Argentina Consolidates its Oligarchy, 1879-1916

Roca Conquers the Desert

[This is the second in a series of posts synthesizing the last century or so of Argentine history, with some help from Luis Alberto Romero and Wikimedia.]

If I had to pick a symbolic birth year for modern Argentina, it wouldn’t be 1810, when a council of Buenos Aires’ leading citizens forced the resignation of the Spanish Viceroy, an event now celebrated as the origin of independent Argentina. Nor would it be 1816, when the Congress of Tucumán formally severed its ties to Spain (without, it should be noted, the participation of any Federalists, who opposed Buenos Aires’ dominance and were actually at war with the nascent central government at the time. Funny, the detailed museum that now occupies the Congress’ old meeting quarters in Tucumán doesn’t mention this).

Instead, it’d be 1879, when General and soon-to-be-President Julio Argentino Roca launched the last massive campaign to defeat the indigenous groups of Argentina’s interior and open the fertile pampas to agricultural production. The successful campaign capped a period of rapid territorial expansion and state consolidation. The Paraguayan War, concluded in 1870, had established a fixed and advantageous border with Argentina’s northern neighbor (while killing perhaps 70% of Paraguay’s population in the process). Increasing portions of the continent’s southern stretches had come under Argentine control. And with the growth of a competent professional army, the civil wars that had dominated the country’s first half-century of independence had largely subsided. Within the year, Buenos Aires would be federalized and Roca’s National Autonomist Party (PAN) would dominate Argentine politics through the system of sharply limited suffrage known as voto cantado(“sung vote”), a reference both to the requirement that votes be declared aloud and to the certainty that elections would follow the PAN’s preestablished script.

  (The History of Paraguay’s Borders Really Deserves a Post of its Own)

With the pampas in hand and the political system largely stable, Argentina could finally set about exploiting the vast natural resources it had definitively secured. The result was something like the US’ contemporaneous Gilded Age, but on steroids. At the same time that the US government was distributing Western lands under the Homestead Act and massively subsidizing the creation of a national rail network, Romero explains, the Argentine state set off down a similar path, acting “systematically to facilitate Argentina’s insertion into the global economy and to adapt it to a role and a function that — it was thought — fit it perfectly.”

To the government, it was obvious which role would be a “perfect fit.” Argentina would be the breadbasket (and butcher) of the cresting British Empire. Britain had long been eyeing Argentina’s many natural gifts, but in the late 19th century its involvement reached historic highs. Between 1880 and 1913, British capital investments in the country increased by a factor of twenty, funding an extensive railway network (expanded from 2500km in 1880 to 34,000 in 1916) and an advanced system for meat processing and distribution. This infrastructure not only reinforced the presence of the state in newly acquired territories; it also meant that the rich agricultural lands of the pampas would be seamlessly connected to Argentina’s main port at Buenos Aires — and to the world.

Such integration made these newly available lands extraordinarily profitable. The single-party regime charged with distributing them — representative, as it was, not of Argentina’s population at large but of its wealthiest male citizens alone — set about “transferring huge tracts at minimal cost to powerful and well-connected individuals,” thereby ensuring the consolidation of a genuine aristocratic class — Romero terms it “an oligarchy.”

Argentina’s dramatic expansion wasn’t seamless; in 1890, reckless Argentine loans brought down Britain’s Bearing Bank, setting off an international crisis and plunging Argentina into severe recession. Nor was the country’s newfound prosperity a genuinely national affair; instead, growth concentrated in the central pampas and the large cities of the Litoral, which developed critical industries to supply the country’s grain-and-meat engine. With the exception of Mendoza (ideally suited to wine production) and Tucuman (the heart of the country’s massively subsidized sugar industry), the interior of the country remained a sleepy, impoverished backwater.

But, despite these caveats, growth in the cities and on the pampas was dramatic enough to earn the now-underpopulated country international renown. Seeking both to build a productive labor force and “Europeanize” the population, the classically liberal leaders of the late 19th century heavily promoted the country as a destination for European immigrants, launching advertising campaigns and subsidizing transatlantic voyages. Their efforts met with great success; by 1914, a country that 45 years before had 1.8 million residents was now home to 7.8 million.

Argentine demographics shifted with amazing speed; by 1895, two out of every three residents of Buenos Aires were foreign born. But the political system did not move with them. Though the state sought to insert itself ever more deeply into Argentine daily life — creating a European-style Civil Register and enacting civil marriage, establishing a Ministry of Labor, imposing obligatory military service, and offering free mandatory primary education — political enfranchisement remained the province of the landed elite. As many immigrants and, especially, their children began to climb the ladder to the country’s emerging middle class — and as many others remained trapped, without representation, in low-wage jobs as tenant farmers and factory workers — members of Argentina’s “oligarchy” came to see themselves ever-more as “owners of the country to which these immigrants had come to work.” The result was a proliferation of new political demands and a political system unable to moderate among “parties with divergent and legitimate interests, capable of disagreeing and agreeing.”

Heroes of the Revolution of ’90

As conflict among social sectors grew, many came to see Argentina as a sick society. This was certainly the view of Leandro N. Alem’s Civic Union, which launched violent political uprisings against what it characterized as a corrupt and illegitimate order in 1890 and again in 1893 and 1905. But it was also the view of an ever-increasing share of the PAN elite. The election of reformist President (and luxury shopping-mall namesake)  José Figueroa Alcorta in 1906 laid the groundwork for the 1910 ascension of emphatic Roque Sáenz Peña, whose largest achievement, the electoral reform law of 1912, made voting secret and obligatory for all naturalized and native-born Argentine males beginning with the elections of 1916. Electoral reform, Romero notes, wouldn’t have succeeded if the political elite hadn’t been “absolutely convinced” that “traditional interests” could retain power through an electorally successful “party of notables.”

But decades without real political competition had blinded the PAN elite to the reality of their increasingly diverse country. With the prospect of real success on the horizon, the country’s middle-class revolutionaries — now calling themselves the Radical Civic Union (UCR) — rapidly built themselves into a movement with a base far broader than the “notables” of the now-fractured PAN. In the elections of 1916, UCR militant Hipólito Yrigoyen captured 46.8% of the vote, more than three times the share earned by conservative Ángel Rojas, his closest competitor. Millions of newly enfranchised Argentines were buoyant; traditionalists were aghast.

A new, Radical era in Argentine history had undoubtedly arrived. But the characteristics that shaped the country in its formative years — the rivalry between surging metropolis and stagnant interior, the tensions between a territorially fortified elite and the immigrants they now held in contempt, the tendency of actors across the spectrum to view opposing politicians not as rivals but as dangerous enemies — weren’t about to fade away. It would take much more than a 33% margin of victory to turn democratic aspirations into real institutional change.

Yrigoyen Assumes the Presidency

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