The History of Buenos Aires

The Vibrant Capital of Argentina Through the Years

Serenity
Photo by JKboy Jatenipat / Getty Images

One of the most important cities in South America, Buenos Aires has a long and interesting history. It has lived under the shadow of secret police on more than one occasion, has been attacked by foreign powers and has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the only cities in history to be bombed by its own navy.

It has been home to ruthless dictators, bright-eyed idealists and some of the most important writers and artists in the history of Latin America.

The city has seen economic booms that brought in stunning wealth as well as economic meltdowns that have driven the population into poverty. Here is its history:

Foundation of Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires was founded twice. A settlement at the present day site was established briefly in 1536 by conquistador Pedro de Mendoza, but attacks by local indigenous tribes forced the settlers to move to Asunción, Paraguay in 1539. By 1541 the site had been burned and abandoned. The harrowing story of the attacks and the overland journey to Asunción was written down by one of the survivors, German mercenary Ulrico Schmidl after he returned to his native land around 1554. In 1580, another settlement was established, and this one lasted.

Growth

The city was well-located to control all trade in the region containing present-day Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and parts of Bolivia, and it thrived. In 1617 the province of Buenos Aires was removed from control by Asunción, and the city welcomed its first bishop in 1620.

As the city grew, it became too powerful for the local indigenous tribes to attack, but became the target of European pirates and privateers. At first, much of the growth of Buenos Aires was in illicit trade, as all official trade with Spain had to go through Lima.

Boom

Buenos Aires was established on the banks of the Río de la Plata (Platte River), which translates to "River of Silver." It was given this optimistic name by early explorers and settlers, who had gotten some silver trinkets from local Indians.

The river didn't produce much in the way of silver, and settlers didn't find the true value of the river until much later.

In the eighteenth century, cattle ranching in the vast grasslands around Buenos Aires became very lucrative, and millions of treated leather hides were sent to Europe, where they became leather armor, shoes, clothing and a variety of other products. This economic boom led to the establishment in 1776 of the Viceroyalty of the River Platte, based in Buenos Aires.

The British Invasions

Using the alliance between Spain and Napoleonic France as an excuse, Britain attacked Buenos Aires twice in 1806-1807, attempting to further weaken Spain while at the same time gaining valuable New World colonies to replace the ones it had so recently lost in the American Revolution. The first attack, led by Colonel William Carr Beresford, succeeded in capturing Buenos Aires, although Spanish forces out of Montevideo were able to re-take it about two months later. A second British force arrived in 1807 under the command of Lieutenant-General John Whitelocke. The British took Montevideo but were unable to capture Buenos Aires, which was ably defended by urban guerilla militants. The British were forced to retreat.

Independence

The British invasions had a secondary effect on the city. During the invasions, Spain had essentially left the city to its fate, and it had been the citizens of Buenos Aires who had taken up arms and defended their city. When Spain was invaded by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1808, the people of Buenos Aires decided they had seen enough of Spanish rule, and in 1810 they established an independent government, although formal Independence would not come until 1816. The fight for Argentine Independence, led by José de San Martín, was largely fought elsewhere and Buenos Aires did not suffer terribly during the conflict.

Unitarians and Federalists

When the charismatic San Martín went into self-imposed exile in Europe, there was a power vacuum in the new nation of Argentina. Before long, a bloody conflict hit the streets of Buenos Aires.

The country was divided between Unitarians, who favored a strong central government in Buenos Aires, and Federalists, who preferred near-autonomy for the provinces. Predictably, the Unitarians were mostly from Buenos Aires, and the Federalists were from the provinces. In 1829, Federalist strongman Juan Manuel de Rosas seized power, and those Unitarians who did not flee were persecuted by Latin America's first secret police, the Mazorca. Rosas was removed from power in 1852, and Argentina's first constitution was ratified in 1853.

The 19th Century

The newly independent country was forced to continue to fight for its existence. England and France both tried to take Buenos Aires in the mid-1800s but failed. Buenos Aires continued to thrive as a trade port, and the sale of leather continued to boom, especially after railroads were built connecting the port to the interior of the country where the cattle ranches were. Towards the turn of the century, the young city developed a taste for European high culture, and in 1908 the Colón Theater opened its doors.

Immigration in the Early 20th Century

As the city industrialized in the early 20th century, it opened its doors to immigrants, mostly from Europe. Large numbers of Spanish and Italians came, and their influence is still strong in the city. There were also Welsh, British, Germans, and Jews, many of whom passed through Buenos Aires on their way to establish settlements in the interior.

Many more Spanish arrived during and shortly after the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). The Perón regime (1946-1955) allowed Nazi war criminals to migrate to Argentina, including the infamous Dr. Mengele, although they did not come in large enough numbers to significantly change the nation's demographics. Recently, Argentina has seen migration from Korea, China, Eastern Europe and other parts of Latin America. Argentina has celebrated Immigrant's Day on September 4 since 1949.

The Perón Years

Juan Perón and his famous wife Evita came to power in the early 1940s, and he reached the presidency in 1946.

Perón was a very strong leader, blurring the lines between elected president and dictator. Unlike many strongmen, however, Perón was a liberal who strengthened unions (but kept them under control) and improved education.

