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Latin American Independence: Politics & Government (revised)

© 2001 Donald J. Mabry


  1. Contest between monarchialism and republicanism.
  2. Centralism versus federalism.
  3. Argument between oligarchical and democratic.
  4. Effect of regionalism and nationalism on politics.

Gran Colombia

    Usually spoken of as Gran Colombia. Consisted of three parts: Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador.

        The 1810 cabildo abierto in Caracas ousted the captain-general and created a junta to rule for Ferdinand VII. This junta encouraged the formation of other juntas in Venezuela. In March, 1811 a congress recently elected declared independence. Spain sent troops to put down the rebellion, an effort aided by the March,  1812 Caracas earthquake which the royalists declared was the wrath of God because of the rebellion. Bolívar brought an army back into Venezuela in late 1812 and fought to bloody victories. He declared a "war to the death" and ordered his troops to shoot all Spanish prisoners. He moved his battle into neighboring Colombia. By 1814, he was dictator of the second Venezuelan republic. Spanish troops under Pablo Morillo  appeared to have broken the back of creole resistance by 1816. Bolívar fled to the Caribbean but returned late that year. The fighting continued. He tried to find a political instrument that would gain support for the independence movement and he modified it through necessity and from experience.

        In 1819, from the Angostura Conference came the pronouncement of Bolívar's Gran Colombia system. This system was promoted again at Cúcuta in 1821. Presented a constitution which centralized power in Bogotá. Established a bicameral congress. Bolívar, a Venezuelan, was named president and a Colombian, Francisco Santander was named Vice President in an attempt to reduce or eliminate regional rivalry. There was a contest for several years between Santander and Bolívar. The government was established in Bogotá.

    Bolívar in Ecuador. Working in Peru and Bolivia. For a while, he tried to unify on Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia but this union covered too much territory and communication was very poor and the élites of the respective countries didn't think they had anything in common. Bolívar's absence from Bogota was a problem. Couldn't head off problems. In 1826, he went back to Bogotá.

    There was a tremendous amount of fighting about taxes. Governments were terribly inefficient and corrupt, which made the issue of taxes even more difficult to resolve.

    Venezuela begin to pull out of this loose federation under Páez. Bolívar tried to stop but failed. Bolívar set up a dictatorship at Ocana (1828). There were too many objections to this kind of system, this giant confederation.

    Bolívar progressively became more conservative and disillusioned. He commented that he had been trying to "plow the sea." Although he was very pessimistic, he tried to accomplish things that no one could have accomplished. He was a man of tremendous vision.

    Came to understand that Spanish America had to be governed on an oligarchic basis because of the nature of society. Bolívar's experience in some way was typical of what happened to young creoles who went into the independence movement idealistic about government and came out disillusioned. Bolívar thought that monarchy wouldn't work given the social and political conditions and ideas of the early 19th century. He believed in natural aristocracy although he would include more people than the aristocracy of the colonial period.

    Bolívar wrote the Constitución Vitálicia for Bolivia and became its president. His subordinate, General Antonio Sucre,had named the country for Bolívar after conquering from the Spanish, served as the first elected president. Bolivians didn't like this constitution or Bolívar or Sucre and forced Sucre's resignation.

    Position of Church in relation to government

    Clergy lost some of its political power from the independence movements but retained enough for the Church-State conflicts of the 19th century. Bolívar was a Deist. He thought the Church would lose more power than it did. Anarchy was one of the things that Bolívar came to hate the most.

    The US constitution was Bolívar's greatest political enemy. Before he finished, he disliked disliked federalism.  In his 1812 pamphlet  "To the Citizens of New Granada from a Citizen of Caracas," he argued that what weakened the Venezuela government the most was federalism. Said it reduced the nation to anarchy.

La Plata

In 1806, a British army from South Africa invaded Buenos Aires. In 1810, the vecinos of Buenos Aires created a junta. Governed their own affairs from that time onwards. This was really the start of independence in the Viceroyalty of La Plata. In 1816, independence was declared.

