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Colección: INTERAMER
Número: 59
Año: 1999
Autor: José Luis Romero
Título: Latin America: Its Cities and Ideas

The Political Process

An urban society internally so fluid and unstable and yet formally so rigid and stratified was bound to have a complicated and restive life. General agreement on the most serious issues was not enough to conceal the discord among groups and individuals. Such an agreement was secured by the decisive action of public officials, representatives of an imperial power that never lost sight of the basic problems of its colonial system. The first concern of Viceroys, governors and the courts of justice was security: there was to be no recurrence of events, like the Indian uprisings, that had imperiled some cities: the siege and destruction of Cuzco in 1536, the siege of Guadalajara in 1540, the destruction of Chilean cities south of Bío-Bío at the end of the sixteenth century. Many cities felt threatened, and when some plot was discovered among the groups under subjection—as it happened in Mexico City around 1638 or in Lima in 1750—they took extreme security measures to prevent Indians, blacks, and mestizos from meeting in secret or carrying arms. This inevitably increased the distrust between those in power and the groups subjected to them. Even the black nurses in charge of white children became suspect. And even when insurrections would erupt in rural areas, fear was felt in the cities, where an entire world of services, trades and menial occupations had grown around the privileged groups.

The threat posed by pirates and corsairs had an even worse effect on the life of the cities. Enemy ships ploughed the seas in search of Spanish galleons, but the most coveted prey were the cities, where—so the belief went—treasures and countless goods were stored. In 1586, after the French had taken Santiago de Cuba and Havana, Francis Drake besieged Santo Domingo and Cartagena. He demanded and obtained one hundred and seven thousand gold ducats to spare the destruction of Cartagena, and in addition he required all property owners to pay a fixed sum to save their houses from being burned to the ground; and so the first inventory of the city was taken. Cartagena was attacked twice again, in 1697 and 1741; in the meantime, La Guayra, Veracruz, and Portobello were besieged, as was Havana, again, in 1762. When Cape Horn became a viable route, after 1616, the ports on the Pacific coast were under the constant threat of the English and the Dutch. In 1671, one of these ports—Panama City—was occupied by Henry Morgan and his freebooters from the island of Tortuga, who had crossed the isthmus after taking Portobello. Panama was one of the finest cities, with over one thousand buildings, not counting churches and convents. The city was razed to the ground by the Dutch and abandoned by its people in search for another site. Years earlier the Dutch had occupied Olinda and Bahia, and also Recife, where they remained for almost twenty years.

Now, a city on the defense was also a city on the attack. While they remained on the alert for an enemy attack, these cities organized new expeditions to occupy the surrounding territory, or the areas that were under their influence or along the routes that converged upon them. Cuba was occupied by settlers who came from Santo Domingo, and from Baracoa—the first Cuban city—came the settlers who founded all the new cities on the island. The forces that conquered Mexico came from Santiago de Cuba; those that conquered Guatemala were from Mexico. The city was the base of operation for new expansions: there, the new venture was officially announced, captains were recruited, soldiers enlisted, and provisions rounded up. At El Tocuyo, Diego Losada worked for an entire year, in 1556, to ready the expedition he would take to the Valley of San Francisco, where he founded Caracas a year later. Almagro and later Valdivia mounted in Cuzco their expeditions to Chile. In Asunción, Garay mounted the expedition that led to the founding of Santa Fe and Buenos Aires. And from São Vicente, João Ramalho and later Father Anchieta went to what would later become São Paulo. The cities explored their surroundings and, on the ill-defined sketch that had guided the first settlements, they mapped, now with precision, their possible areas of influence. As that labor progressed, urban life grew by fits and starts, the original make up of urban population was considerably altered and relations of interdependence among cities began to develop.

In the meantime, the authorities worked to strengthened the structure of urban life. Five years after the founding of Popayán, Benalcázar left for Spain and returned with women who would live in the city, just as Pedro de Alvarado had done in the city of Guatemala. They wanted their cities to have stable families who would lead a normal life, just as they would in any city in Spain, following their customs, dealing with the problems of daily life, observing and celebrating their holidays. And they wanted it right away, when only a few houses had been built. They brought to the well seasoned officials to put together the new bureaucracy; they brought missionaries; above all, they brought every supply, tool, piece of furniture, or article they deemed necessary to set urban life into motion. There was a haste to see the new cities function as if they were old and had had a long life of their own. Public authorities set the tone by surrounding themselves with little courts, whose salons were the subject of lively conversation in everyday life; and within their scarce means, they tried to lend their cities an air of distinction so that they would quickly cease to be simple villages or the mere promise of a city.

