The Americas 59.1 (2002) 133-134
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The publication of Hilda Sábato's work marks an important milestone for several reasons. It has focused well-deserved international recognition on the exciting new political history that is being written in Argentina. At its January meeting, the American Historical Association conferred on the Spanish version the Clarence Haring Prize which is given to the Latin American who has published the most outstanding book on Latin American history in the past five years. Its English language publication helps mark an important new trend, publishing books that first appeared in Spanish. Although I have not compared them page by page, the two versions are extremely similar. There is more explanatory material about the excellent political cartoons in the English version, and in other places relatively minor changes have been made. Sábato has translated the book into excellent and readable English.
The last decade and a half have seen a revival of political history in Argentina, pushed in part by the role that political failure played in creating an opportunity for the horrific military regime that came to power in 1976. This is a new political history, combining politics with social, cultural, and intellectual history, and although extremely aware of international historiographical currents, it is clearly Argentine. Sábato has played a critical role in this movement and with the publication of this book, we can no longer see the politics of the 1860s and 1870s in the city of Buenos Aires in the same way. They are more complex and interesting. [End Page 133]
Sábato argues that a complex civil society was evolving in Buenos Aires, shaping politics but also creating spaces in which public opinion could resonate and have an impact outside of politics per se. She sees the activities in the public sphere as disassociated from voting and this disassociation as almost unique in the development of popular participation. A differentiation between politics and the civic culture resonates strongly now in the wake of Argentina's political collapse of late 2001 and early 2002 and the emergence of a seemingly reinvigorated civic culture that is anti-political.
After an introduction, the book is divided into three sections. The first begins by looking at the city of Buenos Aires in the 1860s and 1870s. This is followed by an examination of voluntary associations, such as mutual aid societies, and the active newspaper world.
The next section examines the nature of politics per se during a time when Buenos Aires was critical to national politics. Politics became a contest between two parties, Nacionalista (Mitrista) and Autonomista (Alsinista) with each capable of winning. Elections were frequently staged battles. The rank-and-file participants in these contests were from the lower classes, united by patronage and personal ties to leaders who were frequently professional politicians. While violence was part of the electoral process, it was also a ritual. Political interest and discussion permeated much of society, and suffrage was available to all male citizens, but few participated directly in politics. By 1880 the political situation had been completely transformed by the hegemony of a political party based in the provinces and depending on votes produced there. This eliminated contested elections but, as Paula Alonso has recently demonstrated, they reemerged in the 1890s.
The third section studies primarily the frequent rallies and demonstrations. These, whether held in theaters or the streets, became a ritualized way of expressing ideas, and political leaders did pay close attention. A key concept was the appeal to the unity of the nation and the people. Sábato pays particular attention to a demonstration against the transfer of a church to control by the Jesuits. This, unlike most, degenerated into violence and therefore we can learn a great deal about its nature. The expression of opinions in the public sphere was a key part of political life...