A continuation of a Marxist history of Argentina:
Civil Wars, Paraguay War and the moulding of a semicolony


Here goes the second part of the 3rd. installment. I will leave you just at the moment when the first Left wing immigrants come down from the ships.

I hope you find all this useful.

Nestor. Third installment, part two

Civil Wars, Paraguay War and the moulding of a semicolony

We had finished the first part of our third installment with the battle of Caseros, in 1852 (not 1853, it was a typo: 1853 is the year of the Constitution). Caseros is a meaningful moment in Argentine history, and in many respects in the history of Uruguay and Paraguay.

The final result of Caseros was that Argentina split in two. The policy of the Federal leader of Buenos Aires Juan Manuel de Rosas had reached a stalemate and, eventually, a blind end. Rosas had kept the Inland provinces in disarray by constantly delaying the constitutional congress, arguing that until the provinces did not have their own domestic matters arranged, it was pointless to imagine that they could arrange the whole of the Confederation. This was a trick, of course, since the domestic matters of the provinces could only be arranged if and when the port of Buenos Aires and the Customs House were put under the rule of the whole set of provinces and not of Buenos Aires only. And in order for this to happen, a Constitution was needed.

This was clear for the Litoral provinces and for Entre Rios in particular: during the Anglo-French blockades to Buenos Aires in the 40s, the Entrerrianos had discovered that a large inflow of riches was entering their province through the minor trade that had passed through their ports on the Uruguay river (Concepción del Uruguay, Concordia, Gualeguaychú) because, with the blockade working, the commercial classes of Buenos Aires could not strictly enforce their dictatorship of the only port. What would not happen when Buenos Aires were subject to the will of the whole country?

So that the leaders of the Litoral, at last, rose against the Federals in Buenos Aires, with the support of the whole Federal party of the Inland country and, for very different reasons, of Brazil and of the Unitary party of Buenos Aires. The Brazilian intervention would be explained later, during the bloody Paraguay war, so we shall leave it behind for a while. What matters now is that the Unitary party of Buenos Aires had learnt nothing from the past and, at the same time, one man within the party had learnt everything that had to be learnt. This man was Bartolome Mitre, a figure that will appear once and again in our history, and will be of particular importance through his hegemonic influence over the immigrants and the "progressives" after 1875. His first political task was to secede Buenos Aires from the rest of the country. A State of Buenos Aires and a Confederate Argentine State would appear within a couple of years.

1. A House divided in South America

After Caseros, Rosas left the country with a stopover at the house of the British Minister in Buenos Aires. He was just entering the house when shootings and loot had begun: the Civilizators were acting! Rosas must have smiled grimly at the brutality of his Unitary opponents, who had always charged him to be bloodthirsty and brutal, and were only beginning to show what beautiful kind of people they were. An age of horror was beginning.

Rosas, a practical man, was careful enough to keep with him all his archives, since he knew that these Civilized Unitaries had the nasty propension to destroy any documents that would be dangerous for them. He knew them well: after the Confederate government of Paraná was defeated by Buenos Aires in 1860, Mitre --famous for his scrupulous care with historic documents-- left the whole archives of the rival government rot in a filthy cellar! The whole experience of almost a decade of construction of an Argentine state without Buenos Aires was lost with those archives.

Already in 1852, Urquiza had had a hunch that it would not be easy to tame Buenos Aires. Immediately after he entered the town, he made a clear political gesture that separated him of the Unitary party: in the best language of the Rosas age, he called the overthrown dictator Rosas a "savage Unitary" (not without reasons, by the way), and maintained some political measures by Rosas that were irritative for the Unitary party he kept (particularly, the obligation to wear the "divisa punzó", a red piece of cloth that identified the Federals: this was, in fact, a measure full of class contents, since while the poor and the workers in Buenos Aires wore the divisa proudly, the Unitary party members felt outraged by the enforcement of this piece of clothing).

