Long before the Spanish arrived in the early 16th century to colonize the land we now know as Argentina a number of indigenous peoples lived there, such as the Diaguita in the Andes mountains and the Guarani, who lived further south and east. Both groups were strong enough to repel Spanish military invasions, which came in waves throughout the century, but ultimately they were not able to fight the diseases that Europeans brought with them; the Spanish firmly established Buenos Aires in the 1580s. After securing the area, the Spanish paid little attention to it for centuries, choosing instead to dedicate their resources toward Lima in Paru. Forbidden to trade with foreign nations, Buenos Aires became a haunt of smugglers, and of fiercely independent colonizers from a variety of European nations. When the British tried to claim Buenos Aires in 1806 and 1807 the locals boldly repelled them with little assistance from Spain. Starting with a revolution in May of 1810, a group of Argentine patriots, including Jose de San Martin, declared Argentina an independent nation. San Martin went on to help liberate Chile and Peru from Spanish rule.
For decades after independence Argentina experienced civil war between the unitarians, who wanted Buenos Aires to rule the land with a strong central government, and the federalists, who wanted Argentina to be a federation of relatively autonomous areas. The two sides struggled throughout the 19th century but were able to unify to develop a constitution and establish Buenos Aires as a growing center for international trade. Immigrants flowed in from many European nations, both to Buenos Aires and the southern region of Patagonia, which Argentine leaders brutally cleared of indigenous peoples like the Mapuche.
Argentina’s national economy grew throughout the early 1900s but when it slumped with the world’s economy during the Great Depression the military took command, including visionary colonel Juan Domingo Perón, who became a popular figure in the early 1940s. With his admired wife Eva (“Evita”) at his side, he won the presidency in 1946 and installed a dynamic regime that simultaneously promoted itself as a voice of social justice–it granted unprecedented power to laborers and trade unions–while it autocratically stifled opposition dissent. Evita passed away in 1952 and a military coup overthrew Perón in 1955, sending him into exile in Spain. Two decades of coups and multiple elections followed, throughout which “Peronistas” mainly battled the military for power. Perón returned in 1974, but died soon thereafter and left Argentina’s leadership to his third wife, Isabel, who proved ineffective and herself fell victim to a coup in 1976. From 1976 to 1983 Argentina suffered “The Dirty War,” in which General Jorge Rafael Videla’s troops “disappeared” tens of thousands of Argentines. When Argentina tried and failed to push the British out of the nearby Falkland Islands in 1982, anti-military sentiments rose and in 1983 a civilian government won the presidency.
Since the civilians took power Argentina has experienced a period of pronounced (but ultimately empty) economic boom under president Carlos Menem, a stunning and very near-fatal economic collapse (known locally as “La Crisis”), then a revival led by president Nestor Kirchner. Today Argentina’s economy seems stable, though there is still high inflation and poverty levels remain high. Whatever the state of the economy, the dark years of “Dirty War” seem further and further in the past, and Argentina bounds confidently, though unpredictably, forward.
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