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A History of Latin America and the Caribbean

Chapter 4: Post-Colonial Blues, Part II

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

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
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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

New Granada

Like Argentina, Colombia had trouble deciding on a name for itself after independence. First it used the same name that it had during the colonial era: New Granada. Then in 1858 it became the Granadine Confederation; in 1861 it became the United States of New Granada, then the United States of Colombia; in 1886 it became the Republic of Colombia, and has used that name ever since.

The confusion in nomenclature is a reflection of the political chaos Colombia experienced in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As in so many other Latin American countries, conservative and liberal political parties sprang up; here the conservatives started out as former supporters of Simón Bolívar, while the liberals originally followed Francisco de Paula Santander, Bolívar's rival and vice president. The two parties did not limit their rivalry to the ballot box, resulting in dozens of anti-government insurrections (there were fifty just in the period from 1863 to 1885) and more than one civil war. Occasionally the military seized power, too. During the period covered by this chapter, there were two military coups, in 1830 (under Rafael Urdaneta y Faría) and 1854 (under José Maria Melo). Both times, civilian rule was restored within one year.

The first coup was in response to Bolívar's resignation and Ecuador breaking away from New Granada. General Urdaneta wanted to prevent further political disintegration, and bring back Bolívar as president. In June 1831 he ordered Congress to convene, and a series of acting presidents followed, until elections could be held in 1832. The winner of the election was former vice president Santander, who had just come back from exile, so he became Colombia’s first real president.

Without Bolívar to distract him, Santander proved to be a capable administrator. He was good at making compromises, and did a better job of walking the line between conservatives and liberals than his successors would do. He supported public education, favored strong economic ties with the United States, and even worked on one of the first proposals to dig the Panama Canal (see footnote #32). However, he did have his bad moments. During the war of independence, he came to believe that all Spanish officers automatically deserved the death penalty, and executed several captured Spanish officers while Bolívar was in Peru and Bolivia, despite Bolívar's protests. After his return to power, in 1833, Santander oversaw the execution of those Spanish officers still being held prisoner. Finally, he agreed to pay part of the debts run up by Gran Colombia in the 1820s, a decision that angered a lot of Colombians.

Santander was a firm believer in the rule of law (more so than Bolívar, anyway), so he only served one term in office, and for the 1837 election, he campaigned for General José Maria Obando. However, Obando was not popular, because he had been one of Bolívar's worst enemies. Whereas in most Latin American elections, the handpicked successor of the current head of state easily wins, in this case nobody got a majority, throwing the election to Congress, and instead of Obando, Congress chose Santander’s conservative vice president, José Ignacio de Márquez Barreta. Santander went back to Congress, where he served until his death in 1840.

The next administration saw Colombia’s first civil war, called the Convent War or the War of the Supremes (1839-42). The cause of the war was a decision by Congress to close some monasteries in the southwestern city of Pasto, and use the money earmarked for those monasteries to fund public schools instead. Pious residents of Pasto protested the decision. So did Obando and several caudillos in the provinces, who styled themselves jefes supremos (supreme chiefs, hence the name of the war); they did not revolt because they were concerned about the monasteries, but because the issue gave them an excuse to declare independence from the central government. President Márquez asked Ecuador’s President Flores to intervene on his side, and while Flores defeated Obando in battle, this played into the hands of the rebels, who accused the government of depending on the Ecuadorians.

At the height of the war, twelve of the country’s twenty provinces were under rebel control, and the rebels occupied part of four more; Bogotá remained loyal but was left unguarded while most of the army fought elsewhere. The situation got so bad that President Márquez left Bogotá for a month in 1840, to fight the most dangerous rebel leader. The 1841 elections replaced Márquez with another general, Pedro Alcántara Herrán Martínez de Zaldúa, and he also felt the need to leave the capital to personally lead government forces. Fortunately for him, Obando was the only rebel leader who had any appeal outside of his home province, and after his defeat, the rebels could not rally behind anyone else. Thus, the government gained the upper hand, and in May 1842, after being away for ten months, Alcántara Herrán was able to return and finish his term as president.

The next president, Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera y Arboleda, got to be president four times. His first term lasted from 1845 to 1849; under him came a treaty with the United States (see footnote #32), and the conservative and liberal parties were formally organized under those names. Mosquera was a conservative, and he was succeeded by a liberal, José Hilario López; López wrote a new constitution but did not get it ratified. Then in the 1853 presidential election the conservatives did not nominate a candidate, but the liberals split into three factions; Obando, the former general and rebel leader, ran as the candidate of the most moderate faction and got elected.

The first item on President Obando’s agenda was the constitution his predecessor had introduced. By the standards of Latin America in the nineteenth century, it was too radical; it set up a federal government, abolished slavery, gave all men 21 and older the right to vote, allowed the direct popular vote in all elections, and called for a complete separation of church and state and freedom of religion. Obando and his faction of the Liberal Party thought it went too far; nevertheless he and Congress ratified it. Then a trade protection bill attracted a lot of attention in Bogotá, and when the bill died in the Senate, street brawls broke out among the angry crowd outside, followed by violent demonstrations over the next few months from both those who supported the measure and those who opposed it.

To prevent the demonstrations from turning into a revolution, General José Maria Melo staged the country’s second coup, on April 17, 1854. Although the coup was bloodless(29), Melo did not get to shape the country’s future; most of the army (which included former presidents Alcántara Herrán, Mosquera and López) remained loyal to Congress, and they in turn overthrew Melo by retaking Bogotá in December. Congress installed two more acting presidents and then Mariano Ospina Rodriguez, the founder of the Conservative Party, won the next election, serving as president from 1857 to 1861.(30)

Rejecting the bickering in the capital, the provinces, starting with Panama, declared themselves sovereign states in the mid-1850s, with their own flags and constitutions. To halt this process before it broke up the country completely, President Ospina passed a new constitution in 1858, which turned New Granada into a confederation of eight states called the Granadine Confederation. However, as a conservative, Ospina preferred centralism, and two laws passed by Congress in 1859 seemed to cut back the powers recently granted to the states. The first gave the president the right to remove the governors and appoint his own governors in their place; the second allowed the president to create administrative departments in the states to control their resources. The liberals rallied behind former president Mosquera, now governor of Cauca, who called the new laws unconstitutional. In May 1860 Mosquera declared his state independent and declared himself the Supreme Director of War, beginning the Colombian Civil War.

The central government tried to retaliate by attempting to overthrow liberal governors, but in 1861 Mosquera captured Bogotá, imprisoned Ospina, removed Ospina’s elected successor, and made himself president of what would henceforth be called the United States of Colombia. He spent 1862 mopping up conservative resistance, while other liberal leaders made sure Mosquera would not become too strong by having him promise the new government would be a federal one, with no national army and special powers granted to the states.

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The Reform War

With Santa Anna gone, Mexico saw bitter polarization between the liberals and conservatives. The trouble began in 1855, when for the first time, Mexico had a genuine reformist government. The liberal president of the new regime was Ignacio Comonfort, while Benito Pablo Juarez Garcia (1806-72) served as both vice president and president of the Supreme Court.(31) Comonfort wanted to make Mexico more democratic by reducing the privileges of the landowners and giving education to the masses; in 1857 he introduced a new constitution that did this and abolished the privileges of the Catholic Church. Of course this brought him into conflict with both landowners and the Church. The military went over to their side, and seized the capital in a bloodless coup. Comonfort tried to hold on by giving himself extraordinary powers, but this only alienated his own faction, so in the following month (January 1858) he resigned. Juarez took his place, and though he did not control Mexico City, his following in the countryside let him maintain a credible government. This was more than could be said for the conservatives, who went through a series of "presidents" until February 1859, when a twenty-eight-year-old general, Miguel Miramon y Tarelo, took charge. Meanwhile, Juarez based himself in Veracruz, supported by the customs revenue of the country’s most important port. They struggled for nearly two years, with Miramon cooped up in Mexico City and the liberals holding the rest of Mexico. Miramon fought bitterly, but by the end of 1860 he was forced to flee both the capital and the country.

Benito Juarez.

Benito Juarez.

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Nicaragua: The Filibuster

In the 1840s it must have looked like Central America was moving in the opposite direction, compared with other Latin American countries; whereas the other nations were becoming more unified, Central America broke up. Fortunately there was less violence after 1842; only Guatemala disputed the new borders created by the division. And there were several attempts to reunite Central America. The most promising of these, the Federation of Central America, was a union of El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua; it lasted less than a month (October 1852).

