Roca, Julio Argentino (1843–1914)

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Roca, Julio Argentino (1843–1914)

Julio Argentino Roca (b. 1843; d. 20 October 1914), president of Argentina (1880–1886, 1898–1904). Roca, a clever politician who dominated Argentina from 1880 to 1904, represents the predominance of rural landowners. He presided over a period of political order as well as spectacular economic growth until overtaken by reformist opponents.

Roca's rise to power began in the army. As an officer from Tucumán, Roca viewed the army as an agent of national unification. At the age of sixteen, he completed his formal education at the Colegio Nacional de Concepción del Uruguay. He then participated in the battle of Cepeda as a lieutenant in José de Urquiza's army. Roca became popular after successfully completing his military campaigns along the pampas. He won the support of cattlemen, politicians, and farmers in the interior because he protected and enriched them. Through his military career, Roca broadened his understanding of Argentina and of the provincial upper class.

Roca began to consider himself a viable presidential candidate during the Avellaneda regime, in which he served as minister of war. In 1879, he began his desert campaign against the Ranqueles Indians. The government transferred 35 percent of the national territory from the Indians to local caudillos between 1876 and 1893. The provincial estancieros (hacienda owners) became part of a capitalistic oligarchy. Land speculation increased as landowners borrowed on the basis of higher land values. Many of these landowners urged Roca to seize power. By January 1880, he had selected candidates and discussed the possibility of their election to the presidency.

Turmoil surrounding the 1880 presidential election enabled Roca to become chief executive. When Carlos Tejedor became the Autonomist leader of Buenos Aires province, he provoked the conservative interior because he was a representative of the liberal tradition of Bartolomé Mitre. Roca articulated provincial resentment at the unfair distribution of tariff revenues by officials in Buenos Aires, demanding that the city be federalized as the national capital. The interior wanted to operate the port in order to benefit the other provinces. With friendly governors behind him throughout Argentina, Roca defeated Tejedor in the presidential balloting. Avellaneda lost his nerve when Tejedor revolted in June 1880, but Roca's popularity in the army enabled him to crush the dissidents.

Roca's first regime was generally successful. His program of order appealed to many because Argentina needed economic growth. Landed interests appreciated Roca's railroad construction. Anticlericals within the Partido Autonomista Nacional approved of his secular outlook. Roca was not an idealist and had few scruples about his cynical use of power. A shrewd politician known as "the fox," he used his authority to ensure peace in the interior. Well organized and a prolific correspondent with local supporters, he allowed few details to escape his attention.

The economic boom of the 1880s established Roca's authority. Exports grew tremendously, to the point that Argentina eventually became the world's leading corn exporter and second in wheat exports. Wool, mutton, sheepskin, and beef exports enabled the pastoral sector to retain a slim lead over agriculture. Roca also supported the sugar industry and presided over the best railroad system in Latin America. Foreign capital poured in, to the extent that by 1889, British capital in Argentina represented about half of British overseas investments. Unwisely, however, Roca allowed mortgage banks to sell notes using land as collateral. Meanwhile, the Roca regime encouraged massive European immigration to Argentina despite its lack of a consistent land policy. Fine shops, a wonderful opera theater, and pleasant surroundings led Buenos Aires to become known as the Paris of the Americas.

Roca played a strong role in the Pellegrini government. He controlled the countryside as interior minister. At this time Roca formulated a famous acuerdo with Mitre and the moderate faction of the Unión Cívica. As Roca probably anticipated, a radical faction of the Unión Cívica split off in protest. Hipólito Yrigoyen began a long struggle to unseat Pellegrini's and subsequent governments until he triumphed in 1916.

Roca established several local regimes that were improvements over preceding administrations. Elected as head of the national Senate, he imposed Luis Sáenz Peña as Argentina's next president in 1892. Once again, Roca controlled politics. When Sáenz Peña would not allow him to dominate his government, however, Roca and Mitre turned Congress against the president. Using his network, Roca was reelected president in 1898.

Roca's second regime was unsatisfying. He nearly went to war with Chile. Anarchists and socialists established powerful working-class movements. Therefore Roca attempted to repatriate critical immigrants by means of a foreigners' residence law. Economic growth continued, but the foreign debt remained high. For the first time in two decades, Roca discovered that he could not mandate who would become president. Manuel Quintana, Roca's successor, was a compromise selection. But the vice president, José Figueroa Alcorta, was Carlos Pellegrini's choice. When the elderly Quintana died in 1906, Roca quickly lost influence.

After retiring from politics, Roca regretted the imbalance of wealth and power between Buenos Aires and the rest of the country. Although he was the symbol of provincial resentments, he became a classic elite figure. Roca spent many of his later years in Europe and died in Buenos Aires.

See alsoArgentina: The Nineteenth Century; Pellegrini, Carlos.


The most compelling biography is Félix Luna, Soy Roca (1989). A thorough study of the first Roca regime is Bruce Lee Kress, "Julio Roca and Argentina, 1880–1886. A Political and Economic Study" (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1972). Douglas W. Richmond, Carlos Pellegrini and the Crisis of the Argentine Elites, 1880–1916 (1989), contains data for the 1880s and 1890s. A solid overview of the latter period is David Rock, Politics in Argentina, 1890–1930: The Rise and Fall of Radicalism (1975). Richard J. Walter, The Socialist Party of Argentina, 1890–1930 (1977), provides the background on labor. The early section of Guido Di Tella and D. C. M. Platt, The Political Economy of Argentina, 1880–1946 (1986), covers the economic context. Alfred Díaz De Molina, José Figueroa Alcorta: De la oligarquía a la democracia, 1898–1928 (1979), illustrates Roca's bitter political decline. Also see A. G. Ford, The Gold Standard, 1880–1914: Britain and Argentina (1962); and Carl E. Solberg, Immigration and Nationalism: Argentina and Chile, 1890–1914 (1970).

Additional Bibliography

Fraga, Rosendo. Roca y el Brasil. Buenos Aires: Editorial Centro de Estudios Unión para la Nueva Mayoría, 1994.

Fraga, Rosendo. Roca y Chile. Buenos Aires: Editorial Centro de Estudios Unión para la Nueva Mayoría, 1996.

Luna, Félix. La época de Roca. Buenos Aires: Planeta, 1998.

                                           Douglas W. Richmond