In 1880, 300 years after the final, permanent founding of Buenos Aires, the city was made the official capital of Argentina. For decades afterward, Buenos Aires experienced a period of wealth and explosive growth, laying the foundation for the glory days that Argentines recall. Trade with Europe expanded, with cattle and grain from the newly conquered hinterlands as the main exports. Millions immigrated from Italy, Spain, and other countries, filling the city's slums, primarily in the southern sections of La Boca and San Telmo. To this day, there are almost as many Italian surnames as Spanish in Argentina. Even the Spanish spoken in Argentina seems to resemble Italian in its rhythm and pitch, and Lunfardo, the street dialect associated with tango, owes many of its words to immigrant Italian. The exponential growth of this time means that Buenos Aires -- unlike Salta, Córdoba, and other old Argentine cities -- retains few colonial buildings besides its churches.
Today, as a visitor mindful of Argentina's past several decades of political and economic chaos, it is difficult to make sense of the ostentatious infrastructure that remains from this earlier time. Built at tremendous expense, Buenos Aires was the imperial capital of a country hungry to assert its importance as a global power. Indeed, at the turn of the 20th century, Argentina was one of the 10 wealthiest countries in the world.
The Cultural Growth of the 1920s & 1930s
Argentina's wealth, economic expansion, and sense of power at the turn of the 20th century laid the groundwork for the cultural growth it experienced in the 1920s and 1930s. During this period, traditions that had always existed among the lower classes began to draw international attention. Tango had always been associated with the lower classes, but 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 into stardom. Throughout the 1920s, Gardel toured in France. Seeing Parisians accept and even embrace tango, Argentina's upper classes embraced it as well. By the middle of the 1920s, tango had become the country's most important musical form; its history is akin to the rise of jazz in the United States. Gardel died at the age of 44, on June 24, 1935, in a plane crash in Colombia, but only after having solidified his status as one of Argentina's most important cultural icons.
The same period saw a flowering of literature and theater. Jorge Luis Borges published short stories on the gangsters and lower classes of Buenos Aires. By the 1930s, with the Civil War and resulting repression in Spain, Buenos Aires became the preeminent center of Spanish-language culture. Federico García Lorca lived in Buenos Aires between 1933 and 1934, staying at the Castelar Hotel on Avenida de Mayo.
The 1930s were also a golden age for 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 Rio de Janeiro. Even there, however, stars such as Carmen Miranda, long before Hollywood discovered her, emulated the style of Buenos Aires. With the widening of Avenida Corrientes in the 1930s, many theaters opened here, making it the Broadway of Buenos Aires.
Buenos Aires glittered as the cultural capital of Argentina, pulling fame-seeking young men and women from the provinces. 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. Though accounts differ as to exactly how, we know that Maria Eva Duarte came to Buenos Aires for the first time at the tender age of 15. With little but looks, charm, and persistence, Ms. Duarte moved through a succession of jobs and men, in theater, radio, and film. Eventually, with her success as an actress, she would meet her most powerful boyfriend of all.
The Perón Years
Juan Perón's popularity was anchored by an earthquake that occurred on January 15, 1944, in San Juan, a city near Mendoza, while he served as the head of the country's labor division. About 10,000 people died and nearly half the city was left homeless. The event was Perón's ultimate public relations opportunity. He arranged a fundraiser for the victims of the earthquake with a star-studded concert in Luna Park, a stadium in Buenos Aires. Though they actually met earlier, legend cites the gala as the point at which Perón and Evita met.
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 from a balcony at the Casa Rosada and announced that elections would be forthcoming. Feeling the need to legitimize their relationship, Eva and Perón married secretly in Los Toldos, the town of her birth, using the civil registry, and later held a Catholic ceremony in La Plata, the provincial capital of Buenos Aires Province, overseen by a priest relative of Perón's.
Perón became president in 1946 in an election marked by fraud and brutality on both sides. Though Juan technically had the power, he could not have retained his popularity without Eva. With their power based in workers' unions, the couple launched numerous economic and work initiatives, many along the lines of Communist-style 5-year plans. Employment and wages spiked. Argentina's middle class owes its existence to this period.
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 vice presidential candidacy in the 1951 election, a move that was met with anger from many powerful political leaders but immense support from the working class. Juan ultimately forced her to renounce the nomination. 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 during the inaugural parade through Buenos Aires that she had to be doped up on painkillers and strapped to a wood frame, hidden by an oversized 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. 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 so that it would be preserved forever.
A period of economic instability ensued, exacerbated by Perón's own policies. In 1955, the military deposed him and stole Evita's body, sending it on a journey lasting 17 years. Images of the Peróns were banned by the military government; even uttering their names was an offense.
