Several distinct indigenous groups populated the area now called Argentina well before the arrival of the Europeans. The Incas made inroads into the highlands of the northwest. Most other groups were nomadic hunters and fishers, such as those in the Chaco, the Tehuelche of Patagonia, and the Querandí and Puelche (Guennakin) of the pampas. Others (the Diaguitas of the northwest) developed stationary agriculture.
In 1535, Spain -- having conquered Peru and being aware of Portugal's presence in Brazil -- sent an expedition headed by Pedro de Mendoza to settle the country. Mendoza was initially successful in founding Santa María del Buen Aire, or Buenos Aires (1536), but lack of food proved fatal. Mendoza, discouraged by Indian attacks and mortally ill, sailed for Spain in 1537; he died on the way.
Northern Argentina (including Buenos Aires) was settled mainly by people traveling from the neighboring Spanish colonies of Chile and Peru and the settlement of Asunción in Paraguay. Little migration occurred directly from Spain; the area lacked the attractions of colonies such as Mexico and Peru, with their rich mines, a large supply of Indian slave labor, and easy accessibility. Nevertheless, early communities forged a society dependent on cattle and horses imported from Spain, as well as native crops such as corn and potatoes. Pervasive Roman Catholic missions played a strong role in the colonizing process. The Spanish presence grew over the following centuries, as Buenos Aires became a critical South American port.
The years 1806 and 1807 saw the first stirrings of independence. Buenos Aires fought off two British attacks, in battles known as the Reconquista and the Defensa. Around this time, a civil war had distracted Spain from its colonial holdings, and many Argentine-born Europeans began to debate the idea of self-government in the Buenos Aires cabildo (a municipal council with minimal powers, established by colonial rulers). On July 9, 1816, Buenos Aires officially declared its independence from Spain, under the name United Provinces of the Río de la Plata. Several years of hard fighting followed before the Spanish were defeated in northern Argentina. But they remained a threat from their base in Peru until it was liberated by General José de San Martín (to this day a national hero) and Simón Bolívar from 1820 to 1824. Despite the drawing up of a national constitution, the territory that now constitutes modern Argentina was frequently disunited until 1860. The root cause of the trouble, the power struggle between Buenos Aires and the rest of the country, was not settled until 1880, and even after that it continued to cause dissatisfaction.
Conservative forces ruled for much of the late 19th and early 20th century, at one point deposing from power an elected opposition party president through military force. Despite the Conservatives' efforts to suppress new social and political groups -- including a growing urban working class -- their power began to erode. In 1943, the military overthrew Argentina's constitutional government in a coup led by then army colonel Juan Domingo Perón. Perón became president in a 1946 election and was reelected 6 years later. He is famous (although by no means universally applauded) for his populist governing style, which empowered and economically aided the working class. His wife, Eva Duarte de Perón (popularly known as Evita), herself a controversial historical figure, worked alongside her husband to strengthen the voice of Argentina's women. In 1955, the military deposed Perón, and the following years were marked by economic troubles (partly the result of Perón's expansive government spending) and social unrest, with a surge in terrorist activity by both the left and the right. While Perón was exiled in Spain, his power base in Argentina strengthened, allowing his return to the presidency in 1973. When he died in 1974, his third wife (and vice president), Isabel, replaced him.
The second Perónist era abruptly ended with a March 1976 coup that installed a military junta. The regime of Jorge Rafael Videla carried out a campaign to weed out anybody suspected of having Communist sympathies. Congress was closed, censorship imposed, and unions banned. Over the next 7 years, during this "Process of National Reorganization" -- a period known as the Guerra Sucia (Dirty War) -- the country witnessed a level of political violence that affects the Argentine psyche today: More than 10,000 intellectuals, artists, activists, and others were tortured or executed by the Argentine government. The mothers of these desaparecidos (the disappeared ones) began holding Thursday afternoon vigils in front of the Presidential Palace in Buenos Aires's Plaza de Mayo as a way to call international attention to the plight of the missing. Although the junta was overturned in 1983, the weekly protests continue to this day.
Public outrage over the military's human rights abuses, combined with Argentina's crushing defeat by the British in the 1982 Falkland Islands war, undermined the dictatorship's control of the country. An election in 1983 restored constitutional rule and brought Raúl Alfonsín of the Radical Civic Union to power. In 1989, political power shifted from the Radical Party to the Peronist Party (established by Juan Perón), the first democratic transition in 60 years. Carlos Saúl Ménem, a former governor of a province of little political significance, won the presidency by a surprising margin.
A strong leader, Ménem pursued an ambitious but controversial agenda, with the privatization of state-run institutions as its centerpiece. Privatization of inefficient state firms reduced government debt by billions of dollars, and inflation was brought under control. After 10 years as president -- and a constitutional amendment that allowed him to seek a second term -- Ménem left office. Meanwhile, an alternative to the traditional Perónist and Radical parties, the center-left FREPASO political alliance, had emerged. Radicals and FREPASO formed an alliance for the October 1999 election, and their candidate defeated his Perónist competitor.
President Fernando de la Rua, not as charismatic as his predecessor, was forced to reckon with the recession the economy had suffered since 1998. In an effort to eliminate Argentina's ballooning deficit, de la Rua followed a strict regimen of government spending cuts and tax increases recommended by the International Monetary Fund. However, the tax increase crippled economic growth, and political infighting prevented de la Rua from implementing other needed reforms designed to stimulate the economy. With a heavy drop in production and steep rise in unemployment, an economic crisis loomed.
The meltdown arrived with a run on the peso in December 2001, when investors moved en masse to withdraw their money from Argentine banks. Government efforts to restrict the run by limiting depositor withdrawals fueled anger throughout society, and Argentines took to the streets in sometimes violent demonstrations. De la Rua resigned on December 20, as Argentina faced the worst economic crisis in its history. A series of interim governments did little to improve the situation, as Buenos Aires began to default on its international debts. On January 1, 2002, Peronist President Eduardo Duhalde unlocked the Argentine peso from the dollar, and the currency's value quickly tumbled.
Poverty and emigration followed. Under popular president Nestor Kirchner (known as "The Penguin" for his Patagonian roots), the situation improved. High commodity prices and a weak peso caused an export boom, not to mention a surge in tourism both national and international.
Argentina Today -- In October 2007, Kirchner decided not to run for reelection (he could have easily won a second term) and handed the candidacy to his wife, Senator Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, which she won by a large majority. However, runaway inflation, a paralyzing farmer's dispute, and the overall global downturn has seen the first couple lose some of their sheen and caused the Argentine economy to stumble. Allegations of corruption and rising unemployment mean Nestor Kirchner will have his work cut out for him if he wishes to regain the presidency in 2011.
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