A History of Argentina in the Twentieth Century
Luis Alberto Romero, and Translated by James P. Brennan
A History of Argentina in the Twentieth Century
Luis Alberto Romero, and Translated by James P. Brennan
“Luis Alberto Romero has written a book that is comprehensive, balanced, and full of insights into the development—and turmoil—of modern Argentine history. This book can serve as a starter for anyone interested in the topic. Specialists too will rely on it for its analysis and detail. James Brennan’s translation is outstanding.”
- Sample Chapters
The son of Argentina’s greatest twentieth-century historian, José Luis Romero, Luis Alberto Romero has emerged as one of the leading historians of his generation in Argentina. Romero’s generation is one that has witnessed the most dramatic decades of the country’s modern history, the decline of Argentina and its descent into violence, dictatorship, and despair, but also the hopeful if often difficult process of rebuilding democracy since the mid-1980s. Combining the rigor of the professional historian with a passionate commitment to his country’s future, Romero’s work is a major contribution to our understanding of one of Latin America’s most important nations. This translation by James Brennan, himself a leading English-speaking historian of Argentina, makes this valuable book available to a wide readership in the United States and elsewhere in the world.
“Luis Alberto Romero has written a book that is comprehensive, balanced, and full of insights into the development—and turmoil—of modern Argentine history. This book can serve as a starter for anyone interested in the topic. Specialists too will rely on it for its analysis and detail. James Brennan’s translation is outstanding.”
“The purpose of this book is to provide a straightforward synthesis of twentieth-century Argentine history in all its complexity and paradox. . . . Romero focuses on Argentina’s place in the larger world, the role of the state, and the influence of culture and intellectuals on the nation’s development.”
“An excellent history, with a fine balance between the economic, the political and the social. Romero is particularly good on the social history of the earlier twentieth century, charting the effects of the rapid cultural modernization that would be created by Peronism’s promise of welfare and cultural autarky.”
“Argentina’s current economic and political crisis is symptomatic of its failure to forge a viable, modern economy and to consolidate democracy during the 20th century. So argues leading Argentine historian Romero in his timely and insightful synthesis. With a profound grasp of scholarly literature, Romero writes lucidly and incisively about the national and international forces that have undermined economic development, democracy, and social justice in modern Argentina.”
“A fascinating and well-translated account of Argentina’s misadventures over the last century by one of that country’s brightest historians.”
“The workings of democracy dominate the current writing on Argentina. By making democracy its centerpiece, the impressive synthesis of the twentieth-century history of Argentina by Luis Alberto Romero exemplifies the genre.”
“Luis Alberto Romero, a highly respected Argentine historian and professor at the University of Buenos Aires, here provides a balanced and nuanced analysis of the complex history of the country. Romero’s straightforward writing and James Brennan’s superb translation of the 1994 Spanish original make this an excellent starter for anyone interested in Argentina, and it should work very well as an undergraduate textbook.”
Luis Alberto Romero directs the Center for the Study of Political History at the School of Politics and Government of the Universidad Nacional de San Martín. Among his other books is (with Leandro H. Gutiérrez) Sectores populares, cultura y política: Buenos Aires en la entreguerra (1995).
James P. Brennan is Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Riverside. He is the author of The Labor Wars in Córdoba, 1955–1976: Ideology, Work, and Labor Politics in an Argentine Industrial City (1995).
Chapter One: 1916
On October 12, 1916, Hipólito Yrigoyen assumed the presidency of Argentina. It was an exceptional day. A multitude of people filled the Plaza del Congreso and adjacent streets, cheering for a president who for the first time had been chosen in elections with universal adult male suffrage, a secret ballot, and a compulsory vote, as stipulated in the new electoral law passed in 1912, thanks to the efforts of President Roque Sáenz Peña. Following the inauguration ceremony, the crowd unleashed the horses of the presidential carriage and dragged it triumphantly to the Casa Rosada, the presidential residence and seat of executive power.
Yrigoyen’s victory, though not a landslide, was decisive and revealed the public’s political will. From the vantage point of the period, full compliance with the Constitution—the heart and soul of the platform of Yrigoyen’s victorious party, the Unión Cívica Radical—was crowned with a representative democracy that put Argentina in the vanguard internationally as far as such democratic experiments were concerned. This peaceful political reform coming to a happy conclusion was made possible by a deep transformation in the economy and society. During four decades, taking advantage of an one association with Great Britain viewed as mutually beneficial by both countries, Argentina had grown spectacularly and had become wealthy. Immigrants, attracted by the country’s transformation, were successfully integrated into an open society that offered abundant opportunities for all. Though there were tensions and conflicts, these were overcome, and consensus predominated over confrontation. Yrigoyen’s decision to modify the traditionally repressive role of the state, using state power to mediate between different social sectors and to achieve an equilibrium, seemed to resolve the one remaining obstacle. In sum, Yrigoyen’s assumption of power could have been considered, without greatly exaggerating, as the happy culmination of the long process of modernization that had begun in the middle of the nineteenth century.
Another view of the country was possible in 1916, and many contemporaries adhered to it and behaved accordingly. For them, Yrigoyen resembled a barbarous caudillo, one of the warlords who many had believed were eliminated in 1880 with the end of endemic civil war and the final consolidation of political power in Buenos Aires. A government of the mediocre seemed to stand behind Yrigoyen. The political transition to democracy was viewed with suspicion; those who felt displaced from power demonstrated little loyalty toward the recently established institutional system and longed for a time when a select elite governed. Moreover, the First World War, which had broken out in 1914, offered a glimpse of the end of the era of easy progress, with growing difficulties and more precarious economic conditions, in which the relationship with Great Britain would be insufficient to ensure prosperity. The political and social tensions beginning to spread throughout the world during the final phase of the war, which were unleashed at its conclusion, were also manifesting themselves in Argentina and encouraged those who foresaw a future dominated by conflict. Society was sick, it was said; those who were responsible were foreign organisms; ultimately immigration itself was to blame. Thus an increasingly intolerant attitude grew in the country, expressed in a truculent nationalism.
Both views of Argentina, incomplete and distorted, were present in 1916; each, in its own way, was the result of the great transformation wrought over the previous half-century. For a long time, these images shaped attitudes and actions also influenced by new circumstances that corrected or refined the images bequeathed by the period of economic expansion.
