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Little is known about the societies that occupied prehistoric Argentina, though fossil records indicate a presence here as early as 11,000 BC, in today’s Patagonia. Millennia later, as the first settled cultures formed in South America, the Inca took an interest in Argentina, conquering the northwestern region and incorporating it into their empire. Central and southern Argentina remained nomadic.
European explorers arrived in the early 1500s, and Spain established Buenos Aires as a colony in 1580. Spanish immigrants and their descendants, indigenous people, and descendants of slaves developed the area over the next 200 years. Many colonists settled in Buenos Aires while others took to the surrounding pampas (plains) to live as gauchos (cowboys). The Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata, consisting of today’s Argentina and several surrounding countries, was created in 1776.
After two failed attempts by the British to overtake Buenos Aires in the early 1800s, word came that Napoleon had overthrown the Spanish king. This prompted a push for independence and the country’s first assembly was formed. A formal declaration of independence was signed in 1816. Four years later, the viceroy and his armies were defeated. Bolivia and Uruguay broke off from Argentina during this period, following Paraguay, which has seceded in 1811.
Investment and immigration after 1870 bolstered Argentina’s economic strengths: industry and agriculture. Through 1929, both its population and its economy grew at an alarming rate, often to the detriment of the working class. Juan Perón, elected president in 1946, recognized this and sought to empower workers, increase union membership, and expand social and educational programs.
His first lady, Eva Perón, became a staunch supporter of the working class. Her Eva Perón Foundation provided basic needs to the poor and built schools, orphanages, and hospitals throughout Argentina. She died as a national heroine at the young age of 33. President Perón, having been pressured to increase industry more than support its workers, was overthrown in a violent coup in 1955.
Perón returned to office in 1973 after he wielded his influence from afar to encourage student and labor protests against an increasingly oppressive regime. But his next term was short-lived; he died in 1974, leaving his third wife, Isabel (also his vice president), to take his place. However, she was loyal to Perón’s more fascist advisors, which led to social unrest and financial chaos. She was deposed by a military coup.
But what followed was far from an improvement. Opposition and left-leaning groups were oppressed. Many dissidents disappeared. A policy of wage-freezing was frequently used. Living standards plummeted, foreign debt soared, and the peso collapsed. Finally, when Argentina lost the Falklands War to the British in 1982, the military’s credibility languished, leading to the next free elections. It took Argentina another 20 years—and seven presidents—to dig out of this dire economic and social instability.