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

Introduction to Latin America Between Boom and Bust (1911-1929)

We begin this chapter on Latin America by flashing back to the immediate post-independence era when the South American territories of the Spanish empire broke free from the imperial European power and became independent states. The independence movement began with the highest hopes and great patriot leaders like San Martin and Simon Bolivar leading mass movements against the imperial rulers. This was the great age of revolution, the American Revolution in 1776, the French Revolution in 1789 and of course, permeating the whole period, the early industrial revolution that had just begun to revolutionize production and commerce. These revolutions created the modern political vocabulary of individual rights and liberties, constitutional law, and equality. These ideals promised that each individual could have a fair shake at success. By the late 1820s, however, the end of the independence era, it was clear that the political and social transformation imagined by South American liberals like Bolivar was not going as planned. Two decades of warfare had ravaged the South and Central American economies, devastating both food production and exportation. Trade with Spain, South America’s largest trading partner, dried up, crippling the South American economy even more. Political sovereignty fractured along many fault lines, including along ethnicity and social class. Local strongmen, caudillos, emerged as competing centers of political power. By 1829, the great Simon Bolivar had seen enough to lament, “There is no good faith in America, nor among the nations of America. Treaties are scraps of paper; constitutions, printed matter; elections, battles; freedom, anarchy; and life, a torment."

Bolivar was being both accurate and prescient. It was true that by the late 1820s the initial and idealistic liberalizing moment had faded throughout the continent, giving way to bare-knuckled power struggle, won invariable by the strongest caudillo around. In the years after 1829, conservative caudillo rule would become the order of the day. Strongmen like Juan Manuel de Rosas, a powerful cattle rancher of the Argentine pampa, who ruled Argentina from 1829 to 1852, or Mexican general Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, who dominated Mexican politics in the 1830s and 1840s, personified the age of caudillo rule -- a period lasting from the 1820s until the 1850s and 1860, and in many countries well beyond.

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