Increasing wealth in the region helped a lot to defuse tensions. El Salvador and Costa Rica raised their income by growing new crops. They tried indigo first (indigo had been a success in eighteenth-century South Carolina), but the invention of synthetic dyes later in the century cut the demand for that product. Far more successful was the introduction of coffee; the Central Valley of Costa Rica was ideal for coffee cultivation. Thus, coffee revolutionized the economies of those countries, just as it had for Brazil. In Costa Rica, coffee barons ran the government as well as the economy; by the end of the nineteenth century, coffee was Central America’s most important source of revenue. The end of the century also saw tropical fruit production (mainly bananas and pineapples) begin on a massive scale, but the effects of those crops will have to be covered in the next chapter of this work.

Central Americans also hoped that they could use their excellent geographical location to promote international commerce through the region. Except for Belize and El Salvador, every Mesoamerican nation has coastline along both the Atlantic (via the Caribbean) and Pacific Oceans. The 1849 California gold rush created a great demand for quick transportation between the east and west coasts of North America. Because the western half of the continent was undeveloped and full of unfriendly Indian tribes, many of those going west felt that travel by water was safer than an overland trip (see also footnote #51, from Chapter 3 of my North American history). However, the only waterway that went all the way through the Americas was the Strait of Magellan (see Chapter 2), and that was so far to the south that most travelers found it more convenient to sail to a Central American port, unload the cargo and passengers, go across the isthmus, and then load everything onto another ship in the ocean on the other side, for the final leg of the journey. The narrowest land crossing is in Panama(32), but there mountains and jungles get in the way, so the preferred route was across Nicaragua; Nicaragua also had the San Juan River and Lake Nicaragua to make the crossing easier.

As early as 1825, the Central American government considered digging a canal somewhere in its territory to link the oceans. That plan never left the drawing boards, though it attracted the interest of American engineers and politicians. Then in 1849, the Nicaraguan government signed a contract with Cornelius Vanderbilt, the Yankee shipping and railroad baron. This gave him the right to build a canal across Nicaragua within twelve years, and a monopoly on transportation by railroad and stagecoach along the proposed route in the meantime. Vanderbilt made a handsome profit from the monopoly, but he could not dig the canal either, due to Nicaragua’s political instability.

The political problem was the ongoing dispute between conservatives and liberals, which hadn’t been settled by the breakup of Central America. In Nicaragua’s case, it became a civil war, with rival capitals for the two sides; the liberals were based in León, Nicaragua’s colonial-era capital, and the conservatives chose Granada for their headquarters. A compromise was reached in 1852, when they agreed to make Managua, a fishing village, the new national capital, but that was only a temporary interruption in hostilities.

By 1855 the conservatives were in control and the liberals, desperate for an ally, turned to William Walker (1824-60), an adventurer from Tennessee. Walker was a mercenary; soldiers of fortune were often called “filibusters” in those days. He had been attending school in Paris and Berlin when the 1848 revolutions swept Europe, so he came back to the United States full of revolutionary ideas. This was the era when the United States grew rapidly – American expansionists talked about their “manifest destiny” – and now that the Pacific Ocean had been reached, many Americans, especially in the Southern states, felt their nation should expand to the south next. In 1853 he tried to conquer northwest Mexico; he and his followers captured La Paz, the capital of Baja California Sur, but they didn't have enough supplies for the next step in Walker's plan, an invasion of the state of Sonora; he ended up returning to the US side of the border, where he surrendered. He was charged with conducting an illegal war, but his project was so popular among Southerners that the jury acquitted him in only eight minutes.

The liberals of Nicaragua recruited Walker soon after this, without realizing that the American filibuster had his own agenda. He arrived in 1855 with fifty-seven men; within five months he gained control of the country and ruled first with a puppet president, Patricio Rivas, as his front man, and then by himself after staging an election. By revoking Nicaragua's emancipation edict of 1824, Walker made slavery legal again, and became a hero in the eyes of Southerners. US President Franklin Pierce recognized his government in March 1856, but he made a grave mistake in making an enemy of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Walker revoked Vanderbilt’s transportation monopoly, when two competitors of Vanderbilt offered him money and support for his campaigns. Vanderbilt retaliated by arming Walker's opponents and the neighboring countries. Costa Rica(33), Honduras and Guatemala formed an alliance to remove him, and things got so hot that in 1857 he was forced to flee to the coast, where a U.S. warship picked him up. Again he was tried and acquitted back in America. Walker’s departure meant victory for the conservatives, and they ruled Nicaragua for the next thirty years, bringing peace, but not prosperity, to that nation.

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Honduras, Costa Rica, and El Salvador in the Nineteenth Century

Six months after leaving Nicaragua, William Walker returned, having raised enough money and men for a second expedition, but as soon as they arrived, a US naval squadron arrested them and brought them back. In 1860 he made one more try. This time the American and British fleets had orders to prevent any more "filibustering" in Central America, so Walker landed at Trujillo, Honduras to evade both. Disease and a lack of discipline caused his force to fall apart as they marched to Nicaragua, and Walker made for the coast, where a British warship captured him. He gave himself up because the British captain agreed to turn him over to American officials, but instead gave him to the Honduras government. Six days later the Honduran authorities put Walker in front of a firing squad; he is buried in Trujillo.

Among the Central American states, Costa Rica is the richest (its name is Spanish for “Rich Coast”) and Honduras is the poorest(34), but both followed parallel paths in the late nineteenth century, with the rise of the fruit plantations. In the first years after independence, Costa Rica’s biggest challenge was getting its coffee crop to foreign markets, because the coffee was grown in the Central Valley, and thus surrounded by mountains and jungle. The only port that could be reached from the Central Valley was Puntarenas, on the Pacific coast. A British sea captain, William Le Lacheur, solved this problem in 1843, by establishing a company that was willing to send its ships all the way around South America to get the coffee from Puntarenas to Europe.(35)

Of course transportation would have been easier if a port existed on the Caribbean coast, and such a port, Puerto Limón (Limón for short), was founded in 1854. All that remained was to build a railroad connecting Limón with the Central Valley. In 1871 Henry Meiggs signed a contract with Costa Rican President Tomás Guardia Gutiérrez to build such a railroad, from Limón to San José. Previously we saw Meiggs build railroads in Peru, but he died before he could get started on this one, and his nephew, Minor Keith, took over the project.

Keith got it done, but at a dreadful cost. The construction crew had to deal not only with the terrain and the jungle, but also with torrential rains and diseases like malaria, yellow fever and dysentery. Building the first twenty-five miles of track cost four thousand lives, including Keith’s three brothers. After that Keith had trouble finding Costa Ricans willing to work for him, so he brought in ex-slaves from Jamaica, US convicts, Chinese and Italians. On top of all that were cost overruns, and the government defaulted on its payments to Keith. The only reason Keith did not quit at this stage was because the government gave him 800,000 acres along the railroad’s path (5 percent of the country’s land), and a 99-year lease to run the railroad. He finally finished building it in 1890, but the railroad did not turn a profit until after the turn of the century, when it was put to work transporting bananas.

As you might expect, the relative poverty of Honduras led to political instability. Like other ex-Spanish colonies, there was a power struggle between conservatives and liberals, and the country alternated between civilian and military governments. The Honduran constitution would be replaced seventeen times between 1821 and 1982, and while elections were held regularly, there were also hundreds of coups, rebellions, assassinations, and cases of electoral irregularities and foreign meddling, over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Besides major powers like the Great Britain and the United States, the foreign meddlers could come from the three countries bordering Honduras (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua), which weren’t always friendly, and any liberal or conservative government could see a neighboring regime of the opposite ideology as a potential threat, giving it an excuse to intervene and install a regime more suitable to its tastes.

The reasons why Honduras had a hard time were a small population compared with the countries around it, and a lack of infrastructure. In 1850 the total population was only 350,000, and the only communities that could even be called towns, let alone cities, were Tegucigalpa, Comayagua, and San Pedro Sula.(36) Transportation and sanitation were poor, and education was severely limited; there were few schools, no libraries and no newspapers. Unlike other Central American countries, Honduras did not develop a coffee industry, so it depended on hardwood logging, cattle ranching, tobacco and mining for its income.