During the decades before 1916, an era not so distant for the citizenry to have forgotten the rapid pace of recent changes, Argentina had embarked on a program that contemporaries called “progress.” The first efforts in pursuit of progress could be traced back to the middle of the nineteenth century, with the great expansion in capitalism as the world began to become fully integrated into the international capitalist system. These efforts had mixed results and for diverse reasons. The greatest problem was the absence of effective institutions. State building was therefore a primordial concern. By 1980, when General Julio A. Roca assumed the presidency, the most difficult obstacles had been overcome, but much remained to be done.
The first task was to assure peace and stability and to assert effective control over the national territory. After 1810 and for some seven decades, civil wars had been endemic. Provincial authorities had fought among themselves and against Buenos Aires. The year 1862 marked a turning point, as the new national state, little by little and with little luck in the beginning, began to dominate those who had heretofore challenged its power, in the process ensuring that the army held a monopoly on the use of force.
Some outstanding problems were resolved during and after the Paraguayan War (1865–70). The province of Entre Ríos, Buenos Aires’ great rival in the establishment of a new state, and then the province of Buenos Aires itself— whose rebellion had been defeated in 1880—both had to accept the transformation of the city of Buenos Aires into the federal capital. The state then established its dominion over vast territories inhabited by indigenous peoples. In 1879, the southern frontier was secured, hemming in the Indian tribes there along the Andean foothills; in 1911, the occupation of the northern territories concluded. The territorial limits of the nation were clearly defined, and domestic problems were sharply separated from the external issues with which they had been traditionally linked. The war with Paraguay contributed to delineating the fluctuating borders of the Río de la Plata basin, and the 1879 Conquest of the Desert guaranteed possession of Patagonia, although tensions with Chile remained alive until 1902 and reappeared later.
After 1880, a new institutional framework was created, one that lasted for some time. Bolstered by recent military victories, a central power was consolidated whose juridical basis could be found in the Constitution sanctioned in 1853, which, in Alberdi’s words, should uphold “a monarchy dressed as a republic.” As the historian Natalio Botana argued, there was thereby assured a strong presidential power, exercised without limits in the vast national territories and strengthened by powers to interdict provincial governments and declare a state of siege. On the other hand, the checks and balances exercised by the congress, above all the prohibition of presidential reelection, ensured that executive power would not become tyrannical. Those who so designed the Constitution were conscious of the long history of civil wars and the ease with which the ruling class became divided and fell into bloody and sterile power struggles.
In this respect, the results met expectations. The rule of law was strengthened by a political system in which the executive, from the apex of power, simultaneously controlled politicians and political influence. In its most extreme form, this practice was called the unicato, the period of oligarchical rule between 1880 and Yrigoyen’s 1916 election, but in reality it was routinely employed before and after 1916. The executive used such powers to discipline provincial groups but at the same time allowed the latter a great degree of freedom in deciding local matters. Power that had been consolidated in the hands of the dominant groups in the littoral (Buenos Aires and Santa Fe) provinces—including the dynamic Córdoba—found different ways to use prosperity to win the cooperation of the aristocracies of the interior, particularly those of the poorer provinces, and thus to ensure the backing of the local aristocracies for a political order that they were in no position to contest. Though by 1880 the state’s basic structure had been established—its fiscal, administrative, and judicial powers—these powers were often mere ideas of what ought to be done. Lacking the instruments for realizing many of the most urgent tasks such as instituting public education and fomenting immigration, the state was at first the preserve of private interests. Nonetheless, as its resources increased, the state expanded its institutions and acquired a coherency and solidity long before society did. The latter, in a full process of renovation and reconstitution, initially lacked the organization and means for halting the state’s advance.
The state acted deliberately and systematically to facilitate Argentina’s insertion into the global economy and to find a role and purpose, it was hoped, that perfectly suited it. The chosen path entailed a close association with Great Britain, the foreign power that had been playing the role of mother country since independence in 1810. At first limited to ties of trade, the association became tighter after 1850, thanks to Argentina’s production of wool— the first economic undertaking in the country organized on a strictly capitalist basis—contemporary with the deepening of Britain’s industrialization, now converted into “the workshop of the world.” At this time, the commercial relations between the two countries deepened, and financial ties became important as well, especially owing to the heavy British contribution to defraying the costs of building the state. True maturation occurred, however, after 1880, during the age of imperialism. In those years, Great Britain, undisputed master of the colonial world, began to face the competition from new rivals—Germany first and then the United States—as the entire globe was divided into colonial empires, formal or informal. When the association with Great Britain was being consolidated, Britain was entering its mature phase, unquestionably still a formidable power but not a very dynamic one. Incapable of confronting the industrial competition of its emerging rivals, it took refuge in its empire and monopolies, opting in favor of their assured profits through its preferred low-risk, high-return investments.
Between 1880 and 1913, British capital in Argentina increased twentyfold. To the traditional British areas of investment such as trade, banking, and public loans were added mortgage loans for land, investment in utilities such as gas, and investment in transport such as streetcars and especially railroads. These investments proved enormously profitable. In some cases such as the railroads, the government guaranteed profits and also granted tax exemptions and land alongside the tracks to be laid.
In subsequent years, these concessions became ever-greater problems, though contemporaries saw the Argentine-British connection in a positive light. Even though the British obtained handsome profits on their investments and trade, they left ample room for local businesspeople, especially for the great landowners for whom was reserved the lion’s share of an agricultural production made possible by an infrastructure established by the British. The 2,500 kilometers of existing railroad track in 1880 became 34,000 in 1916, just slightly under the 40,000 kilometers in Argentina’s railway network at its highest point. Some of the big spur lines served to integrate the national territory and ensure the authority of the state within its borders. Others densely covered the pampa húmeda, the fertile grasslands of the pampa, making possible, along with the port system, the expansion of first agriculture and then livestock, after these same British established the system of meatpacking plants.
