Juan Manuel de Rosas

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Juan Manuel de Rosas

Juan Manuel de Rosas (1793-1877) was an Argentine dictator. He was the prototype of the caudillo dictators of South America and ruled supreme in the Argentine Confederation from 1829 to 1852.

Juan Manuel de Rosas was born in Buenos Aires on March 30, 1793, and claimed descent from a noble Asturian family through Count Ortiz de Rosas. The first of his parents' 20 children, he detested school and spent most of his childhood on the family estancias, where he became one of the best horsemen in the Argentine and later excelled in all of the techniques of the gaucho frontiersman. His mediocre education led to his personal animosity toward his more highly educated contemporaries.

Rosas commenced his long military career at 15, when he volunteered in the Buenos Aires forces to combat the second English invasion of his homeland. This experience led him to mistrust the motives of any European powers dealing with his government.

He married Encarnación de Escurra despite the objection of his mother at a time when marriages were usually arranged by the parents. Under Juan Martin de Pueyrredon, he organized a cavalry troop to fight against the Indians and welded his men into a disciplined army completely subservient to his orders. He soon entered the power struggle between the urban commercial leaders of Buenos Aires (theportenos) and the landed aristocracy of the interior provinces on the side of the latter. When Rosas was victorious in battle, he seized control of the Buenos Aires government in 1829.

Supreme Dictator

At first Rosas was just a senior partner of the federalist leaders of the other provinces, but as these were overcome or liquidated, he became almost supreme in the Argentine. He then became the prototype of more recent 20th-century dictators. He destroyed the liberty of the press, dissolved Congress, organized a secret police (the Mazorca Club), and inaugurated a reign of terror which lasted until his final overthrow in 1852. He was a natural leader and a master of efficiency and ran the government like a well-organized estancia or a well-disciplined army.

Near the close of his first term Rosas turned over his office to Juan Ramón Balcarce and led an expedition to fight the Indians to the south. He was visited at his bivouac by Charles Darwin, who gives a flattering account of Rosas at this time. The campaign allowed Rosas to train and maintain a large armed force under his personal command.

Foreign Wars

During his absence, his wife and his former tutor, Dr. Maza, held the real reins of the government. Rosas resumed control of the government upon his return and became embroiled in constant warfare. In 1837 he was involved in a war with Andrés Santa Cruz of Bolivia. Victorious in this costly encounter, he was faced with the necessity of defending his government against an uprising by the portenos, under Juan Lavalle and aided by the French, who blockaded Buenos Aires. The French soon pulled out, and Rosas was once more victorious. When the defeated invaders took refuge in Uruguay, Rosas intervened in the political turmoil in that country and was drawn into a siege of Montevideo which lasted for 9 years. Britain and France intervened jointly, and once again the ports of the Argentine were blockaded. The Europeans were forced to give up their blockade, but Rosas was forced to withdraw from the Uruguayan venture.

Ouster and Exile

The blockade had curtailed commerce and caused a loss of customs revenues from which the Rosas government never recovered. The other provinces had been equally hurt, and Justo José Urquiza, governor of Entre-Ríos and a former Rosas lieutenant, turned against him and, in 1852, at the battle of Caseros, Rosas was overthrown and fled to England aboard the British ship Locust. He never returned to his native land and died in England in relative obscurity.

The new government tried Rosas in absentia and found him guilty of tyranny, violating natural law, and endangering the republic to satisfy his personal ambition. His immense fortune, consisting of lands and cattle, was confiscated, and most of his personal records were destroyed. Until the Juan Perón era no man's memory was more uniformly hated in Argentina, and to this day there are no monuments to his memory in his native land. Yet Rosas was the man who had done the most to keep Latin America free of European domination. Urquiza, who overthrew him, provided him with the necessary funds to enable him to sustain himself during his exile.

Rosas' life had been a series of contradictions. He had come to power as a federalist and had then centered the government in Buenos Aires and the power in his own hands. Lacking in imagination, he alienated all of the intelligentsia and instituted a reign of terror and bloodshed. Yet throughout, his love of country was unquestioned, and he served it in the only way he knew.

Further Reading

Rosas was hated by all contemporary Argentine intellectuals, most of whom he had exiled. The outstanding example of such vituperation is D. F. Sarmiento, Life in the Argentine Republic in the Days of the Tyrants: or, Civilization and Barbarism (trans. 1868). An extensive biography is "Juan Manuel de Rosas, Greatest of Argentine Dictators" in George Washington University, Seminar Conference on Hispanic American Affairs, South American Dictators during the First Century of Independence, edited by A. Curtis Wilgus (1937). An excellent volume on the economic aspects of the Rosas administration is in Miron Burgin, Economic Aspects of Argentine Federalism (1946). □

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