The porteño upper classes clearly understood the message Urquiza was conveying: Caseros had been an internecine battle of the Federal party, the Unitary party had nothing to expect of the new regime. The Europeanized "intelligentsia" of the port began to clench teeth and fists. Mitre and his people began to work against the national leader.

Soon after Caseros, the will of the Inland country and the Litoral was established at the San Nicolás Agreement, where the governors of the provinces met in order to decide the future of the country. Buenos Aires was represented by Vicente López, the author of the National Anthem, a mild Federal, and a grey bureaucrat that Urquiza had imposed on the astonished city.

The Agreement is the constitutive act of the Argentine Republic such as we know it now, and it contained few and precise definitions. The governors of the Inland Country knew little Latin, but knew a lot of the ailments of their peoples: the Agreement established the Federal form of government, summoned a Constitutional Congress for the next year, made Urquiza Provisional Director of the Republic, and --the most essential provision-- established free navigation of the Litoral rivers. All of this was unacceptable for the Unitary party and for the oligarchy of Buenos Aires, particularly when it was taken into consideration that the spirit behind the Constitution were the "Bases" of Alberdi, a book much quoted today (as an example of hard nosed liberal constitutionjalism) but little read, particularly when it comes to the concrete definitions on the Customs House, the Port, and the Federal District. But it was these non philosophical (though from an Argentine point of view doctrinary) provisos that set the fire.

It was the time for Mitre to appear as the new leader of the porteño fraction. He had founded the first of his newspapers, and he editorialized with great verbiage against the simple and sound measures taken by the San Nicolás convention. He did not attack the main point of debate directly (the free navigation article); instead, he boomed on Urquiza, whom he accused of having concentrated more powers than Rosas himself. Mitre knew his public: the Legislatura of Buenos Aires (the provincial House of Congress) rejected the San Nicolás agreement, ousted Vicente López, and Urquiza dissolved the Legislatura and immediately nationalized the Customs House.

But Mitre and the Unitary party were strong in Buenos Aires. A secessionist rebellion exploded on September 11, 1852 (shame on us in Buenos Aires, one of our main squares --"plaza Once, square Eleven"-- carries this name today!). Valentín Alsina, an Unitary for whom the twenty some years after the murder of Dorrego seemed not to have existed, was named Governor of Buenos Aires. The country had ceased to exist, though it took a couple of years to formalize the de facto situation.

Buenos Aires, a strong and opulent State of small size, could successfully oppose the vast and extensive poorness of the Confederate Inland country. Wonderfully located, with the strongest links with Europe, it had been living a frenzy of endless enrichment ever since the Generation of Independence was defeated. In a haughty and compact solitude, Buenos Aires grew while the Inland country languished, dispersed and loosened (not without the help of agents of Buenos Aires).

The plebeian masses, both in Buenos Aires and in the Inland country, opposed the Unitary party. But the Unitary party was the beacon of Europe in South America, and had all of Europe behind its leaders. It was too strong a backing for what then was Argentina.

Geography had much to do with the situation. Buenos Aires was in a position to choke the navigation of the River Plate, because the estuary is a shallow expanse of water with a few navigable canals. Control the canals and you control the country. And Buenos Aires _did_ control the canals. The Confederate Government, in Paraná (the capital was established in Entre Ríos, Urquiza had put the whole province to the service of the Nation) was impotent against the commercial advantages of the Port. Even though some tariff war by means of compensatory measures was attempted, the great enemy city was the winner.

The longest the split, the worst the results for the Paraná government, a government that in fact represented the whole country against the porteño clique (even the great "Argentines of Buenos Aires" who left the arrogant port to join the destiny of the Inland Country, among them some of our finest intellectuals and politicians of popular leanings). It must be noted in this sense that eminent citizens _in_ Buenos Aires rose against the Unitary government during these years, the most noteworthy of all Jerónimo Costa. Costa had been the brave defender of the Island of Martín García --the key of the navigation of the Paraná and Uruguay rivers-- against the Anglo-French fleet during the 40s, the French commander was so moved by the courage and heroism of Costa and his men that he commended them to the Government of Buenos Aires after the fleet forced the passage of Martín García. When he failed in his uprising against the Unitary government of Buenos Aires, the commanders of the troops of Mitre that shot him wrote to the Governor, who read this approvingly, that the "rusty and rotten sword of Costa" was now down!. Rusty and rotten...

