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A History of Latin America and the Caribbean

Chapter 4: Post-Colonial Blues, Part I

1830 to 1889

This chapter is divided into three parts, which cover the following topics:

Part I

The Struggle to Build New States
Enter the Caudillo
Central America: Out of One, Many
Mexico: Santa Anna’s Misadventures
Argentina: The Rise and Fall of Rosas
Chile: The Conservative Era
Peru and Bolivia: Disorder on the Borders
Paraguay: El Excelentísimo
Uruguay: Caught in the Crossfire
Mexico: The Incredible Shrinking Country
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Part II

New Granada
The Reform War
Nicaragua: The Filibuster
Honduras, Costa Rica, and El Salvador in the Nineteenth Century
Venezuela: The Barracks
Ecuador: The First Generation
The Franco-Mexican War
Argentina Pulls Itself Together
Chile: The Liberal Era
The War of the Triple Alliance
Cuba and Puerto Rico: The Last Spanish Colonies

Part III

Haiti and the Dominican Republic: Experiments in Bad Government
Ecuador: The Monastery
A Golden Age Begins for Argentina and Uruguay
Guatemala Takes a Step Back
The British Honduras
Mexico: The Porfiriato
The War of the Pacific
Colombia: The University
Império Brasileiro (The Brazilian Empire)
New Arrivals in the Guianas
Breaking the Rubber Monopoly

The Struggle to Build New States

By 1830, the Latin American wars of independence were over. Except in the Caribbean, every Spanish and Portuguese colony was now free. So was Haiti, though in this case the colonial overlord they threw out was France. Despite Simón Bolívar's efforts to prevent it, the former Spanish colonies split roughly along provincial lines. Thus, there were eleven Spanish-speaking nations by 1830. Except for the division of Central America, which came a decade after this chapter began, and the independence of Panama from Colombia (which did not come until 1903), the process was complete. And these borders proved to be more stable than expected; because most of them ran through unpopulated areas like mountains and jungles, they were poorly defined during the colonial era. Though border disputes would lead to war, only six countries have experienced major changes in their frontiers since 1830: Mexico, Central America, Bolivia, Paraguay, Chile and Ecuador.

Outside of the Caribbean, most Europeans had given up their claims to the New World. Even so, Latin America’s prospects for the future did not look very good. The wars for independence had heavily damaged the most important ex-Spanish colonies: Mexico, Venezuela, Peru and Bolivia. Physical capital had been destroyed and financial capital had fled. Most of the population was illiterate and dirt poor. While the region was blessed with natural resources, the poverty meant that the new nations would have to make a living by exporting raw materials and agricultural produce, which wasn’t as profitable as selling manufactured goods. In addition, most of the people could not afford imported goods from places like Europe, so the consumer market for visiting merchants was tiny. And the lack of funds meant that money for infrastructure improvements would have to come from foreigners; they would wait until the turmoil in each country subsided before they committed funds for railroads, highways, and other such projects. Finally, the population in most countries was only 20-25 percent white, but nearly all opportunities went to this minority. Blacks, Indians and those of mixed ancestry were considered out of the mainstream of society, especially if they lived in rural areas.

In most countries, the first ideological issue was how tightly they should be governed. Because they were the seats of Spanish viceroys, everyone expected Mexico City, Lima, Bogotá, and Buenos Aires to remain important after independence; the question was whether those cities would lead centralized or loosely organized states. In the smaller countries, this was not an issue for long, because the government gained control over the whole territory easily and quickly. Big nations like Argentina, Mexico and Brazil, however, were a different matter. Those who favored a centralized state came to be known as unitarios, while those who favored a looser government were called federales. Otherwise, the movements varied from one nation to another. In Mexico, for example, the rulers of Mexico City were deeply conservative, because the Valley of Mexico had contained Mexico's capital for 2,000 years, since the founding of Teotihuacan; meanwhile, provincial leaders tended to be more liberal. On the other hand, Buenos Aires was young compared to other Spanish capitals, as modern as a South American city could get, and swollen by recently arrived European immigrants, so the portenos were liberal while the gauchos of the provinces were conservative.

Finally, the ex-Spanish colonies faced a challenge because of the lack of experience in self-government; before independence, every management job above the local level had been reserved for European-born whites. Unlike the United States, there was no tradition of limited government, and no way to replace a leader except by force or the threat of force. Therefore, when the settlers found themselves on their own, they drew from the traditions they did have, and Spain had taught them to respect governments with a strong executive in charge. As conservative and liberal ideologies developed, conservatives favored the tradition of strong leadership -- after all, if they could not have a king, a dictator would be the next best thing -- while liberals wanted to imitate the constitutional governments of Great Britain and the United States.

For many countries it would take a long, conflict-ridden period to decide whether an authoritarian or representative model worked best, and how to adapt it to Latin American realities. One consequence is that nearly every nation has experienced coups and revolutions. It will be impossible, in a work covering thirty-three nations spread over one and a half continents, to describe every coup d'état. Such a list would probably bore the reader anyway, because in most cases the ideologies and factions were the same; only the names of the characters were different. Most of the time I will just provide details for those governmental changes that caused major changes in society. The most important fact to remember for this period is that like power, the ownership of land and wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few people, and that did not change after independence; while Latin America was volatile politically, it was slow to change socially and economically.

Brazil was the country which got off to the best start during this period. It was richly blessed with natural resources, it broke away from the mother country with far less destruction than the Spanish colonies had, and it stayed in one piece afterwards--a United States of Portuguese America. Because of that, Brazil followed a different political and social course from the Spanish-speaking colonies, until the Brazilian monarchy was replaced by a republic in 1889. For that reason, we will wait until the end of this chapter to cover Brazil, and that also makes 1889 a good stopping date for this chapter, because after that Brazil's story was more like the story of its neighbors.

Estimates of Latin America’s total population give us figures of 24 million for 1800, 38 million for 1850, and 74 million for 1900.(1) This works out to an annual increase of just over 1 percent for the first half of the century, and nearly two percent for the second half. The slow growth in the early years was hardly better than it had been in the eighteenth century, showing that for most people, life had not improved much. This was especially true for the Indians, who often lived by subsistence farming and were too poor to support larger populations than what they already had. The most rapid growth was in Argentina and Brazil, because of successful changes in lifestyle. The Argentines vigorously settled the Pampas, once they found out that it was perfect for ranching and the growing of grains. Brazil enjoyed great success by growing coffee in the areas around Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro; the liberation of the slaves also encouraged population growth. Everywhere cities grew as well, but because Latin America was behind Europe and the United States in the development of industry, only a small minority of the population lived in cities during this period.

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Enter the Caudillo

When independence came, there was one group of men available who were skilled leaders, and they stepped in to fill the power vacuum left by the departing Spaniards. These were military dictators, commonly called caudillos (Spanish for “little heads”). The busiest time for the caudillos was in the first generation after independence (1820-50), because Latin America saw its most unstable years during this time. But after stability came to the region, making effective civilian government possible, caudillos continued to run several countries. In some cases, like Honduras, Paraguay and Haiti, the reign of the last caudillo ended just three decades ago.

The typical caudillo was a charismatic army officer on a horse. The earliest ones got their experience and rank by fighting in the wars of independence. To their followers they gave patronage and spoils, and they expected complete loyalty in return. Under their rule, checks and balances did not exist, because they exercised the government’s executive, legislative, and judicial functions. Aside from that, though, caudillos were a diverse lot. They could operate on the local, provincial or national level, be conservative or liberal, white or Mestizo, cultured or even illiterate.

Three of the best examples of first-generation caudillos were Venezuela’s José Antonio Paez, Mexico’s Antonio López de Santa Anna, and Argentina’s Juan Manuel de Rosas. We already saw the first two in the previous chapter. Paez did not abuse the power he had, and deserves credit for holding his country together during the most difficult years. Santa Anna, on the other hand, used (or should we say misused?) his power irresponsibly. Rosas was in-between the others in his type of administration; he started the unification of Argentina, but did not get to finish it.

Caudillos were strictly a product of Spanish culture; Brazil did not produce them. The closest thing Brazil had to the caudillo was the coronel (Portuguese for “colonel”). A coronel could be a military man, but more often his rank was an honorary one. Most were civilians with influence, like a local political boss, a successful merchant, or even a lawyer or priest. And whereas caudillos often opposed central authority, the coronels preferred to cooperate with Brazil’s emperor or president, so they were agents of order, rather than of disorder.

