The Italian connection to Argentina goes back to the very beginning of European awareness of the country. The very first Europeans to see Argentina came in 1502 with the voyage of the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci (who the Americas are named after) and this was followed by the period of Spanish colonization. Some Italians came to Argentina in that period, some as simple settlers and others as Spanish colonial officials; this being the period when the Spanish Royal Family ruled southern Italy. When the first moves toward Argentine independence from Spain began to come about, at the forefront was a prominent Italian-Argentine who is still a celebrated national hero in Argentina today, one General Manuel Belgrano. He was born in Argentina to an Italian father and after being educated in Spain began to work for greater Argentine autonomy within the Spanish empire. Eventually this developed into pushing from complete independence. He supported the May Revolution and served in the first government but was defeated when he led a military expedition into Paraguay but which still led, indirectly to Paraguayan independence later on.
General Belgrano also designed a battle flag which was later adopted as the first national flag, eventually becoming the modern flag of Argentina with some minor changes. The government did not, however, agree to the plan he and some others supported for placing a descendant of the Inca rulers on the throne in a South American constitutional monarchy (Jose de San Martin also endorsed such a plan). General Belgrano remained though an Argentine patriot and died in 1820 still fighting to preserve the independence of his country. He has many monuments in his honor throughout Argentina as well as a monument in Genoa, Italy. In the later years of the nineteenth century Italian immigration to Argentina increased and by the twentieth century many Argentines of Italian descent began to play an increasingly prominent role in national life. One of the most powerful but also most controversial of these was Juan Domingo Peron, President of Argentina on three separate occasions. Like many, he was of mixed ancestry but included in that mix was Italian ancestry from the island of Sardinia. During his presidency, Peron would remark on the pride he took in his Sardinian heritage.
During his military career, Peron studied Italian alpine military tactics, was educated at the University of Turin, observed the Italian army and became a student of the Fascist system of government of Benito Mussolini. He admired Mussolini in many ways but preferred social democracy to totalitarianism (whereas the Duce was fond of boasting of the totalitarian nature of his regime). Back in Argentina, as he climbed the political ladder, he instituted the first social insurance program as well as other social welfare programs and increased benefits for labor unions, building up a strong base of support among the working class. He first gained the presidency on a wave of popularity from nationalizing the central bank and promising economic independence and “social justice”. He tried to portray himself as representing a “third way” between capitalism and communism, the “Free World” and the Soviet bloc. He opened diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union for the first time and refused to take Argentina into either the World Trade Organization or the International Monetary Fund. He was criticized for giving Nazi war criminals refuge in Argentina but he also allowed no discrimination against Jews and was the first Latin American leader to recognize the State of Israel.
Peron founded a political dynasty but was eventually overthrown in a military coup led by the Catholic nationalist Lieutenant General Eduardo Lonardi, another Italian-Argentine. He tried to reconcile the country and for his efforts was deposed by the liberals in favor of a more vengeful leader. The second national leader after Lonardi was another Italian-Argentine, President Arturo Frondizi whose family came from Umbria. He tried to have the ban on the Peronist faction lifted and tried to mediate peace between the United States, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara (to no avail). He had a large middle class following but when he succeeded in removing the restrictions against the Peronist faction, the next election saw them make huge gains, alarming the military, and he was brought down in a coup in 1962. Another Argentine of Italian descent, President Jose Maria Guido, succeeded him briefly, presiding over a period of turmoil between right and left-wing factions within the military. He was succeeded by another Italian-Argentine, President Arturo Umberto Illia, whose family came from Lombardy, and he tried to be a more moderate leader but was also eventually brought down by a military coup.
The next Italian-Argentine to hold the presidency was Raul Alberto Lastiri who occupied the position temporarily in 1973 before the return of Juan Peron. After Peron and his wife held the top job a military junta seized power. Some of these generals were Italian-Argentines such as General Roberto Eduardo Viola who held power briefly in 1981. The most well known, however, and the most controversial was his successor General Leopoldo Galtieri. His parents were poor Italian immigrants and Leopoldo joined the army and worked his way up through the ranks. When he came to power the military had shut down Congress and all political parties but General Galtieri was praised by some in the United States for his staunch opposition to communism. President Reagan’s national security advisor called him a “majestic general”. Industries were privatized, government spending was cut and salaries were frozen. Galtieri himself retained control of the army but allowed opposition to be voiced, which democracy advocates certainly did. In 1982 Galtieri took his most controversial action when he ordered Argentine forces to invade the British held Falkland Islands (Las Malvinas in Argentina) which were seized in a relatively quick and easy surprise attack.
This came at a time of dropping popularity for General Galtieri and many think he ordered the invasion simply to boost his popularity. If that is true, it was not a successful tactic in the long-run. His popularity soared after the initial success but his political career would not survive the backlash that came with defeat. Galtieri did not believe that the British would be able or willing to respond to the seizure of the islands and the United States would want to stay out of it due to Galtieri’s support for the anti-communist cause in Central America. It is true that many in the British Foreign Office would have liked to be rid of the Falklands and, at a different time, Galtieri’s gamble might have worked but not when Margaret Thatcher was in charge. Similarly, if the invasion had come only a short time later Britain might have lacked the ability to respond due to cuts in the military budget. In any event, the British counter-attacked and within two months had retaken the islands with the Argentine forces there being taken prisoner. Galtieri was then overthrown, arrested by the military and sentenced to be shot but this was commuted and eventually he was pardoned. He died of a heart attack in a Buenos Aires hospital in 2002.
There have been the always present good and bad cases but Italians have had a greater impact on Argentina than probably any other minority group or any other group of Europeans aside from the Spanish. Today, nearly half the population of Argentina (or about 20 million people) have some Italian ancestry. The Italian influence can be seen in the arts, entertainment (television, movies etc) as well as sports (such as Manu Ginobili of the San Antonio Spurs in Texas or football stars like Lionel Messi and Javier Zanetti) and of course national politics as seen above. Italian cuisine is quite common, elements of the Italian language have worked their way into everyday speech in several areas and aside from those of Italian ancestry there are still well over half a million Italian citizens living in Argentina today. There are still Italian festivals and cultural events held throughout the country but just as an Argentine of Spanish ancestry would consider themselves Argentine rather than Spanish, those of Italian descent are just as thoroughly Argentine though there is probably more nostalgia for Italy compared to the rivalry or even hostility most Hispanic Americans still feel toward Spain.