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Historical background of Buenos Aires
It was the promise of riches—and the fear they might fall into enemy hands—that led Pedro de Mendoza, a Spanish aristocrat, to found a settlement on the banks of the Río de la Plata (river of silver) in 1536. He called the place Nuestra Señora Santa María del Buen Aire after the patron saint of sailors and supplier of buen aire, or good wind.
By contemporary standards, Mendoza’s expedition of around 1,500 men was vast. But a bitter struggle ensued with local Querandí Indians, and Mendoza fled back to Spain after four years. A detachment of troops left behind retreated up-river to Asunción (now Paraguay’s capital). Francisco Pizarro’s conquest of Inca Peru diverted Spanish eyes northwards and Buenos Aires was ignored for the next four decades.
Rescue came in 1580 when an expedition under Juan de Garay arrived from Asunción and founded the settlement again. This time, the settlers could rely on provisions from Asunción and Santa Fe—which Garay had founded on his journey down-river. Relations with the local Indians were cordial and Buenos Aires began to grow. Garay built some of the city’s first public buildings and engaged in some primitive urban planning along the west bank of the river. Plots farther out were turned over for the cultivation of crops, or used as pasture for animals.
Pastoral farming drove Buenos Aires’s early economy. Horses, abandoned by the settlers of 1536, had multiplied and provided a rich source of hides and tallow for export. So did the settlement’s fast-growing cattle-herds. The growth of the Spanish mines in Upper Peru (modern Bolivia)—and later, European war-mongering—created a vociferous market for these products. Unfortunately, vaquerías (round-ups) of these beasts also brought the settlers into conflict with Indians, and later gave rise to the gaucho—the South American cowboy. But the risks proved worthwhile: a steady stream of silver bullion began to trickle into Buenos Aires.
• Gauchos are an important part of Argentine cultural tradition. Beginning in the late 19th century, their exploits were romanticised in novels and poems—the so-called “literatura gauchesca” (the literature of the gauchos).
Spain’s tight regulations on its South American ports posed a problem for Buenos Aires. Only certain ports were allowed to trade—and Buenos Aires was not one of them. Deprived of their main source of income, local merchants turned to smuggling. Lying at the mouth of the River Plate, the settlement was an ideal point of entry to South America for European merchants. Smuggled fineries, slaves and manufactured goods from Portugal flooded the settlement and traveled inland to the mines. In return, ever more bullion flooded in to Buenos Aires, fuelling its growth. By 1660 the city’s population had reached 3,500 and settlements had spread north-west along the banks of the marshy river Parana.
In the mid-17th century the Spanish crown was forced to relax its ban on trade, but it retained control over exports and imports. Legalizing the traffic in bullion held out the tantalizing prospect of re-capturing the “royal fifth” or 20% tax on silver. But there was also a more pressing concern: the British were seizing control of the Caribbean and endangering Spain’s sea-links with Peru. Buenos Aires promised Spanish treasure a safer journey home.
In 1776 Spain’s Bourbon monarchy named Buenos Aires capital of the viceroyalty of the River Plate, a region that included what is now Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia and parts of Chile and Brazil. Lawyers, bureaucrats, soldiers and priests flocked to the city to serve in the new administration. By 1810, the city’s population was over 40,000. As the population grew, so did the infrastructure. New, colonial-style buildings sprang up; in the main square the Cabildo (now a museum), was home to the city council. Buenos Aires acquired street lamps, cobblestones, a hospital, a printing press and its first theatres.
But trade remained a source of strife. In 1797, the Bourbon monarchy had ruled that its colonies could trade with neutral countries. This angered monarchists (generally Spanish-born), who clashed with free traders (mainly criollos or American-born Spaniards) over the issue.
Still, when British troops stormed into the city in 1806, unity prevailed. Porteños (residents of Buenos Aires) rallied and turfed the invaders out, without Spanish help. When the British tried again the following year, Buenos Aires’s citizens beat them off with musket-fire and burning oil. These two battles are now celebrated as the Reconquista and La Defensa.