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Central America: Out of One, Many

In 1823 Central America broke away from Mexico to become a single nation. Called the United Provinces of Central America, it consisted of six former colonial-era provinces: Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Los Altos (modern Chiapas, Mexico).(2) One year later a constitution was passed, which changed the official name to the Federal Republic of Central America. Guatemala City was the capital until 1831, when it was moved to San Salvador. An executive triumvirate ruled the country until outlying areas could be pacified and elections could be held.

Central American Flag.

The first Central American flag, used from 1823 to 1825. The two stripes represent the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. By the way, the similarity of this flag to the current Nicaraguan flag is intentional.

The first presidential election pitted José Cecilio del Valle, a Guatemalan philosopher and politician, against Manuel José Arce, a general from El Salvador who had fought in the wars of independence from Spain. Valle got more votes, but not a majority, so the liberal-dominated Congress held a second round of voting. Arce won the second round and became the first president, serving from 1825 to 1829.

The constitution, modeled closely after that of the US, was remarkably ahead of its time, compared with other Latin American constitutions. It abolished slavery, allowed universal male suffrage, took away the privileges of the Church, and promoted free trade under a laissez-faire capitalist system. However, it could not solve the problem of opposing ideologies, combined with the issue of centralization. The country’s conservatives were mainly based in Guatemala, which had been the region’s center of government during the colonial era, while the liberals were in control everywhere else. Worse, the states could not afford to finance their own governments, and were unwilling to send their taxes to the federal government. To get the states to pay their fair share, Arce turned to the conservatives, and became one of them. Honduras and El Salvador rebelled, starting a civil war that lasted from 1826 to 1829. The federal government won the first round, capturing Honduras and its governor, but superior numbers among the rebels eventually prevailed. The civil war ended with the taking of Guatemala City, after a siege in early 1829, and the imprisonment of every important member of the federal government, including Arce.

Arce was succeeded by another Salvadoran general, Francisco Morazán. He ruled as a dictator at first, and then a presidential election was held in 1830, with him as the liberal candidate and José Cecilio del Valle as the conservative candidate. Morazán won, and because the conservatives had been defeated both militarily and politically, he felt he had a green light to overhaul the nation through liberal reform. This meant the building of schools and roads, a free trade policy, foreign capital and immigrants, secular marriage and divorce, freedom of speech, and the taking away of privileges from the upper class and the Church.(3) Naturally conservatives opposed all this, and there was a revolt in El Salvador in 1832. Morazán put it down, but understandably he wasn’t popular after that. His term as president ended in 1834, and he ran for re-election; Valle ran once more, too, and this time he beat Morazán. However, Valle never took office; on the road between Guatemala and El Salvador, he fell ill and died. A second election had to be held, which Morazán won, so his second term began in 1835.

With hindsight, it would have taken a conservative president to make the federal government strong enough to keep Central America from breaking up. A cholera epidemic struck Guatemala in 1837, killing at least a thousand Indians. Local priests spread a rumor that the government had poisoned the rivers to get rid of the native population, which led to an Indian revolt, led by a Mestizo pig farmer named José Rafael Carrera Turcios. Soon the conservatives joined it as well. While Morazán was dealing with this rebellion, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica announced they were against a move by Congress to take over control of custom revenue, and they used this dispute as an excuse to leave the union.

There is no exact date for when the Federal Republic of Central America ended; Congress declared on May 31, 1838 that the provinces were free to become independent republics, but none of them tried to secede until November, starting with Nicaragua. When Morazán’s second term ended in February 1839, he had no power or legal basis to name a successor; all he could do was get himself elected chief of El Salvador, the one state he still controlled. He defeated an invasion from Honduras and Nicaragua, and then tried to restore the union by invading Guatemala in 1840, only to fall into a trap and suffer defeat at the hands of Rafael Carrera.(4) To stop being a burden on El Salvador, Morazán resigned and went into exile. With his departure, the Central American Union ceased to exist; El Salvador completed the dissolution process by declaring itself an independent republic in February 1841.

Morazán traveled first to Costa Rica, then to Peru. In the latter he learned that the British had become more active on the Mosquito Coast (see footnote #2), in an effort to get other countries to recognize their protectorate over the local Indians. Naturally Nicaragua and Honduras saw this as an attempt to take away their coastline, and they opposed it; so did the United States, which saw this as a challenge to the Monroe Doctrine. Seeing an opportunity to make a comeback, Morazán returned to El Salvador in 1842 and announced he was offering his services to lead all of Central America in the defense against the British menace. Nobody took him up on the offer, though, so next he decided to overthrow the Costa Rican head of state, Braulio Carrillo, in retaliation for what Carrillo had done to break Costa Rica away from Central America. He hired three boats and recruited 500 men, and sailed to Costa Rica. Carrillo organized his own military force to stop the invasion, but Morazán negotiated with the force’s commanding general instead of fighting a battle, and persuaded the general to join him in deposing Carrillo.

The conquest of Costa Rica convinced Morazán that it was possible to restore the Central American union. However, the Costa Rican people were not interested in the union, nor did they want to fight any of the wars that would be needed to put Central America together again. When the local population suddenly revolted in September 1842, Morazán found his men hopelessly outnumbered. He attempted to escape, was betrayed and handed over to his enemies, and executed by firing squad.

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Mexico: Santa Anna’s Misadventures

No part of the former Spanish Empire was less prepared for independence than Mexico. In fact, a plebiscite or opinion poll taken in 1821 probably would have shown a majority of the Mexican people wanting to stay with Spain. The Indian peasants scattered across the semi-arid countryside were only concerned about whether they could grow enough food to feed their families; they could not possibly understand that according to the constitution, they and the white urban elite were now equal. The Mestizos knew more about the new situation, because some of them lived in the cities, but felt they had more in common with the Indians than with the Creoles, so they didn't like the Creoles much, either. This meant the government was in the hands of the Creoles, who were mostly conservative, favored a centralized state, and wanted to keep all the benefits of independence for themselves; as long as all of Mexico's leaders were Creoles, they were likely to act the same way.

The United States had succeeded at running a federal government because the colonists learned to govern themselves decades before independence came (Virginia had a century and a half of experience); London allowed autonomy in its colonies because it cost less to run an empire this way. But Mexico, like the rest of Latin America, had no such experience; power was something that had always been imposed from overseas.

All this made Mexico the most unstable ex-Spanish colony. Between 1821 and 1850 Mexico had no less than fifty governments, usually rising and falling as a result of a military coup. The one constant during the first generation after independence was General Antonio López de Santa Anna; whether he was on the side in power or the side out of power, he was always involved somehow. During this period, he was president eleven times; the longest-lived presidency was the last one (1853-55). But most of the time he preferred to rule with somebody else as his front man, while he stayed at his home in Xalapa, Veracruz. Here Santa Anna indulged in his favorite pastime, cockfighting, and claimed he was retired, “unless my country needs me.”

Mexico’s governments might have lasted longer if there had been visible improvements to the economy. Anastasio Bustamante, the president in the early 1830s, tried to restore the silver mines that had been so important in colonial times, and encouraged increased agricultural production, but got little in the way of results; his biggest success was a strengthening of the textile industry through government subsidies and protectionist laws. In 1832 Bustamante was ousted in a coup led by Santa Anna and backed by the liberals, who were still angry over the execution of their hero, Vicente Guerrero.

Santa Anna became the new president, while a liberal, Valentín Goméz Farías, became vice president.(5) The partnership lasted until Goméz Farías tried to confiscate the wealth and excess lands of the Church; reducing the size of the army was on his agenda, too. This caused so many protests from the Church and the army that Santa Anna dismissed Goméz Farías. Then he decided that what the country needed was a new constitution, so in 1835 he threw out the old federal constitution and introduced one that called for a unitary state, without guarantees of freedom. Naturally this offended the states on the periphery. Santa Anna had to deal with a revolt in Zacatecas, the state with the silver mines, in 1835. The following year saw an even more serious revolt in Texas, because it was backed by US citizens.

The Mexicans did not miss Central America after it broke away in 1823, but they were seriously concerned that they would lose the territories on their northern frontier, due to US meddling.(6) To prevent this, in 1824 they reorganized the frontier states; New Vizcaya was split into the modern states of Chihuahua and Durango, while two sparsely populated states, New Extremadura and Texas, were merged to form Coahuila y Tejas. But afterwards, they still had good reason to believe the North Americans had hostile designs on their land. The first United States minister to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, was accused of trying to force North American political ideas upon the country and was declared persona non grata.(7) And though the frontier had been defined by the 1819 treaty (see Chapter 3, footnote #55, Americans continued to spill across it, and settle on the Mexican side.

