Rosas, Juan Manuel de (1793–1877)

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Rosas, Juan Manuel de (1793–1877)

Juan Manuel de Rosas (b. 30 March 1793; d. 14 March 1877), Argentine dictator.


Rosas was born in Buenos Aires to a creole family of landowners and officeholders, a characteristic beginning for an Argentine caudillo. He himself was a landowner and military commander. He acquired his education mainly on his parents' estancia before striking out on his own account, first in the meat-salting industry, then in the accumulation of land in the south of the province of Buenos Aires, where he developed his principal cattle estancias and those of his cousins, the Anchorenas. Rosas was thus at the leading edge of Argentina's new frontier of settlement and helped to promote the transition of Buenos Aires from viceregal capital to export center. It was on the estancia that he first practiced his principles of government. There, on an anarchic population of peons, gauchos, Indians, and vagrants Rosas imposed respect for authority, social order, and private property; by a mixture of discipline and example he exacted subordination and created a work force and a following. In 1820 he turned his peons into patriots and led a cavalry force to rescue Buenos Aires from the caudillos of the interior, a further victory over anarchy and another tribute to the military power of the southern caudillo.

The next objective was to raise his political profile. From his estancia Rosas observed the course of government in Buenos Aires with growing concern. In February 1826 Bernardino Rivadavia was appointed president of the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata, and came to power with a unitarist constitution and a modernizing program. The entire package was rejected by Rosas and his associates, who represented a more primitive economy—cattle production for export of hides and salt meat—and objected to sharing their provincial resources with a greater Argentina. In the latter half of 1826, at the head of a network of friends, relations, and clients, Rosas allied himself to the federalist party. Rivadavia bowed to the combined force of his opponents and resigned, and in August 1827 the veteran federalist, Manuel Dorrego, was elected governor. Federalist government in itself was not the political solution sought by Rosas. To secure the hegemony of the estancia, the dominance of the export economy, security on the frontier and in the countryside, it was necessary to establish direct control of policy: the time had come for those who possessed economic power, the estancieros, to displace the professional politicians of independence and take possession of government through their representative Rosas.

As militia commander, frontiersman, and rancher, Rosas had unique qualifications to assume leadership. He was already a caudillo in his own right with access to land, men, and resources, and the ability to mobilize them for armed action. The opportunity came in 1828, when a unitarist coup engineered by General Juan Lavalle overthrew and assassinated Dorrego, leaving a gap in the federalist leadership which was instantly filled by Rosas. He had the support of militiamen, estancieros, and friendly Indians. He also had a power base among the popular forces of the countryside who looked to him as their patrón and protector. In the course of 1829 he waged a guerrilla war on his unitarist enemies and defeated the regular army of Lavalle; on 3 November he entered Buenos Aires at the head of a force which only he could control, and virtually dictated his own terms. On 6 December 1829 he was elected governor of Buenos Aires with absolute powers (facultades extraordinarias). From these beginnings he dominated Argentina for the next two decades and beyond.


Rosas divided society into those who commanded and those who obeyed. He abhorred democracy and liberalism, and the reason why he detested unitarists was not that they wanted a united Argentina but that they were liberals who believed in humanism and progress. The constitutional doctrines of the two parties did not interest him, and he was never a true federalist. He thought and ruled as a centralist, and he insisted on the supremacy of Buenos Aires. This was rosismo, and there was nothing quite like it anywhere else in Spanish America. Its power base was the estancia, a focus of economic resources and a system of social control.

The domination of the economy by the estancia was continued and completed under Rosas. He stood for a policy of territorial settlement and expansion, conquering land from the Indians, rewarding his followers with land, selling public land and eventually giving it away. The trend of his regime was toward greater concentration of property in the hands of a small elite. The estancia gave Rosas the sinews of war, the alliance of fellow estancieros, and the means of recruiting an army of peons, gauchos, and vagrants. In December 1829 he claimed that, unlike his predecessors, he had cultivated the common people, and had become a gaucho himself in order to control them. To identify with gaucho culture was not necessarily to represent the gauchos or to receive their spontaneous support. The core of Rosas's forces were his own peons and dependents, who were obliged to follow him in war as they worked for him in peace.

Rural uprisings occurred in times of exceptional crisis, such as in 1829 and 1835, when Rosas deliberately raised popular forces in order to counter his unitarist enemies. The gaucho forces lasted only as long as Rosas needed them; once he controlled the bureaucracy, the police, the death squads, and the regular army, his rural followers had to return to their estancias. Finally, in many cases these informal troops were mobilized not directly by Rosas but by their own patrón, who was usually commander of the local militia; this meant that Rosas received his support not from free gaucho hordes but from other estancieros leading their peon conscripts.

Another popular sector, the artisans of Buenos Aires and the interior, also looked to Rosas for protection, in this case against the competition of foreign imports. In the Customs Law of December 1835 he introduced higher import duties, giving greater protection to more vulnerable products, and actually prohibiting the import of a large number of articles such as textiles, hardware, and, depending on the domestic price, wheat. The tariff was designed to relieve distress in the industrial and farming sectors without subverting the livestock export economy. In any event, national industries failed to respond, and within five years Rosas was forced to relax protection in the interests of consumers.


Rosas ruled from 1829 to 1832 with absolute power. After an interregnum during which anarchy once more raised its head, he returned to the governorship in March 1835 and ruled for the next seventeen years with total and unlimited power. The House of Representatives remained a creature of the governor, whom it formally "elected." It consisted of forty-four deputies, half of whom were annually renewed by election. But only a small minority of the electorate participated, and it was the duty of the justices of the peace to deliver these votes to the regime. The Assembly, lacking legislative function and financial control, was largely an exercise in public relations for the benefit of foreign and domestic audiences.

