Argentine Caudillo: Juan Manuel de Rosas
Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2001
An abridgement of the author’s authoritative biography of nineteenth century Argentine dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas, Argentine Caudillo is highly readable, detailed and informative — offering much insight into the period — but ultimately disappointing. In the copy I purchased from the Chapman bookstore, several pages are missing, leaving me insanely curious about the very end of Rosas’s reign! With everything else so chaotic, I continually forgot to enquire into this, leading to a last-minute edit to this introduction. Despite the missing text, the odyssey of Rosas comes through more than clearly, and though the details of his last battle are absent, the gist of the story is unaffected.
Born of the generation destined to liberate Latin America from colonial control, Rosas was a royalist sympathiser with a strong affinity for the Spanish way of life. His relations with the independence crowd were tense at best, and he made no secret of his preference for the colonial system once he had gained power over Buenos Aires. His power base was always the city and province of Buenos Aires, and he had been a pioneer of territorial expansion into the pampas, which quickly became rich cattle country. As provincial military commander, he had no serious competition, and despite his ties to the landed élites, he was steered into control by a wave of popular support in 1829.
He soon ruled Buenos Aires as an absolute dictator, but left the provinces mostly autonomous, preferring a loose confederation to a federal structure. His early career was notable for his conquest of the southern desert (19-20) and for the favour shown to foreigners (25) whose investment in Argentine meat he sought. He pursued primitive economic policies, with a lack of diversification and little encouragement of agriculture not directly related to cattle and sheep. Lynch quotes a contemporary observer: “Cows dictate Argentine policy! What are Rosas, Quiroga and Urquiza? Cowboys, nothing more.” (33) This monoculture helped to encourage a polarisation of society (37; 39-40) and allowed a crude “gaucho” mentality to govern (44-45). In the absence of a formal aristocracy, Rosas claimed that the masses ruled Argentina; in actuality, there was no functional democracy and the only populist connexion Rosas had was his own vulgarity. Certainly he did nothing to cut into the estancia system — his gaucho followers remained as landless as they were before his ascendancy. (49)
From there, things looked increasingly grim for Argentina under Rosas. Lawless “justices of the peace” roamed the countryside, “legally” looting and pillaging (51-52). Rosas himself was a slave-holder long after slavery was outlawed, despite his courting of the British (strident opponents of the slave trade by then), and was considered to be a harsh master (53-54). (He would later crack down on slavery and the practise would die out slowly.) Criminal punishments were meted out across the board, and his “eccentric” insistence upon undergoing the same punishments he dealt to others did much to garner respect amongst the country folk. (57)
With Argentina in a continual state of disarray in the wake of independence, the government eventually turned more power over to Rosas: “In place of a constitution, he demanded total sovereignty, and in 1835, he justified the possession of ‘a power without limits’ as vital to dispel anarchy.” (75) Rosas detested the liberals, with their Enlightenment humanism and love for democracy; in spite of glowing rhetoric in favour of popular opinion, there was no consensual government in Argentina, and that suited Rosas perfectly. In fact, when a plebiscite on his “extraordinary powers” was held, only half of the electorate went to the polls; their abstentions gave him ample reason to forego further efforts at legitimation. (80)
In fact, this disturbing result led Rosas to heavy purges of the administration, and toward the development of an ever-strong cult of personality and culture of conformity. He surrounded himself with obsequious toadies, and even the simple failure to preface a letter with the standard “death to the savage Unitarians” could result in severe recrimination. (83) Rosas in this period was described by an English visitor thusly:
In appearances Rosas resembles an English gentleman farmer — his manners are courteous without being refined. He is affable and agreeable in conversation, which however nearly always turns on himself, but his tone is pleasant and agreeable enough. His memory is stupendous: and his accuracy in all points of detail never failing. (86)
In reading this I could not help noticing echoes of Hitler in his description — a superior memory providing the illusion of great intelligence; pleasant conversation that could conceal the machinations of a capricious tyrant.
The comparison with Hitler is apt in another way: Rosas ruled through force and the fear of force. His army of conscripts was held together through hopes of reward — the booty plundered from enemies of the government — and Rosas was unafraid to turn elements of this force loose in order to achieve a desired end. “He used terror as an instrument of government to eliminate enemies, discipline dissidents, warn waverers, and ultimately control his own supporters. Terrorism was not popular, spontaneous, or indiscriminate. … In this regime the government was the terrorist.” (96) It does not take a great deal of imagination to see the similarities between the mazorca and the brown-shirted SA thugs that “spontaneously” acted to further their leader’s political goals.
Terror was not a continuous or pervasive experience; for the most part it remained sporadic and confined to isolated targets. However, the “Great Terrors” of 1840 and 1842 provide important exceptions, showing the depth of lawlessness that Rosas could tolerate in his capital. Even the residences of foreign legations were not protected from the death squads; this was “state terrorism”. (110) But after 1842, there was a gradual shift away from such tactics, and in 1846 the mazorca was disbanded. Rosas’s rule remained capricious and violent, however, as seen in the tragic tale of love between a 19-year-old French girl and a young priest. Their excessively harsh punishment — double execution (triple if pregnancy is counted) — owed more to Rosas’s political embarrassment in front of the opposition than to the crime itself. As Lynch points out, in “[one] way or another, Rosas obtained unqualified obedience. He destroyed anarchy, but he created a great fear. He wore down the opposition by irresistible force. After two memorable decades, he was still there, irremovable and apparently impervious not only to internal threat but also to foreign interventions.” (119)
This situation could not last, of course; like most of history’s great tyrants, Rosas was not to slip quietly off of the stage. Rather, he seemed to edge further into an isolated sense of entitlement and stagnation — more Stalin than Hitler in this regard. Despite frequent (disingenuous) offers to retire — claiming poor health “ruined in the service of his country” — the congress of Buenos Aires continually returned power to him, always unwilling to risk insult by taking him at his word. This farcical power-play led foreign observer Henry Southern to comment on “Rosas going through paroxysms of frustration over his inability to resign”:
Rosas himself I really believe is sometimes his own dupe and for the moment often identifies with the part he is playing. I apprehend that there is something unsound in the brain and though there is a constant method in his madness, still it must be hallucination. A few evenings ago when speaking of the cruelty of his fellow countrymen in forcing him to remain the supreme power in this part of the world his tone of lamentation and distress would have melted any heart not steeled by incredulity. (130)
Following an arms build-up by Rosas against the Empire of Brazil, in 1851 he managed to provoke a war which united Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, and a couple of Argentine provinces against him. He seems to have been unprepared for the rebellion of his trusted lieutenant Urquiza, whose forces were superior in quality to any Rosas could field. Additionally, Rosas was slow to respond to the Brazilian threat, and appeared to lack any overall strategic vision. In this way he demonstrated his own “cowboy” heritage; when faced with a serious threat — one which he could not dispel through terror — he did not know how to respond. However, Urquiza’s forces were little better than disorganized rabble — essentially a caudillo force — and the country people encountered on the way to Buenos Aires were frequently and unmistakably rosista, and in the capital, Rosas was more popular than he had been a decade earlier. With all of these advantages, he still was defeated in battle, and spent the rest of his life in exile.
Rosas was, in nearly every way, the prototypical Latin American dictator: rough in manner and style; friendly with foreign business interests; unable to manage political subtleties; and ultimately beholden to the capricious forces that lent him power in the first place. His autocratic style was doubtless influential on successive generations of Argentine leaders (all the way to the twentieth century fascists), but in his arrogance and simplicity lay the seeds of his inevitable downfall.