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Precursors to Independence
Early Independence
Federalism vs. Unitarianism
Rise of the Caudillos
Juan Facundo Quiroga
Rule of Rosas
Critics of Rosas
The Gauchos
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The Spanish Crown embarked on a thorough revamping of its Latin American empire during the eighteenth century. One of its major new measures was the creation of the Viceroyalty de La Plata in 1776. The Viceroyalty was named after the vast Río de la Plata (River Plate) that empties into the Atlantic Ocean. This region includes the countries of Argentina, Southern Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay. The mining region of Upper Peru (now Bolivia) was incorporated into the new Viceroyalty, and silver from these mines was shipped through the port of Buenos Aires. As a result, the city of Buenos Aires grew spectacularly, yet the interior provinces began a slow decline that would accelerate after the wars of independence. (See the map in this case for more information on the geography of the region).

The wars of independence were the product of an imperial crisis caused by the Napoleonic invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 1808 and the capture of King Ferdinand VII. Everywhere in Latin America, juntas, administrative councils, were formed to rule in the name of the captive king. These small-scale initiatives led to full-blown independence movements, especially after the restoration of Ferdinand VII and his insistence on the absolute authority of the Spanish throne. The creoles of Buenos Aires, eager to trade freely with other nations, sought to achieve their independence by first attempting to capture the mining region, and then launching a major campaign to dislodge Spanish forces from the rest of the Viceroyalty.

The first aim led to disaster, as the Buenos Aires creoles were defeated time and again by royalists in Upper Peru, causing much destruction to the mines. This devastation in turn caused a precipitous decline in the welfare of the western regions of Argentina, which had formerly supplied the mines with agricultural and ranching products. Fighting for their survival, provinces came to see the Buenos Aires free traders as their enemies. As production declined in the provinces, competition for resources became fierce, leading to widespread turf battles.

The second aim of expelling Spanish forces was partially successful thanks to the role of José de San Martín, a professional soldier who led his troops of gauchos, the nomadic horsemen of the region, and slaves across the Andes into Chile and eventually Perú. While it was Simón Bolivar who eventually completed the campaign against Spanish forces, San Martín gave initial direction and purpose to the independence movement, liberating his native Argentina, Chile, and also Peru, if only for a time.

San Martín and other military leaders of the independence movement may have succeeded in driving Spain out of the region, but they left a legacy of dislocated peoples, irregular militarization, and social as well as economic instability. Argentina was not yet a united country; it was merely an aggregation of regions lacking a common framework to promote interaction and political cooperation. The so-called Unitarios party in Buenos Aires attempted to create a unified, central governmental administration, but it faced, and ultimately fell to the powerful federalist forces that controlled the provinces.

The collapse of the Unitarios government and ouster of President Bernardino Rivadavia in 1828 led to the formation of a federal pact engineered by Juan Manuel de Rosas in league with other provincial caudillos, local military leaders. Chosen as governor of Buenos Aires in 1829 by federalists who strongly objected to a centralized government based in Buenos Aires, Rosas consolidated political power in his governorship during the 1830s, thus weakening the legislature and judiciary, turning them into instruments of his political will.

Disinterested in creating the kind of federated national government advocated by many in the interior provinces, Rosas ruled as a dictator, and a violent one at that. The mazorca, his police force, carried out a campaign of repression and fear, and sent many Argentines into exile. The political stability Rosas achieved through these brutal means did lead to an emerging sense of national identity, but the social and human costs exacted a steep price.

In 1852, General Justo José Urquiza, a caudillo from the province of Entre Ríos, led a combined force of Unitarios, Brazilians and his provincial army to overthrow Rosas. While Urquiza replaced Rosas as dictator of Argentina, he oversaw the formation of a national federation of provinces, although the province Buenos Aires would opt out. Not until the 1880s, during the presidency of Julio Argentino Roca, would the united Argentine nation we speak of today come into being.

Scott Van Jacob and Ivan Jaksic


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