The earliest traces of human life in the area now known as Argentina date back to the Paleolithic, with further traces in the Mesolithic and Neolithic. Until the time of European colonisation, Argentina was relatively sparsely populated, with many different cultures with different social organisations, which can be divided into three main groups. The first group is made up of simple hunters and food gatherers without the development of pottery, such as the Selknam and Yaghan in the far south. The second group is the advanced hunters and gatherers, which includes the Puelches, Querandis and Serranos in the central-east, the Tehuelches in the south – all of whom were conquered by the Mapuches from Chile – and the Kom and Wichi in the north. The last group is made up of pottery farmers, such as the Charrúa, Minuane and Guaraní in the north-east, who practise slash-and-burn agriculture and lead a semi-segmental existence; the advanced sedentary trading culture of the Diaguita in the northwest, conquered by the Inca Empire around 1480; the Toconoté, Hênîa and Kâmîare in the centre of the country; and the Huarpe in the centre-west, a culture that raised llama cattle and was strongly influenced by the Incas.
The colonial era
The first Europeans reached the region with the voyage of Amerigo Vespucci in 1502, and Spanish navigators Juan Díaz de Solís and Sebastian Cabot visited what is now Argentina in 1516 and 1526, respectively. In 1536, Pedro de Mendoza founded the small colony of Buenos Aires, which was abandoned in 1541.
Other colonisation efforts came from Paraguay – which founded the governorate of Río de la Plata -, Peru and Chile. Francisco de Aguirre founded Santiago del Estero in 1553; London was founded in 1558; Mendoza, 1561; San Juan, 1562; San Miguel de Tucumán, 1565. Juan de Garay founded Santa Fe in 1573, and the same year Jerónimo Luis de Cabrera founded Córdoba. Garay went further south and refounded Buenos Aires in 1580; San Luis was founded in 1596.
The Spanish Empire subordinated the economic potential of the Argentine territory to the immediate wealth of the silver and gold mines of Bolivia and Peru, and so it was part of the Viceroyalty of Peru until the creation of the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata in 1776, with Buenos Aires as capital.
Buenos Aires repelled two ill-fated British invasions in 1806 and 1807. The ideas of the Enlightenment and the example of the early Atlantic revolutions led to criticism of the absolutist monarchy that ruled the country. As in the rest of Spanish America, the fall of Ferdinand VII during the Peninsular War caused great unrest.
Independence and civil wars
At the beginning of a process that would make Argentina the successor state to the viceroyalty, the revolution of May 1810 replaced Viceroy Baltasar Hidalgo de Cisneros with the first junta, a new government formed by the people of Buenos Aires. In the first confrontations of the War of Independence, the junta defeated a royalist counter-revolution in Córdoba, but failed in the uprisings in Banda Oriental, Alto Peru and Paraguay, which later became independent states.
The revolutionaries split into two antagonistic groups: the Centralists and the Federalists – a decision that would define the first decades of Argentina’s independence. The Assembly of the Year XIII appointed Gervasio Antonio de Posadas as Argentina’s first Supreme Director.
In 1816, the Congress of Tucumán formalised the Declaration of Independence. A year later, General Martín Miguel de Güemes stopped the royalists in the north, and General José de San Martín led an army across the Andes and secured the independence of Chile; he then took the fight to the Spanish fortress of Lima and proclaimed the independence of Peru. In 1819, Buenos Aires adopted a centralist constitution, but it was soon repealed by the federalists.