Kinds of controversy over government

    The first source on controversy was the rivalry between the port of Buenos Aires and the surrounding countryside. There was forty years of rivalry before it was brought under control. At the heart of this rivalry was, first, the normal human interest in desire to run one's own affairs and, second, disagreements about economic policy. The port of Buenos Aires wanted free trade in international commerce whereas the provinces didn't. The provinces sold some manufactured goods (such as textiles and whine) Buenos Aires. Free trade would destroy this trade because they could not compete against imported goods from Europe.

    The second was between the oligarchy and those who wanted a broader base in government. Caused civil war but a considerable amount of oligarchic opinion tended to predominate.The upper classes did lose titles of nobility, slavery, and entail but they retained a great deal.

     Mariano Moreno, a creole,  was an important  figure. He argued that sovereignty resides essentially in the people and had returned to the people because of inadequate representation in resistance governments.  Moreno gave intellectual justification to the independence movement.

    The history of nationalism was important for it tells us about the colonial period.   There was nationalism when people began calling themselves Americans. Many would say "Spain is lost; let us save ourselves."

    Not many people were involved in the independence movement. In 1810, the  whole viceroyalty may have had fewer than a million people. Buenos Aires had about 45,000 people of whom one third were blacks.  By the census of 1869, Argentina still only had 1.8 million people. Limited what one could do. For the first forty years, Buenos Aires was the nation.

    Creoles had a tremendous amount of information about what was going on in the the Western world. There were lots of copies of the US constitution of 1787 in Buenos Aires in the independence period.

    There were a great many different governments between 1810 and the 1820s. None worked very well in the sense that they were able to maintain public order and stimulate the economy. The government of Juan Manual Rosas (1829-1852) did these things.

    Differences opinions and interests, communication difficulties meant problems couldn't be solved.

    Buenos Aires wanted to include Paraguay but Buenos Aires armies were defeated by royalists and later by Paraguayans. Paraguay was a backwater and had been throughout the colonial period. It contained between 100,000 and 200,000 people. Only two natives of the area had had any education  outside of the province.  The intellectual changes of life in the colonial period hadn't touched Paraguay.

    Dr. José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia de López (E1 Supremo) ruled the country until 1841; he was followed by Carlos A.  López (1841-1862); and the Francisco Solano López  (son of Carlos) ruled from 1862 until 1870. These dictators benefited from Paraguayans preferred isolation, having an intense love of their own area and a distaste for everything outside. Francia, an intelligent, educated, and tough man understood that, to protect Paraguay was to isolate it. If Paraguay dealt with the outside world, it would have to make concessions. Francia had the urge to run things and he wasn't willing to make any concessions. What kind of control does one need in a place like this? Francia had an army of 6,000 men. He wasn't using force, primarily, to maintain control.

Banda Oriental

    Couldn't have had much experience in government until 1828 because before that it was an area contested by Argentina, Brazil, foreigners, and dissident Uruguayans. It suffered a tremendous amount of military activity.


    It knew a great deal of internecine warfare. Chileans were the first to clearly come out of the initial period of troubles and to establish a viable republic. What Chilenos did could have been done elsewhere. Because of achieving political stability early, it managed a great leap forward in economic development and improvements in social conditions.

From 1808 to 1811, there were various juntas. Chilean creoles objected to the American representation in the Cortés. In 1810-1811, a radical faction demanded all kinds of changes such as secular cemeteries, a constitution, and the extension of public education. José Miguel de Carrera called in 1811 for representative government with no class basis. Radical. Carrera was dictator between 1811 and 1813. His family were rivals of the Bernardo O'Higgins family for political power. In 1813, radical Chileans offered a new plan for primary education. Immediately, there were people advocating measures which conservatives considered radical. These way out measures (such a free public education) encouraged factionalism. The radicals were usually the minority. Bernardo O'Higgins, who was the great Chilean leader of independence, was driven out of politics for trying to push radical measures too hard.

    A royalist army from Lima defeated the initial government and O'Higgins and Carrera fled to San Martin across the Andes. The combined Chilean-Argentine army came back across the Andes in 1818 and defeated the Spanish at the Battle of Maipú.

    O'Higgins became the dictatorial president When he issued decrees attacking he Church and the property, he was thrown out. Chile continued having governmental instability under Diego Portales in 1830-31.

You can read about other topics in colonial Latin American history by buying and reading
Colonial Latin America by Don Mabry.

Click on the book cover or the title to go to Llumina Press.