South America Today - Argentine Politics
( Originally Published 1911 )
WRITING about a country, with no dogmatic intention, but drawing at haphazard from memory impressions received, has this advantage, that instead of setting down general theories that are always open to argument, certain living traits may be seized upon which, by the very fact that they are open to more than one interpretation, demand the constant collaboration of writer and reader. The method—if one may apply so big a word to so small a result—gives me an opportunity of making a few observations about the organisation and working of the Argentine Government.
It seemed quite natural to the intellectuals of a democratic Republic that a democrat should come out to talk to them about democracy, to discuss the serious problems it presents and the solutions that time is more or less rapidly working out for them. Nevertheless, it is not with-out some legitimate trepidation that one faces a public completely unknown, proud probably of its achievements, ardently hopeful certainly for the future, and inclined, no doubt, thanks to the very sincerity of its labours, to be carried away by an excess of jealous susceptibility. I was quickly reassured. The consciousness of a great work accomplished, a keen appreciation of the finely organised effort whose astounding results are revealed anew each day, give to the Argentine people too just a confidence in the value of their activity for them to see more in any courteous criticism than a good opportunity of improving on their past—on condition, naturally, that the criticism appear to be well founded. The critic is thus disarmed, and lets fall his weapons for fear lest a shaft intended only to graze the skin should penetrate deeper and inspire a weakening doubt in the mind of men who are engaged, body and soul, in a tremendous struggle after social progress.
In matters of government the Argentinos are neither better nor worse off than any people of Europe where freedom of speech has begun its work. But, notwithstanding the astonishing rapidity of assimilation that distinguishes this land, there is as yet too little homogeneity in the masses for the possibility of any influence from below on the problems of the day, apart, of course, from matters that make appeal to patriotism, which inevitably provoke unanimity. There are many other countries of which, in spite of appearances to the contrary, the same might be said.
Here, as elsewhere, politicians, who are the more or less official mouthpieces of that vague concourse of general opinions which we call the mind of the public, may very easily mistake the ephemeral demands of a party for the permanent interest of the country.
A point to be noticed is that faction fights, which have for so long brought bloodshed into the cities and villages of South America, are now disappearing. It is scarcely possible, none the less, for all traces of violence to depart, leaving no reminder of movements which have made of political changes one long series of hysterics. Autocracy and sudden upheavals are inseparable. This is the lesson that the races of the Iberian Peninsula have best learnt from their governors. In Brazil, where an admirable economic movement goes hand in hand with a remarkable development of orderly progress and civic peace, recent events have shown what fires are smouldering beneath the molten streams of a dying volcano. It is to be hoped that our friends will not be found lacking either in the patience or the courage necessary to impose on the public a salutary respect for law ! In Uruguay, a land of Latin amiability, the rage of revolution has frequently broken out; and if, to all appearances, there is calm to-day, Whites and Reds still exhibit mutual hostility without troubling to find reasons that might explain, if not justify, recourse to arms. The Argentinos appear farther removed from the danger of revolutionary shocks. " Wealth has quieted us," said a politician. This is no new thing. All activities profit by undisturbed work and lose by deeds of violence. Lucrative labour and the fear of losing what has been acquired go to make up a fund of prudence.
But while, happily, in the Argentine there is no present menace of revolution, I cannot deny that in the provinces I often heard rumours of it. Insurrection seemed imminent. Precautions were taken to protect arsenals. And when I inquired the reason for such a movement, I was invariably told that no one knew, but that no doubt there were malcontents. One need not go as far as the Argentine to seek for them. As all these alarms ended in nothing, I must put them down as a verbal echo of a vanished epoch. I can but admire the profound peace that has succeeded to the fury of the past, for the Argentino who, in revolution, exposed his person so light-heartedly did not fear to take the life of his enemy.
