Background Notes: Argentina

PA/PC Source: Office of Public Communication, Bureau of Public Affairs Date: Aug 15, 19908/15/90 Category: Country Data Region: South America Country: Argentina Subject: Travel, History, International Organizations, Trade/Economics [TEXT] Official Name: Republic of Argentina


Area: 2,771,300 sq. km. (1.1 million sq. mi.); about the size of the US east of the Mississippi River. Cities: Capital-Buenos Aires (metropolitan area pop. 10.5 million). Other major cities-Cordoba, Rosario, La Plata, Mendoza. Terrain: Varied. Climate: Varied, predominantly temperate.
Nationality: Noun and adjective-Argentine(s). Population (1989 est.): 31.1 million. Annual growth rate (1989 est.): 1.5%. Density: 27.8 per sq. mi. Ethnic groups: European 97%, mostly Spanish and Italian. Religions: Roman Catholic 92%, Protestant 2%, Jewish 2%, other 4%. Languages: Spanish (official), English, Italian, German, French. Education: Years compulsory-7. Adult literacy-92%. Health: Infant mortality rate-27/1,000. Life expectancy-70 yrs. Work force: Agriculture-19%. Industry and commerce-36%. Services-20%. Transport and communications-6%. Other-19%.
Type: Republic. Independence: July 9, 1816. Constitution: 1853. Branches: Executive-president, vice president, cabinet. Legislative- bicameral Congress (46-member Senate, 254-member Chamber of Deputies). Judicial-Supreme Court. Subdivisions: 22 provinces, 1 district (federal capital), 1 territory (Tierra del Fuego). Political parties: Justicialista (Peronist), Radical Civic Union, numerous smaller national and provincial parties. Suffrage: Universal. Flag: Horizontal blue and white bands emblazoned with "Sun of May."
GDP (1990 est.): $70.1 billion. Annual growth rate (1990 est.): -0.9%. Per capita GDP (1990 est.): $2,134. Inflation rate (1990 est.): 1,000%. Natural resources: Fertile plains (pampas). Minerals-lead, zinc, tin, copper, iron, manganese, oil, uranium. Agriculture (15% of GNP, about 70% of exports by value): Products- grains, oilseeds and byproducts, livestock products. Industry (23% of GNP): Types-food processing, motor vehicles, consumer durables, textiles, metallurgy, chemicals. Trade (1989): Exports-$9.5 billion (US-12%): grains, meats, oilseeds. Imports-$4.2 billion (US-21%): machinery, fuel and lubricating oils, iron and steel products, wood and lumber, automotive equipment and parts, chemicals. Major trading partners- European Community, USSR, US, Brazil. Official exchange rate (free market since December 1989): US$1=Austral 5,210.00 (June 26, 1990). External financing: IBRD and IDA-$887 million in FY 1989 (July 1, 1988-June 30, 1989); IDB-$12 million in CY 1989.
Membership in International Organizations
UN and some of its specialized and related agencies, Organization of American States (OAS), Latin American Integration Association, Nonaligned Movement, Group of 77, Latin American Economic System (SELA), New Group of 15, and the Rio Group (formerly known as the Group of Eight).


Argentina shares land borders with Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay. It is bounded by the Atlantic and the Antarctic Oceans. Extending 3,705 km. (2,302 mi.) from north to south and with an Atlantic coastline 2,850 km. (1,600 mi.) long, Argentina is the third largest country in the Southern Hemisphere, after Brazil and Australia, and the eighth largest in the world. Its topography, as varied as that of the United States, ranges from subtropical lowlands in the north to the towering Andean Mountains in the west and the bleak, windswept Patagonian steppe and Tierra del Fuego in the south.