An attempt was made to build a railroad across Honduras, from coast to coast, like the isthmus-crossing projects that had been done in Panama and Nicaragua. This began in 1850, but it moved very slowly, because of difficulties in construction, corruption, etc. By 1888, the railroad only ran from Trujillo to San Pedro Sula, and there it ended, because the money to build it had ended, too. However, this proved to be a bit of good luck for San Pedro Sula, which subsequently grew to become the nation’s second largest city and main industrial center.

The mines of Honduras were so badly neglected during the wars of independence from Spain, that many were left abandoned and flooded. The country could not afford to bring them back into operation; foreign investment would be needed. Here Yankee businessmen succeeded where William Walker had failed. In 1880 the Honduran government offered a 20-year tax exemption to foreigners who revived the mines, and Julius Valentine founded the New York and Honduras Rosario Mining Company (NYHRMC) to take advantage of this opportunity. By 1889 the company was shipping $700,000 worth of bullion to the United States every year, and earning an annual profit of $350,000. The NYHRMC was especially active in the mountains near the town of El Rosario. This area was turned into a national park in 1954; by then the NYHRMC had extracted an estimated $100 million worth of gold, silver, copper and zinc. Other mining companies came to Honduras after 1880, but none of them enjoyed much success.

Before 1900, El Salvador went through three economic cycles that were each dominated by one product. First came a cacao cycle in the seventeenth century, only a few decades after Europeans discovered chocolate. Then came an indigo cycle in the early nineteenth century, as noted in the previous section. After the indigo market busted, Salvadorans looked for a new cash crop, and settled on the same choice as Costa Rica: coffee. Some coffee had been grown since independence, but it was in the 1860s that large-scale planting of coffee trees began. The coffee cycle never ended; it is still El Salvador's primary export today.

The switch from indigo to coffee put poor farmers, especially Indians, at a disadvantage. Whereas indigo was planted and harvested every year, coffee trees had to grow for three years before they produced their first harvest, so farmers could only afford to plant coffee if they did not need the money right away. The government saw former indigo-growing lands as potential coffee plantations, and in 1856 it decreed that if a pueblo did not plant two thirds of its communal lands with coffee, the state would confiscate the lands. Then in 1881-82, President Rafael Zaldívar passed two laws that worked to abolish communal land ownership altogether. With each tract of land owned by a single farmer, it became easier for somebody to take it, one way or another.

At the time those laws were passed, 40 percent of the farmland was communal, and 60 percent of the population made a living off it. After that, within a single generation most of the land was concentrated in the hands of an elite that Salvadorans called "the Fourteen Families." While that number is probably not correct, it shows how land, wealth and political power was concentrated on a feudal scale, in the hands of a tiny oligarchy. By the beginning of the twentieth century, 95% of El Salvador's income would come from coffee exports, but only 2% of Salvadorans controlled that wealth. Meanwhile the peasants were reduced to migrant workers; because they weren't needed on the coffee plantations all year round, they wandered to make ends meet, working on their own garden-sized plots when there wasn't coffee, sugar cane or cotton to harvest.

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Venezuela: The Barracks

We saw in Chapter 3 how Simón Bolívar liberated the Viceroyalty of New Granada (present-day Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela) and rename it Gran Colombia, only to have it go to pieces in the year of his death. The main reason for its lack of unity was the tough terrain of the Andes, which made transportation and communication very difficult. It took a month for a letter to go from Bogotá to Caracas, for instance, while Venezuelans in Caracas found it easier to sail to Europe than to travel to Bogotá. In addition to physical obstacles, there was a political one; a lot of Bolívar's subjects were not interested in replacing the Spanish Empire with an American one, run by its white minority.

Bolívar reportedly once declared, “Venezuela is a barracks, Ecuador is a monastery and Colombia is a university.” Personally I don’t think Bolívar really said that (Colombia was not called by that name during his lifetime), but it is an accurate summary of the history of those three countries.(37) Venezuela saw an uninterrupted series of caudillos until 1887, and has seen quite a few since then. Ecuador’s most important leader made the country a virtual theocracy; I wouldn’t be surprised if the Catholic Church canonizes him someday. Colombia was the luckiest of the three; there political debate was still commonplace, because civilians remained in charge most of the time, and free elections allowed power to regularly change hands between conservatives and liberals. But even with a functioning democracy, Colombia’s history since 1830 has been more turbulent than that of the United States.

In the seventy years from 1829 to 1899, Venezuela had sixteen presidents, more if you count the transitional presidents who only held office briefly. While elections were held, in practice they were indirect; most of the ballots were cast at city council meetings, and only whites could vote. There were also at least thirty insurrections, most of them unsuccessful. The strongmen most worth remembering are José Antonio Paez, the Monagas brothers, and Antonio Guzmán Blanco.

Because he was a hero of the war of independence and a colleague of Bolívar, Paez was very popular. Moreover, he respected the rule of law and avoided using his position for personal gain. And instead of ruling as president all the time, he avoided wearing out his welcome by using two front men: José María Vargas (1835-37), and Carlos Valentín José de la Soledad Antonio del Sacramento Soublette (1837-39 and 1843-47).

The system Paez set up came undone when a rival of his, José Tadeo Monagas Burgos, won the 1847 election. Like Paez, Monagas had been a general under Bolívar, and he led an unsuccessful insurrection in 1835. His claim to fame was that while Paez led Venezuela to independence, Monagas fought to keep Gran Colombia together, until even he realized he could not stop the breakup of Bolívar's nation. Paez launched a revolt against him, but was defeated, imprisoned and later exiled to New York; Monagas responded by dissolving Congress and declaring himself dictator.

Monagas was one of Venezuela’s least popular presidents, because he dispensed too many favors to family and friends, and ignored the laws he disagreed with. Venezuelans sometimes call the period from 1847 to 1858 the “Monagas dynasty,” because in 1851 José Tadeo Monagas stepped down and let his brother, José Gregorio Monagas, serve as president for a term. When that term ended in 1855, José Tadeo became president again. Whereas Paez and his allies were conservatives, the Monagas brothers became liberal after they took over: José Gregorio abolished slavery, and José Tadeo got rid of capital punishment for political crimes.

José Tadeo had a new constitution passed in 1858, to give himself more power. For everyone outside the Monagas family this was too much, and the leading conservatives and liberals united in a rebellion under a general named Julián Castro.(38) José Tadeo abruptly resigned, but Castro proved to be both an ineffective officer and president; though he exiled every caudillo he could get his hands on, more rose up to take their places (liberal caudillos didn’t need an excuse to revolt, because Castro was a conservative). One year later, he was removed and imprisoned by a group of military officers; by then the country was engulfed in a bloody civil war, the Federal War (1858-63).

The Federal War was mainly a guerrilla conflict; only three major conventional battles, pitting one army against another army, were fought. Consequently the war was not as big as the US Civil War, which was happening at the same time, and no army had more than 4,500 men. Still, the result was devastating for Venezuela; at least 100,000 people, or one tenth of the country’s population, died in the war, either killed in action or from hunger and disease.

By 1861, three presidents had risen and fallen, and the country was so desperate for peace that José Antonio Paez was recalled from exile, and made supreme dictator. But Paez was now in his seventies, and thus too old to govern like he had before. He could not restore order, even with the emergency powers granted him, so in 1863 he was exiled to New York again, and a liberal general, Juan Crisóstomo Falcón y Zavarce, took charge. Peace came in the same year, so technically Falcón won the war. One consequence of the war was that the country’s official name was changed from the “Republic of Venezuela” to the “United States of Venezuela,” and the name stayed that way until it was changed back to “Republic” in the mid-twentieth century.

After the Federal War came the Federalist Period, which lasted from 1863 to 1870. Falcón proved to be an incompetent leader when there was peace, spending too much time in Coro, his native province. He was toppled in 1868, from a revolution led by José Tadeo Monagas. However, Monagas was eighty-four years old, so instead of him becoming president again; there were four more short-lived presidencies, including one under José Tadeo’s son, José Ruperto Monagas. Then in 1870, the most charismatic and most sophisticated of the caudillos, Antonio Guzmán Blanco, took over. He would serve as president three times: 1870 to 1877, 1879 to 1884, and 1886 to 1887.

