USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

Argentina During the Export Boom

In Argentina, as we said, the exportation of wheat grew dramatically during the years of export boom. With the invention of refrigerated shipping in 1876 so too did the exportation of beef. With the expansion of cattle ranching in Argentina came the expansion of the power of the great ranching families. A “Cattle Party” dominated Argentine politics around the turn of the century, well-funded by European investment, primarily British, into Argentina’s national infrastructure. Indeed, up until the election of the reformist Hipolito Yrigoyen to the presidency in 1916, ranchers, large agricultural interests and the large-scale wool producers had dominated Argentine politics for decades. Though Argentina was booming during these years, few people were getting rich. Just as in the United States during the Gilded Age, the disparity between the rich and the poor in Argentina expanded like never before. And like in the United States, the Argentine government set out to clear Native Americans from the land, launching a brutal campaign in 1879, the so-called “Conquest of the Wilderness” campaign, to drive the indigenous people from the region between Buenos Aires and the Patagonia, an action similar to U.S. forces driving the plains Indians from their lands following the Civil War. 
By 1916, the Argentine economy was booming. Exports, chiefly wool, beef and wheat, were in great demand throughout the industrializing world. Big ranchers and landowners controlled the government. All industrialization, including railroads and shipping, was being financed and controlled by European and U.S. companies. The result was that though the country as a whole was getting rich, the people as a whole are not benefiting in equal measure. It was true that an increasingly Europeanized Buenos Aires, driven by urbanization, modest industrialization and large-scale immigration from Europe, has transformed into a vibrant middle class city -- but this is little consolation to the average farmhand or sheep herder who worked for meager wages.

The Yrigoyen government recognized that some measures would have to be taken to ensure social stability, given the exaggerated disparity between the rich and poor. It introduced a program of social reforms, including providing pensions, though these reforms should not be mistaken for broad based social welfare – this was no Argentine New Deal. Indeed, just a year after the Yrigoyen government, led by his Radical Party, took office widespread strikes broke out across the country, as workers demanded increased wages. By 1919, it was clear that the Radical Party would not in the end support the workers and in events known as the “Tragic Week” the government called out the police to violently suppress the strikes. If it weren’t for general economic recovery in Argentina in the 1920s, it is probable that the military elite and the conservative movement would have reasserted control, as eventually happened after the Great Crash of 1929. It is noteworthy that Argentina, the most Europeanized, most prosperous and independent of Latin American nations (by 1920 it was one of the richest countries per capita in the world) still failed in its period of greatest liberal reform – the so-called Radical Era from 1916 to 1929 – to institute lasting and robust democratic traditions, just one more example of the fragility of democratic government.

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