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Argentine Independence--Political Issues

Reflections on Newly-Independent Argentina

The economic and social structures of the Vice Royalty de la Plata had been changing rapidly at least since 1760 wherein power was shifting towards Buenos Aires and the coastal region. The very decision by the Crown to center the Viceroyalty in the village/town of Buenos Aires on the mud flats of the River Plate instead of another location (or in the Northwest of Argentina) was important. Buenos Aires could and did use Spanish royal power to further its already burgeoning economic power.

Independence movements brought and reflected political structural changes but opened the great debate in this period—who would control Argentina. Before independence, Buenos Aires could claim political hegemony because it had the legitimate right to do so—the monarchy, to whom all paid at least nominal allegiance, had thus designated it. Once the legitimacy had been removed—first by Napoleon and then by creole rebels—Buenos Aires had to fight for control not only vis-à-vis Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay (all losses) but also against the interior provinces and within Buenos Aires province itself. For whosoever gained political control gained economic and social control. This was the issue underlying Argentine history to 1870.

Major Issues at Independence

All of these issues are intermingled but it is necessary to consider separately to make some sense but the reader should remember the inter-relationships.


Perhaps the primary initial problem add one which ran through all other issues was the one of legitimacy that is to say, who had the right to rule, who would have the unquestioned or little questioned authority to make the decisions within the society. In the colonial period the issue had been simpler—the king and his agents had that authority. Loyalty to the monarchy was, in fact, the glue of the Spanish colonial empire. Although this somewhat oversimplifies the nature of Spanish government, it is sufficient at this point. Clearly one of the major complaints of Argentine creoles was that they and not peninsulares should be the ones ruling.

The legitimacy question, like the others, was a complex one and difficult to resolve. If the king was no longer to rule, who had the right to do so? Monarchial systems provide the means for the transfer of power from one king to his successor but not to republican or non-monarchical forms of government. Argentine creoles, by successfully beating the monarchy's claims to rule automatically raised the question of who should rule.

The issue is important because it is much easier to rule and ran societies in which the inhabitants are agreed that X has the right to make decisions. This is true whether the society is a monarchy, a republic a dictatorship, or whatever. Rule by force and violence can be and has been imposed by men but this is an expensive system not only because the instruments of force must be maintained (and they can be costly) but also because time, money, and effort must be devoted to the business of either keeping the dictator in power or overthrowing him. Property is not secure nor is personal safety. The anxiety produced by such a system makes it difficult to accomplish whatever social , economic cultural, or political aims the society might have.

In the Argentine case, as in the case of most Latin American countries, several possibilities were presented:

(1) monarchy, either under a relative of the Hapsburgs or from some other royal family. Although advocated in Argentina, it had scant appeal since most creoles were seeking some means of advancing their own interests. Unless they could be assured that they would be guaranteed prominent positions in a new monarchy, including titles of nobility, they were not interested. Since this could not be, the monarchist sentiment never went far. A creole monarch was even more unacceptable because there never could be agreement which as to which creole family would become the royal family. The idea of an Inca monarch probably had even less appeal since they/it were Indians and non-Argentine. 

(2) A  republic was almost the one other alternative that anyone saw. Since the North Americans and the French had adopted this form it was not unfamiliar and had some appeal as the avant-garde form of government in the world of that day. Republic is used here in a rather generalized manner—that is, almost anything not a monarchical government. One thing was clear was that it would be a creole republic. There was widespread agreement among creoles that the republic would not include the peninsulares. There was equally widespread agreement that it would not include the lower classes in the decision-making process.

(3) The elites struggled over what kind of republic. One group, led by such men as Rivadavia, wanted a strong government centralized in Buenos Aires which would seek the economic development of Argentina. This group wanted the development of agriculture, schools, and economic infrastructure. The centralists or unitarians tended to be centered in Buenos Aires and popular among commercial classes

(4) Some Argentines wanted a government with  broad political support throughout the upper classes and some even mentioned the lower classes. It is hard to evaluate how far they wanted to go or even their sincerity.

(5) Others wanted a pastoral republic—that is, a republic run by the big cattlemen, both of Buenos Aires and the provinces. This could be split into two groups (a) cattlemen or estancieros from Buenos Aires who wanted to run the entire country and (b) cattlemen in theprovinces who wanted to run their own areas and as much of the rest as possible.