Because the Mexican government could not keep the Gringos out, it ended up letting them in, on condition that they take an oath of loyalty to Mexico, and convert to Catholicism. But instead of becoming reliable Mexicans, the Americans made trouble whenever they saw their rights trampled on. The first revolts were put down easily; what made the revolt of 1836 different was that enough Americans had moved in to make the population of Texas 80 percent English-speaking. And Santa Anna proved to be a lousy military commander. In Texas he won two crushing victories at the Alamo(8) and Goliad, only to be captured a few weeks later by the rebels he was chasing. To regain his freedom, he had to sign a paper that recognized Texas as an independent republic, with all lands north and east of the Rio Grande belonging to it.(9) That wasn’t the end of the matter, though, because while Santa Anna was in captivity, Mexico City held new elections that returned Bustamante to the presidency. The new conservative government insisted on enforcing the 1835 constitution, and refused to recognize any change in the status of Texas. For the next nine years Texas drifted in limbo, while Mexico looked for a way to take it back and the US Congress debated whether to annex it.

Mexico’s humiliation at the hands of the Texans encouraged France to try its luck. A French squadron sailed to Veracruz in 1838, captured most of the Mexican fleet there, and landed troops to occupy the port. They demanded that Mexico pay the debt it owed to France, including 60,000 pesos for a French cook whose shop and pastries had been looted, during the coup of 1828. Because the average Mexican worker’s daily wage at this time was just one peso, this seemed like an excessive amount; it also prompted reporters to name this conflict the “Pastry War.” At Xalapa, the disgraced Santa Anna saw a chance to redeem himself, so he hurried to Veracruz and led a charge to cut off some French soldiers as they retreated to their ships. A blast of French grapeshot killed his horse and maimed his leg, which had to be amputated; the battle also left 224 Mexicans dead or wounded. The French in turn suffered 8 dead and 60 wounded, but they withdrew from Veracruz after British diplomats stepped in to negotiate a settlement. Thus, despite losing the battle, Santa Anna came out of it a hero; he played this up by having the amputated leg carried to a cemetery, where it was solemnly buried with full military honors. Four years later Santa Anna decided this wasn’t enough, and had the leg reburied in Mexico City’s cathedral.(10)

Santa Anna returned to the presidency, his Texas fiasco forgiven, only to find all of Mexico in a state of unrest. The three states immediately below Texas -- Coahuila, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas -- declared themselves the independent Republic of the Rio Grande; that revolt lasted from January to November of 1840. Another revolt, by Maya Indians on the other end of the country, sought to create a Republic of Yucatan. In July of 1840 an old enemy of Santa Anna, Goméz Farías, established a federal government, but it only lasted a few days. Bustamante took over again, failed to put down the revolts and federalist movements, and he was also deposed. Santa Anna was nominated acting president, and elections gave him a congress with a federalist majority, so Santa Anna overturned these results with yet another coup. This time he set up an ultra-conservative, centralist government, with nearly absolute power for himself. However, his extravagant spending turned the military against him, and in 1844 he went to exile in Cuba. That wasn’t the last Mexico had seen of him, though. If you want to summarize Santa Anna’s career, he was so inept that the Mexican people kept throwing him out, yet so charming that they kept giving him another chance.

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Argentina: The Rise and Fall of Rosas

Of all the new nations, Argentina had the most difficult time determining the role it would play in post-colonial America. At first, it wasn’t called by that name. Instead, its original name was the United Provinces of the Rio de la Plata, as if the founders intended it to become a second United States of America.(11) But for more than half of the nineteenth century it was anything but “united.” After the central government collapsed in 1820, the region was a collection of small states, each ruled by a caudillo and guarded by a gaucho cavalry. Like the founders of Paraguay and Uruguay, the caudillos resisted Buenos Aires as much as Buenos Aires had resisted Spain. Moreover, the frontiers of the United Provinces were quite different from the borders of present-day Argentina. Besides the Pampas, the Argentine heartland, the founders of the United Provinces claimed Paraguay and Uruguay, the whole southern half of Bolivia, and part of Chile. On the other hand, the land south of the Pampas, Patagonia, was not yet part of the Argentine state. Patagonia, like southern Chile, was the home of Indian tribes like the Mapuche, who fiercely resisted attempts by others to settle the land.

Argentina’s biggest asset was a feature that had been ignored during the colonial era – a temperate climate. Because of its location south of the Tropic of Capricorn, the Pampas (and also Paraguay, Uruguay, and southern Brazil) was not too hot, and not too cold – just right for Europeans. European crops and animals did well in that area, too, so the Pampas became to Argentina what the Great Plains is to the United States. When Spain was in charge, the Rio de la Plata region was the most neglected part of her New World empire, because it did not have any gold or silver, and because it was so far away, especially when Madrid insisted that everyone go there by way of Panama and Peru (see Chapter 2). Now, however, the moderate weather made this the most attractive part of Latin America to European immigrants.

Two cultures had arisen in Argentina by the time independence came: a modern, European society in Buenos Aires, and the culture of the gauchos on the Pampas. Like the North American cowboys, the gauchos were “rugged individualists.” Whereas the city-dwellers were mostly white, the typical gaucho was a Mestizo. He earned a living by selling leather and salted meat, and his herds of cattle and horses gave him everything he could want. “Vain is the endeavor to explain to him the luxuries and blessings of a more civilized life. His ideas are, that the noblest effort of man is to raise himself off the ground and ride instead of walk; that no rich garments or variety of food can atone for the want of a horse; and that the print of the human foot on the ground is the symbol of uncivilisation.”(12) When it came to politics, the urban Creoles were unitarios, who wanted to impose their form of order on the whole country, while the gauchos were natural federales, supporting anyone who opposed the central government.

The first great Argentine caudillo was Martín Miguel de Güemes (1785-1821), the governor of Salta, who defended that northern province from royalists until he was mortally wounded in a battle with them. Other caudillos worth remembering include Estanislao López (1786-1838), the powerful governor of Santa Fe from 1818 to 1838; Juan Facundo Quiroga (1788-1835) and Ángel Vicente Peñaloza (1796-1863), two champions of the federalist cause in the west; and Ricardo Ramón López Jordán (1822-89), the chief opponent of two heads of state, Justo José de Urquiza and Domingo Faustino Sarmiento. On the Unitarian side, the first important leader was Bernardino Rivadavia (1780-1845), a liberal with all kinds of ideas for reform. His greatest success was calling a congress to write a constitution; in 1826 the constitution was ratified and he was elected Argentina’s first president. However, Rivadavia came to grief when he failed to win the Argentina-Brazil War over Uruguay (see Chapter 3). Another failure was his plan to industrialize the country with the help of British investments. This was strongly opposed by the conservative estancieros (ranchers) and their gauchos, who were richer than the residents of Buenos Aires at this point, and did not want the government taking away the powers of the Church or changing the agriculture-dependent economy which benefited them. One year after becoming president, the frustrated Rivadavia resigned and went into exile.

For two years after Rivadavia, attempts to unite the country produced only anarchy. In desperation the people of Buenos Aires elected the strongest of the federales, Juan Manuel de Rosas (1793-1877), as governor in 1829. An estanciero and the owner of a meat-salting plant and several ships, Rosas had lived in the rural part of Buenos Aires Province, not the city, so he was a true child of the Pampas. When his term as governor ended in 1833, he led the so-called “Desert Campaign,” marching with his troops against the Indians to the southwest, and giving the land he conquered to his supporters. While Rosas was away, his wife, Doña Encarnacion, campaigned for his “restoration” to power. After he returned the Federal Party voted to give him full dictatorial powers, and for the next seventeen years (1835-52) he ran the province like one of his estates, treating the citizens like his employees.

Though Rosas still claimed to be a federalist, he did more than anyone else to centralize Argentina; for example, he required that all international trade pass through Buenos Aires. The gauchos and blacks who were his base of support did not benefit from his rule, but remained impoverished workers on the ranches and in the towns. Rebellions by other caudillos were ruthlessly crushed, and after the leaders were killed, their heads were displayed in public. The color red became a political symbol, and everyone in Buenos Aires was expected to show their loyalty by wearing at least a red ribbon.(13) Spies and a secret police force, the infamous Mazorca, intimidated and assassinated the enemies of Rosas, and he institutionalized torture.(14) Even the slave trade was brought back, because of a labor shortage in newly settled areas on the frontier. A personality cult was created around Rosas, and his portrait could be seen throughout the city, even on altars in churches; meanwhile, intellectual activity was discouraged and schools were closed.

Juan Manuel de Rosas.

Juan Manuel de Rosas.

