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

Tension and Confrontation

The increasing politicization of the cities merely heightened their influence over the regions and the country of which they were part. It was in the cities where decisions were made as to how, and how much, each area was to be exploited, where the living conditions of the different classes were indirectly determined, and where the horizon either expanded or narrowed, depending upon the interests of the increasingly impersonal decision-making groups. Once those decisions were made, they gradually reached into every corner of the nation, where their consequences were sharply felt, although no one there really knew who the decision-makers were. The city, center of anonymous decisions, became more and more inaccessible, a kind of dreaded monster; anyone who dared question the city was destined to do battle with mere shadows.

Subjected to new and disproportionate taxes, in 1886 the Indians of Huaraz rebelled when the Peruvian Government jailed and hanged the mayor of Huaraz, Pedro Pablo Atusparia, who had asked that the taxes be repealed. To put down the rebellion, the government sent a warship, deployed several regiments and, most importantly, called up the city guard in which “the most select youth occupied the first places.” The city focused its efforts on making certain that the rural world operated under the conditions most advantageous to the economic system that the city itself controlled. Similarly, in Argentina, the “desert campaign” led by General Roca in 1879 was organized for the purpose of repressing and expelling Indians; and in Mexico, during the Porfirio Díaz era, the indigenous peoples of Sonora were suppressed in 1901 and those of the Yucatán in 1905. In 1893, driven by an impassioned desire to resist the ever-increasing power of a middle-level city, the people of the Brazilian backlands began to organize under Antonio Conselheiro in a remote corner called Canudos. An enormous multitude gathered there, composed of blacks, mestizos, former bandits and old landowners, all united by the same desire to build a world of their own, separate from the civilization of the cities, held together by a vigorous primitivism in their cults and creeds and hostile to the lay and liberal republic that had recently been established in Brazil. They were ready to live their own lives and, if necessary, to die defending themselves from the attacks of the urban, civilizing power. In a profound and disturbing book titled Os sertöes, Euclides da Cunha describes that peculiar social universe that existed far from the cities and that gathered around a remote village and a leader, in a confusing amalgam of ancestral feelings and a hatred of civilization. He then recounts the relentless repression that by 1897 ended that uprising of the rural world against the cities. A similar movement would surface 15 years later, led by Juan María, El Monje [The Monk], in the states of Santa Catalina and Paraná. This one was put down in 1916.

The rural explosions that took place around that same time in Venezuela and Uruguay were different in nature. Aparicio Saravia, a powerful hacienda owner from the department of Cerro Largo, rose up against the government in 1897, together with several hundred poorly armed countrymen, in an effort to defend their autonomy. That autonomy had been cleverly curtailed from Montevideo by a system that forced the rich landowners to abide by the dictates of the market place. A chronicler of the revolution—and then Saravia’s successor in the leadership of the national party—Luis Alberto de Herrera described the characters in this confrontation: “From whence,” he asked, “did that rebel with the soft hat and rustic poncho come, that improvised general of a bizarre movement? Perhaps the bourgeois classes from the capital did not know about him, busy in their enormous beehive, concerned only for their own interest, knowing no horizon beyond the edge of their office rug. Yet for those who heard occasional echoes of the splendid campaign and followed the tragic episodes of the Rio Grande revolution, he was a tireless guerrilla warrior, already the target of envy and of growing admiration.”

Defeated in 1897, Aparicio Saravia rose up again in 1904 and was killed in the Battle of Masoller. His nostalgic ideal died with him: José Batlle y Ordóñez was the one who organized the modern Uruguay, a small country that was almost identical with Montevideo, the nation’s capital. On the other hand, Cipriano Castro, the Chief of the Andinos of Venezuela, had more success. In 1899, from his mountain hideout, Castro threatened the president in Caracas: “You will learn how the tigers of the Andes roar as they descend on Caracas!” And descend they did, but when they entered Caracas, these tigers of the Andes learned the subtle interplay of economics and politics. The only vestiges of their rural ways that remained were the bad manners that time would be slow to correct.

