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The History of Buenos Aires

La Ciudad de Nuestra Señora del Buen Aire was founded in 1536 by Spanish conquistador Pedro de Mendoza, who had received a royal charter as adelantado of the region. An adelantado was a combination of military leader, scout and mayor. Mendoza established the city with a couple hundred settlers and soldiers, but they soon angered the local indigenous tribes, who united to lay siege to the city. Mendoza bailed out, taking one of his ships back to Spain, leaving about 100 soldiers behind to defend the city. Mendoza died at sea, and the soldiers were forced to flee, eventually making their way to Asunción.

In 1580, the Spanish tried again at the same location, sending a small but well-equipped expedition under Juan de Garay. He kept the name, and this time the settlement lasted. Because it is perfectly situated to control trade from Bolivia to Patagonia, the city soon began to flourish. For the first two hundred years or so of its existence, the Spanish actually hindered the growth of Buenos Aires, as they forced all trade from the Americas to Spain to go through Lima, inconveniently located on the Pacific. As a result, smuggling and illicit commerce thrived until the Spanish opened Buenos Aires to international trade in the late eighteenth century.

Buenos Aires boomed during the colonial era, due in large part to the success of cattle ranching in the pampas grasslands. Leather taken from the cattle was tanned and treated, then sent to Europe where demand was high in the military as well as other sectors, such as shoemaking. Millions of cow skins were shipped to Europe, and the Spanish recognized the new status of Buenos Aires by declaring it the seat of the new Viceroyalty of the River Platte in 1776, elevating it to the same status as Lima and Mexico City.

Buenos Aires was important to the independence movement. The city created its own government in 1810, not long after France invaded Spain. In 1816, Argentina and Buenos Aires formally declared independence. Spain, fighting independence movements from Mexico to Chile, decided to use its scarce military reserves elsewhere, and Buenos Aires did not see any fighting during this period. José de San Martín, the leader of Argentine independence, fought most of his battles in the foothills of the Andes, Chile, and Peru. Nevertheless, Buenos Aires was important to the independence movement as a center for resistance and politics.

After independence, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Bolivia went their separate ways. A conflict quickly developed in Argentina between Federalists and Unitarians. Unitarians wanted a strong central government based in Buenos Aires, while Federalists favored a weak central government and more autonomy for the different regions and provinces. This conflict, which doesn’t sound like much, nevertheless turned very violent, as Federalists and Unitarians fought in the streets. In 1829, Federalist strongman Juan Manuel de Rosas came to power, and he ruled with an iron fist until 1852. A constitution was not adopted until the following year. The Rosas regime was marked by his use of the first secret police in free Latin America, the “Popular Restoration Society,” known as the Mazorca. The Mazorca tortured and murdered hundreds of dissidents, and many liberal Argentine thinkers were forced to go into exile.

Buenos Aires was seen as a prize by some European nations, particularly France and England, who had lost their own colonies recently. Great Britain attacked twice in 1806-1807 and the French and British both made efforts to capture it between 1838 and 1848. Every time, the city managed to fend off the foreign invaders.

The introduction of the railroad in the second half of the nineteenth century greatly increased the wealth of Buenos Aires. By the turn of the century, Buenos Aires was one of the wealthiest cities in the world and had acquired a taste for European high culture. The first opera house was built in the city in 1908 and elegant, European-inspired architecture started appearing. The city opened its doors to immigration as it began to industrialize, and by the 1920’s the immigrants were pouring in. Most of them came from Italy and Spain, but there were also significant numbers of British, German, Jewish and Welsh immigrants, among others. Many of these immigrants stayed in Buenos Aires, giving the city its current multicultural flavor.

When populist dictator Juan Perón came to power in 1946, much of the city supported him. A liberal, Perón supported unions while his wife Evita dedicated schools and gave out public money to the poor. On June 16, 1955 the city saw one of its greatest tragedies ever. The Argentine navy, executing a plot to remove Perón from power, attacked the central square of the city, the Plaza de Mayo. Between the dropped bombs and strafing runs, 364 civilians were killed. Perón held onto power but was removed later in the same year.

After a period of relative quiet, violence raised its ugly head in Buenos Aires again in the 1970’s. Communist revolutionaries, inspired by Fidel Castro’s successful takeover of Cuba, began targeting Argentina. Rebel groups such as the E.R.P and the F.A.R clashed with the Triple A, a right-wing paramilitary force, resulting in several dreadful incidents including the Ereiza massacre in 1973. This instability led to the military coup in 1976 which deposed president Isabel Perón.

The military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983 marked one of the ugliest periods in the history of Buenos Aires. Dissidents were rounded up and “disappeared” as part of Operation Condor, a union of the right-wing governments of Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil and Bolivia. Anywhere between 10,000 and 30,000 Argentine citizens, many of them guilty of no more than thought crimes, were murdered and many more were tortured and imprisoned with no legal recourse. Perhaps most heinous of all was the practice of keeping arrested pregnant women alive until they gave birth, then killing the mother and allowing well-connected families to adopt the babies. This grisly practice is in the news lately in Argentina, as one of the adopted children recently brought a suit against her adoptive parents and the military officers who arranged the adoption.

In late 2001 the Argentine economy, falsely propped up for years by an artificial linking of the peso with the U.S. dollar, collapsed. There was a run on the banks, and the people took to the streets. There were several clashes between citizens and police. The government defaulted on its foreign debt. After a series of five presidents in just a few weeks, the situation was stabilized, but not before many common Argentines had lost much of their savings. It would take years for the economy to recover.

Currently, Buenos Aires is enjoying a renaissance of sorts, as the economy has stabilized and industry and tourism have returned to the city.

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Buenos Aires: Madres De Plaza De Mayo and Tierra Santa.

By Christopher Minster
I am a writer and editor at V!VA Travel guides here in Quito, where I specialize in adding quality content to the site and also in spooky things like...
14 Mar 2008

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