Second in South America only to Brazil in size and population, Argentina is a plain, rising from the Atlantic to the Chilean border and the towering Andes peaks. Aconcagua (22,834 ft, 6,960 m) is the highest peak in the world outside Asia. Argentina is also bordered by Bolivia and Paraguay on the north, and by Uruguay and Brazil on the east. The northern area is the swampy and partly wooded Gran Chaco, bordering Bolivia and Paraguay. South of that are the rolling, fertile Pampas, which are rich in agriculture and sheep- and cattle-grazing and support most of the population. Further south is Patagonia, a region of cool, arid steppes with some wooded and fertileGovernment Republic.
HistoryFirst explored in 1516 by Juan Diaz de Solis, Argentina developed slowly under Spanish colonial rule. Buenos Aires was settled in 1580; the cattle industry was thriving as early as 1600. Invading British forces were expelled in 1806—1807, and after Napoleon conquered Spain (1808), the Argentinians set up their own government in 1810. On July 9, 1816, independence was formally declared.
As it had in World War I, Argentina proclaimed neutrality at the outbreak of World War II, but in the closing phase declared war on the Axis powers on March 27, 1945. Juan D. Peron, an army colonel, emerged as the strongman of the postwar era, winning the presidential elections of 1946 and 1951. Peron's political strength was reinforced by his second wife—Eva Duarte de Peron (Evita)—and her popularity with the working classes. Although she never held a government post, Evita acted as de facto minister of health and labor, establishing a national charitable organization, and awarding generous wage increases to the unions, who responded with political support for Peron. Opposition to Peron's increasing authoritarianism led to a coup by the armed forces, which sent Peron into exile in 1955, three years after Evita's death. Argentina entered a long period of military dictatorships with brief intervals of constitutional government.
The former dictator returned to power in 1973 and his third wife, Isabel Martinez de Peron, was elected vice president. After her husband's death in 1974, Peron became the hemisphere's first woman chief of state, assuming control of a nation teetering on economic and political collapse. In 1975, terrorist acts by left- and right-wing groups killed some 700 people. The cost of living rose 355%, and strikes and demonstrations were constant. On March 24, 1976, a military junta led by army commander Lt. Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla seized power and imposed martial law.
The Dirty War Begins
The military began the "dirty war" to restore order and eradicate its opponents. The Argentine Commission for Human Rights, in Geneva, has charged the junta with 2,300 political murders, over 10,000 political arrests, and the disappearance of 20,000 to 30,000 people. The economy remained in chaos. In March 1981, Videla was deposed by Field Marshal Roberto Viola, who in turn was succeeded by Lt. Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri.
On April 2, 1982, Galtieri invaded the British-held Falkland Islands, known as Las Islas Malvinas in Spanish, in what was seen as an attempt to increase his popularity. Great Britain, however, won a decisive victory, and Galtieri resigned in disgrace three days after Argentina's surrender. Maj. Gen. Reynaldo Bignone took over June 14, amid increasing pro-democratic public sentiment. As the 1983 elections approached, inflation hit 900% and Argentina's crippling foreign debt reached unprecedented levels.
In the presidential election of Oct. 1983, Raul Alfonsin, leader of the Radical Civic Union, handed the Peronist Party its first defeat since its founding. Growing unemployment and quadruple-digit inflation, however, led to a Peronist victory in the elections of May 1989. Alfonsin resigned a month later in the wake of riots over high food prices, in favor of the new Peronist president, Carlos Menem. In 1991, Menem promoted economic austerity measures that deregulated businesses and privatized state-owned industries. But beginning in Sept. 1998, eight years into Menem's two-term presidency, Argentina entered its worst recession in a decade. Menem's economic policies, tolerance of corruption, and pardoning of military leaders involved in the dirty war eventually lost him the support of the poor and the working class who had elected him.
Dirty War Criminals Put on Trial
In Dec. 1999, Fernando de la Rua became president. Despite the introduction of several tough economic austerity plans, by 2001 the recession had slid into its third year. The IMF gave Argentina $13.7 billion in emergency aid in Jan. 2001 and $8 billion in Aug. 2001. The international help was not enough, however, and by the end of 2001, Argentina was on the verge of economic collapse. Rioters protesting government austerity measures forced De la Rua to resign in Dec. 2001. Argentina then defaulted on its $155 billion foreign debt payments, the largest such default in history.
After more instability, Congress named Eduardo Duhalde president on Jan. 1, 2002. Duhalde soon announced an economic plan devaluing the Argentine peso, which had been pegged to the dollar for a decade. The devaluation plunged the banking industry into crisis and wiped out much of the savings of the middle class, plunging millions of Argentinians into poverty.
In July 2002, former junta leader Galtieri and 42 other military officers were arrested and charged with the torture and execution of 22 leftist guerrillas during Argentina's 7-year military dictatorship. In recent years, judges have found legal loopholes allowing them to circumvent the blanket amnesty laws passed in 1986 and 1987, which allowed many accused of atrocities during the dirty war to walk free. In June 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that these amnesty laws were unconstitutional and in 2006, numerous military and police officials went on trial.
