Founding of Buenos Aires
On February 2, 1536, the conqueror Don Pedro de Mendoza arrived by land at the coast of Buenos Aires. His mission was to populate the lands of the Rio de la Plata, which were of great interest to the Spanish crown. Mendoza christened the city Espíritu Santo and named its port Nuestra Señora del Buen Ayre. He was faced with food scarcities and hostilities from the indigenous people that stifled his progress. For these reasons, he decided to leave and return to Spain.
Nearly forty years later, Juan de Garay arrived on a second attempt: on the 29th of May 1580, he made the second founding. Garay and his crew began working to organize the city. They selected the highest ground as a defensive point against potential attacks. The acclaimed monument, Palo de la Justicia, was built on what today is the Plaza de Mayo. In addition, they organized the Cabildo, which was the highest administrative institution, and they erected a church where the Metropolitan Cathedral now stands. The city was then named Santísima Trinidad, and its port, Santa María de los Buenos Aires.
Era of Viceroyalty
Not until the 18th century and the creation of the viceroyalty did Buenos Aires cease to be a village. The first viceroy of the transformation, Juan Jose de Vertiz, installed street lamps, cobblestones and the first printing press. The fort was used as the seat of the viceroy, located on the site of the current government offices. Another point of reference from this era is the church of San Ignacio. Constructed by the Jesuits, it is one of the oldest buildings in the city.
Buenos Aires played an essential role as the main connecting port for goods between the New World and Europe. Tempted by the growing business of the port, the English tried to take control of the river, invading the city of Buenos Aires in 1806 and 1807. Both attempts failed.
In 1810, with King Fernando VII in prison and the Seville council in French hands, the town of Buenos Aires rose up in the famous May Revolution. The people revoked the viceroy’s title, and on May 25, the First Government Council was formed with Cornelio Saavedra presiding. This was the first step toward the independence of the provinces of the Rio de la Plata, proclaimed on the 9th of July 1816. This date is still celebrated as Argentina’s most important national holiday.
In 1857 the first railroads appeared, in 1865, the streetcars, and in 1876, the first shipment of wheat left for Europe. The bonanza prompted the declaration of Buenos Aires as the country’s capital (1880). The city extended from what is now the Plaza Once to the Riachuelo River.
The Romantic style and the latest Art-nouveau design from the old continent began to appear in buildings such as the Children’s Hospital and the Escuela Normal de Maestras. The typical Buenos Aires tenement houses or “conventillos” that housed the European immigrants clashed with the new palaces. Slowly, Buenos Aires had grown from a small port town into a large city that emulated the cities of Europe, and European immigrants fed this growth. First to arrive were the Italians and the Spanish, the majority of whom were poor farmers. Afterwards came the Jews, Poles, Croats, Czechs and Ukrainians, among others.
In the beginning, immigration policies were very liberal, but with time, the pretentious Argentine oligarchy decided to close its doors to all but Northern Europeans, which led to the English arriving in numbers. They were bankers, office workers, engineers and financial experts. They designed the railroad network, and their architectural designs were stamped across train stations and the docks of the port. In 1895, 72 out of every 100 Buenos Aires inhabitants were foreigners.
Two main events characterized 20th-century Argentina: successive military coups, and the birth of a native political movement known as Peronism. The leader of this movement, Juan Domingo Perón, was elected president three times. He rose to power in 1946 with the support of the lower classes and the labor unions. With him, the lower classes were able to participate in political action. In addition, he redistributed the nation’s wealth, and the state took control of public services. Another feature of Perón’s government was the growing publicity of his wife, Eva Duarte. From the offices of the Ministry of Labor, Evita personally sought aid for the poor through social welfare.
But the role of Evita was always controversial. “Los Descamisados” (“the shirtless ones”), as she called the poor, adored her to the extent of giving up their lives for her. The upper classes, on the other hand, considered her an opportunist blinded by power. In 1952, during her husband’s second presidency, Evita fell victim to cancer. In 1955, the military overthrew Perón, and he was banished to Madrid. After 18 years in exile, Perón returned to power in 1973. One year later, upon the death of Perón, the presidency reverted to his new wife Isabel. The country was submerged in social violence, and the government’s disarray led to another coup d’etat.
Dictatorship and the Return of Democracy
Among all of Argentina’s 20th-century dictatorships, that of 1976 was the worst. The military named Jorge Videla president and supreme commander of the three Armed Forces. He devised a plan to combat the subversive elements of the population (the extreme right and left of the political spectrum). The military created a sort of terrorist state and used it to control and persecute political dissidents. The military kidnapped children, assassinated people and left 30,000 people missing. Even today, relatives still search for their loved ones.
In 1982, Argentina declared war against England for sovereignty of the Falkland Islands, in order to justify the continuation of the military’s political plan. The war ended with the defeat of Argentine forces. This episode served to end the dictatorship and marked the return of democracy to Argentina. Human rights organizations started to demand information about missing people, and political parties began campaigns and designated presidential candidates. Five million people showed up at the polls, making clear the population’s desire to participate in democratic elections.
On December 10, 1983, Raúl Alfonsín assumed the presidency and was handed a nation in total turmoil. During his time in office, he prosecuted the military juntas. The courts condemned the leaders, but the ratification of the laws of “Punto Final” and “Obediencia Debida” granted freedom for the lower-ranking officials. Afterwards came the pardons of President Carlos Menem. Today, most of the leaders who participated in the coup d’etat of 1976 remain at large, but are still wanted on international charges. The Argentine courts continue to investigate them on charges of illegal appropriation of minors.
In December 2001, after nearly a decade of steady economic growth under the leadership of president Carlos Menem, Argentina was sent into a dizzying financial crisis known as the corralito. Freezing personal assets held in all banks to stem the flood of foreign capital being withdrawn from local banks at devastating rates brought Argentina’s economy to a grinding halt. Also under Menem in 1994, the constitution was reformed and the city of Buenos Aires was annexed from its provincia or state of the same name and declared autonomous – Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires (sometimes just referred to as Capital Federal, similar to Districto Federal, often used to identify Mexico City).
Given its tumultuous history, from the third most powerful economy in the late 1800’s to its present day status as one of the ten most important urban centers in the world, Buenos Aires continues to persevere, to survive, and grow. The future looks bright for this rebounding city, now touted as the greatest city capital in Latin America.