The Argentine nation has been built by the fusion of diverse national and ethnic groups. Waves of European immigrants arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, descendants of Italian and Spanish immigrants predominate, but many trace their origins to British and West and East European ancestors. Syrian, Lebanese, and other Middle Eastern immigrants number about 500,000 and are concentrated in urban areas. In recent years, there has been a substantial influx of immigrants from neighboring Latin American countries. The native Indian population, estimated at 50,000, is concentrated in the peripheral provinces of the north, northwest, and south. The Argentine population has one of the lowest growth rates in Latin America (l.5%). Eighty percent of the population reside in urban areas of over 2,000, with more than one-third of the population living in the metropolitan Buenos Aires area. The sprawling capital, with more than 10 million inhabitants, serves as the focus for national life. Argentines have enjoyed comparatively high standards of living; half the population considers itself middle class. More than 90% of Argentines are Roman Catholic. Religious freedom is allowed, although all non-Catholic denominations are required to register with the government. The Protestant community is small but active. Argentina's Jewish community of 350,000 (est.) is concentrated in Buenos Aires. The Argentine educational system is compulsory for grades 1- 7. The adult literacy rate is 92%-one of the highest in Latin America. Literary and artistic tastes have been influenced mainly by Western Europe and, more recently, by the United States. A large number of Spanish daily newspapers are published in the greater Buenos Aires area; a dozen community newspapers are published in English, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Ukrainian, and Yiddish. All the community newspapers are periodicals except the daily English-language Buenos Aires Herald.


