Country, southern South America.
Area: 1,073,520 sq mi (2,780,403 sq km). Population (2008 est.):
39,737,000. Capital: Buenos Aires. The people are mostly of European
ancestry, especially Spanish, with smaller mestizo, Indian, and Arab
populations. Language: Spanish (official). Religions: Christianity
(predominantly Roman Catholic; also Protestant); also Islam, Judaism.
Currency: Argentine peso. Argentina can be divided into four general
regions: the North, the Pampas, Patagonia, and the Andes Mountains. The
subtropical plains in the northeast are divided by the Paraná River into
Mesopotamia to the east and Gran Chaco to the west and north. The
Pampas, south and west of the Paraná, is one of the world’s most
productive agricultural areas and the country’s most populous region.
Patagonia lies south of the Colorado River. The Argentine Andes include
the continent’s highest peak, Mount Aconcagua. Argentina’s hydrology is
dominated by rivers that include the Paraná, Uruguay, and Pilcomayo,
which drain into the Río de la Plata. Argentina has a developing economy
based largely on manufacturing and agriculture; it is Latin America’s
largest exporter of beef and beef products. It is a federal republic
with two legislative houses; the head of state and government is the
president. Little is known of the indigenous population before the
Europeans’ arrival. The area was explored for Spain by Sebastian Cabot
beginning in 1526; by 1580 Asunción, Santa Fe, and Buenos Aires had been
settled. Early in the 17th century it was attached to the Viceroyalty of
Peru, but in 1776 it was included with regions of modern Uruguay,
Paraguay, and Bolivia in the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata, whose
capital was Buenos Aires. With the establishment of the United Provinces
of the Río de la Plata in 1816, Argentina achieved its independence from
Spain, but its boundaries were not set until the early 20th century. In
1943 the government was overthrown by the military; Col. Juan Perón took
control in 1946. He in turn was overthrown in 1955. He returned in 1973
after two decades of turmoil. His third wife, Isabel, became president
on his death in 1974 but lost power after another military coup in 1976.
The military government tried to take the Falkland Islands (Islas
Malvinas) in 1982 but was defeated by the British in the Falkland
Islands War, with the result that the government returned to civilian
rule in 1983. The government of Raúl Alfonsín worked to end the human
rights abuses that had characterized the former regimes. Hyperinflation,
however, led to public riots and Alfonsín’s party’s electoral defeat in
1989; his Peronist successor, Carlos Menem, instituted laissez-faire
economic policies. In 1999 Fernando de la Rúa of the Alliance coalition
was elected president, but his administration struggled with rising
unemployment, heavy foreign debt, and government corruption; he resigned
later that year, amid antigovernment protests. Under a succession of
interim presidents, Argentina experienced one of its worst economic
collapses at the beginning of the 21st century. Néstor Kirchner won the
2003 presidential elections and helped to stabilize the economy. Four
years later his wife became the country’s first elected female
Official name República Argentina (Argentine Republic)
Form of government federal republic with two legislative houses (Senate
; Chamber of Deputies )
Head of state and government President
Capital Buenos Aires
Official language Spanish
Official religion none1
Monetary unit peso (ARS)
Population estimate (2008) 39,737,000
Total area (sq mi) 1,073,520
Total area (sq km) 2,780,403
1Roman Catholicism has special status and receives financial support
from the state, but it is not an official religion.
country of South America, covering most of the southern portion of
the continent. The world’s eighth largest country, Argentina occupies an
area more extensive than Mexico and the U.S. state of Texas combined. It
encompasses immense plains, deserts, tundra, and forests, as well as
tall mountains, rivers, and thousands of miles of ocean shoreline.
Argentina also claims a portion of Antarctica, as well as several
islands in the South Atlantic, including the British-ruled Falkland
Islands (Islas Malvinas).
Argentina has long played an important role in the continent’s
history. Following three centuries of Spanish colonization, Argentina
declared independence in 1816, and Argentine nationalists were
instrumental in revolutionary movements elsewhere, a fact that prompted
20th-century writer Jorge Luis Borges to observe, “South America’s
independence was, to a great extent, an Argentine enterprise.” Torn by
strife and occasional war between political factions demanding either
central authority (based in Buenos Aires) or provincial autonomy,
Argentina tended toward periods of caudillo, or strongman, leadership,
most famously under the presidency of Juan Perón. The 1970s ushered in a
period of military dictatorship and repression during which thousands of
presumed dissidents were “disappeared,” or murdered; this ended in the
disastrous Falklands Islands War of 1982, when Argentina invaded the
South Atlantic islands it claimed as its own and was defeated by British
forces in a short but bloody campaign. Defeat led to the fall of the
military regime and the reestablishment of democratic rule, which has
since endured despite various economic crises.
The country’s name comes from the Latin word for silver, argentum,
and Argentina is indeed a great source of valuable minerals. More
important, however, has been Argentina’s production of livestock and
cereals, for which it once ranked among the world’s wealthiest nations.
Much of this agricultural activity is set in the Pampas, rich grasslands
that were once the domain of nomadic Native Americans, followed by
rough-riding gauchos, who were in turn forever enshrined in the nation’s
romantic literature. As Borges describes them in his story The South,
the Pampas stretch endlessly to the horizon, dwarfing the humans within
them; traveling from the capital toward Patagonia, the story’s
protagonist, Señor Dahlmann, “saw horsemen along dirt roads; he saw
gullies and lagoons and ranches; he saw long luminous clouds that
resembled marble; and all these things were casual, like dreams of the
plain.... The elemental earth was not perturbed either by settlements or
other signs of humanity. The country was vast, but at the same time it
was intimate and, in some measure, secret. The limitless country
sometimes contained only a solitary bull. The solitude was perfect and
perhaps hostile, and it might have occurred to Dahlmann that he was
traveling into the past and not merely south.”
Despite the romantic lure of the Pampas and of vast, arid Patagonian
landscapes, Argentina is a largely urban country. Buenos Aires, the
national capital, has sprawled across the eastern Pampas with its ring
of modern, bustling suburbs. It is among South America’s most
cosmopolitan and crowded cities and is often likened to Paris or Rome
for its architectural styles and lively nightlife. Its industries have
drawn colonists from Italy, Spain, and numerous other countries,
millions of whom immigrated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Greater Buenos Aires is home to about one-third of the Argentine people.
Among the country’s other major cities are Mar del Plata, La Plata, and
Bahía Blanca on the Atlantic coast and Rosario, San Miguel de Tucumán,
Córdoba, and Neuquén in the interior.
Argentina is shaped like an inverted triangle with its base at the top;
it is some 880 miles (1,420 km) across at its widest from east to west
and stretches 2,360 miles (3,800 km) from the subtropical north to the
subantarctic south. The country is bounded by Chile to the south and
west, Bolivia and Paraguay to the north, and Brazil, Uruguay, and the
Atlantic Ocean to the east. Its undulating Atlantic coastline stretches
some 2,900 miles (4,700 km).
Argentina’s varied geography can be grouped into four major regions:
the Andes, the North, the Pampas, and Patagonia. The Andean region
extends some 2,300 miles (3,700 km) along the western edge of the
country from Bolivia to southern Patagonia, forming most of the natural
boundary with Chile. It is commonly subdivided into two parts: the
Northwest and the Patagonian Andes, the latter of which is discussed
below under Patagonia. The North is commonly described in terms of its
two main divisions: the Gran Chaco, or Chaco, comprising the dry
lowlands between the Andes and the Paraná River; and Mesopotamia, an
area between the Paraná and Uruguay rivers. The centrally located
plains, or Pampas, are grasslands subdivided into arid western and more
humid eastern parts called, respectively, the Dry Pampa and the Humid
Pampa. Patagonia is the cold, parched, windy region that extends some
1,200 miles (1,900 km) south of the Pampas, from the Colorado River to
Tierra del Fuego.
This part of the Andes region includes the northern half of the main
mountain mass in Argentina and the transitional terrain, or piedmont,
merging with the eastern lowlands. The region’s southern border is the
upper Colorado River. Within the region the Andean system of
north-south–trending mountain ranges varies in elevation from 16,000 to
22,000 feet (4,900 to 6,700 metres) and is interrupted by high plateaus
(punas) and basins ranging in elevation from about 10,000 to 13,400 feet
(3,000 to 4,080 metres). The mountains gradually decrease in size and
elevation southward from Bolivia. South America’s highest mountain,
Aconcagua (22,831 feet [6,959 metres]), lies in the Northwest, together
with a number of other peaks that reach over 21,000 feet (6,400 metres).
Some of these mountains are volcanic in origin.
To the southeast, where the parallel to subparallel ranges become
lower and form isolated, compact units trending north-south, the flat
valleys between are called bolsones (basins). This southeastern section
of the Northwest is often called the Pampean Sierras, a complex that has
been compared to the Basin and Range region of the western United
States. It is characterized by west-facing escarpments and gentler
east-facing backslopes, particularly those of the spectacular Sierra de
Córdoba. The Pampean Sierras have variable elevations, beginning at
2,300 feet (700 metres) in the Sierra de Mogotes in the east and rising
to 20,500 feet (6,250 metres) in the Sierra de Famatina in the west.
The Gran Chaco
The western sector of the North region, the Gran Chaco, extends beyond
the international border at the Pilcomayo River into Paraguay, where it
is called the Chaco Boreal (“Northern Chaco”) by Argentines. The
Argentine sector between the Pilcomayo River and the Bermejo River is
known as the Chaco Central. Argentines have named the area southward to
latitude 30° S, where the Pampas begin, the Chaco Austral (“Southern
Chaco”). The Gran Chaco in Argentina descends in flat steps from west to
east, but it is poorly drained and has such a challenging combination of
physical conditions that it remains one of the least-inhabited parts of
the country. It has a subtropical climate characterized by some of Latin
America’s hottest weather, is largely covered by thorny vegetation, and
is subject to summer flooding.
East of the Gran Chaco, in a narrow depression 60 to 180 miles (100 to
300 km) wide, lies Mesopotamia, which is bordered to the north by the
highlands of southern Brazil. The narrow lowland stretches for 1,000
miles (1,600 km) southward, finally merging with the Pampas south of the
Río de la Plata. Its designation as Mesopotamia (Greek: “Between the
Rivers”) reflects the fact that its western and eastern borders are two
of the region’s major rivers, the Paraná and the Uruguay. The
northeastern part, Misiones province, between the Alto (“Upper”) Paraná
and Uruguay rivers, is higher in elevation than the rest of Mesopotamia,
but there are several small hills in the southern part.
Pampa is a Quechua Indian term meaning “flat plain.” As such it is
widely used in southeastern South America from Uruguay, where
grass-covered plains commence south of the Brazilian Highlands, to
Argentina. In Argentina the Pampas broaden out west of the Río de la
Plata to meet the Andean forelands, blending imperceptibly to the north
with the Chaco Austral and southern Mesopotamia and extending southward
to the Colorado River. The eastern boundary is the Atlantic coast.
The largely flat surface of the Pampas is composed of thick deposits
of loess interrupted only by occasional caps of alluvium and volcanic
ash. In the southern Pampas the landscape rises gradually to meet the
foothills of sierras formed from old sediments and crystalline rocks.
This region consists of an Andean zone (also called Western Patagonia)
and the main Patagonian plateau south of the Pampas, which extends to
the tip of South America. The surface of Patagonia descends east of the
Andes in a series of broad, flat steps extending to the Atlantic coast.
Evidently, the region’s gigantic landforms and coastal terraces were
created by the same tectonic forces that formed the Andes, and the
coastline is cuffed along its entire length as a result. The cliffs are
rather low in the north but rise in the south, where they reach heights
of more than 150 feet (45 metres). The landscape is cut by
eastward-flowing rivers—some of them of glacial origin in the Andes—that
have created both broad valleys and steep-walled canyons.
Patagonia includes a region called the Lake District, which is
nestled within a series of basins between the Patagonian Andes and the
plateau. There are volcanic hills in the central plateau west of the
city of Río Gallegos. These hills and the accompanying lava fields have
dark soils spotted with lighter-coloured bunchgrass, which creates a
leopard-skin effect that intensifies the desolate, windswept appearance
of the Patagonian landscape. A peculiar type of rounded gravel called
grava patagónica lies on level landforms, including isolated mesas.
Glacial ice in the past extended beyond the Andes only in the extreme
south, where there are now large moraines.
The largest river basin in the area is that of the Paraguay–Paraná–Río
de la Plata system. It drains an area of some 1.6 million square miles
(4.1 million square km), which includes northern Argentina, the whole of
Paraguay, eastern Bolivia, most of Uruguay, and a large part of Brazil.
In Argentina the principal river of this system is the Paraná, formed by
the confluence of the Paraguay and Alto Paraná rivers. The Río de la
Plata (often called the River Plate) is actually the estuary outlet of
the system formed by the confluence of the Paraná and Uruguay rivers;
its name, meaning “River of Silver,” was coined in colonial times before
explorers found that there was neither a single river nor silver
upstream from its mouth. Other tributaries of this system are the Iguazú
(Iguaçu), Pilcomayo, Bermejo, Salado, and Carcarañá. Just above its
confluence with the Alto Paraná, the Iguazú River plunges over the
escarpment of the Brazilian massif, creating Iguazú Falls—one of the
world’s most spectacular natural attractions.
Aside from the Paraná’s main tributaries, there are few major rivers
in Argentina. Wide rivers flow across the Gran Chaco flatlands, but
their shallow nature rarely permits navigation, and never with
regularity. Moreover, long-lasting summer floods cover vast areas and
leave behind ephemeral swamplands. During winter most rivers and
wetlands of the Gran Chaco dry up, the air chills, and the land seems
visibly to shrink. Only three of the region’s numerous rivers—the
Pilcomayo, Bermejo, and Salado—manage to flow from the Andes to the
Paraguay-Paraná system in the east without evaporating en route and
forming salt pans (salinas). The region’s largest rivers follow a
veritable maze of courses during flood season, however.
In the Northwest the Desaguadero River and its tributaries in the
Andes Mountains water the sandy deserts of Mendoza province. The
principal tributaries are the Jáchal, Zanjón, San Juan, Mendoza,
Tunuyán, and Diamante. In the northern Pampas, Lake Mar Chiquita, the
largest lake in Argentina, receives the waters of the Dulce, Primero,
and Segundo rivers but has no outlet. Its name, meaning “Little Sea,”
refers to the high salt content of its waters.
Rivers that cross Patagonia from west to east diminish in volume as
they travel through the arid land. The Colorado and Negro rivers, the
largest in the south-central part of the country, produce major floods
after seasonal snow and ice melt in the Andes. Farther south the Santa
Cruz River flows eastward out of the glacial Lake Argentino in the
Andean foothills before reaching the Atlantic.
Soil types in Argentina range from the light-coloured saline formations
of the high puna in the Northwest to the dark, humus-rich type found in
the Pampas. Golden-brown loess soils of the Gran Chaco are sometimes
lighter where salinity is excessive but turn darker toward the east in
the Mesopotamian border zone. These give way to soils ranging from rust
to deep red colorations in Misiones. Thick, dark soils predominate in
the fertile loess grasslands of the Pampas, but lighter brown soils are
common in the drier parts of northern Patagonia. Light tan arid soils of
varying texture cover the rest of this region. Grayish podzolic types
and dark brown forest soils characterize the Andean slopes.