Costa and his men were the expression of the true feelings of the countryside gauchos and the workers of Buenos Aires against the Unitary regime, not less because the Constitution of Buenos Aires was socially and politically oligarchic and plutocratic, there is a revealing analysis by Juan Bautista Alberdi. Another insurrection was led by Colonel Hilario Lagos. Urquiza decided to support him by blockading the port with a fleet commanded by the American John Halstead Coe. Buenos Aires seemed doomed, but, smiling slyly, simply bribed Coe away. Lagos and his men were defeated. A wave of shootings followed, of course. This is very instructive on the role that the "civilizators’ were playing in Argentina.

While Buenos Aires organized itself around the oligarchic ideals of the Mitrista Unitary party, the Argentine Confederation convened a Constitutional Congress in Santa Fé during 1853. Article 3 of the Constitution established that Buenos Aires was to be the Federal District (thus putting under the rule of the President, representative of the whole country, the rebel city). Since Buenos Aires had isolated itself from the rest of the country (and in 1854 was to adopt its own rival Constitution), the whole province of Entre Ríos was federalized as a provisional measure, and Paraná was designed as the provisional capital. The country was now formally split in two.

2. The victory of "Civilization" over "Barbarism"

After the military attempts to force Buenos Aires into the Confederation failed, the Paraná Government decided to change tactics. By the first days of 1855, an agreement was signed between both governments. It was not a matter of good feelings but of cold figures. The government of Buenos Aires was in a position to bribe an American, but not the whole Governors of the Confederation. The Confederation could not fund new military expeditions, and was to attempt a side move through the commercial war between the ports of Buenos Aires and Rosario. This tactics was not successful. In the meantime, Buenos Aires promoted upheavals and magnicides in the Inland country. The murder of the governor of San Juan Nazario Benavídez (a former warrior of the Independence) tensed relations to the limit. One of the promoters of the murder was Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, a San Juan born ideologue and politician who worked for Buenos Aires and was to become one of the idols of the Argentine Left. After the murder, the Congress at Paraná decided that the secessionist state had to be included into the Confederation be it by force or by peaceful means. The Benavidez affair was a declaration of war.

The troops of the Argentine Confederation clashed with the troops of Buenos Aires on October 23, 1859, in Cepeda. The troops of Buenos Aires, as usual, were routed. The Argentine troops were commanded by Urquiza, those of Buenos Aires by Mitre. Mitre was a lousy general but a gallant lawyer, by the way: he lost all the battles he fought, and he even lost a parade (yes!); but the soles of his boots were as if made of gold, and he never fell down: such was the richness of Buenos Aires as compared to the rest of the country! After Cepeda, this would happen again. Buenos Aires accepted, by the San José de Flores Agreement, to enter the Argentine Confederation. But the conditions of this incorporation were to the detriment of the Confederation: the basic ones were that the Province would keep for herself the Customs House for five years, the Provincial Bank would remain under Provincial authorities and ownership (in fact, this clause has become an asset of the Argentinians against the IMF today, because the neoliberals find it easier to promote the privatization of the Banco Nación than the privatization of the Banco Provincia: in order to effect the latter, you must modify the Constitution). The Provincial Bank was even allowed to issue money within the Province! Worse yet, the Provincial constitutional convention was allowed to propose modifications to the National Constitution of 1853. After the events of 1860, these modifications were fully accepted, even though they denaturalized to the marrow the Agreement of San Nicolás. In fact, the modifications turned the Constitution from an agreement against the supremacy of Buenos Aires into a guarantee of this supremacy.