On the foreign-military front, Rosas got Argentina involved in the War of the Confederation (1836-39), to keep Bolivia from uniting with Peru. His other ventures were not as successful, though. Because France and Great Britain supported the short-lived Peruvian-Bolivian union, Rosas offended those nations, and twice the French fleet blockaded Buenos Aires, ruining local commerce (the British navy took part in the second blockade, too). His attempt to gain control over Paraguay by prohibiting traffic up the river to Asunción got nowhere. Finally, he refused to recognize Uruguay as an independent state, and when fighting broke out between Uruguay’s political parties, Rosas intervened there. This resulted in an unsuccessful eight-year siege of Montevideo (1843-51), where many of his opponents had taken refuge.

By the beginning of the 1850s, Rosas had alienated too many people--Europeans, Paraguayans, Uruguayans, and especially the provincial caudillos--for the civil war between Buenos Aires and the provinces had continued throughout his reign. Opposition to Rosas rallied behind Justo José de Urquiza (1801-70), the governor of Entre Rios Province and a caudillo who had previously been on Rosas’ side. Urquiza raised an army of 20,000 that included Uruguayans and Brazilians, and at the battle of Caseros (February 3, 1852), Rosas was defeated; he spent the rest of his life in exile in England.

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Chile: The Conservative Era

Only the central third of Chile was settled at the time of independence. This region attracted Europeans (mostly German farmers) because it had fertile valleys and a Mediterranean climate, so both the capital of Santiago and the chief port of Valparaiso are located here. The north, as we saw in previous chapters, was the Atacama Desert, a desolate area without water and without people. The south was a cold land of mountains, forests and lakes, still the domain of about 200,000 Araucanian Indians.

Next to Paraguay, Chile was the most stable of the newly independent Latin American nations. True, there had been turmoil for most of the 1820s, but that was resolved when a conservative faction overthrew the last of the liberal dictatorships that followed Bernardo O’Higgins. For the next thirty-one years (1830-61) Chile had conservative leadership. They were helped because Chile had a simpler class structure than the rest of Latin America. The only social classes that mattered were the landowning elite and the illiterate laborers who worked on their farms, and the landowners were united on the goal of perpetuating their rule. Chile’s unique geography also favored stability; because all political activity happened in the central part of Chile, it was as easy to maintain order as if Chile had been much smaller.

The first president of the conservative era, General Joaquín Prieto, served for ten years (1831-41), but the one who had the power was his chief cabinet minister, Diego Portales, a man who never held elective office. With the support of merchants, landowners, foreign capitalists, the church(15), and the military, Portales ran an “autocratic republic,” which concentrated political power in the central government. In 1833 he introduced a reactionary, unitary constitution, which the conservative-dominated assembly approved. One of the most successful constitutions in Latin American history, it lasted until 1925, with only a brief interruption in 1891. Under it, only men who were at least twenty-five years old, could read and owned land, were allowed to vote; candidates for the assembly had to pass even stricter property requirements. Catholicism was declared the state religion, and only the church could perform marriages. The president was elected indirectly by electors chosen by the voters, appointed all high officials, had the power to veto legislation without being overridden, could serve for two terms of five years each, and picked his successor. Finally, the constitution could be amended, but the rules for doing so made it almost impossible.

Portales dismissed generals who had liberal sympathies/connections, and sent the military to break up the Peru-Bolivia confederation in 1836. Although this intervention was successful, he did not live to see it, because he went too far in the following year. Fearing unrest from those who opposed his regime, Portales declared martial law, and asked for (and got) extraordinary legislative powers from Congress. The colonel commanding the Maipo regiment launched a mutiny; they arrested and later shot Portales, but could not overthrow the government, because the rest of the armed forces stayed loyal.

A lot got done under Prieto and the next two conservative presidents, Manuel Bulnes and Manuel Montt. Agricultural production increased significantly in the 1850s, because the Crimean War and gold rushes in California and Australia created a demand for wheat, which Chile was able to supply. However, there were limits to how much food could be grown, because of the small amount of available farmland, and the use of primitive farming techniques; most of the economic growth came from mining. By 1840 Chile was the world’s biggest producer of copper; the northern mines also yielded gold, silver, and South America’s only supply of coal. An entrepreneur from the United States, William Wheelwright, established a line of steamships connecting Chile’s ports in 1840, and in 1852 he completed the first Chilean railroad, which ran from a mining district to the coast. Meanwhile a secular school system was introduced in the 1840s, and the University of Chile was founded in 1843.

Trouble brewed after a generation grew up that was too young to remember the wars for independence, and it did not like the current system; consequently these Chileans were less unified than their parents had been. Manuel Montt’s 1851 election was declared fraudulent by liberals and southern oligarchs, and a three-month revolt followed. Montt crushed it, but later he alienated the church by abolishing the required tithe, turning down a request to allow the return of the Jesuits, and passing laws that gave the state jurisdiction over the clergy, and legalized civil marriages for non-Catholics. Then came an economic depression in 1857, and another large-scale revolt in 1859, which was put down as a cost of 5,000 lives. When Montt’s presidency ended in 1861, the voters broke tradition by rejecting his chosen successor; instead they elected a liberal, José Joaquín Pérez.

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Peru and Bolivia: Disorder on the Borders

It wasn’t clear what role Peru and Bolivia would play after independence. Lima had been the seat of a Spanish viceroy, making Peru the most important part of South America for Spain. Because of their privileged position, most Peruvians did not fight for their independence until Bolívar and San Martin reached their neighborhood. Bolivia’s future was even more in question, because the Incas, Spaniards, and (briefly) Bolívar had ruled both Peru and Bolivia. With Spain out of the picture, would Peru and Bolivia become one independent nation or two?

After Bolívar left Peru, his military commanders ruled: Andrés Santa Cruz (1826-27), José de La Mar (1827-29), Antonio Gutiérrez de la Fuente (June-September 1829), and Agustín Gamarra (1829-33). And after them Peruvian leaders rose and fell constantly; there were a total of forty-seven presidents between 1826 and 1890.

When Santa Cruz was kicked out of Peru, he established himself as Bolivia’s third president (the first two were Bolívar and Sucre), and ruled there until 1839. But he still wanted Peru back, so in 1836 he marched into Peru, intent on correcting the mistake the Peruvians had made. He was successful, and proclaimed the union of Peru and Bolivia in a new confederation, with himself president of it.(16) This alarmed Chile, which saw the union upsetting the balance of power in South America. The result was a three-year war (1836-39), called the War of the Confederation; it pitted the Peru and Bolivia against Chile, Argentina and some Peruvian dissidents. Because Chile had inherited the British-trained navy used to invade Peru during the wars of independence, it won this war, too; the confederation was broken up and Santa Cruz was exiled.

Gamarra took charge of Peru for the second time. In 1841 Gamarra turned the tables by invading Bolivia; previously he had supported the confederation, but he wanted Peru, not Bolivia, running it. He was killed at the battle of Ingaví, and then the Bolivian general, José Balliván y Segurola, struck back, capturing the Peruvian port of Arica. Finally the two sides ended the fighting by signing a treaty in 1842, which also ended any chance of joining Peru and Bolivia together again.

The treaty ended the fighting between nations, but it did not end the fighting within nations. In Peru there were three more coups and one more election, until Ramón Castilla y Marquesado seized power, following the death of his predecessor (1844). One year later he had his presidency confirmed by an election. During the next eighteen years Castilla was president three times (1845-51, 1855-62, and briefly in 1863), and remained an important influence when somebody else was in the top spot. This period was also one of the most prosperous in Peru’s history, thanks to exploitation of the rich guano deposits along the coast (see Chapter 1, footnote #8 and the section on the War of the Pacific in this chapter). Thus, some historians call the period when Castilla was in charge the “Guano Era.” Other positive achievements included paying down the foreign debts which had been incurred during the war for independence, building Peru’s first railroads, abolishing slavery(17), abolishing the tribute the Indians had been forced to pay to the government, and reforming the law code (most of the laws had been on the books since colonial times).

Castilla was not as successful when he revived the territorial dispute of the 1820s, to claim Ecuadorian territory. Although he did better in the resulting war (1858-60), Ecuador got to keep all the contested land. This caused poor relations between the two countries, which lasted until a new treaty settled the dispute in 1997.

The task of building the railroads was accomplished by an American entrepreneur, Henry Meiggs (1811-77). Meiggs had made a fortune shipping a cargo of lumber to California during the 1849 gold rush; because everything was overpriced in San Francisco, the cargo sold for twenty times its cost. However, he soon lost that profit to real estate speculation, and fraudulently withdrew money from the city fund to cover his expenses; eventually he owed so much that in 1854 he sneaked out of the city on a ship headed to South America, to escape his creditors. In Chile he managed to raise money again, and used it to finance the building of that country’s second railroad, from Santiago to Valparaiso. Then he went to Peru and built several railroads there, claiming at one point that he could send a train anywhere a llama could go. His most expensive track went over the Andes at an altitude above 15,000 feet, had more than twenty switchbacks, and cost $200,000 per mile and 7,500 lives to build. Consequently these projects bankrupted the country, and though Meiggs made enough to pay off all his old debts, in 1876 he could no longer obtain credit, so the railroad projects stopped there.