The confidence instilled by victory—and the realization that Spain would not defend Buenos Aires—laid the groundwork for momentous events. After Napoleon invaded Spain and put his brother on the throne in 1808, Buenos Aires declared its independence from Spain in the May revolution (May 25th 1810). To commemorate the occasion, the city’s main square was renamed the Plaza de 25 de Mayo. Argentina’s other provinces followed suit on July 9th 1816.
A new government council, the Primera Junta, was set up under Cornelio Saavedra to oversee the newly independent viceroyalty. But disagreement between Unitarists (who favored centralism) and Federalists (who favored provincial autonomy) hamstrung its efforts. For a few years, monarchists lobbied for a return to Spanish rule. Some of the interior provinces, unhappy with so much power being concentrated in Buenos Aires, decided to go their own way. Three new republics split off from the old viceroyalty: Paraguay (1814), Bolivia (1825) and Uruguay (1828).
The United Provinces of the River Plate was formally proclaimed on July 9th 1816—Argentina’s official Independence Day. With political power up for grabs, the struggle between Unitarists and Federalists intensified. Powerful federalist warlords emerged in the provinces; these caudillos (or ranch owners) ruled their republiquetas (little republics) with little regard for Buenos Aires’s authority.
In 1829, General Juan Manuel de Rosas, a Federalist and wealthy caudillo, became governor of Buenos Aires. Known as the “Caligula of the River Plate” by his enemies, Rosas ruled until 1852, centralising power in the province and port of Buenos Aires. The settlement grew, though many suffered under Rosas’s tough censorship laws and political repression.
• Rosas forced citizens to wear a red Federalist ribbon. All documents—from newspapers to letters—had to begin with the words: “Long live the Federation and death to the savage Unitarians!”
Rosas’s eventual defeat came at the hands of Justo José de Urquiza, the caudillo governor of Entre Rios, an interior province. When a federal constitution was introduced that curtailed the powers of the capital, Buenos Aires seceded from the union. The conflict ended when Bartolomé Mitre, governor of Buenos Aires and founder of La Nación newspaper, defeated Urquiza’s forces in 1861. Mitre then got a revised constitution ratified and was elected the first president of the Argentine Republic a year later.
Under Mitre, Argentina’s capital flourished. Massive British investment allowed for the expansion of the railways and a postal system. These advances in turn boosted revenues from wool, now the country’s main export. In Buenos Aires railways and streetcars allowed it to grow beyond the one or two-mile radius of the “walking city”.
In the 1860s the provincial autonomy of the caudillos was finally snuffed out. Together with technological advances (particularly the invention of meat refrigeration and the steamship), and massive population growth in Europe (which created a huge market for Argentina’s products), this paved the way for a revolution in trade and agriculture. The growth of Argentina’s agrarian economy was also helped by the “desert campaign” of 1879, which opened up Patagonia in the south to settlers at the expense of thousands of native Indians.
• A severe outbreak of yellow fever in 1871 killed one-tenth of the city’s population. Wealthier residents, abandoning stricken neighborhoods such as San Telmo, fled north to Barrio Norte.
As rich as an Argentine
As Buenos Aires’s economy boomed, European immigrants poured into the city. Spaniards, Italians and Germans came to work in the bustling port, settling into tenements. Irish, Poles, Croats, Czechs and Ukranians followed. Buenos Aires’s population soared from 90,000 in 1869 (when it was still known as a large village—or gran aldea) to an astonishing 670,000 in 1895.
The influx of foreigners had a massive cultural impact, visible in Italianate architecture of public buildings and the multi-colored tenement houses of the Genovese in La Boca, facing the river. Under an enthusiastic new mayor, Torcuato de Alvear, grandiose avenues, inspired by the work of Baron Haussman in Paris, radiated out from the city centre. The 9 de Julio Avenue was proclaimed the widest in the world. Plaza Victoria and Plaza 25 de Mayo were united into a single Plaza de Mayo. French and Italian cafés spilled out on the new Avenida de Mayo. Buenos Aires’s ruling elite, the famed “200 families”, acquired European tastes; their mansions in the Barrio Norte were modelled on French chateaux. The neo-Renaissance Teatro Colón, built by three architects, opened in 1908 as an opera house. At the end of the 19th century the tango was forged—in the port’s brothels, if you believe Jorge Luis Borges.