But the San José de Flores Agreement had to be enforced, and Buenos Aires was decided to have it enforced on its own terms. The provocations began again, and again in San Juan, where Governor Virasoro was murdered and power was taken by Aberastain, an agent of Buenos Aires. The national forces defeated Aberastain, and he was shot. Buenos Aires strongly protested. Later, when Buenos Aires sent its representatives to the National Congress (still in Paraná) they were elected according to the domestic regulations and not the national regulations, so that more representatives were sent than the Constitution established. The representatives were, of course, rejected. The provocations had done its work and, on September 17, 1860, the armies of Buenos Aires and the Confederacion Argentina clashed again, this time in Pavón.

Pavón was a national tragedy. The same reasons behind the lenient treatment that Urquiza had given to the porteños in San José de Flores moved him to openly betray the cause of the Confederation A great cattle raiser of the Litoral, his personal interests were already fulfilled with the opening up of the rivers. In Pavón, though the troops of Buenos Aires had been routed again, he commanded his troops of Entre Ríos (the core of the Argentine army) to return to their province, because "the battle had been lost". Urquiza was killed many years later, in 1870, by a party of Federal soldiers; there is a wonderful short story by the contemporary Argentine writer Ricardo Piglia where the chief of the party, during the trial, declares that they had killed nobody because "the General was already dead, he had died in Pavón". Piglia grasps the kernel of the situation in this phrase.

Not even Mitre, the chief of the porteño troops, could believe what he was seeing, and he took some days before he decided that he had won. The national government in Paraná was deprived of any support, and President Derqui had to resign (a few years later he died, in the deepest poverty, exiled in Montevideo). General Pedernera, the Vice-President, declared the Executive Branch recessed (this means that, technically speaking, every national government after that fateful 1860 is illegal! A hundred years later, an anti-Peronist government will declare the 1949 Constitution null through a military edict; since this government declared itself a heir of Mitre, quite fitting!).

While the bloodthirsty Unitary clique in Buenos Aires made its plans to control the country, Urquiza ensured for himself that Entre Ríos would be spared the carnage and he would be respected as Governor. He kept his feud, but he had lost the country. And Buenos Aires was stronger than ever. The project of building a Nation without the hegemony of Buenos Aires crumbled down, and the age of the civilizators was beginning. The spirit of the age was to be synthesized by Sarmiento, the butcher of his fellow-province people: "Do not save Gaucho blood, that is their only human feature!".

3. The Massacres of Mitre

Mitre was transformed by official history into a new Pico della Mirandola. His presidency (1861-1867) is assumed to be the crystalization of national unity, and the peak of our institutional organization. He wrote a History of the Argentine Nation that became the Bible of the immigrants, particularly through a vulgarized version by professor Grosso. In fact, the whole Left in Argentina became Mitrista because the immigrants were Mitristas.

Mitre was a great maker of hollow phrases, that hid to the immigrants the grim reality that he was a still a greater gaucho killer, and that he was the man of Great Britain in the River Plate for forty years. They admired his airs, and his admiration for Europe. They --true pariahs of the Old Continent-- saw in Mitre the man who gave them a new status as short as they landed in the New. He fully imposed free trade, and the subordination to Europe --England in particular-- strengthened during his presidential term. Though he always spoke of respecting the law, he imposed a cruel order by the horror of the imported rifle. An asphyxiating age set in, marked by martial law and military interventions to the provinces, and by the crime of the Paraguay war.

According to the count made by Senator Nicasio Oroño, a great statesman of Santa Fe, the government of Mitre left behind him a bloody trail of some 5 000 Argentines killed (and this does not count the massacre of Paraguay). It is very interesting to notice that, as compared to the whole population of Argentina, this figure should be transformed into around 50 000 if Mitre were President today (that is, the Constitutional hero of the immigrants was worse, three to ten times worse, than the Videla regime!). The range depends on whether one includes the Paraguay carnage in the count or not.

