Little is known of the earliest inhabitants of the region. Only in NW Argentina was there a native population with a material culture. They were an agricultural people (recalled today by ruins N of Jujuy), but their importance was eclipsed later by the Araucanians from Chile. Europeans probably first arrived in the region in 1502 in the voyage of Amerigo Vespucci. The southern inhabitants at that time primarily hunted and fished, while the northwestern Incas were agricultural and quite advanced, having built a highway before the arrival of the Spanish. The search for a Southwest Passage to Asia and the East Indies brought Juan Díaz de Solís to the Río de la Plata in 1516. Ferdinand Magellan entered (1520) the estuary, and Sebastian Cabot ascended (1536) the Paraná and Paraguay rivers. His delight in native ornaments may be responsible for the names Río de la Plata [silver river] and Argentina [of silver].
Pedro de Mendoza in 1536 founded the first settlement of the present Buenos Aires, but native attacks forced abandonment of the settlement, and Asunción became the unquestioned leading city of the Río de la Plata region. Buenos Aires was refounded in 1580 by Juan de Garay. His son-in-law, Hernando Arias de Saavedra (Hernandarias), secured the division of the Río de la Plata territories, and Buenos Aires achieved (1617) a sort of semi-independence under the viceroyalty of Peru.
The mercantilist system, however, severely hampered the commerce of Buenos Aires, and smuggling, especially with Portuguese traders in Brazil, became an accepted profession. While the cities of present W and NW Argentina grew by supplying the mining towns of the Andes, Buenos Aires was threatened by Portuguese competition. By the 18th cent., cattle (which were introduced to the Pampas in the 1550s) roamed wild throughout the Pampas in large herds and were hunted by gauchos for their skins and fat.
In 1776 the Spanish government made Buenos Aires a free port and the capital of a viceroyalty that included present Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and (briefly) Bolivia. From this combination grew the idea of a Greater Argentina to include all the Río de la Plata countries, a dream that was to haunt many Argentine politicians after independence was won.
A prelude to independence was the British attack on Buenos Aires. Admiral Sir Home Popham and Gen. William Carr Beresford took the city in 1806 after the Spanish viceroy fled. An Argentine militia force under Jacques de Liniers ended the British occupation and beat off a renewed attack under Gen. John Whitelocke in 1807.
On May 25, 1810 (May 25 is the Argentine national holiday), revolutionists, acting nominally in favor of the Bourbons dethroned by Napoleon (see Spain), deposed the viceroy, and the government was controlled by a junta. The result was war against the royalists. The patriots under Manuel Belgrano won (1812) a victory at Tucumán. On July 9, 1816, a congress in Tucumán proclaimed the independence of the United Provinces of the Río de La Plata. Other patriot generals were Mariano Moreno, Juan Martín de Pueyrredón, and José de San Martín.
Uruguay and Paraguay went their own ways despite hopes of reunion. In Argentina, a struggle ensued between those who wanted to unify the country and those who did not want to be dominated by Buenos Aires. Independence was followed by virtually permanent civil war, with many coups by regional, social, or political factions. Rule by the strong man, the caudillo, alternated with periods of democratic rule, too often beset by disorder.
Anarchy was not ended by the election of Bernardino Rivadavia in 1826. The unitarians, who favored a centralized government dominated by Buenos Aires, were opposed to the federalists, who resented the oligarchy of Buenos Aires and were backed by autocratic caudillos with gaucho troops. The unitarians triumphed temporarily when Argentines combined to help the Uruguayans repel Brazilian conquerors in the battle of Ituzaingó (1827), which led to the independence of Uruguay. The internal conflict was, however, soon resumed and was not even quelled when Gen. Juan Manuel de Rosas, the most notorious caudillo, established a dictatorship that lasted from 1835 to 1852. Ironically, this federalist leader, who was nominally only the governor of Buenos Aires, did more than the unitarians to unify the country. Ironically, too, this enemy of intellectuals stimulated his political opponents to write in exile some of the finest works of the Spanish-American romantic period; among the writers were Domingo F. Sarmiento, Bartolomé Mitre, José Mármol, and Esteban Echeverría.
