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The History of Buenos Aires

Nineteenth Century to the Dirty War


The History of Buenos Aires

Evita Perón

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The Nineteenth Century

The newly independent country was forced to continue to fight for its existence. England and France both tried to take Buenos Aires in the mid-1800's, but failed. Buenos Aires continued to thrive as a trade port and the sale of leather continued to boom, especially after railroads were built connecting the port to the interior of the country where the cattle ranches were. Towards the turn of the century, the young city developed a taste for European high culture, and in 1908 the Colón Theater opened its doors.


As the city industrialized in the early twentieth century, it opened its doors to immigrants, mostly from Europe. Large numbers of Spanish and Italians came, and their influence is still strong in the city. There were also Welsh, British, Germans and Jews, many of whom passed through Buenos Aires on their way to establish settlements in the interior. Many more Spanish arrived during and shortly after the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). The Perón regime (1946-1955) allowed Nazi war criminals to migrate to Argentina, including the infamous Dr. Mengele, although they did not come in large enough numbers to significantly change the nation's demographics. Recently, Argentina has seen migration from Korea, China, Eastern Europe and other parts of Latin America. Argentina has celebrated Immigrant's Day on September 4 since 1949.

The Perón Years

Juan Perón and his famous wife Evita came to power in the early 1940's, and he reached the presidency in 1946. Perón was a very strong leader, blurring the lines between elected president and dictator. Unlike many strongmen, however, Perón was a liberal who strengthened unions (but kept them under control) and improved education. The working class adored him and Evita, who opened schools and clinics and gave state money away to the poor. Even after he was deposed in 1955 and forced into exile, he remained a very powerful force in Argentine politics. He even triumphantly returned to stand for the 1973 elections, which he won, although he died of a heart attack after about a year in power.

The Bombing of the Plaza de Mayo

On June 16, 1955, Buenos Aires saw one of its darkest days. Anti-Perón forces in the military, seeking to dislodge him from power, ordered the Argentine Navy to bombard the Plaza de Mayo, the city's central square. It was believed that this act would precede a general coup d'état. Navy aircraft bombed and strafed the square for hours, killing 364 people and injuring hundreds more. The Plaza had been targeted because it was a gathering place for pro-Perón citizens. The army and air force did not join in the attack, and the coup attempt failed. Perón was removed from power about three months later by another revolt which included all of the armed forces.

Ideological conflict in the 1970's

During the early 1970's, communist rebels taking their cue from Fidel Castro's takeover of Cuba attempted to stir up revolts in several Latin American nations, including Argentina. They were countered by right-wing groups who were just as destructive. They were responsible for several incidents in Buenos Aires, including the Ezeiza massacre, when 13 people were killed during a pro-Perón rally. In 1976, a military junta overthrew Isabel Perón, Juan's wife, who had been vice president when he died in1974. The military soon began a crackdown on dissidents, beginning the period known as "La Guerra Sucia" ("The Dirty War").

The Dirty War and Operation Condor

The Dirty War is one of the most tragic episodes in all of the History of Latin America. The military government, in power from 1976 to 1983, initiated a ruthless crackdown on suspected dissidents. Thousands of citizens, primarily in Buenos Aires, were brought in for questioning, and many of them "disappeared," never to be heard from again. Their basic rights were denied to them, and many families still do not know what happened to their loved ones. Many estimates place the number of executed citizens around 30,000. It was a time of terror, when citizens feared their government more than anything else. The Argentine Dirty War was part of the larger Operation Condor, which was an alliance of the right wing governments of Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil to share information and aid one another's secret police. The "Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo" is an organization of mothers and relatives of those who disappeared during this time: their aim is to get answers, locate their loved ones or their remains, and hold accountable the architects of the Dirty War.


The military dictatorship ended in 1983, and Raúl Alfonsín, a lawyer and publisher, was elected president. Alfonsín surprised the world by quickly turning on the military leaders who had been in power for the past seven years, ordering trials and a fact-finding commission. Investigators soon turned up 9,000 well-documented cases of "disappearances" and the trials began in 1985. All of the top generals and architects of the dirty war, including former president General Jorge Videla were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. They were pardoned by President Carlos Menem in 1990, but the cases are not settled, and the possibility remains that some may return to prison.

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