The earliest traces of human life in the area now known as Argentina are dated from the Paleolithic period, with further traces in the Mesolithic and Neolithic. Until the period of European colonization, Argentina was relatively sparsely populated by a wide number of diverse cultures with different social organizations, which can be divided into three main groups. The first group are basic hunters and food gatherers without the development of pottery, such as the Selknam and Yaghan in the extreme south. The second group are advanced hunters and food gatherers which include the Puelche, Querandí, and Serranos in the centre-east; and the Tehuelche in the south—all of them conquered by the Mapuche spreading from Chile —and the Kom and Wichi in the north. The last group are farmers with pottery, like the Charrúa, Minuane, and Guaraní in the northeast, with slash and burn semisedentary existence; the advanced Diaguita sedentary trading culture in the northwest, which was conquered by the Inca Empire around 1480; the Toconoté and Hênîa and Kâmîare in the country’s centre, and the Huarpe in the centre-west, a culture that raised llama cattle and was strongly influenced by the Incas.
Europeans first arrived in the region with the 1502 voyage of Amerigo Vespucci. The Spanish navigators Juan Díaz de Solís and Sebastian Cabot visited the territory that is now Argentina in 1516 and 1526, respectively. In 1536 Pedro de Mendoza founded the small settlement of Buenos Aires, which was abandoned in 1541.
Further colonization efforts came from Paraguay—establishing the Governorate of the Río de la Plata—Peru and Chile. Francisco de Aguirre founded Santiago del Estero in 1553. Londres was founded in 1558; Mendoza, in 1561; San Juan, in 1562; San Miguel de Tucumán, in 1565. Juan de Garay founded Santa Fe in 1573 and the same year Jerónimo Luis de Cabrera set up Córdoba. Garay went further south to re-found Buenos Aires in 1580. San Luis was established in 1596.
The Spanish Empire subordinated the economic potential of the Argentine territory to the immediate wealth of the silver and gold mines in Bolivia and Peru, and as such, it became part of the Viceroyalty of Peru until the creation of the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata in 1776 with Buenos Aires as its capital.
Buenos Aires repelled two ill-fated British invasions in 1806 and 1807. The ideas of the Age of Enlightenment and the example of the first Atlantic Revolutions generated criticism of the absolutist monarchy that ruled the country. As in the rest of Spanish America, the overthrow of Ferdinand VII during the Peninsular War created great concern.
Independence and civil wars
Beginning a process from which Argentina was to emerge as the successor state to the Viceroyalty, the 1810 May Revolution replaced the viceroy Baltasar Hidalgo de Cisneros with the First Junta, a new government in Buenos Aires composed by locals. In the first clashes of the Independence War, the Junta crushed a royalist counter-revolution in Córdoba but failed to overcome those of the Banda Oriental, Upper Peru, and Paraguay, which later became independent states. The French-Argentine Hippolyte Bouchard then brought his fleet to wage war against Spain overseas and attacked Spanish California, Spanish Chile, Spanish Peru, and Spanish Philippines. He secured the allegiance of escaped Filipinos in San Blas who defected from the Spanish to join the Argentine navy, due to common Argentine and Philippine grievances against Spanish colonization. At a later date, the Argentine Sun of May was adopted as a symbol by the Filipinos in the Philippine Revolution against Spain. He also secured the diplomatic recognition of Argentina from King Kamehameha I of the Kingdom of Hawaii. Historian Pacho O’Donnell affirms that Hawaii was the first state that recognized Argentina’s independence.
Revolutionaries split into two antagonist groups: the Centralists and the Federalists—a move that would define Argentina’s first decades of independence. The Assembly of the Year XIII appointed Gervasio Antonio de Posadas as Argentina’s first Supreme Director.
On 9 July 1816, the Congress of Tucumán formalized the Declaration of Independence, which is now celebrated as Independence Day, a national holiday. One year later General Martín Miguel de Güemes stopped royalists on the north, and General José de San Martín took an army across the Andes and secured the independence of Chile; then he led the fight to the Spanish stronghold of Lima and proclaimed the independence of Peru. In 1819 Buenos Aires enacted a centralist constitution that was soon abrogated by federalists.
