As the British-built railways stretched across the country, the sheep industry flourished, making Argentina’s fortune through exporting both wool and meat. Refrigerator ships were invented in the 1870s, enabling meat to be shipped in bulk to the expanding industrial countries of Britain and Europe. One of the landmarks of modern Argentine history was the 1912 Sáenz Peña law, which established universal manhood suffrage, since until then power had been centralized in the hands of the elite, with no votes for the working classes. Sáenz Peña, president between 1910 and 1916, sought to bring the middle and working classes into politics, gambling that the Conservatives could reorganize themselves and attract their votes. The gamble failed: the Conservatives failed to gain a mass following and the Radicals came to power. The Radical Civic Union was created in 1890, but Radical presidents Hipólito Yrigoyen (1916-1922 and 1928-1930) and Marcelo T de Alvear (1922-1928) found themselves trapped between the demands of an increasingly militant urban labour movement and the opposition of the Conservatives, still powerful in the provinces and with allies in the armed forces. Through the 1920s, Argentina was the ‘breadbasket of the world’ and its sixth richest nation. Fifty years later, the country had become practically Third World, a fall from grace which still haunts the Argentine consciousness. The world depression following the Wall Street Crash of 1929 devastated export markets, but the military coup which overthrew Yrigoyen in 1930 was a significant turning point: the armed forces returned to government for the first time in over 50 years and were to continue to play a major political role until 1983. Through the 1930s a series of military backed governments, dominated by the Conservatives, held power; the Radicals were outlawed and elections were so fraudulent that frequently more people voted than were on the register. Yet the armed forces themselves were disunited: while most officers supported the Conservatives and the landholding elites, a minority of ultra-nationalist officers, inspired by developments in Europe, supported industrialization and the creation of a one-party dictatorship along Fascist lines. The outbreak of war in Europe increased these tensions and a series of military coups in 1943-1944 led to the rise of Colonel Juan Domingo Perón. When the military allowed a return to civilian rule in 1946 Perón swept into power winning the Presidential elections. His government is chiefly remembered by many Argentines for improving the living conditions of the workers through the introduction of paid holidays and welfare measures in his justicialismo: social justice. Perón was an authoritarian and charismatic leader, and especially in its early years the government was strongly nationalistic, taking control over the British-owned railways in 1948 by buying them back at a staggering £150 million. Opposition parties were harassed and independent newspapers taken over since Perón wasn’t at all interested in free press. Perón is also well known for his famous second-wife, Eva Perón, who became the darling of the country, helping her husband’s popularity no-end. Although Perón was easily re-elected in 1951, his government soon ran into trouble: economic problems led to the introduction of a wage freeze which upset the labour unions which were the heart of Peronist support; the early and tragic death of Evita in 1952 was another blow; and a dispute with the church in 1954-1955 added to Perón’s problems. In September 1955 a military coup unseated Perón who went into exile, in Paraguay, Panama, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and, from 1961 to 1973, in Spain.
Perón’s legacy dominated Argentina for the next two decades. No attempt was made to destroy his social and economic reforms but the armed forces determined to exclude the Peronists from power. Argentine society was bitterly divided between Peronists and anti-Peronists and the economy struggled, partly as a result of Perón’s measures against the economic elite and in favour of the workers. Between 1955 and 1966 there was an uneasy alternation of military and civilian regimes. The military officers who seized power in 1966 announced their intention to carry out a Nationalist Revolution, with austerity measures to try to gain control of a spiralling economy, but they were quickly discredited by a deteriorating economic situation. The Cordobazo, a left-wing student and workers uprising in Córdoba in 1969, was followed by the emergence of several guerrilla groups such as the Montoneros and the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP), as well as the growth of political violence. As Argentina became more ungovernable, Perón, from his exile, refused to denounce those guerrilla groups, which called themselves Peronist.
In 1971 General Alejandro Lanusse seized power, promising a return to civilian rule and calculating that the only way to control the situation was to allow Perón to return. When the military bowed out in 1973, elections were won by the Peronist candidate, Hector Campora. Perón returned from exile in Madrid to resume as president in October 1973, but died on 1 July 1974, leaving the presidency to his widow, Vice-President María Estela Martínez de Perón, his third wife, known as ‘Isabelita’. Perón’s death unleashed chaos: hyper-inflation, resumed guerrilla warfare and the operation of right-wing death squads who abducted people suspected of left-wing sympathies. In March 1976, to nobody’s surprise, the military overthrew Isabelita and replaced her with a junta led by General Jorge Videla.