Under the dictatorship of Mitre the Argentine economy was increasingly turned into a dependency of England. The commercial bourgeoisie of Buenos Aires and the cattle raisers began to become a single class (they had already closed ranks against Urquiza, in 1853). The Pampa region was beginning to appear and cattle was beginning to be exported (frozen meat, the age of Argentine chilled meat was still in the future), and the first railroad concessions were made. Up to his Presidency, it had been Argentine capital that had promoted railroad construction. Now, Britain was to become the main investor in the railroads and, eventually, its hegemonic owner.

This is a very important fact, because the British-owned railroads were to operate as a primary lever to transform the Argentine economy into a dependency of Europe. The fan- shaped design of the network would turn them into the inland extension of the overseas trade routes instead of the integrating tool that they were in Western Europe, Anglo North America, Australia and Japan. Land grants to the companies and the absolute prescindence of the Government allowed them to establish arbitrary tariffs that discriminated against Argentine industrial production and favored agrarian specialization. Raúl Scalabrini Ortiz, the great petty bourgeois nationalist of the 1930s, 40s and 40s, discovered that the British railroad had generated "pueblos con grilletes" ("towns with shackles").

The Inland country fought back, only to be massacred. Even the lower classes of Buenos Aires, particularly the gauchos, opposed Mitre and gave rise to the Autonomist party of Adolfo Alsina (the antipode to his father Valentín, Adolfo was an Argentine of Buenos Aires and not a Porteño: his romantic figure drew masses behind him against the National party of Mitre). But the true face of Mitre was to be experienced by the Inland provinces. Rebelions exploded in the whole Western half of the hourglass (remember previous posting), led by the Governor of La Rioja Angel Vicente Peñaloza.

"Naides mas que naides!" was the egalitarian motto of the upheaval ("no one is more than any one", in old Spanish). But the immigrants, who knew nothing of the reasons behind this civil war that preceded their massive arrival, believed the version of Mitre, according to which these were the Barbarous caudillos fighting Civilization and the civilized President. Sarmiento had already given full literary endorsement to the thesis in his superb "Facundo, civilización o barbarie" (a pamphlet against Rosas, the book was appreciated by Rosas himself: "this is the way to fight against me!, he said, and was later to become the Bible of the new Argentines). The Left would give a "Marxian" version of the Mitrist history by explaining that the massacred peoples of the Inland country were the representatives of feudal backwardness, and the porteño politicians (Mitre first and foremost) the modern, "bourgeois" forces. In fact, things were just the opposite. Mitre was our Jefferson Davies, the Inland masses the Yankees of Argentine history. The South won.

The masses of La Rioja, Catamarca, San Luis, San Juan, and Córdoba confronted, armed with spears, the troops of Mitre (that were using modern imported rifles). These troops, commanded by Paunero, Rivas and Sandes (Uruguayan members of the Colorado party, the equivalent to Mitrism across the River Plate: there is a very old tradition of collaboration between the Southern Cone oligarchies, the "Condor" plan is no news for those of us who know the true history of our countries...) displayed the most unhuman ferocity in the repression. In 1863, Peñaloza was victim of a treason, he was caught unarmed in his house, and shot on the spot. His head was cut off and displayed for days, atop a a spear, in the public square of the village of Olta in La Rioja. He had been a beloved Governor, a defender of the poor, a General of the Argentine Army, and the caudillo that the masses of the Inland country chose to lead them against the "civilizators". His wife, in shackles, was forced to sweep the same square of Olta where the head of his husband balanced mournfully, waved by the hot wind as a banner of the kind of "civilization" the commercial bourgeoisie of the port was bringing to the artisans and peasants of the Inland country.