This expansion required an ample labor force. The country had been receiving many immigrants in increasing numbers throughout the nineteenth century, but after 1880 the numbers grew dramatically. In Europe, immigration was encouraged by strong demographic growth, a crisis in the traditional agrarian economies, unemployment, and cheaper international passenger rates. Argentina decided to modify the traditionally conservative and selective immigration policy and to vigorously foment immigration via propaganda and subsidized travel costs. Neither of these measures would have been effective if possibilities for finding work had not simultaneously increased. The immigrants showed great flexibility and willingness to adapt to prevailing conditions in the labor market. In the 1880s, the immigrants concentrated in the large cities, working in construction in public works and in all the building that accompanied the urbanization process. Beginning in the middle of the following decade, with possibilities in agriculture becoming available, the immigrants headed en masse to the countryside, both those who came to settle permanently and those who traveled annually for the harvest. This phenomenon, made possible by cheap passenger fares and relatively high local wages, explains in part the strong difference between the old and new immigrants. Between 1880 and 1890, immigrants surpassed one million, with some 650,000 settling permanently, a notable number for a country whose population was approximately two million. In the following decade, after the economic crisis of 1890, immigration declined, and those who returned to their country of origin exceeded the numbers of arrivals with every passing year. The earlier immigration flow patterns were reestablished in the first decade of the twentieth century, when the positive balance of arrivals versus returns surpassed one million.
The active promotion of immigration was only one facet of a series of measures that the state, far from employing the hands-off philosophy of the supposed liberal principles it espoused, implemented to encourage economic growth, break bottlenecks, and establish conditions that permitted the development of private enterprise. Particularly between 1880 and 1890, such actions were intense and purposeful. Foreign investments were enticed and promoted with ample guarantees, and the state assumed the risk in the least attractive investments, only to transfer them to private hands once success was assured. In financial matters, it accepted and encouraged inflation for the benefit of exporters, and public banks handled credit policies very loosely, at least until 1890. Above all, the state undertook the so-called Conquest of the Desert, which resulted in the incorporation of vast expanses of land suitable for cultivation, in which great plots at minimum cost were transferred to powerful private interests and the well connected. Many of these were already or would become landowners, and this policy was a decisive turning point in the consolidation of the landowning class. The land was subsequently freely sold and bought, although its spectacularly high values until 1890— based on the calculation of future earnings guaranteed by the capitalist expansion underway—reduced the number of possible buyers.
Though beneficiaries of the state’s generosity—a state controlled by them—the pampa’s landowners also displayed great adaptability to economic circumstances in pursuit of the greatest possible profits. In the littoral, where cattle were scarce and produce could move by river, landowners leaned toward agriculture; where the land was cheap, they opted for colonization, which brought land under cultivation; once the land increased in value, they preferred a sharecropping system. In the province of Buenos Aires, great landed estates and wool production predominated, until the establishment of meatpacking plants made the breeding of English blooded cattle stock for export profitable. Subsequently, the need for grazing lands stimulated agrarian colonization; land was devoted alternately to grain cultivation, fodder, and pasture, making agriculture inextricably bound with cattle ranching.
This combination turned out to be most suited to the specific conditions of the time. The productivity of the land ensured high returns on low investments. Moreover, the changing and extremely unpredictable nature of international markets made it prudent to maintain flexibility to choose the most profitable option on a yearly basis. It seemed wise to maintain properties intact so as to be prepared for any scenario and to practice large-scale agriculture. As Jorge Sábato suggested, landowners became accustomed to alternating diverse activities, looking for the maximum degree of profitability in each, without staying with any one for long, the priority being not to immobilize their capital. To investments in agriculture were added urban ventures in real estate, construction, and even industry. Thus, with its base in agriculture, an entrepreneurial class took shape, a class that was highly concentrated but not specializing in one sector, an oligarchy that controlled a vast array of businesses from the halls of power.
These conditions also encouraged speculative activities by the country’s small farmers. The immigrants who became sharecroppers during the expansion of agriculture had limited capital at their disposal. They preferred to accept contracts to sharecrop sizable tracts of land for three years rather than to purchase smaller parcels of their own. As migrating speculators, they gambled everything on a few years of intense work, making minimum fixed investments, with the payoff of possible good harvests, only to repeat the gamble later with another sharecropping arrangement.
In this first stage, such highly flexible behavior allowed the landed classes to take advantage of external inducements and made possible a truly spectacular economic growth. Since 1890, the expansion of agriculture had been continuous, and the countryside filled with sharecroppers and agricultural laborers. Between 1892 and 1913, the production of wheat increased fivefold, half of which was exported. During this same period, total exports also increased five times, and imports grew at a slightly slower rate. To wheat were added corn and linseed, the three of which were half the country’s exports. Among the rest, besides wool, meat exports began to occupy an increasing importance, especially after 1900, when packinghouses began to export chilled and canned beef to Great Britain. By that point, wool production had been pushed to the southern part of the province of Buenos Aires and replaced by livestock, native cattle mixed with blooded British stock such as Shorthorn and Hereford. On the eve of the First World War, Argentina was one of the world’s leading meat exporters.
If the profits of their foreign partners were high in areas such as the railroads, packinghouses, shipping, trade, and finance, so too were the profits of the state, coming mainly from import taxes, and those of the landowning class, who, in view of the advantages they enjoyed with respect to other international exporters, chose to spend the bulk of their profits on consumption. This fact explains the lavish expenditures in the cities, which one after the other went about beautifying themselves, imitating the great European metropolises, a process that had an important multiplier effect on the economy. The state supplied the cities with modern services in public health and transport, as well as avenues, public squares, and ensembles of ostentatious public buildings, not always in the best taste. Private citizens built equally spectacular residences, mansions, or petits hôtels. The wealth of the countryside spread to the cities, increasing employment and generating in turn new demands for commerce, services, and eventually industry, because the cities, combined with the towns of the agricultural zone, collectively constituted an attractive market.
The industrial sector reached important proportions and employed many people. Some large establishments, such as those in meatpacking, flour mills, and a few others, produced their goods for export or for the domestic market. Other important industries, such as textiles and food processing, supplied products elaborated with local primary materials. An extensive network of workshops, generally the property of better-off immigrants, supplied the rest of the domestic market. This industrial economy grew in consonance with the agrarian one, expanding or contracting according to the rhythm of the latter and nourishing itself with foreign capital. Through the foreign banks, local landowners or those who controlled foreign trade could also add industrial investments to the total of their business undertakings.
The bulk of these changes took place in the littoral (Buenos Aires and Santa Fe provinces), extending to include Córdoba, and deepened the rift with the interior, which could not insert itself into the international market. Neither investments nor immigrants arrived there. The railroad did, however, and in some cases it broke down the region’s isolation from markets and thereby affected local society. On the other hand, the state undertook great investments, partly sustaining provincial government and education. What predominated above all was the relative backwardness of the interior and the ever-more-manifest differences between the agitated life in the great cities of the littoral and that of the sleepy provincial capitals.