The battle of Cepeda in 1820, between the centralists and the federalists, led to the end of the reign of the Supreme Director. In 1826, another centralist constitution was promulgated in Buenos Aires, and Bernardino Rivadavia became the country’s first president. However, the interior provinces soon rose up against him, forcing him to resign and rejecting the constitution. Centralists and federalists resumed the civil war; the latter won and in 1831 formed the Argentine Confederation under the leadership of Juan Manuel de Rosas. During his regime he faced a French blockade (1838-40), the Confederate War (1836-39) and a combined Anglo-French blockade (1845-50), but he remained undefeated and avoided further loss of national territory. However, his policy of restricting trade angered the interior provinces and in 1852 he was ousted from power by Justo José de Urquiza, another powerful caudillo. As the new president of the Confederation, Urquiza promulgated the liberal and federal constitution of 1853. Buenos Aires seceded, but was forced back into the Confederation after its defeat at the Battle of Cepeda in 1859.
The emergence of the modern nation
With the victory over Urquiza in the Battle of Pavón in 1861, Bartolomé Mitre secured the supremacy of Buenos Aires and was elected the first president of the reunified country. He was followed by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento and Nicolás Avellaneda; these three presidencies laid the foundations of the modern Argentine state.
Starting with Julio Argentino Roca in 1880, ten successive federal governments emphasised liberal economic policies. The massive wave of immigration from Europe that they encouraged – second only to that from the United States – led to a virtual renewal of Argentine society and economy that made the country the seventh richest developed nation in the world by 1908. As a result of this wave of immigration and the decline in mortality, Argentina’s population increased fivefold and its economy fifteenfold: from 1870 to 1910, Argentine wheat exports rose from 100,000 to 2,500,000 tons (110,000 to 2,760,000 short tons) per year, while frozen beef exports increased from 25,000 to 365,000 tons (28,000 to 402,000 short tons) per year, making Argentina one of the five largest exporters in the world. Railway mileage increased from 503 to 31,104 km, and the literacy rate rose from 22% to 65%, a level that most Latin American countries would not reach even fifty years later. Moreover, real gross domestic product grew so rapidly that between 1862 and 1920, despite enormous immigration, per capita income rose from 67% of the level of the industrialised countries to 100%: in 1865 Argentina was among the top 25 nations in terms of per capita income, and by 1908 it had overtaken Denmark, Canada and the Netherlands to rank 7th – behind Switzerland, New Zealand, Australia, the United States, Britain 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 reach its initial industrialisation goals: after the rapid development of local capital-intensive industries in the 1920s, a significant part of the manufacturing sector remained labour-intensive in the 1930s.
In 1912, President Roque Sáenz Peña introduced universal and secret male suffrage, which allowed Hipólito Yrigoyen, leader of the Radical Civil Union (or UCR), to win the 1916 elections. He implemented social and economic reforms and extended support to family farmers and small businesses. Argentina remained neutral during the First World War. Yrigoyen’s second government faced an economic crisis influenced by the Great Depression.
A decade of fame
In 1930, Yrigoyen was ousted from power by the military led by José Félix Uriburu. Although Argentina had been one of the fifteen richest countries until the middle of the century, this coup marked the beginning of a steady economic and social decline that plunged the country back into underdevelopment.
Uriburu ruled for two years; then Agustín Pedro Justo was elected in a rigged election and signed a controversial treaty with the UK. Argentina remained neutral during World War II, a decision that was fully supported by Britain but rejected by the United States after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Another military coup overthrew the government, and Argentina declared war on the Axis powers a month before the end of World War II in Europe. The Minister of Welfare, Juan Domingo Perón, was removed from office and imprisoned because of his great popularity with the workers. His release was forced by a massive popular demonstration, and he won the 1946 elections.
Perón created a political movement that became known as Peronism. He nationalised strategic industries and services, improved wages and working conditions, paid off all foreign debt and achieved near full employment. However, the economy began to decline in 1950 due to excessive spending. His very popular wife, Eva Perón, played a central political role. She pushed Congress to pass women’s suffrage in 1947 and introduced unprecedented social support for the most vulnerable in society. However, her declining health did not allow her to run for the vice presidency in 1951, and she died of cancer the following year. Perón was re-elected in 1951, surpassing even his 1946 result, and in 1955 the navy bombed the Plaza de Mayo in a failed attempt to kill the president. A few months later, in the self-proclaimed coup of the Liberation Revolution, he resigned and went into exile in Spain.
