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

Bourgeoisie and Patricians

Within a few decades of the revolution, the shift in power among the classes was evident. Describing a distinguished Mexican lady, in 1840 the Marchioness de Calderón de la Barca wrote:

She and her contemporaries are fast fading away, the last relics of the days of the viceroyalty. In their place has appeared a new generation whose manners and appearance have little to do with veille cour about them—chiefly, it is said, wives of military men, produced by the ferments of the revolutions, ignorant and full of pretension, parvenus who have risen by a struck of luck and not by merit.

The new generation that displaced the traditional aristocracies did not have, however, so simple a composition. In many places, it included members of the old aristocracy, who had become—more or less—sincere republicans. But ultimately, the Scots Marchioness was not far wrong. The new military dominated, certainly; but there were also new and old bourgeois and new and old hacendados. Initially disunited and at odds with one another, within a matter of decades they would merge, following a new and different formula. In the general upheaval that society had undergone after Independence, the most profound change had taken place within the ruling classes themselves.

Of course, the Creole middle classes retained a good part of their power. Challenged because of their desire to retain the position they had held before and immediately after Independence, they had to yield their position, deal with the new power groups that were emerging, and occasionally serve as their proxies or simply give them their backing. But as a group, whatever the fate of any single member, the bourgeoisie continued to wield economic influence and to hold both administrative and, as a rule, political posts.

Vicente Rocafuerte, representative of Guayaquil’s bourgeoisie, held a political office in Ecuador, while Valparaíso’s Diego Portales, also a member of the bourgeoisie, held a political post in Chile. Dr. Borrero left the shop where he sold textiles to become Minister of Foreign Affairs of Colombia, only to return to his shop after his turn at government office was over. Nicolás de Piérola in Peru and Florentino González and Manuel Murillo Toro in Colombia were, as treasury ministers, in a position to realize the plans and interests of the bourgeoisie in their own countries. But even where their members did not hold any high-profile posts, the bourgeoisie continued to pull the strings from their shop counters, their offices, their teller’s windows, and so on. At times, those strings were potent, like those that the Viscount of Mauá pulled in Brazil, which were capable of controlling a country’s entire economy. Still, the Creole middle classes had definitely lost some of their power. They recovered it only thanks to the increasing activity and influence of a new sector, one that had became part of the life of the city and added a new dimension: foreign businessmen.

Though there were many foreign businessmen, their influence was even greater than their numbers. In Buenos Aires, wrote an English resident around 1825, the British businessmen were held in high regard. Most of the country’s commerce was in their hands. After listing 40 British firms in Buenos Aires, the writer added that most such establishments had branches in Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, Chile, and Peru, forming a vast commercial network of some importance for British interests. In Mexico City in 1840, the British celebrated the marriage of Queen Victoria at a ball given at the Palacio de Minería. Many of Mexico City’s most distinguished personalities were in attendance, including its finest families and even the President of the Republic. In every city, one could find an important group that generally controlled not only the major businesses but also the retail shops.

Apart from the English, there were other foreign businessmen as well. There were French living in the cities along the Atlantic seaboard, but still more along the Pacific coastline. Flora Tristán surveys the French population of Arequipa:

Arequipa, a city in the interior, has only limited resources to offer to commerce. The number of foreigners is also very small. The only French house is that of a Mr. Le Bris. He settled in Peru ten years ago, and his businesses have flourished. Before Peru was exploited and then ruined by civil war, Mr. Le Bris had amassed a fortune of several million. But his companies in Valparaiso and Lima sustained tremendous losses through carelessness in doing business. The Central Office in Arequipa had to go to the rescue of the other two. A skillful businessman, Mr. Le Bris took control of each of his business establishments and within a matter of months had everything back in order. In all, there are only eight or ten Frenchmen in Arequipa. Apart from those I have already named, they are Mr. Poncignon de Burdeos, whose shop is the most elegant in the city, and Mr. and Mrs. Cerf, Jews from Brest who sell all types of objects in their shop. Many other French people have their official address in Arequipa but do not live there for the better part of the year. The brokerage businesses, in particular, require that they travel all around Peru.

Americans and Germans could be found in all the cities of the Caribbean. People of all nationalities settled in the Río de la Plata, including Italians and Portuguese. Many were of humble origin, but in general all shared a certain adventuresome spirit. Describing Dreyfus, who cornered the guano market in Peru under the administration of President Balta, a Peruvian wrote shortly thereafter: “Like so many others who no doubt never manage to satisfy their immense drive for money in their own country and leave in order to become quick and easy millionaires in some foreign country, Mr. Dreyfus came to Peru to improvise the fortune he was unable to find in Europe.” But apart from daring businessmen, there were people of another sort as well, especially those who got into the railway business: Meiggs in Peru and Chile, Wheelright in Chile and Argentina, or Buschental who was part of Urquiza’s inner circle in Paraná, capital of the Argentine Confederation and who would engage in just about any type of business. The capitals naturally attracted the more ambitious foreigners, especially those who wanted to be close to power. Even in the lesser cities like Arequipa or Veracruz, the nucleus of foreign businessmen was “the heart of the community,” as the French traveler Eugène de Sartiges said about Arequipa.

