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

The Struggle over Ideologies

Leading the new society presupposed devising and setting a policy into motion. But the actual experience of change required conceptualizing a radically new social reality in order to design policies that were responsive to real situations, in both the short and long terms. Thus each person’s image of society took on uncommon significance. Apart from the occasional struggles for power, one of the greatest challenges that Latin America’s new elite had to face was articulating that image of society. (Describing the new patrician class in Buenos Aires around 1850, Lucio V. López said that it consisted of “landowners and shopkeepers,” with the sole addition of the military men who organized the forces that would work to serve the two groups). Having a conceptualization of society was, therefore, as or more important than having a policy. Sometimes this conceptualization was intuitive, at the times it was methodically developed according to well-crafted criteria. Yet even when it seemed purely intuitive, conveyed by the words or deeds of some charismatic caudillo, one could still detect the influence of certain ideological principles prevalent in the world at that time.

The Enlightenment vision of society, which the liberal movement had inherited, endured in many people’s minds, with slight variations and changes over the course of time. Society was a collection of rational, free and equal individuals who together constituted an organic whole. Each individual used his intelligence and exercised his will to establish and maintain the social contract that bound him to the rest of society. In that organic whole, national sovereignty resided; it was, therefore, popular sovereignty—the source of all power. “Nothing is made in America—wrote Venezuelan Antonio Leocadio Guzmán—of divine right, which is the basis of all power and jurisdiction in some regions; nothing of ancestral right and privilege, which legitimize the king’s authority over others; nothing of aristocratic alliances and balances, except incendiary bombs. America has taken all these Old World rights and privileges and replaced them with the vote of the majority, expressed in accordance with the constitution.”

Under that social contract, the individual had very strict obligations to the communal organism. The first of those obligations was not to destroy the system of rules upon which it was based. But stricter still were the obligations that civil society had—especially those to whom power had been delegated—towards the individuals who formed the body politic: the system of individual rights and freedoms had to be jealously guarded because, according to this interpretation of society, the individual was all-important, and nobody’s rights or freedoms were to be more restricted than the rights and freedoms of anybody else.

The practical problem for the new Creole society was to determine who, in fact, were the members of the civil organism. In colonial society, no one had any doubt, since the law dictated who would and who would not participate. But in post-Independence society, a disparity developed between theory and practice. In theory all people were equal members of society, but in practice membership was limited only to some, although social mobility could loosen some of the boundaries. According to the liberal view of society, the system of individual rights and freedoms worked only for the individual who was intelligent and free; in practical terms, this meant that the only ones entitled to rights and freedoms were those who had property, i.e., those who were economically free, who had some education, and who had reasons to be interested in preserving the order established by the social contract and to be responsible for their obligations to that order. In fact the liberal view of society was not egalitarian, even though it was egalitarian in theory. The occasional use of the rhetoric of equality by the more radical sectors of the liberal movement was obviously an effort to increase by some small measure the number of those who were equal.

Unpleasant vestiges of the aristocratic view lingered in the liberal thinking, which replaced the distinction among classes based on origins with one based on property and education. Like the slave and the Indian before him, the “ignorant gaucho” was on the fringes of society; actually, he was part of another, inferior society whose rebelliousness was invariably subversive. The “decent folk” constituted the only true society.

The social upheaval that began in the eighteenth century and culminated with Independence posed the problem in another way. People who belonged to “the other society” attached themselves to the egalitarian theory that was at the heart of the emancipation mentality; in their own fashion, they demanded the position that they believed was rightfully theirs. And so arose a conflict between two interpretations of society. It was a dispute over the meaning of the word “people” in the doctrine of popular sovereignty. Did “people” mean all society or just a portion of it? Once again, the enlightened liberal interpretation of society found itself trapped in a contradiction between theory and practice.

Intuitively, the response of the “other society” and its spokesmen was that society consisted of all people and must, therefore, be egalitarian. It was a deeply-felt, natural conviction that gradually became clearer and armed itself with arguments. Society began to be construed not as the sum total of intelligent and free individuals who constituted a community founded upon some contract, but as the whole itself, which was far more important than the individuals who made it up. Thus the whole was unstable and fluid, and the individuals within it coexisted on an equal basis, irrespective of their circumstance: “haves” and “have-nots,” literate and illiterate, responsible and irresponsible, “decent people” and riff-raff. A common soul stirred within that whole, revealing itself not through reason, but through feelings and the will. José Artigas of Uruguay wrote in 1811:

Those who moved into action were not just the idle countrymen or those who owed their existence to their day’s work or a salary. Real established folk, people of good fortune and people who enjoyed the comforts that this land provided, suddenly became soldiers, setting aside their interests, their homes, their families and exposing themselves, for the first time, to the perils of war, marching away to the cries of their women and children. These men, deaf to those voices, answered only to the voice of their homeland.