The new head of state, Pedro Eugenio Aramburu, banned Peronism and all its manifestations; nevertheless, Peronists continued to organise underground. Arturo Frondizi of the UCR won the next elections. He encouraged investment to achieve energy and industrial self-sufficiency, reversed the chronic trade deficit and lifted the ban on Peronism; but his efforts to stay on good terms with the Peronists and the military earned him disapproval from both sides, and a new coup forced him to resign. But the leader of the Senate, José María Guidore, reacted swiftly by enforcing the legislation against the power vacuum and becoming president in his place; the elections were annulled and Peronism was banned again. Arturo Illia was elected in 1963 and brought about a general increase in prosperity; however, his attempts to legalise Peronism led to his overthrow in 1966 by the coup d’état led by Juan Carlos Onganía, called the Argentine Revolution, a new military government that sought to rule indefinitely.
The “Dirty War” (Spanish: Guerra Sucia) is the name used by the Argentine government to refer to a period of state terrorism in Argentina against political dissidents. Military and security forces waged urban and rural guerrilla warfare against leftist guerrillas, political dissidents and anyone suspected of being associated with socialism. Among the victims of this violence are an estimated 15,000 to 30,000 left-wing activists and militants, including trade unionists, students, journalists, Marxists, Peronist guerrillas and suspected sympathisers. About 10,000 of the “disappeared” have been attributed to the Montoneros guerrillas (MPM) and the Marxist Popular Revolutionary Army (ERP). According to an article in National Geographic Magazine, the guerrillas were responsible for at least 6,000 military, police and civilian deaths in the mid-1980s. The disappeared were seen as a political or ideological threat to the military junta, and their disappearance as an attempt to silence the opposition and break the resolve of the guerrillas.
Declassified documents from the Chilean secret police give an official Batallón de Inteligencia 601 estimate of 22,000 people killed or ‘disappeared’ between 1975 and mid-1978. 8,625 people disappeared during this period, it was later learned, in the form of PEN (Poder Ejecutivo Nacional, anglicised as ‘national executive’) detainees held in secret detention centres throughout Argentina before being released under diplomatic pressure. The number of people allegedly killed or ‘disappeared’ varies, depending on the source, from 9,089 to 30,000 for the period from 1976 to 1983, when the military was ousted from power after Argentina’s defeat in the Falklands War. The National Commission on Enforced Disappearances estimates that about 13,000 people have disappeared.
After the restoration of democratic government, Congress passed a law to compensate the families of victims. Some 11,000 Argentines applied to the relevant authorities and received up to US$200,000 each as financial compensation for the loss of relatives during the military dictatorship.
The exact chronology of the repression is disputed, however, because in some ways the long political war began as early as 1969. Trade unionists were murdered by Peronist and Marxist paramilitaries as early as 1969, and individual cases of state terrorism against Peronism and the left date back to the Plaza de Mayo bombing in 1955. The Trelew massacre in 1972, the actions of the Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance since 1973, and Perón’s ‘extermination decrees’ of Isabel Martínez against the leftist guerrillas during Operativo Independencia (translated: Operation Independence) in 1975 have also been proposed as the beginning of the dirty war.
Onganía paralysed the Congress, banned all political parties and dissolved the student and worker unions. In 1969, popular discontent led to two massive demonstrations: the Cordobazo and the Rosariazo. The Montoneros terrorist guerrilla organisation kidnapped and executed Aramburu. The head of the newly elected government, Alejandro Agustín Lanusse, seeking to alleviate the growing political pressure, presented Héctor José Cámpora as the Peronist candidate to replace Perón. Cámpora won the March 1973 elections, pardoned the convicted guerrillas, and then organised Perón’s return from Spanish exile.