There were some exceptions. In the northern part of Santa Fe province and southern Chaco province, a dynamic and exploitative British company had established a true enclave economy dedicated to the cutting and processing of the quebracho tree (used for the extraction of tanin). The most important exceptions, however, occurred first in Tucumán and then in Mendoza provinces, centered around the production of sugar and wine, respectively. Both prospered, notably by supplying the growing markets of the littoral, thanks to the market share provided by a state that protected the provinces with high tariffs. The state itself permitted the initial take-off of these regional economies, building railroads and financing the investments of the first entrepreneurs of sugar mills and wineries. In both cases, there were political considerations behind such support. More immediately, the relationships of important businesspeople in the nascent industries—Ernesto Tornquist in sugar and Tiburcio Benegas in wine—with the highest official circles weighed heavily. The faces of Tucumán and especially of Mendoza, where economic expansion entailed the incorporation of sizable numbers of immigrants, were fundamentally transformed. The transformation in some ways defied the norms of the international division of labor—Tucumán’s sugar was always much more expensive than the sugar that could be imported from Cuba—but was in accordance with the practices of monopoly profits and the connections between business and the state, which characterized the entire turn-of-the-century economic expansion.
Around the state congregated an important group of speculators, intermediaries, and financiers, all with access to those in power and profiting greatly from the concessions, loans, public works projects, and government sales and purchases, especially in the 1880s, when the state injected massive amounts of credit through guaranteed banks. Contemporaries blamed this speculative fever on the crisis of 1890, which halted for a decade the economy’s spectacular advance. The problems, however, were deeper and turned out to be chronic. The close links between the Argentine and international economies made the former extremely sensitive to cyclical fluctuations of the kind that had occurred in 1873. The large international debt made service payments extremely onerous, payable only through additional loans or surplus from foreign trade, both of which were drastically reduced in moments of cyclical crisis, generating a more or less prolonged recession. The international crisis of 1890 had the peculiar characteristic of starting in Argentina and dragging down with it one of the most important British investors: the Baring Brothers Bank. In the short term, the crisis had catastrophic effects, above all for small savers, although by bringing to an end the speculative activities of the 1880s, it encouraged other activities, especially agriculture, and inaugurated their important expansion.
Mass immigration and economic progress profoundly affected Argentine society and, it could be said, transformed it.The 1.8 million inhabitants in 1869 became 7.8 million in 1914; the population of the capital city of Buenos Aires grew from 180,000 inhabitants to 1.5 million. In 1895, two of every three residents of the city were foreigners; in 1914, by which time many foreigners had Argentine-born children, half the population was still foreign. The majority of immigrants were Italians, primarily from northern but also from southern Italy, followed by those from Spain and, in far fewer numbers, from France. But immigrants arrived from everywhere, even if in small contingents, to the point that Buenos Aires was thought of as a new Babel. As José Luis Romero noted, ours was an “alluvial” society, built by a process of accretion in which foreigners appeared everywhere, although not of course in the same numbers. Few immigrants went to the interior, with the exception of places like Mendoza. In the littoral, many went to the countryside, and the majority of those who did so established themselves precariously as sharecroppers. The country’s small farmers and their families were the protagonists of an arduous and risky undertaking. Perhaps because they were interested in quick success, willing to make great sacrifices and to risk their scarce capital on a precarious bet, they preferred to live in rudimentary and spartan shacks, without the minimum of conveniences, ready to abandon their homes when the contract expired. As with all immigrants, they took a chance on rapid economic success, which some achieved and many did not. Ultimately, of those who succeeded, they or their children entered the emerging middle classes; those who did not probably went to the cities or returned to their countries of origin. What is certain is that both contributed to the great profits of the large landowners and the exporting firms that benefited from the advantages of the system but did not participate in its risks.
At first, the majority of immigrants went to the cities, where the greatest demand for workers existed. The big cities, Buenos Aires above all, were replete with workers, most of them immigrants but also some Argentine born, or criollos. Their occupations were as diverse as their working conditions. They were unskilled day laborers (jornaleros) who searched daily for a job, skilled artisans, street vendors, domestic servants, and even workers in the first factories. On the other hand, their experiences were similar in many ways. They lived overcrowded in the tenements, or conventillos, in the city center, near the port where many worked, or in La Boca neighborhood. They suffered difficult daily tribulations: poor housing, high rents, sanitary problems, instability in their work, low wages, disease, and high infant mortality. All of these combined to create a tough existence from which few escaped. It was a young society and one still in the making. The foreigners were foreign to one another, as not even the Italians—a somewhat artificial category that encompassed people with diverse origins and separated by different dialects—could communicate easily among themselves. The integration of such diverse elements, the establishment of solidarity networks and forms of association, and the formation of collective identities in the world of work were slow processes.
Many of the immigrants, driven by the desire to hacer la América and perhaps to return rich and respectable to the towns and villages they had left as wretched emigrants, devoted their efforts to the venture of an individual, or more precisely family, upward social mobility. Those who did not achieve it or who failed after some initial success—and did not return to their home country—remained among the mass of workers, continually replenished with new arrivals. Among these people, solidarity practices were most broadly developed, encouraged by working-class activists. The majority achieved at least some success in the “venture of social mobility.” Such success generally consisted of acquiring one’s own house and perhaps a small business or workshop as well. Above all, the road to success was traveled by educating one’s children.
A primary education allowed people to break down the barriers of language that segregated their parents. A secondary education opened the doors to a government job or a teaching post, respectable and well-paid positions. A university degree, with the title of “doctor,” was the magic key permitting entry into the select circles of polite society. Such an image is no doubt conventional, propagated by those who triumphed and ignoring those who failed. Nevertheless, the venture of social mobility was real enough that it created a popular social myth with deep roots that would last for years, one that helped establish the broad urban and rural middle classes that characterized in its essence Argentine society.
In summary, a new society had been built, one that was still for years to come in the process of formation and in which foreigners and their children were present at all levels of society, high, middle, and low. This open and mobile society offered great opportunities, yet was also divided in two. On the one hand, there was the modernizing Argentina that stood apart from the traditional interior; on the other, the new society that for a considerable period was separate from both the traditional criollo classes and the upper classes, the latter somewhat traditional but to a great extent themselves new, yet seeking to assert their separateness from the new society.