The 1820 Battle of Cepeda, fought between the Centralists and the Federalists, resulted in the end of the Supreme Director rule. In 1826 Buenos Aires enacted another centralist constitution, with Bernardino Rivadavia being appointed as the first president of the country. However, the interior provinces soon rose against him, forced his resignation, and discarded the constitution. Centralists and Federalists resumed the civil war; the latter prevailed and formed the Argentine Confederation in 1831, led by Juan Manuel de Rosas. During his regime, he faced a French blockade (1838–1840), the War of the Confederation (1836–1839), and a combined Anglo-French blockade (1845–1850), but remained undefeated and prevented further loss of national territory. His trade restriction policies, however, angered the interior provinces and in 1852 Justo José de Urquiza, another powerful caudillo beat him out of power. As new president of the Confederation, Urquiza enacted the liberal and federal 1853 Constitution. Buenos Aires seceded but was forced back into the Confederation after being defeated in the 1859 Battle of Cepeda.
Rise of the modern nation
Overpowering Urquiza in the 1861 Battle of Pavón, Bartolomé Mitre secured Buenos Aires predominance and was elected as the first president of the reunified country. He was followed by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento and Nicolás Avellaneda; these three presidencies set up the bases of the modern Argentine State.
Starting with Julio Argentino Roca in 1880, ten consecutive federal governments emphasized liberal economic policies. The massive wave of European immigration they promoted—second only to the United States—led to a near-reinvention of Argentine society and economy that by 1908 had placed the country as the seventh wealthiest developed nation in the world. Driven by this immigration wave and decreasing mortality, the Argentine population grew fivefold and the economy 15-fold: from 1870 to 1910 Argentina’s wheat exports went from 100,000 to 2,500,000 t (110,000 to 2,760,000 short tons) per year, while frozen beef exports increased from 25,000 to 365,000 t (28,000 to 402,000 short tons) per year, placing Argentina as one of the world’s top five exporters. Its railway mileage rose from 503 to 31,104 km (313 to 19,327 mi). Fostered by a new public, compulsory, free, and secular education system, literacy quickly increased from 22% to 65%, a level higher than most Latin American nations would reach even fifty years later. Furthermore, real GDP grew so fast that despite the huge immigration influx, per capita income between 1862 and 1920 went from 67% of developed country levels to 100%: In 1865, Argentina was already one of the top 25 nations by per capita income. By 1908, it had surpassed Denmark, Canada, and the Netherlands to reach 7th place—behind Switzerland, New Zealand, Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Belgium. Argentina’s per capita income was 70% higher than Italy’s, 90% higher than Spain’s, 180% higher than Japan’s, and 400% higher than Brazil’s. Despite these unique achievements, the country was slow to meet its original goals of industrialization: after the steep development of capital-intensive local industries in the 1920s, a significant part of the manufacture sector remained labour-intensive in the 1930s.
Between 1878 and 1884 the so-called Conquest of the Desert occurred, with the purpose of giving by means of the constant confrontations between natives and Criollos in the border, and the appropriation of the indigenous territories, tripling the Argentine territory. The first conquest, consisted of a series of military incursions into the Pampa and Patagonian territories dominated by the indigenous peoples, distributing them among the members of the Sociedad Rural Argentina, financiers of the expeditions. The conquest of Chaco lasted up to the end of the century since its full ownership of the national economic system only took place when the mere extraction of wood and tannin was replaced by the production of cotton. The Argentine government considered indigenous people as inferior beings, without the same rights as Criollos and Europeans.
In 1912, President Roque Sáenz Peña enacted universal and secret male suffrage, which allowed Hipólito Yrigoyen, leader of the Radical Civic Union (or UCR), to win the 1916 election. He enacted social and economic reforms and extended assistance to small farms and businesses. Argentina stayed neutral during World War I. The second administration of Yrigoyen faced an economic crisis, precipitated by the Great Depression.
