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Argentina - History

A good grasp of Argentine history is critical to the understanding of the country's current political situation, as Argentina has been condemned so often to repeat the mistakes of the past. Past periods of hegemonic political control have always ended in instability throughout Argentine history, from the Conservative hegemonic rule of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to the UCR hegemonic rule between 1916 and 1930, and the Peronist hegemonic period of 1946-1955, and to a degree 1973-1976. Past hegemonic leaders lost public support over time when their actions weakened or closed channels of dissent through the debilitation of Argentina's democratic institutions. Everything in the political system depended on the personal power of the hegemonic leader, and when that leader's power was weakened through crisis, from Hipolito Yrigoyen in 1930 or Juan Peron in 1955, the whole system collapsed.

Europeans arrived in the region with the 1502 voyage of Amerigo Vespucci. Spanish navigator Juan Diaz de Solias visited what is now Argentina in 1516. Spain established a permanent colony on the site of Buenos Aires in 1580, although initial settlement was primarily overland from Peru. The Spanish further integrated Argentina into their empire by establishing the Vice Royalty of Rio de la Plata in 1776, and Buenos Aires became a flourishing port.

Buenos Aires formally declared independence from Spain on July 9, 1816. Argentines revere Gen. Jose de San Martin, who campaigned in Argentina, Chile, and Peru as the hero of their national independence. Following the defeat of the Spanish, centralist and federalist groups waged a lengthy conflict between themselves to determine the future of the nation. National unity was established, and the constitution promulgated in 1853, and a national unity government was established in 1861.

Two forces combined to create the modern Argentine nation in the late 19th century: the introduction of modern agricultural techniques and integration of Argentina into the world economy. Foreign investment and immigration from Europe aided this economic revolution. Investment, primarily from Britain, came in such fields as railroads and ports. As in the United States during this same period, the migrants who worked to develop Argentina's resources--especially the western pampas--came principally from throughout Europe.

Divisiveness between Federalists and Unitarians (those seeking a federal and a centralist political system, respectively) and between coastal and interior populations prevented the formation of the modern-day Argentine nation-state until 1880, more than a half-century after the successful struggle for independence from Spain. The political unification of Buenos Aires with the interior provinces was richly rewarded; the decades following 1880 were to be the heyday of the modern Argentine nation. Argentine production of beef and wheat and a vast trading network with Western Europe, especially Britain, brought immense wealth.

From 1880 to 1930, Argentina became one of the world's 10 wealthiest nations as a result of the rapid expansion of agriculture and foreign investment in infrastructure. By the close of the nineteenth century, Argentine riches matched those of the United States. Its citizens imitated the life-style of Europe, and Buenos Aires became known as the "Paris of South America." Millions of immigrants—mostly from Spain and Italy—flocked to Argentina to share in the bounties offered in the southern reaches of the New World.

Conservative forces dominated Argentine politics until 1916, when their traditional rivals, the Radicals, won control of the government. The Radicals, with their emphasis on fair elections and democratic institutions, opened their doors to Argentina's expanding middle class as well as to elites previously excluded from power. In 1916 the political system — long dominated by Conservatives representing export-oriented elites — was transformed to reflect the social changes brought on by waves of immigrants. That year saw the election of Radical Civic Union (Union Civica Radical—UCR) caudillo Hipolito Yrigoyen, who represented the coming to power of the nation's new middle classes.

The Great Depression brought a halt to this period of booming expansion, and combined with other social and political changes to usher in a period of less stable governance. By 1930 the aged and increasingly incompetent UCR leader was unable to meet the crisis of the Great Depression, and he was overthrown by members of the armed forces representing the old Conservative export elites.

The Argentine military forced aged Radical President Hipolito Yrigoyen from power in 1930 and ushered in another decade of Conservative rule. Thus began the cycle of military interventions into the political process that has plagued Argentina for decades therafter. Using fraud and force when necessary, the governments of the 1930s attempted to contain the currents of economic and political change that eventually led to the ascendance of Juan Domingo Peron (b. 1897). New social and political forces were seeking political power, including a modern military and labor movements that emerged from the growing urban working class.

