The History of Argentina

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Argentina=s economy grew spectacularly as wheat farms and cattle ranches spread out across the flat, amazingly fertile, Pampa grasslands, and rail lines funneled the bounty into the booming port of Buenos Aires. By 1930 Argentina boasted the seventh largest economy in the world and a per capita income higher than Canada or France, and nearly as high as the United States. Among the envious rang the wistful lament, “oh, to be as rich as an Argentine.” Joined to Argentina’s economic success story was the early flowering of democracy. Argentina’s Saenz Peña law created an authentic system of universal male suffrage in 1912, well ahead of most Latin American nations. Today Argentina’s economy ranks seventy-seventh in the world and its per capita income is one-quarter that of the United States. Political corruption, election fraud, and repeated military coups have haunted the nation, and democracy has floundered. From 1930 to 1983 every elected president save one was overthrown by the military. In recent years all semblance of political order has at times fallen away: In the space of two chaotic weeks in late December and early January 2001–2002 Argentina went through five presidents. “Argentina,” as the saying now goes, “has a wonderful future behind it.” The History of Argentina offers a superb account of the story of this nation as it tossed away its economic lead and descended step by step into the madness of the military’s sociopathic 1976–1983 “dirty war,” a killing frenzy directed against all opponents, real and imagined.

This is a book of straight political economy. Given its brevity (at 214 pages, a model of restraint in this day of one thousand page doorstops) Lewis takes almost no side excursions into social history, the history of women, culture, or the arts. But his time coverage is comprehensive, traversing the years from the earliest inhabitants right down to 2001. Making full use of the best recent scholarship, Lewis offers an elegant, nuanced, and insightful narrative, pulling together an amazing amount of detail in crisp, intelligently crafted prose. There are many highlights. Lewis does an excellent job explaining the functioning of colonial Buenos Aires’ illegal economy, built around smuggling and bribes. The complexities of the struggle for independence, for Argentina an especially convoluted story, is deftly handled. Lewis is judicious and balanced with historical controversies, for example providing evenhanded treatment of the towering figure of the nineteenth century, dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas (1829–1845). Lewis carefully presents both sides in the historiographical debate: Rosas the tyrant, Rosas the nation builder.

Never settling for dull political narrative, Lewis offers a penetrating look into political life, capturing the spirit of the each era. For example, his treatment of nineteenth century statecraft provides a clear sense of the wild political chaos of the age. Lewis certainly does not take the political parties of this period very seriously, rightly depicting them as non-ideological patron clubs for the elite. Likewise, he amply demonstrates the raw violence employed by those trying to hold back the workers’ historic drive for voting rights and political reform during the turn of the last century in Buenos Aires. Lewis also does a very good job explicating complicated topics, such as the merits of the various competing economic development strategies enthusiastically adopted and subsequently abandoned in the twentieth century, or the complex nature of Juan Perón’s (1946–1955) political support. Above all, Lewis does a masterful job in cutting open and exposing the mounting threat of military nationalist extremism in Argentina, which grew quietly like a cancer during the twentieth century. Carefully, chapter by chapter, he builds this story to its dramatic, hideous, conclusion. In the end he refuses to settle for an easy explanation as to why Argentina failed to build upon its prior economic success and create industrialization and self-sustaining economic growth. Lewis demonstrates that many factors contributed to this failure: extreme land concentration in the Pampa, an archaic agricultural sector, rank favoritism in government development policies, political chaos and poorly conceived developmental plans, unfavorable world market conditions for Argentine exports at critical junctures, and bad luck.

The History of Argentina would make an excellent choice for college teachers, either as a case study text for introductory courses in modern Latin America, or as a core text for an upper division history course on the southern cone. (Of course David Rock’s, Argentina, 1516–1987 is also still a splendid choice, although it is more than twice as long, and does not cover the last 17 years.) Students will appreciate the learning aids Lewis has added: a detailed time line and a glossary of notable people and terms. Faculty will find this book a wonderful refresher and great summation of recent scholarship on leading developments in Argentine history.

Towson University Ronn Pineo