What is now Argentina was discovered in 1516 by the Spanish navigator Juan de Solis. A permanent Spanish colony was established on the site of Buenos Aires in 1580. Argentina was further integrated into the Spanish empire following the establishment of the Vice-Royalty of Rio de la Plata in 1776, and Buenos Aires became a flourishing port. The formal declaration of independence from Spain was made on July 9, 1816. Gen. Jose de San Martin-who campaigned in Argentina, Chile, and Peru-is the hero of national independence. Following the defeat of the Spaniards, a lengthy conflict was waged between centralist and federalist groups to determine the future structure of the nation. National unity was established and the constitution promulgated in 1853. In the late 19th century, two forces created the modern Argentine nation-the introduction of modern agricultural techniques and the integration of Argentina into the world economy. This economic revolution was aided by foreign investment-primarily British-in such fields as railroads and ports and by the influx of European manpower necessary to develop Argentina's resources. Conservative forces dominated Argentine politics until 1916, when their traditional rivals, the Radicals, won control of the government through a democratic election. The Radicals, with their emphasis upon clean elections and democratic procedures, opened their doors of power to the nation's expanding middle class as well as to the elites previously excluded for various reasons. Radical rule came to an end in 1930 at the hands of the Argentine armed forces as they threw out aged Radical president Hipolito Yrigoyen and, thereby, ushered in another decade of Conservative rule. Using fraud and force when necessary, the governments of the 1930s were only temporarily able to contain forces for economic and political changes that emerged with the government of Juan Domingo Peron. In 1943, a military coup-led by, among others, Col. Juan Domingo Peron (1895-1974)-ousted the constitutional government. In 1946, Peron was elected president. He pursued a dynamic policy aimed at giving an economic and political voice to the working class. The number of unionized workers increased significantly, which helped consolidate the powerful General Confederation of Labor (CGT). In 1947, Peron announced the first five-year plan based on nationalization and industrialization. He was aided by his energetic wife, Eva Duarte Peron (1919-52). She enhanced his appeal to labor and women's groups and helped women obtain the right to vote in 1947. Peron was reelected in 1952, was ousted by the military in 1955, and went into exile, eventually settling in Spain. In the 1950s and 1960s, the government passed between military and civilian administrations, as each sought to deal with diminished economic growth and continued social and labor demands. When the military government of Juan Carlos Ongania (et. al., 1966-73) brought economic failure and escalating terrorism, the way was open for a return of Peronism. On March 11, 1973, general elections were held for the first time in 10 years. Peron was prevented from running, and his stand- in, Dr. Hector J. Campora, was elected. The Peronists also commanded a strong majority in both houses of the National Congress, which assumed office on May 25, 1973. Campora resigned in July 1973, paving the way for Raul Lastiri, a Peronist Party loyalist, to assume the presidency and call for new elections. Peron won a decisive victory and returned as president in October 1973 with his third wife, Maria Estela (Isabel) Martinez de Peron, as vice president. Even after Peron's dramatic return, extremists on the left and right continued to threaten public order. The government resorted to a number of emergency decrees, including the implementation of special executive authority to deal with violence. This allowed the government to imprison persons indefinitely without charge. On July 1, 1974, Peron died and was succeeded by his wife, the first woman president in the Western Hemisphere. Mrs. Peron's administration was undermined by economic problems, Peronist intraparty struggles, and persistent terrorism from both the left and the right. As a result, Mrs. Peron was removed from office by a military coup on March 24, 1976. Until December 10, 1983, power was formally executed by the armed forces through a military president and a three-man junta composed of the three service commanders. The military quashed terrorists and their sympathizers, silenced armed opposition, and restored basic order. The costs were high in terms of lives lost and basic human rights violated. The events of this "dirty war" remain controversial and divisive in Argentine politics, having fueled military discontent that produced three aborted military uprisings against President Raul Alfonsin (1983-89). Serious economic problems, defeat by the British in June 1982 after an attempt to take control over the Falkland/Malvinas Islands, human rights abuses, and charges of growing corruption combined to discredit the military regime, which moved to a period of gradual transition leading the country toward democratic rule. Bans on political parties were lifted and other basic political liberties restored. The military implemented a successful and generally peaceful process for the return of elected government. On October 30, 1983, Argentines went to the polls to choose a president, vice president, and 14,000 other national, provincial, and local officials in fair, open, and honest elections. Raul Alfonsin, candidate of the Radical Civic Union (UCR), was elected, winning 52% of the popular vote. He began a six-year term of office on December 10, 1983. In 1985 and 1987, large turn outs for mid-term elections demonstrated continued public support for a strong and vigorous democratic system. The Radical Civil Union-led government took steps to resolve some of the nation's most pressing problems, including accounting for the "disappeared," establishing civilian control of the armed forces, and consolidating democratic institutions. Its effectiveness was hindered by constant friction with the military and chronic economic problems. In May 1989, Carlos Saul Menem, the Peronist candidate, was elected president with 47% of the popular vote and a clear majority in the nation's electoral college. The Peronists and their allies also won control of both houses of the new Congress, which took office in December 1989. President Menem was to have succeeded Alfonsin in December 1989, but a rapidly deteriorating economy and resulting loss of confidence in the national government led Alfonsin to resign, and Menem to succeed him in July. Although the transition came five months earlier than planned, the transfer of power was the first between democratically elected presidents in over 60 years. Menem surprised most observers, including members of his own party, by adopting economic policies antithetical to Peronism's traditional statist approach. He initiated economic emergency and state reform legislation to cut government spending, increase revenues, and reduce state involvement in the economy. Menem has chosen to battle inflation through conservative fiscal and monetary policies, and he has moved quickly to privatize government-owned industries such as Aerolineas Argentinas and the telephone company. These policies have generated resistance among sectors historically allied to Peronism as well as the Radical Party. However, the opposition remains fragmented, and the President's personal popularity remains relatively high.


The 1853 Argentine constitution, similar to that of the United States, mandates a separation of powers into executive, legislative, and judicial branches at the national and provincial level. Each province also has its own constitution. The president and vice president are elected to a six-year single term and cannot immediately run for reelection. Senators are elected by provincial legislatures (with the exception of the two senators representing Buenos Aires, who are elected by an electoral college) for nine-year terms, with one-third standing for reelection every three years. Deputies are elected for four years in alternate terms, with half up for reelection every two years. Cabinet ministers are appointed by the president. Considerable power, including a line item veto power, is granted to the president by the constitution. The Argentine judiciary functions as a separate and independent entity of the government. The apex of the court system is the Supreme Court, whose nine judges are appointed by the president with the consent of the Senate. The Supreme Court has the power, first asserted in 1854, to declare legislative acts unconstitutional.
Principal Government Officials
President-Carlos Saul Menem Vice President-Eduardo Duhalde President Pro Tempore of the Senate-Eduardo Menem Speaker of the Lower House (Chamber of Deputies)-Alberto Pierri Chief Justice of the Supreme Court-Ricardo Levene Ministers Interior-Julio Mera Figueroa Foreign Relations and Worship-Domingo Cavallo National Defense-Humberto Romero Economy-Antonio Erman Gonzalez Education and Justice-Antonio Francisco Salonia Labor and Social Security-Jorge Alberto Triaca Health and Social Action-Eduardo Bauza Public Works and Services-Jose Roberto Dromi Ambassador to the US-Guido Jose Maria di Tella Ambassador to the OAS-Juan Pablo Lohle Ambassador to the UN-Jorge Vasca Argentina maintains an embassy in the United States at 1600 New Hampshire Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20009 (tel. 202-939- 6400). Argentina has consulates general in Houston, Miami, New York, New Orleans, San Francisco, and San Juan and consulates in Chicago and Los Angeles.