The military ousted Argentina's constitutional government in 1943. Peron, then an army colonel, was one of the coup's leaders, and he soon became the government's dominant figure as Minister of Labor. Elections carried him to the presidency in 1946. He created the Partido Unico de la Revolucion, which became more commonly known as the Peronist or Justicialista party (PJ). He aggressively pursued policies aimed at empowering the working class and greatly expanded the number of unionized workers. In 1947, Peron announced the first 5-year plan based on the growth of industries he nationalized. He helped establish the powerful General Confederation of Labor (CGT).

Peron's dynamic wife, Eva Duarte de Peron, known as Evita (1919-52), helped her husband develop strength with labor and women's groups; women obtained the right to vote in 1947. Peron won reelection in 1952, but the death in 1952 of Eva Duarte de Peron — Peron's second wife, who had adopted the role of personal benefactor to Argentina's working class and assumed a political persona of near mythical proportions — coincided with the beginning of a progressively deepening economic recession. By 1955 the armed forces again intervened to oust the Lider, whose mass appeal had rapidly faded with the growth of the economic crisis. He went into exile, eventually settling in Spain. He continued to play an important political role during nearly two decades of exile in Spain, when the spectrum of political interests that remembered his legacy favorably widened.

Both the Peronists and the armed forces gained opportunities to rule again during the 1970s. Both periods were to end in disaster. In the 1950s and 1960s, military and civilian administrations traded power, trying, with limited success, to deal with diminished economic growth and continued social and labor demands. When military governments failed to revive the economy and suppress escalating domestic terrorism in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the way was open for Peron's return.

On March 11, 1973, Argentina held general elections for the first time in 10 years. Peron was prevented from running, but voters elected his stand-in, Dr. Hector Campora, as President. Peron's followers also commanded strong majorities in both houses of Congress. Campora resigned in July 1973, paving the way for new elections. Peron won a decisive victory and returned as President in October 1973 with his third wife, Maria Estela Isabel Martinez de Peron, as Vice President.

The situation went from mediocre to disastrous after his third wife, Maria Estela (Isabel) Martinez de Perón, assumed the presidency following the death of the aged Lilder on July 1, 1974. Her administration was undermined by economic problems, Peronist intraparty struggles, and growing terrorism. Under Isabel, terrorism from the left and the right ran rampant, as did economic decay, which became manifest most clearly in runaway inflation. During this period, extremists on the left and right carried out violent acts with a frequency that threatened public order. The government resorted to a number of emergency decrees, including the implementation of special executive authority to deal with violence. This allowed the government to imprison persons indefinitely without charge.

The nation breathed a collective sigh of relief when the armed forces removed the incompetent Isabel from office on March 24, 1976, and the armed forces formally exercised power through a junta composed of the three service commanders until December 10, 1983. The armed forces applied harsh measures against terrorists and many suspected of being their sympathizers.

The Government of the Process of National Reorganization, or Proceso became notorious for its often brutal suppression of left-wing subversion. They restored basic order, but the costs of what became known as the "El Proceso," or the "Dirty War" were high in terms of lives lost and basic human rights violated. Conservative counts list over 10,000 persons as "disappeared" during the 1976-83 period, while some human rights groups put the figure as high as 30,000.

Serious economic problems, mounting charges of corruption, public revulsion in the face of human rights abuses and, finally, the country's 1982 defeat by the UK in the unsuccessful attempt to seize the Falklands/Malvinas Islands all combined to discredit the Argentine military regime. Under strong public pressure, the junta lifted bans on political parties and gradually restored basic political liberties. On October 30, 1983, Argentines went to the polls to choose a president; vice president; and national, provincial, and local officials in elections found by international observers to be fair and honest. The country returned to constitutional rule after Raul Alfonsin, candidate of the Radial Civic Union, received 52% of the popular vote for president. He began a 6-year term of office on December 10, 1983.