Life in Peru may have been tough, but compared with Bolivia, it was a picnic. At the time of this writing (2012), Bolivia has had 192 governments. Most of the governments were military juntas run by crappy dictators(18), which did not last long enough to accomplish much. Bolivia was blessed with more mineral wealth than any other Latin American country, but this was offset by the harsh climate (jungles in the north and east, mountains in the south and west) and ineffective government. In the nineteenth century Bolivia’s main source of income came not from silver or tin, but from taxes paid by the Indians, both a head tax and a tax on coca leaves. Finally, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Bolivia lost nearly half of its territory to Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Paraguay.

Bolivia's losses.

Bolivia lost the thin strip on its eastern border to Brazil in 1867, and its access to the Pacific in the War of the Pacific. The other losses happened in the twentieth century, so we will cover them in the next chapter.

After the confederation with Peru failed, Bolivia was run by General José Miguel de Velasco Franco (1839-41), and the previously mentioned José Balliván y Segurola (1841-47). Next came Manuel Isidoro Belzú Humérez (1848-55), who was different from his predecessors in that he was a populist who favored the Indian and artisan classes, rather than the aristocratic landowners. Belzú also was able to quit while he was ahead; after fending off forty-two coup attempts, he resigned and left for Europe. He was succeeded by his son-in-law, General Jorge Córdova (1855-57), who was in turn overthrown by José María Linares Lizarazu (1857-61), the first civilian president. Under Linares mining output increased, partly because the steam engine had been introduced, and partly because of the discovery of huge nitrate deposits in the Atacama Desert (more about that later).

The presidency of Linares ended with yet another coup, and the next president, General José María Achá Valiente (1861-64), oversaw one of the most violent periods in Bolivian history. Achá is chiefly remembered for the “murders of Yáñez,” a massacre of seventy-one Belzú supporters (Belcistas), including former president Córdova. In December 1864 General Mariano Melgarejo Valencia rose up against Achá, overthrew him, and personally killed former president Belzú, who had returned and was trying to make a comeback. Melgarejo (1864-71) proved to be the worst caudillo in Bolivian history; he was cruel, corrupt, illiterate, drunk all the time, and more than a little eccentric.

Melgarejo showed his unstable behavior early in his reign when a woman, Juana Sanchez, came pleading for her brother, Aurelio Sanchez, who was under a death sentence; over the next three days Melgarejo pardoned the brother, made him a general, and married the woman. In 1867 he signed a treaty that gave 39,537 square miles of land in the north and east to Brazil, in return for a promise of water access to the Atlantic Ocean, and a white horse that he liked very much. The horse was named Holofernes, and Melgarejo went so far as to bring Holofernes to parties in the presidential palace, where he was trained to drink beer and urinate on passed-out guests. A brave assistant pointed out that the Roman emperor Caligula was considered crazy because he elevated a horse to the rank of consul; instead of taking the hint, Melgarejo thought it was a great story and appointed Holofernes as another general! Shortly after that, Melgarejo met the British ambassador in La Paz. The ambassador offended Melgarejo by refusing a glass of chicha (corn beer), because he thought the Inca beverage was disgusting. Melgarejo asked him what he would like to drink instead, and when the ambassador said "chocolate," he forced him to drink hot cocoa at gun point until he threw up, and then sent the ambassador away, tied on a mule facing backward. Too bad the drink wasn't tea. When Queen Victoria heard about this incident, she called for a naval bombardment of La Paz; then when her advisors showed on a map that La Paz was too far inland to be attacked by ships, she drew a big red "X" on the map, declared that "Bolivia does not exist," and ordered all Bolivians expelled from England.

Melgarejo riding Holofernes.

Mariano Melgarejo and his sidekick, Holofernes.

Melgarejo managed to stay out of the War of the Triple Alliance, though he made it known he favored Paraguay; then when he heard about the Franco-Prussian War, he decided to fight on the side of France, and led the army on an overland march, until a sudden downpour made him come to his senses and abandon the idea.(19) His attempts to confiscate communal Indian land led to violent Indian uprisings, and in January 1871 he was overthrown by Agustín Morales Hernández, a general much like him. Melgarejo fled to Lima, Peru, where he was murdered ten months later. In a perverse twist of events, the general that killed him was Aurelio Sanchez, the same general whose life he had spared earlier.

Agustín Morales Hernández (1871-72) promised “more liberty and less government.” His successors, Tomás Frías Ametller (1872-73) and General Adolfo Ballivián (1873-74), were also expected to do better than Melgarejo, but then almost anybody could have done that. All three were quickly undone by the constant intrigues, and the next caudillo, Hilarión Daza Groselle (1876-79), was definitely not an improvement; in fact he was as brutal and incompetent as Melgarejo. Faced with widespread opposition, including a massive demonstration by artisans in Sucre, Daza tried to rally the people behind him by picking a fight with Chile. That fight, the War of the Pacific, was a disaster for Bolivia; the Bolivian army was easily defeated, and Daza fled to Europe with a large chunk of Bolivia’s treasury.

Daza’s successor, Narciso Campero Leyes (1880-84) was a sixty-six-year-old retired officer who re-enlisted when the war broke out. After the division he commanded was defeated, Congress picked him to serve for a four-year-term, and gave him several tough assignments: get Bolivia out of the war, repair the economy, restore confidence, write a new constitution, and found a democratic government based on the rule of law. Thus, an old soldier ended more than half a century of unrestricted military meddling, and the period from the 1880s to the 1930s was much more stable, with regular elections and few coups.

The early 1880s also saw the emergence of political parties like the ones in other parts of Latin America. At first the main issue was the war; the Liberal Party wanted to get the lost mining land back, while the Conservatives favored peace with Chile. Two drawbacks to the system were that both parties still supported military candidates for the presidency, and that while the population was mostly Indian, only literate, landowning whites and Mestizos could vote.

Campero himself avoided taking sides in politics, but his vice president was a conservative, and so were all the presidents after him, until 1899. The next president, Gregoria Pacheco Leyes (1884-88), owned silver mines, which was appropriate because increased mine production was improving the nation’s income. He was followed by another silver mining tycoon, Aniceto Arce Ruíz (1888-92).

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Paraguay: El Excelentísimo

Paraguay enjoyed stability for two generations after independence because it only had three heads of state with any power during the first fifty-nine years. We covered the career of the first leader, José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, in the previous chapter. His reign ended with his death in 1840, and because he ran a totalitarian state, there was quite a bit of relief when El Supremo became El Difunto (“The Dead One”). Though he was given a state funeral overseen by a priest, some old Spanish families stole his body, dismembered it, and threw the pieces into a river.(20)

Francia didn’t name a successor, even when he knew he was dying; a few days after his death a provisional junta took over, but it could not govern effectively. Four months later the junta was overthrown (January 1841), and the junta that took its place only lasted sixteen days before it was in turn ousted in another coup. The Paraguayan constitution called for the state to have two executives called consuls, so in March congress restored order by choosing two consuls, Carlos Antonio López Ynsfrán and Mariano Roque Alonso. You may remember that Francia paid lip service to this part of the constitution during his early years, by making sure that the other consul was powerless. Well, López also played by the rules until 1844, when he exiled Roque, replaced the constitution with another one that was more suitable to his tastes (the new constitution said nothing about checks and balances, and did not even mention the word “liberty”), and got himself elected president by congress. His first term lasted ten years, and he also won the next two elections after that (in 1857 and 1860).

López was a lawyer and a nephew of Francia; he had not held any important government position before 1840, when he became secretary to the first junta. Both Francia and López were among the most educated men in the country, but aside from that, they were as different as two dictators could get. To start with, Francia was thin, but López was obese (one acquaintance described him as a "great tidal wave of human flesh"). Whereas Francia was a proto-Marxist, López was a classic greedy despot whose only ideology was to enrich himself and his family. To do this López treated the treasury as his personal bank account and the state as his private property (by the time of his death, more than half of Paraguay’s land and cattle did belong to him).

