“Politics in the Streets” examines a phase in the nineteenth-century political history of Buenos Aires when elections were keenly contested and people engaged in recurrent mass actions, demonstrations, or riots. By illustrating and examining such popular politics, Sabato modifies the established view of this period as an era of oligarchic domination in which elections served only for show and the popular voice was heavily repressed. The book contains the most original study of nineteenth-century elections in Buenos Aires, and of various popular movements led by the anticlerical outburst of 1875, that led to the destruction of the El Salvador seminary. Sabato’s broader objective is to examine the development of citizenship and what she calls the public sphere in Buenos Aires, using the press and political parties, as well as elections and popular actions. Her sources include a wide range of the newspapers of the era and the court records of the trials that followed incidents like the burning of the seminary. [End Page 365]
The book attempts to solve the riddle of why so few men voted in Buenos Aires when the franchise remained unrestricted and party competition (between the followers of Bartolomé Mitre and Adolfo Alsina) became so intense. The author lists possible contributory causes. Because men apparently voted as members of associations rather than as individuals, membership of the associations determined the size of the electorate. Political “machines” with limited resources dominated the electoral arena. Elections, which created representatives in such bodies as Congress rather than determined public policy, commanded little interest among most of the population. Such explanations supplement, rather than supersede, more traditional interpretations. Political leaders were willing to grant full citizens’ rights, including voting, to men registered in the militia. The same leaders remained fearful of high-level participation because, in their experience, it led to anarchy and then dictatorship. Sabato mentions, but could emphasize more strongly, that many members of the political elite held that the popular masses lacked sufficient “reason” to be allowed to engage freely in electoral politics.
Sabato’s study of the El Salvador incident, although the most complete to date, might have devoted more attention to anticlericalism in Buenos Aires in this period, possibly by exploring the linkages between the city and southern Europe, the main source of Buenos Aires’ growing immigrant population. She mentions the impact of the economic depression and rising unemployment on the riot, but might have made a fuller analysis. The burning of El Salvador occurred soon after the defeat of a rebellion led by Mitre; she might have considered the possibility of links between them. Taken as a whole, however, this book makes a highly original contribution to the political history of late nineteenth-century Latin America.