A Brief History of Buenos Aires

Index

First Foundation
Second Foundation
Buenos Aires as capital of the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata
The Independence
Civil Wars
Federalization
The early 20th Century.
Democracy and dictatorships.
Buenos Aires Today

First Foundation

In the year 1516, the Spanish sailor Juan Díaz de Solís was the first European to look upon the Rio de la Plata, a vast river, so wide it is that he called it "El Mar Dulce",  The Freshwater Sea. He believed that it was an access path to the legendary realms of Tarsus, Ofir and Cipango, which, according to the lore of the day, were full of gold and silver and were located north and west of his position. His attempt to disembark in the shores upriver cost him his life at hands of the local population (a strong native nation bearing the name of Charrúas).

Four years later, an expeditionary force leaded by Hernando de Magallanes, discovered that the space known as Sea of Solís was not a pass to the Pacific ocean, nor a way to any mythological rich realm.

In 1526, however, Sebastián Caboto, returned to these lands, and retrieved some pieces of gold and silver from the locals. That was enough for the Spanish crown to accept the name of Río de la Plata (River of Silver) as the definitive one for this huge fluvial path. 

The Spanish crown sent then a "conquistador" by the name of Pedro de Mendoza, with the title of Adelantado del Río de la Plata (something like Lord Scout of the River of Silver... sounds very naive now, but was extremely important then, and the Spanish titles all sound a little weird nowadays even in Spanish). 

On February 2nd. 1536, Pedro de Mendoza founded, on the shores of the small river called "Riachuelo de los navíos" a fortified outpost by the name of Puerto de Nuestra Señora Santa María de los Buenos Aires (something like Port of Our Lady, Holy Mary of the Good Winds).

The relation between the local inhabitants (a tribe called the Querandíes) soon changed from mistrust to open war. On June 24th, the primitive Buenos Aires was set under siege by thousands of Querandíes. The assault lasted for 18 months. Finally, starved and outnumbered, the Spanish began their retreat. Mendoza and most of its men sailed to Spain on 1537, and left in the primitive settlement a contingent of 100 soldiers. During his trip, he died, and his crew gave his body to the waves of the Atlantic Ocean. 

The Remaining soldiers managed to survive. However, by the command of Captain Domingo Martínez de Irala, Buenos Aires was abandoned, and its survivors retreated with heavy losses to the city of Asunción (more than a thousand miles to the north, now capital city of Paraguay). 

The chronicle of this early days we owe to a Bavarian soldier, one Ulrico Schmidel. It is a dark recount of desperate facts, full of feeling and colorful descriptions. I am not to translate such a sinister reading, a tale of pain and hunger, of suffering and arrogance.  

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Second Foundation

On 1580, Juan de Garay, with the title of Alguacil Mayor (Lord High Constable or something like that), 64 men, a woman by the name of Ana Díaz, more than "a thousand horses, five hundred cows and other minor cattle", descended the Paraná River from Asunción. In the place we call today Plaza de Mayo, on June 11, planted the "Árbol de la Justicia" (The Tree of Justice). And over a treated skin of a cow, he traced the blueprints of the new Buenos Aires, called by him Santísima Trinidad (City of the Most Holy Trinity could be a good translation of the elder Spanish name). He preserved the old name of Buenos Aires for the Port and it's adjacent constructions. Eight days later, the caravel "San Cristóbal de la Buenaventuranza" sailed from the Port towards Spain, to give account of the newly founded city. On October 17 that same year, the city was divided between the initial inhabitants. The initial layout included 250 blocks (40 of them to live in, the rest to cultivate), each one measuring 140 "varas", and separated by streets of 11 "varas" of width (a "vara" is a dead unit of measurement... no one is sure of how it relates to modern ones... but given the actual layout of the old city blocks, I could throw and educated guess saying that 140 varas were roughly 100-110 yards, around 100 meters). 

During the early times, the Spanish crown had it's sight fixed in the gold an gems extracted from Perú, so Buenos Aires was not important to them. The city lived in a very precarious equilibrium, because there was an edict of no free commerce, and all goods were to be acquired from Spain... so they followed a tortuous route of more than 10 000 miles before arriving to the city. The local answer to this was (surprise) smuggling. Supported by Portugal, historic rival of Spain, it became a thriving business, capitalized later by England, the new emergent European power of the time. 

So, the colonial society started growing rich despite the formal legislation. The main society of the City was composed by native Spanish, and the new culture... the "criollos", mix of Spanish blood and native one. In the lower strata existed a huge class of mixed blood of artisans and land workers. The sanitary conditions were at critical level, and so in 1605, appeared the first fatal epidemic burst. 