Rosas was overthrown (1852) by Gen. Justo José de Urquiza, who called a constituent assembly at Santa Fe. A constitution was adopted (1853) based on the principles enunciated by Juan Bautista Alberdi. Mitre, denouncing Urquiza as a caudillo, brought about the temporary secession of Buenos Aires prov. (1861) and the downfall of the Urquiza plans. Under the administrations of Mitre (1862–68), Sarmiento (1868–74), and Nicolás Avellaneda (1874–80), schools were built, public works started, and liberal reforms instituted. The War of the Triple Alliance (see Triple Alliance, War of the), 1865–70, brought little advantage to Argentina.
In 1880 federalism triumphed, and Gen. Julio A. Roca became president (1880–1886); Buenos Aires remained the capital, but the federal district was set up, and Buenos Aires prov. was given La Plata as its capital. Argentina flourished during Roca's administration. The conquest of the indigenous peoples by General Roca (1878–79) had made colonization of the region in the south and the southwest possible. Already the Pampa had begun to undergo its agricultural transformation. The immigration of Europeans helped to fill the land and to make Argentina one of the world's granaries.
Establishment of refrigerating plants for meat made expansion of commerce possible. The British not only became the prime consumers of Argentine products but also invested substantially in the construction of factories, public utilities, and railroads (which were nationalized in 1948). Efforts to end the power of the great landowners, however, were not genuinely successful, and the military tradition continued to play a part in politics, the army frequently combining with the conservatives and later with the growing ranks of labor to alter the government by coup.
The second administration of Roca (1898–1904) was marked by recovery from the crises of the intervening years; a serious boundary dispute with Chile was settled (1902), and perpetual peace between the two nations was symbolized in the Christ of the Andes. Even before World War I, in which Argentina maintained neutrality, the wealthy nation had begun to act as an advocate for the rights and interests of Latin America as a whole, notably through Carlos Calvo, Luis M. Drago, and later Carlos Saavedra Lamas.
Internal problems, however, remained vexing. Electoral reforms introduced by Roque Sáenz Peña (1910–14) led to the victory of the Radical party under Hipólito Irigoyen (1916–22). He introduced social legislation, but when, after the presidency of Marcelo T. de Alvear, Irigoyen returned to power in 1928, his policies aroused much dissatisfaction even in his own party. In 1930 he was ousted by Gen. José F. Uriburu, and the conservative oligarchy—now with Fascist leanings—was again in power.
The administration (1932–38) of Agustín P. Justo was opposed by revolutionary movements, and a coalition of liberals and conservatives won an election victory. Radical leader Roberto M. Ortiz became president (1938), but serious illness caused him to resign (1942), and the conservative Ramón S. Castillo succeeded him. In 1943, Castillo was overthrown by a military coup. After two provisional presidents a "palace revolt" in 1944 brought to power a group of army colonels, chief among them Juan Perón. After four years of pro-Axis "neutrality," Argentina belatedly (Mar., 1945) entered World War II on the side of the Allies and became a member of the United Nations. A return to liberal government momentarily seemed probable, but Perón was overwhelmingly victorious in the election of Feb., 1946.
Perón, an admirer of Mussolini, established a type of popular dictatorship new to Latin America, based initially on support from the army, reactionaries, nationalists, and some clerical groups. His regime was marked by curtailment of freedom of speech, confiscation of liberal newspapers such as La Prensa, imprisonment of political opponents, and transition to a one-party state. His second wife, the popular Eva Duarte de Perón, helped him gain the support of the trade unions, thereafter the main foundation of Perón's political power. In 1949 the constitution of 1853 was replaced by one that permitted Perón to succeed himself as president; the Peronista political party was established the same year.