On the day of Perón’s return to Argentina, the clash between internal Peronist factions – right-wing union leaders and left-wing young Montoneros – led to the Ezeiza massacre. Cámpora resigned, overwhelmed by the political violence, and Perón won the September 1973 elections with his third wife, Isabel, as vice-president. He expelled the Montoneros from the party and they became a clandestine organisation again. José López Rega organised the Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance (AAA) to fight against them and the Popular Revolutionary Army (ERP). Perón died in July 1974 and was succeeded by his wife. She signed a secret decree authorising the army and police to “crush” leftist subversion and to stop the ERP’s attempt to launch a rural insurrection in Tucumán province. Isabel Perón was overthrown a year later by a three-armed junta led by army general Jorge Rafael Videla. They launched the process of national reorganisation, often abbreviated as Proceso.
The Proceso paralysed Congress, removed Supreme Court judges, banned political parties and trade unions, and forcibly disappeared people suspected of belonging to the guerrillas or having links with the left. By the end of 1976, the Montoneros had lost nearly 2,000 members; by 1977, the ERP was completely defeated. The weakened Montoneros launched a counter-attack in 1979 which was quickly crushed, ending the guerrilla threat. Nevertheless, the junta remained in power. General Leopoldo Galtieri, then head of state, launched Operation Rosario, which degenerated into the Falklands War (Guerra de Malvinas); in two months Argentina was defeated by the United Kingdom. Reynaldo Bignone replaces Galtieri and begins to organise the transition to a democratic regime.
The contemporary era
Raúl Alfonsín won the 1983 elections by advocating the prosecution of those responsible for human rights violations during the Proceso: The Trial of the Juntas and other courts martial convicted all coup leaders, but under pressure from the military he also enacted the Full Stop and Due Obedience laws, which ended prosecutions down the chain of command. The deepening economic crisis and hyperinflation reduced his popular support, and Peronist Carlos Menem won the 1989 elections. Soon after, riots forced Alfonsín to resign early.
Menem pursued a neo-liberal policy: a fixed exchange rate, deregulation of businesses, privatisation and the dismantling of protectionist barriers normalised the economy for a time. He pardoned officers who had been convicted under Alfonsín’s government. The 1994 constitutional amendment allowed Menem to be elected for a second term. The economy began to decline in 1995, with rising unemployment and a recession. Under the leadership of Fernando de la Rúa, the UCR returned to the presidency in the 1999 elections.
De la Rúa maintained Menem’s economic plan despite the deepening crisis, which led to growing social discontent. A massive flight of capital was followed by a freeze on bank accounts, which led to further unrest. The unrest in December 2001 forced him to resign. Congress appointed Eduardo Duhalde as interim president, who abolished the fixed exchange rate introduced by Menem. At the end of 2002, the economic crisis began to ease, but the killing of two piqueteros by the police caused political unrest, prompting Duhalde to bring forward the elections. Néstor Kirchner was elected as the new president.
Supporting Duhalde’s neo-Keynesian economic policies, Kirchner ended the economic crisis with large fiscal and trade surpluses and strong GDP growth. Under his administration, Argentina restructured its defaulted debt by granting an unprecedented haircut of about 70% on most bonds, repaid its debts to the International Monetary Fund, purged the military of officers with questionable human rights records, annulled and repealed the Full Stop and Due Obedience laws, declaring them unconstitutional, and resumed prosecution of Juntas’ crimes. He did not seek re-election, preferring to promote the candidacy of his wife, Senator Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who was elected in 2007 and re-elected in 2011.
On 22 November 2015, after a tie in the first round of the presidential election on 25 October, Mauricio Macri won the first round of voting in Argentina’s history, defeating ‘Victory Front’ candidate Daniel Scioli to become president-elect. Macri is the first democratically elected non-radical or Peronist president since 1916, although he had the support of the former. He took office on 10 December 2015. In April 2016, the Macri government introduced austerity measures to combat inflation and public deficits.