History of Buenos Aires

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If ports are doorways to a country, then the history and origins of Buenos Aires are best understood in relation to its port. "The Port City", as the colonizers called it, allowed commerce into the region, so vast, that it once reached the lands of modern Perú.


On February 3, 1536, the conqueror Don Pedro de Mendoza arrived by land to the coast of Buenos Aires. His mission was to populate the lands of the De La Plata River, 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, and a fort was built. In addition, they organized the Cabildo, which was the highest administrative institution, and 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".


It was not until the 18th century, with the creation of the viceroyalty, that Buenos Aires ceased to be a village. The first viceroy to start the transformation was Juan José de Vértiz. He was responsible for the installation of street lamps and cobblestones, and for creating the first printing press. The fort was used as the seat of the viceroy and was 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 and one of the oldest buildings in the city.

The role of Buenos Aires as the main connecting port for goods between the new land and the rest of Europe was essential to its development. Tempted by the growing business of the port, the English tried to take control of the River Plate and invaded the city of Buenos Aires in 1806 and 1807. Both attempts encountered defeat.

In 1810, with King Fernando VII in prison and the Seville council in French hands, the town of Buenos Aires decided to rise up in the famous May Revolution. They revoked the viceroys title and on May 25, the First Government Council was formed with Cornelio Saavedra presiding. This was the first step for achieving the independence of the River Plate provinces, proclaimed on the 9th of July 1816. This date is still celebrated as the most important national holiday.


Buenos Aires had been born. 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's geographic limits were today's Plaza Once and the Riachuelo river.

The Romantic styles and latest Art-nouveau designs 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 that sheltered the European immigrants began to contrast with the new palaces. Slowly, Buenos Aires had grown from a small port town into the city that developed to be a replica of Europe. The immigrants from Europe were responsible for feeding this growth. First arrived the Italians and the Spanish, the majority of whom were poor farmers. Afterwards came the Jews, Poles, Croats, Czechs, and Ukrainians among other nationalities.

In the beginning, the migratory policies were very liberal, but with time, the pretentious Argentine oligarchy decided to close its doors. They only desired the influx of 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 in the port. During 1895 in Buenos Aires, out of every 100 inhabitants, 72 were foreigners.


Two main events characterized 20th century Argentina: the successive military coups led by the Armed Forces, and the birth of a native political movement known as Peronism.

The leader of this movement was Juan Domingo Perón, three times elected president. He rose to power in 1946 with the support of the lower classes and the labour unions. With him, the lower classes were able to participate in the 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 Labour, 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 class, on the other hand, thought she was 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, Spain. After eighteen years in exile, Peronism returned to power in 1973. One year later upon the death of Perón, the presidency remained in hands of his new wife Isabel. The country was submerged in social violence, and the governments disarray ended in another coup d'état.


Among all of the centurys dictatorships in Argentina, that of 1976 was the worst. The military named Jorge Videla president and the supreme commander of the three Armed Forces 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. They kidnapped, assassinated, robbed children, and left thirty thousand people missing. Even today, relatives still search for their loved-ones.

In 1982, they declared war against England for sovereignty of the Falkland Islands, in order to justify the continuation of their 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 the missing people, and political parties began their campaigns and designated presidential candidates. Five million people affiliated with the different parties, made clear their desire to participate in democratic elections showing up at the polls.

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 verdict 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, the majority of the leaders that participated in the coup d'état of 1976 are free, but are still wanted on international charges. The Argentine courts continue to investigate them on charges of illegal appropriation of minors.