Argentina lies almost entirely within the temperate zone of the Southern
Hemisphere, unlike the rest of the continent to the north, which lies
within the tropics. Tropical air masses only occasionally invade the
provinces of Formosa and Misiones in the extreme north. The southern
extremes of Argentina, which extend to latitude 55° S, also have
predominantly temperate conditions, rather than the cold continental
climate of comparable latitudes in North America. The South American
landmass narrows so markedly toward its southern tip that weather
patterns are moderated by the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, and average
monthly temperatures remain above freezing in the winter. The temperate
climate is interrupted by a long, narrow north-south band of semiarid to
arid conditions and by tundra and polar conditions in the high Andes and
in southern portions of Tierra del Fuego.
Precipitation is moderate to light throughout most of the country,
with the driest areas in the far northwest and in the southern part of
Patagonia. Most rainfall occurs in the northeast, in the Humid Pampa,
Mesopotamia, and the eastern Chaco. Windstorms (pamperos) with thunder,
lightning, and hail are common. During winter, stationary fronts bring
long rainy periods. Dull, gray days and damp weather characterize this
season, especially in the Pampas. Between winter storms, tropical air
masses make incursions southward and bring mild relief from the damp
Andean and sub-Andean zones
Some parts of the Andean Northwest region have an annual average
temperature range of more than 36 °F (20 °C), and occasional continental
climatic conditions occur. Winter temperatures sometimes fall below
freezing on cloudless days and nights.
The high-elevation, cold climatic phenomenon in Argentina is
sometimes referred to as tundra climate and, in even colder mountaintop
areas, as polar. Generally, the tundra climate occupies the mountain
zones where average annual temperatures are below 50 °F (10 °C); in the
north this occurs above 11,500 feet (3,500 metres). Moving southward,
tundra climate occurs at gradually decreasing elevations until it
reaches sea level in southern Tierra del Fuego. The highest Andean peaks
have permanent snow and ice cover.
The rain shadow zone
Argentina is the only place in the Southern Hemisphere with an extensive
portion of arid eastern coastline. This is caused by a longitudinal rain
shadow zone (created when air masses lose their moisture while passing
over high mountains) on the eastern side of the Andes. The zone begins
in the Andean Northwest and extends along the eastern slopes of the
Andes southward to, but not including, Tierra del Fuego. The rain shadow
area has a central arid (desert) core rimmed by semiarid, or steppe,
conditions. The steppe areas have about twice the annual precipitation
found in the arid zones, but evaporation exceeds precipitation in both
zones, which therefore remain treeless. Most of the arid region is
subjected to strong winds that carry abrasive sand and dust. This is
particularly true in Patagonia, where windblown dust creates a
continuous haze that considerably reduces visibility.
The Pampean zone
The Pampas occupy a transitional area between high summer temperatures
to the north and cooler summers to the south. Buenos Aires, located on
the northern edge of the Pampas, has a climate similar to that of cities
in the southeastern United States, with hot, humid summers and cool,
mild winters. The range of mean temperatures for summer months (December
to February) is about 72–75 °F (22–24 °C), whereas that for winter
months (June to August) is about 46–55 °F (8–13 °C). In the Humid Pampa
the rainfall varies from 39 inches (990 mm) in the east to 20 inches
(500 mm) in areas near the Andes—about the minimum needed for
nonirrigated crops. Cold fronts that move northward from Patagonia,
chiefly in July, bring occasional frosts and snow to the Pampas and
Mesopotamia. In rare instances a dusting of snow covers Buenos Aires
Plant and animal life
Argentina’s fauna and flora vary widely from the country’s mountainous
zones to its dry and humid plains and its subpolar regions. In heavily
settled regions the makeup of plant and animal life has been profoundly
Vegetation in the Northwest region includes that of the high puna
desert, the forested slopes of the Andes, and the subtropical scrub
forests of the Pampean Sierras, the latter merging with the deciduous
scrub woodlands of the Gran Chaco. Vegetation on the mostly exposed soil
of the puna consists of dwarf shrubs and tough grasses, notably
bunchgrass; these and other plants in the region are coloured almost as
brown as the ground itself. The region is the land of the guanaco and
its near relatives, the llama, alpaca, and vicuña.
Forests grow along the eastern border of the puna region southward to
the colder Andean zones, covering many slopes in this part of the
mountains. The so-called mistol (jujube) forest thrives above 1,650 feet
(500 metres), although giant cedars and some other tree species
disappear above 3,300 feet (1,000 metres). A subtropical rainforest,
composed of laurels, cedars, and other species, is found at elevations
of about 4,000 feet (1,200 metres). The tree heights diminish above
7,000 feet (2,100 metres), and the growth becomes more like that of a
cloud forest, with myrtles and laurels predominating. Higher still grow
the queñoa, small, crooked trees that in places extend to the timberline
at 11,500 feet (3,500 metres).
Southeast of the Andean region described above, xerophytic
(drought-tolerant) scrub forests, called monte, and intervening
grasslands spread across the Pampean Sierras. Vegetation includes
species of mimosa and acacia, and there is a smattering of cactus.
Hares, skunks, and small deer abound in this part of the Northwest.
The Gran Chaco
The western Gran Chaco has growths of thorn forest dominated by algaroba
(carob trees) in the drier and often saline zones. Quebracho trees (a
source of tannin) are present, but not to the extent that they are
farther east. No plants survive in areas with finer salt at the surface.
Coarse bunchgrasses are common in the dry steppe, which also supports
dense scrub forests intermixed with prickly pear, barrel, and many other
types of cactus.
The vegetation of the Chaco becomes increasingly lush toward the
east. The thorn forests are gradually replaced by dense quebracho
forests (though of a less-valuable species than those in the west), and
there are some pure stands of algaroba. Some 90 miles (150 km) west of
the Paraná River, a few massive trees begin to appear. The rich wildlife
of the Chaco includes deer, peccaries, monkeys, tapirs, jaguars, pumas,
ocelots, armadillos, capybaras, and agoutis. The vast birdlife includes
the flightless rheas, which are protected by a refuge in the area.
Streams harbour numerous fish species, including piranhas, and snakes
and other reptiles abound.
Thin stands of tall wax palms occupy the flood zones of Mesopotamia.
Groups of trees and grassy areas form a parklike landscape of noted
beauty. Common trees are the quebracho, the urunday, and the guayacán,
used for tannin and lumber. Gallery forests growing along rivers become
denser and taller in Misiones province. Paraná pines appear at higher
elevations. Mesopotamia is a habitat for jaguars, monkeys, deer, tapirs,
peccaries, many snake varieties, and numerous birds, notably toucans and
hummingbirds, as well as stingless bees.
The principal Pampas vegetation is monte forest in the Dry Pampa and
grassland in the Humid Pampa. The boundary between the Dry and Humid
Pampas lies approximately along longitude 64° W. Knee-high grasses are
found in the most humid areas, whereas to the north, west, and south,
where precipitation decreases, tougher grasses give way to the monte of
the Dry Pampa. The indigenous, plantlike ombu tree (Phytolacca dioica)
is prized for the shade it provides but is of no commercial value.
Planted grains, grasses, and trees have replaced much of the original
Since the time of European settlement, vast herds of cattle, as well
as horses, have virtually taken over the areas of the landscape not
planted in crops, and many native animal populations have dwindled.
Flightless rheas still inhabit the Pampas, but guanacos are no longer
found there. Both animals are fleet-footed, which is probably why the
Indians developed the bola, a device consisting of weights on a short
rope thrown to trip the animals. Small deer, introduced hares, and
viscacha, a burrowing rodent, are common.
Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego
Patagonia contains zones of deciduous Andean forests and, east of the
Andes, of steppe and desert. The largest area—the steppe region—lies in
northern Patagonia between the Colorado River and the port city of
Comodoro Rivadavia. This zone represents an extension southward of the
monte, which gives way gradually to a xerophytic shrub region without
trees except along stream banks. In the extreme west on the Andean
border, small stands of araucaria survive, and clumps of wiry grasses
are also present. Low scrub vegetation and green grass steppe alternate
south of Comodoro Rivadavia to the tip of the continent. Wildlife in the
region includes now rare guanacos and rheas, as well as eagles and
herons, the Patagonian cavy (mará) and other burrowing rodents, mountain
cats and pumas, and various poisonous snakes.
The coniferous and broad-leaved forests of the Patagonian Andes
spread into Chile. Antarctic beech and needle-leaved trees mixed with
araucaria are common. The Patagonian Andes do not support a flourishing
animal life: the smallest known deer, the pudu, dwells there, and wild
pigs, introduced by Europeans, have multiplied.
It seems likely that grasses in Tierra del Fuego first covered
glaciated zones, but forests advanced after volcanic ash settled there.
Antarctic beech is plentiful in the valleys and grows along with cypress
on steep slopes. A local phenomenon near the southern tip of the
continent is species of parrots and other birds more commonly associated
with the tropics than with Patagonia. Penguins and seals frequent
coastal areas, especially in the south.
Heavy immigration, particularly from Spain and Italy, has produced in
Argentina a people who are almost all of European ancestry. In the
colonial period, though, the Spanish explorers and settlers encountered
a number of native peoples. Among these were the Diaguita of the Andean
Northwest, a town-dwelling agricultural people who were forced into
labour after they were conquered. They were divided by the Spanish into
small groups and were sent to work in Peru and the Río de la Plata area.
In the Mesopotamian region the semiagricultural Guaraní also were forced
Most other Argentine Indians were hunters and gatherers who fought
the Spanish tenaciously but were eventually exterminated or driven away.
In the Gran Chaco were the Guaycuruan-speaking peoples, among others.
The Araucanian Indians traveled over the mountains from Chile and raided
Spanish settlements in the southern Pampas until the Conquest of the
Desert in the 1870s. Another Pampas Indian tribe was the Querandí, who
inhabited the region of Buenos Aires. In Patagonia the largest group was
the Tehuelche, and on Tierra del Fuego the Ona.
Population estimates of the colonial period suggest that by 1810
Argentina had more than 400,000 people. Of these perhaps 30 percent were
Indian, their numbers drastically depleted from a pre-Columbian regional
population estimated at 300,000. Ten percent of the total were either
enslaved Africans or their descendants who had been smuggled into the
country through Buenos Aires, and there was a large element of mestizos
(European and Indian mixture). European descendants were in the
A great wave of European immigration after the mid-1800s molded the
present-day ethnic character of Argentina. The Indians and mestizos were
pushed aside (mainly to the Andean provinces) or absorbed, and the
blacks and mulattos disappeared, apparently also absorbed into the
dominant population. Since that time mestizos from Chile, Bolivia, and
Paraguay have grown numerous in bordering regions, but only since the
late 20th century has there been substantial immigration from Paraguay
and Uruguay into the urban areas of Argentina.
Almost half of the European immigrants in the late 19th and early
20th centuries were Italian, and about one-third were Spanish.
Substantial numbers also came from France, Poland, Russia, Germany, and
Great Britain. In 1869 the foreign-born made up 12 percent of the
population; this grew to about one-third by 1914, and in large cities
foreigners outnumbered natives by as much as 2 to 1. As immigration
slowed later in the 20th century, the proportion of foreign-born
The Italian influence on Argentine culture became the most important
of any immigrant group, and Italian is still widely spoken in Buenos
Aires. Other major foreign influences have come from Spanish and Polish
immigrants. Smaller groups have also made notable contributions,
however. British capital and management, in particular, built railroads
and created the meat-processing industry; the British also left a
relatively small but influential community. The Germans established farm
settlements and cooperatives; the French contributed their viticultural
expertise; and the Japanese invested in business, as did the Syrians and
The children of immigrants were quick to identify themselves as
Argentines, so the people were not divided into antagonistic ethnic
groups. But Argentine society developed a serious division between the
rural interior and the urban coast. Many rural people grew to resent the
wealth, political power, and cultural affectations of the porteños, the
“people of the port” in the Buenos Aires region, and many porteños
looked upon residents of the interior as ignorant peasants. These
divisions became deeply rooted in the politics of the country.
Language and religion
Spanish is the national language, although in Argentina it is spoken in
several accents and has absorbed many words from other languages,
especially Italian. Numerous foreign languages and dialects can be
heard, from Basque and Sicilian to Welsh and Gaelic. Toward the end of
the 19th century, an underworld language called lunfardo developed in
Buenos Aires, composed of words from many languages—among them Italian,
Portuguese, Spanish, French, German, and languages from Africa. Lunfardo
is now often heard in the lyrics of tango music.
About four-fifths of Argentine people are at least nominally Roman
Catholic; the majority of them are nonpracticing. The faith’s influence,
however, is strongly reflected in government and society. Protestants
make up about 5 percent of the population. Muslims and Jews account for
small minorities. The Jewish community of Argentina is the largest in
The varied topography, climate, and natural resources of Argentina
shaped the pattern of European settlement. Although modern
transportation and industry have partly effaced regional differences,
the organization of life in both city and country still follows patterns
that were set in early colonial times.
Numerous archaeological sites in the region indicate the presence—before
the Spanish invasion—of permanently settled Indians who practiced
irrigation and terraced farming in the oasis-like valleys. The Spanish,
arriving overland from what are now Peru and Bolivia, initially occupied
areas on the lowland plains of the Chaco, distant from hostile
indigenous groups; they made their first permanent settlement in 1553 at
Santiago del Estero. Not long afterward forts arose in the Northwest at
San Miguel de Tucumán (1565), Salta (1582), San Salvador de Jujuy
(1593), and San Luis (1594); Córdoba, to the south, was founded in 1573.
Meanwhile, the Northwest received colonists from still farther south as
Spaniards and Creole settlers from Chile founded the cities of Mendoza
and San Juan in the early 1560s.
The cities in the Northwest were founded originally to support
agriculture (including livestock raising) and trade with the silver
mines of the Viceroyalty of Peru, particularly those at Potosí (now in
Bolivia). Later, as Buenos Aires developed and the silver mines became
less profitable, the country’s orientation switched to the southeast.
The Spanish established a trade route between Chile and Buenos Aires
that went through Córdoba and Mendoza, both of which thrived. This
northward path was chosen in order to avoid the Pampas Indians, and it
has remained an important transportation route. Settlement in the
600-mile- (1,000-km-) long rain shadow zone east of the Andes took place
in river oases stretching from just south of San Miguel de Tucumán to
San Rafael, south of Mendoza.
Rail transportation linked Mendoza to the Pampas in 1885 and sparked
the development of viticulture in the Mendoza region. Access to Buenos
Aires brought new capital, more settlers, better grape stock, and larger
markets. Mendoza and oases such as San Rafael expanded once European
immigrants could reach them and fill the labour shortage. Farmers in
Tucumán province benefited from their more humid surroundings amid
Andean foothills; they responded to the new markets across the Pampas by
increasing sugar production, which had begun there during early colonial
times. The first direct rail link between Tucumán and the Pampas in 1875
provided access to expanding sugar markets and to more modern machinery.
Most of the tens of thousands of workers needed to harvest the crop came
to live year-round on the large plantations, making Tucumán the most
densely settled province in Argentina.