Economy on the Rebound
Peronist Néstor Kirchner, the former governor of Santa Cruz, became Argentina's president in May 2003, after former president Carlos Menem abandoned the race. Kirchner vowed to aggressively reform the courts, police, and armed services and to prosecute perpetrators of the dirty war. Argentina's economy has been rebounding since its near collapse in 2001, with an impressive growth rate of about 8% since Kirchner took office. In March 2005, Kirchner announced that the country's debt had been successfully restructured. In Jan. 2006, Argentina paid off its remaining multi-million IMF debt early, a dramatic move that not all economists thought was beneficial.
In October 2007, First Lady Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was elected president, taking 45% of the vote. Elisa Carrió, a congresswoman, placed second, with 23%.
On December 10, 2007, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner took over the presidency from her husband, Néstor Kirchner, in a ceremony at Argentina's Congress. She kept many of her husband's ministers, but implied that she would introduce changes to the country during presidency. Fernandez said she will create a new ministry for science and technology to boost innovation, and stated that she would make "necessary corrections" to help the inflation problem in Argentina. Although she is as much a nationalist as her husband and refuses to get involved with the IMF, Fernández has shown interest in forging closer ties with the United States, Europe, and Brazil.
President and Vice President At Odds on Big Issues
Farmers protesting tax increases on export goods went on strike in early 2008, causing highways to be shut down and severe food shortages nationwide. In July, after months of protests and strikes by the farmers, the government, led by Vice President Cobos, sided with the farmers and voted against the president's proposed increase on the agricultural export tax.
In November 2008, the lower house of Parliament approved President Fernandez's controversial plan to nationalize more than $25 billion in private pension funds. President Fernandez asserted the move would protect pensioners' assets during the global financial crisis, while Vice President Cobos continued to disagree, stating it would create doubts among investors about Argentina's investment market stability.
The dispute over the Falkland Islands between Argentina and the UK resurfaced in February 2010 when a British oil rig began drilling near the islands. Both countries still claim sovereignty over the Falklands, and Argentina was outraged that it may have to confront the embarrassing fact that England could tap vast deposits of oil so close to its shores. Argentina responded by threatening to implement new restrictions on British ships passing through its waters.
In July 2010, Argentina became the first country in Latin America to legalize gay marriage.
Former president Nestor Kirchner and the husband of current president, Cristina Fernandez, died suddenly of a heart attack in October. He had been expected to run for president in 2011.
In February 2011, Argentine customs seized undeclared equipment on a United States Air Force cargo plane. The plane was carrying materials for an Argentina federal police training course. Customs officials described the seized equipment as machine guns, ammo, drugs such as morphine, and spy equipment. Argentina accused the United States military of bringing in guns and surveillance equipment under the guise of a training course. The incident created a diplomatic rift between the two countries.
In June 2011, President Fernandez announced that she was running for re-election. Polls showed that even though President Fernandez lacks majority support, she might easily win the first-round vote on Oct. 23 because the opposition is so divided.
President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner Easily Wins Second Term
On October 23, 2011, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was easily re-elected for a second term. Her victory came just two years after her approval rating fell below 30 percent due to her unpopular combative leadership style, which came under scrutiny during a dispute over agricultural export taxes. However, Argentina is currently undergoing an economic boom despite economists' predictions that the plan put into place by Fernández's late husband, former President Néstor Kirchner, was doomed.
That economic plan, which relies heavily on government subsidies, has been further orchestrated by President Fernández. Argentina's economy is expected to grow 8 percent in 2011, making it the fastest growing country in Latin America. Since 2007, the poverty rate has been cut by more than half. The employment rate has reached record highs and the country's agricultural products are in strong demand from China.
In this election, voters looked past red flags such as rising inflation. In 2010, inflation rose over 20 percent, second only to Venezuela in Latin America. Clearly what mattered most to voters was a booming economy. President Fernández won with 54 percent of the vote. Her closest opponent received 17 percent. With a margin of 37 percent, it was the widest victory since Argentina restored its democracy in 1983.
In December 2011, a spokesman for President Fernández announced that she had thyroid cancer and would undergo surgery on January 4. During a televised address the spokesman said there was "no existence of metastasis." The announcement came less than two months after Fernández was re-elected to a new four-year term. In 2010, Argentina was shocked when Fernández's husband, the country's previous president, died of a heart attack at age 60. The news of Fernández's diagnosis also shook up a country that has long revered Eva "Evita" Peron, wife of legendary leader Juan Peron. Peron died of cancer in 1952 at age 33. Like Eva Peron, Fernández is popular for her efforts to help the impoverished.
President Fernández was one of several leaders in the region recently diagnosed with cancer. President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil was treated for lymphoma in 2009. In 2010, Paraguay's president, Fernando Lugo, was treated for non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Venezuela's Hugo Chávez underwent treatment for an undisclosed type of cancer in 2011. In early January 2012, President Fernández's surgery was carried out without complications, putting her on course to return to work as planned later in the month.
Supreme Court Makes Historic Ruling on Abortion
In March 2012, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that rape victims can get an abortion. The ruling was historic because most abortions are illegal in Argentina. Before the ruling, a judge had to decide, case by case, which victims could get abortions. Typically, a judge ruled for the abortion only if the woman had mental disabilities. The new rule allowed any victim of rape to receive an abortion without a court order.