Such shared experience planted in many minds a holistic interpretation of society.

For every vision of society there was a sense of how it should express itself. For the liberal, society spoke through each of its members, whose reasoned opinions and decisions were passed on to a small number of representatives also capable of functioning rationally. But for the romantic, what mattered was not the opinion and reasoned decision of each member of the community, but rather his sentiments, profound but not articulated. He needed someone to interpret them, someone who would reason them through and act upon them. Thus representative democracy was pitted against the personalist concept of the caudillo. Thomas Carlyle, quick to discover this tendency in Latin American political life, explained it in his study on the Paraguayan dictator José Gaspar Francia.

Many of the observations and analyses made of Latin American society in this period, in fact, concerned the type of power wielded by charismatic caudillos. Two Argentines, Juan Bautista Alberdi and Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, did in-depth analyses of this issue, Alberdi in Fragmento preliminar al estudio del derecho, published in 1837, and Sarmiento in Facundo, published in 1845. To them it was obvious that caudillos were representative of the new society which they believed was in urgent need of change; their analyses were profound, their descriptions accurate. Some commentaries came from liberals, influenced in some way by the social ideas of romanticism; others came from conservatives, and still others from the caudillos’ apologists. They all acknowledged that the charismatic chiefs somehow represented the rural and urban masses that they were polarizing. The excesses of autocracy ended up disheartening the romantic vision of society, or rather, leading it down the road to liberal romanticism. This was a compromise that ultimately led to formal acceptance of the representative system; to the more radical circles, it meant the prospect of rapid assimilation into society of the newly emerged groups. Despite occasional missteps, this was the vision that continued to guide the destinies of both region and nation. At the forefront, or returning to the forefront, were the cities.

In Latin America the liberal and the romantic views of society, despite the radical contradiction between them, had something in common: they were like two sides of the same coin, minted in the heat of a change that both had perceived and acknowledged. But the old view that preceded both the liberal and the romantic ones did not disappear altogether. Born of the conquest, it was the basis of the society of hidalgos. The change precipitated by the rise of mercantilism had been an important one; the change brought on by the liberation of social forces following Independence was no less so. Yet the system of ownership of land and mines continued to be the same, even though property and mines had changed hands. It was inevitable that this older view of society would survive, kept alive by those who, although conscious of the change, were unwilling to acknowledge it. Some tried to forestall change, but many were confident that they would be able to restore things to the way they had been before the change occurred.

Three ideologies, therefore, intersected in the minds of the new patrician class. At times each of these ideologies operated in a pure, unadulterated form; at other times they combined into an amalgam. The cities, especially the capitals, were the battleground of these ideological wars because it was in them that the diverse groups viding for power took shape, and it was in them that the movements that would accelerate or thwart the consolidation of power were formed. Some came to power with very clear agenda; but others, having achieved the power, had no idea what to do with it. Transactions among groups were as frequent as ideological transactions. And in this enterprise, the complex and equivocal context of the city served as the stage on which any player had to appear in order to seal the terms of the contract.

Slowly, the cities were absorbing the impact of the rural incursions, seducing and converting their leaders and spokesmen. Juan Facundo Quiroga—the “tiger of the plains”—bought the home of the wealthy Lezicas in Buenos Aires and set himself up there with his family. In the sumptuous salons of “Viñeta,” the house where General José Antonio Páez lived in Caracas, his wife, doña Barbarita, hosted splendid literary gatherings. In that milieu, a modernized version of the old urban idea of despotism for the sake of freedom—the “enlightened despotism” of the eighteenth century—was revived. Of course, not everyone was in favor of this enlightened despotism. Many of the more reactionary conservative elements preferred to preserve the tradition of the encomendero, with its sense of privileged superiority. On the other hand, the notion of enlightened despotism was accepted by those who called themselves liberals and those who, either old or new property owners, had sought and obtained popular support and identified themselves as liberal conservatives. Though the tissue of ideologies pragmatic decisions on immediate, everyday problems still filtered. Every decision, however, had a purpose, albeit obscure at times. One could deduce, however, behind each decision, an intention, a tendency, an attitude that revealed the weight of each ideology in the complex amalgam of opinions that were slowly taking shape in the mentality of the new patrician elite.