The Gran Chaco
The Gran Chaco has long been considered a frontier region, and the
government has often promoted its settlement and development.
Agricultural colonies and cities grew first along the Paraná-Paraguay
water route and then along railroads built to serve the quebracho
industry. Resistencia was founded in 1878, and Formosa in 1879.
The harsh physical conditions of the Gran Chaco explain why its
native peoples engaged in only limited agriculture. Early Spanish
expeditions aiming to conquer the Chaco came from Santiago del Estero to
the west, Santa Fe to the southeast, and Asunción (now the capital of
Paraguay) across the Paraguay River to the northeast. None of these
succeeded in subduing the determined Indians, however.
Settlement in the Chaco ultimately took place from Santiago del
Estero, where irrigated cotton was successfully grown as early as the
mid-16th century, and from Santa Fe, where cattle ranchers had purchased
enormous acreages on which to raise tough criollo (Creole) cattle, which
had survived from earlier expeditions. Ranchers defeated local Indians
in 1885 and advanced to the northern frontier of the Argentine Chaco
near the Bermejo River. Logging operations followed the ranchers and
helped open parts of the Chaco—particularly in the east, where tannin
from the quebracho tree met the demand of the Argentine leather
industry. At the start of the 20th century, European settlers in the
eastern Chaco began raising cotton, a crop that could withstand the long
drought period. Small cotton-growing areas spread westward nearly to San
Miguel de Tucumán, north to the Paraguayan border at the Pilcomayo
River, and east into Mesopotamia.
The northern part of the Mesopotamian region was first settled by
Spaniards from Asunción, who in 1588 founded the city of Corrientes near
the confluence of the Alto Paraná and Paraguay rivers. In the south
settlers from Santa Fe crossed the Paraná River and established what
became the city of Paraná. Having founded towns along navigable rivers,
the Spanish secured the water route to the Río de la Plata estuary.
When the Spanish first entered the Mesopotamian region, distances
between settlements were so great that supply lines were tenuous, and
the settlers found it necessary to produce their own subsistence crops.
This they accomplished mainly by subjugating the remaining Indians under
the encomienda system, which granted settlers the use of Indian labour
on lands awarded by the crown. After Indian rebellions were met by
Spanish military reprisals, however, many Indians were forced to flee.
Finally, in the early 17th century the crown turned to the Jesuits to
restore peace and protect the native peoples. Within a century the
Jesuits had built numerous reducciones, or mission settlements, in
Mesopotamia, which later acquired the name Misiones. Under Jesuit rule
northern Mesopotamia became the most important centre of colonization in
the eastern part of the continent.
The Territory of Misiones was created in the early 1880s, and
Europeans, particularly Germans, began to settle the forested zone in
the north. Yerba maté (Ilex paraguariensis; source of the brewed
beverage maté), citrus, and vegetables, as well as tung trees, tea, and
sugarcane, were grown on small farms. Outside the agricultural zones of
Mesopotamia, cattle ranching came to dominate.
The Pampas region was originally inhabited by Indians such as the
Querandí, who reportedly did not practice agriculture but were fishers
and hunters who used bolas for entangling fleet-footed guanacos and
rheas. Fierce attacks by the Querandí forced Spanish settlers in Buenos
Aires to flee upriver to Asunción in 1541. After Buenos Aires reemerged
in 1580, the Spanish showed less interest in opening up the southern
Pampas than in keeping open the northern trade route to Santa Fe,
Asunción, and Upper Peru; as a result, estancias (huge cattle ranches)
were first established northwest of Buenos Aires.
The estancias became one of the most important institutions in the
economy, politics, and culture of Argentina. They began as gigantic
tracts of land, often measuring in the hundreds of square miles, that
were sold or granted to the Creole descendants of Spanish settlers
during the 17th century. Herds of criollo cattle and horses ran half
wild on these tracts. To manage the herds the estancia owners
(estancieros) hired gauchos, ranch hands who dominated the Pampas until
the open ranges disappeared late in the 19th century.
Located on the estancias were widely dispersed ranchos, or simple
adobe houses with dooryard gardens, which served as the headquarters of
the estancieros. The gauchos were housed in more primitive huts or
lean-tos. In addition, there were small pulperías, centrally located
inns where marketing, banking, eating and drinking, and other functions
took place. Some pulperías grew into villages. Gradually, the estancia
region of the Pampas spread west and south of Buenos Aires.
Buenos Aires and Santa Fe survived as small, sparsely populated towns
until the mid-19th century. After that time rapid growth in agriculture
changed the face of the Pampas. The world market for food products
increased, and estancieros modernized their operations to meet the
demand. Sheep and breeds of English cattle were imported to replace the
criollo; however, the new cattle were unable to live on the Pampas grass
and had to be fed with alfalfa. Because gauchos were not numerous or
willing enough to cultivate alfalfa, their employers contracted European
immigrants as tenant farmers. In addition, the southern frontier of the
Pampas was pushed back, so that by 1880 Indian resistance was wiped out
north of the Negro River. By 1914 several million European workers had
arrived to work ranches and farms. Gradually, small farming and tenant
farming operations spread west and south from Santa Fe and Entre Ríos
The growth of agriculture spurred the growth of cities. Railroads
radiating from Buenos Aires penetrated the interior of the Pampas,
forming the densest network in the country. By the late 19th century
foreign-owned frigoríficos (meat-packing plants for the export of beef
and mutton) had been established on the Río de la Plata estuary. Efforts
by the government to encourage the growth of manufacturing favoured the
port cities, attracting most immigrants as well as many workers from the
countryside. Buenos Aires subsequently became one of the most populous
and cosmopolitan cities of the world, and the Humid Pampa became the
most prosperous industrial and agricultural region of Argentina.
Most approaches to Patagonia from the sea were hampered by inhospitable
coastal cliffs and by high tides. With the Pampas Indians acting as a
buffer against Europeans to the north, the Patagonian Indians thus
remained unmolested until the mid-19th century, when European
settlements encroached and warfare erupted. The Indian wars in northern
Patagonia and the southern and western Pampas culminated in a campaign
known as the Conquest of the Desert, which ended in 1879 with the
smashing of the last major Indian resistance. Argentines, Chileans, and
Europeans began to colonize Patagonia, with soldiers and financial
contributors to the Indian wars receiving large land grants. Argentine
settlers proceeded southward from the Pampean port city of Bahía Blanca
and from Neuquén in the Andean foothills. Chileans from Punta Arenas
settled in Tierra del Fuego. Welsh, Scottish, and English immigrants
spread along the coast and inland, with the result that both Welsh and
English are still spoken in parts of Patagonia.
The southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia, on Tierra del Fuego,
began as a missionary settlement; it can still be reached only by ship
or aircraft. About the end of the 19th century, sheep ranching began
along the rail line connecting the port of Río Gallegos with coal
deposits at Río Turbio. Comodoro Rivadavia became an important oil and
natural gas centre, and the Negro River fruit region began to develop in
1886 when the area east of Neuquén was settled by veterans of the Indian
wars and by others.
The population of Argentina has increased 20-fold since 1869, when 1.8
million people were recorded there by the first census. Population
growth was rapid through the early part of the 20th century, but it
declined thereafter as both the birth rate and immigration began to drop
off; the proportion of young people also declined. Argentina’s rates of
birth and population growth are now among South America’s lowest. The
nation’s population density is also among the continent’s lowest,
although certain areas are quite heavily populated, including the Humid
Pampa, Mesopotamia, and parts of the eastern Northwest. The population
is growing faster in urban areas—especially Buenos Aires—than in the
rest of the country. Nearly nine-tenths of the people live in urban
areas, about a third in greater Buenos Aires alone.
Argentina’s economy, which is one of the more powerful in the region, is
dependent on services and manufacturing, although agribusiness and
ranching dominated the economy for much of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Argentina still produces more grain than any other country in Latin
America and is second in cattle raising only to Brazil, and its receipts
from tourism are second in the region only to those of Mexico. Its gross
national product (GNP), GNP per capita, and value added from
manufacturing are also among the highest in the region. However, the
country has withstood a number of economic downturns, including periods
of high inflation and unemployment during the late 20th century and a
major financial crisis in the early 21st century.
In the 60 years after the founding of the farming colony at Esperanza
in 1856, the base of Argentine agriculture shifted from livestock to
crops. The spread of wheat, corn (maize), and flax cultivation roughly
conformed to that of the estancia region of the Pampas. Although
agriculture there did not become as intensive as it did in North
America, soils were good and land was abundant. Argentine industry
became important when mostly foreign-dominated manufacturers began
exporting processed foods. The growth trend continued well into the 20th
century as Argentina became one of the most prosperous countries in
Latin America. Meat and grain were exported to expanding markets in
Europe in exchange for fuel and manufactured products.
In the early decades of the 20th century, Argentina became the
world’s leading exporter of corn, flax, and meat. However, the Great
Depression of the 1930s considerably damaged the Argentine economy by
reducing foreign trade. Between 1930 and 1980 Argentina fell from being
one of the wealthiest countries in the world to ranking with the
developing (Third World) nations. In response to the Great Depression,
successive governments from the 1930s to the ’70s pursued a strategy of
import substitution designed to transform Argentina into a country
self-sufficient in industry as well as agriculture. This was
accomplished mainly by imposing high tariffs on imports and thereby
sheltering Argentine textile, leather, and home-appliance manufacturers
from foreign competition. The government’s encouragement of industrial
growth, however, diverted investment from agriculture, and agricultural
production fell dramatically. Fruits, vegetables, oilseed crops such as
soybeans and sunflowers, and industrial crops such as sugarcane and
cotton increased their share of total agricultural production at the
expense of the dominant grain crops. Overall, however, Argentina
remained one of the world’s major agricultural producers.
By 1960 manufacturing contributed more to the country’s wealth than
did agriculture. Argentina had become largely self-sufficient in
consumer goods, but it depended more than ever before on imported fuel
and heavy machinery. In response the government invested heavily in such
basic industries as petroleum, natural gas, steel, petrochemicals, and
transport; it also invited investment by foreign companies. By the
mid-1970s Argentina was producing most of its own oil, steel, and
automobiles and was also exporting a number of manufactured products.
Manufacturing became the largest single component of the gross domestic
product (GDP). The country had also become self-sufficient in fuel.
The era of import substitution ended in 1976 when the Argentine
government lowered import barriers, liberalized restrictions on foreign
borrowing, and supported the peso (the Argentine currency) against
foreign currencies. At the same time, growing government spending, large
wage raises, and inefficient production created a chronic inflation that
rose through the 1980s, when it briefly exceeded an annual rate of 1,000
percent. Successive regimes tried to control inflation through wage and
price controls, cuts in public spending, and restriction of the money
supply. With the peso quickly losing value to inflation, a new peso was
introduced in 1983 (with 10,000 old pesos exchanged for each new peso),
only to be replaced by the austral in 1985, which was in turn replaced
by another new peso in 1992.
The measures enacted in 1976 also produced a huge foreign debt by the
late 1980s, which became equivalent to three-fourths of the GNP. In
terms of percentage of GDP, the country’s agricultural and industrial
sectors were similar to those of developed countries, but they were
considerably less efficient. And, despite a high standard of living by
South American standards, Argentina had a foreign debt ratio comparable
to that of Third World countries.
In the early 1990s the government enacted a program of economic
austerity, reined in inflation by making the peso equal in value to the
U.S. dollar, and privatized numerous state-run companies, using part of
the proceeds from their sale to reduce the national debt. The resulting
influx of foreign capital and increased industrial productivity helped
to revitalize the economy. In 1995, however, a sudden devaluation of the
Mexican peso threatened the economies of many Latin American nations.
Argentines feared that investors who had lost money in Mexico would also
lose confidence in the Argentine financial system. To avert that threat
the government quickly adopted further austerity measures. However, a
sustained recession at the turn of the 21st century culminated in a
financial crisis in which the government—led by a quick succession of
presidents and presidential resignations—defaulted on its foreign debt
and again devalued the Argentine peso. By the middle of the first decade
of the 21st century, however, the country’s economy had recovered; there
was considerable GNP growth, renewed foreign investment, and a
significant drop in the unemployment rate.
Agriculture, forestry, and fishing
Argentina is one of the world’s major exporters of soybeans and wheat,
as well as meat. It is also one of the largest producers of wool and
wine, but most of its wine is consumed domestically. Although
agriculture is an important source of export earnings, it now accounts
for a small percentage of the overall GDP, and it employs only a tiny
portion of the nation’s workforce.
Wheat is Argentina’s largest crop in harvested land area, and it is
the main crop in the cattle-raising southern Pampas of Buenos Aires and
La Pampa provinces. Wheat and corn (maize) dominate in the north.
Planting of corn and wheat began simultaneously in the northern Pampas.
By the end of World War II, however, foreign competition had cut
Argentine corn production in half, and production has increased only
gradually since then. About half of the corn produced is used for
livestock feed. The total area of the Pampas planted in sorghum and
soybeans has grown since 1960 to rank just behind that of wheat and
corn. These crops also serve primarily as livestock feed and are
valuable for export. Another crop of the northern Pampas is flax.
More than nine-tenths of the country’s grapes are planted in the
Northwest provinces of Mendoza and San Juan; most of the crop is used
for wine making. Table grapes are a specialty in La Rioja. The warmer
northern provinces of Tucumán, Salta, and Jujuy make up the
sugarcane-growing region of Argentina. The sugarcane provinces also have
citrus orchards, which were introduced as a safeguard against the
volatility of the sugar market. Tobacco is also grown in Salta and
Jujuy. The best area for cotton growing lies mainly west of the Paraná
River, between the Bermejo and Dulce rivers. Most of the crop is used by
the Argentine textile industry.
In Mesopotamia maté is the most important product of Misiones
province, although since 1940 farmers have increasingly cultivated tea,
tung trees (from which tung oil is derived), and citrus crops. Farther
south in Mesopotamia, the truck-farming area supporting Buenos Aires,
oranges, grapefruit, mandarins, and numerous vegetables are grown. The
Negro River irrigation district in Patagonia has become one of
Argentina’s major fruit-producing regions, particularly for apples and
The Pampas are the traditional source of beef cattle, the country’s
most valuable export commodity. Estancieros have proved quick to adapt
to changing markets, switching breeds and supplementing alfalfa feed
with grain sorghum in order to produce leaner meat. Most of Argentina’s
hogs are raised in the Pampas, principally for domestic consumption. The
cool, moist area of the southeastern Pampas, between Buenos Aires and
the city of Mar del Plata, is an important dairy and sheep-raising
district. Corrientes and Entre Ríos remain important cattle-raising
provinces, ranking just behind those of the Pampas. Chaco province began
as grazing ground for criollo cattle, but modern breeds have been
susceptible to disease there, so the Chaco cattle economy has remained
underdeveloped. Patagonia has at least half of the country’s sheep, most
of which are sheared for their wool. For a period during the 1990s,
Argentine beef was banned from importation into the European Union, the
United States, and other nations because of the incidence of
foot-and-mouth disease. Exports subsequently resumed but were subject to
periodic bans. Most of the beef produced in Argentina is now eaten
The forestry industry does not supply all of Argentina’s needs. Most
of the harvest is used for lumber, with smaller amounts for firewood and
charcoal. In Mesopotamia the Paraná pine is harvested for its timber;
there are also plantations of poplar and willow. The Northwest highlands
produce pine and cedar, used for pulp and industry. The red quebracho of
the Chaco region is valuable for its tannin, and the white quebracho is
used for lumber and charcoal. Scattered stands of algaroba (carob)
provide local firewood and cabinet wood in the Pampas.