But can it be affirmed that in no department of the Administration there has survived some trace of the cavalier methods of former days? Is it true that some officials do as they like with the people committed to their charge, and inflict treatment that is passively borne for the moment, but may lead to terrible reprisals later? It was often stated in my hearing, but I could never obtain any proof. I shall not make my-self the echo of slanders and calumny, which, in all lands, are the weapons used by public men against each other. I will only take the liberty of reminding my Argentine friends that one never need fear excess on the side of a watchful control over Government offices.
M. Thiébaud, the Minister of France, presented me to M. Figueroa Alcorta, the President of the Republica He gave me the most cordially courteous of receptions, prompted, of course, by the respect and friendship that Argentine statesmen have for France. The President's first words were an inquiry as to whether I was as comfortable at the Palace Hotel as at the Hotel du Mouton, in Chantonnay (Vendee). This showed me that the President of the Argentine Republic was a reader of the Illustration, for a photograph of that more than modest establishment was recently published in the columns of the review on the occasion of an expedition I made to my native country, when I put up at the little inn. I assured him that the resources of Buenos Aires were infinitely superior, and from this we wandered off into a very interesting talk about our two countries.
M. Figueroa Alcorta was Vice-President of the Republic when the death of President Quintana called him to the supreme magistratere. I fancied that a good many people found it hard to forgive him this unlooked-for good fortune. Some journalists thought it funny to create for him the reputation of a " Jettatore," an inexhaustible subject for spiteful tales in the Opposition sheets. They say the story has not been without influence on the feminine world, specially prone to superstition. M. Figueroa Alcorta appears to bear the misfortune with calm courage. He talks of the Argentine with a modesty that does not exclude a just pride, and for France he had only sympathetic admiration. Let me say also that President Saënz Pena, whom I twice saw in Buenos Aires, is a devoted friend to France and French culture. It is my duty to add that M. Saënz Pena's attention has been called to certain lapses in the administration, and he is firmly resolved to put an end to them.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs, M. de la Plaza, has, since my journey, become Vice-President of the Republic. He is rather heavy and cold in appearance—with the silent gravity of the cacique, it is said—but he is a man of profound culture and keen mind, and it is not impossible that his taciturnity and slowness of speech are merely diplomatic. He enjoys the reputation of being a thorough Anglomaniac, but this, fortunately, does not preclude him from being also a Francophil.
I must mention the Minister of Public Works, M. Ramos Alexia, who was continued in his important office by President Saënz Pena when the Cabinet was new-formed. In a country where great public works are constantly being under-taken, an upright mind and an iron will, united to a spotless reputation, are all needed to resist the overtures of the large European firms that are clamouring for contracts. A vast field for quarrels, more or less veiled personal attacks, and unending recriminations. I do not want to recriminate myself, or, indeed, to touch on any delicate questions; yet I must regret the preference that has been shown for Krupp cannon, when innumerable experiments have demonstrated the infinite superiority of French guns.
I have already pointed out that England, by our wilful negligence, managed to obtain the right of building practically the whole of the railway system. She has done the work to the satisfaction of the public, and the same may be said of the way Germany has installed the electric systems. France triumphs in the ports of Rosario, Montevideo, Pernambuco, Bahia-Blanca, and Rio Grande do Sul. That is all I can say, for at the moment there exists the keenest European competition in the harbour works of Mar del Plata and Buenos Aires. Some complain that Ramos Mexia has been too favourable to England. He is, however, first and foremost an Argentino, and he uses his right to take the best from each country.
If there has been in the past some little friction, I fancy it is now over; it hardly could be otherwise, for M. Ramos Mexia is a warm admirer of French culture, and as well acquainted with our classics as our contemporaries, beside being a regular attendant at the lectures at the Sorbonne and College de France whenever he is able to take a little recreation in Paris. Need I add that Mme. Ramos Mexia is the most French of all the Argentinos whom I met—French in the graciousness of her welcome and French in charm of conversation.