The new government closed Congress, outlawed political parties, placed trade unions and universities under military control and unleashed the so-called ‘Dirty War’, a brutal assault on the guerrilla groups and anyone else who manifested opposition. The military leaders were not at all interested in trying and convicting those they suspected of being dissidents. They started a campaign of violence against anyone remotely trouble- some as well as anyone Jewish or Marxist, and journalists, intellectuals, psychologists and anyone, according to President General Videla, who was ‘spreading ideas contrary to Western Christian civilization’. As many as 30,000 people are thought to have ‘disappeared’ during this period, removed by violent squads who would take them to clandestine detention centres to be raped, tortured or brutally killed. This is one of Argentina’s bleakest memories, and that many Argentines maintain that a strong line was needed to deal with guerrillas is a sign of how hidden the reality was at the time. In order that the disappeared should never be forgotten, the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo still parade around the plaza in Buenos Aires with photographs of their lost children pinned to their chests .
Videla’s nominated successor, General Roberto Viola took over for three years in March 1981 but was overthrown by General Leopoldo Galtieri in December 1981, who failed to keep a grasp on a plummeting economy, and an increasingly discontent public. Attempting to win the crowds, Galtieri’s decision to invade the Falkland/Malvinas Islands in April 1982 backfired when the British retaliated by sending a fleet to the south Atlantic. After the war was lost in June 1982 General Reynaldo Bignone took over, and promptly created a law giving amnesty to all human rights abusers in the military .
Elections in October 1983 were won by Raúl Alfonsín and his Unión Cívica Radical (UCR) and during 1985 Generals Videla, Viola and Galtieri were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment for their parts in the dictatorship. While Alfonsín’s government struggled to deal with the legacy of the past, it was overwhelmed by continuing economic problems, the most obvious of which was hyperinflation. Workers rushed to the shops once they’d been paid to spend their earnings before prices rose, and supermarkets announced price increases over the tannoy since they were so unstable. When the Radicals were defeated by Carlos Menem, the Peronist (Justicialist) presidential candidate, Alfonsín stepped down early because of economic instability. Strained relations between the Peronist government and the military led to several rebellions, which Menem attempted to appease by pardoning the imprisoned generals. His popularity among civilians declined, but in 1991-1992 the economy minister, Domingo Cavallo, succeeded in restoring economic confidence and the government as a whole with his Plan de Convertabilidad. This, the symbol of his stability, was the introduction of a new currency pegged to the United States dollar, and preventing the central bank from printing money which could not be backed up by the cash in reserve. After triumphing in the October 1993 congressional elections at the expense of the UCR, the Peronists themselves lost some ground in the April 1994 elections to a constituent assembly. The party to gain most, especially in Buenos Aires, was Frente Grande, a broad coalition of left-wing groups and disaffected Peronists. Behind the loss of confidence of these dissident Peronists were unrestrained corruption and a pact in December 1993 between Menem and Alfonsín pledging UCR support for constitutional changes, which included re-election of the president for a second term of four years.
By the 1995 elections, the majority of the electorate favoured stability over constitutional concerns and returned President Menem. The Peronists also increased their majority in the Chamber of Deputies and gained a majority in the Senate. Menem’s renewed popularity was short-lived: joblessness remained high and corruption unrestrained. His decision to privatize the major industries scandalized traditional Peronists in his party, and his legacy remains a cause of despair, since electricity, gas, telephones and YPF, the country’s oil industry, all belong to huge Spanish companies. In July 1996, the Radicals won the first direct elections for mayor of Buenos Aires and in mid-term congressional elections in October 1997 the Peronist Party lost its ruling majority. Most votes went to the Alianza Democrática, formed by the Radicals and the Frepaso coalition. The latter’s candidate for Buenos Aires province, Graciela Fernández Meijide, defeated Hilda Duhalde of the Peronists, whose husband, Eduardo, was provincial governor. In addition to the Peronists’ poor showing, several senior members were embarrassed by alleged involvement with millionaire Alfredo Yabrán. Many suspected Yabrán of criminal activities, not least of ordering the murder of journalist José Luis Cabezas in January 1997. The case fuelled the rivalry between Duhalde and Menem but in May 1998 Yabrán, who was being sought by the police, committed suicide.
In November 1998 Alianza Democrática chose the Radical Fernando de la Rua as its candidate for the October 1999 presidential election. Moves from Menem supporters to put forward Menem for a further (constitutionally dubious) term of office helped delay the Peronist choice of candidate until July 1999 when Eduardo Duhalde received the backing of Menem. Although Alianza Democrática offered little change in economic policy, the Peronists were harmed by the corruption scandals surrounding the Menem administration and the continuing rivalry between Menem and Duhalde, enabling De La Rua to win the presidency and take office in December 1999.