But as de Sartiges pointed out, there were problems as well. “Often petitions were introduced in the Peruvian legislature to have foreign businessmen expelled from the country as a means to stem the exodus of capital; the same request is repeated each time there is some kind of political disturbance.” A traveler who signed himself “an Englishman” said something similar in reference to Buenos Aires:

At times the criollos show some jealousy at the English; they assume that we have a monopoly on business and take currency out of the country. These poor students of political economy do not understand that, in trade, obligations are mutual, and that for our goods we buy their raw materials, often at ruinous prices.

In any case, the prestige and influence of foreign businessmen gave considerable strength to the commercial sector as a whole, and relations between groups were sometimes smooth and mutually beneficial. At the beginning of his autobiography, titled Exposição do Visconde de Mauá aos credores de Mauá and C. (Rio de Janeiro, 1878), this brilliant Brazilian entrepreneur wrote:

By the springtime of my life I had already amassed, through tireless and honest labor, a fortune that assured me complete independence. One of the finest men, an English businessman (Richard Carruthers), a completely honest man, typical of the old school of positive morality, after having sufficient evidence of my performance in his service, selected me as a managing partner of his firm, even though I was still a very young man. At that very young age, he set me on the road to a career in business with the idea that I could develop or groom those talents that I had within me.

His was not a unique case; with time, the Creoles and the foreigners came to see eye-to-eye on many things.

Caught up in administration, deft at the subtle negotiations of economics and politics, the urban middle classes reborn with social and economic change conquered the fears aroused by disorder and civil war. Those who won power by force turned to the bourgeoisie for counsel and support, to wield that power effectively, and to carry out their own plans and serve their own interests. And in that give-and-take the bourgeoisie and the new power groups combined to form a new patrician elite. They combined in other ways as well: pragmatic and concerned with daily matters, rich bankers and powerful merchants inspired and underwrote revolutions, trying to impose their own views or, if their viewpoints were not viable, to modify enough to coincide with those who seemed closer to power. Certainly, some won and some lost; but the bourgeoisie never gave up and never left the playing field.

Pragmatism also got the better of the hacendados, rich and influential landowners who were called to battle and often developed a taste for being in command. They, too, had to try to survive in the midst of the crisis of authority that the civil wars created. In one of his novels, the liberal author Altamirano has one of his characters address the following remarks to President Benito Juárez:

Don’t trust those landowners, Mr. President, because they receive a share of the stolen property and get rich that way. There is a certain gentleman who wears a blond wig and uses a golden snuffbox. Every month he receives a large salary from the bandits. He provides the hacendados with passes so that their shipments of sugar and liquor can get through without a problem. In return they have to pay a hefty sum.

Hacendados, montoneros, and bandits formed a very fluid social network for many decades; during that time the hacendados raised private armies whose members could, occasionally or permanently, break away to form their own gangs and conduct pillaging operations.

There were, of course, hacendados who steered clear of politics and confined themselves to their farms or their city homes. Thus they condemned themselves to a form of marginality from which only their wealth could rescue them. Others, however, decided to participate in the social and political change, from which they stood to gain much. Generally they headed up the regional or federalist movements, although once in power they might return to a more centralist position, while still making their own interests and those of their region the centerpiece of policy. That was why they were so intent upon controlling the capitals; all power radiated from the city to cover the entire nation. The entrances that the montoneros made in the cities were symbolic but effective gestures, although perhaps not so dramatic and colorful as the awesome sight of hordes of peasants running through the city streets.

The newest hacendados were the most politically active—specifically those who became hacendados through politics, either appropriating the farms of their adversaries, or even purchasing haciendas with the fortunes they had amassed in their equivocal campaigns. Since the groups of montoneros sometimes slid into outright banditry, more than once their leaders yielded to the temptation of other’s property, whether land or cattle. This was their reward for their ascendancy over the rural workers, the very people they rallied to their side and their trump card on the political gambling table.

In the atmosphere after independence, a policy not backed by force was unthinkable. Witness the fact that many civilians became military men. Manuel Belgrano was an example of how a typical bourgeois intellectual from Buenos Aires could transform himself into the general of a regular army. But as the process moved forward and civil strife began the distinction between regular troops and irregular troops became increasingly blurred. An army made out of civilians often maintained its hybrid character. Military rank was achieved in the fields—through the exercise of effective leadership, according to the spontaneous rules of the armed faction, and in many cases by the self-definition of the one promoted. Describing a gaucho from the Río de la Plata, Xavier Marmier, a French traveler, wrote in 1850:

Once he has mastered his horse, once he has swum a raging river, once he has handled in cold blood the lasso and the knife, then and only then is he a complete man. His existence is assured, and as little as his ambitions may be, his abilities as a gaucho may thrust leadership upon him. This is how the colonels and the generals in the Argentine Confederation got their start. Immortal heroes, as Rosas calls them. The great Rosas himself revealed his genius to the peoples El Plata in this way.