In 1930, Yrigoyen was ousted from power by the military led by José Félix Uriburu. Although Argentina remained among the fifteen richest countries until mid-century, this coup d’état marks the start of the steady economic and social decline that pushed the country back into underdevelopment. Uriburu ruled for two years; then Agustín Pedro Justo was elected in a fraudulent election and signed a controversial treaty with the United Kingdom. Argentina stayed neutral during World War II, a decision that had full British support but was rejected by the United States after the attack on Pearl Harbor. In 1943 a military coup d’état, lead by General Arturo Rawson toppled the democratically elected government of Ramón Castillo. Under pressure from the United States, later Argentina declared war on the Axis Powers (on 27 March 1945, roughly a month before the end of World War II in Europe).
During Rawson dictatorship a relatively unknown military colonel named Juan Domingo Perón was named head of the Labour Department. Perón quickly managed to climb the political ladder, being named Ministry of Defence by 1944. Being perceived as a political threat by rivals faction in the military and the conservative camp he was forced to resign in 1945 and was arrested days later. He was later released under mounting pressure from both his base and several allied unions. He would later become president after a landslide victory over the UCR in the 1946 general election as the laborioust candidate.
The Labour Party later renamed Justicialist Party, the most powerful and influential party in Argentine history, came into power with the rise of Juan Domingo Perón to the presidency in 1946. He nationalized strategic industries and services, improved wages and working conditions, paid the full external debt and claimed he achieved nearly full employment. He pushed Congress to enact women’s suffrage in 1947 and developed a system of social assistance for the most vulnerable sectors of society. The economy began to decline in 1950 due in part to government expenditures and the protectionist economic policies.
He also engaged in a campaign of political suppression. Anyone who was perceived to be a political dissident or potential rival were subject to threats, physical violence and harassment. The Argentine intelligentsia, the middle-class, university students, and professors were seen as particularly troublesome. Perón fired over 2,000 university professors and faculty members from all major public education institutions.
Perón tried to bring under his thumb most trade and labour unions, regularly resorting to violence when needed. For instance, the meat-packers union leader, Cipriano Reyes, organised strikes in protest against the government after elected labour movement officials were forcefully replaced by Peronist puppets from the Peronist Party. Reyes was soon arrested on charges of terrorism, though the allegations were never substantiated. Reyes was tortured in prison for five years and was only released after the regime’s downfall in 1955 without any formal charges.
Perón managed to get reelected in 1951. Eva Perón, his wife who played a critical role in the party, died of cancer in 1952. As the economy continued to tank, Perón started losing popular support. Seen as a threat to the national process and taking advantage of Perón’s withering political power, the Navy bombed the Plaza de Mayo in 1955. Perón survived the attack but a few months later, during the Liberating Revolution coup, was deposed and went into exile in Spain.
The new head of State, Pedro Eugenio Aramburu, proscribed Peronism and banned the party from any future elections. Arturo Frondizi from the UCR won the 1958 general election. He encouraged investment to achieve energetic and industrial self-sufficiency, reversed a chronic trade deficit and lifted the ban on Peronism; yet his efforts to stay on good terms with both the Peronists and the military earned him the rejection of both and a new coup forced him out. Amidst the political turmoil, Senate leader José María Guido reacted swiftly and applied anti-power vacuum legislation, ascending to the presidency himself; elections were repealed and Peronism was prohibited once again. Arturo Illia was elected in 1963 and led an increase in prosperity across the board; however he was overthrown in 1966 by another military coup d’état led by General Juan Carlos Onganía in the self-proclaimed Argentine Revolution, creating a new military government that sought to rule indefinitely.
Perón’s return and death
Following several years of military rule, Alejandro Agustín Lanusse was appointed president by the military junta in 1971. Under increasing political pressure for the return of democracy, Lanusse called for elections in 1973. Perón was banned from running but the Peronist party was allowed to participate. The presidential elections were won by Hector Cámpora, Perón’s surrogate candidate. Dr. Héctor Cámpora, a left-wing Peronist, took office on 25 May 1973, and a month later in June, Perón had returned from Spain. One of Cámpora’s first presidential actions was the granting of amnesty to members of terrorist organizations who had carried out political assassinations and terrorist attacks, and who had been tried and sentenced to prison by judges. Cámpora’s months-long tenure in government was beset by political and social unrest. Over 600 social conflicts, strikes, and factory occupations took place within a single month. Even though far-left terrorist organisations had suspended their armed struggle, their joining with the participatory democracy process was interpreted as a direct threat by the Peronist right-wing faction.