To cure Argentina's serious economic ills, Perón inaugurated a program of industrial development—which advanced rapidly in the 1940s and early 50s, although hampered by the lack of power resources and machine tools—supplemented by social welfare programs. Perón also placed the sale and export of wheat and beef under government control, thus undermining the political and economic power of the rural oligarchs. In the early 1950s, with recurring economic problems and with the death (1952) of his wife, Perón's popular support began to diminish. Agricultural production, long the chief source of revenue, dropped sharply and the economy faltered. The Roman Catholic church, alienated by the reversal of close church-state relations, excommunicated Perón and, finally, the armed forces became disillusioned with him. In 1955, Perón was ousted by a military coup, and the interim military government of Gen. Pedro Aramburu attempted to rid the country of Justicialismo (Peronism). Perón fled to Paraguay and in 1960 went into exile in Spain.
In 1957, Argentina reverted to the constitution of 1853 as modified up to 1898. In 1958, Dr. Arturo Frondizi was elected president. Faced with the economic and fiscal crisis inherited from Perón, Frondizi, with U.S. advice and the promise of financial aid, initiated a program of austerity to "stabilize" the economy and check inflation. Leftists, as well as Peronistas, who still commanded strong popular support, criticized the plan because the burden lay most heavily on the working and lower middle classes.
Frondizi later fell into disfavor with the military because of his leniency toward the regime of Fidel Castro in Cuba and toward Peronistas at home, who, in the congressional elections of 1962, scored a resounding victory. Frondizi was arrested and José María Guido assumed the presidency, but the military was in control. The Peronista and Communist parties were banned before presidential elections were held in 1963. Following the election of the moderate liberal Dr. Arturo Illia, many political prisoners were released and relative political stability returned. The new president was faced, however, with serious economic depression and with the difficult problem of reintegrating the Peronist forces into Argentine political life.
In 1964 an attempt by Perón to return from Spain and lead his followers was thwarted when he was turned back at Rio de Janeiro by Brazilian authorities. The Peronists, however, remained the strongest political force in the country; unwilling to tolerate another resurgence of Peronism, a junta of military leaders, supported by business interests, seized power (1966) and placed Gen. Juan Carlos Onganía, a long-time right-wing opponent of Illía, in the presidency. Under Onganía, the new government dissolved the legislature, banned all political parties, and exercised unofficial press censorship; Onganía also placed the national universities under government control.
Widespread opposition to the rigid rule of the Onganía regime grew, and the military deposed him (1970), naming Gen. Roberto M. Levingston president. Economic problems and increased terrorist activities caused Gen. Alejandro Lanusse, the leader of the coup against Onganía, to dismiss (1971) Levingston and initiate an active program for economic growth, distribution of wealth, and political stability. His direct negotiations with Juan Perón and his call for national elections and a civilian government led to the return of Perón to Argentina in 1972.
After failing to achieve unity among the various Peronist groups, Perón declined the nomination from his supporters to run for president in the Mar., 1973, elections, which were won by Dr. Hector Cámpora, the Peronist candidate, who subsequently resigned from office to make way for Perón's return. When new elections were held in Sept., 1973, Perón was elected president and his third wife, Isabel Martínez Perón, vice president. Perón died in July, 1974, and was succeeded by his widow. Her government faced economic troubles, labor unrest, political violence, and deep divisions within the Peronista party.
In 1976, Isabel Perón was deposed by a military junta under the leadership of Jorge Rafael Videla, who served as president until 1981. The government suspended political and trade union activity, dissolved the congress, made alterations to the constitution, and removed most government officals. During the military rule thousands of citizens suspected of undermining the government disappeared in what became known as the "dirty war." In 1981 Argentina petitioned the United Nations for possession of the Falkland Islands ( Islas Malvinas ), which had been occupied and claimed by the British since 1832. Tensions escalated until, on Apr. 2, 1982, Argentina, now under the rule of Lt.-Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri, invaded and occupied the islands. British forces responded quickly, forcing a surrender by Argentine forces within 6 weeks. The Argentine defeat led to Galtieri's resignation and subsequently to the end of military rule. Retired Gen. Reynaldo Bignone succeeded Galtieri as president and oversaw the return to democracy.
