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



Once independence had been won in the early decades of the nineteenth century, a number of circumstances brought about fundamental changes in the character of Creole cities. The change was not so much in their physical aspect—which remained basically the same until the late nineteenth century—as in their social structure. The Creole bourgeoisie that had formed in the last decades of the eighteenth century gave way to a new patrician class that took shape in the struggles to organize the new nationalities. This patrician group became the governing class of the cities, above the urban multi-racial masses, which included increasing numbers of people moving from the countryside. Unmistakably Creole, the new patrician class had naturally risen out of a society in search of a new elite, and it accepted, in its fashion, the responsibilities of the uncertain fate that awaited each new nation. Through often bitter conflict, its different groups traced the outline of what each nation would be. The cities became patrician; in them each country took shape, as did the new governing class, with its distinctive ways of living and thinking.

Independence gave birth to new nations, and each one immediately set itself apart, taking on its own identity and tracing a possible path into the future. But Independence also loosened the ties that had held the Creole societies together and thus posed the problem of which groups would be the ones that decided each nation’s future. The Creole middle classes, tied to the old schemes of the Enlightenment and hesitant as they faced the new emerging society, were transformed by their contacts with the new power groups that were then beginning to form. Out of the old bourgeoisie and these new power groups the new patrician class was born, at once urban and rural, enlightened and Romantic, progressive and conservative. Its task was to set the course of the new societies within the new and still ill-defined nation states. And it was, in fact, in the process of setting the course of each nation’s society that the patrician class came into being. It was not a pre-existing group nor was it homogeneous from the outset. Competing interests, opposing ideologies and the vagaries of a rather confusing social process repeatedly blurred the boundaries among the projects that time and again had been outlined by the different groups aspiring to attain hegemony. Almost everywhere, Independence was followed by a long period of conflict that generally ended in protracted and bloody civil wars. Creole society had finally emerged, but new social groups, ineffectual in the past, also burst into the scene, breaking the limits of the system that had, until then, sustained the order of society. Only one project for the future had remained intact: the one designed by the Creole middle classes that had striven for Independence. But their project, designed for a society that had since exploded and was rapidly changing, soon became unworkable. Other options had to be found, less well defined, perhaps, but better suited to the new situation.

In the quest for those options, in the hazardous process of trying to impose one of them, the new patrician class came into existence. Some of its groups showed vision and intelligence, but most of them acted without much reflection, impelled by their immediate economic or political interests, without concern for the consistency of their actions, or for their legitimacy, or for their ideological implications. Sheer action was what mattered to those who were just emerging from their long marginality, because out of action they hoped to gain power. From power, in turn, they hoped to attain a good bargaining position when time came to negotiate the terms of the new order. Only a few tried to envisage that order or to plan methodically for it, according to definite political, social and economic principles. The rest simply expected that order would naturally come from facts themselves. Disputes were constant, and cities were often the stage where ideological debates would be followed by military mutinies or popular uprisings. Legislatures were the gathering places where the actors in this drama played out their roles, although the true protagonists gathered perhaps in the military garrisons. Newspapers stirred up ideas, and literary circles mixed and mingled the discussion of political doctrine with gossip about the characters in the political drama. Streets often became battlefields, with their dead, who called for revenge and kept passions running high and factional hatred hot.

Around the mid-nineteenth century tensions eased precisely because almost everywhere things began to settle into place. Each group, each sector, each region had exposed not only its leanings but also its ability to impose them upon others. Thus out of anarchy some kind of order began to emerge, because one group had imposed its control over the others, or because, after so many years of fighting, opposing sides were finally willing to negotiate. Social instability lent a magical quality to the constitutions that had been solemnly sanctioned. But what seemed to be the end of a conflict was sometimes the start of another. The battle over competing constitutions was ruthless and victory sometimes meant simply imposing one of them. By 1880, however, new patrician generations—sons or grandsons of the nations’ founding fathers—had become economically well-rooted, had defined their interests and adapted their goals to their possibilities. There was more willingness to compromise, which often led to a constitutional order widely supported by all the power groups. Other times this same willingness to compromise meant putting a strongman in power, someone stronger than the constitution itself.

Of course, the long process that unfolded in each country between the time of Independence and the year 1880—the approximate lifetime of the patrician cities—was framed by the enormous economic changes that Europe and the United States were by then experiencing. The industrial revolution that began in England had spread to other countries, and the economic pressure on Latin America grew stronger. Pressure was exerted on the markets by financiers who negotiated loans and by businessmen who sold manufactured goods and purchased raw materials. But there was military and political pressure, too. The great powers believed they had a right to take markets by force and occasionally blockaded ports, as in the case of Valparaiso, El Callao, or El Rio de la Plata; occasionally they stirred up wars, like those in Brazil, Paraguay, or the Pacific; still other times they imposed foreign regimes, as happened with the foolish imperialist adventure of Maximilian in Mexico. Even an adventurer like the North-American William Walker believed that he could take power in Central America with complete impunity.

The industrial revolution had an impact on the countryside, as the steam engine began to make its appearance in the old sugar mills. Then steamers appeared, and railroad tracks began to be laid. But all production flowed into the cities; and it was in the cities, which already had gas lighting, where most of the new activity took place, particularly after the middle of the century. Import and export trade and foreign banks were the engines that propelled urban life: little by little, the descendants of the old patrician class, established in cities that tried to imitate the European ones, discovered that the best option for the new countries was to latch on to the development of the major industrial powers.