In 1985 and 1987, large turnouts for mid-term elections demonstrated continued public support for a strong and vigorous democratic system. The UCR-led government took steps to resolve some of the nation's most pressing problems, including accounting for those who disappeared during military rule, establishing civilian control of the armed forces, and consolidating democratic institutions. However, constant friction with the military, failure to resolve endemic economic problems, and an inability to maintain public confidence undermined the effectiveness of the Alfonsin government, which left office 6 months early after Peronist candidate Carlos Saul Menem won the 1989 presidential elections.

As President, Menem launched a major overhaul of Argentine domestic policy. Large-scale structural reforms dramatically reversed the role of the state in Argentine economic life. A decisive leader pressing a controversial agenda, Menem was not reluctant to use the presidency's extensive powers to issue decrees when the Congress was unable to reach consensus on his proposed reforms. Those powers were curtailed somewhat when the constitution was reformed in 1994 as a result of the so-called Olivos Pact with the opposition Radical Party. That arrangement opened the way for Menem to seek and win reelection with 50% of the vote in the three-way 1995 presidential race.

The 1995 election saw the emergence of the moderate-left FREPASO political alliance. This alternative to the two traditional political parties in Argentina is particularly strong in Buenos Aires but as yet lacks the national infrastructure of the Peronists and Radicals. In an important development in Argentina's political life, all three major parties in the 1999 race espoused free market economic policies. In October 1999, the UCR-FREPASO Alliance's presidential candidate, Fernando de la Rua, defeated Peronist candidate Eduardo Duhalde. Taking office in December 1999, De la Rua has not only continued the previous administration's free market economic policies but has followed an IMF-sponsored program of government spending cuts, revenue increases, and provincial revenue-sharing reforms to get the federal deficit under control. De la Rua also has pursued labor law reform and business-promotion measures aimed at stimulating the economy and increasing employment. Despite these measures, Argentine economic growth remained nearly flat in 2000.

Argentina had a strong partnership with the United States. Argentina was the only Latin American country to participate in the Gulf war and all phases of the Haiti operation. It has contributed to UN peacekeeping operations worldwide, with Argentine soldiers and police serving in Guatemala, Ecuador-Peru, Western Sahara, Angola, Cyprus, Kosovo, Bosnia, and East Timor. In recognition of its contributions to international security and peacekeeping, the US Government designated Argentina as a major non-NATO ally in January 1998. Argentina was an enthusiastic supporter of the Summit of the Americas process, and chaired the Free Trade of the Americas initiative leading to the Buenos Aires Ministerial in April 2001. At the UN, Argentina was a close U.S. collaborator, supporting the U.S. campaign to improve human rights in Cuba and the fight against international terrorism and narcotics trafficking. In November 1998, Argentina hosted the United Nations conference on climate change, and in October 1999 in Berlin, became one of the first nations worldwide to adopt a voluntary greenhouse-gas emissions target.

Eager for closer ties to industrialized nations, Argentina left the Non-Aligned Movement in the early 1990s and pursued a relationship with the OECD. It became a leading advocate of nonproliferation efforts worldwide. A strong proponent of enhanced regional stability in South America, Argentina revitalized its relationship with Brazil; settled lingering border disputes with Chile; discouraged military takeovers in Ecuador and Paraguay; served with the US, Brazil, and Chile as one of the four guarantors of the Ecuador-Peru peace process; and restored diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom. In 1998, President Menem made a state visit to the UK, and Prince Charles reciprocated with a visit to Argentina. In 1999, the two countries agreed to normalize travel to the Falklands/Malvinas from the mainland and resumed direct flights.

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Page last modified: 08-01-2015 18:46:16 ZULU