We know that in the Argentine (and perhaps in all South American republics, with the exception of Chili) Ministers are not responsible to Parliament. In Chili, Parliamentary coalitions amuse themselves by knocking over Ministers like ninepins. In the Argentine it is the rule—to which there are exceptions—for Ministers to follow the President, whose agents they are, having the sole function of obtaining from the Chambers the funds required to carry on the administration. Before I weigh up the ad-vantages and disadvantages of this system, which was imported ready-made by South America from the north, let me record the surprise I felt when I discovered that, notwithstanding the absurd stories told of the lack of measure in " hot countries," a South American assembly could give a lesson in dignity to more than one European Parliament. In England, as we know, measures have been taken to prevent personal questions from being introduced into de-bates, where the interests of the public alone occupy members' attention. Here the chivalrous temperament of Castile suffices as a guarantee against excesses of language or abuses at the hands of the majority. For instance, in some cases a speaker is granted only ten minutes in which to give the merest sketch of his Bill. If the orator be a member of the minority, how-ever, Speaker and Chamber make it a point of honour to let him take as long as he likes. If he goes too far the rule is applied; but this, I was assured, never happens. Finally, " it is our constant rule," said a member well qualified to make the statement, " not to let slip allusions in the course of a debate that might hurt the feelings of a colleague. This requires no effort. It is just a habit one can acquire." May the " habit " be shortly acquired in all lands !
Now that the tide of free civilisation is setting towards a dissolution of all autocratic Powers, from Russia to Persia, and even to China, instituting the parliamentary system which we have come to regard as the best instrument for controlling and liberating the democracy, it is a remarkable fact that, in practice, Parliament is much criticised, more particularly in countries where it was only obtained after long and painful struggles. The reason, to my mind, must be sought in the unpardonable waste of time in debates, where free rein is given to a puerile love of theatrical display. In the absence of any salutary check on the humours of orators, too little attention is given to bringing the discussions to a practical conclusion. A good reformer should be able first to reform himself.
It is less the Parliament than the executive that attracts the European observer of American institutions. This is because Parliament is dominated by the executive, instead of being itself the dominating power. The South American republics hastened to copy the Constitution of the United States of the North, which is the original creation of the revolution of 1776, and adapted, in a marvellous degree, to the needs, idea, and sentiment of the country. Adopting s text, if not its spirit, the South Americans fell into the same error as Europe has done in copying the English Constitution in the letter, but not in the spirit and sense given to it by the people whom it justly claims to express.
Without entering on a discussion that would lead me too far, I could not refrain from remarking that in actual working the North American institutions have become distorted in South America, a change rendered inevitable by the different level of public education and the geographical distribution of the population. It was in the nature of things that the earliest civilisation should partake of the constitution of states or provinces destined later to form a federation, but as long as the Motherland imported the sovereign authority from outside, the struggles between a budding liberty and an unchecked autocracy were unceasing. Once self-government had been proclaimed, it became obligatory to constitute such elements of public life as should make its exercise possible. Now, for this, it is not enough to draw up a code of principles. We cannot, then, be surprised if the South American races, fondly attached to their own institutions, which maintain the principle of an autonomy of federated States and provide for their idealism a verbal satisfaction, inestimable, as they think, are yet (just like other nations now undergoing democratic evolution) far enough from an adequate realisation of their idea. We can scarcely expect any concerted political action from men (often of foreign birth) who are scattered all across the Pampas and separated by enormous distances. And, as regards the cities, great or small, a political elite will more easily organise itself—especially where an absence of public opinion facilitates the abuse of power—than will the " sovereign people " be brought to exercise their sovereignty (and this we see even in Europe).
Hence the evils often made public, which are but striking examples of what we see elsewhere; notably, the indifference of the electoral body, evidenced by the contemptibly small number of voters who answer the summons to the ballot—and of these few some have been brought thither by who knows what means ! To this public apathy must be added the abstention of the middle classes, always difficult to incite to a common political action, who thus leave a wider field than is desirable to the machinations of the professional politician, with his methods, direct or indirect, of bringing pressure upon the elector.
