To some, Argentina’s history is just a necessary evil before talking about the sexy stuff, like tango, football or steaks. But I think history is a prerequisite to any kind of deeper exploration. And bloody interesting at that! As intriguing, surprising and cruel as a Tarantino movie. It’s where you dig for answers about the current state of affairs. And the more recent the events, the more they explain the country.
Río de la Plata – the biggest graveyard in the neighborhood
The country‘s main river, Río de la Plata, is the first thing you see landing. The place is symbolic of the latest century and is tied to all of Argentina‘s history. Río de la Plata is a murky, fertile graveyard, where power rises and falls, like tides.
Less than 20 years ago Argentina was struck with Corralito (2001) – an economic shock policy where thousands of people lost their savings and were driven to depression (sometimes suicide). As a non-economist I can only say that the government wanted to stop the dollar from leaving the country so they froze all accounts and made currency exchange much harder. But these were only symptoms of an economy mismanaged more than a nuclear power plant in Springfield.
The events of 2001 are like garbage left in the sun. Subsequent governments tried to patch up the situation with half-assed policies as the stench grows harder to ignore. People have been expecting the economic levee to break for years. So if you travel to Argentina, you‘re very likely to find the situation caused by, related to or driven by corralito. A trauma like that doesn‘t disappear overnight.
But how did it come to this?
Argentina found itself in a tough spot after the military junta (1973-1983). A botched war against one of the greatest naval powers on the planet over a relatively meaningless piece of land was meant to distract from the fact that the budget kind of didn‘t add up. Instead, the Malwinas/Falkland war with the UK magnified Argentina’s problems. Thus fell the military government, leaving its democratic successors in a tough spot. How to fix raging inflation, huge debt and stagnating economy? I don‘t know. And neither did the government. They switched currencies 4 times since the end of the dictatorship, endured the year of riots (1989) and went through the so-called Great Argentinian Depression (1998 – 2002). Ever since the junta, the country resembles a volcano – sometimes covering the sky with dark clouds, sometimes farting out a stinky puff, sometimes burning out bits and pieces, but always threatening to blow it all to hell.
Dictatorship left a lingering trauma. The so-called vuelos de la muerte (death flights), an iconic illustration of regime‘s brutality, make it extremely difficult to reconcile with the past. Militaries would dump people (or bodies) into Río de la Plata under the cover of the night. This became news when Uruguayan beach-goers started finding decomposing bodies on the shore, showing just how incompetent the military was.
It‘s a kind of a taboo. Older generation is reluctant to talk about it and there doesn‘t seem to be much pressure in the public discourse to pick the scabs. However, young people talk about it openly. It felt kind of like talking to people from Eastern Europe. „Yes. Some terrible shit happened. We probably won‘t get justice. Life goes on.“
But how did it come to that?
The dictatorship was the result of a long tradition of USA shitting on South America. Officially Operation Condor was a concerted effort by the US to stop the spread of left-wing ideas. However, it can also be viewed as an extremely brutal tool to take over the national resources, suppress economic growth and stop Latin American unity. The operation gave birth to many distinctly Latin American stereotypes – the terrorists and guerillas, current clusterf*ck in Venezuela, war on drugs and Liberation theology.
I won’t go into the reasons why the USA drooled like an angry pitbull at the slightest whiff of left-leaning ideas. But were they even a thing in Argentina?
Very much so. Rioplatanese developed their own special flavour of leftist policies way before the cold war.
Enter Juan „Sunday“ Perón, history‘s response to „What if Mussolini and Lenin had a baby?“. This authoritarian leader reshaped the country, giving it a distinct left-wing flair. He mobilized workers unions, expanded their rights and kickstarted national industries, even going so far as to dip his toes into Operation Paperclip as well.
The goal of the operation? Sweep up all the best Nazi scientists after the end of the II World War.
Allegedly it also explains why Argentina currently has 3 nuclear power plants.
As brilliant a politician as he was, Juan Domingo Perón is only half of the equation. The other half was his extremely popular wife, Eva „Evita“ Duarte de Perón. In times when the textbooks for public relations didn‘t even have a publisher, she was second only to Jesus, and only because he had a head start. She was the radio and tv personality Argentinians prayed to and for. The defender of the weak. Actually helpful Mother Theresa. The champion for women’s rights and labor unions
And just like bread, there may have been a darker side to her. Allegedly she made lots of money through her shady dealings with the Nazis (selling Argentine passports). Then again, nobody seems to mention this to Sweden or Switzerland… There were rumours about accounts in Swiss banks even ol‘ Juan Sunday couldn’t access. Her track record on opening hospitals and schools, or championing and improving women‘s rights is undeniable. Bear in mind badmouthing Evita in Argentina is almost blasphemous and the few haters she has aren‘t too vocal.
That was just after Argentina‘s Golden Age, when it was rich, ambitious and strong. Should we be harsh on Perón for his fiscal and social policies? I don’t know, I’m not writing a PhD. But he certainly seems a product of his time – a militarist and a populist who grew up when the harvests were bountiful.
