- Jardines secretos, legitimaciones públicas. El Partido Autonomista Nacional y la política argentina de fines del siglo XIX by Paula Alonso
“Secret Gardens,” taking its title from a term derived from an American study of party political selection practices, is a well-written major work on the politics of Argentina between the late 1870s and the early 1890s. Commonly referred to as the era of oligarchy, the period is dominated by J ulio A. Roca and Miguel Juárez Celman, brothers-in-law who served as president in 1880–1886 and in 1886–1890. Alonso’s book addresses the birth, consolidation, and subsequent refashioning of the oligarchy, a term she disparages as misleading and simplistic. The author devotes her book to a span of roughly 14 years of political history but omits the rebellions of 1880 and 1890 in Buenos Aires and nearly all discussion of the economic context dominated by the Baring Crisis of the early Nineties. Alonso has unmatched expertise in the Roca and Juárez Celman correspondence, two of the most notable documentary collections in the Archivo General de la Nación in Buenos Aires, and an impressive knowledge of the political press of the time, which consisted of a half dozen leading newspapers. In focusing on the interactions among political leaders as revealed by their personal correspondence, the present study is a far superior version of Agustín Rivero Astengo’s Juárez Celman, 1844−1909, published in 1944. [End Page 759]
The author questions use of the term ‘oligarchy’ because it connotes a high degree of political centralization, hierarchy, and almost unrestricted presidential power. She views the lower political orders in the provinces, principally the governors, as far more significant and powerful figures than has been hitherto acknowledged. Rather than a disciplined hierarchy, she perceives a polity of competitive loose coalitions or ligas based on exchanges between leaders and base. Alonso rejects land ownership as a foundation of political power but offers no alternative. Her book mentions trafficking and political horse-trading in the provinces for credits or offices, but never pursues the avenues leading temptingly toward an analysis of patronage and clientage. As a result, it remains unclear what leaders and base were negotiating about, beyond the quest for or allocation of offices. Alonso’s study lists the dramatis personae of the local struggles, but leaves her reader still wondering what they were fighting about. Surely, the pursuit of offices provided access to central credits and subsidies to be used principally to consolidate rural businesses and landed estates. The book abstracts politics from its social and economic context and thus provides little understanding of the internal mechanics of local political intercourse.
As Alonso shows, Roca and Juárez Celman represented different leadership styles. The former operated as an intrusive micro-manager; the latter practiced hands-off methods that afforded provincial leaders free rein in return for political conformity. The distinction is important, but its implications might have been more fully explored, particularly as a contributory factor in the economic crisis of 1890. In Juárez Celman, we encounter a precursor of the twentieth-century populist. He rewarded the provincial landed classes—through inflationary financing, for example—in ways comparable with the methods that later populists like Hipólito Irigoyen and Juan Perón employed to cater to their middle-and working-class clienteles.
Despite this work’s impressive scholarship, it contains other omissions. Alonso does not assess the relative political standing of the provinces and cannot therefore link conditions in the 1880s with the extreme regionalism of previous decades. Above all, the book requires more discussion of the province of Buenos Aires. For example, the author views the short-lived modernista faction of 1891 as something new in Argentine politics. I suspect that a closer look at Buenos Aires might have revealed strong connections between modernismo and the old Partido Autonomista of circa 1850–1880, thus pointing to lingering regional strains after the military defeat of Buenos Aires in...