Having achieved independence but united in name only, the Provincias Unidas became an assortment of quarrelsome mini-states. In 1829, after they failed to agree upon a constitution, the Federalist Juan Manuel de Rosas took command of Buenos Aires, the largest and most populous province, and ruled it ruthlessly until his overthrow in 1852. Ironically enough, the opportunistic Rosas did more than anyone else to ensure the city’s primacy, though it did not become the country’s capital until 1880.
In the early independence years, Unitarist visionaries like Mariano Moreno and Bernardino Rivadavia had advocated an aggressive immigration policy to Europeanize the new republic, but Rosas’s dictatorial rule, obstinate isolationism, and military adventures discouraged immigration. His defeat at the battle of Caseros, followed by his departure for England, opened the country to immigration. It also helped diversify the economy from extensive estancias and saladeros to the more intensive production of wool and grains for export.
War, Expansion, and Consolidation
Rosas’s exile did not mean the end of conflict, as it took nearly a decade of civil war for General Bartolomé Mitre’s Buenos Aires army to defeat the other provinces, led by Justo José Urquiza of Entre Ríos, and unite the country. Even then, Federalist resistance lingered in provinces such as La Rioja, and only a few years later Argentina became embroiled in the bloody War of the Triple Alliance (1864–1870) against Paraguay. Allied with Brazil and Uruguay, Argentina gained the provinces of Misiones and Formosa, but the real challenge was the Patagonian frontier south and west of Buenos Aires Province.
With encouragement from foreign minister Guillermo Rawson, Welsh colonists had given Argentina a beachhead in the southern territory of Chubut in 1865. General Julio Argentino Roca, though, wanted to complete the job begun by Rosas, who had driven the Araucanians westward toward the Andean lakes in the 1830s. The Araucanians, for their part, continued to raid the frontier for cattle and horses.
In 1879 the politically ambitious Roca initiated the Conquista del Desierto (Conquest of the Desert), a euphemistically titled military campaign that rode ruthlessly across La Pampa, Neuquén, and Río Negro to dispossess the Mapuche and Tehuelche east of the Andes; at the same time it was a preemptive strike against Chilean ambitions. On the strength of his military victory, Roca became president in 1880 and made prosperous Buenos Aires a separate federal district (the Capital Federal). Economically and politically, the provinces beyond the pampas lagged far behind.
Around the same time, the government began to encourage settlers, primarily British sheep farmers from the Falkland Islands, into the southern territories of Chubut, Santa Cruz, and Tierra del Fuego. With the definitive settlement of southern Patagonia, Argentina reached its maximum territorial expansion, though precise boundaries with Chile remained to be settled.
The Argentine Transformation
Rosas’s expulsion reversed Argentina’s inward-looking isolationism, opening the country to “liberalism” through foreign immigration, investment, and export opportunities. The first beneficiary was the wool industry, as sheep estancias in Buenos Aires Province provided countless bales of wool for England’s mills, while traditional cattle estancias floundered except on the frontier. Close to the capital, intensively farmed chacras produced food for the burgeoning urban market.
After 1880, the humid pampa of Buenos Aires, along with Santa Fe and parts of Córdoba and Mesopotamia, became one of the world’s great granaries, as it still is today. This also resulted, however, in the rise of latifundios, large landholdings that precluded the rise of any independent class of freehold farmers.
Meanwhile, the influx of British capital modernized the transportation system. Supplanting cart roads, rail lines fanned out from Buenos Aires like the spokes of a wheel. The export economy, though, was susceptible to negative developments like the 1879 depression that followed the Franco-Prussian War, and to land speculation by latifundistas (large landholders) that resulted in financial collapse as the century drew to a close.
In the new century, the economy recovered thanks to grain and meat exports, but the latifundios failed to achieve a broader prosperity. Urban Argentina grew dramatically, but at a cost; as immigrants streamed into Argentina from Spain, Italy, Britain, Russia, and other European countries, a growing gap between rich and poor intensified social tensions. In 1913, Buenos Aires became the first South American city to open a subway system, but in poorer neighborhoods large families squeezed into conventillos (tenements) and struggled on subsistence wages. Conflicts exploded into the open—in 1909, following police repression of a May Day demonstration, anarchist immigrant Simón Radowitzky killed police chief Ramón Falcón with a bomb, and in 1919, President Hipólito Yrigoyen ordered the army to crush a metalworkers’ strike during “La Semana Trágica” (The Tragic Week).
Yrigoyen, ironically enough, pardoned Radowitzky a decade later. His second administration, though, was the first to suffer one of repeated military coups that plagued the country for most of the 20th century. This opened the way for the ascendancy of Juan and Eva Perón, the most loved—and loathed—figures in modern Argentine politics.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Argentina, 3rd edition