Argentina‘s abundance of natural resources and the (post) World War requirements for metals and food made it mighty rich. That‘s why Buenos Aires looks the way it does – with impressive architecture and thoughtful urban planning. But the road to temporal greatness wasn‘t easy nor assured.
Campaign of the desert
Pretty much every country in the world has some dirty stains on its history. Dirty by today’s standards. Back in the day it was all in the name of civilization, progress and culture.
Argentina wasn‘t always this big. The aggressive expansion organized by the state started in 1878 and lasted until 1884. It‘s what they call the Conquest (or Campaign) of the Desert. Let’s unpack this:
- How can the desert be conquered?
- Can you conquer nature?
- Who was there to conquer, if it‘s a desert? Isn‘t it supposed to be deserted?
- Is there even desert in Argentina?!
Campaign of the Desert is an insidious name that in reality follows a x4 pattern to a T (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate).
In the XIX century Argentina fought its way into independence. After achieving internal stability, president general and future war criminal, Julio Argentino Roca, turned his gaze outwards, to expand the borders. Possible invasion from Chile required gaining a foothold along the Andes. It made perfect sense – use the mountains as an easily-defendable barrier, gain territory (rich in metals, farmland), „civilize“ the locals. If possible – gain the strategic point at the straits of Magellan.
First, the military pushed the border north, which looks a lot like you would imagine Bolivia and Paraguay. Yes, it‘s an actual desert. But definitely not empty, as there were many indigenous tribes – Charrúa, Querandí or Toba, to name a few. The conquest went quickly, capturing all of the intended desert, but the campaign continued. The president turned south for Pampas and Patagonia. The vast grassland between the Andes and the Atlantic ocean presented fertile lands, rich with water, energy and natural resources. More importantly, if left empty, Pampas presented a gap in the defences. A gap Roca sought to close. The territory south of Buenos Aires was (and still is) inhabited by Mapuche indigenous peoples, who caused a much bigger headache to the military than expected. They fought, resisted, and lost. The aftermath was brutal – the lands were parceled among the already wealthy landowners, and the people sold… nay, distributed as farmhands and housekeepers. Thus, many cultures and languages simply vanished.
The sad truth is, after the Congress of Vienna there wasn’t any place left in the world for political entities other than countries. The operating logic was – if it‘s indigenous, it‘s a No Man‘s Land. As awful and shameful as these events are, it’s important to remember we’ll be judged by history just the same. We‘re still too primitive to accommodate for anything other than a narrow definition of a state.
Lastly, we must mention where it all began. The Allroot that feeds the stems.
It was only a matter of time before Europeans (or any other seafaring nation of Eurasia or Africa) settled there. In the Age of Discovery, the ballsiest and the craziest ventured into a previously unknown continent. Imagine having no idea what you might encounter inland. Creatures previously unseen, people of completely different… EVERYTHING, uncharted geography, unimaginable risks. In a journey that could last years. Were they ruthless? Most certainly. But they were also bloody curious. It makes sense to think of them as workers. Hired contractors, who would sign with the king (or anyone wealthy enough) to explore, describe and claim land in the name of the employer.And skim some fat. The first colony in the territory of Buenos Aires was started in 1536 by Juan Díaz de Solís. Buenos Aires 1.0 quickly succumbed to the natives. The area around it was mostly flat grassland/wetland and a good vantage point wasn’t easy to come by. The Spanish brought horses, which was supposed to scare the natives and give riders an advantage of height. But Mapuche had a surprising counter-cavalry tactic. Used to hunting big running birds, they would throw bolas (2 or 3 rocks tied with a string) at the horses‘ legs. Battle of Hoth before cinema. The first attempt was a failure but not big enough to deny de Solís a couple of statues.
So Europeans tried again, in 1580. This time with more success and presumably less cannibalism. Buenos Aires, although closer to continental Spain, was of secondary importance after Lima. It’s because there weren’t many resources around Rio de la Plata the Spanish wanted. To make matters more manageable, the Spanish decided the single point of entry into the entirety of Viceroyalty of Peru (which included all of present-day Argentina) was in Lima, in the port of Callao. However, thanks to numerous big rivers, mild climate and fertile land, the place was quick to attract colonizers and gain new settlements. And earn itself a separate Viceroyalty.
A few centuries of smuggling, ranching and wars for independence later, Argentina stood on its own and rose above being just a footnote. Spilling blood and ink much like the waters of their biggest graveyard.
Obviously, the history of Argentina is much more detailed and nuanced. But if there’s only one thing you’re planning to read about it, this text is for you. But if you wanna go deeper, you can harass your tour guide about the following:
- The encomienda system and the treatment of conquered peoples
- The story of liberation of a continent – Bolivarian Revolution (with much recommended Revolutions podcast by Mike Duncan)
- Long and surprising pre-European history (1491 by Charles C. Mann is just the best)
- Nazis escaping to South America after WWII and finding a perfect spot in Argentina
And if you feel slighted by some grave errors or unintended half-truths, release your anger constructively in the comments.