Analysis – Argentine Caudillo: Juan Manuel de Rosas

Juan Manuel de RosasJohn Lynch, Argentine Caudillo: Juan Manuel de Rosas, (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2001).

In the study of early South American governance, author and historian John Lynch focuses on the emergence of a governed society in Argentina driven by the influence of Juan Manuel de Rosas.  Lynch chronicles the lifespan of Rosas beginning with the childhood influence of his mother.  The author then transitions to Rosas the private businessman.  These accounts are followed by details on his rise in prominence throughout the gaucho society, including his eventual rise to power as head of the Argentine state.  Lynch then pivots to a descriptive accounting of the style and manner of rule throughout Rosas’ career.  The chronology concludes with a brief accounting of his removal and exile.

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In general, the book is a good starting point for the study of Juan Manuel de Rosas and the early history of Argentine national formation. Lynch concludes that Rosas’ early private life and ideology directly shaped the organization of Argentina under his rule.  Lynch provides data from government records, accounts from various people and limited accounts directly from Rosas.  To this end, he does make a convincing argument in comparing the structure of the estancias under Rosas to that of the early Argentine state.  On the estancias, Rosas is a singular figure, the patron to whom all others answer.  Lynch argues that he also strives to give the appearance of a populist who is one of the people.  “I had to work at it relentlessly, sacrificing my comfort and fortune, in order to become a gaucho like them, to speak like them, to do everything they did.” (Lynch, 45)  These observations are also characteristic of the government created in Buenos Aires. According to Lynch, Rosas uses propaganda, imagery and cult manipulation to make him the populist patron of the entire country in the eyes of citizens. Lynch also argues that, like the estancia, “all policy decisions and most executive ones were made by Rosas.” (Lynch, 86)

However, upon closer inspection, the book also shows bias in key areas.  First, the use of ‘caudillo’ in the title of the book biases the reader’s opinion of Rosas from the start.  We immediately draw upon our modern perceptions of ‘dictator’ before the first page is read.  It predetermines the context of the content.  Could it also have predetermined the types of evidence used by Lynch in writing the book to fit the title?  Evidence provided portrays a self-made man who could easily be an ideal model for political theorists such as Machiavelli and Hobbes.  Lynch even draws directly on this by aptly titling one of his chapters Leviathan, after the work of the same name by Hobbes. (Lynch, 75)  Yet in doing so, Lynch’s references to Hobbes and terror may actually incite a biased impression of Rosas when reading the book.

To that end, Lynch fails to provide enough documented quotes directly from Rosas.  He mentions that Rosas was constantly writing letters, papers or giving his signature to orders. (Lynch, 125)  Where are they in the book?  Other than a few direct quotes, most accounts are secondhand from those with limited contact, or from exiles and opponents.  In the study of central figures in history, it is crucially important to know the personality of the subject and those directly close to them.  It is often their unique personality and perspective that shapes their goals and actions.  More direct accounts from Rosas, his daughter Manuelita and his close advisors (such as Arana and Anchorena) would have been invaluable to that end.

Third, Lynch’s use of secondhand evidence often creates a contradictory picture of Rosas’ personality.  Charles Darwin, a source used often by Lynch, claims Rosas is a “man of extraordinary character”. (Lynch, 28)  In a subsequent chapter entitled The Cult of Rosas, Lynch uses undefined sources (“more than one English visitor”) who state that Rosas’ “manners are courteous”, his “tone is pleasant” and his “memory is stupendous”. (Lynch, 86)  British official Robert Gore is also quoted by Lynch praising Rosas: “I have no doubt in my own mind that should General Rosas triumph he will pursue in a short time a very different system, and one which will develop the great riches of this magnificent country, ensure the rigid execution of the law and advance by education and otherwise, civilization and industry.” (Lynch, 127).

In contrast, Lynch gives us a chapter entitled The Terror.  In fact, the word ‘terror’ (and its variations) is used 97 times within this one chapter.  Is this also another problem of bias with the book?  Keep in mind an old saying – “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”.  Did the public view the mazorca as a terrorist squad or a group of patriots routing out traitors?  Did members of the group view themselves as terrorists or patriots?  Lynch attempts to argue that it was a terrorist mob squad at the direction of Rosas.  Again, Lynch uses secondhand evidence from Arana and Cuitino as proof that Rosas called the shots. (Lynch, 118-119)  Do we take these accounts as fact, or were these men simply covering their own tracks?  The evidence is not definitive.

So which is it?  Is Rosas a reluctant leader of extraordinary character that Argentina needed to bring order to chaos?  Or is he a selfish dictator of dastardly terrorism and violent indifference?  Unfortunately Lynch, like the rest of us, is on the outside looking in (and looking back).  Bias exists and it begins with the title.  It continues with the lack of firsthand accounts from Rosas himself.  This is further exacerbated by Lynch’s dependency on secondhand accounts that conveniently speak to the title of the book.  Argentine Caudillo gives an adequate, general accounting of facts and figures surrounding the Rosas years.  It is a beginning.  But does Rosas fit neatly into the dictatorial box which Lynch creates?  Perhaps an in-depth look into Rosas documents and personal writings would reveal that he does.  Yet the evidence presented in Argentine Caudillo leads only to biased generalizations about his personality and, consequently, leaves us wondering just how the mind of Rosas really worked.


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