The fishing industry is comparatively small, owing in part to the
overwhelming preference among Argentines for beef in their diet. Most
coastal and deep-sea fishing is done in the Buenos Aires area, from the
Río de la Plata to the Gulf of San Matías; the major ports are Mar del
Plata and Bahía Blanca. Hake, squid, and shrimp make up a large part of
the catch, about three-quarters of which is frozen or processed into oil
and fish meal for export.
Resources and power
Argentine industry is well served by the country’s abundance of energy
resources. By the late 20th century the country was self-sufficient in
fossil fuels and hydroelectric generation, and it had become a petroleum
exporter. Oil deposits are concentrated mainly in the Northwest and in
Patagonia. The basin around the Patagonian port of Comodoro Rivadavia is
estimated to hold some two-thirds of the country’s onshore reserves.
Other deposits are located in Jujuy and Salta provinces, in Mendoza and
Neuquén provinces, and at the tip of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. The
main natural gas fields are also in the Northwest, near Campo Durán
(Salta province) and Mendoza, and in Patagonia, near Neuquén and
Comodoro Rivadavia. Prior to the development of these fields in the
1980s, Argentina had imported gas from Bolivia. Coal deposits are found
in southern Patagonia. Until 2000 some coal was mined there, but that
activity has ceased; Argentina’s needs are met by imports.
With the exception of oil and natural gas, exploitable mineral
reserves are generally small and widely scattered. Deposits of iron ore,
uranium, lead, zinc, silver, copper, manganese, and tungsten are worked.
A wide range of nonmetallic minerals is found throughout the country.
Salt deposits are located on the western and southwestern edges of the
Pampas, and materials such as clay, limestone, granite, and marble
supply the construction industries.
A significant amount of electrical power in Argentina is generated
through hydroelectric stations, the total capacity of which has
increased exponentially since the early 1970s. The huge Yacyretá dam on
the lower Paraná River, brought on line in 1994–98, gave the nation a
surplus of generating capacity. Argentina, with several nuclear plants,
is one of Latin America’s main producers of nuclear power.
Manufacturing, which accounts for about one-fifth of GDP and nearly
one-sixth of the workforce, is a mainstay of the Argentine economy. A
large sector of the country’s industry is involved with the processing
of agricultural products.
Beef initiated industrialization in Argentina. The success of beef came
as refrigeration techniques were perfected to allow, after 1876, for the
storage and shipment of fresh meat. By the late 1920s frigoríficos
(meat-packing plants) were located in various parts of the country,
several of them in the Buenos Aires area. Later shipments proceeded from
La Plata, Rosario, and Bahía Blanca. Frigoríficos at the ports of
Patagonia came to serve the sheep ranches of that region.
The growth of beef production in Argentina gave rise to a host of
associated industries, including those producing tinned beef, meat
extracts, tallow, hides, and leather. Argentina has been a consistent
world leader in the export of hides. Leather processing occurs locally,
and fine leather clothing can be obtained at retail outlets in the
cities. The Chaco region supplies the necessary tannin, of which it is a
major world producer.
The Argentine grain-milling industry has grown in cities along the
Río de la Plata littoral, where huge storage silos were built. Grain
became a significant export as production increased in the late 20th
century. Wheat flour is also produced in the silo areas for local
consumption, and food industries based on wheat flour and pastas have
developed at the same sites. Smaller but similar activities have emerged
in the interior of Argentina wherever grain has been produced. Textile
production in Argentina also developed on the basis of agricultural
products, namely, wool and cotton. It is concentrated in the cities of
the Pampas, where the largest markets and labour pools are located.
The Argentine sugar industry of the Northwest is centred mainly in
San Miguel de Tucumán, but a few mills also operate in Salta and San
Salvador de Jujuy. These mills fulfill domestic demand. Mendoza in the
same region is the nation’s centre for olive and olive oil production,
as well as for wine bottling. Argentina exports wine to other South
American countries and to Europe and North America, on the basis of a
steadily improving reputation among consumers.
Oil, steel, and motor vehicles
Argentina’s refining industry has grown along the coast in Buenos Aires
and nearby cities, supplied by crude oil taken there by tankers and
pipelines from Comodoro Rivadavia and Venezuela. The refining industry
has also found a base in the petroleum fields north and south of
Mendoza, where petrochemical plants have been built.
The steel industry in Argentina began in the 1940s and grew slowly
during the following decades. The Zapla works in Jujuy, the integrated
San Nicolás de los Arroyos mill between Rosario and Buenos Aires, and
the mill in Rosario produce most of the nation’s steel but fall short of
supplying domestic demand.
A developing automobile industry provides a market for Argentine
steel producers. Production had stagnated for decades, and in the 1980s
it was still common to see 1960s-era cars on the streets of Buenos
Aires; in the 1990s, however, foreign investment and the construction of
modern assembly plants revitalized this sector. There is a developing
aircraft industry at Córdoba.
Finance and trade
The economic sector that includes finance, insurance, real estate, and
business services accounts for one-fifth of GDP and employs about
one-twelfth of the workforce. The central bank issues currency, sets
interest and exchange rates, and regulates the money supply by deciding
the amount of reserve cash that banks must hold. The peso is the
Prior to the establishment in the 1990s of the Southern Common Market
(Mercado Común del Sur; Mercosur) with Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay,
Argentine trade was mainly oriented toward Europe and the United States.
Brazil is now Argentina’s most important trading partner, representing
about one-fourth of all foreign trade, followed by the countries of the
European Union, the United States, Chile, Japan, and Uruguay.
In the 19th century Argentine beef and grain helped feed Britain’s
rapidly rising urban population, and until 1945 Britain was Argentina’s
main trading partner. The United States then assumed greater importance,
particularly as an importer of Argentine goods. Britain’s share declined
and virtually disappeared for a time after the Falkland Islands War of
Argentina generally has had a favourable balance of trade, although
it has occasionally experienced years with trade deficits since the
Mercosur pact was enacted. The country’s major exports are still
agricultural products, notably grain; also important are petroleum,
machinery and transport equipment, and chemicals. About half of its
imports, by value, are machinery and transport equipment. Chemical
products and consumer goods are significant as well.
More than three-fifths of the Argentine GDP and a comparable portion of
the labour force are based on services, including retail trade, hotels,
restaurants, trucking and other transportation, government, education,
health care, and various other business and social services. Retail and
wholesale commerce alone account for about one-seventh of GDP, and
business services account for a slightly lesser portion.
Tourism is growing in importance, and international visitors
contribute large amounts of foreign exchange to the Argentine economy.
The number of foreign tourist arrivals approached five million per year
in the late 1990s; one-fourth of visitors were from Uruguay, followed by
hundreds of thousands each from Chile, Brazil, the United States, and
Paraguay. Major tourist sites include Iguazú Falls and the former Jesuit
missions in Misiones province, as well as the ski resorts of San Carlos
de Bariloche in the Lake District. Adventure travelers are drawn to
Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. Buenos Aires is often called the Paris
of South America because of its European flair, its nightlife, and its
many educational institutions, museums, monuments, and theatres,
including the historic Colón Theatre.
Labour and taxation
Argentina possesses a large and literate workforce. However, a sizable
number of Argentine workers were unemployed at the turn of the 21st
century. Strong labour laws were enacted during the Perón era, when
unions wielded great power over the Argentine economy, but successive
governments have attempted to reform or repeal some of the Peronist
strictures. More than nine-tenths of Argentina’s 1,100 labour unions are
represented by the General Confederation of Labour (Confederación
General de Trabajo), a Peronist organization. Dissident trade union
confederations include the Argentine Workers’ Movement (Movimiento de
Women constitute more than one-third of the labour force, and about
two-fifths of women labourers are employed as household servants. The
number of women employed is increasing, which reflects both the
necessity of two incomes to support families and an increase in the
number of women heading households. Women tend to hold lower-paying jobs
and to receive less pay than their male counterparts.
Taxes contribute the great bulk of government revenue. In addition to
income tax, the principal federal taxes include wealth tax, value-added
tax, and excise taxes on specific commodities and luxury goods.
Additional taxes are levied by local and provincial governments.
Transportation and telecommunications
During the Spanish colonial period there were three principal overland
transportation routes. The most important led from Buenos Aires to the
wealthy mining centre in Upper Peru (now Bolivia) via the northwestern
route through Córdoba, Santiago del Estero, San Miguel de Tucumán, and
San Salvador de Jujuy. A second route linked Buenos Aires with Chile
westward through Villa María, San Luis, and Mendoza. The third route
extended north from Buenos Aires to Santa Fe and Corrientes. These and
less-important side roads were used by mule drivers, horsemen, huge
two-wheeled oxcarts called carretas, and stagecoaches drawn by teams of
six to eight horses.
The system was transformed not by modernizing the roads but rather by
rapidly building rail lines during the period just after 1857. British
and other foreign capital funded rail networks that radiated from Buenos
Aires. Rail construction continued from that time into the 20th century,
and the country developed the most extensive rail system in Latin
America. After the railways expanded, the nation built up its road
network. Argentina’s roadway mileage is now outranked in Latin America
only by Brazil and Mexico; nearly one-third of the roads are paved. The
largest share of surface freight is now carried by road, with lesser
amounts carried by river and railroad.
Small ships that carry passengers and freight have served the coastal
cities from Buenos Aires to Río Gallegos since the end of the 19th
century. The ocean shipping fleet is not well developed, however,
considering Argentina’s extensive export trade. Airlines link all
regions of the country. Every major city has an airport, and even small,
remote centres such as Ushuaia in southern Patagonia have reliable air
service. Nearly all the largest cities have international airports, the
most important being Ezeiza outside Buenos Aires. The country’s main air
transport company, Aerolíneas Argentinas, was founded by the government
in 1950 to handle domestic and international traffic. It was sold to a
consortium headed by Spain’s national carrier, Iberia, in 1992 and
unsuccessfully restructured in the late 1990s. The airlines returned to
state control in 2008.
In November 2000 the telecommunications industry was deregulated in
an attempt to open the market to competition, improve the speed and
breadth of services, and lower costs. Argentina was experiencing a boom
in Internet start-up companies, which the infrastructure was inadequate
to support. By 2000 fewer than 10 percent of the people owned personal
computers, and less had Internet access, but the numbers for both were
growing rapidly. The two extant regional telecommunications companies,
Telecom and Telefónica, in 1989–90 had replaced the state-owned Entel
company, which was notorious for decade-long waits for installations.
The system subsequently was modernized, with extensive fibre-optic lines
installed throughout most of the market and service made available to
remote locations. Cellular service was expanding as well, approaching
the rate of traditional landline service.
Government and society
Argentina is a federal union of 23 provincias and a federal capital
district, the city of Buenos Aires. Federalism came to Argentina only
after a long struggle between proponents of a central government and
supporters of provincial interests. The constitution of 1853 was modeled
on that of the United States. The constitution promulgated in 1994
provides for consecutive presidential terms (which had not been allowed
previously), but few other changes distinguish it from the 1853
document; in its largely original form, the constitution has sustained
Argentina with at least a nominal form of republican, representative,
and federal government.
Executive power resides in the office of the president, who is
elected with a vice president to a four-year term (only two terms can be
consecutive). The president is commander in chief of the armed forces
and appoints all civil, military, and federal judicial officers, as well
as the chief of the Cabinet of Ministers, the body that oversees the
general administration of the country. The Argentine legislature, or
National Congress, consists of two houses: a 72-seat Senate and a
257-seat Chamber of Deputies. The Senate, whose members are elected to
six-year terms, consists of three representatives from each province and
the federal capital. The Chamber of Deputies, whose members are elected
to four-year terms, is apportioned according to population.
Provincial and local government
Each province has its own government, with executive, legislative, and
judicial branches similar to those of the federal government. The
provinces retain all power not specifically reserved to the federal
government in the constitution. Local government was nullified in 1966
and restored in 1973, only to be taken over again in 1976 by the
military dictatorship. With the restoration of constitutional government
in 1983, the provinces and municipalities once more exercised the
authority of local government. Municipal governments vary in structure,
but many towns and cities have elected mayors. The executive (jefe de
gobierno) of Buenos Aires is directly elected to a four-year term and is
eligible for immediate reelection.
The Argentine judicial system is divided into federal and provincial
courts. The nine federal Supreme Court judges are appointed by the
president with approval of the Senate. Lower federal court judges are
nominated by a Council of Magistrates and chosen by the president.
Reforms begun in the 1990s addressed long-standing problems of
inefficiency, corruption, and unfilled vacancies. There are federal
courts of appeal in Buenos Aires and other large cities. The provincial
justice system includes supreme courts, appellate courts, courts of
first instance, and justices of the peace.
The judiciary has been criticized as inefficient and open to
political influence, despite recent reforms. Among the persistent
problems cited are arbitrary arrests, lengthy pretrial detentions, and
harsh prison conditions. However, cases involving human rights abuses
have received increasing attention since the 1980s. The government has
designated a prisons ombudsman since 1993 to monitor conditions and
recommend prison reforms.
The national prison system is directed by the Ministry of Justice.
There are also separate provincial prisons. The number of prisoners in
Argentina increased greatly in the 1990s, from roughly 21,000 to nearly
40,000, or to as many as 58,000 by some estimates. The rate of
incarceration also increased rapidly. Pretrial detainees account for
more than half of the prison population.
The political party system in Argentina has been volatile, particularly
since the mid-20th century, with numerous parties forming, taking part
in elections, and disbanding as new factions evolve. Among the major
parties are the Radical Civic Union (Unión Cívica Radical; UCR), a
centrist party with moderate leftist leanings; the Justicialist Party
(Partido Justicialista; PJ), more commonly known as the Peronist party
(for its founder, former president Juan Perón), traditionally
nationalist and pro-labour but supportive of neoliberal economic
policies during the 1990s; the Front for a Country in Solidarity (Frente
del País Solidario; Frepaso), a moderate leftist grouping of dissident
Peronists; and the Union of the Democratic Centre (Unión del Centro
Democrático; UCD, or UCéDé), a traditional liberal party. The PJ has
controlled the government most of the time since civilian rule was
restored in the early 1980s, notably under President Carlos Menem in the
1990s. Frepaso was founded in 1994 from the left-wing Broad Front, the
Christian Democratic Party, and other groups; three years later it
formed an alliance with the UCR and in 1999–2001 held the government.
The UCéDé, which remained separate from many coalitions, had a limited
The national electoral code provides that 30 percent of candidates
proposed by political parties for elected office must be women. About
one-fourth of the members of the Chamber of Deputies are women, but the
Senate remains overwhelmingly male.
