Argentina - Background information


Cueva de las Manos, Santa Cruz, Argentina by Mariano, WikipediaThe spectacular Cueva de las Manos (Cave of the Hands) in Santa Cruz is one of the most famous examples of pre-Columbian rock art in the country © Mariano, Wikipedia

History
Natural history
People and culture

History

Abridged from the History section in Argentina: the Bradt Travel Guide

The rise of Peronism

When the Concordancia’s next in line, Robustiano Patrón Costa, was readying himself for his candidacy, the Radicals had an epiphany, deciding to no longer abstain from the proceedings and proposing as their presidential candidate General Pedro Pablo Ramírez. As war minister he had the clout to prevent vote-rigging, and thus the Radicals were able to collect their majority vote again. Castillo ordered Ramírez to withdraw his candidacy, leading to the Campo de Mayo armed uprising. In 1943, the Grupo de Oficiales Unidos (Group of United Officers or GOU) staged a military coup, with General Arturo Rawson as head of operations, supported by various colonels, one of whom was the young Juan Domingo Perón. President Castillo was deposed and Rawson became de facto president until the GOU installed Ramírez in June 1943.

This was of course all taking place at the end of World War II and Argentina’s neutrality aggravated the United States, which removed its ambassador from Buenos Aires and blocked imports of Argentine beef. Great Britain was lenient since it also respected the neutrality of Ireland and needed Argentine imports. Argentina was increasingly seen as fascist thanks to its friendly relations with Mussolini’s Italy and Franco’s Spain, and soon Argentina was discovered to be buying arms from Germany. Ramírez was forced out of office by the army and replaced with the war minister, General Farrell, in March 1944. Using United Nations membership as bait, Argentina was forced not only to break relations with the Axis powers but also to actually declare war on Germany, and Japan, in the eleventh hour of the war.

Eventually, an American ambassador returned to Argentina, but not to resume diplomatic ties: Mr Spruille Braden was coming to deliver democracy. He campaigned throughout the country, spreading propaganda about how the USA was putting an end to totalitarianism in Europe and Asia. With much public discontent towards the government, Braden might have evangelised the country had it not been for the greater influence of trade minister Juan Perón among the working class, a stratum of society historically overlooked. Through wage increases and other benefits Perón appealed to the existing trade unions and also set up unions for previously nonunionised trades. When strikes broke out, Perón came in to mediate and favoured the unions, ensuring their solidarity with the military. When he began enforcing strong social policies such as paid and guaranteed vacations, limited working hours, and medical, pension and other social benefits, business and factory owners began to protest and sided with an opposition campaign, backed by the USA and Britain, to oust the military government.

For many years the dominant party would be the Justicialist Party (PJ), better known as the Peronist Party; it has been described as a conservative populist party with nationalist views on the economy and foreign policy.

Under public pressure that threatened his government, Farrell forced Perón to resign and had him arrested and held prisoner on Isla Martín García. Perón’s supporters mobilised and presented a strong challenge, in conjunction with the union leaders, the military and the followers of his celebrity mistress, Eva Maria Duarte, or Evita. A demonstration outside the Casa Rosada on 17 October 1945 demanded Perón’s release, and Farrell had little choice but to publicly reinstate him and call a national election to end the crisis. Naturally, Perón seized the moment and ran for president. The aforementioned Braden saw Perón’s strong chance of winning and campaigned against him, which only gave Perón more publicity. The elections became ‘Braden or Perón’, with Perón drawing nationalist support; supporting him was akin to denouncing foreign influence. Perón won the presidency in 1946, with 54% of the vote.

For many years the dominant party would be the Justicialist Party (PJ), better known as the Peronist Party; it has been described as a conservative populist party with nationalist views on the economy and foreign policy. His government was an extension of the military dictatorship with the armed forces at its foundation. He increased military spending and the power of the military, and many officers were given government posts or positions in public institutions, such as the Central Bank, replacing the former directors. Citizens who were public in their opposition to the government were declared enemies of the state. Newspapers were censored or shut down, universities were tightly controlled and professors identified as opposed to the regime lost their jobs, as did wayward judges.

Despite his totalitarian inclinations, Perón’s strong labour ties and links with popular caudillos allowed the party to survive for decades. He gave the masses access to the political and economic benefits of industrialisation, and an industrial bourgeoisie was born, which didn’t differ much from the previous ruling classes. The economy grew and became more self-sufficient in reaction to punitive tariffs imposed by the US that effectively blocked Argentine exports. However, there was no change to the land ownership system and the government didn’t nationalise the US- and British-owned meat and wool plants, as it still needed foreign capital. Foreign oligopolies took over Argentine industry as the Latin American market as a whole was integrated into the multi-national economy.