The usual state of affairs in a city was the monotonous succession of the events of private life, interspersed with public festivities, bullfights, and processions. From time to time, that monotony would be suddenly broken by some notorious love affair or horrible crime. But it was the events of public life that would actually shake up daily existence. Sometimes it would be the disputes between the civil and the religious authorities, which could end up in a crisis as serious as the one in Mexico City, between 1621 and 1622, in which the Archbishop excommunicated the Viceroy, the Viceroy expelled the Archbishop, the Archbishop, in turn, issued an injunction on the city, which was followed by a popular uprising. Then, in 1683, there was the incident in Cartagena, when the bishop put the city under punishable delay, as had the first Archbishop of Bogota, Friar Juan de los Barrios done, one hundred years earlier. Other times, the disputes were between the Viceroy and the High Court, or between the bishops and the religious orders. Jurisdictional disputes, caused sometimes by social conflicts, would divide the population into warring factions prone to resort to violence. It was not uncommon to see some groups seize upon a dispute between two public officials and, under the guise of supporting one side, give vent to their antagonism, that had a long history and very different grounds: conflicts of interest or regional disputes, like the one that pitted the Andalusians against the Basques in Peru, in the seventeenth century.

Yet, what altered more profoundly the life of the cities were the struggles for power and privilege. The ill-defined status of Cortez brought about serious tension between him and Viceroy Mendoza. No harm came of it at the time, but it planted the seed of a crisis that would eventually grow, by 1565, into the so-called conspiracy of the sons of Cortez. This was one instance of the inevitable clash between the conquistadores—who had by then become encomenderos or mine owners—and a political authority ready to establish a system of public law. This type of conflict arose, for instance, in Nicaragua, in the city of Granada, where the Contreras took up arms and marched into Panama City, which they occupied in 1549. But conflict was at its worst in Peru, where civil wars reached large proportions. They had began with the dispute between Pizarro and Almagro for the control of Cuzco, and they continued when Almagro’s son took on the royal envoy, Vaca de Castro. Finally, the encomenderos, under Gonzalo Pizarro, stirred up the cities of Cuzco and Lima, where they practically became a rebel power against the Crown. They were subdued, but in 1552 they rose again, under Hernández Girón. Slowly, the encomenderos were brought under control, in a long process in which the rights acquired during the conquest were made to conform to the supreme right—the Law—of the Crown.

Similar conflicts stirred up Asunción, beginning in 1541. There, the unrest started with the confrontation between Governor Irala and Captain-general Alvar Núñez. The residents had transformed what had once been a simple “buttressed house” into a city and were now challenging the Indian policy established by the “New Laws.” However, the majority supported Irala until the Crown, finally, confirmed him as governor.

As intractable as Asunción seemed to be the newly-founded city of Santa Fe, in Argentina, where the criollos, headed by their “seven chiefs,” rose up in 1580. The provincial calm of a number of cities had been disrupted by the tyrant Lope de Aguirre, who, around 1564, had revolted against the authorities in Venezuela, just as Alvaro de Oyón had rebelled in Nueva Granada, attacking the city of Popayán in 1560.

A host of other reasons prompted the confrontation between opposing economic groups. The gentry of Olinda, who had not hesitated to depose Governor Mendona Furtado in 1666, clashed with the merchants of Recife, in 1710, in what was called the “War of the Mascates.” Local interests set off the disputes about the commercial monopoly of the companies in Rio the Janeiro, when Jerónimo Barbalho rose up against the Compañía Geral de Comercio do Brasil, in 1660, as did later on, in 1749, Captain Juan Francisco León in Caracas against the Compañía Guipuzcoana that monopolized the cacao trade.

All the cities, even the major ones, were still provincial in some respects, but they were nonetheless the ground for important economic and political battles. Half-visible, behind these battles, were not only the immediate conflicts that had prompted them but also the plans and aspirations of each group for its own future.