Besides being a veteran of the Federal War, Guzmán Blanco had served as vice president and treasury secretary under Falcón. As president, he ruled with dictatorial powers, and pocketed part of the money he got foreigners to loan to Venezuela, but at the same time he tried to make the country prosper as well. In Caracas he built the Capitol, the Municipal Theater, and the National Pantheon (a former church converted into a tomb for Venezuela’s heroes, including Bolívar), but he did not achieve his goal of turning Caracas into a second Paris. Other projects included a railroad and a telephone line between Caracas and La Guaira, the second national census, and free education for all Venezuelans. Like Paez, he made sure he was succeeded by friends whenever his term in office ended. The most important of these was Joaquín Sinforiano de Jesús Crespo Torres (Joaquín Crespo for short), who served as president from 1884 to 1886.

During the periods when a friend was president, Guzmán Blanco lived in kingly luxury in Paris (the original Paris, not Caracas), ruling by sending telegrams to his subordinates in Venezuela. After his third term ended in 1887, his immediate successor, Hermógenes López, built another railroad (from Puerto Cabello to Valencia), and an underwater cable to Curacao, allowing instantaneous communication between Venezuela and the rest of the world. López also allowed the remains of former President Paez (who had died in 1873) to be returned to Venezuela; this was opposed by Guzmán Blanco, who considered Paez an oligarch. He was succeeded in 1888 by Juan Pablo Rojas Paúl, the country’s first elected civilian president and another friend of Guzmán Blanco. But he quickly showed he was not going to be a puppet, by encouraging violent anti-Guzmán riots; these convinced the old caudillo to retire permanently in Paris, and not come back. The two-year term of Rojas was a time of economic prosperity, so he invested heavily in public works. However, Joaquín Crespo thought he should have been the next president, so he went to Trinidad, plotted a revolt, failed to win it, and got himself first jailed, than exiled. We will come back to Crespo when we cover Venezuela in the next chapter; stay tuned!

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Ecuador: The First Generation

Like Venezuela, Ecuador had a general for its first president, Juan José Flores y Aramburu.(39) Flores faced more than one rebellion, so in 1834 he agreed to let one of his opponents, José Vicente Rocafuerte y Rodríguez de Bejarano, become the next president if he could keep control of the military; thus, the 1834 election was more like a coup. Rocafuerte wrote the country’s second constitution, gave more protection to the Indians, and introduced a public school system; then he stepped down when his term ended in 1839, so Flores regained the presidency.(40)

During his second term, Flores intervened in Colombia’s current civil war, the War of the Supremes, with mixed results. When questions arose about the results of the 1843 election, Flores summoned a constitutional convention that wrote a new constitution; his opponents called it “the Charter of Slavery” because it allowed Flores to have a third term, this time for eight years. Opposition to Flores led to an insurrection in Guayaquil, now called the Marcist (not Marxist) Revolution because it happened in March 1845. Civilians of all political leanings quickly joined the troops who started the revolt; Flores surrendered and went into exile, and a liberal businessman, Vicente Ramón Roca Rodríguez, became the next president.

The rest of the 1840s and 50s were a time of troubles for Ecuador, as the Marcists, only briefly united, split into factions that fought among themselves. During this time Guayaquil became the home base for the country’s liberals, while Quito became the headquarters of the conservatives; that political arrangement continued for a century and a half afterwards. Roca served a full four-year term, was followed by two presidents who only lasted in office for a few months, and then in 1851 General José María Mariano Segundo de Urvina y Viteri seized power. José María Urvina (also spelled Urbina) was president until 1856, when he was succeeded by an old friend, Francisco Robles Garcia. More liberal than the heads of state before him, Urvina freed Ecuador’s slaves exactly one week after taking over. He was also downright anticlerical; in 1852 he expelled a group of Jesuit priests who had just been allowed into the country a year earlier, accusing them of political meddling. Robles showed he was like-minded when in 1857 he abolished the annual tribute that the Indians had been forced to pay for the past three hundred years.

The late 1850s saw a revival of the territorial dispute between Ecuador and Peru. Back in the 1820s, when Gran Colombia was fighting Spain, it had borrowed money from several European private citizens, mostly British. We saw that after Gran Colombia broke up, Colombia's President Santander agreed to pay his country's share of the debt. Ecuador assumed 21.5 percent of the debt, or £1.4 million. Thirty years later, the creditors were demanding that the debt be settled, so President Robles proposed that in return for cancelling part of the debt, he would transfer the titles over several tracts of Ecuadorian land to the creditors, and let them run it without paying any taxes. The problem with this plan was that Peru claimed some of the lands in question; negotiations broke down and in November 1858, Peru blockaded Ecuador’s ports.

Ecuadorians call 1859 the “Terrible Year” because of what happened next. Robles moved the capital to Guayaquil, and put Urvina in charge of its defenses. This was an unpopular move, and a conservative opposition government established itself in Quito after Robles left. Urvina marched on Quito, defeated its government, and the conservative leader, a senator named Gabriel Gregorio Fernando José María García y Moreno y Morán de Buitrón (the son-in-law of former president Flores, henceforth we’ll call him Gabriel García Moreno), fled to Peru, where he acquired arms to use against the Robles regime. But after García Moreno returned to Ecuador, the Peruvian president, Ramón Castilla, changed sides, deciding instead to support General Guillermo Franco, the number three man in Guayaquil after Robles and Urvina. Franco had presidential ambitions of his own, so Peru lifted the blockade to give him a chance (September 1859).

When Robles learned that Franco was now allied with the Peruvians, he moved the capital again, this time to the central town of Riobamba, and abdicated in favor of Jerónimo Carrión; behind him Franco declared himself in charge of the Guayaquil government. Meanwhile the conservatives restored their government at Quito, and the southern province of Loja set up a fourth government. In October Peruvian President Castilla sailed to Guayaquil with 5,000 troops. He told the Ecuadorians to unite under one government so they could resolve the territorial dispute, and met with Franco, the one leader he recognized. Castilla also wanted to meet with García Moreno, resulting in the following exchange of letters:

“You have broken your promises, and I declare our alliance finished.” -- Gabriel García Moreno

“You sir, are nothing but a village diplomat, who does not understand the duties of a president, obligated by the demands of the position he occupies to give audience to all those who request it.” -- Ramón Castilla

Castilla negotiated with Franco until they agreed to the Treaty of Mapasingue, which gave all the disputed lands to Peru. In February 1860 Castilla went home, leaving boots, uniforms and 3,000 rifles for Franco’s faction. Naturally all the other factions saw the treaty as a betrayal. They converged on Guayaquil; even former president Flores came back from exile to lead the troops of the conservatives. The battle of Guayaquil (September 22-24, 1860) crushed Franco’s government, and he fled to join Castilla in Peru. It also meant the country was reunited under García Moreno, beginning a conservative era in Ecuadorian history.(41)

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The Franco-Mexican War

The government of Benito Juarez may have been the most honest government Mexico had yet known, but it couldn’t cope with the financial mess left by forty years of misrule and civil strife. Most important of all, it couldn’t service Mexico’s large foreign debt. In July 1861 Juarez suspended interest payments on that debt, and the three major creditors (Britain, France and Spain) met in London to discuss what should be done about this. They decided to send a naval expedition to Veracruz. The customs duties of Veracruz, which amounted to half the Mexican government’s total revenue, could be used to pay down the loans, and by pre-empting them this way, the Mexicans would get a strong message to fix their problems. The operation got off to a bloodless start on December 14, 1861, when 6,000 Spaniards landed at Veracruz and occupied the town without opposition. Three weeks later, 3,000 French soldiers and a handful of British marines joined them, turning it into a multinational force.

The British and Spaniards were in Veracruz for four months; they withdrew in April 1862, once they got their money back. However, the French weren’t finished. This was the time when Napoleon III was the French emperor, and he thought Mexico should have a monarch who was conservative and Catholic--like himself. At first he simply doubled the size of the French expeditionary force, and it marched on Mexico City. The French got to Puebla, where a stronger than expected Mexican defense stopped them. After three charges against the walls of Puebla failed, the French retreated to Veracruz.(42) Realizing that a much larger force would be needed to complete the mission, Napoleon III decided to make more men available.

By March 1863 the French force had grown to 35,000 men, and they made a second try at Puebla. This time they took the city after a two-month siege, and success at Puebla opened the way to Mexico City. The leading French corps entered the capital in early June, and conservatives and clerics rallied behind the French plan to establish a monarchy. After that Mexico had two governments: a republican one under Juarez, relocated to San Luis Potosí, and a French-protected junta in Mexico City. On the advice of the French, the junta proclaimed the Second Mexican Empire, and looked for a suitable candidate for emperor among the royal families of Europe. They ended up offering the crown to Maximilian, the younger brother of the emperor of Austria. Maximilian arrived from Europe in May 1864, after a plebiscite (no doubt rigged) convinced him that the Mexican people really wanted him for their ruler. In Mexico City he and his wife moved into Chapultepec Castle (see footnote #26).

