Sep 4, 2005

Progressively Traditional: The Failure of 19th-Century Latin American Liberals To Enact Democratic Reforms


Left: Juan Bautista Alberdi, Argentine political philosopher, patriot, and diplomat

The failure of Liberal governments to bring to fruition political freedoms in the neocolonial period of post-independence Latin American history can be traced to a variety of causes. The influence of contemporary philosophical thought on nineteenth-century Latin American leaders certainly bears consideration, and the effects of the centuries of transculturation must be taken into account. In addition, factors such as the export boom, literacy, managed elections and increased social mobility all played roles in the period of neo-colonialism. However, the Liberal leaders shared one important consideration with their conservative predecessors – status as social elites – that, in retrospect, was certain to influence the nature of any political changes undertaken in the age of Progress. As described by Jonathan C. Brown, “racial discrimination remained an operative social habit, the social elite preserved itself, and political authoritarianism endured.”

Political Pendulation

The return to power by the Liberals in the mid-nineteenth century might be viewed as a return swing of the political pendulum. After several decades of post-independence rule by conservatives, the promise of something greater than stability and tradition began to resonate throughout the populace of many Latin American nations. Seizing the opportunity offered by rising discontent, Liberal leaders positioned themselves as the vehicles of Progress.

The Mexican presidency of Benito Juarez is illustrative of this oscillating political nature in Latin America. After decades of conservative traditionalism- marked by ardent defense of the Catholic Church, protectionist trade policies, and antagonistic relations with the United States - Juarez and his political cohorts drafted an arrangement to oust Santa Anna known as the Plan of Ayutla. By 1858, after the resignation of Ignacio Comonfort, Juarez had assumed the presidency of Mexico.

The Juarez years promulgated a series of laws known collectively as La Reforma. These edicts abolished the fueros, curtailed ecclesiastical property holdings, introduced a civil registry, and barred the church from charging excessive fees for administering the sacraments, and were much in keeping with Liberal ideals. These principles were in sharp contrast with the conservative battle cry of “Religion and Fueros!”

Chief among the Liberal traditions embraced during this period were those of political economy. Guillermo Prieto, treasury minister during La Reforma, extolled these virtues: “The faith I have in free trade is the faith I have in all sublime manifestations of liberty.” First and foremost, Liberals wanted to promote trade, modernize their respective countries, and metaphorically claim a larger slice of the economic pie for their class.

The Myth of Republicanism

The independence movement created nations out of former Spanish colonies, with the constitutional republic being the form of government most frequently imposed on the new states. While triumphed at independence as vehicles of equality, the reality was that these governments and their constitutions were designed in order to maintain the status quo. Far from being, as illustrated in the case of the Mexican Constitution of 1824, documents “to establish and fix its political Independence, establish and confirm its Liberty, and promote its prosperity and glory,” the true aims of republican governments were the protection of the existing social hierarchy.
The Liberal renaissance in the second half of the nineteenth century proved to be a continuation of politics by exclusion. In the case of Mexico, out of a total population of between eight and nine million people, only 9,000 electors participated in presidential elections between 1867 and 1877. In Buenos Aires, during the period from 1862-1880, only two percent of the total population of the city ever reached the polls. Finally, in Colombia, strict literacy and property qualifications reduced the vote in national elections to a fraction of the male population during the period of Liberal reascendancy. Thus, the Liberal ideal of participatory democracy was not a fact of political life in neocolonial Latin America.

“Managed elections” were a contributory factor in the failure of Liberals to usher in an era of democratic pluralism. Elections in nineteenth-century Latin America were less a measure of popular will than they were “contests of force” that demonstrated which party controlled a region. Vote manipulation, use of police to determine election results, and outright fraud were a staple of Latin American politics. In addition, the recruitment and delivery of voters to the polls by powerful individuals was a frequent tactic used by party leaders to affect electoral outcomes. Sabato wrote:
Foremen and overseers who were at the same time political bosses were a key link in the recruitment of these gangs of worker-voters…it is easy to see that, however, such were far removed from the image of the individual citizen in command of his political rights.

Thus, Liberals engineered elections with the much the same audacity as the conservatives.

Neocolonialism, the Great Export Boom, and the Inferiority Complex

The Iberian backlash generated by centuries of colonial rule drove Latin American elites away from their traditional political and economic inspirations – Spain and Portugal – and towards what were seen as the more liberal and progressive models found in Britain and France. Simultaneously, the mid-nineteenth century is noted for the beginning of the export boom, which brought not only foreign investment and profits, but also the return of the spectre of a renewed dependency on European countries.

Left: Benito Juarez, Mexican president from 1861-63 and 1867-72

Mexico, for example, saw a 900 percent rise in trade between the years 1877 and 1910. Wheat exports from Argentina were over 1,000 times higher in 1900 than the twenty-one tons exported in 1876. Finally, Brazil produced approximately two-thirds of the world’s coffee by the turn of the century.

The profits of the export boom benefited the landowning class more so than any other group, as the products of their property were sold on an increasingly global market. Large landholders near railroads also profited from soaring property values. The export boom also had secondary beneficiaries in a rising middle class, composed of merchants, office workers, and specialized professionals. However, even the Argentine middle class- the largest in neocolonial Latin America- constituted only a little more than one quarter of the nation’s population. The lot of the common man did not improve and, in many cases, suffered as a result of Liberal economic philosophies.