López also differed from Francia in his foreign policy. He ended the previous isolation by opening Paraguay up for trade, built 400 new schools (under Francia, there had been only one school for the whole country), and encouraged Europeans to come to Paraguay and modernize the local industry and the army. Among the modernizations was the country’s first railroad, which ran from Asunción to Paraguarí, and was built by the British in 1858. However, he soon found that foreign affairs can be a double-edged sword; there was a war scare between Paraguay and the United States in 1845. In the same year, the Argentine province of Corrientes revolted against Juan Manuel de Rosas, the Buenos Aires dictator, and López intervened on the side of the rebels, because Rosas had not yet recognized Paraguay’s independence. The revolt failed, and though Britain and France kept Rosas from invading Paraguay, he could slap a Porteño embargo on Paraguayan goods, which lasted until Rosas was overthrown in 1852.

For someone who was exceedingly corrupt, López was also quite a talented ruler. In that sense, the title he gave himself, El Excelentísimo, was appropriate. The country’s budget continued to run with a surplus, though he always had his hands in the till, and he spent most of the extra money on the military, making Paraguay the South American equivalent of Prussia. While he was in charge, the army grew from 1,800 to 18,000 men. In 1844 he freed all of Francia’s political prisoners, and promised to abolish slavery and torture, though the laws he passed for that purpose had so many loopholes that both institutions still existed at the end of his reign. He also allowed a bit more freedom than Francia had; as long as he could have other people’s money and land, he didn’t care what they said or did. Finally, he managed to establish a dynasty by bequeathing the presidency to his son, Francisco Solano López Carillo, when he died in 1862. However, the younger López soon proved that talent and ability are not hereditary traits; not only was he the worst ruler in South American history, but one of the worst rulers of all time.

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Uruguay: Caught In the Crossfire

We noted in the previous chapter that Uruguay, then called Banda Oriental, was colonized as an afterthought. Being flat, and lacking mineral wealth, it did not attract any settlers in the first wave of European colonization; when settlers did arrive, more than halfway through the colonial era, it was because both Spain and Portugal realized that if they did not colonize the region, the other side would.(21) That dispute was passed to Argentina and Brazil in the 1820s, and it was settled by granting independence to Uruguay, instead of giving it to either side. However, it was uncertain if the country would stay independent, because both Argentina and Brazil couldn’t resist meddling in Uruguayan affairs.

Uruguay started off with a population just under 75,000. Most of it was rural; less than 20 percent lived in Montevideo. As in other parts of Latin America, caudillos emerged, and people were attracted to them because of their power, courage, and/or wealth. Over the course of the 1830s and 1840s, the followers of the caudillos became the nation’s political parties. The Colorado (Red) Party was made up mostly of liberal business owners in Montevideo, and led by José Fructuoso Rivera. The other party’s official name was the National Party, but its followers were usually called Blancos (Whites); it represented conservative farmers and merchants in the countryside, and their leader was Manuel Oribe. The colors in the party names came from the armbands party members wore; originally the Colorados wore blue armbands, but they faded too quickly in the sun, so they switched to red. Party affiliation also decided who they favored in neighboring countries; the Colorados liked Brazil and the unitarios of Buenos Aires, while the Blancos took the side of Juan Manuel de Rosas and the gauchos.

Rivera was the first elected president, serving from 1830 to 1835, and then he was followed by Oribe. However, the rivalry between the two caudillos and their groups quickly turned violent after that; Rivera launched a revolt in 1836 and Oribe, with the help of Argentine troops, crushed it at the Battle of Carpintería. Rivera raised another army, though, and defeated the Blancos in 1838; Oribe went into exile in Buenos Aires, and Rivera became president a second time (1838-43).(22)

Exile can work both ways; while the Blancos were re-arming themselves in Buenos Aires, opponents of the Argentine leader, Juan Manuel de Rosas, set up a government-in-exile in Montevideo. Rosas also happened to be on bad terms with France, so with secret French encouragement, Rivera declared war on Rosas. This was the beginning of Uruguay’s civil war (1839-52), also called the Guerra Grande (Great War) because an astonishing number of people got involved in it, from Europe as well as South America.(23)

Rivera and the Colorados made the first move, by invading Argentina. However, they failed to link up with the Argentine unitarios; Rosas threw them out, and together Rosas and the Blancos overran most of Uruguay in 1842. Then the Blancos relocated their headquarters to Cerrito, a hill near Montevideo, while Rosas besieged Montevideo itself for the next eight years (1843-51). But because population density in that part of South America was still low, it was not a tight blockade; foreign shipping could still get supplies into the city. In 1850 Britain and France signed a treaty that settled their differences with Rosas, and withdrew their navies. What saved Montevideo at this point were two key interventions, from Brazil (which did not want to see Argentina conquer Uruguay) and from the main rival of Rosas, José de Urquiza. The Brazil-Urquiza coalition defeated the Blancos and lifted the siege of Montevideo in 1851; in 1852, as mentioned previously, they overthrew Rosas, and the Guerra Grande was finally over.

Brazil’s reward for helping the Colorados was a postwar alliance with Uruguay, confirmed by the signing of five favorable treaties in 1851:

  1. Brazil got the right to intervene in Uruguayan affairs.
  2. Uruguay would return runaway slaves and criminals.(24)
  3. Both countries were allowed unrestricted travel on the Uruguay River and its tributaries.
  4. Brazil would not have to pay a tax on cattle and salted meat exported to Uruguay (Uruguay’s cattle industry had been devastated by the war), in return for a promise to grant a future loan.
  5. Uruguay gave up its claim to the land north of the Quaraí or Cuareim River (when Uruguay’s original borders were drawn, they made the country twice as large as it is today).
To help Uruguay recover, the Colorados and the Blancos agreed to cooperate in a “fusion” government. However, this did not end the struggle between the two parties. The first president of the new government was a Blanco, Juan Francisco Giró (1852-53), and the Colorados gave him such a hard time that he was forced to resign. Next a triumvirate was set up, composed of Lavalleja (see footnote #22), Rivera and another Colorado, Venancio Flores. Lavalleja and Rivera both died in 1854, and Flores stayed in office for another year, before moving to Argentina. Three more “acting presidents” followed, and then the Blancos took over again. Their president, Gabriel Pereira (1856-60) faced six coup attempts, and the next president, Bernardo Prudencio Berro (1860-64) was ousted when Flores returned.

Flores was brought back by the brief Uruguayan War (August 1864-February 1865), in which both Brazil and Argentina backed the Colorados against the Blancos. Because the Blancos were clearly the underdogs, all the Colorados and their allies had to do was overrun the countryside, isolate the Blancos in Montevideo, and force them to surrender. Still, it took them six months, because the Brazilian navy could not coordinate its activities with the Brazilian army. I am mentioning this because the war included one of the strangest stories I have ever read in military history; cheese won a naval battle! What happened was that during one clash between a Brazilian and an Uruguayan (Blanco) ship, the Uruguayans ran out of cannonballs, and the quick-thinking captain ordered his men to load the guns with balls of stale edam cheese. Obviously this food item had become too hard to eat, judging from the results. The first two shots missed, but the third squarely hit the main mast of the Brazilian ship, shattering the mast and killing two men standing nearby with cheese shrapnel. When some more shots shredded the sails, the Brazilian admiral ordered the ship to withdraw. And no, I don't know how he and the crew explained the damage to the folks back home.

The end of this civil war left the Colorados with such a firm grip on the government that there would be no more Blanco presidents for nearly a century. That should have ended the rivalry, but during the war the Blancos had called on Paraguay’s mad dictator, Francisco Solano López, to intervene on their side. The war ended before he could help, but Brazil's relatively poor performance led him to believe he could beat the Brazilians if he tried. The result was the disastrous War of the Triple Alliance, which will be covered in the next section on Paraguay. Although Uruguay was on the winning side in that war, it did not benefit from the victory; nearly all of the Uruguayan army was lost, and both Berro and Flores were assassinated on the same day (February 19, 1868).

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Mexico: The Incredible Shrinking Country

The United States formally annexed Texas in 1845. This put the US and Mexico on a collision course, because the Mexican government insisted that the southern border of Texas was not at the Rio Grande, but at the next river to the north, the Nueces. However, Mexico was in no shape to fight, so the current president, General José Joaquín Herrera, tried to negotiate. The people and the military were outraged; Herrera was toppled in a coup, and the coup leader, General Marriano Paredes, announced that he favored the old Plan of Iguala, meaning that he wanted a European-born monarch ruling the country. If he was hoping to unite all of Mexico under one leader, he did it too late to stop the Yankees; in the spring of 1846 Washington moved troops into the disputed zone, Mexican soldiers attacked them, and the US declared war. That started the conflict that is called the Mexican War, the Mexican-American War, or as Mexicans like to call it today, the War of the North American Invasion.