Whereas in the new society the immigrants intermingled freely with the criollos, creating new lifestyles and a hybrid culture, the upper classes—open to accepting rich or successful foreigners into their ranks without reservation— felt themselves to embody tradition, asserting their “Argentineness” and regarding themselves as masters of the country where the immigrants had come to work. Not all the aristocracy came from old money, and in their ranks there were many upstarts and nouveaux riches, not all of them truly wealthy. Some acquired their wealth through dubious means, thanks to political connections; others could barely keep their heads above water and maintain what was then called a “decent” lifestyle. Yet all of them, faced with a mass of foreigners, displayed a desire to shut themselves off, to evoke patrician backgrounds, to concern themselves with surnames and lineage, and, for those who could, to flaunt a luxurious lifestyle and an ostentation that— though perhaps their European models would have considered them vulgar and in bad taste—were useful for marking off social distinctions. That was the function served by the public places where people went to be seen such as the opera, the Palermo racetrack, and the fashionable shopping street, Calle Florida. The greatest example of this urge was the private club, exclusive and educational at the same time. The Jockey Club was founded by the former president Carlos Pellegrini and the writer Miguel Cané for purposes of cultivating a vast and enlightened aristocracy that “consisted of all cultured and honorable men.”
These same men reserved to themselves the control of high politics. This was to be an activity for the “notable” who came from traditional families, decent, well-mannered, though not necessarily rich individuals, because in politics there were ample numbers of parvenus who would make their fortunes there. The political system was impeccably republican, though designed to distance voters from the most important decisions, removing them somewhat from the “popular will.” Moreover, the electoral practices of the period, especially the strong interference of the government at every stage, tended to discourage those who might want to participate in electoral competition.
At the apex of the political system, the selection of the political establishment came through agreements among the president, governors, and other political notables of recognized prestige. At the lowest levels, competition was expressed by political bosses who mobilized their battle-hardened political machines capable, with the complicity of public authorities, of assaulting voting booths or stuffing ballot boxes. The system—stigmatized later by the political opposition—rested on the scant general will to participate in elections. Isolated from the great democratizing processes taking place in Europe and North America, the formation of a citizenry in Argentina was a slow and difficult process. In this process, the population’s immigrant character and disinterest in adopting Argentine citizenship and participating in elections weighed heavily; some were reluctant to lose the privileges and safeguards that their status as foreigners conferred (immunity from military service, for example). Such a situation troubled the most enlightened members of the ruling elite, concerned about establishing the consensual basis of the political regime.
Perhaps the most noteworthy and abiding characteristic of this regime was the absence of competition from alternative political parties and a political structure characterized by a one-party system whose head was the president of the republic. The Partido Nacional Autonomista (PAN) was in reality a federation of governors, the provincial heads of the political establishment. The president used his power to discipline them, thereby confusing the state’s legitimate functions with strictly political motives. Without state mechanisms for the transfer of power and with limited opportunities for a broad political debate, conflicts were negotiated in small circles between politicians and military officers, the press, and the congress. The system proved efficient in resolving minor differences based on shared convictions—as occurred throughout the decade of the 1880s—but revealed its weaknesses when disagreements became more serious, as they did following 1890. It then became clear that this political regime had no room for divergent and legitimate interests capable of offering differing points of view and establishing alternative alliances.
The unicato, which had contributed to the consolidation of the state and the ending of long-standing conflicts, revealed its limitations for channeling proposals for change in a society that was taking shape and becoming more diverse and in which varied and contradictory interests were developing. To shape and organize that society in accordance with deep convictions about progress, thereby fostering the consensus necessary for the great changes taking place—this was perhaps the principal concern of the ruling elite. The panorama was certainly disturbing. A mass of uprooted, atomized foreigners interested only in making money and returning to their homelands sparked the indignation of those who, like Sarmiento, had once seen immigration as the great instrument of progress. On the other hand, in undertaking to shape these masses, a number of important competitors appeared: the Catholic Church, though in Argentina its influence was much weaker than in the rest of Latin America; immigrant associations, especially those of the Italians; and finally the radical political organizations that were beginning to appear, above all those of the anarchists, offering the popular sectors a drastically different social project. Against these, a still weak state fought and triumphed. It gradually extended its hold on society, as much by controlling its organization as by accelerating the changes that ensured the much soughtafter “progress.”
The Law of Civil Marriage and Registry, inspired by the most progressive European legislation of the day, imposed the state’s presence in the most important events in an individual’s life—birth, marriage, and death—until then regulated by the Church. Subsequently, this state presence was buttressed by control of public health, influence in the workplace, and above all the Law of Obligatory Military Service, which put all men of a certain age in a situation where they could be controlled, disciplined, and “Argentinized.” In the decade of the 1880s, however, the great instrument was primary education, and in that area the greatest efforts were extended. According to an 1884 law, education was to be secular, free, and mandatory. Replacing both the Catholic Church and immigrant associations, both of which had advanced greatly in this area, the state assumed all responsibility for education. Literacy ensured a basic education for everyone and at the same time the integration and nationalization of immigrants’ children who, if in their homes they traced their past to some region of Italy or Spain, in school learned that the past dated from the founding fathers, Bernardino Rivadavia and Manuel Belgrano.
Even though the elite were by their very makeup cosmopolitan, critical of the criollo or Hispanic heritage, and open to the progressive influences of Europe, from an early date they were preoccupied with national concerns, as much to affirm national identity as to integrate the foreign masses into the nation. The patrician elite, who felt themselves to be the anointed ones for the construction of the fatherland, proceeded to shape their version of the country’s history, as Bartolomé Mitre did in his historical works, a process that was at the same time a self-justification of their rule. With the same concerns in mind, they debated about art, music, or the national language.
These and other subjects were commented on in small circles and in private social gatherings, in the press and its editorials, and among university faculty and in the congress. Some wrote entire books on the subject, which were published in Europe. Although there were no intellectual giants among them, a group of gentleman intellectuals effectively contributed to molding the ideas of their social class. They were familiar with all the latest trends in Europe, for each of which there was a local version: realism, impressionism, naturalism, and so on. The school of thought that best expressed their natural philosophy of life was Positivism, in its Spencerian version, with its emphasis on efficiency and pragmatism, on “order and progress,” all things suited to a society that was then—on the eve of its centennial celebrations— characterized by its optimism.