By 1910, when Argentina celebrated the centennial of its independence, Buenos Aires was the biggest city in Latin America and the second largest in the Americas (only New York was larger). Its population had reached 1.3m—enough to merit the construction of a subway system. British companies also introduced gas and electricity supplies and dug modern sewers. The first line of a subway system (subte) opened in 1913 (today the system has four lines). Visiting in 1929, the architect Le Corbusier described the city as “a gigantic agglomeration of insatiable energy”. By 1913, Argentina was one of the world's ten richest countries, ahead of France and Germany.
End of the golden age
The growth of Argentina’s urban population also transformed the nation’s politics. In 1890 the Union Civica Radical (Radical Civic Union), was founded to represent the professional and working classes. In 1916 its candidate, Hipólito Yrigoyen, became Argentina’s first president—thanks to the enactment of compulsory universal male suffrage.
The following 14 years were unhappy ones for Argentina, culminating in violent strikes as workers suffered the effects of steadily declining export prices. The government responded by brutally repressing the troublemakers. In Buenos Aires, the violence reached its nadir in the Semana Tragica (tragic week) of 1919 when government forces attacked and killed striking metalworkers and Jewish immigrants.
It was the Wall Street crash in 1929, and the final collapse of export markets, that eventually toppled the Radical regime. With the economy floundering and Yrigoyen unable to buy support, the military took over in 1930, returning the conservative elite to power. For many Argentines, this military coup (the first of many) marked the end of their country’s golden age and the beginning of a period of decline that continues to this day.
With the outbreak of the second world war, imports from Europe dried up and Argentina had to produce its own goods. The government invested in infrastructure: new trunk roads connected Buenos Aires to the provinces, and streets in the city were widened and subway lines built.
Migrants from the interior now met Buenos Aires’s labour demands. Many of the new arrivals packed into crowded tenements, while the very poor settled on land in the suburbs, creating the villas miserias—the city’s first shanty towns. According to the municipal census, between 1936 and 1947 the city’s share of national population increased from 12% to 29% (it is roughly the same today).
The growing strength of the urban working class in Argentina helped Juan Domingo Peron sweep to victory as president in 1946. A populist army colonel, who had been based for a time in Italy, Peron decided that the state should not simply direct the economy; it should own great chunks of it. He nationalized the railways and introduced Mussolinian notions of a corporate-cum-nationalist society and a new global notion, the welfare state. Peron also financed generous benefits to workers by printing money.
Peron’s clumsy management—and the death of his popular wife, Eva (in 1952)—saw him fall from grace after two terms in office. Argentina slid into economic decay and faced repeated military coups and violent struggles between Peronist factions. Peron was re-elected president in 1973 after a lengthy period in exile, but died just two months later. His third wife, Isabel, was left to rule in his place.
• In the late 1940s, a fad for psychoanalysis (heavily influenced by Freud and Lacan), began to take hold of the upper classes. Today there are reported to be around 27,000 psychologists and analysts in the city.
Fed up with the mismanagement of Isabel Peron, a three-man military junta took control of the government in 1976 and made General Jorge Rafael Videla president. Many hoped that the coup heralded a new start for Argentina. But Videla’s plans to rid the country of “subversives” soon began to take effect. The new rulers’ “Process of National Reorganization”—dubbed el proceso—involved shutting down Congress, outlawing trade unions, imposing strict censorship and bringing local governments under military control. A brutal campaign—remembered as the guerra sucia (“dirty war”)—was unleashed against political opponents. Between 10,000 and 30,000 died, many of them tortured to death at the infamous Navy Mechanics School (ESMA) or dropped, drugged and weighted, into the River Plate. The final resting place of many of the “disappeared” remains unknown to this day.
As evidence of human-rights abuses grew, public opinion turned against the military rulers. In 1978 Argentina’s hosting of the World Cup provided a forum for protesters. (It won the final, despite allegations that the Peruvian team had been bribed to lose an earlier match.) Among them was the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, a group of mothers who had lost members of their families and who became a symbol for human-rights activism. They continue to protest, wearing white headscarves, in a weekly vigil on Thursdays.