Women’s rights have been established through a series of legislative
acts guaranteeing the right to vote, to work and to receive equal pay
for equal work, and to stand on equal footing in a marriage, including
in the authority over children. In 1985 the Convention on the
Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women was ratified,
and in 1991 the Coordinating Council for Public Policies on Women was
established to ensure its fulfillment. Departments of women’s affairs
operate within many federal and local agencies and in such institutions
as labour unions.
The military has traditionally been a factor in Argentina’s political
life, and the country has experienced several periods of military rule,
including 1976–83. Since then, however, annual military spending has
fallen to only a tiny fraction of GDP. Of the roughly 70,000 active
military personnel in the army, navy, and air force, some three-fifths
of the total are in the army. The Coast Guard provides security and
rescue services, and there is also an 18,000-member paramilitary
Gendarmería Nacional under the direction of the Ministry of the
Interior, deployable for both national and international security
functions. Argentina has sent troops to UN missions in Cyprus, Iraq and
Kuwait, and Serbia and Montenegro (Yugoslavia) and has provided
observers in a number of other locations as well. Argentina also has a
federal police force that is controlled by the president through the
minister of the interior.
Health and welfare
An extensive system of hospitals and clinics in Argentina is run by
national, provincial, and local authorities as well as by private
organizations. The cost of medical care is covered by a comprehensive
array of occupational insurance plans. Public health and sanitation
standards are particularly high in developed places but can drop off
considerably in some of the undeveloped areas. Diseases such as
smallpox, cholera, yellow fever, and tuberculosis have been brought
under control or eliminated. Average life expectancy at birth exceeds 75
years, higher than that in many South American countries.
Argentina’s social welfare services were developed on a large scale
during the first presidency (1946–55) of Juan Perón. A social security
system was set up to provide extensive benefits for all workers.
Housing, however, has become a problem in cities because of the movement
of workers from rural areas, especially during periods of economic
difficulty. These workers have congregated on the outskirts of urban
zones—and more recently on vacant land in the inner cities—and assembled
dwellings from corrugated iron and scraps of wood, cardboard, and other
scavenged materials. The resulting shantytown communities, called villas
miserias, lack amenities such as public utilities and paved roads.
The quality and style of housing in Argentina vary considerably
according to location and economic status. Many of the residents of
Buenos Aires and other large cities live in high-rise apartments; those
in the suburbs reside in ranch-style concrete homes with tile roofs.
However, poorer families often inhabit substandard housing in tenements
or shantytowns. More than two-fifths of homes in the city of Buenos
Aires are rented. Apartments and condominiums account for three-fourths
of homes in the capital but only about one-eighth of those in the
surrounding suburbs. At least one-fifth of Argentines occupy substandard
housing, lacking indoor plumbing (drinking water or toilets) or having
either dirt floors or temporary flooring. The government classifies
about half of the substandard homes as shacks or shanties. In many, more
than three people are crowded into each room.
Argentina has one of the more educated populations in Latin America,
which is reflected in its large number of schools and a nearly universal
literacy rate. Primary education is compulsory and free; secondary and
higher education is offered in free public schools and in private
schools subsidized by the state. Higher education in Argentina was
seriously hampered by the censorship and other strictures of the
military government of 1976–83, but efforts to restore the system began
after a civilian government was returned to power. The National
University of Córdoba, founded in 1613, is the nation’s oldest
university, and the University of Buenos Aires, founded in 1821, is its
largest. Other major national universities are at Mendoza, La Plata,
Rosario, and San Miguel de Tucumán. The National Technical University is
located at Buenos Aires.
Almost all Argentines are descendants of immigrants from Europe, and
Argentine culture is a lively blend of European customs and Latin
American innovations. Whereas earlier generations of intellectuals,
writers, composers, filmmakers, and visual artists looked to European
models, the country has developed artistic forms that are uniquely
Argentine—most famously the tango, the sexually charged dance of the
Buenos Aires dockside district, as well as the dense, metaphysical
stories of Jorge Luis Borges, which evoke the back alleys of the capital
and the vast Pampas alike. The tensions between those two milieus are
important in Argentine thought, for, although most Argentines are urban
and look to porteños, or residents of Buenos Aires, as arbiters of taste
and trends, the interior has given to all Argentines their symbol of
national identity, the gaucho, who occupies a position in South American
lore similar to that of the cowboy in the United States. Scorned in his
heyday of the 18th and 19th centuries as a drinker and vagabond, this
mestizo ranch hand rode the open rangeland of the huge estancias in
pursuit of wild horses and criollo cattle. Eventually Argentines came to
see him as a character whose solitary life taught him self-reliance,
courage, indifference to hardship, and love of the land—traits that
represented the ideal of their national character as set out in the
national epic poem El gaucho Martin Fierro (1872) by José Hernández, in
Ricardo Güiraldes’s fictional classic Don Segunda Sombra (1926), and in
works by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento and Benito Lynch.
Daily life and social customs
Daily life in Argentina’s cities is much as it is in those of southern
Europe: businesses and shops open early, close for a long break at
midday, and stay open into the evening; social life takes place both in
the streets and in lively bars and nightclubs; and meals are an
opportunity for convivial exchanges. New and Old World cultures meet in
the Argentine diet, where breakfast is generally a serving of three
sweet rolls (medialunas) and coffee in the French fashion, and supper is
taken, in the Spanish tradition, after 9:00 pm, often featuring Italian
dishes. The New World asserts itself in the Argentine passion for beef
cooked on the grill (parrilla), which is overwhelmingly preferred to
other meats and fish. Argentina consumes more beef per capita than any
other nation except Uruguay, twice the amount per capita as the United
States. Buenos Aires is renowned for its steakhouses (asados criollos,
but nearly every culinary tradition is represented in one or more of the
city’s restaurants. Maté, the native tealike beverage brewed from yerba
maté leaves, is popular in the countryside and is drunk from a gourd
through a strainer; it is either sipped individually or shared in an
important social ritual. Argentina is one of the largest wine producers
in the world, and its varietal red wines are highly prized by
connoisseurs, though most production goes toward supplying high domestic
Most Argentines observe the Roman Catholic calendar of holidays,
including Christmas and Easter. San Martin Day (August 17), Venticinco
de Mayo (May 25, the anniversary of the revolution of 1810), and Nueve
de Julio (July 9, Independence Day) are among the principal national
holidays. Regional festivals include the Fiesta del Milagros (“Miracle
Festival”) in Salta, commemorating the salvation of the city from an
earthquake in September 1692, the celebration on July 6 of the founding
of Córdoba, and the wine festival in Mendoza in March.
The fine arts of Argentina historically found their inspiration in
Europe, particularly in France and Spain, but the turbulence and
complexity of Argentine national life—and of Latin America in
general—have also found expression in the arts. In literature the
Modernismo movement of the late 19th century and the Ultraísmo of the
early 20th were both influenced by the French Symbolist and Parnassian
poets. By composing verses of unconventional metre and by using unusual
imagery and symbolism, such poets as Leopoldo Lugones and Jorge Luis
Borges hoped to draw attention to the beauty of the Spanish language.
Borges went on to become one of the most innovative fiction writers of
Latin America. He prepared the way for experimental works of the later
20th century, such as the antinovel Rayuela (1963; Hopscotch) by the
Argentine novelist Julio Cortázar. Adolfo Bioy Casares, a colleague of
Borges, is particularly well known for his stories. Also notable is
Ernesto Sábato, author of the fictional work El túnel (1948; Eng. trans.
The Outsider) and chair of the commission that produced Nunca más (1984;
“Never Again!”), a shocking report on human rights abuses in Argentina.
The novelist and screenwriter Manuel Puig is best known for his El beso
de la mujer araña (1976; Kiss of the Spider Woman), a denunciation of
sexual and political repression. Contemporary Argentine writers such as
Alicia Partnoy and Luisa Valenzuela are well known within the country.
Buenos Aires hosts an annual book fair highlighting the work of these
and other authors, as well as a separate fair for children’s books;
Argentina remains the largest market in Spanish-speaking Latin America
for trade books.
Composers of the early 20th century such as Alberto Williams and
Carlos López Buchardo contributed to a nationalist revival in music by
adapting folk and gaucho themes to classical forms. A generation later
Alberto Ginastera and Juan Carlos Paz experimented with musical forms
that were current throughout Europe and the Americas. Painters and
sculptors studied in Italy and France and took the academic,
Impressionist, and Cubist styles back to Argentina. Later artists were
inspired by Mexican murals and by abstract and Pop art in the United
One of Argentina’s great cultural hybrids is the tango, a music style
and dance that emerged from the poor immigrant quarters of Buenos Aires
toward the end of the 19th century and quickly became famous around the
world as a symbol of Argentine culture. Influenced by the Spanish tango
and possibly the Argentine milonga, it was originally a high-spirited
local phenomenon, but, after it was popularized by romantic singers such
as Carlos Gardel, it became an elegant ballroom form characterized by
romantic and melancholy tunes. By the end of the 20th century, the tango
had lost some of its appeal among the nation’s youth, who generally
preferred dancing to rock and pop music in local discotheques;
nevertheless, it has remained popular among the older generation and
foreigners and has continued to evolve under the influence of such
artists as Astor Piazzolla and Roberto Fripo.
Argentine cinema dates from the 1930s; notable among the works of the
later 20th century is La historia oficial (1985; “The Official
Version”), a drama regarding the extralegal adoption of children born to
prisoners who were murdered during the “Dirty War” of 1976–83. Argentine
film has experienced a renaissance since the 1990s, with the critical
and commercial success of such productions as Enrique
Gabriel-Lipschutz’s Huella borrada (1999; “Erased Footprints”), Diego
Arsuaga’s El último tren (2002; “The Last Train”), Maria Teresa
Constantini’s Sin intervalo (2002; “Nonstop”), and Juan José Jusid’s
Apasionados (2002; “The Lovers”). Carlos Saura’s Tango (1998) and
Marcelo Pineyro’s Cenizas del paraíso (1997; “Ashes from Paradise”) are
among several broadly distributed Argentine films to have been nominated
for Academy Awards or other international honours.
Buenos Aires is home to the National Library, founded in 1810 and
holding more than two million volumes, and to a host of specialized
libraries as well. Museums of fine arts, natural history, decorative
arts, ethnology and archaeology, and national history are also located
there. Schools of fine arts in Buenos Aires offer instruction in visual
arts, theatre, dance, and music. Provincial museums tend to focus on
local arts, history, and sciences; in Ushuaia, the southernmost city in
the Western Hemisphere, the Museo del Fin del Mundo (Museum of the End
of the World) concentrates on history and natural sciences. In La Plata
the university’s Natural History Museum contains fine examples of the
rich fossil record of Patagonia, which helped inspire naturalist Charles
Sports and recreation
Argentina’s worldwide preeminence on the polo field reflects the
nation’s divided social base, the hardiness of its horses, and the
skills of its riders. Steeped in the gaucho tradition and having the
open fields of the Pampas on which to practice, a ranch hand with the
necessary talent can attain high renown and modest wealth at either polo
or horse racing. Both the wealthy and the urban middle classes attend
exclusive sporting clubs offering tennis, yachting, or power boating.
Rugby football is played in several private schools. There are excellent
hiking and fishing areas in the Lake District of the Patagonian Andes,
where San Carlos de Bariloche attracts crowds of skiers during the
winter. In the summer months bathers pack the beaches at resorts such as
Mar del Plata, though the waters of the Río de la Plata itself, once
available to all comers, are polluted and have been declared unsafe for
The most popular sport among the Argentine working class is football
(soccer), introduced by the British (as was polo) in the 19th century.
Professional football offers players of even the poorest backgrounds a
chance at wealth and fame; as inspiration they look to such national
football stars as Diego Maradona, who was perhaps the world’s leading
player in the 1980s and ’90s. Argentine teams are generally among the
best internationally and are often contenders for the World Cup.
A peculiarly Argentine game dating perhaps to the 17th century is
pato (“duck”), which is played on an open field between two teams of
four horsemen each. The riders attempt to carry a leather ball
(originally a duck trapped in a basket) by its large handles and throw
it through the opposing team’s goal, which is a large hoop on a post.
A majority of Argentines enjoy viewing televised sporting events as
well as dramas, game shows, and other television programs, including
North American comedies dubbed into Spanish. Telenovelas (soap operas)
made in Argentina and other Latin American countries are particularly
popular, and many locally produced serials are exported throughout the
region. Movies, many of which originate in the United States or Europe,
are also viewed avidly. Increasing numbers of Argentines have bought
personal computers and begun accessing the Internet.
Media and publishing
The mass media in Argentina are well advanced among Latin American
nations. In Buenos Aires the largest newspapers are published, and many
have electronic editions on the Internet. The largest daily circulation
is claimed by Clarín; two other large-circulation dailies, La Nación and
La Prensa, founded in 1870 and 1869, respectively, have high reputations
in the Spanish-speaking world as well as among the international press.
Página/12, a more recent addition, provides thorough independent
coverage of Argentine politics and cultural affairs. The
English-language daily Buenos Aires Herald is also widely available
throughout the republic. Foreign-language papers are common in the
capital. Buenos Aires is a centre of publishing in South America.
The majority of radio and television stations are privately operated,
although national and provincial governments operate some 15 television
stations. Throughout the country’s postwar history the broadcast media
and press have periodically become agents of state propaganda, only to
be returned to some independence by succeeding administrations.
Robert C. Eidt
Peter A.R. Calvert
The following discussion focuses on events in Argentina from the time of
European settlement. For events in a regional context, see Latin
America, history of. Events that affected northwestern Argentina prior
to the 16th century are described in pre-Columbian civilizations: Andean
The population of the area now called Argentina may have totaled
300,000 before the arrival of the Europeans. Some of the indigenous
peoples were nomadic hunters and fishers, such as those in the Chaco,
the Tehuelche of Patagonia, and the Querandí and Puelche (Guennakin) of
the Pampas, but others, such as the Diaguita of the Northwest, developed
sedentary agriculture. The highlands of the Northwest were a part of the
Discovery and settlement
The main Atlantic outline of Argentina was revealed to European
explorers in the early 16th century. The Río de la Plata estuary was
discovered years before Ferdinand Magellan traversed the Strait of
Magellan in 1520, although historians dispute whether the estuary was
first reached by Amerigo Vespucci in 1501–02 or by Juan Díaz de Solís in
his ill-fated voyage of 1516. Solís and a small party sailed up the
Plata, which he called the Mar Dulce (“Freshwater Sea”), and made
landfall. Ambushed by Indians, Solís and most of his followers were
killed, and several disappeared. The survivors of the expedition
returned to Spain.
The Río de la Plata was not explored again until Magellan arrived in
1520 and Sebastian Cabot in 1526. Cabot discovered the Paraná and
Paraguay rivers and established the fort of Sancti Spíritus (the first
Spanish settlement in the Plata basin). He also sent home reports of the
presence of silver.
In 1528 Cabot met another expedition from Spain under Diego García,
commander of a ship from the Solís expedition. Both Cabot and García had
planned to sail for the Moluccas but altered their courses, influenced
by excited tales about an “enchanted City of the Caesars” (a variant of
the Eldorado legend), which later incited many explorations and
conquests in Argentina. While Cabot was preparing to search for the
fabled city, a surprise attack by the Indians in September 1529 wiped
out his Sancti Spíritus base.
