Country Profile: Argentina
In the swanky Buenos Aires district of Puerto Madero, there are rooftop bars where a sausage sandwich costs $10. In the not-so-swanky district of Barrio 31, popularly known as the Villa 31 informal settlement, many workers don’t see $10 in a day. They are next door to each other and worlds apart at the same time, in what feels like a microcosm of Argentina.
The eighth-largest country in the world by area, Argentina spans nearly 4,000 kilometres from the terracotta-red hills of Jujuy, on the Bolivian border, to where the gelid waters of the southern Atlantic lap at the shores of Tierra del Fuego.
Buenos Aires, a port city on the Rio de la Plata, is an economic and cultural hub. Between the official capital and its vast suburban sprawl, Greater Buenos Aires is home to almost 40 per cent of the country’s population.
Argentina is home to indigenous peoples including the Mapuche, Tehuelche, Qom, Wichí and Guaraní. These groups were massacred during colonization by the Spanish and in post-independence military operations such as the 1878-85 Conquest of the Desert, decimating their populations. Today, indigenous people face an ongoing struggle to defend basic rights such as access to their ancestral lands.
Argentina declared independence from Spain on 9 July 1816. It went on to be shaped culturally and politically by waves of immigration from Europe, especially Spain and Italy, as well as from the Middle East. The country also has Latin America’s largest Jewish community.
During the 20th century, Argentina was gripped by a series of military coups and dictatorships. During the last of these, from 1976 to 1983, 30,000 people were disappeared, tortured and murdered.
The country has a strong commitment to never repeating these atrocities. The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, whose children were disappeared during the dictatorship, still march around the square outside the president’s offices every Thursday, supporting social causes and human rights.
Since December 2019, Argentina has been ruled by centre-left president Alberto Fernández. Vice-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was one of the ‘pink wave’ of leftwing leaders who ruled South America during the 2000s.
Massive foreign debts and an impoverished population are intensifying age-old conflicts over natural resources and land ownership as the government casts about for export earnings that will bring dollars. Enormous monocultures of genetically modified soy destined for export have reshaped both land ownership dynamics and the land itself. The government gave the green light to genetically modified wheat in October.
Environmentalists also rail against mega-mining and fracking. In December 2019, a controversial decision to remove water-protection laws in the picturesque Andean region of Mendoza was reversed after massive protests broke out. The change would have paved the way for mining companies to use toxic chemicals such as cyanide and sulphuric acid.
Argentina was already experiencing a severe economic recession before the Covid-19 pandemic. Sky-high inflation was making it harder for workers to reach the end of the month and poverty and unemployment were rising, highlighting the vast gap between the haves and the have-nots. A strict Covid-19 lockdown, which started on 20 March and has been gradually relaxed, pushed many more into poverty.
With over a million Covid cases, the economy ailing, and campaigners desperate to avoid devastation of the country’s natural resources, Fernández will have to perform an almost impossibly delicate balancing act to guide the country back to prosperity.
LEADER: President Alberto Fernández
ECONOMY: GNI per capita: $11,200 (Bolivia $3,530; United States $65,760)
Monetary unit: Peso
Main exports: Soya, oil and gas, corn, wheat, cars.
Argentina is notorious for its economic instability and inflation is a perennial problem. Recent government figures show poverty at 40.9% and unemployment at 13.1%, a result of the recession and the Covid-19 pandemic.
POPULATION: 44.9 million. Population annual growth rate: 1.0%. People per square kilometre: 16 (UK 271).
HEALTH: Infant mortality 8 per 1,000 live births (Bolivia 21, US 6). HIV prevalence 0.4%. Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 1,100 (US 1 in 3,000).
ENVIRONMENT: Argentina has everything from dense, jungly subtropical forest near the Brazilian border to vast glaciers in Patagonia. Drought is a growing problem and wildfires during dry periods, often deliberately set, are degrading the country’s biodiverse Paraná delta. There are concerns about the impact of large-scale monocultures and toxic agricultural chemicals on soils and rivers. CO2 emissions per capita 4.6 tonnes (Bolivia 2.0, US 15.5).
RELIGION: Predominantly Roman Catholic, though only an estimated 20% are practising. Around 2% are Protestant and 2% Jewish.
LANGUAGE: Spanish (official). Indigenous languages include Mapudungun and Quechua.
HUMAN DEVELOPMENT INDEX: 0.830, 48th of 189 countries (Bolivia 0.703, US 0.920).
INCOME DISTRIBUTION ★★✩✩✩
While the country’s elites protest a proposed wealth tax to assist pandemic relief, the working-class poor are being left destitute in increasing numbers.
99%. Argentina has a strong tradition of public education and university is free. State and activist-run initiatives help adults to finish school.
LIFE EXPECTANCY ★★★★★
77 years (Bolivia 71, US 79).
POSITION OF WOMEN ★★★✩✩
A vibrant feminist movement is driving progress, but key challenges remain. Abortion is only allowed in cases of rape or health risks, and even then, access is often denied in more conservative provinces. A debate on the issue in Congress was stalled for months because of the pandemic but the government is finally making moves to push this on. In 2018 there was 1.1 femicide per 100,000 women.
A lively media ecosystem expresses a broad range of perspectives. Protests are common and tolerated, but the police sometimes use violent repression.
SEXUAL MINORITIES ★★★★★
Same-sex marriage is legal and the government recently implemented a trans labour quota.
The government is attempting to rebuild social institutions cut by the previous government of market-loving Mauricio Macri. Although its agenda has been hampered by Covid-19, it has pushed some progressive policies. President Fernández himself has now presented a bill to legalize abortion, and medicinal cannabis was legalized in mid-November. However, the state’s enthusiasm for extractivist and commodity-export projects as a path to growth has been repudiated by environmentalists.
LAST PROFILED: Issue 227, January 1992