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HOME > Short Stories > Argentina and Uruguay > CHAPTER III HISTORY AND POLITICS
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The political history of the River Plate Republics begins with the wars which made possible the great Declaration of Independence from the dominion of Spain on the 25th of May, 1810. Their most romantic history is that of those wars and that of the old Colonial days immediately preceding them. As, however, the only slight pretension of the present book is to be informative on matters of fact, romance must wait on, perchance, the author’s more leisured moments and some outline be presented now of the events which had most influence in making Argentina and Uruguay what they are to-day.

Having overthrown the rule of Spain the former River Plate colonies became involved in a long internecine struggle for supremacy of power. For fifty years the United States of the River Plate were most disunited by local jealousies and the rural districts were only usually unanimous in their refusal to submit to the Government at Buenos Aires, composed of men who, as the rural populations said with a great amount of truth, were endeavouring to rule even more despotically than did the Viceroys and by purely Viceregal methods. Were that submitted to, the revolution would have been in vain as far as concerned the substitution of democratic principles for those of tyranny. This was no doubt true, for the politicians of Buenos Aires neither knew, nor had had any opportunity of knowing, methods of Government other than those under which they themselves had been brought up. Had they known it, though it is only[30] just to them to say that they did not in the least realize the fact, rule under them in the way they proposed to rule, would have been merely an exchange of King Stork for King Log. The country was, however, quick to grasp the menace, and it is only very regrettable that rivalry between its several contemporary would-be saviours produced so long a continuance of political chaos, during which newly acquired Liberty and Independence had no chance to develop the vast natural resources which had lain idle in consequence of the Spanish policy of squeezing the life out of the goose which would otherwise have laid so many golden eggs for Spain. In consequence of civil war it was, as has been indicated, not much before 1860 that it began to lay any appreciable number of such eggs for itself or anyone else. It only began to do so under two tyrants: Rozas in the South and Artígas in the North. Both were strong men and patriots; and both held power, in spite of opposition both open and treacherous, for, as later history has shown, the good of the respective territories they had brought under their sway. Harsh as were their methods, these were suited to lawless times. Of each of them it has been said that he permitted no thief but himself to live.

As a fact neither were thieves nor sought nor attained overmuch wealth for themselves. Both, however, forestalled otherwise inevitable assassination by giving their enemies no shrift at all; once these had been ascertained. And both succeeded in establishing police systems throughout their territories which would rival the European secret services of to-day.

Nothing went on unknown to them; from short-lived conspiracies to petty thefts. And the punishment for each offence inflicted by them was swift and closely fitted to the crime.

No one has yet attempted a complete whitewashing of Rozas; though, in every political crisis in which the Government has shown any apparent weakness, old men have[31] sighed for his reincarnation. Artígas, on the other hand, whose memory not so long ago rivalled those of the most traditionally cruel old-world potentates, is now become the Saviour and National hero of Uruguay. The apostle of the democratic principle.

Truth about his personality probably lies somewhere between these two views, but there is no doubt but that he and Rozas were men needed for and suited to their times. Fearless and far-sighted, they made order out of chaos, and individually cruel as may have been many of their acts, it was their iron rule which laid the foundations of the admirable constitutions of what are now the separate Republics of Argentina and Uruguay. Rozas really founded the Argentine Republic as much as Artígas did the “Banda Oriental,” part of which is now Uruguay. But the period of strife which succeeded the Declaration of the Independence of the whole of the River Plate Territories had lasted just over half a century when General Mitre was chosen as the first President of a United Federal Argentina.

He was succeeded by Sarmiento, who did much to develop agriculture and was the great pioneer of education. Sarmiento had been a political exile in Europe, where he learned much; and, being a man of exceptional intellect, stored up his acquired knowledge and enlightenment for his country’s subsequent great good.

Since the first Presidency of General Mitre there has only been one political revolution which affected the whole of Argentina, the one which in 1890 ousted President Juarez Celman and was immediately succeeded by the financial crisis with which the name of Baring is chiefly associated in the European mind.

Both that revolution and the crisis were the natural outcome of a disease which would have completely ruined any country less rich in natural resources than Argentina. That disease was complete political and financial corruption; which then came to a head and necessitated drastic operation.[32] Since then the Argentine nation has advanced in political and financial health with extraordinary and unparalleled rapidity.

The history of Uruguay has run on different lines since she emerged from the older Banda Oriental. She has been the almost constant victim, until very recent years, of the fervent patriotism of her rural population; in rebellion, often with much apparent justice, against what it has from time to time considered to be the prejudicial doctrinarianism of the town-bred men who have directed her Government in Montevideo. In any case the rural population has always been in a more or less declared state of rebellion against the Government. For many years the “White” party was in power and the “Red” in revolution. Now for a long period the “Reds” have kept place and nominal power, from which until comparatively very recently the “Whites” have never ceased to endeavour to oust them.