Inspired by the conquest of Peru and the threat from Portugal’s
growing power in Brazil, Spain in 1535 sent an expedition under Pedro de
Mendoza (equipped at his own expense) 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
In the same year, a party from Buenos Aires under Juan de Ayolas and
Domingo Martínez de Irala, lieutenants of Mendoza, pushed a thousand
miles up the Plata and Paraguay rivers. Ayolas was lost on an exploring
expedition, but Irala founded Asunción (now in Paraguay) among the
Guaraní, a largely settled agricultural people. In 1541 the few
remaining inhabitants of Buenos Aires abandoned it and moved to
Asunción, which was the first permanent settlement in that area. In the
next half century Asunción played a major part in the conquest and
settlement of northern Argentina. The main population of Argentina was
concentrated there until the late 18th century. Buenos Aires,
reestablished in 1580 by Juan de Garay with settlers from Asunción, was
largely isolated from this northern area. Northern Argentina as well as
Buenos Aires was settled mainly by the overflow from the neighbouring
Spanish colonies of Chile, Peru, and Paraguay (Asunción). There was
little direct migration from Spain, probably because the area lacked the
attractions of Mexico, Peru, and other Spanish colonies—rich mines, a
large supply of tractable Indian labour, accessibility, and the
privilege of direct trade with Spain. Nevertheless, in the early
communities a simple but vigorous society developed on the basis of
Indian labour and the horses, cattle, and sheep imported by the
Spaniards, as well as native products such as corn (maize) and potatoes.
Some of the Indians worked as virtual serfs, and densely populated
missions (reducciones) established by the Roman Catholic church played a
notable role in the colonizing process. European men often took Indian
wives because there were few Spanish women among the settlers.
Politically, Argentina was a divided and subordinate part of the
Viceroyalty of Peru until 1776, but three of its cities—San Miguel de
Tucumán, Córdoba, and Buenos Aires—successively achieved a kind of
leadership in the area and thereby sowed the regional seeds that later
grew into an Argentine national identity.
San Miguel de Tucumán’s leadership lasted from the latter part of the
16th through the 17th century. Its political and ecclesiastical
jurisdiction extended over most of northern Argentina, including
Córdoba. San Miguel de Tucumán also dominated trade, which was the chief
economic activity, by supplying the rich silver-mining area of Upper
Peru (now Bolivia) with foodstuffs and livestock in return for European
manufactures and other goods brought from Spain. Under the same economic
system, Córdoba rose to leadership in the 17th and 18th centuries,
because the expansion of settlement gave the city a central location and
because the University of Córdoba, founded in 1613, put the city in the
intellectual forefront of the region.
Buenos Aires, which rose to leadership in the late 18th century,
symbolized the reorientation of Argentina’s economic, intellectual, and
political life from the west to the east. On the economic front commerce
was oriented away from the declining silver mines of Peru and toward
direct transatlantic trade with Europe. Intellectually, interest in the
new ideas of the European Enlightenment found fertile soil in
cosmopolitan Buenos Aires. Political life was reoriented in 1776, when
Spain created the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata (consisting of
modern Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and southern Bolivia), with Buenos
Aires as its capital. By carving the new viceroyalty from lands formerly
part of the Viceroyalty of Peru, Spain intended to put its east-coast
dominions in a better defensive position. The chief threat came from
Brazil, which was growing rapidly in population, wealth, and military
potential. For the first time, the port of Buenos Aires was opened to
transatlantic trade with Spain and, through Spain, with other countries.
This resulted in a great increase in both legal trade and smuggling.
In Argentina the independence movement began in 1806–07, when British
attacks on Buenos Aires were repelled in the two battles known as the
Reconquista and the Defensa. Also important there, as elsewhere in
Spanish America, were the ramifications of Napoleon I’s intervention in
Spain, beginning in 1808, which plunged that country into a civil war
between two rival governments—one set up by Napoleon, who placed his own
brother Joseph Bonaparte on the throne, and the other created by
patriotic juntas in Spain in the name of the exiled Ferdinand VII and
aided by the British. In most of Spanish America there was general
sympathy with the regency, but both claims were rejected, mainly on the
ground that an interregnum existed and thus, under ancient principles of
Spanish law, the king’s dominions in America had the right to govern
themselves pending the restoration of a lawful king.
This view was sustained in Argentina by the Creoles (criollos;
Argentine-born Europeans) rather than by the immigrant (“peninsular”)
Spaniards, and it was put into effect by the Buenos Aires cabildo, or
municipal council. This ancient Spanish institution had existed in all
the colonies since the 16th century. Its powers were very limited, but
it was the only organ that had given the colonists experience in
self-government. In emergencies it was converted into an “open” cabildo,
a kind of town meeting, which included prominent members of the
community. On May 25, 1810 (now celebrated as Venticinco de Mayo, the
day of the revolution), such an open cabildo in Buenos Aires established
an autonomous government to administer the Viceroyalty of the Río de la
Plata in the name of Ferdinand VII, pending his restoration. When
Ferdinand was restored in 1814, however, he was virtually powerless in
Spain, which remained under the shadow of France. An assembly
representing most of the viceroyalty met at San Miguel de Tucumán and on
July 9, 1816 (Nueve de Julio), declared the country independent under
the name of the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata.
Several years of hard fighting followed before the Spanish royalists
were defeated in northern Argentina. But they remained a threat from
their base in Peru until it was liberated by José de San Martín and
Simón Bolívar in 1820–24. The Buenos Aires government tried to maintain
the integrity of the old Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata, but the
outlying portions, never effectively controlled, soon were lost:
Paraguay in 1814, Bolivia in 1825, and Uruguay in 1828. The remaining
territory—what 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.
Efforts toward reconstruction, 1820–29
In 1820 only two political organizations could claim more than strictly
local and provincial followings: the revolutionary government in Buenos
Aires and the League of Free Peoples, which had grown up along the Río
de la Plata and its tributaries under the leadership of José Gervasio
Artigas. But both organizations collapsed in that year, and Buenos Aires
seemed to be losing its position as the seat of national government.
However, as the city regained its function as an intermediary between
the nation and foreign governments, it regained its prominence.
Dominance of Buenos Aires
By then, military leaders had assumed power in almost every province.
Each provincial political regime soon acquired its own character,
according to the relative power held by military strongmen (caudillos)
and by local political interests. This differentiation was not, however,
cause for friction between the provinces; rather, economic and
geographic factors separated them. Buenos Aires made significant
advances toward national leadership by taking advantage of the
Within the province of Buenos Aires itself, the regime of the
so-called Party of Order instituted popular reforms, including
dismantling the military apparatus that had persisted from the war. The
remaining armed forces were sent to defend the frontier areas and Pampas
against attacks by Indians. This prudence on the part of the government
won the support of the rural landowners as well as the urban
businessmen, whose backing ensured victory at the polls.
The political order that seemed to be taking hold was achieved by
setting aside, rather than resolving, certain fundamental difficulties.
In particular, the institutional organization of the country was not
carried out, and nothing was done about the Banda Oriental (the east
bank of the Uruguay River), which was occupied first by Portuguese and
then by Brazilian troops. By 1824 both problems were becoming urgent.
Britain was willing to recognize Argentine independence, but only if
Argentina established a government that could act for the whole country.
And in the Banda Oriental a group of eastern patriots had taken over
large sectors of the countryside and agitated for their reincorporation
into the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata, forcing the Buenos
Aires government to face the possibility of war with the Brazilian
Presidency of Rivadavia
In the meantime, an attempt was made to establish a national government
through a constituent assembly that met in December 1824. Overstepping
its legal authority, the constituent assembly in February 1826 created
the office of president of the republic and installed the porteño
(native of Buenos Aires) Bernardino Rivadavia as its first occupant.
Civil war flared up in the interior provinces, soon dominated by Juan
Facundo Quiroga—a caudillo from La Rioja who opposed centralization.
When the assembly finally drafted a national constitution, the major
portion of the country rejected it.
Meanwhile, war against Brazil had begun in 1825. The Argentine forces
were able to defeat the Brazilians on the plains of Uruguay, but the
Brazilian navy blockaded the Río de la Plata and succeeded in crippling
Argentine commerce. Rivadavia, unable to end the war on favourable
terms, resigned in July 1827, and the national government dissolved.
Leadership of the province of Buenos Aires was given to a federalist,
Colonel Manuel Dorrego. Dorrego was backed by local interest groups
whose political spokesman was the great landowner Juan Manuel de Rosas,
who had been named commander of the rural militia. Dorrego made peace
with Brazil, and in 1828 the disputed eastern province was constituted
as the independent state of Uruguay. The Uruguayan lands, which
Rivadavia had considered indispensable to the “national integrity” of
Argentina, were never to be recovered. In December 1828 troops returning
from the war overthrew Dorrego and installed General Juan Lavalle in his
place; Dorrego was executed.
Although there was little resistance to the new governor in the city
of Buenos Aires, uprisings began promptly in the outlying areas of the
province. A convention of provincial representatives met in Santa Fe;
dominated by the federalists under Rosas, they called on the governor of
Santa Fe to take steps against the Lavalle regime. Lavalle finally came
to terms with Rosas, and they agreed to hold elections in Buenos Aires
for a new provincial legislature. Under the compromise agreement Rosas
and Lavalle appointed a moderate federalist governor of Buenos Aires,
but political tensions were too great for this attempt at
reconciliation. Rosas reconvened the old legislature, which Lavalle had
disbanded when he came to power—a triumph for the most intransigent
forces of federalism. The legislature unanimously elected Rosas governor
on December 5, 1829.
Confederation under Rosas, 1829–52
The regime of Rosas in Buenos Aires enjoyed far broader support than any
of its predecessors. Special interest groups, landholders, and
export-import merchants (along with the British diplomatic contingent
that was identified with these interests) all fell behind the new
governor. Practically all the influential sectors in the province
identified Rosas’s triumph with their own best interests.
The new governor saw clearly the ambiguities and dangers of such
widespread support, and, although he was identified as a federalist, he
ruled as a centralist, with Buenos Aires his main power base. Rosas
manipulated factions of labourers, gauchos, and elites from the
estancias and set himself up as the arbiter of a delicate and constantly
threatened balance between the masses and the elites.
By 1832 the opposition to federalism had disappeared throughout the
country, and Rosas turned over the reins of the government of Buenos
Aires to his legal successor, General Juan Ramón Balcarce. However,
Balcarce’s assumption of the office fanned sparks of dissidence among
those who had pledged to uphold the principles of federalism. Balcarce
was overthrown, and his successor took office with a cabinet composed of
Rosas’s friends. They adopted policies that were designed to lead to
political and economic stability, but it was stability that Rosas
feared, since it would have entailed the demobilization of his mass
political following. The legislature in Buenos Aires was induced to
designate Rosas governor of the province under conditions that Rosas
successfully imposed: he was granted extraordinary resources, absolute
public authority, and an extension of the governor’s term of office from
three to five years. Armed with these powers, he soon established a
formidable dictatorship, hunting down his real and supposed enemies with
the aid of the Mazorca, a ruthless secret police force whose members
behaved like thugs and vigilantes. To show their loyalty, citizens were
required to wear red favours, and priests had to display Rosas’s
portrait on the altars of their churches.
Rosas’s foreign policies left no room for anything other than total
success or total failure, and international difficulties arose as
extensions of domestic turmoil. In January 1833 Britain reasserted an
earlier claim to the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas), and a British
warship took possession of the islands. More troublesome was the growing
independence of neighbouring Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay, which
continued to pursue their destinies as independent states rather than as
parts of a Buenos Aires-controlled federation. General Andrés de Santa
Cruz, who had established a confederation of Peru and Bolivia, supported
opponents of Rosas in Argentina. Rosas in turn aided the influential
governor of the northern province of Tucumán when that governor decided
to go to war against Santa Cruz’s confederation. The northern Argentine
forces, in alliance with Chile and Peruvian nationalist rebels, were
victorious in 1839.
Rosas’s involvement in a trade dispute with Uruguay, however, proved
to be costly and ended in failure. It contributed to the first open
friction with France, which sent warships to blockade Buenos Aires in
1838. This caused dissension in the coastal region, which depended
heavily on export trade. Argentine political exiles in Montevideo,
Uruguay, received French backing in their efforts to overthrow Rosas,
and in the north a league of dissident provinces was formed.
This formidable coalition of adversaries soon fell apart. France,
faced with other problems, abandoned its adventure in the Río de la
Plata area and left its local allies to fend for themselves against
Rosas. At the same time, an army organized in Buenos Aires and commanded
by Manuel Oribe (the deposed second president of Uruguay) gained control
of most of the Argentine interior. For the first time since 1820, troops
from Buenos Aires had advanced as far as the Bolivian and Chilean
frontiers. The hegemony of Buenos Aires under Rosas’s system of
federalism was not to be challenged again. Oribe went on to conquer most
of Uruguay, and his predominantly Argentine army began a nine-year siege
of Montevideo in February 1843. The city was supplied through the
intervention of British warships, and in 1845 an Anglo-French fleet
blockaded Buenos Aires while a British fleet sailed up the Paraná River.
Eventually the British and French withdrew their aid to Montevideo and
ceased hostilities with Rosas.
The fact that Rosas was able to conduct a vigorous foreign policy for
so many years was partly because of the weakness of Argentina’s natural
rival in the Río de la Plata area, Brazil, which had been involved in a
civil war (1835–45) in Rio Grande do Sul. Once the rebellion was put
down, it was only a question of time until Brazil again influenced the
Río de la Plata region. This influence opposed Rosas, and it worked in
support of a rebellion by General Justo José de Urquiza, governor of the
province of Entre Ríos. In 1851 Urquiza formed an alliance with Brazil
and Uruguay. The allies first forced Rosas’s troops to abandon the siege
of Montevideo and then defeated his main army in the Battle of Caseros
(February 3, 1852), just outside Buenos Aires. Rosas, abandoned by most
of his troops as well as his political supporters, escaped to England,
where he died in 1877.
Economic development, 1820–50
Argentina’s society and economy underwent considerable changes in the 30
years after 1820. Buenos Aires was the province best adapted to the new
era of free trade, exporting cattle products in return for consumer
goods from overseas. The interior provinces adjusted slowly, replacing
their traditional markets in Upper Peru with new ones in Chile, where a
great expansion of the mining industry was taking place. The coastal
provinces fared better, although their livestock industry suffered from
the effects of the civil war. For Santa Fe, moderate prosperity returned
in the 1830s, and a similar trend began in Entre Ríos and Corrientes
provinces in the 1840s.
National consolidation, 1852–80
General Urquiza called a constitutional convention that met in Santa Fe
in 1852. Buenos Aires refused to participate, but the convention adopted
a constitution for the whole country that went into effect on May 25,
1853. Buenos Aires recoiled from the new confederation, the first
elected president of which was Urquiza and the first capital of which
was Paraná. The porteño dissidence was a serious financial handicap to
the state, since Buenos Aires kept for itself all the revenues from
customs duties on imports. In 1859 Urquiza incorporated Buenos Aires by
armed force, but he also agreed to a constitutional revision that
underscored the federal character of the government.