The working class adored him and Evita, who opened schools and clinics and gave state money away to the poor. Even after he was deposed in 1955 and forced into exile, he remained a very powerful force in Argentine politics. He even triumphantly returned to stand for the 1973 elections, which he won, although he died of a heart attack after about a year in power.

The Bombing of the Plaza de Mayo

On June 16, 1955, Buenos Aires saw one of its darkest days. Anti-Perón forces in the military, seeking to dislodge him from power, ordered the Argentine Navy to bombard the Plaza de Mayo, the city's central square. It was believed that this act would precede a general coup d'état. Navy aircraft bombed and strafed the square for hours, killing 364 people and injuring hundreds more. The Plaza had been targeted because it was a gathering place for pro-Perón citizens. The army and air force did not join in the attack, and the coup attempt failed. Perón was removed from power about three months later by another revolt which included all of the armed forces.

Ideological conflict in the 1970s

During the early 1970s, communist rebels taking their cue from Fidel Castro's takeover of Cuba attempted to stir up revolts in several Latin American nations, including Argentina. They were countered by right-wing groups who were just as destructive. They were responsible for several incidents in Buenos Aires, including the Ezeiza massacre, when 13 people were killed during a pro-Perón rally. In 1976, a military junta overthrew Isabel Perón, Juan's wife, who had been vice president when he died in1974. The military soon began a crackdown on dissidents, beginning the period known as "La Guerra Sucia" ("The Dirty War").

The Dirty War and Operation Condor

The Dirty War is one of the most tragic episodes in all of the History of Latin America. The military government, in power from 1976 to 1983, initiated a ruthless crackdown on suspected dissidents. Thousands of citizens, primarily in Buenos Aires, were brought in for questioning, and many of them "disappeared," never to be heard from again. Their basic rights were denied to them, and many families still do not know what happened to their loved ones. Many estimates place the number of executed citizens around 30,000. It was a time of terror when citizens feared their government more than anything else.

The Argentine Dirty War was part of the larger Operation Condor, which was an alliance of the right wing governments of Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil to share information and aid one another's secret police. The "Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo" is an organization of mothers and relatives of those who disappeared during this time: their aim is to get answers, locate their loved ones or their remains, and hold accountable the architects of the Dirty War.

Accountability

The military dictatorship ended in 1983, and Raúl Alfonsín, a lawyer, and publisher, was elected president. Alfonsín surprised the world by quickly turning on the military leaders who had been in power for the past seven years, ordering trials and a fact-finding commission. Investigators soon turned up 9,000 well-documented cases of "disappearances" and the trials began in 1985. All of the top generals and architects of the dirty war, including a former president, General Jorge Videla, were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. They were pardoned by President Carlos Menem in 1990, but the cases are not settled, and the possibility remains that some may return to prison.

Recent Years

Buenos Aires was given autonomy to elect their own mayor in 1993. Previously, the mayor was appointed by the president.

Just as the people of Buenos Aires were putting the horrors of the Dirty War behind them, they fell victim to an economic catastrophe. In 1999, a combination of factors including a falsely inflated exchange rate between the Argentine peso and the US dollar led to a serious recession and people began losing faith in the peso and in Argentine banks. In late 2001 there was a run on the banks and in December 2001 the economy collapsed. Angry protestors in the streets of Buenos Aires forced President Fernando de la Rúa to flee the presidential palace in a helicopter. For a while, unemployment reached as high as 25 percent. The economy eventually stabilized, but not before many businesses and citizens went bankrupt.

Buenos Aires Today

Today, Buenos Aires is once again calm and sophisticated, its political and economic crises hopefully a thing of the past. It is considered very safe and is once more a center for literature, film, and education. No history of the city would be complete without a mention of its role in the arts:

Literature in Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires has always been a very important city for literature. Porteños (as the citizens of the city are called) are very literate and place a great value on books. Many of Latin America’s greatest writers call or called Buenos Aires home, including José Hernández (author of the Martín Fierro epic poem), Jorge Luís Borges and Julio Cortázar (both known for outstanding short stories). Today, the writing and publishing industry in Buenos Aires is alive and thriving.

Film in Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires has had a film industry since the beginning. There were early pioneers of the medium making films as early as 1898, and the world’s first feature-length animated film, El Apóstol, was created in1917. Unfortunately, no copies of it exist. By the 1930’s, the Argentine film industry was producing approximately 30 films per year, which were exported to all of Latin America.

In the early 1930’s, tango singer Carlos Gardel made several films which helped catapult him to international stardom and made a cult figure of him in Argentina, although his career was cut short when he died in 1935. Although his biggest films were not produced in Argentina, they nevertheless were hugely popular and contributed to the film industry in his home country, as imitations soon popped up.

Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, Argentine cinema has gone through several cycles of booms and busts, as political and economic instability have temporarily shut down studios. Currently, Argentine cinema is undergoing a renaissance and is known for edgy, intense dramas.

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Minster, Christopher. "The History of Buenos Aires." ThoughtCo, Aug. 23, 2017, thoughtco.com/the-history-of-buenos-aires-2136353. Minster, Christopher. (2017, August 23). The History of Buenos Aires. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-history-of-buenos-aires-2136353 Minster, Christopher. "The History of Buenos Aires." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-history-of-buenos-aires-2136353 (accessed October 24, 2017).