I have no hesitation in speaking of the evil. But at the same time I must point out that if the mind of the public—such as the intellectual elite of the nation have made it—experiences some difficulty in getting used to the slow methods of organised political action, the independent spirit and personal dignity of the citizens are so strong 1 that a force of public opinion is gradually evolving which, in spite of some backsliding, will soon be powerful enough to impose its decisions on the world of political intrigue. For instance, it is frequently said that the President of the Republic does, in effect, nominate his successor by reason of his authority with the State Legislature, and there is a grain of truth in the assertion. Yet if it were strictly true, the same party would remain in perpetuity in power, and this we know is not the case. Thus public opinion, when it pronounces itself with sufficient decision, can, with the help of a wholesome fear of revolt, vanquish all resistance and bring in its candidate. In this way any eventual abuse of personal influence is, in effect, prevented, and this is precisely what happened in the case of the election of M. Saënz Pena. I fear that nowhere are institutions worked according to rule. Before throwing stones at the Argentine, let us look at our own deficiencies.
The weak place in South American constitutions, as organised on the theory of Jefferson, appears to us Europeans to lie in the fact that too much power is vested in the individual. In our continent this would open the door to the danger of a reconstitution of the forces of the past, whose only hope now lies in the possibility of a surprise. In America a federation of divided Powers offers so many different centres of resistance (providing always that each State Government enjoys a real autonomy) to any attempt at usurpation. The American of the South is no less attached than his brother of the North to the principle of autonomy of States. It only remains for him to make it a reality.
As a matter of fact, moreover, the theoretic independence of Ministers and Parliament does not hold together, in view of the omnipotence of the representative assemblies in matters of finance. This system has the advantage of making a series of crises impossible, but a Minister must, and always does, disappear when a succession of votes proves that he no longer possesses the confidence of Parliament.
In America, as in Europe, the Press is the highest power after the Government. I say " after," because we must believe the Constitution. It is, however, only too true that the moral paralysis that distinguishes certain " popular leaders," whose chief anxiety is to trim their course to every wind that blows, leaves to any one who claims to speak in the name of public opinion a degree of authority before which the individuality of the pretended governing body, in spite of its pomp of speeches, is apt to disappear.
But although the Press plays unquestionably a very important role in the Argentine, it did not appear to me that the evil went as far as this. Not but what, perhaps, the man who owns a newspaper is as much inclined here as anywhere to make the most use he can of its influence. But in a land that calls out the best in any man, even the Latin, usually so easy a prey to the designs of the political revolutionary, manages to preserve enough independence of character to offer an effective resistance to projects that are too flagrantly opposed to his own calmer views.
Argentine statesmen, worthy the name, are not content to hold opinions of their own; they are perfectly capable of the tenacity necessary to put a scheme into execution and carry it through. Clearly the advantages that go to make up the success of the Argentine Republic would count for nothing were there no strong minds to grasp the higher principles of public interest and no strong hearts to enforce their practice. The Argentine is a battlefield where every kind of moral force, including politics and sociology, is now in the full heat of action, and exposed to all the chances and changes common to weak humanity.
Public activity is here, as in all countries, manifested chiefly by means of parties, a necessity, practically, which has at least as many advantages as disadvantages. Casuists have argued much about the relative qualities of " human " parties and those of any given intellectual symbol. The Argentine Government is not based upon a traditional or historic fact, but on a theory of right in which originates an organisation of justice and liberty that can only pass from principle to practice when the citizens are capable of clothing its bare bones with the living sinews of action; but this fact in no sense changes the problem, since man without the intellectual symbol or idea can be only a disturbing force, and the idea in politics has no value apart from the man who can give it life.
The old-fashioned Press of ideas has made prodigious strides since the days of Armand Carrel, and the modern reader is more especially greedy for facts. With these before him he forms his own opinions, and the most the writer can do is to prepare the way towards a given deduction, without being able to discount its acceptance with any certainty. In reality, the Argentine Press is no better and no worse than that of any free countries; and, whether as regards news or party politics, the newspapers are extremely well conducted. Not but that you may find occasional violence of language, as happens everywhere, but there are extremes which the public will not tolerate. There are no pornographic Press and no pictures of a kind to defile the eyes of every passer-by. On this we may congratulate a race whose healthy energies find too continuous employment in the sunshine for them to develop any tendency towards the excesses of " civilised " corruption.
