Compared to the other places I’ve been in Argentina, Buenos Aires is most certainly a place with a different vibe. A cosmopolitan city on the shores of the Atlantic, the capital of Argentina can impress anyone with its unique charm. I decided to split my Buenos Aires experience because there is so much to cover. In this first part I’m covering history and political aspects and I’m saving the fun parts for the second part.
A “bit” of history and May 25th importance
Luckily for us, we were in the capital during the May 25th celebrations. To understand the importance of this day for the many of the South American countries, including Argentina, I must share a little bit of history.
Founded in the 16th centuries by the Spanish, Buenos Aires quickly became a popular trading port. Although the Spanish Empire still used Lima as the main trading port between South America and Europe, Buenos Aires centralized trading for the area that now roughly comprises Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay. By the 19th century, the city became quite large and a very important landmark for the continent.
With the rise of Napoleon in Europe, Spain’s grip on South America started to weaken. Because Spain was focused on protecting its European borders and mostly failing at it, the opportunity arose for Argentina and other South American countries to fight for their independence.
The trigger for the Spanish American war of independence against Spain was actually the week long May Revolution that took place in Buenos Aires between May 18th and 25th 1810. At the end of it, Buenos Aires was the first South American provence to declared its own government. Although no formal declaration of independence was issued on May 25th 1810, this day was key for the start of the independence wars across the continent. Hence, why Argentina celebrates independence day on May 25th.
The aftermath of the events in Buenos Aires, led to the Argentinian War of Independence. which was fought between 1810 and 1818. The date when the country declared its independence from the Spanish Empire is actually 9 July 1816. As expected, there are still differences of opinion regarding which date should be celebrated. I say celebrate both, because why not?
On May 25th we decided to check out the celebrations in the Plaza de Mayo located in front of the Casa Rosada (presidential house). Personally, I am not a crowds person. Add my claustrophobia to this and I felt like I was going to suffocate to death any moment. Either way, we got good exposure not only to the celebrations but also to the many protests, marches across the city, banners for and against Cristina (the president), and marches celebration Evita (? not sure what she had to do with the independence day). As expected, politicians shared their speeches with the people, music was played, food was sold, cheers and protests were chanted, and by the end of the day garbage was piled up on the streets. But worry not, as by the next day, the streets were as clean as they were the day before. I was impressed with how efficient they were.
General San Martin
One of the most prominent and celebrated figures in the fight for independence from the Spanish Empire is José de San Martín. He was the liberator of not only Argentina, but also Chile and Peru. Although born in Argentina, he spent his youth in Europe and returned in 1812 to offer his services to the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata, present-day Argentina. Six years later, in 1818 he had triumphed in liberating Chile and was setting sail for Lima with the purpose of liberating Peru. He succeeded, and on July 28th 1821 Peru declared independence from Spain. Although a hero in the South American continent, San Martin spent his later life in Europe and passed away on August 17th 1850 in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France.
His body wasn’t brought back to his birth land until May 29th 1880 and the government decided to build his mausoleum in the city’s cathedral. However, this wasn’t as easy as it sounds. San Martin had no official proof of ever being baptized (probably because he hadn’t been) and even more, he has never associated himself with any of the church’s businesses. Therefore, when faced with the government’s proposal the church refused to have the body of an atheist within its walls. This spiralled into many negotiations between the two. An agreement was finally reached and the government had to build San Martin’s mausoleum as an annex to the cathedral. This worked for the Catholic Church too because now his body wasn’t within the walls. It must be noted though, that the entrance to the mausoleum is through the cathedral.
Evita Peron, one of the most prominent political figures in the history of South America, continues to remain an emblem for Buenos Aires. Her legacy continues to live in its culture and many still remember her positive influence not only in the capital but in the entire Argentina.
Born in a poor family in rural Argentina, Eva Duarte left for Buenos Aires in 1934 at the young age of 15. Her dream was to become a successful actress and one year later she had made her debut in the theatre. From here, her career started to pick up and by 1943 she had become one of the highest-paid radio actresses in Argentina.