Before the unification took effect, however, Urquiza was succeeded in
the presidency by Santiago Derqui. Another civil war broke out, but this
time Buenos Aires defeated Urquiza’s forces. Urquiza and General
Bartolomé Mitre, governor of Buenos Aires, then agreed that Mitre would
lead the country but that Urquiza would exercise authority over the
provinces of Entre Ríos and Corrientes. Derqui resigned, and Mitre was
elected president in 1862; Buenos Aires became the seat of government.
The authority of the new president was progressively weakened by
opposition within his own province of Buenos Aires. The pressures of
this opposition forced Mitre to intervene in the political struggles of
Uruguay and then to fight Paraguay in the War of the Triple Alliance.
From 1865 to 1870 an alliance of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay carried
on a devastating campaign against Paraguay, employing modern weapons and
tens of thousands of troops.
The war with Paraguay did not disrupt Argentina’s commerce, as other
wars had. In the 1860s and ’70s foreign capital and waves of European
immigrants poured into the country. Railroads were built; alfalfa,
barbed wire, new breeds of cattle and sheep, and finally the
refrigeration of meat were introduced.
The national armed forces became one of the cornerstones of the new
centralized state; however, the army refused to uphold the policies of
the president. One of Rosas’s nephews rallied the support of the
military behind the presidential candidacy of Domingo Faustino
Sarmiento, a native of San Juan. His victory was guaranteed by the
influence of the military combined with the support of a liberal faction
in Buenos Aires that opposed Mitre, and the new president (1868–74) held
office without a political party of his own. Credit from abroad
fortified the economy, moreover, and thereby allowed Sarmiento to engage
in a costly civil war to put down an uprising in Entre Ríos.
The next president, Nicolás Avellaneda (1874–80), was a native of San
Miguel de Tucumán who had been Sarmiento’s minister of justice, public
education, and worship. Avellaneda’s government faced serious financial
difficulties engendered by the European economic crisis of 1873.
Argentina defaulted on foreign loans and completed few public works
projects, but it encouraged European immigration, largely into
Patagonia, and it fully supported the Indian wars.
General Julio Argentino Roca, who was also from San Miguel de Tucumán
and who had influence in Córdoba, became the next president (1880–86).
Roca had led a brilliant military career that included directing the
Conquest of the Desert, the campaign that brought the Indian wars to a
close in 1879. This opened the southern and western Pampas and the
northern reaches of Patagonia to settlement, and it made Roca a
political hero. His campaign for the presidency provoked a new rebellion
in Buenos Aires, but the uprising was quickly suppressed. The perennial
question of the city’s status was then settled by making it a federal
territory and converting it into the national capital; a new capital for
the province of Buenos Aires was established at La Plata.
The conservative regime, 1880–1916
The entire country was now dominated by the National Autonomist Party,
which had originally supported Avellaneda’s candidacy and was now an
alliance of the various groups supporting Roca. These included many of
the big ranchers, as well as commercial and business interests who were
more than happy with Roca’s formula of “peace and efficient
administration.” Argentina’s economy grew rapidly during this period,
largely owing to British capital, which made it possible to build an
extensive rail network from the upriver provinces to Buenos Aires and
the sea. The new rail system facilitated the export of meat and other
agricultural products, and ranching and farming thus became more
profitable. Large-scale foreign investment sparked the expansion of
other industries as well.
In addition, the population grew rapidly during this era, from less
than two million in 1869 to nearly eight million in 1914. In 1881
Argentina and Chile agreed to delimit their Andean frontier, including
partitioning Tierra del Fuego. Argentina was to have exclusive rights to
the Atlantic waters, and Chile to the Pacific.
The crisis of 1890
The economic expansion led ultimately to inflation, the issuance of too
much paper currency, and the onset of a financial crisis. A political
crisis also followed. The government of Roca’s successor, Miguel Juárez
Celman (1886–90), had avoided launching an unpopular anti-inflationary
program, but this inaction sparked criticism both within and outside the
official party ranks. In July 1890 a revolt erupted that had strong
support from within the army, but it was defeated by loyal elements.
Even so, Juárez Celman was forced to step down in favour of the vice
president, Carlos Pellegrini (1890–92), a solid ally of Roca.
The rise of radicalism
A new party, the Radical Civic Union, was formed in response to the
difficulties of the 1890s. It was strongly opposed to the ruling regime
and to the compromise candidate, Luis Sáenz Peña, who was accepted in
1892 by Mitre and the more moderate opponents of the Roca–Juárez Celman
regime. Sáenz was in turn replaced in 1895 by José Evaristo Uriburu. In
1898 Roca returned to the presidency for a second term and attempted to
bring the more moderate radicals back into the loose alliance of local
political groups, which after 1890 had controlled the national
government. The most intransigent radical factions remained in
opposition; they were headed by Hipólito Irigoyen, who later served
twice as president.
While political opposition declined, social unrest was becoming more
widespread, and there was growing disarray within the government itself.
Roca broke with Pellegrini, and the National Autonomist Party suffered
because of the split. In 1904 Roca was barely able to avoid being
succeeded in office by Pellegrini; moreover, the candidate Roca finally
put into the presidency, Manuel Quintana, was not one of Roca’s
staunchest supporters. Quintana was forced to quell a radical revolution
in 1905, and he died the following year. His death opened the way to the
presidency for José Figueroa Alcorta, a Cordoban who turned immediately
to the task of destroying Roca’s political machine. In 1910 Alcorta
installed as his successor Roque Sáenz Peña, a brilliant politician who
was fully prepared to construct a governing coalition on new
The course of Argentine politics in the final stages of Roca’s career
had convinced many of his most influential and militant followers that
the country needed electoral reform. These reforms were not seen as
excessively dangerous, since the Radical opposition seemed to have
limited support. In 1912 President Sáenz Peña had the Congress pass an
electoral-reform law that called for a compulsory secret ballot for all
male citizens. His death in 1914 deprived the national leadership of its
guiding force, and the electoral law he had championed opened the gates
of power to the Radicals. The interim presidency of Victorino de la
Plaza (1914–16) was followed by that of the Radical leader Irigoyen
(1916–22). He was the first Argentine president who owed his victory to
the popular vote rather than to selection by the incumbent president
from the members of a ruling oligarchy.
The radical regime, 1916–30
The Radical front was a coalition of heterogeneous social groups whose
competing interests slowed the passage of reforms, despite urgent calls
for economic and social change. Not surprisingly, Irigoyen preferred to
concentrate on the political ills he had inherited from the conservative
regime. The most urgent measure involved political patronage, which had
been used by the conservatives to keep their candidates in office.
Patronage shifted to the service of the Radicals, who created a new
political machine that was virtually unbeatable at the polls in almost
In other fields also the Radical administration attempted to expand
its political base. Irigoyen achieved substantial rapport with the more
moderate labour unions—a rapport expressed in a generally pro-labour
policy. That policy was tempered after violent clashes occurred in the
capital city during the general strike of January 1919, which caused the
military to align itself with conservative interest groups. Irigoyen’s
administration supported organizations and movements among tenant
farmers and also put through a university-reform plan.
Irigoyen’s influence was a deciding factor in the election of his
successor, Marcelo T. de Alvear (1922–28), who represented a safe
choice. Alvear was not content, however, with the restrictions that
Irigoyen imposed upon him, and he reluctantly led a conservative wing
hostile to Irigoyen. In the elections of 1928 Irigoyen ran for a second
term and was elected by a margin of two to one, establishing him as head
of his party.
Irigoyen was not a revolutionary, but his victory over the economic,
social, and political elites of the country nonetheless earned him their
enmity. His political machine, though an excellent mechanism for
securing power, proved to be incapable of governing during times of
economic distress, such as late 1929, the eve of the Great Depression.
Behind the nation’s economic growth lay a shift in economic power from
the Argentine landowning class to foreign merchants and processors.
Before 1914 these foreign interests had been concentrated mainly in the
grain-growing sector, but after 1920 they moved into the cattle-raising
industry. Private investment still came primarily from Great Britain,
which was also the main market for Argentine exports. The United States
provided industrial and transportation equipment and was the
government’s principal source of credit, but it had erected tariff and
other barriers to the importation of Argentine goods, and that prompted
Irigoyen to adopt an anti-U.S. and pro-British line.
Irigoyen’s government could not cope with the onset of the global
depression, and the army expelled him from office in September 1930.
This marked the end of a constitutional continuity that had lasted for
68 years; it was also the end of a long period of economic expansion
based on the export of raw materials.
The conservative restoration and the Concordancia, 1930–43
During the next 13 years, which have often been termed “the Infamous
Decade,” the armed forces sponsored a conservative restoration. After
expelling Irigoyen they installed General José Félix Uriburu in the
presidency (1930–32). Uriburu was a descendent of an old, conservative
northern family, and he leaned toward fascism. His influence with the
army, however, was not as great as that of General Agustín Pedro Justo,
a former minister of war under Alvear, who favoured a gradual
conservative reorientation of the country. The Radicals, who had been
reorganized under the leadership of Alvear, won an unexpected victory in
trial elections held in the province of Buenos Aires in April 1931, but
the Radicals’ activities were then severely restricted (including the
arrest or exile of their leaders), and their members either boycotted or
were barred from the national election of 1931. General Justo, in
contrast, had the backing of the Concordancia (a coalition of
conservatives, a faction of the Radicals, and independent socialists),
and, with only limited electoral fraud, he was elected by a large
The new president, facing a difficult economic situation, instituted
several controversial reforms and initiatives. In 1933 he signed the
Roca-Runciman Agreement with Great Britain, which guaranteed Argentina a
fixed share in the British meat market and eliminated tariffs on
Argentine cereals. In return, Argentina agreed to restrictions with
regard to trade and currency exchange, and it preserved Britain’s
commercial interests in the country. Many Argentines saw the treaty as a
sellout to Britain, although from the British point of view the pact
accorded privileges not given to any other country outside their empire.
Other unpopular reforms included restructuring the monetary system and
establishing agencies to control exports. After 1935 the economic
The election of 1937, in which the government retained its power, was
marked by fraud and violence; however, the next president, Roberto M.
Ortiz, returned to more proper electoral procedures, calling for federal
intervention in the province of Buenos Aires, where a corrupt
conservative machine had been in control. Ortiz’s poor health obliged
him to resign in 1940, and his successor, Ramón S. Castillo, restored
the conservative coalition to power and gained the support of General
At the outbreak of World War II, Argentina declared its neutrality,
and it remained neutral even after the United States entered the
conflict in 1941. Castillo’s motives for this stance were largely
economic, and he attempted to court trade agreements with both the
United States and the Axis powers while maintaining a significant
commerce with Britain; however, his policies were only partly
successful, and Argentina struggled to arm and equip its military while
other Latin American nations received generous lend-lease shipments from
the United States. In the face of opposition from both pro-Allied and
pro-Axis groups, as well as concerns over the increasing strength of the
United States-supplied Brazilian military, Castillo imposed a state of
siege. General Justo died in January 1943, leaving the president without
his most influential supporter, and Castillo was overthrown in June.
The Perón era, 1943–55
The military government faced several urgent and difficult problems,
including the decision of whether to remain neutral or choose sides in
the war. It also had to decide between the restoration of a
representative system and the installation of a long-term military
dictatorship. General Arturo Rawson was made president but resigned
after two days when his anticonservative stance and his advocacy of the
United Nations won no military support.
General Pedro P. Ramírez replaced Rawson as president. He maintained
neutrality in the war but faced increasing opposition from all political
groups except the nationalist right wing and the fascist sympathizers.
The government, reflecting an emergent authoritarianism, censored the
press and dissolved political parties. Under pressure from the United
States, the regime broke off diplomatic relations with Germany, but this
deed was not favoured by many military officers, and Ramírez was removed
by a coup. The presidency was turned over to General Edelmiro J. Farrell
(1944–46), who led a military junta, but, under threat of international
sanctions, his regime prepared for a return to representative democracy.
The search for a solution ended in the rise of Colonel Juan Perón to
the office of president. From 1941 Perón had led the United Officers
Group (Grupo de Oficiales Unidos; GOU), a secret military lodge that had
engineered the 1943 coup. In October 1943 he secured the minor job of
running the labour department and began building a political empire
based in the labour unions. He helped the unions win favourable
settlements from employers and pushed through a welfare program that
provided vacations, retirement benefits, and severance pay. By 1945
Perón was also vice president and minister of war. His changes included
giving autonomy to universities, reconstructing political parties
(including the Communist Party, prohibited since 1936), and declaring
war on Germany, thereby facilitating Argentina’s admittance to the
United Nations. But with the return of political freedom came renewed
opposition, culminating in a mass demonstration in Buenos Aires in
September 1945. Emergency measures were enacted. Seizing the
opportunity, Perón’s enemies in the navy reacted, and he was removed
from office and arrested on October 9. At that point, however, Perón’s
adversaries in the military and the political sphere failed to agree on
a further course of action. Perón’s adherents in the unions organized a
strike that found enthusiastic support among the people. He was released
on October 17—a date still celebrated by Peronists as Loyalty Day—and
his foes were forced to resign.
Perón in power
Perón campaigned for the presidency in the elections of 1946. He
organized the Labour Party, which was resisted by all the old parties
and by the major vested-interest groups. His victory, though narrow,
gave him control of both houses of Congress and all the provincial
governorships. Perón’s political strategy and tactics were authoritarian
and personalistic. He politically “purified” the schools and courts,
declared a state of internal war in order to expand his executive
authority, redistributed revenues in favour of the workers, nationalized
public services, and gave preferential treatment to urban and industrial
areas over their rural counterparts. He rewarded the organized workers
for their support by enforcing labour legislation, improving wages and
working conditions, controlling rents, and introducing the aguinaldo
(13th-month bonus). Perón was a charismatic figure who spoke to working
people in a language that they could understand. His appeal among the
descamisados (“shirtless ones,” underprivileged workers) was reinforced
and further dramatized by his wife, Eva Duarte de Perón (Evita), who
unofficially led the Department of Social Welfare and presided over an
extraordinary distribution of money, apartments, and jobs.
Until 1949 Perón’s economic policies were successful, largely because
exporters were so successful during and just after the war. However, as
inflation increased and trade became less profitable, it became more
difficult to finance imports of vital raw materials. The constitutional
reform of 1949 allowed Perón to be reelected in 1951, but his next
government took on a more conservative hue, hastened by the death of his
wife in July 1952. Evita had become a powerful political figure in her
own right, burnishing the regime’s image of popular democracy, although
she had been obliged by the military to rescind her acceptance of the
vice-presidential nomination in 1951. After 1952 Perón incurred the
increasing hostility of the church and the students. His efforts to
eliminate the political influence of the church provoked disaffection in
the officer corps, and in September 1955 he was overthrown by General
Eduardo Lonardi and fled the country.
Attempts to restore constitutionalism, 1955–66
Lonardi recognized the strength of Peronism and sought a compromise, but
he was displaced in November 1955 by General Pedro Eugenio Aramburu. The
new administration was a military dictatorship that sought to restore
constitutional government. Taking a fiercely anti-Peronist stance, it
dissolved Perón’s old party and placed the labour unions under state
administration. The Peronists wielded considerable influence on the
factions that were competing for power, and in 1958 they supported
Arturo Frondizi, a Radical leader who promised to readmit them to
political life in return for their support. Frondizi won the presidency
and majorities in both houses of Congress.