Troops under the command of Antonio Mosquera carried the virus of smallpox into Buenos Aires, where it struck in full force. In a few days, 500 inhabitants died. Most of them natives and mixed bloods. So the city became a mausoleum without servants for a time.

However, later in 1680, during the first centenary of the foundation, Buenos Aires had around 5 000 inhabitants, and also built its first brick-made buildings made (the rest of them were adobe and wood). Education was at the hands of the Catholic Church. But despite these signs of progress, well beyond the vegetable gardens and farms, the hostile locals reigned supreme... "the Indios".

Even with the strict legislation against free commerce, Buenos Aries managed to become one of the brightest trade sites in South America during the mid XVII century, mostly thanks to smuggling and illegal cargo interchange. A hallmark of the attitude of the time (any resemblance with modern days strictly forbidden), the ship captains delivered part of the cargo to the local authorities to be "confiscated", and keep the looks... while they sold the rest and shared the profits with them... the beginning of a nation, some could say. One of the most thriving business was the sale of treated leather and cow skins, that the ever-at-war Europe needed to arm its soldiers (as a base material to make Leather and Studded Leather armors).

That was the beginning of a noveau rich local class... the foundation of the country-to-be... the ones who dreamed with the end of the Spanish domain over their lives. But they had yet to wait for a long time.

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Buenos Aires as capital of the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata

On August 1st., 1776, a Cédula Real (royal decree) of Carlos III of Spain designed Buenos Aires as capital city of the Virreinato del Río de la Plata (Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata). It included the territories of nowadays Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia and parts of Chile and Brazil. 

The first viceroy was one named Pedro de Cevallos, whose initial task was to take from the Portuguese the colony of Sacramento (built on the opposite shore of the river, and main waypoint of the smuggling caravans). By then, the population of Buenos Aires was nearing 20 000 souls, and the of the local cultural level was comparable to that of the finest Spanish cities of the time.

The second viceroy, Juan José Vértiz, accelerated the developing of the nascent territories. The transformation of Buenos Aires into a modern city was unstoppable: the streets were paved and lighted, an orphan house and a hospital were built, the first theater houses were built around this time also. Even some traveling professionals opted to stay here, as the city offered not only possible gain of fortune and fame, but to enjoy the air of modernity and increasing freedom, even as the district sported eight major churches and a prominent cathedral.

The introduction of free commerce with other Spanish ports was an incentive to trade: in the years between 1790 and 1794, Buenos Aires shipped to Europe more than 3 500 000 cow skins. The increasing revenues of the vice royal treasure allowed the government to fund public projects and raise the level of the City's services. But even with the trade incentives made available by the Spanish crown, the laws against free commerce still were a major stone blocking the road of the growing colonial society. 

In the years 1806 and 1807, England tried to invade the city of Buenos Aires, and shake the entire territories out of Spanish rule. Both invasions were repelled by the blood and sons of the city, in the middle of a political scandal caused by the escape of Viceroy Sobremonte to Cordoba with the royal treasury. That incident showed the young people of Buenos Aires that the victory was possible.

The fall of the Spanish crown under Napoleon's attack paved the way to a revolution in the outer colonies. On May 25, 1810, the people of Buenos Aires sealed their destiny, and began it's way to the history books. 

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The Independence

Independence was proclaimed on the city of Tucumán, on July 9, 1816. On July 19, arrived Juan Martín de Pueyrredón to the city with the news of the independence declaration. 

On Friday, July 13, 1816, the independence was proclaimed ad on the Plaza de la Victoria (now called Plaza de Mayo in honor to the May revolution of 1810). 

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Civil Wars

After the independence, the large territories previously under control of the viceroy started to follow their own way... and not only Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia, but also most of the provinces of the incipient Argentine nation.

The Buenos Aires merchants and traders decided that an open market would benefit all, but forgot the damage that this carried to the local, provincial economies. England was quick to recognize this, as the clothes made in Manchester were cheaper than the "ponchos" from the artisans in Tucumán, and Sheffield knives were a lot more cheap than the "facón" made locally in the province of Jujuy. 

The government of Rivadavia meant a lot of modern advances for the city, from the "neoclassic" renovation in the architecture and the founding of the first burial ground in the site now called Recoleta, to the creation of the first Bank... el "Banco de Descuentos". But, in the light of the crescent relation with England, the image that is still deeply engraved in the eyes of the people of the inner provinces was created... Buenos Aires is a city that looks outside, with its back to the "interior" of the country. 