For the next two years, Maximilian’s Mexican Empire made steady progress against the republicans, driving them to the extremities of the country. Everywhere the French army advanced, it replaced the will of Juarez with that of Maximilian. Of course Maximilian knew that he was only winning because he had French soldiers on his side, but he hoped to eventually stand on his own feet. By making himself a limited monarch that shared power with a democratically elected congress, and by passing progressive legislation like land reform, the abolishment of child labor, and limited working hours, he hoped to win over the hearts of the Mexican people. He even tried to increase his legitimacy by adopting two grandsons of the first emperor, Iturbide. Instead, his liberal ideas offended his conservative base of support, while the liberals still refused to accept any kind of monarch. Anyone who understood Mexican politics would have realized that Maximilian wasn't likely to be a successful emperor, but then he was weak-willed, and never had a firm grip on reality. His main achievement as emperor was building a grand avenue from his palace to the center of Mexico City, the Paseo de la Emperatriz (today’s Paseo de la Reforma). Aside from that, he devoted much time and energy to write a manual on court etiquette for Mexico, which took three hundred pages and twenty diagrams to solve incredibly insignificant problems.

The republican cause touched bottom in early 1865 when Juarez, forced to abandon San Luis Potosí, fled to El Paso del Norte (modern Ciudad Juarez). After a brief stay there, he settled his government in the nearest state capital, Chihuahua. At this point he had his back to the Rio Grande; nearly all of Mexico bowed to Maximilian. Then the French had second thoughts about their Mexican adventure. The United States had always disapproved of French activity in Mexico, but couldn't do anything about it while the US Civil War was going on. Once that war ended, however, 50,000 tired but angry soldiers in blue uniforms were sent to the Rio Grande, where they could stare across the border at this blatant violation of the Monroe Doctrine.(43) Then in 1866, the US Navy imposed a blockade to keep French reinforcements from arriving. By this time, the cost of France's intervention had mounted beyond any possibility of recovery, and Prussia’s chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, was making mischief back in Europe while the French army was away. Napoleon III knew when to curb his romantic inclinations, and decided to pull out. He sent Maximilian an apologetic letter, and started withdrawing French troops at the end of May 1866.

Instantly the course of the war changed. Wherever the French withdrew, the republicans began to win. The French force had included 4,600 Austrians and Belgians, and an attempt was made to enlist them in Maximilian's army, but most of those troops refused to join, because it meant they would probably never see Europe again. The last French unit departed from Mexico City in February 1867.

Maximilian should have gone with the French; Napoleon advised him to do so. At first he thought he would, but then he talked himself out of it, and marched forth from Mexico City, leading the few remaining troops he had against the republicans. He got as far as Querétaro, where he was surrounded by an army many times larger than his own. The city was besieged for two months (March-May 1867); during this time he often displayed courage, exposing himself to danger and sleeping wrapped in a blanket with the frontline soldiers. In the end a colonel was bribed to let a republican column in, but the Juaristas were reluctant to kill a European who acted so nobly; they suggested that he try to escape. Maximilian refused to abandon his faithful followers, believing that martyrdom was the most honorable fate for a defeated emperor, and surrendered instead.

Maximilian had decreed an automatic death penalty for all captured rebels in October 1865, so Juarez felt he deserved the same treatment. A court-martial soon followed, at which Maximilian was sentenced to death. Several famous Europeans, including Victor Hugo and Giuseppe Garibaldi, pleaded for the life of Maximilian, but an implacable Juarez had him shot on June 19, 1867. With him in front of the firing squad were two of his generals, Tomas Mejia and the previously mentioned Miguel Miramon. With that, the silly story of Emperor Maximilian came to a sad end.(44)

Maximilian says goodbye.

The last moments of Maximilian.

The war gave Mexico’s citizens a sense of national identity; while it went on, the followers of Juarez came to see themselves as Mexicans first, rather than as Creoles, Indians, blacks or something in-between. Still, the end of the war did not mean an end to the troubles Juarez faced. He got himself re-elected president, but because he no longer needed a large army, he disbanded most of it, and those unemployed troops either became bandits, or simply revolted, so internal chaos continued. In addition, corrupt state and local politicians manipulated elections as they saw fit. Seeing his authority slipping, Juarez had to assume dictatorial powers to get any of his reforms done. In other words, during his last years he was the kind of caudillo he had once opposed, ruling by decree and ballot box stuffing. Thus, he felt disillusioned when he died in 1872. In that sense he was a failure, but he inspired future generations of Mexicans to make their country a better place for all its citizens.(45)

Before we move on to the next section, there is one more story that Mexicans like to tell. Leonarda Emilia (1842-73) was a young woman from the state of Querétaro, and during the recent war, she fell in love with a French soldier. Unlike the rest of the French, this soldier chose to stay in Mexico; we don't know whether it was for Leonarda or because he believed in the cause of Emperor Maximilian. Consequently he was also captured and sentenced to death. Leonarda sent letters pleading that her boyfriend be spared, but he was shot anyway.

To get revenge, Leonarda turned herself into a female bandit, La Carambada, meaning "The Amazing Lady." The name was fitting, because she was great at riding horses, and could use a pistol and a machete effectively. In this way she became the leader of an outlaw band, and went on a crime spree from 1870 to 1873, mainly robbing travelers in Querétaro and Guanajuato, but also killing corrupt officials, and shooting at government troops when she got the opportunity. A ballad composed about La Carambada later on claimed that like Robin Hood, she stole from the rich and gave to the poor. And while her uniform of choice was baggy men's clothing, she liked to flash her breasts at her male victims after robbing them, so they would know they had been bested by a woman. In the macho culture of nineteenth-century Latin America, that really hurt. Finally, there is a rumor that she poisoned both President Juarez and Querétaro Governor Benito Zenea.

We can ignore the poisoning bit, because Juarez was already in poor health from a stroke he had nearly two years before his death, while Zenea lived until 1875, two years after the game ended for La Carambada. As for her, she was caught in a shootout; hit by five bullets, she was then taken to a hospital for the official autopsy. When it discovered that La Carambada was not dead yet, a priest was brought in, and she confessed her story before dying from the gunshot wounds. However, the priest did not do anything with the story after writing it down, probably because as I said above, this was a macho culture. If the padre had lived more recently, you know he would have tried turning the story into a novel or a movie script. And the movie would probably have Catherine Zeta-Jones in the leading role, instead of Antonio Banderas.

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Argentina Pulls Itself Together

Urquiza, like Rosas in the beginning, was a federalist who sympathized with the gauchos, so after an unsuccessful attempt to conquer Buenos Aries, he decided to leave it to the Porteños and build a nation without them. Thus, Argentina had two governments, one for the province of Buenos Aries and one for the other provinces, now called the Argentine Confederation. Urquiza could see that some sort of national organization was necessary for the confederation, so he called for a constitutional convention. At Santa Fe, delegates met in 1853 and wrote a new constitution; this document called for a republic like that of the United States. The main differences between this constitution and the US one were that the Argentine president served a six-year term and then had to step down and wait at least six years before he could run again, and that the Catholic Church was the official religion (followers of other creeds were promised freedom to worship, though). It is still in force today, despite frequent suspensions and a tendency for Argentine presidents to ignore the inconvenient parts. Paraná became the confederation capital, and Urquiza was elected the country’s second president.

Despite the confederation’s promising start, the wealthy city and province of Buenos Aires did better. Trade and the overall economy grew much faster in Buenos Aires; in addition, Urquiza had to put down gaucho revolts. He tried to compete with Buenos Aires by putting tariffs on goods from that port; Buenos Aires responded with sanctions that threatened to stop the confederation’s commerce altogether. Then in 1859 open war broke out between the two states; Urquiza defeated his opponent, General Bartolomé Mitre Martinez (1821-1906), at the second battle of Cepeda, and Buenos Aires was reunited with Argentina.