Tensions and Transformations
The centennial of the 1810 May Revolution and Argentine independence was an occasion for the happy and confident country to celebrate its recent accomplishments. The attendance of the infanta Isabel, the aunt of the king of Spain, and of the former president of Chile, Manuel Montt, revealed that foreign enemies, old or new, were a thing of the past. Intellectuals and writers such as Georges Clemenceau, Enrico Ferri, Adolfo Posada, and Jules Huret testified, in their own ways, to the country’s spectacular success, as did the poet Rubén Darío in his somewhat pompous Canto a la Argentina. Demonstrating the alluvial character of Argentine society, all the immigrant communities honored the country and its spectacular achievements with a monument whose foundation stone had been hurriedly laid that year. The official discourse of the ceremonies, empty, trite, and repetitive, barely managed to conceal the other face of this reality. A general strike, even more bitter than the previous year’s, which had culminated in the assassination of the Buenos Aires chief of police by an anarchist, threatened to ruin the celebrations. A bomb placed in the Colón opera house laid bare the tensions and violence, to which polite society replied with the first episodes of state terrorism and a draconian Law of Social Defense.
Beyond the pomp and circumstance of the celebrations, a deep concern about the nation’s course overtook the country’s most reflective spirits, overwhelmed by a growing sense of pessimism. Employing the models of Positivist sociology and combining them with history and social psychology, intellectuals diagnosed society as ill. Picking up the introspective intellectual tradition of Sarmiento or Alberdi, ponderous essays, brutal assessments, and daring proposals—such as those of Joaquín González in El juicio del siglo, Agustin Alvarez in Manual de patología política, Carlos Octavio Bunge in Nuestra América, José María Ramos Mejía in Las multitudes argentinas, and Ricardo Rojas in La restauración nacionalista—appeared. Some of society’s evils were attributed to the elite themselves, with their glib conformity and abandonment of patrician tradition and civic-mindedness. The crux of the questioning, however, concerned the cosmopolitan nature of Argentine society, inundated by immigrant masses and led by those who sought inspiration in Europe. All the social and political conflicts, all the questioning of the leadership of the established elite could be attributed to bad immigrants, to “strange organisms,” to “destabilizing foreigners,” incapable of appreciating what the country offered them.
Yet beyond these extreme declarations, there was concern about the corruption of a national character that some saw embodied in criollo society before the immigration tide; others, more extreme, associated it in a polemical fashion with the rupture with Hispanic tradition. Although this latter position was questioned by those who continued to associate that tradition with intolerance and backwardness, there was nonetheless in the elite’s consciousness the image of sullen and sinister masses, lacking any ties to society, of dangerous classes lurking in the shadows and beginning to encroach on those areas until then reserved to the fatherland’s children. In response, some adhered to an aristocratic elitism that the Uruguayan writer José Enrique Rodó had made fashionable with his book Ariel. Others looked for the solution to the problems in formulas of social engineering, including those experimented with by Chancellor Bismarck in Germany. The majority found a solution in a strident and polemical affirmation of nationality. The solution was to emphasize criollo tradition, to Argentinize the immigrant masses while disciplining them. From the beginning of the century, undoubtedly inspired by the prewar European mood, there began to predominate a chauvinistic nationalism, which José Ramos Mejía of the National Council on Education attempted to inculcate in children’s lessons in the primary schools. This nationalism reached its apogee in the 1910 festivities, when gangs of the niños bien took pleasure in harassing any foreigner who hesitated to remove his hat when the notes of the national anthem began to sound.
Along with the perception of a sickness in society, a perception given credence by the daily crises, conflicts, and tensions of the most diverse nature, two attitudes appeared among the ruling elite. Some opted for conciliatory behavior, assuming responsibility for society’s demands and proposing reforms. Others, however, maintained an intransigent attitude, calling on the state to repress any sign of discontent and, dissatisfied with half-hearted support on this score, organizing themselves to take matters into their own hands.
Some reasons for concern were foretold in the economy’s progress, despite the fact that in the first years of the century Argentina experienced its most spectacular rates of growth. In 1914, a renewed spurt of immigration caused the population to reach almost eight million inhabitants, doubling the 1895 figure. The amount of cultivated land attained a record of twenty-four million hectares, and the country became the world’s largest exporter of corn and linseed and one of the largest of wool, beef, and wheat. Buenos Aires—which proudly exhibited its new subway system—became the premier city of Latin America. Nevertheless, economic crises in 1907 and 1913, and following the latter, two years of depression resulting from war in the Balkans, reminded everyone of the fragility of that growth. Relations with the international economy were becoming more complex, both because of the increasing participation of France and Germany in trade and investment and because of the ever more aggressive presence of the United States in the areas of public services, electrical utilities, and, above all, meatpacking. Their domination of the technology of chilled beef allowed the North Americans to gain ground in foreign markets. After successive agreements over export quotas, the United States finally controlled three-fourths of the meat trade with Great Britain, though the British continued to dominate shipping and insurance.
These were the first signs of a triangular relationship that deepened and became much more complex once local industry began to demand machinery, parts, and oil, supplied by the United States, or when the use of the automobile was popularized, requiring a more delicate and precise handling of economic policy than previously. These problems were overshadowed by a much more critical situation brought about by the First World War, which disorganized financial and trade networks, led to foreign divestment, and produced a marked increase in the cost of living and difficulties in many industries, though the war benefited those activities, such as the export of canned meat, intended to supply the belligerents. Yet even those who were the beneficiaries perceived this increase in exports to have circumstantial and short-lived effects limited to the duration of the war. The truth is that by the time Yrigoyen assumed the presidency in 1916 few would have subscribed to the optimistic and carefree assessment that prevailed in 1910.