Almost all the montoneros chiefs had more or less the same background; many of those chiefs ended up in high-ranking government positions. Don Jacobo Baca, who joined the revolution in Mexico and whose rise was recounted with exquisite irony by José T. de Cuéllar in Ensalada de pollo (1869), ended up a colonel.

Only the political power of the moment could bestow the rank of general, but no one hesitated to declare himself a colonel if he had 500 well-mounted men behind him. And a political chief who had the wherewithal to exert his arbitrary authority with military force was, by right, a colonel. The period of the civil wars was the era of the military-politicians because one could hardly pull any weight in politics unless he had that double condition. Eugène de Sartiges visited Arequipa’s authorities and wrote: “The prefect, whom President Gamarra had just promoted to the rank of general, repeated merrily that the best government was government by the sword.” In a society reminded daily that such was its government, the dominant class consisted of colonels and generals. And thus the Marchioness de Calderón de la Barca, not without irony, quite correctly observed that the new generation that she saw in control of Mexico consisted of “wives of military men” and, naturally, military men, “parvenus who have risen by a stroke of luck...”

With weapons in hand, each leader sought the backing that he thought would be in his best interests. Some showed conservative leanings, others liberal; still, they might switch sides at any time if they thought it in their best interests. There were those who looked for support among the popular masses, both rural and urban, such as Belzú in Bolivia; others, like his assassin Melgarejo, preferred to serve the propertied classes and foreign interests. But they all had to turn to the urban bourgeoisie to put their government together and consolidate their hold on power. Out of this crossing came the patrician class, half-urban and half-rural, that dominated political life in the long half century that followed independence.

This new leading class, unlike anything before it, was the natural outgrowth of a new society and adapted itself to that society. All the social contradictions were reflected in the new patrician elite, as were all aspirations and ambitions. While the new elite ardently desired power and wealth, it was just as eager to lead the new society. Since no ideology adequately represented political reality, the new elite did not espouse any definite philosophy. Instead, it operated on the basis of practical and immediate concerns. For a short time, the situations themselves created the options. The choice of any option spawned factional disputes and struggles in which personal interests and ambitions became confused with radical views on basic issues. In the confrontation of opinions, political lines were silently drawn, and those political lines, influenced to some extent by ideology, ultimately carved out positions. The names of such positions—or the groups who advocated them—reflected the complex, multi-faceted, at times almost indescribable milieu. In every country, every region, every city, one had either to embrace or to reject it.

Thus, whatever its members’ virtues or vices, the new governing elite was an authentic patrician class. Linked to the collective destiny, it was no more or less virtuous than other patrician classes. What mattered was that the new society regarded it as its aristocracy, its elite. Its members felt that they were the elite. The groups within the patrician class were both urban and rural, both aristocratic and bourgeois. Rural in the countryside and urban in the city, little by little it began also to be rural in the cities and urban in the countryside.

Over time, the patrician elite began to consolidate itself thanks to its continuity across successive generations, inherited fortune and power, simultaneous action in various sectors of society, and matrimonial or economic alliances. Now “old wealth,” it began to think of itself and to be thought of as an aristocracy that, like all aristocracies, guarded or idealized its origins. True dynasties were founded with pre-established places for heirs and collaterals whose power increased if they succeeded in marrying a member of the colonial aristocracy with a family crest. Resistance to the colonial past gradually began to fade in some quarters of the new upper class, but enthusiasm for the egalitarian sentiments that Jacobean orators conveyed evaporated even more quickly. The new lineages reclaimed the privileges of the old ones and arrogantly asserted their alleged excellence. A family that managed to produce a president or an archbishop—like the Errázuriz family in Chile or the Mosquera family in Colombia—was assured universal respect and the best places for even its lesser members. A chronicler of the city of Cauca wrote the following: “This Mosquera family has noblemen with well-earned titles in its history. In Popayán it was a star of the first magnitude.” In Arequipa, the two most distinguished families, the Goyeneche and the Tristán, were related, a lineage that produced not only a bishop but also the abbesses of the aristocratic convents of Santa Rosa and Santa Catalina. And in every city, the new republican lineages exerted their authority and surrounded themselves with the kind of opulence that they believed befitted their rank. Observing the ceremony and formality that attended the lives of the great families, the single conclusion one could draw was summed up in 1840 by the wife of the Minister Plenipotentiary of Spain in Mexico, describing the ceremony inaugurating Congress as “anti-republican looking an assembly as I have ever beheld.”

Out of these new dynasties also came most of the jurists in high positions within the judicial system, the authors of the constitutions, the laws, and the codes, the advisers to government on the most serious problems, and frequently the advisers to foreigners who were making loans or negotiating concessions for public works. These dynasties almost invariably produced the most eminent writers and distinguished poets—often dilettantes who dabbled in the fine arts, politics, and sometimes even war, as in the case of Colombia’s Julio Arboleda. The patrician class was the cream of the new society not only in the large cities, but also in the small ones where the colonial atmosphere remained virtually intact.