Urquiza stepped down when his term ended a year later, and went back to being governor of Entre Rios; the two presidents who succeeded him were caretakers who did not last long. There was another round of fighting in 1861, and for the rematch, Urquiza and Mitre resumed their roles as generals. This time Buenos Aires turned the tables; Mitre won the battle of Pavón and brought the confederation under unitarian rule. In 1862 the Argentine Confederation’s capital was moved from Paraná to Buenos Aires, and Mitre became the first president of all Argentina.

As expected, Mitre’s priority was national unity. He encouraged immigration from Europe, and concentrated on developing infrastructure, especially the building of telegraph lines, railroads, and more schools. But most of his plans had to be put on the back burner, because of the War of the Triple Alliance with Paraguay (see below). That war lasted beyond the end of Mitre’s term, so it fell upon his successor, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, to finish what he had started.

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Chile: The Liberal Era

The 1861 election of José Joaquín Pérez, Chile’s first liberal head of state since the 1820s, did not represent a total break with the previous generation. For one thing, Pérez’s government included conservatives who opposed his predecessor. The Catholic Church remained influential, and wealthy landowners remained powerful. Nevertheless, Pérez got two important laws passed. One allowed religious freedom (1865), beginning a move to separate church and state in Chile. The other was a constitutional amendment that banned the president from running for re-election immediately when his first term ended. Meanwhile to the north, the miners started agitating for a bigger piece of the political pie, now that the mines had become the most important part of the economy. A mine owner named Pedro León Gallo left the liberals and formed a new party, the Radical Party, which claimed to represent the working class and agitated for reform more strongly than the liberals had.

Pérez was succeeded in 1871 by a more liberal president, Federico Errázuriz Zañartú. Under his administration, the Church’s privileges were abolished, and the liberals and radicals worked together to push through a series of changes to the constitution: direct election of senators; a reduction in the length of senatorial terms from nine to six years; freedom of speech, press and assembly. In the middle of the 1870s, Chile suffered from its worst economic depression in the nineteenth century, brought on by declining copper production; fortunately nitrate production in the north increased enough to offset the copper slump by the end of the decade. The next president, Aníbal Pinto, also had to deal with floods in 1876, and an earthquake in 1877, both of which devastated the country’s infrastructure.

However, the 1870s was also the time when the southern and northern thirds of Chile began to get as much attention as the center. Pinto completed the process of occupying the south, subjugating the Mapuche Indians in the process, by the time his term ended in 1881. Equally important, Pinto signed a treaty settling Chile’s dispute with Argentina over the south (see footnote #64); this ensured that Argentina would not get involved in the conflict in the north, on the side of Chile’s enemies. That conflict was the War of the Pacific, the main event during the administrations of Pinto and his successor, Domingo Santa María; we will cover the war in another section.

On a related note, Chile annexed Easter Island in 1888.

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The War of the Triple Alliance

Carlos Antonio López succeeded because he had enough caution to stop before going too far in most cases, and enough luck to get out of a tight spot when he did. Unfortunately his son had neither. Francisco Solano López, the ruler of Paraguay from 1862 to 1870, was so egotistical that he would not let people turn their backs to him, or sit while he was standing. He had gotten military training in France (which made him a great admirer of Napoleon), and he inherited from his father the largest army in South America, so he was eager to use it. Because Paraguay was the only landlocked country in Latin America after independence, he wanted to give his country better access to the sea; the only access Paraguay had (via the Parana and Plata Rivers) depended on the unreliable good will of Argentina. Beyond that, his ultimate goal was to reunite Paraguay with Argentina and Uruguay, restoring the old Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata (see Chapter 3), this time with Paraguay was in charge of it.

Francisco Solano Lopez.

Francisco Solano López.

In the ongoing Argentine-Brazilian dispute over Uruguay, López thought he saw the opportunity to fulfill his dreams. Brazil had invaded Uruguay in 1864, ousted the Blanco (pro-Paraguayan) Party, and installed the Colorado (pro-Brazilian) Party as the government, led by General Venancio Flores. López thought Argentina would join him in a campaign to drive the Brazilians out of Uruguay, but the Argentine president, Bartolomé Mitre, got along with Flores and was nervous about Paraguay’s real intentions, so he chose instead to accept the new Uruguayan government. López rashly declared war on Brazil anyway, seized a Brazilian warship, and invaded the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. Even more rashly, his forces marched across Argentine territory to get to Uruguay and another Brazilian state, Rio Grande Do Sul. Because Mitre refused to give him permission to pass through, López quickly found himself at war with Argentina as well. And because the two big countries were in agreement concerning Uruguay, they had no trouble persuading Uruguay to declare war on Paraguay, too. On May 1, 1865, the three countries formed a secret alliance that would last until the Paraguayan government was overthrown, and Mitre was named supreme commander of the allied troops. Paraguay was now at war with three of its four neighbors.

One look at a map of South America will tell you how foolish it is to wage such a war; Paraguay was hopelessly outnumbered. The only reason Paraguay did not lose right away was because it had a head start. By the time the war started, López had expanded the army until it had 38,000 men under arms, with more than 20,000 more soldiers and civilians in the reserves; Paraguay also had 400 cannon. These are remarkable figures, considering that Paraguay’s population at the time was only 450,000. Though the allies had a combined population of 11 million, it took them a long time to raise enough troops to match the Paraguayans. Impoverished by years of civil war, Uruguay had less than 2,000 men in the field at all times. Argentina had 8,500 men to start with, and eventually increased this number to 30,000, but many of them had to stay home and pacify those provinces that still resisted the authority of Buenos Aires; two provinces, Corrientes and Entre Ríos, even supported Paraguay. Brazil had 16,000 men under arms at the beginning of the war, and when the Paraguayans won the first battles, the government panicked and tapped its awesome supply of manpower, which allowed Brazil to mobilize a force of 200,000. Equally important, Brazil was the only participating country that had a decent navy; this was used to strike upstream into the heart of Paraguay.

For the first eight months (October 1864-June 1865), Paraguay was on the offensive. On the southern front the Paraguayan general, Antonio de la Cruz Estigarribia, conquered several villages in Rio Grande Do Sul, as well as much of Corrientes. However, the Paraguayans marched with several disadvantages, which eventually turned the tide of the war against them. They were always short on supplies, and were poorly trained; when experienced soldiers were killed, they could not be replaced. Cavalrymen had to fight on foot because there weren’t enough horses; foot soldiers attacked ironclad boats with machetes. Nor was there a chain of command among the officers; all decisions were made by López. There was even a technology gap; the allies had rifles that could fire more than one shot before reloading, while the Paraguayans still used flintlock muskets. In June 1865 the Brazilians won their first naval victory, at Riachuelo; in July a whole wing of the Paraguayan army was wiped out before it could enter Uruguay; in September Estigarribia was forced to surrender at the Brazilian town of Uruguayana. Wars of attrition always favor the side with more resources and manpower, so once Paraguay was put on the defensive, the outcome could never be in doubt.

There were no roads running between Brazil and Paraguay (that fact alone allowed the Paraguayans to hold onto their conquests in Mato Grosso until 1868), so for the counter-attack, the allies decided to go up the Paraguay River to Asunción. However, this proved to be just as difficult as a land invasion would have been. Paraguay had a string of forts near the junction of the Parana and Paraguay Rivers, of which the toughest was Humaita. It took the allies three years to get past these forts. One reason for the delay was that they spent eight months just getting ready for the invasion; another was the incredible courage of the Paraguayan defenders; a third was George Thompson, a young British engineer put in charge of the fortifications at Curupayty. Thompson was a genius at using the resources he had, made all the more amazing because he had no military training.(46) In the process of advancing the allies suffered so many casualties that Mitre lost his enthusiasm for the war and went home, leaving it to the Brazilians to complete the campaign alone.

It the end the riverside forts did not save Paraguay; they delayed the inevitable. Humaita fell in August 1868, and the Brazilians entered Asunción on the first day of 1869. The only time López tried to end the war peacefully was in 1866, when a round of one-on-one talks with Mitre got nowhere. As the enemy closed in, he lost what little sanity he had, drafted slaves and children into the army, and threatened his soldiers with death if they did not fight to the bitter end, ordering them to “conquer or die.” When his generals urged him to negotiate with the enemy, he had them executed (his favorite disposal method was to tie them up in anthills and let the ants sting and bite them to death). Even his family wasn’t safe when they pleaded with him for peace; he executed his two brothers and two brothers-in-law, and had his two sisters and 70-year-old mother beaten and nailed into wooden crates.

