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Defining the Argentine Nation

by Don Mabry

The Viceroyalty of la Plata consisted of present-day Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay, an area of 1,693,800 square miles or about 48% of the size of the United States of America. It had been created in 1776 because of increased smuggling in the Río de la Plata area. Buenos Aires, the seat of the viceroyalty, grew from a village with mud huts into a sizable city as it prospered from the influx of government money and trade. It became the chief rival, and eventual victor, over the old Argentina centered in the Northwest.

The Spanish Empire largely ignored the coastal regions, including Buenos Aires, in the colonial period.There was no geographical unity in the viceroyalty.

Buenos Aires was a city and a province. Most of the province was rural and served as the hinterland of the city.

Buenos Aires became important for political reasons—because the Spanish king decided to make it a viceregal capital—not because it had the best harbor. It didn't. Better harbors were found at Paraná, up the Río de la Plata or further south on the coast at La Plata.

It was the river system—the Río de la Plata, the Río Paraná, and the Río Paraguay—which made the region valuable because they were transportation routes. Ocean going ships could dock at Paraná.

We define Argentina by what it became which assumes that this was inevitable. This is a grievous error. It could have become the entire viceroyalty and there were some people who wanted that. However the people in Upper Charcas (Bolivia) and Paraguay quickly convinced the imperialists in Buenos Aires that such was not to be the case. Upper Charcas was a region whose population was largely Indian and most of the people lived in the rugged Andes Mountains. Uruguay (the Banda Oriental as it was known in the colonial period, would have been part of present-day Argentina had Brazil and then Great Britain stopped both Argentina's and Brazil's efforts to annex it. Nevertheless, Argentina continued to intervene in Uruguay with hopes of annexing it or, failing that, making it a satellite state. One reason was the imperialistic urge; another to to prevent Brazil from controlling the little country; and the third was to prevent Montevideo from becoming the principal port on the Río de la Plata

Even if one uses the current definition of Argentina, there are geographical difficulties to nation forming in the early 19th century. There were at least five (5) Argentinas:

    1. The Old Northwest and Piedmont, containing Tucumán, Salta, Juyjuy, and the area westward from Buenos Aires to the Andes such as Córdoba, San Juan, and Mendoza were tied to Upper Charcas (Bolivia) and Peru during most of the colonial period, a connection weakened and, in some cases, broken by the independence movement in these areas. These areas supplied the mines; they were too far from the Atlantic Coast (Salta to Buenos Aires was 1200 miles). In terms of time, Lima was closer. This area was traditionalist in outlook with a strong Old World Catholicism. It had a significant handicraft industry, the products of which it exported.

    2. The frontier beginning in Buenos Aires province and stretching southwards through Patagonia, a region that was cold, wind swept, and controlled by fierce nomadic peoples. The northern part had rich land and would be conquered in the nineteenth century. 3. The Littoral provinces of Santa Fé, Enter Ríos, Corrientes, and Chaco which were served by the river system.

    4. Buenos Aires province which shared more in common with the other rural, ranching states than with its city.

    5. Buenos Aires city, which was more internationalist and modern with a distinctly European frame of mind.

How does one combine all of these disparate regions, with they different populations and customs, into a nation? Mutual self-interest? But their self-interests were mutually exclusive. The Littoral provinces had the city of Buenos Aires as a rival; they would thrive better if the city disappeared. The Northwest provinces and the Piedmont could not compete successfully with the international port of Buenos Aires which could import better goods more cheaply.

The Argentine nation was defined in steps.

    1. Upper Charcas and Paraguay rejected union with the rest of the viceroyalty.
    2. Uruguay, with the aid of Great Britain, became an independent nation in 1828.
    3. An Argentine confederation of some provinces/states was created with Buenos Aires city as the principal port and handler of international affairs. But the city remained independent until 1862.
    4. A separate Argentine confederation was created with its headquarters at Paraná.
    5. The unification of Argentina after the overthrow of Juan Manuel Rosas in 1852, culminating with the entry of Buenos Aires into the nation in 1862 and then its federalization in 1882.
    6. The capturing of the nation by Buenos Aires.

The social and political relationships in the new nation were diverse and complicated. For much of the nineteenth century, the native peoples, nomads who fought ferociously against the newcomers, slowly but eventually lost. The gaucho was also nomadic and fierce and untamed, following leaders from personal loyalty. They formed the basis of power of the local and state caudillos (strong men) and were Argentina for much of the century. The estanciero, owner of vast estates, lived from the products of wild and semi-wild cattle from which he extracted hides, tallow, and meat. There were those who owned meat salting plants, essential for foreign trade as well as the preservation of meat fir domestic use. And there was a merchant class with all the other occupations necessary to conduct trade. There were those who transported good, including those who drove the two-wheeled carts across the pampas to and from the northwest and Buenos Aires. And others too numerous to mention.

Don Mabry