Once change had been unleashed, in every decision that had to be made, one fundamental question remained: whether to preserve or transform the socio-economic structure of the colonial world. This issue was not altogether clear to everyone at the outset, nor were all of the immediate problems contemplated in the principles being used. But the facts spoke for themselves. Preserving the primogeniture system or the monopoly regime meant preserving the colonial socio-economic structure, and the fight for or against those institutions polarized conservatives and liberals. Chile’s liberal Constitution of 1828 abolished primogeniture, but after the 1830 revolution, the conservative Constitution of 1833 reinstated it; Minister Portales poured all of his efforts into maintaining the colonial socio-economic structure, just as Rosas did in Argentina. In the midst of a serious general upheaval and a heated debate, the primogeniture system was suspended in Brazil in 1835, a terrible blow to the landowning aristocracy that had supported Pedro I. The Colombian Law of 1848 that opened up tobacco farming put an end to a monopoly that conservatives had fiercely defended. The reforms proposed in Mexico by Gomez Farías in 1833, and passionately supported by the liberals, were abolished the following year by Santa Anna; it was not until the liberal Constitution of 1857 and the Reform Laws that those reforms were restored, though not without unleashing civil war and foreign intervention.

Perhaps the greatest threat to the continued survival of the old structure was the problem of the labor force. Even though the governments that emerged out of the revolution were theoretically willing to liberate the rural Indian from servitude and take the first steps toward abolishing slavery, the debate that ultimately lead to the laws ending slavery was long and heated. It was not without opposition or hesitation that President Castilla of Peru ordered the manumission of the slaves and abolition of the tribute that Indians had had to pay. Mexico’s 1857 Constitution also ordered the freedom of the rural serfs; the debate surrounding this issue was a heated one, and owners mobilized to defend their interests. In Chile, when the 1823 Constitution that abolished slavery was discussed, slave-owners not only defended their rights but also rallied slaves to declare, before Congress, that they did not want their status changed. Certainly, it was the urban bourgeoisie, unaffected by these measures that most diligently worked to win the victories that would liberalize the labor market.

The anti-liberal conservatives lost this battle. But all the conservatives, and many liberals as well, continued to harbor a strong prejudice against relations between the classes. In the mid-1800s an unpleasant aristocratic vestige was evident, one that established a gulf between the propertied upper classes and the working people. Among the working classes, large sectors accepted that vision of social relations. In some countries like Chile and Colombia, artisans managed to organize into guilds and even took part in politics, but they could never conquer their sense of inferiority. The urban middle classes countered the traditional concept of society with a variant inspired by an ideology of upward social mobility. It did not challenge the separation between the classes; instead, it argued that anyone who had achieved a certain position had a right to be accepted in the higher class. Criticism of the so-called aristocratic groups because of their resistance to accepting people on their merits or fortune by asserting—either explicitly or implicitly—some kind of birthright, became a theme of the realist school of literature and the novels of manners. Suffrage would move the equality issue into the political arena.

The battle of ideologies was never more in evidence than on political issues. First and most profound was the issue of nationality. Except in the case of Brazil, the new nationalities emerged out of a random division of colonial territories; they were formed without a sufficiently vigorous base. In the decades following Independence, it was difficult to determine what each new country’s specific and distinctive features were. Two tendencies made it more difficult for national identities to emerge. One favored forming large political units, as Bolívar attempted with Gran Colombia, Morazán with Central America, and Santa Cruz with the Peruvian-Bolivian Confederation. The other was the desire of certain regions to become separate nations.

The efforts of those who wanted to create large political units failed. To counter Bolívar’s theory, men like Páez, Santander, and Flórez stirred up nationalist sentiments and interests. Their movements had strong backing, strong enough to assert the political identity of what would eventually become new countries: Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador. The Central American regions destroyed Morazán’s project, while the two countries unified by Santa Cruz quickly separated in the face of resistance from large internal groups and under pressure from Chile.

