Argentina - The Country

Argentina was once one of the richest countries in the world. But of the 35 presidents who governed the country in the 20th century, only ten came to office through free elections. Although the last dictatorship was almost four decades ago, it continues to preoccupy the South American country today.

 

The Military’s Bloody Legacy

Argentina – officially the Republic of Argentina – is the second largest country in South America. Some 44 million people live here on nearly 2.8 million square kilometers. Almost a third of the population lives in the metropolitan area of Buenos Aires. And over 70 percent identifies as Catholic. Pope Francis, who has headed the Catholic Church since 2013, comes from Argentina.

Argentina literally means silver country. The Spanish gave the land this name because they were hoping to find silver (Latin: argentum) there. In 1816, the colony declared itself independent after which mostly Italians and Spaniards began to immigrate there. A large part of today's population descends from these immigrants; only about one million people are of indigenous origin.

The Republic of Argentina was founded in 1853, after Bolivia and Uruguay seceded from the former Viceroyalty of Río de la Plata. Shortly thereafter, the province of Buenos Aires also joined Argentina. The beginnings of the republic were dominated by wars and dictatorships. But this did not deter millions of immigrants from Europe from settling there. Universal suffrage – for men – was not introduced until 1912, after which the Radical Civic Union (UCR), which still exists today, took over the government for the first time. The UCR was driven from power by a military coup in 1930.

In another coup in 1943, one officer played a central role: Juan Domingo Perón. His name soon came to stand for an entire political movement. The popular labor minister and admirer of Italian fascism was dismissed from the government after World War II, exiled and then released again following protests from his supporters. All of this helped him achieve a stunning electoral victory in the following presidential elections.

Perón's social and nationalist policies – referred to as Peronism – contributed to Argentina becoming one of the wealthiest countries in the world at that time. In the next elections, in which women were allowed to vote for the first time, he was even more successful. But in 1955, he was overthrown by another military coup and driven into exile in Spain.

In the following decades, civilian and military governments continued to alternate, with democratically elected politicians remaining the exception to the rule. It was not until 1973 that Perón was allowed to return to Argentina – and he was soon elected president once again. But he died a year later, after which his widow, Isabel, a former nightclub dancer whom he had appointed as his deputy, took office. Massive economic problems and the rise of radical leftist guerrilla groups prompted the military to stage another coup two years later.

The military regime under General Jorge Rafael Videla and his successors is still considered an exceptionally cruel dictatorship today. It is not without reason that those who were in power at the time are accused of state terrorism in Argentina. Between 1976 and 1983, mostly anonymous task forces arbitrarily arrested thousands of people who were interrogated and often tortured in hundreds of secret detention centers; practically no trials were held. At least 1,336 people were proven to have been killed, 7,140 others disappeared. Some were thrown out of planes over the open sea or the Río de la Plata and their young children were given to families close to the regime.

What the armed forces called a “process to restore the nation” led, among other things, to about half a million Argentines leaving the country. But when the military occupied the British Falkland Islands in 1982, it went too far: After an ignominious defeat, it was compelled to hold free presidential elections, from which the UCR politician Raúl Alfonsín emerged victorious in 1983. After various changes in government and serious economic crises, the lawyer Alberto Ángel Fernández – a Peronist – is now running the country again.

The process of coming to terms with the last military dictatorship continues to occupy Argentina to this day. In a tough political and legal battle, more than 3,000 people were brought to justice by 2017. One of the most important torture centers, the Navy Mechanics School in Buenos Aires, is now a memorial. After several reparation laws were passed, the government decided in 2016 to also compensate Argentines who were forced into exile. Some 400 children are still being sought by their parents or grandparents (as of May 2021).

Republic of Argentina

Area:

2,780,00 km²

Inhabitants:

44.9 million (2019)

Population growth:

1,0 % annually (2019)

Population density:

16 inhabitants per km²

Seat of government:

Buenos Aires

Official language:

Spanish

Political system:

Parliamentary democracy

Head of state:

President Alberto Fernández (since 2019)

Head of government:

President Alberto Fernández (since 2019)

Freedom status:

84/100

GDP per capita:

22,997 USD (adjusted for purchasing power, 2019)

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