AD 1945-1976

After a week Perón is released from prison. The reason is a mass demonstration of workers on 17 October 1945 on the streets of Buenos Aires. This alarming display of popular support is orchestrated by Eva Duarte, an actress known to her public as Evita. A few days after Perón's release, he and Eva marry. They prove a formidable double act.

Perón stands in the 1946 election and narrowly wins it after a campaign in which the electorate is terrorized by groups of his supporting descamisados. Over the following years Perón uses such gangs of thugs, much as Mussolini used his Black Shirts, to secure his hold on the nation.

Perón's policies, unlike those of conventional military juntas, are left-wing. He nationalizes the banks and the railways, spends state money to speed up industrialization, and puts social welfare high among his priorities. The agency distributing benefits to the poor is administered by Eva. This public largesse gives her in the public's mind the status of an angel of mercy (after her death from cancer in 1952, at the age of thirty-free, there are numerous calls for the pope to canonize her).

Perón has been re-elected president in 1951, but without Eva at his side he begins to lose his populist touch. In particular, in 1954, he makes the fundamental error of launching a campaign against the Roman Catholic church.

Measures to secularize the nation's institutions are accompanied by descamisado attacks on church property and even on priests. In June 1955 Pius XII excommunicates all government officials who take action against the church.

These events greatly distress a devout population. Combined with increasing repression and a collapsing economy, they provide a natural setting for another military coup. In September 1955 units of the armed forces begin a 'liberating' campaign in the provinces. The navy and the airforce jointly threaten to attack Buenos Aires if Perón stays. The dictator recognizes the reality of the situation. He slips away to exile, first in Paraguay and then in Spain.

Perón has gone but not the Peronistas. He and Eva, with the promise of a more just society (in the social welfare programme which they call justicialismo) have been the first to mobilize the political passions of a vocal but previously unrepresented class, particularly in the cities. Perón and Evita become rallying cries for the left-wing opposition to each successive military or military-approved government after 1955.

Terrorism forms part of this opposition until, in 1973, the military decide to risk a different approach. Elections are held in that year and the Peronistas are allowed to participate. Perón himself is even allowed back from Spain for a brief visit.

The result is that the Peronista candidate, Héctor Cámpora, wins the presidential election. A month later Perón returns on a more permanent basis. Cámpora is forced to resign. In new elections in September 1973 Perón is once again elected president. His second wife, Isabel, is returned on the same ticket as his vice-president.

The policies of the old man, now seventy-seven, have veered in his exile from the left to the right of the political spectrum (from either viewpoint his disregard for civil liberties remains undiminished). But he has only nine months in office before he dies of a heart attack. His widow Isabel succeeds him in the presidency.

Videla and Galtieri: AD 1976-1982

Isabel Perón remains in power for two years, presiding over a decrepit economy with inflation running at an annual rate of 600%. The outcome, in 1976, is another military coup.

The events of 1976 bring to power General Jorge Videla and the most oppressive regime in Argentina's history. In the purges known as the 'disappearances' thousands of left-wing opponents are murdered (some of them by being thrown alive from aircraft into the sea). But it is incompetence rather than brutality which finally topples the junta. By the end of 1981 the leader is another general, Leopoldo Galtieri. He embarks in 1982 on an adventure which he hopes will add lustre to the regime's tarnished image.

The Falklands War: AD 1982

On 2 April 1982 a force of 5000 Argentinian troops lands in the Falklands, claiming sovereign rights over them as the Islas malvinas. The defending British garrison of eighty-one marines is easily overwhelmed. General Galtieri pays a triumphal visit to Port Stanley, the islands' capital.

In Britain the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, immediately mobilizes a fleet to recover the islands. An exclusion zone of 200 miles is declared around the region, with the warning that any ship or aircraft found within this zone will be assumed to be hostile. By the end of April the first units of the British task force reach the scene.

On May 3 the Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano is torpedoed and sinks with heavy casualties (368 dead). This becomes the most controversial event of the war, because of allegations that the ship was outside the exclusion zone and was heading away from it. The following day the British destroyer HMS Sheffield is hit by an Exocet missile, with the loss of twenty men.

The first British landing is on East Falkland, where a bridgehead is established by May 21. Within the following week Port Darwin and the nearby Goose Green airstrip are captured. On June 14 it is announced that British troops are in Port Stanley and the Argentinians have surrendered.

The casualties in the war number 655 Argentinian dead and 255 British (the majority of the British deaths occur on the landing ships Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram, bombed while unloading supplies near the Fitzroy settlement).

In Britain the victory does wonders for the political fortunes of Margaret Thatcher (somewhat in the doldrums before these events). In Argentina the war has considerably more dramatic results. The military regime, already unpopular, is totally discredited by the embarrassing defeat - a self-inflicted one in the sense that the junta initiated the action. Galtieri resigns three days after the surrender, but this is only the beginning of the Falklands repercussions in Argentina.

The military junta retains a temporary hold on power. In October 1983 elections are held, but only after a decree in August granting the police and the military immunity from prosecution for their actions since 1976.

The presidential election is won by a civilian lawyer, Raúl Alfonsín, standing for the Radical Civic Union. He sets aside the junta's self-awarded amnesty. Over the next three years several members of the junta and hundreds of their henchmen are tried. Videla is sentenced in 1985 to life imprisonment for human rights abuses (he is released in 1989). Galtieri is acquitted in that trial but is convicted in 1986 of incompetence during the Falklands campaign.

The Menem years: from AD 1989

Economic troubles soon disenchant the public with President Alfonsín. In the 1989 election the Peronista candidate, Carlos Menem, wins the presidential election by a wide margin. (The peronistas have been known as the (Frente Justicialista), or Justicialist Party, since their first return to power in the 1970s.)

Although elected on a Peronista platform, Menem's programme to recover Argentina's economy involves unscrambling much of Perón's legacy. State enterprises are privatized in a move towards a free market economy. The support of the army is won by such measures as releasing the convicted generals (including Videla and galtieri).

These measures are to some extent successful (inflation falls but unemployment rises). And the pattern of military intervention seems to be broken in December 1990. An attempted coup is foiled within twenty-four hours when a majority of the senior commanders remain loyal to the elected government.

Since the Constitution of 1853 Argentinian presidents have served a term of six years, after which they are inelegible for immediate re-election. In 1994 Menem negotiates a revision of this law. In return for relinquishing some elements of presidential power, a revised constitution allows presidents to serve two consecutive terms of four years.

Menem has already served a first term of six years, but he is allowed to stand as a candidate in the 1995 election. He wins handsomely. 1995 also brings an agreement with Britain over the potential exploitation of oil around the Falkland islands.

Public dislike of Menem's free-market policies and of high unemployment leads to a general strike in August 1997. In the mid-term elections two months later the Justicialist party loses its overall majority in the Chamber of Deputies but remains the largest single party. In the election of 1999, when Menem is ineligible to stand again, the Peronist candidate loses to Fernando de la Rua, formerly mayor of Buenos Aires.
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