The greatest concerns were those emanating from social tensions, popular demands, and diverse necessities generally expressed in a violent manner by the various social actors who were emerging as society became more diversi- fied but also more established. These tensions did not arise from the traditional, lethargic interior but from the dynamic regions of the littoral. In the rural zones, the first noteworthy manifestation of these tensions was that of the agricultural colonists (colonos) of Santa Fe, protagonists of the first agricultural expansion, the majority of whom were small producers who both rented and owned land. A critical economic conjuncture—with its origins in the 1890 crisis—combined with the state’s political decision prohibiting foreigners from voting in municipal elections. That same year, 1890, the Unión Cívica rebellion occurred, and in following years the colonos added their demands—elimination of an onerous tax and reestablishment of the vote in municipal elections—to those of the Radicals, the name given to the members of the redubbed Unión Cívica Radical. The Radicals and the colonos collaborated in Santa Fe’s 1893 uprising in which the “colonos in arms”—especially the Swiss—played an important role, only to suffer government repression and the aftereffects of a climate generally unfavorable to the colonos.
The next rebellion, quite a bit later, broke out in 1912 and had as its actors the sharecroppers (arrendatarios) who had participated in the notable expansion of grain agriculture in the littoral region and the hardworking small farmers (chacareros) who, at the head of small family enterprises and with great sacrifice, could at times prosper and consolidate their position. Both were harried by constant pressures, especially those coming from the landowners, who periodically adjusted their rental contracts with the sharecroppers, motivated by the increasing demand for land that resulted from a permanent migratory flow. Both arrendatarios and chacareros were also subject to the demands of the commercial intermediaries that stretched from the small local store owner to the great exporting firms of Dreyfus or Bunge y Born.
In periods of good prices, the chacareros could maintain the balancing act. With the fall of international prices in 1910 and 1911, however, when rents were kept high, the situation of the sharecroppers became critical. On the other hand, the chacareros had sunk roots in the country, formed communities, and established their interests, and they were also adversely affected by the fall in prices. Thus in 1912, the arrendatarios and chacareros found common cause and undertook a strike, refusing to bring in the harvest unless the landowners satisfied certain conditions: longer tenancy contracts, lower rents, and various other demands such as the right to freely acquire agricultural machinery for the harvests and to raise domesticated animals. In the cases of both Santa Fe’s colonos and the pampa’s sharecroppers and chacareros, the moderation of their demands—which neither questioned the basic aspects of the system nor proposed alliances with rural day laborers (jornaleros)—contrasted with the violent actions of Santa Fe’s colonos and the organizing activities of the sharecroppers and small farmers who initiated an important cooperative movement and established their own representative organization, the Federación Agraria Argentina. Since then, this organization has represented the small landed interests and has constantly demanded concessions and pressured landowners and public authorities.
In the great cities—above all in Buenos Aires and Rosario—the establishment of collective identities was more complex and less in unison, but with more spectacular consequences. Among the popular sectors, linguistic and cultural heterogeneity was overwhelmed by the daily experience of confronting the harsh living conditions, which encouraged cooperation and the founding of associations around which popular society started to coalesce: mutual aid and resistance societies and trade unions. In addition, living together allowed for the spontaneous integration of cultural traditions and the emergence of hybrid cultural expressions of great creativity, such as the tango, popular theater (sainete), and even an Argentine slang (lunfardo) in which creole influences and the diverse contributions of the immigrants came together. The Church, the immigrant associations, and especially the state, which combined coercion with education, sought to exert influence on this spontaneous formation of culture. Nonetheless, the state’s powerful instrument, public education, clashed in this first period with the mass of adult workers, illiterates who were almost impervious to its message. This situation left open a wide field of action for alternative identities by radical intellectuals and particularly anarchists. These found an appropriate language to address the working masses, dispersed, foreign, and segregated, who to act together needed great mobilizing ideals, such as that of overthrowing the ruling class and establishing a new and just society, without bosses or the state. The general strike and spontaneous revolt that the anarchists successfully directed were the instruments, it was imagined, for bringing together these fragmented laboring masses and making more effective the struggles for the demands specific to each of their unions. Faced with the anarchists, the state redoubled its repressive efforts, and the 1902 Residency Law even authorized the deportation of unruly elements. In a game of reciprocal challenges, the social agitation that began around 1890 became more acute by 1900 and culminated in the great strikes of 1910, the high point of mass agitation and urban revolt—although the groups’ organizational strength never matched their mobilizing capacity—and also of repression.
This identity, segregated and antiestablishment, a source of serious concern on the part of the ruling classes, was not the only one that took hold among urban workers. Slowly but surely appeared among them a group of skilled workers, usually with a very basic education, determined to settle in the country and in many cases already Argentine citizens. Among them and also among other popular sectors already integrated into urban society, the Socialists found their constituency. Unlike the anarchists, the Socialists offered a discourse more rational than emotional, calling for gradual improvement of society in which final aspirations would result from the outcome of a series of small reforms. These were in great measure to be achieved through parliamentary means, which is why they urged the immigrants to become citizens. The Socialists always obtained good electoral results in the cities following the 1904 victory of Alfredo Palacios as congressman from Buenos Aires.
Nevertheless, the Socialists had no success in channeling the specific demands of the workers, who, when they did not follow the anarchists, preferred the syndicalists. The latter had a particularly strong standing among the big unions such as those of the railroad workers, the merchant marine workers, and the dock workers. Like the Socialists, the syndicalists favored gradual reforms, but were uninterested in political struggle and political parties and concentrated their actions strictly on trade-union matters. Both the Socialists and the syndicalists contributed—especially after 1910—to directing conflict along reformist lines and to finding common ground and negotiating with the state. The state, for its part, was capable of displaying a more conciliatory attitude, expressed in the drafted labor code of Bismarckian inspiration, proposed in 1904 by Minister Joaquín V. González and written with the collaboration of the most progressive political leaders. The establishment of the National Department of Labor in 1907 was likewise a demonstration of the state’s ability to seek compromise and reform.
The unions became definitively established as an important actor with perennial demands. They did not, however, manage to articulate society’s other concerns, particularly for those who preferred to attempt the road of social mobility rather than tie their fate to that of the working masses. Social mobility was an attractive and relatively attainable option in a society whose hierarchy was open and fluid. The attainment of economic success was essentially an individual venture, but social prestige and the possibility of gaining access to the redoubts that the upper classes kept closed were collective problems, expressed in political terms even when politics did not encompass all the issues at stake.