Before, during, and after all this centralization, there were those who wanted to make certain regional areas stronger by means of alliances and even foreign protectorates. The response was strong nationalist movements that regarded foreign alliances as treasonous. Some of those who fought for their regions’ emancipation and triumphed ultimately gave their region a national image. This was true of Artigas in Uruguay and Francia in Paraguay; to some extent, it was initially true in the Central American countries and in Bolivia. But there were many who failed or who lowered their nationalist aspirations to federalist formulas. Perhaps the most dramatic case was that of Brazil following the abdication of Emperor Pedro I. Since 1831, regional insurrections had imperiled the unity of the Spanish Empire. In every region and major city, opinion was divided. Almost invariably it was liberals and federalists on one side and conservatives and centralists on the other. The problem repeated itself over and over again in many countries. Centralists and regionalists were the protagonists in a long ideological polemic that paralleled the political tensions and civil wars that rocked Argentina and Uruguay, Colombia, Venezuela, and Mexico. Very different regions—the Yucatán, Cauca, Texas, Coro, Apure, Pernambuco, Rio Grande do Sul—with clear local interests, which at times were at odds with the interests of the capital, asserted their right to some measure of autonomy, although without necessarily denying the basic canon of nationality.

The nationalist ideology was so strong that some historians set about tracing the genetic formation of a nationality to prove that it had pre-existed regional sentiment. It was an effort to assert, perhaps to demonstrate, or even to perfect, the idea of a singular national identity that encompassed all regions in a given area by delving into the colonial past and into the enterprise of Independence. This was the basic underlying argument in works by Mexico’s Lucas Alamán and José María Luis Mora, Cuba’s José Antonio Saco, Venezuela’s Rafael María Baralt and Juan Vicente González, Colombia’s José Manuel Restrepo, Bolivia’s Mariano Paz Soldán, Argentina’s Bartolomé Mitre and Vicente Fidel López, and Chile’s Diego Barros Arana and Benjamín Vicuña Mackenna—a long list that bespeaks the strong influence on Latin America of the romantic view of history, the ultimate purpose of which was to identify, in each case, the lines of a national destiny.

Although property owners participated in and headed up the regionalist and federalist movements, they were nonetheless popular movements. A typical case was the farroupilha [ragged] revolution that Bento Gonçalves led in Rio Grande do Sul in 1835. They all emphasized what regional populations had in common, as opposed to the centralist ambitions of the capitals and their bourgeoisie, whom the regionalists and federalists regarded as arrogant and greedy. While they did not always have a clear agenda beyond autonomy, they had an obvious preference for provincial lifestyle and local tradition over the lifestyle of the big cities where the European influence was palpable.

From a political point of view, the regionalist movement wanted decentralized government. But the tradition of strong, centralized government was very much alive; it seemed to many to be the only solution for unstable societies. Rosas, García Moreno, Páez, Monagas, Latorre, and, of course, the emperors Pedro II and Maximilian exerted authoritarian power. They represented the thinking of vast conservative groups, composed not just of members of the upper class who saw in them the defenders of order—and of the existing “order of things”—but also of working class groups who had a paternalistic notion of power. Liberals, on the other hand, including liberal conservatives, passionately rejected personalism or tyranny, as in the case of Sarmiento or Montalvo; the urban bourgeoisie supported republican and representative democracy, while their adversaries looked upon republican and representative democratic government as just a trick invented by educated gentry to hold power and retain privilege.

Much of the ideological struggle was fought in the efforts to draft constitutions. There were those, like Rosas, who believed that his country was not ready for constitutional government, given the failures his adversaries had experienced when trying to impose constitutions which the provinces rejected. Like Francia in Paraguay, he thought of himself as the faithful spokesman for what the people wanted; after all, only a charismatic personality, a personal voice, modulated to the feelings of the community, could articulate the somewhat ill-defined leanings of these politically naive people. In most countries and in most situations, however, it was agreed that there had to be a constitution since that was the political model that the theoreticians of the new democracies proposed. First the dispute was between those who wanted a constitution to change the social reality and the customary law system, in order to accommodate a rationalist model, and those who argued that the constitution should simply codify the existing situation which, of course, consisted of a system of privileges for the old property-owning classes. But later the landscape of difference became much richer, because some wanted the constitutions to contain the emerging responses to new problems. People battled for a constitution that was resolutely liberal or conservative, or sometimes for the triumph of a compromise text. Some wanted a system in which congress would have liberal powers, whereas others wanted a constitution that ensured ample executive authority. But there were also those who wanted the constitution to settle specific questions about customs and duties, navigation of rivers, the economic system, and the condition of the subordinate classes. There was much debate over how to regulate the relations between church and state, the economic power of the church, and the condition of the clergy. While the 1863 Rio Negro Convention gave Colombia a constitution that eliminated the traditional reference to God, in 1869 García Moreno gave Ecuador a theocratic constitution. Conservatives and liberals were no longer the only labels that defined political groups, as reactionary as well as radicalized groups began to surface everywhere.