Argentina has impressive human and natural resources, but political conflict and uneven economic performance since World War II have impeded full realization of its considerable potential. Nonetheless, it remains one of the richest countries in Latin America. Among the reasons for the military coup of March 1976 was the deteriorating economy, caused by declining production and rampant inflation. Under the leadership of Minister of the
Martinez de Hoz, the military government, in 1978, embarked on a new developmental strategy to move away from the closed-economy model and establish a free-market economy. The strategy also featured the removal or reduction of restrictions in the manufacturing sector and financial markets as well as the search for foreign and domestic investment. Despite those efforts, by late 1980, Argentina entered a period of recession, with declines in production and real wages. After a notable economic recovery in 1986, economic growth again has slowed. Argentina has recorded successive declines in economic activity in 1988 and 1989. Faced with healing a scarred society, the Alfonsin administration was slow to tackle the root causes of the economic problems. In an attempt to control inflation and set the country on a prudent fiscal course, in June 1985, the government introduced a "shock" plan (the Austral Plan), which succeeded temporarily. Inflation in 1986 slowed to double digits (86%) for only the second time since 1972. But in 1987, with a significant increase in the public sector deficit accompanied by very large price and wage increases, inflation climbed 175% and reached 386% in 1988. Another economic plan, the Spring Plan, was announced in 1988; its collapse in February 1989 marked the start of a rapid deterioration of the economy which was worsened by political and economic uncertainties surrounding the May 1989 elections. Unable to instill confidence in an economic program, President Alfonsin advanced by five months the date of his departure from office. President Menem, who took office in July, moved quickly to change expectations and to combat rapidly escalating prices. Inflation reached 198% in July, a Western Hemisphere one-month record. In contrast with earlier reform efforts, Menem's economic program includes a serious effort to reduce the government's role in the economy. Menem's economic team has taken steps to reduce import barriers, slash subsidies and transfers, and privatize public sector firms (e.g., the telephone company and the national airline). The International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved a stand-by agreement for Argentina in November 1989; however, a second bout of hyperinflation caused Argentina to fall short of negotiated targets, and the program was revised in May 1990. Argentina is a major debtor country; foreign debt stands at about $60 billion. In June 1990, for the first time since April 1988, the government made an interest payment on its foreign commercial debt. Interest arrears on the debt are currently over $6 billion. The heartland of Argentina is the rich temperate plains known as the pampas, which fan out for almost 800 km. (500 mi.) from Buenos Aires. Argentina's richest natural resource is this farmland, producing large quantities of wheat, corn, sorghum, soybeans, and sunflower seeds and providing year-round pasturage for Argentina's cattle industry. The country is one of the world's largest exporters of foodstuffs. The crops and livestock of the fertile pampas have long provided it with abundant food for domestic consumption in addition to unusually plentiful exports. Agricultural products constitute the major source of foreign exchange earnings. In a good year, grains and oilseed harvests can total some 40 million metric tons. The cattle industry, with an estimated 50 million animals, provides for domestic consumption and export markets. Argentina exports to a variety of buyers. In the early 1980s, the Soviet Union became the major purchaser of grains, while, more recently, Iran, Brazil, and China have served as major markets. Argentina also exports agricultural goods to the United States, primarily canned, precooked, and frozen beef; sugar; and fruits and fruit products. Argentina obtains about 21% of its imports from the United States. Total imports in 1989 were $4.2 billion, of which $9 million was from the United States. Capital equipment, computers and peripherals, telecommunications, chemicals, and electronic components were the principal items sold to Argentina. In 1980, Argentina exported $9.5 billion worth of goods and services; $8 million (12%) went to the United States. Argentina was a net energy importer in 1987. However, it has reserves of petroleum and natural gas and was self-sufficient in crude oil in 1989. An effort begun under the Alfonsin administration to open the petroleum sector to private investment and increase petroleum production has expanded since July 1989. In addition, significant deregulation of the petroleum sector, including an end to price controls, is scheduled to take effect January 1, 1991. Argentina also has large electrical production capacity, mostly from hydroelectric sources. It has indicated it wants to reduce the size and cost of the massive Yacyreta hydroelectric project (2,400 megawatts) being jointly constructed with Paraguay and scheduled for completion in the mid 1990s.