Map of the Mexican War.

Whatever you call the war, you can read more about it in Chapter 3 of my North American history. Neither side was really prepared for war when it broke out. The Gringos had a small, inexperienced army; it had not fought anybody but Indians for the past thirty years. Still, these were easier liabilities to overcome than those the Mexicans had. The United States was not fighting rebellions at home; its troops were better equipped, and they had higher morale.(25) Most of all, the Americans had better leadership. Three months after the war began, the conservative government of General Paredes fell. Goméz Farías became president again, and when Santa Anna wrote him saying that he no longer had aspirations to the presidency, but would like to use his military experience to help the country, he was allowed to return. Predictably, Goméz Farías proposed confiscating church property to pay for the war, which triggered another right-wing coup from the military, and Santa Anna took his place.

On the war front, three Yankee armies marched south out of Texas, from Corpus Christi, San Antonio, and Santa Fe. They were led respectively by Zachary Taylor, John Wool, and Alexander Doniphan, and converged on the mountain pass of Buena Vista in February 1847. A second front was opened in the west, with two columns, led by Stephen Kearney and John C. Frémont, making a beeline for California; they were supported by US naval vessels in the Pacific. Aside from a temporary victory at San Diego, which halted Kearney’s advance for three months, the Mexicans lost every battle in the war.

So far, so good for the Americans, but Mexico had not given up yet, so a third front was launched, this time in the heart of Mexico. In March 1847 General Winfield Scott took Veracruz, in an assault on the Gulf Coast. Then he marched on Mexico City, using the same path Hernando Cortez had taken three centuries earlier. Santa Anna took charge of the capital’s defenses, claiming that he had just fought General Taylor to a halt at the battle of Buena Vista. Actually it had been another defeat -- the Mexican people didn’t know the truth because of poor communications -- and when he tried to stop Scott’s advancing army, he barely avoided being captured (the battle of Cerro Gordo, see footnote #10).

At Churubusco, the Mexicans found that a stone convent made an excellent defensive position, but the battle over it (August 20, 1847) was decided when the Mexicans ran out of ammunition. Then came a dramatic moment as the men in the convent surrendered, and US Brigadier General David Twiggs asked his Mexican counterpart, General Pedro Maria de Anaya, to hand over his ammunition. Anaya's response was, "If I had ammunition, you would not be here."

With Mexico City only five miles from Churubusco, Scott paused and offered an armistice, so the Mexicans could consider the American peace terms, which basically meant handing over Mexico’s entire northern tier of territories to the US. A year of defeats had not changed their minds; they might let Texas go, but New Mexico and Upper California? No way! When fighting resumed, the Mexicans offered desperate, heroic resistance, but Mexico City still fell in September.(26)

The Mexican government fled to Querétaro, but the war was as good as over. While it had been going on, the Maya rebellion in Yucatan, which had never been completely pacified, continued. At one point, the white plantation owners, the main target of the Indians, were so desperate that they offered Yucatan to any country that would intervene and crush the rebellion.(27) Another rebellion of landless Indians and Mestizos set the states of Guanajuato, Querétaro and San Luis Potosí ablaze. On top of all that, bandits plundered estates elsewhere, and Apache and Comanche Indians raided New Mexico and west Texas. With the whole country falling apart, there was nothing left to do but surrender. Santa Anna went into exile again, and in February 1848 the two countries signed a peace treaty that “sold” California, Texas and everything in-between to the US for $15 million.

For the first years after the war, Mexico’s politicians saw the need to work together. The money paid by the United States in the treaty ending the war was used to rebuild the army, and Mexico got the upper hand against the Indian revolts. They even agreed that they should have a strong central government, but who would be in charge? You guessed it -- they chose their champion loser, calling Santa Anna back from exile to become president once more, in April 1853. Santa Anna formed a coalition government that included both conservatives and liberals, but since his capture in 1836 (see footnote #9) he had come to believe that Augustin de Iturbide, the emperor he had overthrown, had the right idea all along. When he was president in the early 1840s, Santa Anna took on some regal trappings; e.g., we saw how he made his amputated leg a symbol of his courage. This time he continued to call himself president, but he also declared himself dictator for life, and added so many titles (“his most serene highness,” “the supreme power,” “the Napoleon of the West”) that when he was done, you couldn’t tell the difference between him and Iturbide.

Mexico badly needed money as well as peace, so in 1853 Santa Anna agreed to a US proposal to sell more land to the United States, allowing the Americans to build a railroad between Texas and California without going through Apache country. At one point the Americans offered $50 million for all six states on Mexico’s present-day northern border. Santa Anna’s goal was to get as much cash as possible and give up as little land as he could in return, so in the end he just sold a strip of land south of the Gila River and west of the Rio Grande for $10 million; that became the Gadsden Purchase. Though the deal could have been much worse, Mexicans were outraged; Santa Anna had already squandered half of the country’s territory.

Because Santa Anna’s rule was growing more despotic and corrupt every year, in 1854 the army came up with the Plan of Ayutla, a plot to remove the dictator and replace him with an assembly that would write a federal constitution. Santa Anna gave generous gifts to those who were still loyal to him, but eventually even the conservatives did not want him around anymore; in August 1855 a group of liberals succeeded in toppling him, and he fled to Cuba. When the extent of his corruption was discovered, he was tried in absentia for treason, and all his estates were confiscated by the government. Over the next nineteen years, Santa Anna lived in exile first in Cuba, and later in Columbia, the United States, and the Virgin Islands. In 1874, two years before his death, he was allowed to return to Mexico under a general amnesty; by then he was destitute, nearly blind, and eighty years old.(28)

This is the end of Part I. Click here to go to Part II.


1. If you want to compare the population with today’s numbers, there were 589,018,078 Latin Americans in 2011.

2. Today there are seven Central American nations; the original state did not include Belize or Panama. Belize, then called the British Honduras, was still a British colony, and as we noted earlier in this chapter, Panama was part of Colombia. And Britain still claimed the Mosquito Coast (see Chapter 3) as a protectorate.

3. During his first term, Morazán was enthusiastically supported by Mariano Gálvez, the head of Guatemala’s government from 1831 to 1838. Gálvez launched a reform program in Guatemala to match the one Morazán had for all of Central America; that ended when Gálvez was toppled by Rafael Carrera.

4. At this point, it wasn’t clear who owned Los Altos, or what country its people wanted to be part of. Carrera claimed Los Altos for Guatemala, and occupied most of it in 1840, except for the Chiapas potion, which was occupied by Mexican troops at the same time; General Santa Anna annexed Chiapas in 1842. Despite all the violence in the mid-nineteenth century, this was the only border change in Central America. Mexico and Guatemala signed a treaty that defined the modern border between them in 1882, but Guatemala still claimed part of Chiapas until 1895.

5. This was an unusual alliance, because Santa Anna followed no ideology; like other caudillos, he believed most of all in himself. That is why he could lead coups against a liberal government in 1828, and a conservative one in 1832.

6. Modern-day Americans fear that the tide may go the other way, with states like Texas and California returning to Mexican rule, if the immigration of Mexicans across the border is not brought under control.

7. Poinsett shows us how two points of view on the same person can both be correct. To Mexicans he was the first example of Yankee imperialism. Americans, on the other hand, chiefly remember him because he was also an amateur botanist. South of Mexico City he discovered a winter-blooming flower that the Aztecs called Cuetlaxochitl, and Spaniards called the Flor de Noche Buena. He brought it back to the US, and it was immediately named after him -- the Poinsettia.

8. Although every one of the Alamo’s 184 defenders died in that famous battle, before they fell they killed or wounded a thousand Mexicans. Part of the reason for this was a new invention, the Colt revolver. Whereas other pistols, like muskets and rifles, had to be reloaded after every shot, the spinning chamber of the Colt revolver allowed it to hold six shots. Because it was such a success in the Texas War of Independence, the US government ordered a thousand revolvers in time for the next war.

9. “It is very true that I threw up my cap for liberty with great ardor, and perfect sincerity, but soon found the folly of it. A hundred years to come, my people will not be fit for liberty.” -- Santa Anna, showing his disillusionment with the Mexican people, when he was captured in 1836. After his release, he went home the long way, first going to Washington, DC to meet with US President Andrew Jackson. While in the United States, he was greeted as a celebrity by Abolitionists, because they saw the effort to separate Texas from Mexico as a plot to strengthen slavery, by bringing Texas into the Union as a slave state.