The Prensa is, as we all know, the leading newspaper of the South American continent. Under the skilful control of its founder, M. Paz, the Prensa has reached a state of prosperity which, within the limits of its field of action, makes it the equal of any advertising agency in the world. It is a paper that has to be reckoned with by every party, for although not officially attached to any group of politicians, it obviously seeks—while maintaining the principles of democratic evolution—to hold the balance between all parties, ready if necessary to intervene at the critical moment. Just now its general editor is M. Ezequiel Paz, who seems in every way capable of carrying on his father's work. M. Zeballos is credited with being the fount of inspiration of the paper. The ex-Minister of Foreign Affairs is at the same time a literary man, a legal expert, and a historian. His writings on questions of law are highly esteemed in Europe. An untimely dispute with Brazil drove him out of office, and gave him the leisure he is turning to account now. M. Paz is enjoying a well-earned rest in Europe, but he retains supreme control of the sheet; and a gorgeous palace that he is building in the best part of Buenos Aires would appear to point to an intention of returning to the country before long. If he does I cannot help pitying him, for he will require nothing less than the Court of Louis XIV., or perhaps of Xerxes, to fill this showy dwelling. The business quarters of the Prensa are in the Avenue of May, and if smaller in dimensions, they are no less magnificent. The building is one of the sights of the city. How shall I describe it? It would fill a volume. Every department of the paper is lodged in a way that unites the most perfect of means to the end in view. Simplicity of background, a scrupulous cleanliness, comfort for every worker therein, with a highly specialised method that gathers together all the varied workers on the staff to direct them towards their final end and aim, namely, promptness and accuracy of news. With all this there are outside services, such as a dispensary, so complete it would need a specialist to catalogue it, and suites of apartments that are placed at the disposal of per-sons whom the Prensa considers worthy the honour. I confess that I thought less luxury in this part of the building would have been more to the taste of the poor distinguished men who are lodged there, since a comparison with their own modest homes would be wholly to the disadvantage of the latter.
The Nacion is a party organ in the best sense of the word, following the exalted traditions of Bartolome Mitre. It has been compared with our Temps. My friend Antonio Pinero exercises considerable influence here over the descendants of the great statesman. But for the quiet and invaluable help given by the Nacion, all of whose interests lay in the opposite direction, we should never have succeeded in getting the law establishing literary proprietorship through Parliament. It is my duty as well as my pleasure to take this opportunity of offering my grateful thanks in the quarter where they are due.
The Diario, in its turn, deserves special mention on account of its editor, M. Manuel Lainez, senator, who has a rare command of the most refined of Parisian critical talent, the sting of which does not exclude mirth. M. Lainez is one of those journalists who excel in detecting the weak spot in men and things and take a delight in driving home the shaft of a caustic phrase. He dissects with ease, and disguises the depth of his own knowledge under a thin veil of irony.
I know of no more charming talker. Whether or no his wit has injured his political prospects is a point I am not able to decide.
Then I must mention the Argentina, which seemed to me an honest news organ; and finally, I must not neglect the photographic papers, the P. B. T. and the Caras y Carietas, in which the spoken word gives place to the picture, according to the formula lately invented amongst us. Both have a large circulation,
We all remember the words that Ibsen has placed in the mouth of his " Enemy of the People" about papers being edited by their readers. No doubt the gazette, nowadays, seeks less to establish an idea than to conform to the supposed feelings of the masses in whose hands is the key of success. Its educational influence has, of course, been in consequence greatly reduced; still, a remnant exists. The culture, slow but inevitable, of the masses must in time have a good influence on the Press that caters for them. Photography, when genuine, and the cinematograph, which vitalises it, have a real educational value. The trouble is that nothing is sacred to the Argentine photographer. He is omnipresent and enjoys the execrable privilege of being at home in all homes. You give a dinner-party to friends or relations. With the dessert there appear some pale persons, draped in black, who disturb servants and guests to set up their complicated lenses on the spot that strikes their fancy. Then comes the blinding flash and a poisonous puff of smoke, and the master of the house hastens to thank the intruders for the outrage. The diable boiteux, who lifted the roofs of houses, has been surpassed. When an unfortunate Argentino wants to offer his heart (always accompanied by his hand) to the lady of his choice, let him begin by doubly locking all the doors and hermetic-ally closing the shutters, if he wishes to be safe from intrusion !
