December 6, 2007

Political Climate

“There slowly emerges a certain unity of political feeling between the metropolis and the rest of the Republic; the multitude that is formed in the capital will have traces of national traits. For it is in this center of Argentina’s circulatory system that blood is refreshed and later sent out to the most humble of the nation’s capillaries.”

-José María Ramos Mejía, “The Modern Crowd”
(translated by Patricia Owen Steiner)

The remarkable social and demographical changes occurring in Buenos Aires due to the mass influx of European immigrants inevitably led to profound political changes at the turn of the 20th century. The identity of the nation was changing as the faces of its citizens became increasingly diverse, leading many intellectuals contemplating what this meant for the future of the Argentine identity. Ideologies emigrated from Europe along with its people, changing Argentine politics indefinitely.

During the 19th century under the influence of Romanticism, Argentine intellectuals attempted to define the strengths and weaknesses of the Argentine character and to devise methods of using immigration to balance the extremes. In their view, the optimal way to advance the nation was to attract Northern European immigrants, who they saw as having the most desirable traits. After 1880, however, the immigration wave crested, washing unprecedented numbers of foreigners, mostly from southern Europe, onto the shores of Buenos Aires.

At this time, Argentine politics were under the control of the oligarchy, a highly educated and progressive elite. For this privileged few, modernization would be achieved through urbanization and public education. Under the principles of the emerging positivist theory, they sought to guide Argentina based on their ideas of national progress rather than on individual wellbeing. Their rule, which lasted until 1916, was secured through political fraud and intimidation tactics carried out by the Autonomous National Party (PAN) and the figure of Julio Roca.

Roca, a positivist leader, ran his government on the idea that political policies could be developed through experimentation and observation. For the positivists, society functioned like a living organism, with the needs of the whole always taking precedence over the needs of the individual. Order and progress were to be maintained above all, even civil rights. During this time, however, Argentina was developing into an economic and political powerhouse, on the verge of becoming one of the great world powers.

Oligarchical rule proved unable to withstand the intense social changes occurring in the 20th century. The increasing number of immigrants led not only to widespread social issues but also to the development of a large middle class. This emerging social sector began to become increasingly dissatisfied with their exclusion from political participation and the blatant fraud occurring under the PAN. A new political party touting social progress and institutional honesty began to form under the young idealist Hipolito Yrigoyen. The Union Civica Radical (UCR) began to develop in the 1890s and by 1910 had grown considerably in influence.

Under their increasing pressure, Congress passed the Saenz Peña Law, ending corrupt voting systems by making voting mandatory (for male citizens) and secret. This law guided the UCR to victory in 1916 with the election of Yrigoyen as the first president chosen by the masses. Under his direction, social reforms and a universal public education system began to take shape. The creation of a uniform curriculum allowed for the dissemination of a shared cultural identity among the diverse population of the capital, thus strengthening the emerging Argentine identity.

Still, Yrigoyen was bound to the landowning elite, who controlled the valuable agricultural exports. The working class, which still found itself facing considerable social ills, began to unite under the ideas of anarchism, socialism, and syndicalism, creating the trade unions which would become powerful political players in the decades to come. Their radical ideas created fear among the conservative elite, igniting a xenophobia not previously witnessed in Buenos Aires. The social unrest of the working class began to activate them not only politically, but culturally, producing some of the most important artistic developments of the city: The tango and Lunfardo.