Despite his totalitarian inclinations, Perón’s strong labour ties and links with popular caudillos allowed the party to survive for decades.

In 1948, the US launched the Marshall Plan, granting loans and credit to shattered European countries, partly in order to increase exports of grain and meat, Argentina’s traditional strengths, from North America to Europe. Argentina’s economic focus shifted from agriculture to industry, which was expanded to meet domestic needs, seeing a 43% growth by 1953. Surpluses were used to buy back foreign-owned infrastructure (such as the formerly British-owned railway system and gas company) to liberate transportation, communications, power and utilities. 

Evita became Perón’s wife soon after his election to the presidency and though she held no formal political title, she took full advantage of her political position and her growing celebrity status to lead the Women’s Branch of the Peronist Party and generate support of its policies within sectors of the public that formerly had no voice. The standard of living of the working class, the majority of the public, rose significantly and Juan Perón and Evita won the hearts of the Argentines. Perón won re-election in 1952, but soon after Evita died of cancer. Perón’s loss was both personal and strategic; Evita is to this day a phenomenon in the mystique she held over her people, being practically elevated to the status of a saint upon her death.

Indeed, Perón, who was a strong Catholic and had introduced the catechism into the public school system, requested Evita be canonised. When the Church refused, Perón retaliated, removing its teachings from the school curriculum and publicly denouncing it as unpatriotic. Along with aggressive and unprofessional public addresses and scandals in his personal life, this caused his supporters to lose faith and respect in him; the economy also began to slide, in part owing to his overnationalistic and protectionist policies, now creating a significant trade deficit and inflation. In an attempted assassination, the Plaza de Mayo was bombed, killing 200 to 300 people; simultaneously churches were being burned. In a famously fanatical speech in the Plaza de Mayo in the aftermath of the bombings, Perón encouraged civil war. This last blunder lost him the support of the armed forces, which overthrew him in September 1955, forcing him into exile.

Evita is to this day a phenomenon in the mystique she held over her people, being practically elevated to the status of a saint upon her death.

General Eduardo Lonardi led the coup, establishing a coalition government of military and civilian groups, but he was not swift enough to address the economic crisis at hand and only held power for a couple of months. Soon General Pedro Aramburu stepped in, acting as provisional president until 1958. He scrapped many Peronist programmes, discharged real or suspected supporters of Perón from the armed forces, and created new unions. Thousands of union leaders were arrested and they along with the Peronist Party were banned from political activity. Of course this sparked protests that culminated into a revolt led by General Juan José Valle in 1956. In response, Aramburu ordered the execution of 27 of the officers involved.

The dictatorship next addressed the economy; the currency was devalued to cut imports and boost exports, but by 1957 this had had little effect and popular resistance was ever growing. Elections were set for 1958 and the dictatorship seemed to wish to back out of its responsibilities. With the Peronists banned from running, rumour has it that Perón strategised to support Radical Party (UCR) leader Arturo Frondizi in a secret pact that would legalise the Peronist Party in the future. Frondizi was elected and civilian rule returned. A new economic strategy was top of the incoming government’s agenda. Tight controls on trade and finance were implemented in an attempt to redirect revenue into the development of new industries. To rally the support of the working class and Peronist supporters, Frondizi authorised massive wage increases and price freezes on consumer goods. The result was rapid inflation and a decline in industrial and rural production.

With the Peronists banned from running, rumour has it that Perón strategised to support Radical Party (UCR) leader Arturo Frondizi in a secret pact that would legalise the Peronist Party in the future. 

The economy was on the verge of collapse when Frondizi sought the assistance of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Economic policies had to be reversed, which meant an end to price freezes, trade and exchange controls, cuts in government spending and employment and an increase in utility and transportation rates. The IMF then granted a US$328 million loan. However, the measures taken were insufficient and, disregarding the national interest in keeping control of raw resources, Frondizi allowed US-owned Standard Oil to develop potential oil deposits in Patagonia. This was the last straw for the Peronists who orchestrated yet another revolt as Perón made public his secret pact with Frondizi.

Frondizi scrambled for support but was arrested by the military, who again took charge of the government until the election of Arturo Illia as president in 1963. Economic and political conditions in these years created a to and fro between military takeovers and riots and protests to regain civilian rule. Two factions appeared: those in support of constitutional rule, backed by the army and the air force (the navy remained neutral), labelled themselves Los Azules (The Blues) and were opposed by those in support of civilian rule, called Los Colorados (The Reds). The international community began to get more involved with, for example, the US threatening to suspend economic aid if a dictatorship took the helm again.

President Juan Carlos Onganía was known to be ideologically rigid, with an admiration for Franco’s regime in Spain, and viewed the military as the protector of civilian and Christian values.