The habitants of the city are still now called "porteños" (something like... portsmen... men of the port, there is not direct translation of the word)... signaling that they have control of the Port, master key of the emergent economy dominated by agricultural exports. A process that starts in the fertile fields of the central lands of the country (mainly in the Province of Buenos Aires and La Pampa), and finishes in the docks of the huge port of Buenos Aires.

The people of the interior, with the federalist ideals as a flag, started an upraise against Buenos Aires, which identified itself with the unitary ideas. Decades of assassinations, intrigue, alliances and wars followed, until the ascent to power of a powerful leader, General Don Juan Manuel de Rosas, proclaimed governor of Buenos Aires on 1829, with almost absolute powers. Some of its adversaries call him "the Caligula of the Río de la Plata", but he was "El Restaurador de las Leyes" (something like "the restorer of the laws") to his followers.

However, and even with the exile of most of the romantic intellectuals, and the excesses of the secret police of the governor (La Mazorca), the life in the City didn't change much. Instead what was shown, was that Buenos Aires was very much able to become the capital city of the naxscent Republic, and was so proclaimed in 1860, under the government of Bartolomé Mitre. 

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Federalization

In late 1876, at the same time that the Racetrack was inaugurated and the first refrigerated ship entered the docks for the transport of the main Argentine export: frozen meat; the "Indios" broke the defensive perimeter of fortifications, and made it to nearly 250 Km (155 miles) of the Port. General Julio A. Roca decided to put a remedy to this situation. The result is called "La Campaña del Desierto" (the Desert Campaign)... a name written with the blood of the natives. 

Nevertheless, that war opened wide space to farming, and was the final fact needed to establish a fully agricultural economy. This way, even with the federalization of the city not being completed until September 20, 1880, the port-city established itself as the economical, social and political center of Argentina. 

But as the farming grounds extended themselves, the need of manpower also grew... so the streets of the City welcomed a new figure: the immigrants. Proceeding in its majority from Spain and southern Italy, these men would change for ever the ways of the city... not only with its language and habits, but as carriers of a new ideology and sensibility that, until that time, were not felt in the shores of the Río de la Plata.

In its vast majority, these people were to be bound to the fields gained by the campaign of General J. A. Roca, but most of them stayed in the city. They were needed here... in the incipient meat and cereal industry, and to lay the railroad lines which would communicate the port with the fields.

This people also established themselves as artisans, small traders and merchants, teachers, and employees...  they were the embryonic middle class of the nation. 

So was that when the centenary of the revolution was held, in May, 1910, Buenos Aires was the biggest city in Latin America, and the second city of all the American Territories, only surpassed by New York.

The Buenos Aires' high class... the famous "200 families", which owned most of the fields, were strongly European in it's culture and likings... so was it that the railroad terminal stations of Constitución and Retiro were build in close resemblance to Liverpool and London's stations... but the woods of Palermo were modeled after the Bois de Boulogne... and the 9 de Julio Avenue was in close resemblance to the Champs Elysees, in Paris. 

As the richest families built their palaces, the horses give way to electric tramways, and only 10 years after New York, Buenos Aires had it's first subway line. But urban growth had it's price... in the year 1909, as the power plant of Dock Sud was built, Ramón L. Falcon, chief of the Federal Police was murdered. The progress of Buenos Aires, with a population of more than a million habitants, would also imply the appearance of new leading characters and social conflicts to the life of the City.

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The early 20th Century.

In 1916, with the new laws of universal and secret male voting (known as Ley Saenz Peña) decreed in 1912 (women vote was not allowed until 1952), the new Radical Party gained access to the power, putting an end to a quest started in 1890. The one in charge of making reality the party's ambitions was Dr. Hipólito Yrigoyen... a sober, introverted and not very social man, but a brilliant manager. It's duty was to represent the middle classes, and so was that he became president that year. 

His government took upon a lot of transformations, and had during its course one of the cruelest repressive bursts documented during the long Argentine history. 

But Buenos Aires continued to be a prosperous and growing city, even enough to raise itself as the  cultural nexus of Latin America. The Colón Theatre was a standing point for the ballet; literary magazines like "Martín Fierro" held in its pages the echo of the European vanguard. Also, this was the golden age for the Tango, as in 1917, Carlos Gardel "El Zorzal Criollo" gave a definitive form to "Mi noche triste..." in the Esmeralda theatre. 

Also, most of the standing profiles of Buenos Aires' character were defined during that time: Florida was  a commercial center, Corrientes the street for cafés and dancing. The banking zone, located north of Plaza de Mayo and "el Bajo", near the ports. On the outer rims lived the middle class, and the workers, and a long way back... the interior, the provinces and the "other" Argentina.