10. Santa Anna replaced his leg with a prosthesis made of wood and cork (see below). In 1847, during the war with the United States, he was surprised by a unit of soldiers from Illinois, who interrupted his lunch. He managed to escape, but the soldiers captured his wooden leg; today you can see it in the Illinois State Military Museum. They also captured some chests of gold, part of the Mexican army’s payroll, and the raid helped advance the career of one of the participants, a captain named Robert E. Lee. Since then the Mexican government has asked for the leg to be returned, though not with enthusiasm; they don’t like Santa Anna that much.

Santa Anna's wooden leg.

11. Argentina’s name comes from argentum, the Latin name for silver, due to a rumor that the Rio de la Plata, like Bolivia, was rich in silver. No silver was found, but the name stuck. It was used for the neighborhood of Buenos Aires as early as colonial times, but it did not apply to the whole country until Juan Manuel de Rosas renamed the United Provinces the “Argentine Confederation” in 1832. Still, it wasn’t accepted by everybody for another generation, especially during the 1850s, when Buenos Aires was independent from the Confederation. Finally in 1860, the country was unified enough to be called first Nación Argentina, and then República Argentina, the official name it has held since.

12. MacCann, William, Two Thousand Miles’ Ride through the Argentine Provinces, London, 1853, Vol. I, pp. 102-3.

13. The first lady wore scarlet dresses, while the estancieros wore scarlet ponchos.

14. This included such colonial-era punishments as the whip, the stocks, and staking delinquent workers out “like hides in the sun.”

15. Portales did not believe in God personally, but he believed in the power of the clergy, so he used the church as a tool to maintain order, and repealed the liberal reforms his predecessors had introduced to cut down the church’s assets and authority.

16. During its brief existence, the Peruvian-Bolivian Confederation had a red flag with three coats of arms, representing the three component states: North Peru, South Peru, and Bolivia. The capital was at Tacna, in South Peru.

17. There were only a few blacks in Peru, so their plight as slaves did not attract as much attention as it did in other countries. After they were freed, Peru replaced them on the plantations by importing Chinese workers, and encouraged European immigration.

18. The Bolivian historian Alcides Arguedas called the dictators caudillos bárbaros, or savage strongmen.

19. No doubt the Prussians felt relieved when Melgarejo turned back (sarcasm intended). As a consolation prize, he sent ten thousand pesos in military aid to France. Napoleon III did not even bother to send his ally a thank-you note; what an ingrate. You can compare Bolivia's actions with Liechtenstein’s involvement, which made sense because Liechtenstein was at least on the same continent.

20. A dictator can only be considered successful if he either (1.) steps down when his country no longer needs him, or (2.) he rules for life and dies of natural causes. In European history, Cincinnatus is the best example of the former, while Francisco Franco is an excellent example of the latter. Francia definitely succeeded in the second category. True, there was the unpleasant circumstance of his subjects turning his corpse into caiman (alligator) food, but I don’t think he would have cared much about that. During the last days of his life, he burned his papers, and ordered that his furniture be burned after his death. Maybe he did not want to leave a legacy for future generations to remember him by.

21. There weren’t too many Indians living there, either, and most of them were killed in battles with Spanish and Portuguese soldiers; e.g., the last Charrúa Indian died in 1948. Consequently modern Uruguayans are 88 percent white, and only 8 percent Mestizo. Compare that with nearby Paraguay (Chapter 2, footnote #35). Argentina is the only other country in Latin America with a predominantly white population.

22. A third important early Uruguayan caudillo was Juan Antonio Lavalleja. He had led the “Thirty-Three Easterners” in their fight against Brazil in the 1820s (see Chapter 3), and refused to accept the results of the 1830 election. Consequently Lavalleja led two unsuccessful revolts (1832 and 1834), and after he was exiled to Buenos Aires, he joined Oribe and the Blancos against Rivera.

23. Britain and France both provided naval support to the Colorados. So did Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Italian revolutionary leader. After his first attempt to unite Italy failed, Garibaldi fled to South America in 1836. At first he got involved in Brazilian politics, supporting the doomed cause of Rio Grande do Sul when that state tried to break away (the so-called Ragamuffin War, 1835-45); when the Guerra Grande broke out, he was working as a math teacher in Montevideo. He was put in charge of the Uruguayan navy, but his biggest success came when he formed the Italian League with other Italian exiles, and used guerrilla tactics to win several battles during the siege of Montevideo. He would put that experience to good use after he returned to Italy in 1848.

It is not certain, but some historians assert that it was during his stay in Uruguay that Garibaldi first wore the red shirt that became his favorite uniform. Nineteenth-century butchers often wore red shirts to cover up the bloodstains from their work, and because Argentina and Uruguay did a lot of business in beef, there was a demand for red shirts in both countries; supposedly Garibaldi got his from a factory in Montevideo that exported red shirts to the slaughterhouses of Argentina.

Alexandre Dumas, the French author, saw the conflict as another Trojan War, and in 1850 he wrote a novel about it, The New Troy.

24. Both the Colorados and the Blancos had abolished slavery during the recent war, so they could recruit black soldiers. This made escaped Brazilian slaves see Uruguay as a place of refuge.

25. Correction: most American troops had better morale. A few hundred who didn’t deserted and joined the Mexican army. Most of them were Catholic immigrants to the United States, and nearly half were Irish, so they were known as the San Patricios (St. Patrick’s Battalion). How many switched sides, and what motivated them, is not clear. They may have felt their most important duty was to defend a country full of fellow Catholics (anti-Catholic prejudice was commonplace in the United States until the mid-twentieth century). Or they may have been lured by offers of Mexican citizenship and better pay than they were getting in the US army. Or it could have been both of the above. At any rate, most Americans saw them as traitors; in addition, they gave the US army some of the toughest fighting and heaviest casualties of the war. Captured San Patricios were hanged, in an age when deserters were supposed to be shot; wartime hangings were normally reserved for spies and those who committed atrocities against civilians. In an episode that was regarded as particularly cruel, after the battle of Chapultepec (see the next footnote), General Winfield Scott ordered the hanging of thirty San Patricios, right at the moment when the American flag was raised above the citadel.

26. The defenders of Mexico City made their last stand at Chapultepec, a castle dating back to Aztec times that was also a military academy. There the final defenders were six cadets between the ages of thirteen and nineteen, now known as Los Niňos Héroes, who chose to fight to the death; one wrapped the Mexican flag around himself and jumped off the castle roof, to keep it from falling into enemy hands. In 1947, a few months before the centennial of the battle, US President Harry Truman laid a wreath at the memorial to the boys and observed a few moments of silence. From the Mexican point of view, this did more than anything else to erase a century of bad feelings between the two countries.

27. The revolt itself was put down by 1847, but for the rest of the century, any white person or Mestizo who wandered into the eastern half of the Yucatan peninsula was likely to be killed. This race war between Creoles and Maya is sometimes called the Caste War of Yucatan (1847-1901). It was an on-and-off conflict, with regular skirmishes and a few deadly major assaults. Most of the time Mexico controlled the northwest corner of Yucatan, and the Maya controlled the southeast, with a sparsely populated jungle frontier in the middle. Although the Maya were divided between several communities, the war meant they were effectively independent; indeed, the British in Belize recognized them as an independent state for a while, because the Maya were trading partners of theirs. One result of the war was that Maya refugees fled across the border into Belize, increasing the Mayan portion of Belize’s population from less than 10,000 in 1845, to 25,000 in 1861. Finally in 1901, Mexico captured Chan Santa Cruz, the main Maya town in Yucatan, and the war was declared over, though acts of violence between Maya and Mexican soldiers were reported as late as 1933.

28. Santa Anna’s biggest contribution to modern civilization was the main ingredient of chewing gum. Ever since the days of the Maya, Mexicans have chewed chicle, the dried sap of the sapodilla tree. Santa Anna was one of those Mexicans, and in 1869 he stopped at Staten Island, New York, bringing a ton of the stuff with him. It wasn’t all for his own consumption; he was trying to get funds to raise an army for a triumphal return to Mexico, and he thought Americans could use chicle as a cheap substitute for rubber (Brazil had a monopoly on rubber in those days.). An inventor named Thomas Adams liked the idea enough to buy the chicle from the 74-year-old ex-president. During the next year he tried to make boots, toys, masks and bicycle tires, only to fail; unlike rubber, chicle could not be vulcanized, so products made from it melted easily. Then one day he noticed a girl chewing the sweetened waxes drugstores sold back then, remembered what Santa Anna did with chicle, and tasted it. He liked it, and experimented with adding flavors until he got a product that was smoother, softer and better-tasting than the waxes. From that the chewing gum industry was born. Adams Clove and Blackjack Chewing Gum are made by the company Adams founded, and Chiclets are named after chicle, of course.

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