The armed forces of Argentina (army, navy, air force) are organized under the control of the president, who is commander in chief of the armed forces, and the Ministry of Defense, which is headed by a civilian; three under secretaries are also civilians. The joint staff, established in 1984, is directly under the Ministry of Defense and is staffed by officers of all services. The joint staff is an advisory and planning body with no operational or command responsibilities. The senior military officer of each of the armed services is the chief of staff. The paramilitary forces under the control of the Ministry of Defense are the Gendarmeria and the Naval Prefectura (Coast Guard). Since the return of democratic government, the US and Argentine armed forces have developed a growing, mutually beneficial defense relationship through an extensive range of contacts, including professional exchanges, visits, training, and joint exercises. There are modest international military education, training, and foreign military sales programs. Argentina has offered its Pampa trainer aircraft as a candidate for US Air Force adoption. The Argentine armed forces also maintain defense cooperation and military supply relationships with a number of other countries, principally Israel, Germany, France, Spain, and Italy. The lack of budgetary resources is the most serious problem facing the Argentine armed forces. Current economic conditions and the government's commitment to reduce public sector spending have slowed modernization and restructuring efforts.


Argentina pursues a pragmatic foreign policy and maintains relations with almost all countries. Maintaining political sovereignty and encouraging trade and foreign investment in Argentina are major priorities. Relations traditionally have been closest with Western Europe and Latin American neighbors. President Menem is publicly committed to improving relations with the United States and Europe, while encouraging Latin American regional integration. Having settled its Beagle Channel dispute with Chile in 1984- 85, Argentina currently has only one active territorial dispute; this is with the United Kingdom over a group of islands some 480 miles northeast of Cape Horn. The Argentines refer to the islands as the "Malvinas Islands"; the British call them the "Falkland Islands." Historically, European powers, notably Britain and Spain, made competing claims to sovereignty over the islands. In the early 1800s, Spanish and then Argentine authorities administered the islands. However, in January 1833, Britain reasserted sovereignty, and the islands first became a crown colony and later a self- governing dependency. In an effort to establish its sovereignty claim, Argentine military forces occupied the islands on April 2, 1982. After a brief, costly war, the Argentine forces were defeated. Direct talks between Argentina and the UK began in September 1989 in an attempt to reestablish normal relations, which were severed following the Falklands/Malvinas conflict. The talks took place under a formula that separated the sovereignty question from discussions on bilateral relations. The two countries reestablished formal relations in February 1990. Argentina continues to press its sovereignty claim in a variety of forms. The United States has taken no position on the merits of the two countries' sovereignty claims.


