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 on 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. Next southward is Patagonia, a region of cool, arid steppes with some wooded and fertile sections.
First explored in 1516 by Juan Díaz 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 Napoléon 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. Perón, an army colonel, emerged as the strongman of the postwar era, winning the presidential elections of 1946 and 1951. Perón's political strength was reinforced by his second wife—Eva Duarte de Perón (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 Perón. Opposition to Perón's increasing authoritarianism led to a coup by the armed forces, which sent Perón 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 Martínez de Perón, was elected vice president. After Perón's death in 1974, she 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%, while 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 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. While violence declined, 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 (Malvinas Islands) 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 prodemocratic 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, Raúl Alfonsín, 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. Alfonsín 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.
In Dec. 1999 Fernando de la Rua became president. Despite the introduction of several tough economic austerity plans, by 2001 the recession 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 verged on 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.
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.
On July 10, 2007, Buenos Aires witnessed its first snowfall in 89 years. The unusual storm coincided with Argentina's Independence Day.
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 will introduce changes to the country during her presidency. She appointed molecular biologist Lino Barañao as minister of science in her cabinet. Fernández says she will create a new ministry for science and technology to boost innovation, and stated that she would make "neccessary 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 creating better ties with the United States, Europe, and Brazil.