With the economy once again in recession, interest rates rocketing and mass street protests, Argentina’s government, now under General Galtieri (who took over the junta in 1981), tried to save its skin by invading the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) in 1982. But military defeat by British forces led to its collapse. A new civilian government under the Radical leader Raúl Alfonsin took control in 1983.
Mr Alfonsin enjoyed only limited success in punishing the three military juntas responsible for the guerra sucia. Despite negotiating an IMF loan, he also let the economy run out of control, failing to rationalise the public finances and tackle inflation. As monthly inflation reached 197% in 1989, Carlos Menem, a pseudo-Peronist (and the son of Syrian immigrants), was forced to take office five months early.
With the help of Domingo Cavallo, the economy minister, Mr Menem introduced free-market reforms that promised to reverse Argentina's decline. Large chunks of the state sector were privatised, the peso was fixed by law at par to the dollar, and the money supply restricted to the level of hard-currency reserves. In the capital, redevelopment of the Puerto Madero docks provided a shiny new leisure district. But the city still faced problems. In 1992, a bomb in the Israeli embassy killed 29; two years later, an attack on the Jewish community centre killed 96.
Mr Menem’s second term (1995-1999) was fraught. Faced with pressure from foreign competition and hit hard by Mexico’s currency collapse, economic reform started to run out of steam. Many companies based in Buenos Aires moved to Brazil and the city’s industrial belt became a wasteland. Mr Menem failed to reform public spending, and tax evasion and corruption remained widespread.
Faced with a deep recession, voters turned to Fernando de la Rua, the Radical mayor of Buenos Aires, who was elected president in 1999. He tightened fiscal policy, quickly pushing through public-spending cuts and tax rises. But these rises helped create a deflationary trap—the economy stagnated and investors panicked, causing bonds to soar.
Pots and pans, please
An IMF loan in December 2000 (conditional on structural reforms and a loosening of fiscal policy) helped avert financial ruin temporarily, but disaster was imminent. Mr de la Rua brought back Mr Cavallo as economy minister, but his unorthodox policies failed to address the crisis. Riots broke out and both men were forced to resign in December 2001. Amid continuing political turmoil, Eduardo Duhalde became president and Argentina announced the largest sovereign debt default in history and floated the peso.
A wave of street protests hit Buenos Aires in early 2002, with crowds of residents banging pots and pans on street corners. As if poverty, high unemployment and limits on bank withdrawals weren't problems enough, crime and corruption continued to beset the capital (see article: Argentina's collapse, February 28th 2002).
The chief of the city's notorious Bonarense police force resigned amid allegations that the police protected a local prostitution ring, and that they routinely tortured and murdered suspects.
Néstor Kirchner, Mr Duhalde’s anointed successor and a man untainted by political scandal, became president in May 2003. His efforts to confront Argentina’s recent past—he overturned amnesties for soldiers involved in the guerra sucia, for example, have impressed many. But others would prefer Mr Kirchner to focus on more pressing issues, such as crime.
During his first year in office Mr Kirchner made headway with the restructuring of Argentina’s debt. He has also tried to clean house, attacking the political elite that feed off his Peronist party and purging the upper echelons of the army and police in an anti-corruption drive. But his premiership has wobbled recently as the pace of economic recovery has slowed and the social divide has widened. His relationship with Mr Duhalde has also soured, creating a nominal split in the Peronist party (see article: Perennial Peronist power, September 1st 2005).
Away from the political arena, the city’s mettle was tested when a fire at the República Cromañón night club killed 193 people in December 2004. Mayor Aníbal Ibarra faces impeachment charges as a result.
Despite their famous melancholy, Porteños pride themselves on being at the hub of Argentine culture and sophistication. With excellent museums, several annual arts festivals (including an independent film festival every spring), and restaurants in Las Canitas and Palermo Viejo that continue to attract fashionable diners, they have every right to feel confident. Some 30% of Argentines still choose to live in Greater Buenos Aires and while it is unlikely ever to reclaim its early-20th-century status, there are signs that the city is rediscovering its swagger.