In 1944, Eva met Juan Peron at a charity gala and they got married in 1945. From then on, Evita’s involvement in the political arena of Argentina skyrocketed. At the time Peron wasn’t president yet. During his presidential campaign in 1946, Evita made history by being the first woman to accompany her husband during campaign appearances across the country. Her popularity with the general public became quite obvious and it is during this time that the nation became to know her as Evita.
After her husband’s success, the two embarked on an European tour. They visited a large number of countries, and it is believed that during this time Evita became acquainted with many of the social changes which she later implemented in her own country.
In 1948 she created the Eva Peron Foundation as a response to the poverty she was witnessing in Argentina. Within only a few years she had managed to build a foundation that offered scholarships, built schools, hospitals and homes, and provided social assistance to many who needed it. This radical change in the role of the First Lady had a big impact on how she started to become perceived by the masses. Slowly, their love turned into idolization.
Evita was not only a supporter of the poor but also a strong advocate of women and their rights. Due to her work in this area, in 1947 Argentina passed the law providing women the right to vote. This provided Argentina with a strong political women body which was quite unique for the times.
All the changes Evita has brought for the masses have enabled Peron to win his second elections in 1951. However, this was shadowed by the fact that this is the year when Evita’s health started to seriously shake. A year before she had been diagnosed with cervical cancer and all efforts made by the doctors to extend her life were had failed.
Although weakened by her disease, Evita didn’t stop her work and in 1952 she was proclaimed the Spiritual Leader of the Nation. Not long after, on July 26th 1952 she passed away leaving behind a devastated country. Her mourning made everyone stop anything they were doing instantly. On the streets of Buenos Aires nearly 3 million people attended her state funeral, ceremony only given to the heads of the state.
Her body was embalmed and was displayed in the headquarters of her foundation where she had spent countless hours working. Peron’s plan was to built a monument for displaying her body but he never got to that as he was overthrown in 1955. During these events, Evita’s body was stolen. It took 16 years for the military regime to disclose that it had been sent to Spain.
Her body was brought back to Argentina in 1973 and she was buried in the Recoleta cemetery. Her burial place has created quite a controversy in the country and it continues up to this day. Recoleta was one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods of those times, and the cemetery was the resting place of many wealthy politicians and influential figures. This circle had never favoured Evita’s involvement in politics and what she had done for the disadvantaged. In addition, from the masses perspective Evita was one of them. Therefore, it is believed that she hadn’t wanted to be buried in the Recoleta but in a lower class cemetery.
In 2002, marking 50 years since her death, the Evita Museum opened her doors. We visited the museum and had the pleasure to listen to the tour given to us by one of Evita’s followers. A young adult at the time, our guide talked to us with passion and compassion about “Companiera Evita”. It was very touching to hear his stories.
Following Peron’s exile in 1955, the building that was the headquarters of Evita’s foundation was confiscated by the military and given to the engineering university. It remains as such to this day, only those knowing the history being able to identify it for what was originally purposed. I think it looks quite similar to my engineering university’s building. I’m assuming that the socialist architectural style travelled to Argentina as well.
Personally, I admire Evita for who she was and for determination on changing her world. I was able to identify many socialist and communist ideas in what he had implemented, and I was also able to see that the regime her husband and her had held was balancing towards the equality that socialism originally promised. In addition, her powerful position and leadership had a huge impact on women’s suffrage, a legacy we, women, are proud to carry.
Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo
The military took control from Peron in a coup d’état, forcing the president to leave the country for almost 20 years. During this time the dictatorship regime enforced an anti-Peron terror across the country. It became illegal to be a Peron supporter. In addition, the improvements that Peron’s government had brought to the lower classes of Argentina started to disappear. As a result Peronist resistance groups started across the country and two extremes began to develop. What followed were years of painful fights between the two which culminated with the bombing of numerous buildings in Buenos Aires by the anti-government groups. Within 20 years, the fight had become “dirty” as its “Dirty War” name suggests. In 1973 Peron returned as the president of Argentina, but he passed away in 1975 and was succeeded by his third wife Isabel Martínez de Perón. But she was also ousted by a military coup in 1976.