Much of the shifts and turmoil of the 1810-1829 period could be seen in this light as the attempt is made to find a basis upon which the country would be run. Argentines who mattered—the upper classes—agreed that they should run the country. The problem was which of them should do so and how would they be selected. Since none of them could claim any legitimate reason to be in power and since none of them would voluntarily give up the right to obtain power as long as it was possible to gain power, the problem was difficult. Constitutions and other legalistic agreements drawn up by groups of the leading men had no real or permanent hope of success as long as important man did not agree to fulfill its terms. Force was the final means of resolving this conflict. Faced with continual dislocations and inconveniences caused by fluctuations in government, dissatisfactions with governmental policy, regional jealousies were unsuccessful, foreign adventures a belief in the possibility and/or probability of mob violence and real or potential economic deprivation from those in power. The issue was ultimately resolved by giving power to a strong man in Buenos Aires and the continuance of power in the provinces by local strong men, hence the caudillo. 

The point is that no one could really claim the legitimate right to rule, that is to have obedience because God or a Constitution or something equally persuasive willed it. Those who had power tried to keep it by every means possible and those who wanted power used every means possible. After all, the ouster of the monarchical institutions had been violent.
What the ouster of the monarchy demonstrated that power in Argentine society belonged to the creole cattle baron, the owner of a great estate or estancia, who had the wealth to command obedience from his gauchos and to the Buenos Aires upper class who had the prestige and wealth to claim obedience from the porteños. The lower classes had long deferred to the wishes to their betters and did not presume to question the right of the upper classes to tell them what to do. Lacking the means to confront the upper classes successfully, this was also a realistic analysis of the situation.

By 1829, one can begin to assert that the question of legitimacy had been resolved after a fashion. In Buenos Aires it was agreed that Juan Manuel de Rosas, a wealthy member of the upper class, should rule. His temporary absence from office between 1832 and 1835 does not contradict this assertion for the inability of Buenos Aires to govern itself by a return to 1820s' liberalism demonstrated the efficacy of dictatorial rule. In the provinces the strongest caudillo ruled. Consensus among the Argentine upper classes was not achieved until towards the end of this period. Once achieved, it facilitated the dramatic changes in Argentine life between 1870 and 1930.

National boundaries

Although we tend to see the boundaries in retrospect as being logical, this is the ex post facto fallacy. What the boundaries were or should be was not that clear in 1810 or even in 1845. The possibilities included:

(a) the old viceroyalty but Bolivians, Paraguayans, and Uruguayans were determined that they would not be included. Some, but certainly not all, Argentines agreed, but Argentines continued to involve themselves in Uruguayan affairs until 1862 and Paraguayan affairs until 1870. The issue was complicated but Brazilian, British, and French intervention. Resolution of the national boundary question brought international political peace—which would have the effect of allowing Argentina to concentrate its energies upon domestic economic development.

(b) since Buenos Aires was the dynamic source of revenue which occupied the pivotal position, the national question reduced itself to (i) whether the country would be Buenos Aires plus the other provinces as appendages (centralism) or (ii) whether the other provinces could neutralize Buenos Aires' power and harness its energy and revenue to their own purposes (federalism). At stake were all the things for which man fight: power, wealth, prestige, and security. It is too easy fro us to see these people as alike and thus to scoff at what we would call superficial difference. They were different; they knew it. Much was at stake. Buenos Aires province could and did survive and prosper but the other provinces had to come to terms with Buenos Aires. The 1810-1829 period is a standoff but Buenos Aires had the advantages.

Who Controls

Still another issue, and perhaps the most important, was which group would control the nation. The interest group conflict traversed the centralist-federalist split or rather was another side of it. The interests involved were several.