After he lost Asunción, López escaped to the mountains northeast of the capital with the state archives, and continued the fight from there. Finally, on March 1, 1870, a Brazilian cavalry unit surrounded and killed López at Cerro Corá. Instead of surrendering, he declared, "I die with my homeland," and with his death, the war ended. López got his wish; as long as he was alive the Paraguayan army resisted fanatically. The last days of the war saw Paraguayan soldiers as young as six years old, attacking enemy cannon with clumps of dirt and sticks painted to look like guns. Many fought naked, because new clothing had not been available since the beginning of the war.

Lopez dies with Paraguay.

The battle of Cerro Corá.

There’s no doubt about it, the War of the Triple Alliance was the bloodiest in South American history. In terms of percentages killed and wounded, it was one of the most costly wars fought anywhere. Definite figures are unavailable; for the allied dead, our best estimates are 18,000 Argentines, 50,000 Brazilians, and 3,100 Uruguayans – and that doesn’t count the civilian casualties. For Paraguay’s body count, estimates range from 300,000 to 1.37 million; as in other wars, diseases killed more people than battles did. The only other wars in the western hemisphere that killed more than half a million people were the US Civil War, and the Mexican Revolution of the early twentieth century. One observer described the survivors in Paraguay as "living skeletons . . . shockingly mutilated with bullet and sabre wounds." Jaguars feasting on human corpses were a common sight, and women wandered naked in the streets.

A census conducted immediately after the war counted only 29,000 males over the age of 15 in Paraguay. This means as much as 80 percent of the country’s male population may have been dead; the shortage of men was so severe, that polygamy was legal in Paraguay for many years afterwards; even priests could have children.(47) One fourth of Paraguay’s land was taken by Brazil and Argentina, and the only reason they did not take it all was because they agreed that a buffer state in the middle would prevent future wars between them.(48) Brazilian troops destroyed the main industrial center, a foundry at Ybycuí; Paraguayans claim that even now, that act has hurt their economy.

Occupation forces of Brazilian and Argentine troops were stationed in Paraguay until 1876. After the occupiers left, Paraguayans formed two political parties, the "Colorados" and the "Liberals"; the Colorado Party still exists today. The world would not hear from Paraguay again for sixty years; during that time thirty presidents, mostly run-of-the-mill dictators, came and went, and assassinations were commonplace.

Map of Paraguay.

A map showing the changing borders of Paraguay: before the War of the Triple Alliance (red dotted line), after the war (red dotted line minus the grey areas), and today (orange).

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Cuba and Puerto Rico: The Last Spanish Colonies

In the period covered by this chapter, the population of the Caribbean grew from 2.7 million to 5.8 million. This by itself is not big news; populations were growing almost everywhere in the nineteenth century. Moreover, the growth rate works out to 1.4 percent a year, less than half the growth rate of the United States and Canada at that time. More interesting are the demographic changes that were happening. Slavery was abolished across the British Empire in 1834, France and Denmark followed suit in 1848, and the Netherlands freed its slaves in 1863. The results were similar to what had happened in Haiti. The white community shrank, though in this case it did not disappear completely; the black community began to grow (it had never been self-sustaining while the blacks were enslaved); and the sugar industry collapsed, because it no longer had enough workers.

However, on Cuba the trends went the other way. The fall in sugar production elsewhere encouraged the Cubans to take up the slack, so Cuba became the world’s leading exporter of sugar, and it continued to run the plantation-style economy that characterized all of Latin America in the colonial era. There was also a steady stream of immigrants from Spain, and though the trans-Atlantic slave trade had been banned in the early nineteenth century, Spain was able to keep importing slaves until 1860. Consequently, by 1860 Cuba had a population of 900,000 whites and 400,000 blacks. Meanwhile, an 1860 census showed a slim white majority for Puerto Rico, where the whites numbered 300,406 (51.5%), out of a total population of 583,308. That is why many US citizens who favored slavery were interested in annexing Cuba in the 1840s and 50s. After all, Florida was a former Spanish colony that had become a slaveowning state, and it looked like the same thing could be done with Cuba. Some Cubans also wanted their island to become part of the United States, either because they were inspired by how the US political system promoted freedom, or because they owned slaves and thought that joining the US would protect them from efforts to abolish slavery in the Caribbean.(49) The US Civil War put an end to all these ideas.

The geographical location of Cuba and Puerto Rico also caused those islands to take a different course from the Spanish colonies on the mainland. Both islands were closer to Spain than the mainland colonies, and were fortified with several forts and strong military garrisons. The American, French and Haitian revolutions did inspire a few conspiracies and uprisings (in 1795, 1809-1810, 1812, 1823, 1826, 1829 and 1837), but Spanish forces were always able to nip them in the bud. During and after the revolutionary era, there were also a number of slave revolts on both islands, which were put down with mass executions.

As time went on, more and more people suffered from poverty, and slavery came to be seen as an obsolete anachronism, so the mood towards Spain started to change. In the 1860s Cuba had two liberal governors who allowed the formation of a political party for those who favored reform, ignoring the law against political parties. But the next governor was a reactionary, Francisco Lersundi, who favored slavery and undid the reforms of his predecessors. Likewise, on Puerto Rico the authorities exiled or jailed anyone who called for political reform.

On September 23, 1868, hundreds of poor men and women in the Puerto Rican town of Lares revolted against Spanish rule, seeking Puerto Rican independence. This revolt, called the Grito de Lares ("Lares Cry" or "Lares Uprising") was planned by a group led by Dr. Ramón Emeterio Betances, a surgeon who is now remembered as the first Puerto Rican nationalist. The rebels were under-trained and under-equipped, so the Spanish militia put them down almost immediately. However, many prominent Puerto Ricans succeeded in persuading the president of Spain to ease tensions by granting a general amnesty to all rebels except their leaders, who were exiled; Spain also granted more political autonomy to the island.(50)

Several wealthy Cubans had been plotting independence since an economic depression in 1866-67, which convinced them that Spanish rule was seriously restricting the island’s development. The leader of this movement was a planter named Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, and the Spaniards tried to change his mind imprisoning his son, Oscar; Céspedes refused to negotiate and Oscar was shot. Then the Puerto Rican uprising persuaded the Cuban nationalists to act, before Spain cracked down on them, too. Two and a half weeks later (October 10, 1868), near the eastern town of Yara, Céspedes rang the bell at his sugar mill to call his slaves. The slaves came, expecting to receive their orders for the day; instead Céspedes announced they were all free men, and invited them to join the nationalists in a war of independence from Spain. Modern Cubans remember this event as the Grito de Yara, and call Céspedes the father of their country and the first Cuban president.

Thus began the Ten Years War (1868-78) between Cuba and Spain. Most of the fighting was on the east side of Cuba; the rebels used guerrillas in hit-and-run tactics, and Spain responded with ruthless, bloody reprisals.(51) In the middle of the conflict, political and personal disagreements prompted the rebel government to depose Céspedes as president (1873), and one year later he was killed by Spanish troops in an ambush. The war ended when the Spanish commander, Arsenio Martínez de Campos, worked out the Treaty of Zanjón, which gave the Cubans governmental representation and promised reforms. By then the war had cost the lives of 200,000 soldiers and civilians, many of them victims of yellow fever. It also devastated the sugar and coffee industries; American entrepreneurs saw this and the depression of 1885-90 as an opportunity to invest, beginning three quarters of a century of heavy American involvement in the Cuban economy.

Some rebel leaders refused to accept the treaty. Antonio Maceo, a black general who was second in command and nicknamed the “Bronze Titan,” rejected it because it did not abolish slavery(52) or grant independence. Others were offended later when the treaty’s promises were not kept, Spanish rule remained appallingly corrupt, and conditions did not improve. One of them, Calixto García, launched a second rebellion, called the Little War or La Guerra Chiquita, because it only lasted one year (1879-80). In response, Spain abolished slavery throughout her empire, once and for all, in 1886. Nevertheless, tensions remained high until the next war of independence broke out, in 1895.

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


29. Melo invited Obando to become a dictator during the crisis, but Obando refused, because he had fought too many dictators already, and allowed himself to be arrested instead.