By 1965, inflation was out of control, with prices for consumer goods rising at an estimated 30% per year. In 1966, the armed forces took over, dissolving congress, suspending the Constitution and the Supreme Court, banning all political parties and forcing the resignations of all elected politicians, with Juan Carlos Onganía as the new president. He was known to be ideologically rigid, with an admiration for Franco’s regime in Spain, and viewed the military as the protector of civilian and Christian values. The economy remained a fundamental problem and his policies would only fuel further revolt. For example, a new land tax that levied higher taxes on unproductive land than on productive land was vehemently rejected by the cattle oligarchy and was never implemented. Rifts, riots and more and more often were met by military force. Argentina appeared on the verge of anarchy and the economy in a state of chaos.

Natural history

Argentina is a large and sparsely populated country with an exceptional diversity of natural areas. Its boundaries include almost every conceivable landscape, including forests and ecosystems found nowhere else on earth. In the northeast there are virtually impenetrable jungle-like subtropical forests with hundreds of species of birds and many rare and beautiful animals such as the jaguar. The Pampa is a vast blanket of prairie that’s home to numerous grassland species less conspicuous than the abundant cattle. The towering Andean mountains and the wildernesses of Patagonia reveal yet another distinct history, both cultural and natural. With deserts, lakelands, salt flats, glaciers, forests, steppes, coasts and islands, one cannot attribute to Argentina any single postcard image. It boasts the gentle climes of South America, but its southern tip is a launching point for visits to nearby Antarctica.

Armadillo, Argentina by zixian ShutterstockArmadillos are a common sight in Argentina © zixian, Shutterstock

Flora

Various vegetation zones exist in Argentina, including the northern subtropical forests and the Patagonian temperate rainforests. The tree line ranges from an average elevation of 3,500m at the equator to about 900m in Tierra del Fuego Argentina. Great surface areas are covered in xerophytic plants adapted to the dry and harsh conditions of the desert-like steppes of the high Andes and windblown Patagonia. The plants here are predominantly cactus, shrubs and grasses. In contrast are the wetlands of the east, rich in biodiversity of both flora and fauna. And, of course, the pampas – the great and famous grassland where the Argentine culture finds its own roots anchored and nurtured.

Fauna

The vast north-south expanse of Argentina, as well as the transition from eastern coastline to western Andes, hosts a great diversity of habitats and associated wildlife. Regions are defined as desert, tropical, savannah, temperate, alpine, marshland and marine plus many others. The northeastern and north-central regions of the country are home to many subtropical species from the northern Misiones forest and the delta is naturally rich in wetland fauna. Far fewer species are hardy enough to endure the rigorous climate of the Andean steppe, but the ones that do are iconic.

Pockets of microclimates, such as the Valdivian forest, have species found nowhere else on earth. The coastal and oceanic habitats of Argentina are influenced by strong tides that can reach 7m and two currents: the warm south-flowing Brazil current and the stronger north-flowing Malvinas current. The Malvinas current and westerly winds between the southern tip of Argentina and Antarctica cause an upwelling of cold nutrient-rich waters to the surface and push them along the continental shelf of Patagonia. This is the foundation of the food chain that sustains the remarkable biodiversity of coastal Patagonia, from abundant fish and birdlife up to magnificent large mammals such as the southern right whale and elephant seal.

People and culture

People

Diverse nationalities and ethnic groups currently define the Argentine people. As with many New World countries, the demographics have changed considerably since they were ‘discovered’ and continue to change with the continuing migration of peoples across the globe. For brevity’s sake we cannot give proper acknowledgement to all the groups that have trodden Argentine soil since the arrival some 13,000 years ago of early man, whose art and artefacts are still to be found in caves, burial sites and middens. However, it would be unjustly ethnocentric to simply speak of post-European demographics. While many ethnic groups have become extinct, they were the true people of this land before it was given the name Argentina.

They are summarised below in geographical order as an overview of the native groups that once existed as well as those that have survived, before continuing with the arrival of the Europeans, their African slaves and the subsequent migrations of peoples that have continued to influence the ever-changing demographics of modern-day Argentina.

Culture

Argentines have a deep pride and obsession with their identity, which shows itself in a fascination with their history, culture and political and sporting heroes. This is seen in the street graffiti that still shouts the names of icons long dead, such as ‘Evita Forever’ and ‘Gardel Lives!’, or vilifies political leaders in slogans such as ‘Down with Menem’. The culture continues to embrace its folklore, to admire gaucho poetry and the gaucho style of singing called the payada (with improvised lyrics sung to traditional tunes as a challenge to other singers), and to foster a sentimental devotion to the tango song and dance. It is a passionate culture expressed not only through the boldness and drama of the tango but also through something as quiet and passive as a tree – in spring the ceibo tree blazes with a dazzling bright red flower that has been designated Argentina’s national flower.

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