One of the major figures who led Argentina to independence, Bernardino Rivadavia became the country’s first president with his belief in a nation focused on the capital, Buenos Aires. He was also the creator of many of the major institutions of the country.
Born in Buenos Aires, Rivadavia grew up under the last years of Spanish rule. Napoleon I’s occupation of Spain in 1808 led to many of Spain’s colonies establishing their own governments as the ties between them and Madrid were severed. This essentially resulted in the start of the breakup of the Viceroyalty of the River Plate, an area encompassing what is now Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay.
Taking advantage of this and eager for a new market for British goods that could not be sold in Europe owing to Napoleon’s control of the continent, in 1806 some British soldiers attacked and captured Buenos Aires. Rivadavia was among the inhabitants of the city who fought the British, eventually driving them out.
He also became active in the political debates that started to raise the question of Argentine independence for the first time on May 25, 1810. Rivadavia became secretary of the triumvirate that ruled the new country, and he had the task of organizing the militia and overhauling the Spanish legal system. He also used his position to end the slave trade and press censorship.
Although many people in Argentina did want independence—it was formally proclaimed in 1816—it was the nature of this new country that was to cause recurring problems throughout Rivadavia’s political career.
Some political figures saw it as a loose confederation of states, with Buenos Aires as the capital, but with each state having the right to raise its own taxes and maintain its own militia. Others such as Rivadavia envisioned a unified country centered on Buenos Aires, with a central government that would erode the power of regional juntas and caudillos.
Rivadavia had first risen to prominence opposing the British, but as secretary of the triumvirate he was eager to agree to allow British goods to be imported to Buenos Aires. He felt this would encourage British acceptance of Argentine independence and bring greater wealth to Buenos Aires.
In 1812 the triumvirate was overthrown, and Rivadavia went into exile in Europe, where he entertained the idea of some unitarists to establish a constitutional monarchy based in Buenos Aires. He also met many intellectuals and became greatly influenced by Jeremy Bentham.
Unable to find a member of the Spanish royal family eager to rule as a constitutional monarch, Rivadavia returned to Buenos Aires and became a member of the government of Martín Rodríguez in 1821. Just before this several caudillos had been successful in wresting much power from Buenos Aires, but they soon became involved in territorial disputes. This allowed the Buenos Aires government to exert its power.
It was not strong enough, militarily, to bring renegade provinces into line, but it did control the River Plate and the Paraná River and thus could institute an economic blockade should the need arise. This took place, and Rivadavia, who dominated the political scene throughout the 1820s, in 1826 was elected president of the United Provinces, the official title of what was to become Argentina.
The reforms introduced by Rivadavia drew much from his experiences during his six years spent in Europe. He extended the franchise to all males from the age of 20 and reorganized the court system to guarantee individual and property rights, as well as freedom of the press.
On the cultural scene, in 1821 he founded the University of Buenos Aires, provided generous funding for the national library, and established several museums. He also abolished religious courts, clerical immunity from taxation, and the compulsory tithe, massively weakening the power of the church and thus earning himself the enmity of the Roman Catholic hierarchy.
The 1820s also coincided with an “opening up” of the hinterland around Buenos Aires. Rivadavia had sought to encourage migration to Argentina from Europe, but this was not successful, and a few wealthy families from Buenos Aires were able to establish considerable ranches destroying Rivadavia’s plan for the formation of thousands of family farms.
With the central government unable to keep up with the expansion of landholding, Rivadavia introduced the Roman system of emphyteusis, by which land taken over by farmers would be held by the government, with the farmers paying annual taxes for its exclusive use. With rent put at 8 percent for pastureland and 4 percent for cropland, the hope of the Rivadavia government was that this would move the tax base from Buenos Aires to the countryside.
This scheme was incredibly successful at changing the control of the land, but, as it did not place a cap on the land that could be alienated, and as people could take over land without paying any money, and only a small rent, speculators started registering massive claims.
This focused land in the hands of a small number of the elite. Some 122 people and partnerships took control of 5.5 million acres, with 10 of them having more than 130,000 acres each. With a weak administration unable effectively to monitor the land, few paid much in the way of taxes, which was never to exceed 3 percent of total government revenue.
In Buenos Aires, the economic life of the city was also dominated by a small number of merchant groupings. Many Britons took control of the import-export businesses as Rivadavia, eager for British investment, opened up the economy to foreign capital.
This was to lead to Rivadavia’s most controversial move: He negotiated a massive loan from Britain’s Barings Bank. Although this was used to establish the Banco Nacional (national bank) in Buenos Aires, speculators made fortunes from the heavy discounting of the loan.
In return for going into debt to the tune of 1 million pounds, Baring Brothers furnished less than half of it in cash, the rest going to middlemen and speculators who underwrote the loan. It was a massive political scandal in Argentina, and payments continued until 1904.
However, Rivadavia’s concerns were not only financial. In 1822 Brazil had declared its independence and was eager to exert its control over the eastern bank of the River Plate. This area was largely controlled by Argentine ranchers, and the two countries headed to war, with Brazil blockading Buenos Aires and forcing the government to default on the Barings loan.
At this juncture, several provinces decided to form an alliance to oppose Rivadavia’s newly enacted centralist constitution. In 1827, after being president for only 17 months, Rivadavia was forced to resign and left for exile in Europe. The constitution was nullified by his successor, but the war with Brazil did lead to a compromise: the formation of the Eastern Republic of Uruguay as an independent country.
In 1834 Rivadavia returned to Buenos Aires to face charges brought against him and was sentenced to be exiled. He went to Brazil and then to Spain, where he died on September 2, 1845, in the port of Cádiz. In 1857 his body was brought back to Buenos Aires. In 1880 his birthday, May 20, was declared a national holiday, although it is no longer observed.
Rivadavia has long been honored by the Argentine government as one of the founders of the country, and in 1864 he was the first person to be featured on an Argentine postage stamp, and stamps commemorating him were produced regularly until 1951.