The political system designed by the elite, effective as long as society remained passive, began to reveal its weaknesses once new actors made their voices heard. In 1890, the first crack in the system occurred when a dissident faction that emerged from the establishment itself—headed by university students— encountered unsuspected support from a society battered by economic crisis. It is significant that the principal leaders of the new parties— Leandro N. Alem, Hipólito Yrigoyen, Juan B. Justo, Lisandro de la Torre— had fought together in the 1890 Revolution. This blow hurt the profoundly divided political regime, which for three or four years foundered, incapable of finding a suitable response to a challenge progressively more clearly delineated. Around 1895, following a pair of rebellions that were put down and through the efforts of Carlos Pellegrini, the regime’s “great operator” in politics, the political establishment recovered its balance, a balance that General Roca consolidated when he reached the presidency for the second time in 1898. Nonetheless, some holdovers were not reabsorbed by the oligarchic regime: the Socialist Party, whose base was the working class, and the Unión Cívica Radica (UCR), a political movement still seeking its constituency.
Once the political agitation had passed, Radicalism survived for several years in a state of latency. In 1905, it attempted a revolutionary uprising with both civilian and military supporters, but failed. The attempt had, however, an enormous propagandistic effect, especially because it broke out at a moment when the political regime found itself once again afflicted by a deep division. The origins of this division lay in the incidental rupture between the regime’s two leaders, Roca and Pellegrini, but there were deeper divisions. Thus, despite the failure of the 1905 uprising and the harsh repression unleashed against it, the UCR began to grow, to develop its network of party committees, and to incorporate new social groups who had their first political experiences: young professionals, doctors, lawyers, merchants, businesspeople, and, in the rural areas, many small farmers. All these groups made up the world of those who had successfully traversed the first stages of social mobility but who found the doors closed for the exercise of a citizenship that, together with its specifically political dimension, had another dimension entailing social recognition.
Radicalism’s program—whose heart was full compliance with the Constitution, the sanctity of the vote, and a certain morality in public life— expressed those common interests, limited but precise. To implement the recommended principles, the UCR, like the Socialist Party, had an organic charter and party statutes, although its leading personalities, the majority of whom had emerged in public life in the 1890 Revolution, always exercised a decisive influence. Above all, Radicalism had a powerful weapon with which to confront what it called “the regime,” regarded as “treacherous and discredited.” That weapon was “the cause,” defined by its intransigence, that is, the refusal to accept any compromise or agreement, a position that explains its policy of electoral abstention. The UCR thus refused to contemplate the eventual establishment of a party system in which the parties alternate and share power and, identifying itself as synonymous with the Nation, demanded the complete removal of the regime that had been constructed on the foundations of the unicato. Certainly electoral abstention—perhaps the clearest expression of the incapacity of the political regime to accommodate society’s demands—made things easier for the ruling elite, but in the long run the moral condemnation proved effective.
The tensions that society was experiencing, which expressed its growing complexity, and the number of legitimate concerns striving to be heard, appeared more violent and threatening than they really were because of the government’s scant ability to make room for them and to find an appropriate space for negotiation. Feeling challenged by the extreme form of their protests, many leaders opted for a harsh response: to single out “foreign minorities,” to ignore, repress, and also to maintain and safeguard privileges. This is what President Manuel J. Quintana (who succeeded Roca) did when he put down the 1905 uprising. This position became increasingly attractive, not only because of the magnitude of the societal challenge but also because of the doubts of the ruling elites and the growing realization of their illegitimacy, which caused divisions in their ranks and weakened their position, allowing those who urged reform to make advances. Pellegrini’s defection to the side of the reformers, at the end of Roca’s second presidency, was a decisive turning point, as was the determination of President Figueroa Alcorta, who assumed the presidency in 1906, to use all the instruments of state power to dismantle the machine assembled by Roca and also to make possible the election of Roque Sáenz Peña as president in 1910. The most notorious weapons of the old regime were employed in the cause of a transformation that, on adopting the arguments of Radicalism, sought to make politics more transparent, incorporating the population as a whole in the electoral process. Proposals for a secret ballot, safeguarded with voter registration lists verified with the military conscription roll, were intended to avoid any government interference in elections, whereas the mandatory vote, which Sáenz Peña translated into the exhortation: “The people must want to vote!” was meant to incorporate the masses into citizenry status. The masses, nevertheless, despite the preachings of Radicals and Socialists, demonstrated no great interest in voting.
In addition, electoral reform established the representation of majorities and minorities, by a proportion of two to one. Those who drafted the bill were absolutely convinced that the parties representing traditional interests would win a majority with no problem and that minority representation would fall to the new parties—above all the UCR and perhaps the Socialist Party—who would thus become incorporated into the system and share the responsibilities. Such a conviction was founded on the simultaneous decision by a group of reformers to change its own political practices, eliminating the electoral machines that until then had operated—whose archetype figure was the legendary Cayetnao Ganghi, a political boss from the federal capital who carried a suitcase full of voter registration cards—and to incorporate everywhere into the political competition figures of sufficient social and intellectual stature to attract votes without resorting to fraud. The task, in a word, was to eradicate criollo politics and to establish a party of “the noteworthy,” an undertaking favored without doubt by the mandatory vote, which would help to break the political bosses’ machines that had heretofore been dominant.
After the 1912 reform law passed, the first elections provided a great surprise for those who had designed the reforms. Although the traditional groups who were beginning to be called the Conservatives won in many provinces—and there the governments found a way to continue to wield influence—the Radicals triumphed in Santa Fe and the federal capital, with the Socialists winning second place there. The prospect of victory mobilized many to vote for Radicalism, which in those years became a mass party with a network of committees and ward bosses, imbued with many of the practices of “creole politics.” Hipólito Yrigoyen, a mysterious figure who never spoke in public but who was a tireless backroom politician, became a leader of national stature. To confront him, the Conservatives attempted to organize a solid party apparatus on a national scale like the Radical Party, but based on different groups and provinces. Lisandro de la Torre—previously the founder of a “new” party, Santa Fe’s Liga del Sur, was the candidate of the neoconservative party emblematically called the Partido Demócrata Progresista. The success of the undertaking was ever more doubtful, however; many leaders, headed by the governor of the province of Buenos Aires, Marcelino Ugarte, were suspicious about the project of political reform, all the more so behind the leadership of a profoundly liberal leader such as de la Torre. These leaders preferred to propose their own alternative. With the Conservatives divided, the Radicals—who had to grapple with their own divisions—won a narrow victory in an election that, in 1916, inaugurated a markedly new stage in politics and society.
© 2002 The Penn State University
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