In a state of political, social, and economic upheaval, Cámpora and Vice President Vicente Solano Lima resigned in July 1973, calling for new elections, but this time with Perón as the Justicialist Party nominee. Perón won the election with his wife Isabel Perón as vice president. Perón’s third term was marked by the escalating conflict between left and right-wing factions within the Peronist party, as well as the return of armed terror guerrilla groups like the Guevarist ERP, leftist Peronist Montoneros, and the state-backed far-right Triple A. After a series of heart attacks and with signs of pneumonia in 1974, Perón’s health deteriorated quickly. Perón suffered a final heart attack on Monday, 1 July 1974, and died at 13:15. He was 78 years old. After his death, Isabel Perón, his wife and Vice President, came into office.
Isabel, born María Estela Martínez Cartas, a grade school drop-out and a former nightclub dancer, proved to be a thoroughly incompetent and weak president. During her presidency, a military junta along with the Peronists’ far-right fascist faction became once again the de facto head of state. She served as President of Argentina from 1974 until 1976 when she was ousted by the military. Her short presidency was marked by the collapse of Argentine political and social systems and led to a constitutional crisis paving the way for a decade of instability, left-wing terrorist guerrilla attacks, and state-sponsored terrorism.
National Reorganization Process
The “Dirty War” (Spanish: Guerra Sucia) was part of Operation Condor, which included the participation of other right-wing dictatorships in the Southern Cone. The Dirty War involved state terrorism in Argentina and elsewhere in the Southern Cone against political dissidents, with military and security forces employing urban and rural violence against left-wing guerrillas, political dissidents, and anyone believed to be associated with socialism or somehow contrary to the neoliberal economic policies of the regime. Victims of the violence in Argentina alone included an estimated 15,000 to 30,000 left-wing activists and militants, including trade unionists, students, journalists, Marxists, Peronist guerrillas, and alleged sympathizers. Most of the victims were casualties of state terrorism. The opposing guerrillas’ victims numbered nearly 500–540 military and police officials and up to 230 civilians. Argentina received technical support and military aid from the United States government during the Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations.
The exact chronology of the repression is still debated, yet the roots of the long political war may have started in 1969 when trade unionists were targeted for assassination by Peronist and Marxist paramilitaries. Individual cases of state-sponsored terrorism against Peronism and the left can be traced back even further to the Bombing of Plaza de Mayo in 1955. The Trelew massacre of 1972, the actions of the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance commencing in 1973, and Isabel Martínez de Perón’s “annihilation decrees” against left-wing guerrillas during Operativo Independencia (Operation Independence) in 1975, are also possible events signaling the beginning of the Dirty War.
Onganía shut down Congress, banned all political parties, and dismantled student and worker unions. In 1969, popular discontent led to two massive protests: the Cordobazo and the Rosariazo. The terrorist guerrilla organization Montoneros kidnapped and executed Aramburu. The newly chosen head of government, Alejandro Agustín Lanusse, seeking to ease the growing political pressure, allowed Héctor José Cámpora to become the Peronist candidate instead of Perón. Cámpora won the March 1973 election, issued pardons for condemned guerrilla members, and then secured Perón’s return from his exile in Spain.
On the day Perón returned to Argentina, the clash between Peronist internal factions—right-wing union leaders and left-wing youth from the Montoneros—resulted in the Ezeiza Massacre. Overwhelmed by political violence, Cámpora resigned and Perón won the following September 1973 election with his third wife Isabel as vice-president. He expelled Montoneros from the party and they became once again a clandestine organization. José López Rega organized the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance (AAA) to fight against them and the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP). Perón died in July 1974 and was succeeded by his wife, who signed a secret decree empowering the military and the police to “annihilate” the left-wing subversion, stopping ERP’s attempt to start a rural insurgence in Tucumán province. Isabel Perón was ousted one year later by a junta of the combined armed forces, led by army general Jorge Rafael Videla. They initiated the National Reorganization Process, often shortened to Proceso.
The Proceso shut down Congress, removed the judges on the Supreme Court, banned political parties and unions, and resorted to employing the forced disappearance of suspected guerrilla members including individuals suspected to be associated with the left-wing. By the end of 1976, the Montoneros had lost nearly 2,000 members and by 1977, the ERP was completely subdued. Nevertheless, the severely weakened Montoneros launched a counterattack in 1979, which was quickly put down, effectively ending the guerrilla threat and securing the junta’s position in power.
