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The Cultural Growth of the 1920's and 1930's

The economic expansion, wealth, and sense of power Argentina had during this time laid the groundwork for strong cultural growth by the 1920s and 1930s. During this period, traditions that had always existed among the lower classes within Buenos Aires bubbled to the surface and came into international recognition. Tango has its roots in slave culture, and immigrants (mostly Italian) adopted the dance as they moved to Argentina. While the dance had always been associated with the slums of the lower classes, one man changed all of that. In 1917, Carlos Gardel, who began his career singing as a child in Buenos Aires's Abasto Market, recorded what is considered the first important tango song -- "Mi Noche Triste," which launched him to stardom. Throughout the 1920s, Gardel toured in France. Seeing that Parisians accepted tango, the upper classes within Argentina began to embrace it as well. By the middle of the 1920s, tango became the country's most important musical form; its history and eventual acceptance internationally is akin to the rise of jazz in the United States. Gardel recorded numerous songs and toured Europe, South America, and the United States, making musical movies along the way. He died young, at the age of 44, on June 24, 1935, in a plane crash in Colombia, which solidified his status as one of Argentina's most important cultural icons.

The same period saw a flowering of literature and live theater. Jorge Luis Borges published short stories that often spoke of the struggles of the gangsters and lower classes in Buenos Aires and other parts of Argentina. Along with other colleagues, Borges launched the short-lived literary magazine Proa in 1924. By the 1930s, amid political chaos, eminent civil war, and repression in Spain, Buenos Aires became the preeminent center of Spanish-language culture. Among the most important Spanish artists who came during this period was the playwright Federico García Lorca, who lived in Buenos Aires briefly during 1933 and 1934, staying at the Castelar Hotel on Avenida de Mayo.

The 1930s were also a golden age for Argentine radio and cinema. Many stars came of age at this time, including Tita Morello and Libertad Lamarque. The Argentine film industry's only South American rival was in Rio de Janeiro. Even there, however, stars such as Carmen Miranda, long before Hollywood discovered her, emulated the style of Buenos Aires movie stars who set the trends on the continent. By the 1930s, Avenida Corrientes was also widened, many theaters moved to this new location, and many new ones opened.

Viewed from the edges, the city of Buenos Aires glittered as the cultural capital of Argentina, pulling many a young man and woman in from the provinces to seek fame. In 1934, one teenage girl from the city of Junín in the Province of Buenos Aires would come to do just that, changing Argentine history forever with her determination beyond the obvious glamour of the stage and screen. Though accounts differ as to exactly how Maria Eva Duarte came to Buenos Aires -- whether she was escorted by members of her family or by her purported lover, Augustin Magaldi, one of the country's top tango singers -- she was in Buenos Aires for her very first time at the tender age of 15. With little but her looks, charm, and persistence, Ms. Duarte moved through a succession of jobs and men in theater, radio, and film. Many claimed she lacked talent, but with her connections, she became a force to be reckoned with. Various bosses hired her knowing only who her current powerful boyfriends were. Eventually, with success as an actress, she would meet her most powerful boyfriend of all.

The Peron Years

Few eras of Argentina's history play into its modern-day politics like the Perón era. In 1943, the military overthrew Argentina's constitutional government in a coup. Perón was put in charge of the National Labor Office, making him popular among the working class. Unique among members of the military, he had a flare for public relations, courting members of the media as well as young stars. Even during this period, he was revealing what would eventually be part of his persona: He is often the only member of the military smiling in photographs.

Perón's popularity was anchored by an earthquake that occurred on January 15, 1944, in San Juan, a city near Mendoza in the shadows of the Andes. Ten thousand people died and nearly half the city was left homeless. The tragic event became the ultimate public relations opportunity for Perón, as he rallied support for the region. Perón arranged a fundraiser for the victims of the earthquake with a star-studded concert in Luna Park, a stadium in Buenos Aires. Legend has it that at this event, he met 24-year-old actress Eva Duarte, changing Argentina's history forever. (In fact, photographic evidence makes clear that the two had met before, in Buenos Aires.)

Fearing his rise to power, the military government arrested Perón and imprisoned him on Juan García Island in the Tigre Delta. A near revolt occurred in Buenos Aires, and the government quickly released him. On October 17, 1945 (the most important date in the Peronist calendar), Perón spoke to a crowd gathered from a balcony at the Casa Rosada and announced that elections would be forthcoming. Feeling the need to legitimize their relationship with elections pending, Eva and Perón married secretly in Los Toldos, the town of her birth, using the civil registry. They later married in a Catholic ceremony in La Plata, the provincial capital of Buenos Aires Province. Ordinarily, the Catholic Church would not have sanctioned the marriage, given Duarte's reputation as a "tainted" woman, but the priest was a relative of Perón's.

Perón became president in 1946 in an election marked by fraud and brutality on both sides. Though Juan was technically the power, he could not have retained his popularity without Eva (nicknamed Evita by the people) at his side. Knowing that their power was based in worker's unions, the couple launched numerous economic and work initiatives, many along the lines of communist-style 5-year plans, and employment and wages spiked under the new regime.

