Pre-Columbian Argentina was farmed by sedentary Indian groups such as the Diaguita
and used as a hunting ground by nomads. Indian resistance inhibited Spanish
incursions and discouraged Spanish settlement. Buenos Aires was not successfully
established until 1580, and remained a backwater for 200 years.
A declining and unevenly distributed Indian population, which could not be milked
for its labour, led to the creation of huge cattle ranches, known as haciendas
- the genesis of the legendary gaucho (cowboy) and the source of great wealth
for a lucky few.
Buenos Aires became the capital of the new Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata
in 1776, acknowledgement that the region had outgrown Spain's political and
economic domination. However, continuing dissatisfaction with Spanish interference
led to the revolution of 25 May 1810 and eventual independence in 1816.
Independence revealed the seething regional disparities which Spanish rule had
obscured. The Federalists of the interior (conservative landowners, supported
by the gauchos and rural working class) advocated provincial autonomy, while
the Unitarists of Buenos Aires (cosmopolitan city dwellers who welcomed the
injection of European capital, immigrants and ideas) upheld Buenos Aires' central
After a disastrous and tyrannical period of rule by the nominally Federalist
Juan Manuel Rosas, Buenos Aires and Unitarism prevailed, ushering in a new era
of growth and prosperity with the Unitarist constitution of 1853.
Sheep were introduced and the Pampas was given over to the cultivation of cereal
crops. European immigration, foreign investment and trade were hallmarks of
the new liberalism. However, excessive foreign interests made the economy particularly
vulnerable to world economic downturns; wealth was concentrated in the hands
of the very few, and unemployment rose as smallholdings failed and farmers were
forced to leave the land and head for the cities.
The first decades of the 20th century saw increasingly weak civilian rule, economic
failure, continuing resentment of the landed elite and distrust of British interests,
leading to a military coup in 1943 which paved the way for the rise of dictator
Juan Perón. An obscure colonel with a minor post in the labour ministry, he
won the presidency in 1946 and again in 1952.
With his equally popular and charismatic wife Eva at his side, he instituted
a stringent economic program which stressed domestic industrialisation and self-determination,
appealing to both the conservative nationalist and working-class factions. His
party was squashed by a military coup in 1955, leading to Perón's banishment
to Spain and initiating 30 years of disastrous military rule, interspersed by
only brief periods of civilian rule. Perón returned to rule briefly in 1973,
dying in office in 1974 and bequeathing power to his third wife, Isabel. Increasing
economic problems and political instability led to strikes, political kidnappings
and guerrilla warfare. Isabel's government fell in 1976, and the new military
government instituted a reign of terror.
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