Let it not, however, be thought that either the retention of power by one party or its attempted overthrow by the other has in Uruguay been due to personal ambition or corrupt greed on either side; as has been, unfortunately but very frequently, the case in other South American Republics. To think this would be to do a cruel injustice to the national character, the leading characteristics of which are uprightness and honesty in thought or deed. No Uruguayan would ever have rebelled had he not thought that the policy of the existing Government was gravely prejudicial to the vital interests of his country, nor would an Uruguayan statesman have ever clung to power unless he had been conscientiously convinced that the policy of his party was the only true way to that country’s best development and prosperity.

This may seem to many readers as yet but little acquainted with Uruguayan political and commercial History as the mere expression of an enthusiasm for the Uruguayan character on the part of the present writer. But a closer examination of that History than is within the scope of the present[33] work will show the views just above expressed to be nothing more than a statement of cold fact. In part proof of which stands the total absence from Uruguayan Financial History of any repudiation or avoidance of the National indebtedness. Long periods of Agricultural paralysis, often almost total (in a land which depends exclusively on agricultural products), due to civil strife and all the heavy outlay consequent on such wars, have never led Uruguay to depart from the strictly gold basis of her monetary system. Her paper dollar has always retained its full face value as a token and remains the best dollar on the exchange markets of the world. And the world-wide credit of private Uruguayan firms stands high above that of similar firms in other, even the most prosperous South American Republics. This is due, and due only, to the very high standard of political and commercial morality obtaining, and which has always obtained, in Uruguay.

Now, there is good ground for the hope that the country is persuaded that the best way to attain the greatest possible general prosperity is to beat the sword, once and for ever, into a ploughshare. At the same time it cannot be hidden that “State Socialism gone mad” (to quote an Uruguayan description of the policy introduced and pursued by Se?or Batlle y Ordo?ez[10]) strained the patience of the rural population and that of a goodly proportion of Montevideans as well, to a degree which was perilously near to breaking point. He wished, not only to improve all conditions of his country, but to make Uruguay an object-lesson in State Socialism to the world. His political enemies, or rather opponents, say that, while he has read the works of Henry George, in some confused translation or other, neither his education nor his acquaintance with such subjects fits him to judge of even the works of a now somewhat discredited political economist; also that he, the ex-President, is a potentially dangerous lunatic. But note that no one, even those who feared most[34] from his persistent political and financial adventures, have ever even so much as hinted that his policy was dictated by other than quite honestly intentioned conviction. Uruguayans are seldom corrupt and seldom suspect venality in their fellow-countrymen.

Modern Argentina history commences with the renaissance of the country immediately after the upheaval of 1891, and that of Uruguay a much less number of years ago. Till these periods, political unrest was a constant factor in both countries. Now, a National revolution has become a thing unthinkable in Argentina; while it grows every day less likely for responsible or influential men in Uruguay to instigate or encourage aught that might impede her triumphal march to rivalry with the prosperity of the great sister Republic on the Southern bank of the River Plate.

The recent death of Dr. Saenz Pe?a, an Argentine President whose high personal character and statesmanlike rule fully entitled him to the respect he received from all parties and classes throughout the Republic, is a serious loss to his country. Fortunately, however, the Presidential office is now held by Dr. Victorino de la Plaza, formerly Vice-President, a man of acknowledged soundness of judgment and tact and of very many years’ experience in Ministerial, Diplomatic and Parliamentary life.

As for Uruguay, her chief reliance must be on the deep patriotism of her leading men and on their good sense to keep a peace which is the only true road to the general prosperity of a country the rich natural endowments of which cannot develop if men and horses are taken from the plough, as they constantly were in the past by one party or the other, to partake in the mutual destruction of civil war.

As is insisted on very often in these pages, the chief need of these new countries is population; an end most surely defeated by conditions which not only repelled all immigration but killed off a large proportion of the men[35] already there. There is good reason to believe that all this and more is now fully appreciated by every responsible man in Uruguay; and, once convinced of the right course to be followed for the country’s good, there is not a Uruguayan who will not follow it with all the patriotic doggedness which formerly caused the lamentable continuance of civil war.

Both Argentine and Uruguayan financial policies and methods are now sound. Argentina is prosperous with great future increase of prosperity before her, and Uruguay is now well on the high road to similar prosperity and as brilliant a future. Both are at peace with one another and their neighbouring Republics; all of whom are much too busy with their own interests and too democratic in spirit to dream of aggressive war. Added to which only Uruguay and Paraguay are small enough to need ever to covet further territory.

Brazil does not: Argentina has more than once already in the past refused to take Uruguay into her Federation: Paraguay, except as a constant nuisance to herself and everyone near her, is, and will be for many years to come, a negligible quantity in South American politics. The Andine frontier now fixed between Chile and Argentine is never again likely to be disturbed by either. Uruguay may possibly cast longing eyes one day at the rich grazing lands of Southern Brazil; but she is more than unlikely ever to attempt to acquire these by force. Their annexation by her could only occur on the initiative of the inhabitants of those regions; who, unless Brazil is able in the future to keep her financial and fiscal house in better order than at present, might very conceivably prefer to be under the Government of Montevideo rather than that of Rio de Janeiro. Even then, the question of different languages would present a difficulty to the assimilation of the State of Rio Grande del Sul by its Southern neighbour.