In 1982, the head of state, General Leopoldo Galtieri, authorized the invasion of the British-claimed territories of South Georgia and, on 2 April, of the Falkland Islands. The occupation provoked a military response from the United Kingdom leading to the Falklands War. Argentine forces were defeated and formally surrendered to British troops on 14 June. Street riots in Buenos Aires followed the defeat and the military leadership responsible for the humiliation withdrew. Reynaldo Bignone replaced Galtieri and began to organize the transition to democratic governance.
Return to democracy
Raúl Alfonsín won the 1983 elections campaigning for the prosecution of those responsible for human rights violations during the Proceso: the Trial of the Juntas and other martial courts sentenced all the coup’s leaders but, under military pressure, he also enacted the Full Stop and Due Obedience laws, which halted prosecutions further down the chain of command. The worsening economic crisis and hyperinflation reduced his popular support and the Peronist Carlos Menem won the 1989 election. Soon after, riots forced Alfonsín to an early resignation.
Menem embraced and enacted neoliberal policies: a fixed exchange rate, business deregulation, privatizations, and the dismantling of protectionist barriers normalized the economy in the short term. He pardoned the officers who had been sentenced during Alfonsín’s government. The 1994 Constitutional Amendment allowed Menem to be elected for a second term. With the economy beginning to decline in 1995, and with increasing unemployment and recession; the UCR, led by Fernando de la Rúa, returned to the presidency in the 1999 elections.
De la Rúa left in effect Menem’s economic plan despite the worsening crisis, which led to growing social discontent. Massive capital flight from the country was responded to with a freezing of bank accounts, generating further turmoil. The December 2001 riots forced him to resign. Congress appointed Eduardo Duhalde as acting president, who revoked the fixed exchange rate established by Menem, causing many working- and middle-class Argentines to lose a significant portion of their savings. By late 2002, the economic crisis began to recede, but the assassination of two piqueteros by the police caused political unrest, prompting Duhalde to move elections forward. Néstor Kirchner was elected as the new president.
Boosting the neo-Keynesian economic policies laid by Duhalde, Kirchner ended the economic crisis attaining significant fiscal and trade surpluses, and rapid GDP growth. Under his administration, Argentina restructured its defaulted debt with an unprecedented discount of about 70% on most bonds, paid off debts with the International Monetary Fund, purged the military of officers with dubious human rights records, nullified and voided the Full Stop and Due Obedience laws, ruled them as unconstitutional, and resumed legal prosecution of the Junta’s crimes.
He did not run for reelection, promoting instead the candidacy of his wife, senator Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who was elected in 2007 and subsequently reelected in 2011. Fernández de Kirchner’s administration established positive foreign relations with countries with questionable human rights records, including Venezuela, Iran, and Cuba, while at the same time relations with the United States and the United Kingdom became increasingly strained. By 2015, the Argentine GDP grew by 2.7% and real incomes had risen over 50% since the post-Menem era. Despite these economic gains and increased renewable energy production and subsidies, the overall economy had been sluggish since 2011.
On 22 November 2015, after a tie in the first round of presidential elections on 25 October, center-right coalition candidate Mauricio Macri won the first ballotage in Argentina’s history, beating Front for Victory candidate Daniel Scioli and becoming president-elect. Macri was the first democratically elected non-Peronist president since 1916 that managed to complete his term in office without being overthrown. He took office on 10 December 2015 and inherited an economy with a high inflation rate and in poor shape. In April 2016, the Macri Government introduced neoliberal austerity measures intended to tackle inflation and overblown public deficits. Under Macri’s administration, economic recovery remained elusive with GDP shrinking 3.4%, inflation totaling 240%, billions of US dollars issued in sovereign debt, and mass poverty increasing by the end of his term. He ran for re-election in 2019 but lost by nearly eight percentage points to Alberto Fernández, the Justicialist Party candidate.
President Alberto Fernández and Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner took office in December 2019, just months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Argentina and among accusations of corruption, bribery, and misuse of public funds during Nestor and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s presidencies.