In Mexico, too, the voice of the rural world was raised against the cities, against civilization, against the economic system, when the revolution against Porfirio Díaz broke out in 1910. That voice was a roar that ended in a whimper, drowned out by the methodical effort of those who defended the urban system. The revolution began as a political movement to stop the re-election of Diaz and was headed by a liberal politician, Francisco I. Madero. But from the outset, and even more after the first tragic incidents, rural popular movements began to surface. In Chihuahua, armed groups under the command of Abraham González Pascual Orozco, José de la Luz Blanco, and Francisco Villa raised in open rebellion; in Morelos, Torres Burgos and the Zapata brothers joined the battle. The fighting began after Madero’s assassination. Under the direction of Venustiano Carranza, the agrarian movement started to take on a separate existence of its own, divorcing itself from the political movement. Land was distributed, sometimes on the basis of a social philosophy, sometimes not. There was banditry, too. Finally, in the midst of the revolution, the two movements clashed. Emiliano Zapata and Francisco Villa fought against the institutional line represented by Venustiano Carranza; both ended up defeated and killed. In the meantime, the revolutionary process was beginning to stabilize with passage of a constitution. Little by little the more politicized sectors closed ranks behind Venustiano Carranza and Alvaro Obregón to rebuild the economic system, a process that President Plutarco Elías Calles would ultimately head up. Although it was less spectacular, the decision by the Nicaraguan Augusto César Sandino was just as telling. After long years of struggle, conservatives and liberals had reached a political agreement under pressure from the United States armed forces and guaranteed by those forces. But Sandino, who headed a small army of farmers, decided to ignore the pact and launched guerrilla warfare from his hideout in San Rafael del Norte. Harassed by occupation forces, the rural movement was finally wiped out by the system that controlled the country’s agrarian wealth.

These spontaneous, popular movements failed in their struggle against the distant causes of the problems. Every obstacle and mechanism in a cleverly mounted system was employed; operating out of the city, the system depersonalized relations and concealed the centers of decision-making. Something similar happened with the big strikes, especially in the mining regions of Mexico and Chile, in the textile regions in the state of Veracruz, in the Argentine Patagonia, and in the fruit-growing region of Colombia.

In the cities, in the meantime, several movements revealed serious tensions and disagreements among the urban power groups. But there, the game played itself out according to agreed upon rules, among people who knew what the mechanisms were and had the ability to set them into motion. The capitals in particular were scenes of power struggles among the various groups in the governing classes. Although they agreed on the fundamentals, each group and each person fought to impose their authority. At times the fighting was out in the open, with arguments and counter-arguments hurled back and forth. But on other occasions the fighting was a muted wrestling that took place behind the scenes. The presidential palace and the congress, as well as clubs, restaurants, and private drawing rooms received those who were hatching plans and tying the strings together. Rio, Santiago, Buenos Aires, and Bogota were great centers of gossip where influential groups covertly argued over candidacies and appointments. Changing situations required that one be careful not to break the rules of the game, and the loser had an obligation to know how to lose gracefully.

The game was different in places where the person in power was strong and where the source of power was a strong personal dictatorship. In these cases the capital was the center of a gigantic effort to bring together the kinds of influence capable of swaying the dictator. There were conservative dictators like the Mexican Porfirio Díaz, the Guatemalan Manuel Estrada Cabrera, the Venezuelan Juan Vicente Gómez, and the Colombian Rafael Núñez. There were liberal ones as well, like the Nicaraguan José Santos Zelaya, the Guatemalan José María Reina Barrios, and the Ecuadorian Eloy Alfaro. Whether liberal or conservative, they all had their own personal ways of exercising power, that even those closest to them respected and that imposed certain rules on those who wanted to benefit from it. Generally fond of flattery, dictators had their courts to which one had to have access in order to win, if at all, the president’s favor: waiting rooms were the scene of struggles for delegated power, which was also a struggle for mercy, honor, and profit.

In any case, the dictator was not an isolated product of politics. Whatever his capacity for command and his personal authority, he had come to power as the leader or exponent of some group. Generally he would assume a power that the dominant group as a whole was not able to exercise. The dictator contributed then his authority and his ability to impose order in general and also within the group that supported him. The exercise of power put more and more opportunities in his hands, but the dictator was aware that he belonged to one class or one group whose interests he consistently served. He could hurt individuals by his scorn or rejection, but not the interests of the group that supported him. And if that group began to disintegrate, the dictatorship was condemned to fall.

While waiting rooms were the scenes of squabbles for scraps of power, conspiracy was afoot elsewhere. If a certain economic and political group constituted the dictatorship’s fundamental backing, the dictatorship’s ability to remain in power relied on military strength. The army knew its power and was amply rewarded for its loyalty. But there were also generals and colonels. And if the slightest crack were to appear in the scaffolding of a dictator’s politics, the ambitions of those who could move power in one direction or another were stirred, and from then on the garrison became another waiting room of power. At times, no conspiracy was necessary: General Cipriano Castro left Caracas for treatment of an illnesses and in his absence his right-hand man, General Juan Vicente Gómez, declared himself president.

But it was not always so easy to overthrow a dictator. He was well protected by the network of interests that he had cleverly woven and by the defense system that he had mounted. But with the passage of time social structures changed, and political relations were altered. In the cities, new ideas circulated and influenced partisan currents already established, especially among the liberal parties, whose ranks began to splinter under the pressure exerted by those who wanted to pull them toward more populist positions. A kind of radicalism broke out in the urban milieu, stirred up by new social conditions and new ideas. One wave of radicalism followed another, each more extreme and more eloquent than the previous one. This had already happened in Chile in 1854; it happened in Argentina and Peru around 1890, in Ecuador in 1895, and in Uruguay in 1903. The movements that Madero headed in Mexico in 1910 and Alessandri in Chile in 1920 were part of the same trend.