Propaganda was an essential ingredient of rosismo, and conformity in dress, language, and behavior was imposed. The church rallied to the cause, supported the dictator, and extolled the federal system. But the ultimate sanction of the regime was force, controlled by Rosas and applied by the military and the police. The enemy within, conflict with other provinces and with foreign powers, and the obligation to support his allies in the interior caused Rosas to maintain a large defense budget, to recruit a large standing army, and to press the rural areas to increase their militias. One way or another, the people were forced to conform, at every level of society and in every aspect of life. There was a totalitarian character to the regime, untypical of contemporary Spanish America. The government of Rosas responded in some degree to conditions inherent in Argentine society. He offered an escape from anarchy and a promise of peace, on condition that he was granted total power.

To exercise his sovereignty, Rosas personally administered justice and kept the bureaucracy, the military, and the police under close control. Even so, there was resistance. Internally he faced an ideological opposition, partly from unitarists and partly from younger reformists; this came to a head in an abortive conspiracy in 1839 and continued to function throughout the regime from its base in Montevideo. A second focus of opposition formed among the landowners of the south; they were particularly hit by the French blockade which cut off their export outlets and for which they blamed Rosas. But their rebellion of 1839 did not synchronize with the political conspiracy, and they, too, were crushed. Finally, there was external opposition, partly from other provinces and partly from foreign powers. If the external opposition could link up with internal dissidents, Rosas would be in real danger.

Rosas therefore held in reserve another weapon, terror. He used it as an instrument of government, to eliminate enemies and control his own supporters. The special agent of terrorism was the Sociedad Popular Restauradora (Popular Society of the Restorer), a political club and a paramilitary organization. The Society had an armed wing, commonly called the mazorca, whose members were the terrorists on the streets. The incidence of terrorism varied according to the pressures on the regime, rising to a peak in 1839–1842, when French intervention, internal rebellion, and unitarist invasion threatened to destroy the Rosas state and produced violent countermeasures. The use of state terrorism was an essential and unique feature of the Rosas regime.


The system gave Rosas hegemony in Buenos Aires for over twenty years. But he could not apply the same strategy in the whole of Argentina. He did not govern "Argentina." The thirteen provinces governed themselves independently, though they were grouped in one general Confederation of the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata. Even without a constitution and formal union, however, the provinces were forced to delegate certain common matters to the government of Buenos Aires, partly to secure a broad base for economic and foreign policy and partly to acquire a national dimension for the regime. Rosas tamed the interior in the years between 1831 and 1841 by a mixture of diplomacy and coercion, establishing a series of client caudillos who recognized his informal sovereignty.

But Rosas could not impose these methods on the Littoral provinces, where economic grievances coincided with powerful foreign interests. These provinces wanted trading rights for the river ports of the Paraná and the Uruguay; they wanted a share in customs revenue; and they wanted local autonomy. With outside assistance they could become the Achilles' heel of Rosas. Brazil had its own account to settle with the dictator. Determined to prevent satellites of Buenos Aires from becoming entrenched in Uruguay and the Littoral, and anxious to secure free navigation of the river complex from Matto Grosso to the sea, Brazil was ready to move. An ally was at hand in Entre Ríos, where Justo José de Urquiza, a powerful estanciero and caudillo, placed himself at the head of provincial interests, liberal exiles, and Uruguayan patriots, in an alliance backed by enough Brazilian money and naval force to tip the balance against Rosas. The Triple Alliance of Entre Ríos, Brazil, and Montevideo went into action in May 1851.

In Buenos Aires itself enthusiasm for the regime waned. The economy was no longer dominated exclusively by Rosas's allies, the cattle estancieros, but now also contained sheep farms, whose owners were less militarized and less committed to the regime. Rosas had taxed and conscripted more than the estancieros could bear. And by his terrorist methods he had depoliticized Buenos Aires, destroying in the process whatever existed of "popular" support for the government. When the army of the Triple Alliance invaded, his troops fled and the people in the town and country did not rise in his support. On 3 February 1852, at Monte Caseros, he was defeated. He rode alone from the field of battle, took refuge in the house of the British minister, boarded a British vessel, and sailed for England and exile. He died in Southampton in 1877, in his eighty-fourth year.

See alsoArgentina: The Nineteenth Century; Argentina, Federalist Pacts (1831, 1852); Argentina, Movements: Federalists; Caudillismo, Caudillo; Estancia; Gaucho; Lavalle, Juan Galo.


Carlos Ibarguren, Juan Manuel de Rosas: Su vida, su drama, su tiempo (1961).

Ernesto H. Celesia, Rosas: Aportes para su historia, 2d ed., 2 vols. (1968).

Tulio Halperín Donghi, Argentina: De la revolución de independencia a la confederación rosista (1972).

John Lynch, Argentine Dictator: Juan Manuel de Rosas 1829–1852 (1981), and Caudillos in Spanish America 1800–1850 (1992).

Additional Bibliography

Adelman, Jeremy. Republic of Capital: Buenos Aires and the Legal Transformation of the Atlantic World. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Barba, Fernando E., Carlos A Mayo, and Carlos S A Segreti. Argentina y Chile en la época de Rosas y Portales. La Plata: Editorial de la Universidad Nacional de La Plata, 1997.

Gálvez, Manuel. Vida de Juan Manuel de Rosas. Buenos Aires: Claridad, 1997.

                                        John Lynch

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Rosas, Juan Manuel de (1793–1877)

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