A brief history of Argentina
Prior to the arrival of the Spanish in 1516, some 300,000 Amerindians in 20 groups lived in the region we know as Argentina. Although today Argentina is the largest of the former Spanish colonies and one of the most prosperous, during its 300 years as a colony it was mostly neglected because it had no precious metals.
Independence was declared in 1810 and achieved in 1816. As an independent nation, Argentina became one of the three primary receiving nations of European immigrants throughout the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. Argentina continues to receive immigrants from many parts of the world. Economic development occurred rapidly in the last half of the 19th century as the fertile pampas began to shift from pastoral to agricultural production.
In the first part of the 20th century, because of agricultural exportations, Argentina became one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and as such attracted millions of European immigrants. World War II sped the industrialization of the Argentinean economy due to the debilitation of U.S. and European industries. Industrial leaders, however, paid little attention to the development of national technology and infrastructure.
The social situation was peaceful and stable until the military golpe de estado of 1930. Another military golpe occurred in 1943 after which Juan Domingo Perón, the Secretary of Labor under the military government, arose as a popular leader in the country. He encouraged the growth of the labor unions and increased salaries. In 1946 he was elected president.
Perón became the archetype of the Latin American populist, nationalist and authoritarian leader. He was elected president twice, overthrown by a coup and exiled for almost 20 years to Spain, then returned in 1973 to be elected president again. His widow Isabel succeeded him in the presidency. When she was removed in a bloodless coup in 1976, there began a seven-year period of state terrorism, the infamous “dirty war,” in which 10,000 to 15,000 people were “disappeared” by the anticommunist military regime. This ended only after Argentina’s defeat in the Falklands War with the United Kingdom.
Argentina is one of the few countries that tried and sentenced former members of the ruling junta for crimes committed during the military regime, but after an attempted coup in 1987 the civilian government had to retreat. Thereafter trials of military personnel were limited to a few superior officers, who took the blame for the whole war. These trials have resumed under the presidencies of Néstor Kirchner (2003–2007) and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2008–present).
Carlos Menem, elected in 1989 as an heir to Perón, was an advocate of structural adjustment programs. He privatized state interests, cut government spending and managed to stop the inflation that had plagued the Argentinian economy for decades. Many of the state-run services and industries, especially the petroleum industry, were bought out by foreign companies who have put their own employees in key upper-level positions. This caused a sharp decrease in the Argentine middle class. In efforts to attract foreign capital, Menem neglected important social welfare programs that had been established by Perón. His pretentions as an heir to Perón were immediately and dramatically contradicted by his advocacy of structural adjustment progam. Nothing could be further from classic Perónism.
Fernando de la Rue became president in 1999. After years of increasing unemployment, recession, default on a tremendous international debt, devaluation of the peso and restrictions placed on bank withdrawals, rioting and demonstrations broke out in December 2001. Twenty-seven people were killed in the social chaos that rose up over Argentina’s economic chaos. De la Rue resigned. There were four presidential changes in the weeks that followed before Eduardo Duhalde took office as interim president in January 2002. In efforts to meet IMF requirements, Duhalde altered the peso’s exchange rate and put heavy restrictions on banking. The peso devalued by 50 percent in the weeks that followed. The steps were not popular, especially since some citizens saw the IMF as a major factor causing the crisis. Poverty and unemployment continued to increase dramatically until late 2003.
Nestor Kirchner became president in May 2003. One of his major tasks was to negotiate with the IMF and creditors to come to terms with the nation’s heavy debt burden. Since then the poverty rate and the unemployment rates have been slowly but steadily improving. Kirchner has been actively supporting Mercosur (Mercado Común del Sur, a trade agreement among Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay) economic alliances to try to decrease dependence on the IMF, United States and European economic interests. Kirchner undertook the difficult task of stabilizing the economy, reinforcing transportation and communications infrastructures and allowing the reappearance of the middle class. Kirchner was succeeded by his wife, Cristina Fernández, the current president. The Argentine economy is quite robust at the moment. There sre still deep contradictions between rich and poor, still an enormous growth of agricultural exports, especially soybeans — generally a stable and growing economy.