The export boom’s upward pressure on real estate values exacerbated the effects of Liberal land reforms, such as the Ley Lerdo of 1856 in Mexico. Ostensibly created in order to divest the Catholic Church of its vast landholdings, the law had the additional effect of stripping communal village properties. Any land that was not used for day-to-day purposes and held by institutions (“las corporaciones civiles ó eclesiásticas de la República” ) was forced on the market for sale. Liberals had hoped to both weaken the Church and collect taxes on the newly-privatized lands, but the end result was the rapid increase in the number of landless peasants throughout Mexico.

The export boom also created another dilemma for neocolonial elites: their continued prosperity was dependent upon the continuity of foreign investment. As such, the desire by U.S. and European investors for a safe investment environment created situations where Liberal governments found themselves pleasing a new generation of overlords, now financial instead of political. Chasteen described the Liberal reaction as “swallowing hard and throwing a party for their guests.”

This neocolonial economic dependency also became intertwined with Latin American idealization of European, and to a lesser extent American, culture. Chasteen described Paris as the fashion and literary “Mecca,” while Great Britain was considered to be the economic and political pinnacle for Latin Americans. Such cultural adoration, by definition, implies a sense of self-denigration; indigenous forms became seen as something less than ideal, and in many cases, barbaric.
This philosophical dichotomy was exemplified in the person of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, noted Argentinean writer, pundit, and politician. While considered to be one of the leading lights in the move towards public education, he nonetheless looked upon persons of indigenous or mixed heritage as something less than desirable. Sarmiento successfully pushed for policies that would promote European (i.e., “pure”) immigration, while simultaneously excoriating the value of the Argentine gaucho in a missive to General Mitre in 1861:
Do not try to save the blood of the gauchos. It is fertilizer (like the blood of animals from the slaughterhouse) that must be made useful to the country. Blood is the only thing they have in common with human beings.

The “Civilization and Barbarism” polarity expressed by Sarmiento in his work Facundo typifies the mindset of neocolonial Latin American elites. European forms were the civilized models to which forward-looking Latin Americans should aspire, while traditional rural values were to be viewed as disgraceful elements of a barbaric, backward culture.

Assessing Neocolonial Liberals: Profits, Progress, and Prejudice

The return to power by Liberal Latin American governments in the second half of the nineteenth century presents the aforementioned conundrum: that is, how elites with philosophically liberal beliefs nonetheless failed to achieve democratic political reforms, which are at the very core of traditional liberalism. The answer to this dilemma lies in an examination of the purported “liberal” nature of the neocolonial leaders.

“Progress,” as understood by nineteenth-century Liberals in Latin America, did not necessarily correspond with the traditional liberal definition. To Latin American elites, “Progress” was equated with modernity and economic growth; however, political progress as envisioned by Enlightenment thinkers was anathema to neocolonial Liberals. The very idea of political equality with persons considered as inferior was seen as destructive to the established social order, and as something that would also be disruptive to the economic prosperity enjoyed by the ruling class.

It comes as no surprise that the Brazilian flag so prominently displays the axiom “Ordem E Progresso” (“order and progress”) on its national flag. More than any two other words, these succinctly symbolize the most important components of what would constitute an “ideal” state to neocolonial Liberals. In addition, this slogan was the mantra by which August Comte launched his Positivist movement.

Left: August Comte, positivist philosopher

Positivism, among other things, attempts to build a model for human development, with human societies passing through various stages until the highest form of human progress – a posteriori – is achieved. Coupled with other forms of social Darwinism, a philosophical (read: scientific) basis was postulated by neocolonial elites as justification for social stratification. People in lower socio-economic classes, by this logic, were simply in a lower stage of human development, and would thus be incapable of good governance. Conversely, the business of government should be the domain of those that Chasteen called “the nation’s supposedly ‘best and brightest,’ which amounted, in most cases, to its richest and whitest.” In essence, social Darwinist theory attempts to create a scientific basis for institutionalized racism.

The epitome of neocolonial philosophy might be found in the writings of Juan Bautista Alberdi, whose “Bases and Points of Departure for the Political Organization of the Argentine Republic” provided much of the rhetorical foundation for the Argentine Constitution of 1853. Sharing Comtean notions of stages of social development, Alberdi argued that Argentina must first pass through a period that he called the “possible republic” – an era distinguished by restricted suffrage under an authoritarian government – before it could reach the stage of “true republic.”
Alberdi viewed white Anglo-Saxons as the most desirable component of an ideal society; encouraging the immigration of Anglo-Saxons was, in Alberdi’s eyes, an important duty of a forward-looking government. Alberdi argued that this members of this ethnic group
…are identified with the steamship, with commerce, and with liberty, and it will be impossible to establish these things among us (Argentines) without the active cooperation of that progressive and cultivated race.

Finally, the pervasive influence of Liberal notions of racial hierarchy can be demonstrated by the actions of Mexico’s Zapotec President, Benito Juarez. A symbol of pride to indigenous peoples throughout the region, Juarez showed the possibilities offered by Liberal governments: any person, irrespective of ethnicity, could attain positions of power and influence in a modern republic. However, this icon of pluralism was offended by suggestions that he was an “Indian,” he used rice powder to lighten his natural complexion. More than any other illustration, this poignant anecdote captures the essence of neocolonial Liberal attitudes in nineteenth-century Latin America.


Anonymous said...

Phew! Long post but I learned a lot.

Anonymous said...

Do more local history.

Anonymous said...

I dont even know these people...