Politics changed from then on. It ceased to be the exclusive turf of some small clique whose members settled their problems in drawing rooms and waiting rooms. It became something tumultuous that played itself out on the streets and in the squares. Multitudes, or at least large, impassioned crowds, shouted and even sang their opinions, sometimes centered around a burning issue, other times personified in a candidate whose name they yelled at meetings and demonstrations. Supporters might get carried away; their opponents might arrive; the police might step in to break up the meeting or perhaps even to punish the enemies of the government. But politics had already taken on a new dimension: it was now the government against the opposition.

Revolutions also took on a new dimension in the cities. A group of armed citizens, supported by some military men, managed to occupy Artillery Park in Buenos Aires and from there to proclaim the revolution on July 28, 1890. It was the Unión Cívica, a popular movement that challenged the oligarchy and that, for the moment at least, would be defeated. But some 26 years later, it would win the election, and the very same city that had seen fighting in its streets, saw the apotheosis of the popular caudillo Hipólito Yrigoyen, taken to the Casa Rosada—the President’s mansion—in a coach drawn by a crowd that had unhitched the team of horses to do the job itself. With strong, carefully organized, popular backing, Nicolás de Piérola entered Lima on March 17, 1895. There was street fighting, but in the end the last great military caudillo, General Cáceres, was defeated at the hands of the new civilian caudillo. Piérola was a man of modern thinking who provided Lima with important services and, more significantly, new sources of employment for the urban population. Two revolutions unleashed by the liberals disrupted the calm in Asunción: the failed revolution of 1891, and the victorious one of 1904. Another liberal revolution, this one supported by the indigenous peoples, assured La Paz its status as the capital of Bolivia in 1891, when the silver mining to the south was on the decline and the tin mining to the north was on the rise. La Paz remained the nation’s capital even after the 1920 victory of the anti-liberal revolution. In October 1905, Santiago was rocked when an enormous mob made a futile protest to President Germán Riesco over the high cost of living. A menacing mob of some 30,000 people had gathered on the Alameda and marched to La Moneda Palace. A massive array of forces had to be deployed to contain this popular outburst. A similar outburst had occurred three years earlier in Valparaiso, and others would follow in the years ahead in Antofagasta and Iquique. Eloy Alfaro’s entrance into Guayaquil on June 4, 1895, put an end to the conservative era, once he established himself in Quito three months later, he initiated a liberal regime that stimulated urban life and mercantile activities. The military revolution that ended the Brazilian empire was a peaceful one: the population of Rio de Janeiro did not know what had happened and the imperial family itself was unaware of Marshall Deodoro de Fonseca’s indoctrination of the military garrison. Ever fearful of becoming the spoils of war, cities knew just how attractive they were to these new lords who were tasting power for the first time.

In reality, cities functioned like complex social systems. The victory of one group stimulated enthusiasm and public demonstrations in a related group. When the city itself was the decisive factor in winning a political victory for new majorities, its social and cultural landscape changed: some groups retreated to the background as others stepped forward.

The coming together of the working class in strikes and meetings was alarming for the urban middle and upper classes. In those days there were some tense moments when the confrontations became very palpable, independently of any revolutionary theory. This is what happened in Santiago in 1905, in Buenos Aires at the time of the Centennial and even more so during the Semana Trágica [Week of Tragedy] in 1919 (evoked with dramatic irony by Arturo Cancela in Una semana de holgorio [A Week of Revelry], and in Guayaquil in 1922. Retreating to their homes, with their doors and windows barred, the affluent classes waited impatiently for the State to deploy the police or military to correct the problem. The intervention of the police or the military invariably left scores of people dead or injured among those who had seemed, at least momentarily, to be a political force capable of taking control.

Less disquieting were the student conflicts. From 1918, many cities that had universities experienced disturbances caused by student movements. The city of Córdoba, in Argentina, set the paradigm. Controlling the university grounds and some of the streets and squares around the university, the students resorted to some use of force in their immediate surroundings: they barred access to the university to certain authorities or professors whom they did not approve of; they pulled down statues, tore paintings from the walls, threw furniture through the window, and barricaded adjacent streets. But everyone could discover in the episode a good dose of humor and enough self-control that one didn’t have to worry about things going too far. In fact, only rarely would student uprisings coincide with labor or political movements; and when they did, some unidentified sources would issue a confidential warning revealing what each movement was exactly involved in. Taken together, however, these experiences were the training ground for the social and political groups that would one day be strong enough to challenge the power structures. Lima witnessed the disruption of the peace of the “cloisters” at San Marcos University; and in his novel Fiebre [Fever], the Venezuelan Miguel Otero Silva recalls the student uprisings in Caracas in 1928, during which the vanguard that fought against Juan Vicente Gómez began to take shape.