The modern middle class of Argentina, now weakened by more recent economic policies, owes its existence to this period. Eva used her position to create the Eva Perón Foundation, which was as much a public relations tool as a charity service for the first lady. Under the official economic plans and the foundation, contributions were forced from workers and the wealthy alike; land, buildings, and factories were seized from the oligarchs; and the railroads, formerly in the hands of the British, were nationalized in lieu of payment for unpaid war debts owed by Great Britain to Argentina. Throughout the country, the couple built hospitals, schools, and playgrounds for lower-class citizens and their children. One children's park, the Ciudad de los Niños in La Plata, served as the model for Walt Disney when he designed Disneyland, in California. The popularity of the power couple soared among the poor, but the two were despised by the upper classes and the military alike.

After Evita's long insistence, women received the right to vote in 1947, and the presidential elections of 1951 were the first in which women participated. Wanting to legitimize her power within the government, Evita sought to be vice president on the 1951 election ballots, but Perón forced her to decline. Stricken with cervical cancer, Evita was dying, and forfeiting this final fight worsened her health. She voted in the elections from her hospital bed. She was so weak for the inaugural parade through Buenos Aires that they doped her up with painkillers and strapped her body to a wood frame, hidden by an oversize fur coat, so she could wave to crowds.

On July 26, 1952, Evita finally died. A 2-week mourning period ensued, and millions poured into Buenos Aires to pay their final respects. More than a dozen people died and hundreds were injured in the commotion as mourners lined up for days to view Evita's body in its glass coffin. Knowing that without Evita his days might soon be over, Perón commissioned a monument to her, which was never completed, and had her body embalmed to be preserved forever.

A period of economic instability ensued, exacerbated by Perón's own policies. He had, in essence, robbed the country of its wealth by spending on social causes (and siphoning much for his own use). In 1955, the military deposed Perón and stole Evita's body, sending it on a journey that lasted nearly 17 years before it resurfaced. Images of the Peróns were banned in Argentina; even uttering their names was an offense.

Perón bounced through several countries -- Paraguay, Panama, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic -- before finally settling in Spain, ruled by his longtime ally Francisco Franco. During his time in Panama, he met his future third wife and vice president, Isabel Martínez, a nightclub dancer.

While Perón was exiled in Spain, Evita's body was returned to him, and his power base in Argentina strengthened, allowing his return to the presidency in 1973. Still, his arrival was wrought with chaos. Gun battles broke out at Ezeiza Airport when his plane landed, leaving several of his followers and rivals dead. When he died in 1974, Isabel replaced him. Neither as strong as her husband nor his previous wife, Isabel could not hold onto the country for very long. She took on the nickname Isabelita, to bring back the memory of her predecessor, and, as an occultist, she supposedly held séances over the coffin of Evita in order to absorb her power. Despite her efforts, terrorism and economic instability persisted during her short reign, and on March 24, 1976, she was deposed in a military coup.

The Dirty War & Its Aftermath

The regime of Jorge Rafael Videla, established in the junta, carried out a campaign to weed out anybody suspected of having Communist or Peronist sympathies. (Ironically, it was in this period that Evita was finally laid to rest in her current tomb in Recoleta Cemetery.) Congress was closed, censorship imposed, and unions banned. Over the next 7 years, during this "Process of National Reorganization" -- a period now known as the Guerra Sucia (Dirty War) or El Proceso -- between 10,000 and 30,000 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 in Buenos Aires and in other large cities in the country.

With the Argentine population growing increasingly vocal about human rights abuses and the increasingly worsening economy, the military dictatorship sought a patriotic distraction.

Argentines have long laid claim to the Falkland Islands, known locally as the Islas Malvinas. The basis for the claim is that the territory, which was used for a penal colony beginning in 1828, was part of the Spanish Empire that Argentina conquered when it won independence. Argentina's early military rivals for power over the islands included both Britain and the United States. Argentina proved to be too young a nation with too little power to control such a remote region: The British seized the islands in 1833 by simply sending warships and a gentlemanly note to the Argentine commander in charge, José María Pinedo.

The taking of the Falklands had always been a sticking point among Argentines. In the early 1980s, Argentine President Leopoldo Galtieri assumed that invading the Falklands would be easy and bring much needed support to his government. Galtieri believed the invasion would go almost unnoticed by the United Kingdom (unbelievable in retrospect) because the U.K. didn't really want the islands and would not tolerate a loss of life to protect its far-flung turf. At the United Nations, Argentina had made several attempts to bring up their claim to the Falklands before the invasion, without any response from Great Britain.

The Argentines tested the waters by first invading the South Georgia Islands on March 19, 1982. On April 2, Galtieri launched the full-fledged invasion of the Falklands. The invasion was ill-fated, ill-planned, and tragic; nearly 900 people died in the short war. Most of Argentina's military forces remained on the Chilean border out of concern that British ally Augusto Pinochet of Chile would use the war as a reason to invade his eastern neighbor. Losses were heaviest on the Argentine side, including the sinking of the battleship General Belgrano with nearly 300 sailors aboard. Officially, neither side declared war on the other during the entire dispute. While no other powers contributed to the military effort, much of Latin America sided with Argentina, while Europe and the United States sided with Great Britain.

