Argentina is the second largest country in South America with a population of 39,144,753. Although the official language is Spanish, Italian culture influences the food, music, and traditions of Argentina, making it unique from other South American countries. Significant numbers of Spanish, Basque, Irish, German, British, mestizo, and other ethnic groups also influence Argentina’s cosmopolitan and multicultural society.
Argentina is a republic, declaring its independence from Spain’s dominion in 1816. A bright yellow sun with a human face sits in the center of the light blue and white stripes of equal width that make up its flag. Argentina’s native population was greatly diminished after 1502 when the Europeans imposed their class system of guaranteed privilege to the rich. With only 1% of the population controlling 70% of the land, the Argentinean economy relied heavily on export of grain and beef. The political system was also controlled by the rich, led by a succession of presidential, military, and civilian governments.
In 1943, a member of the military, which was in power at the time, staged a coup against his own generals to become one of the most memorable presidents for the common people. Juan Peron took leadership among the labor unions of Argentina and was the champion of the working-class people, as was his second wife, Eva. A member of the working class, Eva (affectionately called “Evita”) was known for her flamboyant style as well as her extreme generosity and service to the general public. The Peron legacy ended when the economy went sour, Evita died of cancer, and the military again took power.
In the 1960s, the military leadership gripped Argentina with a rule of political violence, responding to armed leftist guerrilla challenges. Ernesto “Che” Gueverra, a martyred leftist revolutionary, emerged as a prominent figure in Argentinean history and folklore during this time. Gueverra was a comrade of Fidel Castro and fought to spread Marxist ideas in Argentina. In response to political opposition, the military declared a state of internal war, known the world over as the “Dirty War,” in which approximately 6,000 citizens disappeared between 1976 and 1982. Suspected leftists and members of their families were tortured, raped, and brutally murdered. This had the effect of all but destroying labor unions and any other forms of political organization, that is, except for the Madres (mothers) of the Plaza de Mayo, who met every week in front of the capital in Buenos Aires to protest the kidnapping of their family members and to demand their release. As a result of the actions of the Madres and other human right’s groups, Argentines have effectively pressured the government to reform its structure. And while its torrid past generates little confidence in democratic processes, Argentina now has a democratically elected president. Elected in 2003, Nestor Kirchner addressed the corruption of the supreme court and the federal police. Members were impeached, dismissed, or retired.
Argentina’s economy has long suffered from rising inflation and a skyrocketing deficit. Argentina owes over $21 billion to multilateral institutions. In opposition to dominant global economic influences, including the United States, Kirchner refuses to refinance the debt in terms defined by the International Monetary Fund. Priorities are focused on stabilizing the Argentine peso, reducing the high rates of unemployment, investing in agricultural productivity, stabilizing internal markets, addressing high crime rates, reducing inflation, and securing trade relation-ships with Brazil.
Argentina makes up most of the southern cone of the continent. The environment is highly varied, consisting of the Andes in the west, highlands in the northeast, the pampas in the east, the Gran Chaco in the north, and the arid plateaus of Patagonia in the south. The fertile grassland plain of the pampas is home to the capital city of Buenos Aires, built on the wealth of cattle ranching. Here roamed the infamous symbol of Argentina’s heritage, the gaucho. These nomadic cowboys lived on horseback and off the land. Gauchos dressed in bombacha pants and tall leather boots, using boleadoras (lassos with three metal balls at the end) to rope cattle. Gauchos played the guitar and demonstrated a wide range of technical capabilities in their performance of the milonga, an instrumental solo. They are credited with the growth of Argentina’s leather industry and method of barbequing beef, the asado. The gaucho also introduced yerba mate, an herbal tea made inside a hollowed gourd, to Argentine culture. Yerba mate is now sipped from gourds coated with silver, often through a silver straw.
The Patagonia region of Argentina contrasts starkly with the bustling pampas region. Frigid temperatures and high winds, due to its extreme southern latitude, make Patagonia barely habitable. The few people who live there are mostly highly adapted indigenous populations, who herd sheep and guanaco. The southernmost point on the continent of South America is located in Argentina and Chile at Tierra del Fuego, or “land of fire.” It was named thus by the first European sailing explorers, who saw the lights of native campfires on the shore. Another amazing destination for ecotourists from all over the world is Iguazu Falls, located in Iguazu National Park on the border of Argentina and Brazil. The waterfall, consisting of around 275 individual falls, is about 2.5 miles long and drops about 269 feet.
Argentines are religiously devoted to their favorite sport, futbol (soccer). They are always serious contenders for the World Cup soccer tournament, which they won in 1978 and 1986. Argentineans are proud of Diego Armando Marodona, considered by many to be the best soccer player in the world. In addition to the Argentine national team, there are many popular teams in Buenos Aires. The Rio Plate team and Boca Juniors have an ongoing rivalry that creates much excitement in Argentina. Polo is another popular sport. The game consists of a ball and mallet and is played on horseback. It was traditionally played by the gauchos and resembled a game of tag on horseback. Initially, a duck was the intended object to be retrieved from the other team.
Argentines are equally passionate about the tango. Originally considered a statement of social protest by the poor, the tango is a highly intimate and almost obscene dance. It emerged as a sarcastic expression against European wealth and social dominance in the 1880s, representing the sexual relations between prostitutes and their upper-class patrons. During a military takeover of Argentina in 1955, the tango was outlawed for a time in the country because it expressed both social and political freedom for the working class and the people of the slums. Tango Argentino, a stage spectacle, was a hit on Broadway and in Paris during the 1980s. The highly technical and musically sophisticated dance form is now the source of much national pride and a major tourist draw in Argentina.
Argentina’s political history has been the subject of many literary and theatrical works. Poet Jorge Luis Borges is internationally famous. The musical production Evita, dramatizing the life of Evita Peron and featuring the hit song, “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” received international acclaim and was followed by an award-winning film. Lawrence Thornton’s novel, Imagining Argentina, the story of the “disappeared” of the 1970s, was also released as an international film.
- Borges, J. L. (1999). Everything and nothing (D. A. Yates, Trans.). New York: New Directions.
- Feijoo, M. del C., & Gogna, M. (2002). Women in the transition to democracy: Argentina’s mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. In D. B. Heath (Ed.), Contemporary cultures and societies of Latin America (3rd ed., pp. 375-383). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.
- Lewis, P. H. (2002). Guerillas and generals: The dirty war. New York: Praeger.