30. Ospina is credited with introducing coffee to both Colombia and Guatemala. He was one of the first to grow coffee in Colombia, starting his first plantation in 1835. Because of his research and careful attention to the details of coffee growing, Colombian coffee gained its reputation as some of the world’s best. Mind you, this was more than a century before Juan Valdez promoted Colombian coffee on TV! In 1862, one year after Mosquera put him in prison, Ospina and his brother Pastor escaped, and were granted asylum in Guatemala. They and their families stayed there until 1871, when they were allowed to return to Colombia. While in Guatemala they established another coffee plantation, with the same excellent results. Because coffee has been an important crop to Guatemala ever since, modern Guatemalans rank the Ospina brothers as equals with the founding fathers of their country.

31. Juarez broke the racial barrier in Latin American politics. Throughout the region (except in Haiti, of course), there was an unofficial rule that every high-ranking leader be white, or at least Mestizo. Juarez, by contrast, was a full-blooded Zapotec Indian, who stood only 4' 6". This explains why he was so dedicated to reform. He also was the first civilian president in Mexican history.

32. The Colombian government did allow the United States to build a railroad across Panama in 1846, following the path that would later be taken by the Panama Canal. Colombia also gave the Yankees free transit and the right to protect the railroad with military force. The railroad was ready just in time for tens of thousands to use it, during the California gold rush.

33. Walker tried to conquer Costa Rica while he had Nicaragua. The most famous casualty of that conflict was Juan Santamaría, a Costa Rican drummer boy who was killed while setting fire to Walker’s defenses. To modern Costa Ricans, that battle became a national legend and Santamaría became a national hero; the country’s main airport is named after him, too.

34. This may explain why Honduras was the strongest supporter of efforts to reunite Central America; Hondurans must have felt that life would be easier if they didn’t have to go it alone.

35. William Le Lacheur was a humanitarian as well as an entrepreneur. He was shocked to find that Costa Rican Christianity was dominated by superstition and described it as “the lowest form of the Roman faith.” To remedy that, he distributed 3,500 Bibles printed in Spanish, thereby introducing Protestantism into the country. In addition, he helped several Costa Rican families send their sons to England for their education, and they introduced football (soccer) when they returned. Finally, when William Walker attempted to invade Costa Rica in 1856 (see footnote #33), Le Lacheur allowed the use of his ships to transport the Costa Rican army, leading to their successful defense against the filibusters.

36. During the colonial era the provincial capital was Comayagua. During the first fifty-nine years after independence the capital was Comayagua when the conservatives were in charge, and at Tegucigalpa when the liberals ruled. In 1880 President Marco Aurelio Soto, a liberal, ordered the capital moved to Tegucigalpa, and after that it stayed there.

37. One thing Venezuela, Ecuador and Colombia have in common is their flags. All three flags have three horizontal bars, which from top to bottom are yellow, blue and red.

Venezuela   Ecuador   Colombia
Venezuela   Ecuador   Colombia

38. For what it’s worth, Castro was the first Venezuelan leader who was too young to have fought in the war of independence, having been born in 1810.

39. Today some historians believe that Flores, jealous of the success of General Antonio José de Sucre, may have been the one responsible for his assassination (see Chapter 3).

40. The Galapagos Islands, that famous showcase of animal diversity, were first discovered in 1535 when the bishop of Panama sailed to Peru and his ship drifted off course. Throughout the colonial era some pirates and whalers stopped there, but no permanent colony was established, which was good for the giant tortoises and other endemic species (the tortoises were nearly hunted to extinction when the visitors learned they were a good source of fresh meat). Nor did any Indians live there, though Thor Heyerdahl claimed to have found a few pre-Columbian artifacts, suggesting that some Indians visited the archipelago. President Flores annexed the islands for Ecuador in 1832, just three years before the famous voyage of the Beagle.

41. Needless to say, García Moreno refused to honor the Treaty of Mapasingue. Not long after that Castilla was overthrown, and his Peruvian successors voided the treaty, declaring that it was invalid because the Ecuadorian government which signed did not represent the whole country.

42. This battle, fought on May 5, 1862, is the event behind Cinco de Mayo. However, in modern-day Mexico, Cinco de Mayo only gets much attention in the state of Puebla. This is because the holiday was really invented by some Mexican-Americans north of the border in California; Cinco de Mayo helped them keep their heritage. Thanks to successful advertising since the 1960s, the most enthusiastic fans of Cinco de Mayo are Gringos looking for an excuse to drink and eat nacho chips with salsa!

43. US President Andrew Johnson wanted to give military aid to Juarez, and when Congress did not approve it, he had the US Army "lose" some supplies, including rifles, "near" (actually across) the Mexican border. General Philip Sheridan wrote in his journal about how he "misplaced" 30,000 muskets close to Mexico. On the other side, Maximilian offered land to ex-Confederate soldiers if they would move to Mexico and join his cause.

44. Maximilian's wife, Charlotte of Belgium (1840-1927), came from the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha family; her father was Belgium's King Leopold I, her brother was the horrible King Leopold II, and Britain's Queen Victoria was her first cousin. While empress of Mexico, she changed her name to the more Spanish-sounding Carlota. She outlived her husband by sixty years because she got out of Mexico when the French did, and traveled between France, Austria and Italy, in a fruitless campaign to get somebody to intervene on Maximilian's behalf. Like many members of European royal families, Charlotte was mentally unstable, so nobody told her that her husband was dead for nine months; by then the former emperor’s body had been brought back and buried in Vienna. When she heard the news, she became so unhinged that she was declared insane, and confined to a castle for the rest of her life. By the way, you can only imagine the writer’s cramp Charlotte must have suffered when signing anything; her full name was Marie Charlotte Amelie Augustine Victoire Clementine Leopoldine.

45. Juarez also inspired foreigners who had the same liberal ideals. Eleven years after his death, an Italian mother named her baby after him. Ironically, this child grew up to be Benito Mussolini, who ideologically was poles apart from the first Benito.

46. For the details on Thompson’s achievement, holding up the allies at his fort for a whole year, read this article, The Amateur Colonel of Curupayty.

47. Near the end, López declared himself a Christian saint, complete with his own holiday on the Church calendar, and when twenty-three of Paraguay’s bishops said they didn’t like the idea, he had them shot. He also had a new medal of valor minted, and awarded it to the entire population of Paraguay -- everyone who was still alive, anyway.

48. Before the war, Paraguay was the world’s largest producer of yerba mate, but after the war Brazil became the chief producer, because most of the land where that popular herb is grown was now Brazilian territory. On the other side of Paraguay, Argentina claimed the Gran Chaco region; what happened there is a topic for another chapter.

49. A few individuals thought the US should annex Cuba, after negotiations over the island failed. A former Spanish Army General, Narciso López, prepared four filibuster expeditions to take Cuba by force (remember the filibuster expeditions of William Walker, in Mexico and Central America). The US government never allowed the first two expeditions to leave the United States (1848 and 1849). The third time wasn’t the charm, either; 600 men managed to land in Cuba and take the central city of Cárdenas, but failed afterwards because of a lack of popular support. The fourth expedition landed in Pinar del Río province with 400 men in August 1851; the invaders were defeated by Spanish troops and López was executed. No doubt the reader will want to compare these expeditions with the Bay of Pigs invasion in the mid-twentieth century.

50. After this, Cuba led the way in revolutionary activity against Spain, so don’t forget the Puerto Rican contribution. Cuba’s national hero, José Martí, was only fifteen years old in 1868, and drew a lot of his early inspiration from Betances, while Juan Rius Rivera, the commander of the Cuban Liberation Army in the 1895–98 war, was born in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico.

51. One of those reprisals, the Virginius Affair, jeopardized relations between Spain and the United States. The United States did not support the rebels or recognize their government, but the rebels managed to hire an American ship, the Virginius, to smuggle men and arms to Cuba. Spain captured the ship, declared the crew and passengers pirates, and shot 53 of them before a British warship showed up on the scene to stop the killings. Many of the victims were US citizens, and after two years of negotiations, Spain agreed to pay the United States an indemnity of $80,000.

52. Officially Spain had abolished slavery on Cuba in 1866, and Puerto Rico in 1873. The Cuban ban was not enforced, though, and Puerto Rican ex-slaves had to buy their freedom by working for their owners for a few more years—the owners specified how long the indentured labor would last. An 1880 law abolished slavery in Cuba again, this time putting the slaves under an eight-year apprenticeship, or patronato, so the Cuban slaves also continued to work under the same masters, though now they earned a wage. This means Cuba was the second to last place in the New World to be freed from slavery; only in Brazil did emancipation come later.

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