President Frondizi focused on economic development and showed a keen
interest in reviving the flow of foreign investment. He devalued the
currency to favour exporters and foreign investors; however, this had
adverse effects on the middle and lower classes. Rapidly accelerating
inflation and the campaign against it brought restrictions on credit,
which increased the difficulties of industry, and Frondizi had to use
the military to uphold his unpopular policies.
In March 1962 the reorganized Peronists gained control of important
districts, among them the province of Buenos Aires. The armed forces
withdrew support from Frondizi, dissolved Congress, and set up a
government in the name of José María Guido, president pro tempore of the
Senate. Guido’s 18-month administration was one of confusion as two
military factions fought for control. The Colorados (“Reds”) sought a
dictatorship that would deal strongly with the Peronists and extreme
leftists. The Azules (“Blues”), who prevailed, favoured a constitutional
government by a coalition including the Peronists, who would be confined
to a weaker role than that indicated by their voting strength.
The elections of July 1963 resulted in victory for Arturo Illia, the
candidate of the Radical Civic Union. President Illia inherited
Frondizi’s economic problems, although the drastic reorientation of the
economy had begun to show signs of success. Illia tried without success
to split the resurgent Peronists, who now controlled the labour unions,
from their exiled leader. The antagonized Peronists supported a coup in
June 1966 that brought to power General Juan Carlos Onganía, a former
Azul leader and commander in chief of the army.
Military government, 1966–73
Adalbert Krieger Vasena, minister of economy and labour, attempted to
stabilize the economy by again devaluing the currency and then
undertaking programs in electric power, steel, roads, and housing. In
May 1969 disturbances and riots in the cities of Corrientes, Rosario,
and particularly Córdoba rose out of student and labour conflicts; these
incidents, later known as the Cordobazo, were identified as resentment
toward Krieger Vasena’s economic policies. Krieger Vasena was removed,
but the Onganía administration was unable to agree on an alternative
economic policy, and the Cordobazo decisively affected the political
climate. Underground activities were organized by a Trotskyite group,
the People’s Revolutionary Army (Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo;
ERP), and by Peronist groups. In 1970 one of these Peronist
organizations, the Montoneros, destroyed the moderate Peronist union
leadership and captured and killed former president Aramburu, who had
been organizing a movement for a return to constitutional rule. The
armed forces overthrew the Onganía government in June 1970. General
Roberto Marcelo Levingston replaced Onganía, but inflation returned and
terrorist acts increased; Levingston was overthrown in March 1971 and
replaced by General Alejandro Agustín Lanusse, who promised to
reestablish democratic elections by the end of 1973.
Perón had supported the Peronist underground but also used other
means in a new bid for power. He maintained a formal alliance with the
Frondizi followers, but the cornerstone of his strategy was an
understanding with the largest non-Peronist party, the Radicals. In
addition, he was mindful of the Argentine elites’ vested interests, and
he purged his economic proposals of any motives that could alarm the
propertied classes. The military government prevented Perón’s own
candidacy but could not stop the electoral victory of the Peronist
coalition, the Justicialist Liberation Front (Frente Justicialista de
Liberación; Frejuli), in March 1973.
The return of Peronism
The newly elected president, Héctor J. Cámpora, took office in May 1973.
It was immediately clear that he was merely preparing the way for the
return of Perón from exile. Tensions rose sharply among Peronists as the
organization’s left wing fought with its right-wing Montoneros for
influence. At the final return of Perón in June, there was a pitched
battle between right and left at Ezeiza International Airport. The union
leadership and José López Rega, an associate of Perón, launched a
violent antileftist campaign through a death squad organization, the
Argentine Anticommunist Alliance (AAA, or Triple A), which had the
discreet support of Perón himself. In July Cámpora resigned, and new
elections were presided over by another interim president, Raúl Lastiri,
who began a purge of leftist influences in the government.
Perón’s second presidency
Perón was elected president with his third wife, María Estela Martínez
de Perón (Isabel Perón), as vice president. Taking office in October
1973, he continued the campaign against the left, and in May 1974 the
victims of the purge acknowledged the break with their former leader and
passed into (still legal) opposition. Montonero activity increased, and
the Triple A, suspected by many of being close to the police and
intelligence branches of the administration, began to crack down on
political, student, and union leaders.
Perón’s economic policies from 1973 included monetary stabilization,
rigid control of prices and wages in order to favour wage earners, and
limitations on the profits of agrarian exporters. Within a year the
balance of payments suffered, however. The price of petroleum imports
increased sharply, owing to the Arab oil embargo of 1973, and outbreaks
of foot-and-mouth disease in Argentina caused many European nations to
ban shipments of Argentine meat.
When Perón died on July 1, 1974, he left to his widow a deeply
compromised inheritance, yet the transition of power was smooth, and
Isabel Perón was sworn in as the world’s first woman president. Under
the influence of López Rega, the government became even more inflexibly
oriented toward the right, and violence reached new heights. López Rega,
who used the rightist crusade to consolidate his power base, favoured
labour and army leaders who personally supported him, and this style of
favouritism created hostility among union, political, and military
leaders. In 1975 he supported a drastic devaluation and a steep drop in
real wages, whereupon inflation soared. Isabel Perón was persuaded to
dismiss López Rega, but the unrest deepened. On March 24, 1976, military
officers deposed the president and took over the government.
Tulio Halperin Donghi
Peter A.R. Calvert
The return of military government
The Videla regime and the Dirty War
Five days after the coup a three-man military junta filled the
presidency with Lieutenant General Jorge Rafaél Videla. The junta closed
Congress, imposed censorship, banned trade unions, and brought state and
municipal government under military control. Meanwhile, Videla initiated
the infamous Process of National Reorganization, known subsequently as
the “Guerra Sucia” (“Dirty War”), in which some 13,000–15,000 citizens
were killed, often following their imprisonment and torture. The
Argentine government, which maintained that it was fighting a civil war,
initially faced little public opposition, but this began to change in
the late 1970s, with growing evidence of civil rights violations. The
Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who lost children to the Dirty War, began
calling international attention to the plight of the desaparecidos
(“disappeared persons”) through weekly Thursday afternoon vigils in the
Plaza de Mayo, fronting the presidential palace. A particularly vocal
critic of both left- and right-wing violence was Adolfo Pérez Esquivel,
who was arrested and tortured in 1977 and received the Nobel Prize for
Peace in 1980. For the most part, however, opposition was choked off by
rigorous censorship, strict curfews, and fear of the secret police.
During this period the economy continued to lag. A civilian from an
old family, José Martínez de Hoz, became economy minister, but, keen as
he was to deregulate the economy, the armed forces were equally
determined to keep control. Annual inflation dropped in 1976–82 from
about 600 to 138 percent—a more manageable but still distended level.
Argentina’s balance of foreign trade initially improved, but by 1980 the
overvalued peso had devastated Argentine industry, while uncontrolled
spending had plunged the country into debt.
Galtieri and the Falklands War
Videla was succeeded in March 1981 by General Roberto Viola, who, with
the Dirty War near its end, was quite unable to control his military
allies. In December he was shouldered aside by Lieutenant General
Leopoldo Galtieri. Galtieri faced a slumping economy and increased civil
opposition to military rule. His trump card was that he had promised his
navy ally, Vice Admiral Jorge Anaya, that they could fulfill Argentina’s
historic claims to the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) by armed force.
Nationalist sentiment over the Falklands had been precipitated in
1977, when Argentina’s claim to another archipelago—the three Beagle
Channel islands—was refused by the International Court of Justice in
favour of Chile. (In 1979 the matter had again gone into negotiation,
this time under Vatican auspices, and in 1984 Chile was awarded
sovereignty.) In February 1982 Argentina increased pressure on the
United Kingdom to relinquish the Falkland Islands. With popular support
at home, Argentine troops landed on the Falklands and South Georgia
island in early April, overcame the British Royal Marines stationed
there, and raised the Argentine flag. For the next three weeks, while a
British naval force sailed to the Falklands, the two belligerents failed
to negotiate a solution. British forces retook South Georgia on April
25. A successful amphibious landing on San Carlos Water, Falkland Sound,
followed, and after a brief land campaign the Argentine military
governor surrendered the islands on June 14.
Galtieri resigned as commander in chief of the army and president
three days later. General Reynaldo Bignone was installed as president on
July 1. The members of the junta representing the air force and the navy
resigned in protest over Bignone’s appointment, but the junta was
reconstituted on September 10. Under Bignone political parties were
allowed to resume activities, and general elections were announced;
meanwhile, elements of the armed forces worked to conceal evidence of
crimes committed during the Dirty War. The Peronist party delayed
choosing a presidential candidate and thus lost ground to the Radical
Civic Union, led by Raúl Alfonsín, a civilian lawyer who had
courageously defended victims of the military regime. Alfonsín won the
election on October 30, 1983, and the Radicals gained a majority over
the Peronists in the national Congress.
Restoration of democracy
Soon after his inauguration in December 1983, Alfonsín reversed
legislation passed under Bignone by announcing plans to prosecute
several members of the defunct military government, including former
presidents Videla, Viola, and Galtieri. He also repealed a law granting
amnesty to those accused of crimes and human rights violations during
the Dirty War, and hundreds of military personnel were prosecuted. In
the trial of nine former junta members in 1985, five were convicted,
including Videla and Viola. Galtieri was acquitted in that trial, but in
1986 he was convicted, along with two other officers, of incompetency in
the Falkland Islands War. Rebellion broke out within the military in the
spring of 1987, but most of the armed forces stayed loyal. Massive
rallies voiced approval of Alfonsín’s democracy, and the international
community expressed support.
Alfonsín launched the Austral Plan, an austerity program that
implemented a new currency (the austral), wage and price controls, and
currency devaluations. The measures initially brought down inflation and
restored the confidence of international bankers. Argentina then
restructured its foreign debts, which had reached crisis proportions.
The inflation rate began to rise again, however, reaching almost 388
percent annually at the end of 1988, and the austral began a precipitous
decline in value against the U.S. dollar.
There were more rebellions in the last months of Alfonsín’s tenure as
the military remained discontented over wages, inadequate equipment, and
the trials of its members stemming from the Dirty War. The military’s
hand was strengthened after insurgents carried out a bloody attack on a
barracks outside Buenos Aires, and Alfonsín was forced to accept a
military role in policy and to initiate a huge defense-spending program.
Although Alfonsín remained personally popular, he was
constitutionally ineligible to succeed himself. His government’s poor
handling of the economy contributed to the defeat of the Radical
presidential candidate, Eduardo Angeloz, in May 1989. Instead, Carlos
Saúl Menem, the Peronist former governor of La Rioja, led his coalition
to victory in the presidential and congressional elections. Throughout
the campaign Menem had cultivated an image recalling Perón, and it was
his appeal to the poor and working classes, the traditional supporters
of Peronism, that clinched his victory.
The Menem era and the 21st century
With the economy crumbling around him, Alfonsín resigned five months
early, and Menem officially took over in July. Menem’s moderate Peronist
program called for a free-market economy with lower tariffs, based on a
wage-price pact between labour, business, and government. To help carry
out his economic scheme, Menem unexpectedly enlisted the aid of former
top-level executives from Bunge y Born, one of Argentina’s leading
Menem, in turn, needed military support in a time of economic
emergency, and he sought to draw a veil over the past by pardoning those
accused of human rights violations. Criticism of this act was strong but
somewhat tempered by the fact that Menem himself had been held in
detention for five years. Former president Galtieri also was pardoned.
Meanwhile, in October 1989, while quietly sidestepping the question of
Falklands sovereignty, Argentina and Great Britain formally agreed to
establish full diplomatic relations.
Initially, Menem was no more successful than his predecessor in
tackling the economy, and inflation continued unchecked. The situation
changed in 1991 when Domingo Cavallo was appointed economy minister.
Cavallo implemented a far-reaching program of economic stabilization, as
well as measures to enhance revenue collection and prevent tax evasion.
By August the annual inflation rate had fallen to 1.5 percent, the
lowest in 17 years. The government then privatized numerous state-owned
businesses and introduced a new currency, the Argentine peso, the value
of which was pegged to the U.S. dollar. Capital flight was reversed, and
in 1992 Argentina emerged with a reformed and apparently stable economy.
In 1993 the ruling Justicialist Party (Partido Justicialista, or PJ;
Menem’s Peronist party) launched a campaign for a constitutional
amendment that would permit the president to run for a second term. In
elections held in October, the PJ gained a majority in the Chamber of
Deputies but still needed support from the Radicals to change the
constitution. Former president Alfonsín eventually consented to support
the reforms, in an agreement called the Olivos Pact. The new
constitution, promulgated in 1994, had few changes apart from the
provision for consecutive presidential terms.
Menem decisively won reelection in 1995. The beginning of his second
four-year term was overshadowed by the impact caused by the abrupt
devaluation of the Mexican peso (the “Tequila Crisis”) and by increasing
disagreements with Cavallo over economic policy. In addition, the
government’s popularity was eroded by high unemployment and accusations
of corruption, yet the president’s political control remained strong.
When Menem finally dismissed Cavallo in July 1996, the economy was
unaffected. Within a year, however, another recession took hold, made
worse by the overvalued Argentine currency. Abroad, the foreign
minister, Guido di Tella, negotiated an agreement with Chile regarding
the delineation of their southern borders, and in October 1998 Menem
paid a state visit to the United Kingdom. Commercial flights were
resumed between the islands and the Argentine mainland in 1999. Later
that year Fernando de la Rúa was elected president, heading an alliance
of parties led by the Radicals to victory over the Peronists.
De la Rúa inherited a massive foreign debt, a deficit that was larger
than expected, and a continuing recession. His administration responded
by raising taxes, cutting the salaries of government employees, and
encouraging the early retirement of others. As conditions deteriorated,
the economy minister resigned, as did his replacement. De la Rúa then
reappointed Domingo Cavallo to the post he had held under Menem.
Cavallo’s reforms, however, were largely ineffective, and investors and
lenders lost confidence in the economy. On December 20, following
antigovernment protests in Buenos Aires, both Cavallo and de la Rúa
resigned. Under a succession of interim presidents, the government
restricted access to bank accounts, defaulted on its foreign-debt
payments, and allowed the Argentine peso to decline in value. The
country was rocked by another economic collapse in 2002.
The first round of the 2003 presidential elections was held in April
against this backdrop of continuing economic and political turmoil.
Menem, again a candidate, came out on top in the polling, followed
closely by Néstor Kirchner, the governor of Santa Cruz province in
Patagonia. However, Menem dropped out of the race before a runoff
election could be held, and Kirchner, a centre-left Peronist, was
inaugurated in May. During his term, Kirchner helped stabilize
Argentina’s economy and paid back much of the country’s debt to the
International Monetary Fund. The second half of his term, however, was
plagued by a countrywide energy crisis and high inflation. He did not
run for a second term in 2007 and instead supported the candidacy of his
wife, Sen. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who won by a significant
margin and became Argentina’s first elected female president.
Peter A.R. Calvert