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Argentina, A Brief History of 19th Century

by Heath S. Douglas

The biggest mistake one can make when studying Argentina in the 1800s is to assume that it was a true union from independence. The country declared itself independent of Spain in 1810, but it was decades before there was a true unity in Argentina, and some people will argue that unity is not complete even today. Old Argentina, or the northwest, was not under the power of emerging Buenos Aires in the early 1800s, and sectionalism was rampant throughout the country. The mainly rural northwest resisted all attempts by the porteños of Buenos Aires to exercise power.
        By 1826 the people began to realize something had to be done to unify the country. So there was a meeting in Buenos Aires. A new constitution was written and Bernardino Rivadavia was elected president. The provinces took offense to this, so Rivadavia resigned and civil war ensued from 1826-1828.
It was at this time of civil war that the most influential man in 19th century Argentine history arose, Juan Manuel de Rosas. In 1829 he was elected to a three year term as a federalist, meaning he was an advocate of a government sharing power between the national and provincial sectors, as opposed to an unitario, who would support the idea of a strong central government. Rosas was really nothing more than a gaucho (an Argentine cowboy). But he managed to make alliance with the Catholic Church and even was successful in enacting laws to improve education. Yet despite his success, he left after his term ended in 1832 to help drive out natives in the south and open up more lands for civilization. These achievements of course made Rosas a national hero, and all the while his wife was back in Buenos Aires stirring things up. This would eventually give Juan Manuel de Rosas the chance to again be the savior of Argentina. As the situation worsened in Buenos Aires, it became ever easier for Rosas to ride back in and take power. He did this in 1835 and was elected to a five year term as president. What he did was establish a dictatorship. Opponents were exiled or killed, and school children were taught of the "Great Rosas".
Rosas was constantly involved in foreign crises during his tenure. These escapades with countries such as Bolivia and Brazil served to take the public's eye off the prevalent domestic problems of Argentina. Montevideo was blockaded from 1842-1851, and Britain blockaded Buenos Aires from 1845-1847 because of disputes with Rosas.
        But as discontent bubbled in the interior because of increased taxes caused by the blockades, Rosas' hold on power became tenuous. In 1851 Justo José de Urquiza, a larger landowner from the province of Entre Riós, cultivated alliances with anti Rosas parties from Uruguay and Brazil and some Argentine exiles and decided to take on Rosas. There was a battle at Monte Caseros, and Rosas was defeated. He was now forced into exile in England. But now who would govern Argentina?
        A Federalist constitution was written at Santa Fé and Urquiza was made provisional governor. But Buenos Aires seceded and declared itself independent and the true Argentina, led by Bartolome Mitre. Eventually, Mitre's forces lost to Urquiza in 1859 and Buenos Aires became a part of the Federation. Yet fighting broke out again in 1861 and Mitre won and was elected to a six year term in 1861.
Domingo Sarmiento served as president from 1868-1874. He was very education minded, and had written extensively on the subject while traveling over much of the world. During his administration the government invested heavily in education, building new schools and improving the quality of Argentine teachers.
        Julio Roca followed Sarmiento and served from 1880-1886, and he by Juárez Celman (1886-1890). But the elections were far from open and honest, which led to the rise of university students in politics at the turn of the century. Out of this student movement grew the Civic Union of Youth, which eventually split and the Radical Civic Union emerged. Led by Hipólito Yrigoyen, this group wanted free suffrage and open and honest elections. They allied with dissident military groups to try and overthrow the government in 1890, 1892, and 1893, and were unsuccessful in all three attempts. But as the century turned the Radical Civic Union was already a very powerful element in Argentine politics.

For Further Reading:

Ferns, H.S. Argentina (1969).
Kirkpatrick, Frederick. A History of the Argentine Republic (1931).
Pendle, George. Argentina (1955).
Rennie, Ysabel F. The Argentine Republic (1945).
Rock, David . Argentina: 1516-1982 (1985).
Rudolph, James D., ed., Argentina: A Country Study (1985).
Scobie, James R. Argentina: A City and a Nation, 2nd ed. (1971).
White, John W. Argentina: The Life Study of a Nation (1942).

April 9, 1996