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The Americas 59.1 (2002) 33-63

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The Eastern Andean Frontier (Bolivia and Argentina) and Latin American Frontiers:
Comparative Contexts (19Th and 20Th Centuries)*

Erick D. Langer
School of Foreign Service
Georgetown University


The epic struggles between Mexicans and the Apaches and Comanches in the far northern reaches of the Spanish empire and the conflict between gauchos and Araucanians in the pampas in the far south are the images the mind conjures up when thinking of Latin American frontiers. We must now add for the twentieth century the dense Amazon jungle as one of the last frontiers in popular (and scholarly) minds. However, these images ignore the eastern Andean and Chaco frontier area1 one of the most vital and important frontier regions in Latin America since colonial times, today divided up into three different countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay) in the heart of the South American continent. This frontier region has not received sufficient attention from scholars despite its importance in at least three different aspects: First, the indigenous peoples were able to remain independent of the Creole states much longer than elsewhere other than the Amazon. Secondly, indigenous labor proved to be vitally important to the economic development along the fringes, and thirdly, a disastrous war was fought over the region in the 1930s by Bolivia and Paraguay. This essay provides an overview based on primary and secondary sources of the history of the eastern Andean frontier and compares it to other frontiers in Latin America. It thus endeavors to contribute to frontier studies by creating categories of analysis that make possible the comparisons between different frontiers [End Page 33] in Latin America and placing within the scholarly discussion the eastern Andean region during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The study of frontiers has entered into a new phase over the past decade. This has been possible in large part due to the reconceptualization of the frontiers away from a line between civilization and barbarism, most well known through Frederick Jackson Turner's classic essay on the United States frontier, to one in which frontiers are seen as places of interaction between different peoples and cultures.2 These interactions can be conceived as falling into three overlapping categories. One are the interactions developed on frontier missions, which include not only attempts at religious proselytization and culture change (that were not always successful), but also often implied demographic decline, the subordination of indigenous peoples to national state formations, and the reorientation of indigenous economies.3 Another type of interaction, often ignored but vital both to the Creole frontier economy as well as that of indigenous peoples, was economic. This type of interaction included the exchange of goods—in the Chaco, for example, Indians avidly acquired metal objects and weapons—but it also meant the use of indigenous labor on farms and plantations, and the introduction of livestock into the region. Both Creoles and indigenous peoples also used captives as workers and as items of exchange. Lastly, there were many military and diplomatic interactions. Although it appears that the Chilean case of a history of almost continuous parlamentos was the extreme in terms of diplomatic interaction, most frontier regions had frequent parleys between different ethnic groups and negotiations that sometimes led to peace treaties. This included not just the peace treaties between Creoles and Indians, but also among indigenous ethnic groups. Indeed, as many authors have pointed out, diplomatic interaction was an important component of frontier interactions.4 Beyond the frequent outbursts of violence, interactions among soldiers [End Page 34] in the frontier forts and on expeditions into unknown territory, also led to important interactions.

In this paper, I am arguing for a new basis for the examination of nineteenth-century frontiers throughout Latin America. I do this in two ways: first, through a new periodization of frontier history in the "long nineteenth century" and second, by using as a comparative focus the poorly known case of the eastern Andean frontier. They include a reevaluation of power relations as well as...


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