The war was a diplomatic nightmare for the United States, whose Monroe Doctrine -- penned nearly 180 years before -- technically required it to declare war on Great Britain. However, the war meant the end of the military regime and the solidification of power for Great Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Virtually forgotten in the greater world, it's almost a joke among English-speaking nations that Argentina would challenge one of the world's greatest naval powers. But the war is a serious issue for Argentines, who still lay claim to the Falklands.

Galtieri's defeat brought about his greatest fear: the collapse of his government. 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 from the province of La Rioja, 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. With the peso pegged to the dollar, Argentina enjoyed unprecedented price stability, allowing Ménem to deregulate and liberalize the economy. For many Argentines, it meant a kind of prosperity they had not seen in years. The policies had a dark side, however. The new money controls devastated local manufacturing, and the country's entire export market virtually dried out. World financial crises in the late 1990s, including those in Mexico, East Asia, Russia, and Brazil, increased the cost of external borrowing and further reduced the competitive edge of Argentine exports and industries. The chasm between rich and poor widened, squeezing out much of the middle class and eroding the social support systems put in place over the decades. This destroyed investor confidence, and the national deficit began to soar. Ménem was seen as a corrupt purveyor of cheap glamour. His wife, Cecilia, the former Miss Chile and Miss Universe, was hated by many and regarded as a trophy wife. Rumor has it that members of his government had a hand in the bombings of the Israeli Embassy and the AIMI Jewish Community Center bombings. Some of the accusations bear a racial tinge, given that he was Argentina's first president of Arabic descent.

After 10 years as president -- and a constitutional amendment that allowed him to seek a second term -- Ménem left office. By that time, an alternative to the traditional Peronist and Radical parties, the center-left FREPASO political alliance, had emerged on the scene. The Radicals and FREPASO formed an alliance for the October 1999 election, and the alliance's candidate, running on an anti-corruption campaign, defeated his Peronist competitor.

Less charismatic than his predecessor, President Fernando de la Rúa was forced to reckon with the recession the economy had suffered since 1998. In an effort to eliminate Argentina's ballooning deficit, de la Rúa 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 Rúa from implementing other needed reforms designed to stimulate the economy. With a heavy drop in production and a steep rise in unemployment, an economic crisis was looming.

The economic 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 through society, and Argentines took to the streets in sometimes violent demonstrations. De la Rúa resigned on December 20, as Argentina faced the worst economic crisis of its history. A series of interim governments did little to improve the situation, as Buenos Aires began to default on its international debts. Peronist President Eduardo Duhalde unlocked the Argentine peso from the dollar on January 1, 2002, and the currency's value quickly tumbled. Within a few months, several presidents came and went in the ensuing crisis, and several citizens died in street protests throughout the country. The country's default to the IMF was the largest in history.

Argentina's economic crisis severely eroded the population's trust in the government. Increased poverty, unemployment surpassing 20%, and inflation hitting 30% resulted in massive emigration to Italy, Spain, and other destinations in Europe and North America. Anyone who had the passport to do so fled to Miami, Milan, and Madrid in particular. Piqueteros and cartoneros, the protestors and the homeless, became a visible presence throughout Buenos Aires and other large cities, as the unemployed in rural areas picked garbage for a living. Many of the protestors, it is claimed, have been paid off or fomented by various factions in government seeking to further destabilize the country and bring visible chaos to the streets.

Ironically, those who could not flee the country in the midst of the economic chaos stayed behind and built a stronger nation. While under Ménem, Argentina idolized Europe and the United States, now citizens had to look to their own historical and cultural models, the things that were authentically Argentine. The tango -- long expected to die out as a dance for the older generation -- found new enthusiasts among the young. It had always been seen as a dance that alleviated pain, and there was more than enough of that to go around.

The country further stabilized by 2003, with the elections of Nestor Kirchner, the governor of the Province of Santa Cruz in Patagonia, a province made wealthy by oil exploration. Kirchner had proven his economic savvy by sending the province's investments overseas just before the collapse of the peso. A left-wing Peronist, he saw many of his friends disappear under the military regime. He reopened investigations into this dark period in Argentina's history and also went after the most corrupt of Ménem's regime. A consolidator of power, he and his senator wife -- Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, became the country's most important political couple. Under Kirchner, economic stability returned, with exports of soy, oil, and meat pumping the economy, a cheap peso and an overall global boom meant there was a hungry market for the raw material Argentina produces, especially with China and other Asian economies. Tourism became the third-most-important economic sector under his administration, with many well-off foreigners deciding to stay and invest in property and business.

Yet Kirchner could hardly be called a reformist and Argentine politics remained mired in a myriad of bitter rivalries, exacerbated by a weak bureaucratic civil service and compromised judiciary. Corruption scandals, such as public works bribes and a Venezuelan cash-in-suitcase election donation, failed to dent the president's popularity, buoyed by a consumer boom and relative prosperity. Sure to win a second term, Kirchner surprised everybody when he put his wife forward instead and she won the presidency in October 2007 with 45% of the vote, making her the country's first elected female leader.

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