(a) The most easily identified was the handicraft industry the northwest which was also in the most difficult position. Its former trade with Bolivia and Chile was cut off or substantially reduced by Bolivian and Chilean independence, Thus it has to export its products to Buenos Aires and the coast, yet the distance was so great that transportation costs, all overland, was expensive. That the products were more expensive in Buenos Aires than the same products brought over water from England. Thus, the northwest, which had been Argentina for most of the colonial period, had to acquire control of the nation and the Buenos Aires port revenues in order to insure its domestic market and in order to use public monies or encourage private monies to build roads and/or railroads to overcome the distance problem. One effect of this problem was that the Northwest remained Argentine because it was isolated from Chile and Bolivia, resisted or would resist Paraguay and had no where to go except into Argentina.

(b) At the other extreme was Buenos Aires city, the port. It faced the Atlantic and was oriented towards Europe through its commercial facilities and activities. It was less traditional and more "modern" than the interior. Sought and usually obtained situation by which all trade—imports and exports—had to pass through its hands. Political control of the city was important because it had no good harbor—cargos actually had to be unloaded and carried to shore across the shallow water along the river Buenos Aires by lighters from ships anchored in the river and this was done instead of using a better harbor farther down the coast. Buenos Aires commercial interests were those very interests which benefitted the most from the creation of the Viceroyalty. These interests had to gain control of Buenos Aires city and province. If accomplished, they would have a stranglehold on Argentina. The existence of Montevideo across the river with its better harbor and with the potential backing of Brazil made this control even more imperative.

(c) Buenos Aires province. One must remember that the province and the city were initially separable. The province was pastoral, essentially for the agricultural segment not large. Province dominated by cattlemen—the estancieros. Their interests were similar to the estancieros of other provinces except that they were loyal to their region—that is to say, that they wanted Buenos Aires under their power, to control the others in the interests of pastoral pursuits. Had better chance at it because they were closer. Even though they owned pampa land surrounding the city, they often lived in the city because it provided more amenities.

(d) The Littoral provinces were Santa Fé, Entre Rios, and Corrientes. They were pastoral, Pampa land ruled by caudillos who were estancieros. They wanted cheap imports and the ability to export hides and tallow, and control of their own areas and, if possible, as many other areas as possible but especially Buenos Aires. They were usually federalists because such a system guaranteed their independence. They were not interested in such abstractions as democracy and representative government unless they could use them as arguments to bolster their own positions. They were a law unto themselves.

(e) the Church although perhaps not as strong as in other countries, was there and was organized. It lost its royal protection with the overthrow of the monarchy and had much to lose—control of education, marriage, cemeteries, etc., all of which were ideological. It faced liberals who were hostile to the Church as because they saw it as an obstacle to progress. Church also had privileges and land and wealth, making it vulnerable b attacks from all those whom might seek its wealth to add to their own. Since the governments could always use more money. the Church was vulnerable to attack. Difficult to assess the strength of the Church in Argentina in this period but people did pay allegiance to it and Rosas thought it important enough to use to bolster his own position.

(f) The army. Although this was a force or institutions which fluctuated in size and could be something other than gaucho militia, it had and would have a role in Argentina affairs, especially between 1810 and 1829. Since much of the culture was based upon the effective application of violence, its role was important. These armies, both the irregular gaucho militia and the San Martín type which required logistical support had become semi-autonomous and were a type of political system.

(g) Agriculture, especially in Buenos Aires and the Littoral. Although the necessity of domestic agriculture was recognized, estancieros and export merchants were not interested in its expansion at the cost to the pastoral industry. Agriculturalists did not have the power to protect their interests.

(h) Manufacturing/handicrafts needed tariff protection, credit, etc. but European goods could often be imported cheaper. It was the futile hope of members of this group, which supported porteño federalism, that Rosas or some other leader would protect their interests.

Not all of these interests could be satisfied without denying something to the others. These interests had been created under Spanish rule. Once it was removed, once the Spanish government was no longer there to balance them against each other and to maintain some sort of peace, a struggle for power began. Because these interests were strong and determined and because there was no political system which could articulate the various interests peacefully, Argentines resorted to experimentation and force to create a nation.
The pastoral interests won and Buenos Aires won. Since there was still difficulty in the political system, there were two Argentinas between 1829, when Rosas became master of Buenos Aires, and 1862, when Urquiza became a master of Argentina.

The great development of Argentina between 1870 and 1930 was possible because the political system which emerged in the 1850s and 1860s settled these issues.

Don Mabry