The United States and Argentina have maintained diplomatic relations since 1823. Both countries have sought a constructive relationship based on reciprocal respect and understanding, but bilateral relations often have been turbulent. In the 1970s, US-Argentine relations entered a particularly difficult period. Concerned about serious human rights violations by the Argentine military government in the campaign against terrorism, the United States restricted both military assistance and the sales of military and other controlled-export items to Argentina. Congress prohibited both military sales and assistance. Argentina consistently maintained that these actions were attempts to influence domestic politics. In the early 1980s, better relations seemed possible as Argentina demonstrated some improvements in human rights. The Falklands/Malvinas war, however, placed additional strains on bilateral relations. The US position on the non-use of force for the resolution of disputes led the United States to impose new sanctions on Argentina and to provide limited assistance to the United Kingdom in its campaign to regain the islands. US-Argentine relations improved after the Falklands/Malvinas war. Sanctions imposed during the fighting were lifted, and the United States supported Argentine-sponsored UN resolutions on the Falklands/Malvinas calling for renewed negotiations. The Argentine human rights situation and political climate improved dramatically following the military's mid-1982 decision to return the country to democracy. During 1983, all remaining political prisoners being held without trial under state-of-siege powers were released. Also in 1983, the nine-year-old state of siege was lifted, and restrictions on trade union activities and press censorship virtually ceased. Legal prohibitions on military sales were removed upon the inauguration of the democratically elected government of President Alfonsin in December 1983. Argentina maintains its independent stance in world affairs but cooperates with the United States in resolving bilateral differences. The countries consult regularly on hemispheric issues. Argentina's relatively advanced economy prompted the United States to phase out its bilateral economic assistance program in 1971, although some training assistance continues. While the program existed, the Agency for International Development (AID) and its predecessor agencies authorized development loans and grants to finance such projects as road building, housing, feasibility studies, and agriculture. There are no Peace Corps volunteers in Argentina. Many US industrial firms and banks maintain subsidiaries in Argentina. Licensing agreements with local companies are common. US private investment totals more than $2.6 billion, primarily in manufacturing, chemicals, agricultural manufacturing, transportation equipment, and banking. Several thousand US citizens reside in Argentina.
Principal US Officials
Ambassador-Terence A. Todman Deputy Chief of Mission-Thomas A. Forbord Counselor for Agricultural Affairs-Marvin L. Lehrer Counselor for Public Affairs-Michael P. Canning Counselor for Scientific and Technological Affairs-Paul Maxwell Counselor for Political Affairs-James D. Walsh Counselor for Consular Affairs-Barbara Hemingway Counselor for Economic Affairs-James M. Derham Counselor for Labor Affairs-Donald R. Knight Counselor for Administrative Affairs-Bernard Segura-Giron Counselor for Commercial Affairs-Rafael Fermoselle Defense Attache and Air Attache-Col. Kenneth J. Monroe, USAF Drug Enforcement Administration-James D. Miller Military Group-Col. George A. Carpenter, USA The US Embassy in Argentina is located at 4300 Colombia, Buenos Aires 1425. The APO address for the embassy is APO Miami 34034-0001 (tel. 774-7611; 774-8811; 774-9911). n


Visas: Visas are not required of US citizens entering Argentina for tourism for periods up to 90 days. Visas are required for visits to Argentina for all other purposes. Climate and clothing: Climate ranges from the hot, subtropical lowlands of the north to cold and rainy Tierra del Fuego in the south. The seasons are reversed: the weather in January in Buenos Aires is like July in Washington, DC; weather in July is similar to that of San Francisco in January. Health: Competent doctors, dentists, and specialists are available in Buenos Aires. No particular health risks exist, and no special precautions are required. Tapwater is safe. Telecommunications: International services are adequate; however, long delays in placing international calls may occur due to the overburdened system. Most provincial cities and Uruguay also can be dialed directly from home and business phones. Transportation: Buenos Aires' Ezeiza Airport is serviced by many international carriers, with flights originating in the US, Europe, and Latin American cities. Buenos Aires has an extensive subway and bus system. Taxis are plentiful. Outside Buenos Aires, travel by train, air, bus, or auto. Time Zones: Argentina is one hour later than US Eastern Standard Time (EST). Daylight savings time is observed from October to April, during which time clocks are set one hour ahead. (###)