The drama would go on after 1865 with the Paraguay war, which was moved by essentially the same forces, compounded with the expansionism of the Brazilian slaveowner oligarchy. The country was reduced to ashes, a thriving community of independent peasants was transformed into a state of latifundia, only women, kids and old men were left alive, and England began to subject Paraguay to financial dependency through the first loans that this country had ever contracted. The connections between this war and the Argentine civil wars was clear for everyone: the defeats of the joint Argentine, Brazilian and Uruguayan troops were cheered in Salta, and the Entrerriano troops sent by Urquiza dispersed at the Basualdo Creek Northern limit of Entre Ríos. There is a famous letter of a commander in Argentina to another commander in Paraguay: "There go the voluntaries, send me back the hobbles [handcuffs would have been more correct]".

The experiment of autonomous capitalism of Paraguay was terminated at the same time that the Inland provinces mourned their thousands of dead. Mitre, by the way, was reaching the end of his presidential term. His had been such a disgraceful administration that he had lost all support outside the few blocks of the commercial and financial center of the port city of Buenos Aires. He could not impose his sucessor (he had chosen the repugnant Rufino de Elizalde, an erstwhile abject Rosista and currently Mitrista: always with the privileged city against the country!), and had to accept a transitional candidate: Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, known as "el loco" Sarmiento (Sarmiento the madman)... by his friends! From that moment onwards, Mitre started to write his History of San Martín and his History of Belgrano, the mainstays of the oligarchic interpretation of history that the immigrants accepted to the letter.

4. Mournful intermezzo

Sarmiento was a peculiar kind of man. A brilliant writer, our narrative begins with him. Unable to love the Argentinians, he loved Argentina however. He was a man of the Inland country (his family was a Federal poor family, his mother being a textile artisan) who hated the squalor and misery of the country he lived in. Only that he made a wrong diagnosis and thus acted mostly on the side of the port against the provinces. Sanguine and brutal, his presidential term was spotted with some important modifications in the relations of power between the Inland country and the port. Mitre had reduced the plebeian opposition to ashes (literally), but Sarmiento still had to confront the last battles of the Paraguay war and a rebellion in Entre Ríos led by Ricardo López Jordán, a former Urquiza supporter who --after the death of Urquiza-- was made Governor of the Province. Sarmiento declared López Jordán guilty of the killing (it was later proved that he had had nothing to do with it), and invaded Entre Ríos. This was the last battle the gaucho troops waged against a central government army. The Remingtons were too much. Among the soldiers of López Jordán there was one who would sing the wonderful death song of the now disappearing free gaucho, José Hernández. His masterpiece, the _Martín Fierro_, was written when, returning from the exile in Uruguayana, he was allowed to live in Buenos Aires but not to work as a journalist. Then, he resorted to great epic poetry.

Sarmiento was followed by Avellaneda. Avellaneda was an intellectual, born in Tucumán, who was heralding the age of Julio Argentino Roca. llaneda attempted to protect local industries, and was somehow helped by the 1873 world crisis. Avellaneda as well as Roca, and the whole military and intellectual bourgeoisie of the Inland country, wanted to put an end to the dictatorship of the porteños. . Mitre did not stand this, and rose in arms against Avellaneda in 1874. He was routed --as it could have been expected-- and on the defeat of his uprising, Roca began his political carreer.

But let us stop here. We are beginning to approach the moment when the forerunners of Argentine Left will come down the gangplanks. A smoking field of civil wars, a Buenos Aires that had just passed through a terrible epidemics of yellow fever (attributed by some to the Paraguay war, that is to Mitre), a city that was beginning to become the glittering Paris of the River Plate, an Inland country sinking in misery and with its best politicians trying to get to power in the National Government, a world market that would soon prove hungry for the Argentine beef and grain exports, a network of railroads that was increasingly binding Argentina to the needs of the Empire, incredible prosperity and utter misery, all of this is what we shall see as from the eyes of the immigrants.

Their first mistake will be the political meaning of Julio Argentino Roca, so that it will be very interesting to begin our next installment by this strange and contradictory President.

See you later.