Juan Perón bounced through various countries -- Paraguay, Panama, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic -- before settling in Spain, ruled by longtime ally Francisco Franco. In Panama, he met his future third wife and vice president, nightclub dancer Isabel Martínez. While Perón was in exile, Evita's body was returned to him, and his power base in Argentina strengthened, enabling him to return to the presidency in 1973. Still, his arrival was fraught with chaos. Gun battles broke out at Ezeiza Airport when his plane landed. When he died in 1974, Isabel replaced him as president. Neither as strong as her husband nor his previous wife, Isabel could not hold the country for very long. She took on the nickname Isabelita to bring back the memory of her predecessor and she is said to have held séances over Evita's coffin to absorb her power. Despite her efforts, on March 24, 1976, she was deposed in a military coup headed by Jorge Rafael Videla.
Evita Perón: Woman, Wife, Icon -- Maria Eva Duarte de Perón, known the world over as Evita, captured the imagination of millions of Argentines because of her social and economic programs for the working classes. An illegitimate child of a wealthy businessman, she was born in Los Toldos, deep in the province of Buenos Aires. At 15, she moved to the capital to pursue her dreams of becoming an actress. She quickly achieved success, but was known more for her striking beauty than for talent. In 1944, she met Colonel Juan Perón, a rising figure in the Argentine government during a volatile period in the country's history. They married in 1945 and Evita became an important part of his presidential campaign. After he took office, she created the Eva Perón Foundation, which redirected funds traditionally controlled by Argentina's elite to programs benefiting hospitals, schools, homes for the elderly, and various charities. In addition, she raised wages for union workers, leading to the eventual growth of the Argentine middle class, and she succeeded in realizing women's right to vote in 1947. When Evita died of cancer on July 26, 1952, the working classes tried (unsuccessfully) to have her canonized. She is buried in Recoleta Cemetery in her father's family's tomb. She is one of only a few nonaristocratic figures in this most elite of final resting places.
You will find that even today there is considerable disagreement among Argentines over Evita's legacy. Members of the middle and lower classes tend to see her as a national hero, while many of the country's upper classes believe she stole money from the wealthy and used it to embellish her own popularity. Since the 50th anniversary of her death, the establishment of the Museo Evita, and the return of the Peronist party to power, her role in the country's history has been revisited far less emotionally.
The Dirty War & Its Aftermath
The regime of Jorge Rafael Videla, established as a military 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 was imposed, and unions were 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, and activists 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 means of calling international attention to the plight of the missing, a ritual that continues to this day. President Videla finally relinquished power to Roberto Violo in 1981. Violo would only serve as an interim president before being ousted by yet another military dictator, Leopoldo Galtieri, at the end of 1981.
In 1982, seeking a political distraction for an Argentine population growing increasingly vocal about human rights abuses and the worsening economy, President Galtieri invaded the Falkland Islands (known in Argentina as Islas Malvinas), which the British had taken from Argentina in 1833. The disastrous war, in which more than 900 died, ended the military regime. An election in 1983 restored constitutional rule and brought Raúl Alfonsín, of the Radical Civic Union, into 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. Ménem's policies, however, devastated manufacturing, and the export market virtually ended. The chasm between rich and poor widened, squeezing out much of the middle class and eroding social support systems. This destroyed investor confidence, and the national deficit soared.
After 10 years as president, 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. 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 (IMF). However, crippled economic growth and political infighting prevented de la Rúa from implementing other reforms to stimulate the economy. An economic crisis loomed.
The meltdown arrived with a run on the peso in December 2001. Government efforts to restrict the run by limiting bank withdrawals fueled anger 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. 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, and people died in street protests. The country's IMF default was the largest in history.
Argentina's economic crisis severely eroded the population's trust. Increased poverty, unemployment exceeding 20%, and inflation hitting 30% resulted in massive emigration. 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. Ironically, those who could not flee built a stronger nation. Under Ménem, Argentina idolized Europe and the United States, but now citizens had to look to their own historical and cultural models, things authentically Argentine. The tango -- long expected to die out as a dance for the older generation -- found new enthusiasts among the young.
The country further stabilized by 2003, with the election of Néstor 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 peso collapsed. A left-wing Peronist, he had seen 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 figures of Ménem's regime. He and his senator wife, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, became the country's most important political couple. Economic stability returned, with exports of soy, oil, and meat pumping the economy and a cheap peso. An overall global boom meant there was a hungry market for the Argentina's raw material exports, especially in the Chinese 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 was hardly a reformist and Argentine politics remained mired in bitter rivalries, exacerbated by a weak bureaucratic civil service and compromised judiciary. Corruption scandals, such as public works backhanders 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. 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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