Europeans arrived in the region with the 1502 voyage of Amerigo Vespucci. Spanish navigator Juan Diaz de Solias visited what is now Argentina in 1516. Spain established a permanent colony on the site of Buenos Aires in 1580. They further integrated Argentina into their empire following the establishment of the Vice-Royalty of Rio de la Plata in 1776, and Buenos Aires became a flourishing port.
Buenos Aires formally declared independence from Spain on July 9, 1816. Argentines revere General Jose de San Martin, who campaigned in Argentina, Chile, and Peru, as the hero of their national independence. Following the defeat of the Spanish, centralist and federalist groups waged a lengthy conflict between themselves to determine the future of the nation. National unity was established and the constitution promulgated in 1853.
Two forces combined to create the modern Argentine nation in the late 19th century: the introduction of modern agricultural techniques and the integration of Argentina into the world economy. Foreign investment and immigration from Europe aided this economic revolution. The investment, primarily British, came in such fields as railroads and ports. The migrants who worked to develop Argentina's resources came from throughout Europe, but mostly from Italy and Spain.
Conservative forces dominated Argentine politics until 1916, when their traditional rivals, the Radicals, won control of the government through a democratic election. The Radicals, with their emphasis on fair elections and democratic institutions, opened their doors to Argentina's expanding middle class as well as to elites previously excluded from power for various reasons. The Argentine military forced aged Radical President Hipolito Yrigoyen from power in 1930 and ushered in another decade of Conservative rule.
Using fraud and force when necessary, the governments of the 1930s attempted to contain forces for economic and political change that eventually helped produce the governments of Juan Domingo Peron (b. 1897). New social and political forces were seeking political power. These included the modern military and the labor movement that emerged from the growing urban working class.
The military ousted Argentina's constitutional government in 1943. Peron, then an army colonel, was one of the coup's leaders, and he soon became the government's dominant figure as minister of labor. Elections carried him to the presidency in 1946. He aggressively pursued policies aimed at giving an economic and political voice to the working class and greatly expanded the number of unionized workers. In 1947, Peron announced the first five-year plan based on nationalization and industrialization. He presented himself as a friend of labor and assisted in establishing the powerful General Confederation of Labor (CGT). Peron's dynamic wife, Eva Duarte de Peron, known as Evita (1919-1952), helped her husband develop his appeals to labor and women's groups. Women obtained the right to vote in 1947.
Peron won reelection in 1952, but the military deposed him in 1955. He went into exile, eventually settling in Spain. In the 1950s and 1960s, military and civilian administrations traded power. They tried, with limited success, to deal with diminished economic growth and continued social and labor demands. When military governments failed to revive the economy and suppress escalating terrorism in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the way was open for Peron's return.
On March 11, 1973, Argentina held general elections for the first time in 10 years. Peron was prevented from running, but voters elected his stand-in, Dr. Hector J. Campora, to the presidency. Peron's followers also commanded strong majorities in both houses of the National Congress, which assumed office on May 25, 1973. Campora resigned in July 1973, paving the way for new elections. Peron won a decisive victory and returned as President in October 1973 with his third wife, Maria Estela Isabel Martinez de Peron, as Vice President.
During this period, extremists on the left and right carried out terrorist acts with a frequency that threatened public order. The government resorted to a number of emergency decrees, including the implementation of special executive authority to deal with violence. This allowed the government to imprison persons indefinitely without charge.
Peron died on July 1, 1974. His wife succeeded him in office, but her administration was undermined by economic problems, Peronist intraparty struggles, and growing terrorism from both left and right. A military coup removed her from office on March 24, 1976. Until December 10, 1983, the armed forces formally exercised power through a junta composed of the three service commanders.
The armed forces applied harsh measures against terrorists and their sympathizers. They silenced armed opposition and restored basic order. The costs of what became known as the "Dirty War" were high in terms of lives lost and basic human rights violated.
Serious economic problems, defeat by the U.K. in 1982 after an unsuccessful Argentine attempt to forcibly take control of the Falklands/Malvinas Islands, public revulsion in the face of severe human rights abuses, and mounting charges of corruption combined to discredit and discourage the military regime. This prompted a period of gradual transition and led the country toward democratic rule. Acting under public pressure, the junta lifted bans on political parties and restored other basic political liberties. Argentina experienced a generally successful and peaceful return to democracy.
On October 30, 1983, Argentines went to the polls to choose a president, vice president, and national, provincial, and local officials in elections international observers found to be fair, open, and honest. The country returned to constitutional rule after Raul Alfonsin, candidate of the Radial Civic Union (UCR), received 52% of the popular vote for president. He began a six-year term of office on December 10, 1983.
In 1985 and 1987, large turnouts for mid-term elections demonstrated continued public support for a strong and vigorous democratic system. The UCR-led government took steps to resolve some of the nation's most pressing problems, including accounting for those who disappeared during military rule, establishing civilian control of the armed forces, and consolidating democratic institutions. However, constant friction with the military, failure to resolve endemic economic problems, and an inability to maintain public confidence undermined the Alfonsin Government's effectiveness, which left office six months early after Peronist candidate Carlos Saul Menem won the 1989 presidential elections.
As President, Menem launched a major overhaul of Argentine domestic policy. Large-scale structural reforms have dramatically reversed the role of the state in Argentine economic life. A decisive leader pressing a controversial agenda, Menem has not been reluctant to use the presidency's extensive powers to issue decrees advancing modernization when the congress was unable to reach consensus on his proposed reforms. Those powers were curtailed somewhat when the constitution was reformed in 1994 as a result of the so-called Olivos Pact with the opposition Radical Party. That arrangement opened the way for Menem to seek and win reelection with 50% of the vote in the three-way 1995 presidential race.
The 1995 election saw the emergence of the moderate left FREPASO political alliance. This alternative to the traditional two main political parties in Argentina is particularly strong in Buenos Aires, but as yet lacks the national infrastructure of the Peronist and Radical parties. In an important development in Argentina's political life, all three major parties in the 1999 race espouse free market economic policies.
Argentina held mid-term congressional elections in October 1997. The opposition UCR-FREPASO alliance made major gains in the number of seats it held and deprived the Peronists of an absolute majority. The elections are widely seen as setting the stage for the 1999 presidential race. The government's pro-market policies remain unchallenged, but continued high unemployment and growing public concern over corruption have hurt the government's standing in public opinion polls.