I alluded just now to the voting of the Law of Literary Property. As may be supposed, such an excellent Act was not carried through without long preparation. I could give a list of men who, on both sides of the ocean, worked in favour of this act of justice and literary honesty. From the moment that Argentine statesmen realised that purely intellectual labour had proprietary rights in the same way as every other kind, and that to defraud its owners of the proceeds was to place themselves outside the pale of civilisation, they made it a point of honour to yield to the representations made to them from all parts of the world. Is it not extraordinary that a law which was diametrically opposed to the interests of persons particularly well placed to defend them should have been voted unanimously without a single protest? All honour to the Argentine Republic, not only for the act itself, but for the nobility with which it was performed.
It would be an affectation on my part to pass over in silence the public which did me the honour to come to listen to my lectures on democratic evolution as it manifests itself in history and in contemporary events. The subject is not wildly amusing. It is, however, one of those that are of surpassing importance today, and none can ignore it. Unfortunately, the general public cannot acquire any trustworthy knowledge of it by scrappy reading indulged in between the hours of the day's work; and if in the tumult of party passion the public are to be of any real service to their Government in solving it, the problem calls for more than a hasty and summary judgment founded on insufficient data. And yet was it not too much to expect of people who are engrossed all day by their own affairs to come to listen to the statements of a public man, against whom there must necessarily be some prejudices on a question of pure doctrine? The majority of workers are not free of an afternoon, and the " upper classes," even the most cultured—in Europe, at least,—are too distrustful of democratic movements in general to waste an hour on a subject that worries them. Happily, the history of American peoples has never been embittered by race hatred engendered by centuries of oppression, and revolts of which it is to be hoped that we have now seen the end. In the North, as in the South, a formula frightens nobody. Society has been built up on a new idea embodied in language that was once the terror and scan-dal of the Old World. When put in practice, however, these ideas and their verbal expression have stood the test of a century of trial; and the " practical" men of the new continent, while no less alive to social needs than any others, are, perhaps, more ready than the rest of us to make an experiment that can be recommended by right and by reason. There is here neither middle class nor aristocracy in the sense that we attach to those terms in the Old World. All are workers who, having reached the top rung of the ladder, are ready to hold it steady for other feet to climb, rather than to overturn it and retard the advance of those behind.
Thus, beside the small aristocracy formed of the last vestiges of the original Spanish colony, I had the pleasure and honour of finding a large public of European culture and wide intelligence, eager to hear what any European might have to say about an idea whose course he was honestly seeking to trace, whether bearing on the political and social experiences of Europe or on the more or less rational experiments of which their own land is the theatre. Their unbiassed criticism and independent opinions are all one could hope to find in an audience one is trying to influence. The very best public possible, prepared to surrender or resist according to the intrinsic value of the arguments presented. The element of resistance came, perhaps, from the feminine section, slightly actuated by snobbishness, and either holding itself aloof by way of protest against the possible utterance of ideas too bold to be acceptable, or attending the lectures in order to get some understanding of the subject so as to discuss it afterwards.
As regards language, there was no difficulty. Every one here understands French, reading and speaking it like the speaker himself, and showing by their gestures that no shade of meaning was lost on them. What better could one wish? By the grace of winged words the mind of France has flown across the ocean, and we may rejoice in the fact and found great hopes for the future on it. It is therefore with the greatest pleasure that I offer my heartfelt gratitude to this admirable audience for their constant kindliness and for the encouragement that I found in their remarkable idealism and determination.