In 1983, Raúl Alfonsín won the presidency, but persistent economic problems plagued his tenure in office. Carlos Saúl Menem was elected president in 1988, bringing the Peronist Justicialist party back into power. A reform-minded leader, he stimulated economic growth and subdued hyperinflation in the early 1990s by instituting a major program of privatization, encouraging foreign investment, and tying the Argentine peso to the U.S. dollar. Constitutional amendments approved in 1994 placed curbs on presidential power and increased opposition power in the senate, while clearing the way for Menem to seek a second successive term as president. He was reelected in 1995. The Justicialists lost legislative elections to the opposition Alianza coalition in 1997, as the country struggled with recession and continuing high unemployment. Argentina's relations with Paraguay soured in 1999 when Menem's government sheltered Paraguayan Gen. Lino Oviedo for eight months; Oviedo was wanted for the murder of Paraguay's vice president.
In Oct., 1999, Fernando de la Rúa Bruno of Alianza was elected president, soundly defeating the Peronist candidate. De la Rúa's victory was in part a rejection of Menem's perceived flamboyance and tolerance of corruption during his last term. The new president moved quickly to institute austerity measures and reforms to improve the economy; taxes were increased to reduce the deficit, the government bureaucracy was trimmed, and legal restrictions on union negotiations were eased. De la Rúa also purged (2000) the army and state intelligence agency of the last suspected participants in the "dirty war" of the 1970s and 80s.
By late 2000, however, de la Rúa's presidency was under siege on two fronts. Several senators, mainly from the Justicialist party, were accused of taking bribes to vote for the government's labor-code revisions, and two cabinet members were also implicated. When the cabinet members were retained after a reorganization, Vice President Carlos Álvarez resigned in protest. The Argentine economy had slipped into recession in late 1999, and Argentina was forced in to seek help from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and private banks to reduce its debt. In Dec., 2000, an aid package of nearly $40 billion was arranged, and the government announced a $20 billion public works program that was designed to help revive the economy.
Further economic measures designed to revived the ailing economy were adopted in 2001, including the pegging of the peso for imports and exports to the average value of the dollar and the euro combined, additional government austerity measures, and additional billions in IMF aid. The economy remained in recession, however, aggravating the problems posed by the debt and by the restrictions that the IMF imposed in return for aid, and unemployment rose to around 20% at the end of 2001. In legislative elections in Oct., 2001, the opposition Justicialist party became the largest party in both houses of the national congress. In November the government began restructuring the debt, putting it essentially in default. Ongoing economic problems led to a crisis of confidence as depositors began a run on the banks, resulting in limits on withdrawals (largely lifted a year later), and the IMF took a hard line, insisting on a 10% cut in the budget before making further payments.
Nationwide food riots and demonstrations erupted in late December, leading the president to resign. A series of interim presidents and renewed demonstrations ended with the appointment of Justicialist senator Eduardo Alberto Duhalde as president in Jan., 2002. Duhalde, who had been a free-spending provincial governor and the Peronists' 1999 presidential candidate, devalued the peso, which lost more than two thirds of its value. The depressed economy, meanwhile, remained in disarray until early 2003, when it showed some signs of slow improvement.
Néstor Carlos Kirchner, the governor of Santa Cruz prov. in Patagonia, won the spring 2003 presidential race when former president Menem withdrew from the runoff election; polls indicated that Kirchner would win by a landslide. Congress subsequently repealed two amnesty laws, passed in the 1980s, that had protected military officers accused of human rights offenses, and in 2005 the supreme court upheld the move, overturning the amnesty laws as unconstitutional. Pardons given to several military government leaders were subsequently also overturned by the court, and arrest warrants were issued for Isabel Perón, who was in exile in Spain, and others. A number of former military officers were later convicted of human-rights crimes, including (2010–13) former Presidents Bignone and Videla.
Kirchner won favorable terms from from the IMF in Sept., 2003, refusing to make concessions in exchange for refinancing Argentina's debt. Kirchner's government continued into 2004 its policy of aggressively seeking more favorable terms, but was not successful in negotiating new terms for repaying private creditors until 2005, when some three quarters of its bondholders agreed to accept partial repayment. The economy grew strongly in 2003–5, reducing the unemployment rate, but the effects of the 2001–2 economic collapse continued to hurt many Argentines.