The “Dirty War” continued between 1976 and 1983 and this period was more cruel the precedent. It is estimated that within these 7 years close to 30,000 people disappeared. Most of them were young students who were alleged to participate in anti-government activities. It is strongly believed that many were tortured and killed and their bodies were disposed off in remote locations. Others were taken to concentration camps or prisons and left there to suffer. One famous event from this time is the “Night of the Pencils”.
In 1983 the military dictatorship ended and was followed by a democratic governments, but it is believed that in the process many records were destroyed. Hence, there are still many bodies missing and families who have no explanation on the whereabouts of their children’s remains.
In 1977, a group of brave women decided to take action on the situation. They were some of the mothers of the “disappeared”. Due to the precarious times, they could not act in a very “loud” way. So, they decided to march around the Plaza de Mayo located in front of the presidential palace. The laws at the time stated that no one was allowed to be in the same place on the street for more than 15 minutes. Therefore, their circling walk. Also, they decided to wear white scarfs to represent the diapers of their children. The group started to gain international attention during the dictatorship and after 1983 it became very involved with the investigation of the crimes that took place during that time.
In the last 10-15 years the Argentinian government has invested more in investigations, prosecutions, and compensation for the crimes that happened during those times. In front of previous detention and torture centres now rest small plaques identifying them as such. From my research I understood that there is also a tour that goes in more detail about this historical time.
Current political scene
Today, Argentina’s president is Cristina Fernández de Kirchner who is one of the few women state leaders in the world. The current political scene is not very stable, mostly due to the perpetual economic crisis that Argentina has been facing for decades.
I realize that this post is lengthy and mostly sad, but I do have a couple more story, which hopefully will balance the spirits a little bit.
Casa Rosada, the presidential palace of Buenos Aires is famous for its pink colour. The story of it’s colour is quite interesting, in my humble opinion. When it was first built it was on the shore of the river. The landscape has changed in the meantime as the river was moved to make room for the modern sky-scrappers filled neighbourhood Puerto Maldonado. Sounds like Santiago de Chile a little bit… Maybe it’s a South American thing to move neighbourhoods around. Anyway, going back to the story, Casa Rosada was very close to the water. This created problems with maintaing its exterior and interior as water does infiltrate through every pore it can find. So the bright construction engineers decided to use something a little more unconventional – cow’s blood. It seems that this magic elixir was quite effective at keeping water away from the palace’s walls. And since Argentina is not lacking in cows, it was decided. So every year the presidential house would get a fresh paint of cow blood. At least that’s the story going around. This yearly practice has been abandoned in the meantime for more modern ways of protecting walls, like exterior super-resistant paint. But since everyone knows about the Casa Rosada, the pink colour was kept so people can still identify it. Phew! What would we have done if they decided to paint it white? Called it White House?
Also, before they decided to move the river, in the palace’s courtyard a statue of Christopher Columbus was minding it’s own business. I think it was pointing towards the similar statue in Barcelona, but that’s irrelevant. What is relevant is that this statue is now in pieces spread across the courtyard and it has been like that for quite a while. The cause is a dispute between the mayor of Buenos Aires and the president of Argentina. Cristina decided to take down the statue of Columbus and replace it with a more patriotic example. The mayor of Buenos Aires disagreed, mostly because he allegedly doesn’t like Cristina. But he did so, after work has started on taking the statue apart. He took the presidency to court claiming that the presidential palace, and indirectly the infamous statue, is on the city’s land and he needs to approve of such a move. And while they battle in court, poor Columbus remains in pieces across the courtyard of Casa Rosada. I hope he doesn’t catch a cold. Or erodes. Or gets stollen by some art students in need of some marble. Just saying….
But good news everyone! According to recent news that I just skimmed, a decision has been reached for Columbus to be relocated somewhere else. The picture however, was taken when he was still in an unsure situation.
Okay, this is it. The history of Argentina in under 3000 words. It only took me a weekend to write it. I hope the second part will be much faster. If not, I’ll be using another weekend reminiscing about Argentina. And that is a shame, because it is Saint Patrick’s Day next weekend….
PS: Happy International Woman’s Day! I’m only 45 minutes late. Think about the women who inspire you. I have Evita on my list 🙂