Vague opinions and diffuse feelings were often the catalyst of action. In the restless and fluid social situation, in the passionate encounters of the struggle for power, someone would take up a banner and carry it to the death, without asking himself why, and without stopping to consider what the final implications of his actions might be. Yet those vague opinions and intense feelings, by one route or another, were channeled into well-established frames of ideas and principles that functioned as models. Capturing these somewhat vague sentiments and opinions in a clear set of ideas was a long process, one that took place in the cities. The urban bourgeoisie knew what they wanted, and they went about building up the political experience and knowledge of principles and theory to grasp the significance of each spontaneous act, of each somewhat vague opinion, of each diffuse feeling. The conservative knew what he wanted to preserve, how far he should go to preserve it, and how quickly he should accept change in other things. The liberal knew what he wanted to change, what he didn’t want to change, and at what pace he would prefer that the change be effected. Yet not all liberals and not all conservatives agreed among themselves: the differences that separated them were sometimes profound and sometimes subtle, although they always agreed on certain fundamental principles. With all that, some basic tenets were established; those who adopted an opinion or even risked their lives turned to their first principles in times of crisis, alarmed by the whirlwind of events and fearful that their vague objectives would be exceeded or never achieved.

This formative process took place in the cities. It happened slowly, as is inevitable in a social and political situation in which the bold daring of the impetuous often contrasted with the calculated prudence of the cautious. Ideologues corrected their schemes to add new content contributed by those who operated on the basis of impulse, vague ideas, and feelings that had not yet jelled; the more spontaneous learned to temper their feelings and to operate within a framework that would reduce risk and increase the advantage that they hoped to gain.

In this process of give and take, the opinions held by various groups progressively acquired greater precision; the groups themselves gradually moved towards political parties. As the limited number of opinions elicited by each problem gradually unfolded, the problems themselves were sorted out. Political experience and theoretical analysis were used to show the implications of an opinion, its potential, and its ultimate consequences. The liberal conservatives separated themselves from the ultra-reactionary conservatives, the heirs of the conquest ideology. Liberals adjusted and readjusted their own doctrine in an effort to harmonize the problems they had to face with the principles they drew from European theorists, from the Scots and Yorkist branches of Masonry, and from the theorists of another revolution that was just being glimpsed in Latin America but had played itself out in Europe in 1848. So, while moderate liberals were different from radical liberals, both were beginning to think about a policy of autonomy for the popular classes.

The two major parties—liberals and conservatives—began to coalesce and to include ideas that had emerged spontaneously from practice; they also began to include the men who preached those ideas. The patrician elite was divided into liberals and conservatives, but at the same time, each party was divided into ideological wings that formed different alliances in response to real situations. It was not uncommon to see doctrinal conversions; practical conversions were even more common. Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera in Colombia and José Tadeo Monagas in Venezuela went from conservatives to liberals; in Colombia they all united when General Melo tried to capitalize upon popular unrest in 1851.

Melo’s was, of course, the classic military attempt. Although the military fought him, they were manipulated by civilians. The role of the military in Latin America at this time was so palpable that from time to time the antinomy between liberals and conservatives was replaced by an antinomy between militarists and advocates of civilian government. Nevertheless, a civilian dictatorship could be as strong as a military one. Despite the interplay of the parties and the existence of valid constitutions, ideological struggle nurtured a natural tendency—or perhaps a kind of need within these unstable societies—toward de facto power. It was the urban bourgeoisie who concerned themselves with cloaking de facto power in the mantle of formal legitimacy, in a kind of compromise between their theoretical ideals and the tremendous need to harness the liberated rural masses to the productive system, and to check the social mobility that threatened to overrun the privileged classes.