One great step in the democratic progress of the Argentine[36] Republic was made three years ago on the initiative of Dr. Roque Saenz Pe?a. This was the passing of a law which introduced the ballot and made the exercise of the franchise obligatory on a universal male suffrage of native-born Argentines and foreigners of two years’ residence.

It was a great reform made necessary by many considerations. The chief of which were the public indifference to all matters political which did not immediately concern Industry or Commerce and the profound discredit into which elections, parliamentary and municipal, had fallen as a consequence of that indifference; the whole effect of which was to leave the internal government of the country entirely in the hands of a mostly mercenary caste of professional politicians. This caste was habitually guilty of electoral corruption and malpractices which, in the absence of any interested public opinion, continued to work in a vicious circle by causing complete abstention from any exercise of the vote on the part of all citizens of the Republic except those forming the small gangs which were under the orders of the “Caudillo” or political manager of each district. These gangs went to the poll, at so much per head in cash and many illicit privileges, in order that there should be any voting at all to declare the due re-election of the men who wielded the political power in the National or Provincial Legislatures or in the Councils of the various Municipalities.

The substitution, under the new Law, of genuine for fictitious elections has also operated as another, and, probably, final blow struck at the Provincial Oligarchies, reference to which has been made in another chapter.

No one outside South America would really credit the depths of corrupt absurdity in which elections in Argentina were permitted to remain so late in these days of her general enlightenment and prosperity. That reform in this highly important respect was so long a-coming was due to individual preoccupation with their own affairs of the people of a[37] country the material development of which was being accomplished with bewildering rapidity.

Men had no time to occupy themselves with such a tough, and rather dangerous, job as the dethronement of the professional politician; who, in the higher spheres of Provincial Government, usually belonged to one of the widely influential groups of the historically dominant native families. Public morality had sunk to a strangely low level in comparison with the ever-increasing commercial rectitude of the country, when the most startling tale of electoral fraud or administrative corruption would be received with only a shrug of the shoulders and an indulgent smile, as of wonder why the narrator was making so much ado about such a very ordinary occurrence.

The management of elections in the Federal Capital and in the Provinces differed only in method; the results were uniform triumphs for the party in power. In the Capital the authorities went to the trouble of collecting the certificates of citizenship (the deposit of which at the polling booths was the form of voting under the old system) of dead and absent men and sometimes of hiring others, and with filling in blank forms of these with fictitious names, in sufficient quantities to swamp any attempted voting by an opposition. In the Provinces, the elections were always stage-managed by the district commissary of Police. He led up the necessary gang of peon voters, to whom he served out a dinner of carne con cuero, wine and a $5 bill each, to celebrate the occasion and to indemnify them for any trouble they might have been put to by their attendance. Furthermore, the faithful electors knew that in the case of their getting into any scrape in the future which might otherwise cause trouble between themselves and the police, they would stand every possible chance of dismissal with a friendly caution; while were the case one of assaulting an enemy that enemy would stand a better chance of imprisonment than they. These are not traveller’s tales, but facts[38] well known to every resident in Argentina and, I suspect, similar facts are within the experience of everyone living in one or other of most of the Latin American Republics. So that the quantity of ink spilt in the European papers over the accusations brought against ex-President Huerta, to the effect that he had improperly influenced the late Mexican Presidential Election, reads comically to most South Americans.

Now, in Argentina, all qualified persons must vote, or be mulcted in a penalty for not so doing. And it must be your own fault if anyone else knows which way you have voted. Even the innate native conviction that elections are rites instituted for the exclusive benefit of the already elect must have suffered severe shock from Dr. Saenz Pe?a’s Law. It will now be difficult to obtain a price for a mere promise the fulfilment or otherwise of which cannot be ascertained by the purchaser.

The passing of the new Law really seems a miracle when its interference with long-established custom is considered. It has perhaps crowned the patrician caste with the glory of heroically complete self-sacrifice. Certainly it heralds the twilight of the gods who have guided the country’s destinies since their ancestors led its rough armies to victory under the autumnal sun of May, 1810 (the sun which is blazoned in gold on the blue and white of the National banner), who fought for or opposed Rozas and Artígas and upheld the National prestige in the wearisome conflict with Paraguay.

In the old days of musket or rifle and bandolier, the Argentine patricians freely gave their lives and fortunes for the PATRIA. Now in frock-coats and silk hats, they have given up for her the right to all power not derived from individual merit or capacity. In doing so they have made an offering to democratic Liberty greater by far than any attained during the sixty years of Rebellion and Civil War which began with the dawn of the nineteenth century.

The immediate results of this unchaining of the power of[39] a proletariat which has not yet attained a very high educational or intellectual level will nevertheless be watched with interest not unmingled with anxiety by all concerned with political economy in the abstract and the progress and peaceful welfare of Argentina in particular.

In this connection it is perhaps remarkable that whereas the choice of each New President has for many years been a foregone conclusion during at least the last year or so of his predecessor’s term of office, no such lengthy period of predestination was anywhere observable in the case of the successor to Dr. Victorino de la Plaza, who vacates the Presidential chair this year.

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