In Oct., 2005, the popular Kirchner benefited from the improved economy when his Peronists won control of the senate and a plurality in the lower house. With a strengthened political hand, Kirchner replaced his respected but more conservative economy minister with an ally. Argentina paid off its IMF debt in Jan., 2006, in an effort to regain greater flexibility in its economic policy. Kirchner also used the influence of his office to fight inflation by pressuring Argentinian companies into holding down price increases. His presidency also saw a trend toward renationalization of certain Argentinian businesses, including railroads and telecommunications companies.
In 2006 there were tensions with Uruguay over plans there to build pulp mills along the Argentina border on the Uruguay River. Argentinians fearing possible pollution from the mills blockaded several bridges into Uruguay, and Argentina accused Uruguay of contravening the treaty on joint use of the river. Argentina took the issue to the International Court of Justice, which accepted it but allowed construction of the one mill that Uruguay ended up building to proceed while the court decided the case. The court also refused to order Argentina to halt the protests, which continued until June, 2010. In 2010 the court largely ruled in favor of Uruguay, determining that it had met its environmental obligations under the treat, and it refused to order the mill to close.
Kirchner chose not to run in 2007 for a second term, but his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who had served as a provincial and national deputy and national senator, mounted her own candidacy. Running strongly and promising to continue her husband's policies, she was elected in Oct., 2007, becoming the first woman elected to be elected to the post. In a court case in Florida, U.S. prosecutors later (Dec., 2007) alleged that $800,000 found (Aug., 2007) by Argentinian customs officers on a private flight from Venezuela was intended to be a secret Venezuelan government contribution to Fernández de Kirchner's campaign. The Argentinian government denounced the allegation, but two Venezuelans and a Uruguayan arrested in the United States in connection with the money pleaded guilty to acting as unregistered foreign government agents and revealed details of the payment and its coverup; and a third Venezuelan was convicted on similar charges in Nov., 2008.
Beginning in Mar., 2008, farmers protested increased export taxes on farm products by striking and blockading roads, leading to some food shortages in major cities at times. The government abandoned the tax increases in July after the Senate narrowly failed to approve them. Tensions between the government and farmers continued, however, into 2009, aggravated by drought and falling demand. In Mar., 2009, both sides reached accords on compensation for several clases of farm products.
In Oct, 2008, the government moved to nationalize 10 private pension plans. The government asserted it was acting to protect them from the global financial crisis, but many viewed it as a repudiation of the privatizations of the 1990s and also possibly as an attempt to secure funds in the face of a looming budget shortfall. The move caused stocks and the Argentinian peso to fall sharply; the national airline was also nationalized. The government subsequently used some of the pension assets as part of an economic stimulus package. Congressional elections in June, 2009, resulted in losses for the governing party, which failed to secure majorities in both houses.
In Jan., 2010, a move by the government to use foreign currency reserves to repay some of Argentina's international debt sparked a conflict between the president and the head of the central bank, Martín Redrado, who refused to transfer the reserves. The president sought to remove Redrado by emergency decree, but a court ruled that she could neither remove him nor use the reserves. Redrado, however, subsequently resigned. In Mar., 2010, the president issued new decrees transferring $6.6. billion of the reserves, and an appeals court upheld the decrees when the opposition challenged them. Debt swaps agreed to by June retired two thirds of the remaining bonds that Argentina had defaulted on in 2001.
The start of oil exploration in the waters surrounding the Falkland Islands in Feb., 2010, led the Argentinian government to impose restrictions on vessels traveling through its waters to the islands. The islands' status became an increasingly contentious issue in Argentina's international relations in subsequent months, leading to strained relations with Great Britain by the time of the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War in Apr., 2012. In Oct., 2011, President Fernández de Kirchner, bouyed by significant economic growth, easily won reelection and her Front for Victory won control of Congress, but high inflation associated with the growth was an increasing concern and led to government regulations designed to control capital flight. Discontent over the economy and other issues led to demonstrations and strikes in 2012 and 2013. In May, 2012, the Congress approved the nationalization of the former national oil company, which had been privatized in 1999. The Front for Victory retained control of Congress after the Oct., 2013, elections. In December, police strikes over pay in many of the country's provinces led to outbreaks of looting across Argentina.