 

Two years after the beginning of the second presidential period of Yrigoyen, on September 6, 1930, a group of military officers, commanded by General José Félix Uriburu produced the first coup d'etat of the Argentine formal history, the first break in the constitutional order. That was the signal of the end of progress, and the beginning of the end to the "Argentine dream". AN echo of the 1929 crack in Wall Street arrived this way to the shores of the Río de la Plata.

At this time, Buenos Aires was already an industrial city, and the various international crises like the Great War generated a local industry targeted to substitute the no longer available European goods. After two conservative governments designated by electoral fraud, consecutive to the military giving up the exercise of power, a new process of social change was beginning, and the new people needed a political expression, the same way that the immigrant middle class was rooted in the Radical Party. But this time, the immigration that took place was not external, but internal... more than half the country's population came to live to Buenos Aires and the "Gran Buenos Aires", the provincial areas that limited the city... an overcrowded compound of low level neighborhoods and factories. This was the time of the Peronismo, headed by General Juan D. Perón and his wife, Eva Duarte, "Evita". On October 17, 1945, the huge mass of the followers of Perón stood in defense of it's leader (who was imprisoned by the military government of the time)... an act that changed the face of Buenos Aires for ever after... No longer it would be the patrician city dreamed by the generation of 1880, neither would be the one that dreamed the Yrigoyen followers in the early 1900... It would be a crowded city, the city of the common people.

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Democracy and dictatorships.

The coup d'etat to the second Perón presidential period on 1955 was an attempt to bring the country back to previous states of it's history. Generally speaking, the various civilian governments and military upraises that followed the "Revolución Libertadora" (literally translated as  "The Liberating Revolution") of 1955  not only deteriorated the economical status, but also the political balances. Buenos Aires acknowledged this process in the form of a progressive state of urban deterioration, besides an alarming impoverishment of it's citizens.

The military coup of 1976, "El Proceso", was the apex of that process of institutional collapse, and initiated one of the darkest pages of Argentine history... a period in which the terrorist attacks were countered by state terrorism at the hands of security forces (military, police, etc.) and paramilitary forces... the outcome was tragic: 30 000 "desaparecidos".

Not even the celebration of the 1978 World Cup in Buenos Aires, nor the design of a new highway system were enough to cover the atrocities of the military officers on command of the country.

On 1983, the return to democracy after the disaster in the Southern Atlantic war opened a door to hope and development to the Argentine history.

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Buenos Aires Today

After 17 years of democracy, the city has seen a lot of changes. Most of the years of the radical government of Dr. Alfonsín (1983-1989) were dominated by the chaos on the economy, two attempts of military upraise and a succession of ineffective city mayors. But they managed to restore part of Buenos Aires image... they finished all they could of the new highways, the new subway lines and the overall air of freedom was generally accepted as a gift of the Republican system.

The end of the presidential period was signed by chaos, however. The economical unbalance, even after two changes of currency, leaded to a state of near anarchy: the frightened people assaulted the supermarkets and trading corporations to steal food and supplies like savages, a lot of private properties were destroyed and the social sensation of chaos was readily visible felt by all.

In that context, Dr. Menem assumed the presidential office, after the withdraw of the previous radical government. It took time, but as the country recovered itself, so did the city. Even with the constant corruption accusations against the succession of mayors and officials appointed by the federal government.

On 1994, the official party had its sight fixed on getting the president another period... so they proposed a series of changes to the Constitution. One of the more important, was the separation of the city government from the federal one. So, for the first time, in 1995, the Buenos Aires people elected it's mayor and a new body of representatives.

Under the hand of Dr. De la Rua (who is now President of the Nation), the city grew and prospered again. The educative and social security systems were stabilized after years of bad administration, the city was cleaned, and acquired it's current air of prosperity and health.

NOTES (Feb. 2004): The government of De La Rua as president ended in chaos, very similar to the one of Dr. Alfonsín in the 80s. The accusations against Dr. Menem (who was under judiciary investigation, but still ran for the presidential office in 2003's elections [and won in the first round!]) multiplied like fleas, with all the corruption of the worst of Argentine society coming to light. A period of serious institutional void emerged, with the shocking record of five consecutive presidents taking office during late 2001 and early 2002 in an attempt to get the country back to health. After an interim period under the rule of President E. Duahalde (who was appointed to that function by the Congress), and thankfully without military interventions, the fully elected government of Dr. Kirchner (former governor of the province of Santa Cruz, in the southern end of the country) is trying to regain the lost pride and sovereignty of the Argentine people.

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