Juan Manuel Ortiz de Rosas

Juan Manuel Ortiz de Rosas
Juan Manuel Ortiz de Rosas

Juan Manuel Ortiz de Rosas dominated the Argentine political scene from 1829 until 1852 as governor of Buenos Aires and then supreme chief of the confederation. Although professing federalism, Rosas was a centrist and a dictator, and his model of rule was to be followed by many of the Latin American dictators of the 20th century.

Born in Buenos Aires, Rosas’s paternal grandfather, a career soldier, had emigrated from Burgos, Spain, in 1742. His mother’s family was extremely wealthy, and Rosas’s parents controlled one of the largest cattle ranches in Argentina. Rosas only spent a year in school— apparently his teacher told him that he would spend his life in farm management and need not be troubled by books.

As a teenager, Rosas was an ammunition boy during the British invasion of 1806, and when his father died, instead of taking over the family property (he was the eldest son), he gave it to his mother to divide among the rest of the family. Rosas was determined to make his own fortune, which he did in a meat-salting plant in Quilmes, now a suburb of Buenos Aires.

In 1820 his business partner Colonel Maunel Dorrego, governor of Buenos Aires, put Rosas in charge of the provincial militia. By this time he had a loyal band of supporters gathering around him, and soon after the resignation of Bernardino Rivadavia, Dorrego became president. He was overthrown in 1828, and Rosas worked to bring down the new governor of Buenos Aires, Juan Lavalle.

At this time, Rosas was head of the Federalist Party, which sought to build up the power of the provinces against that of Buenos Aires. He managed to get the former legislature to reconvene, and on December 5, 1829, Rosas was elected governor, deposing Lavalle. In 1832 Rosas stepped down when his three-year term ended, but returned in 1835 with the promise that he would have dictatorial powers.

At that time Argentina was in a perilous state, with strong regional warlords, or caudillos, seeking to wrest power from the government in Buenos Aires. Although he still professed federalist beliefs, Rosas gradually centralized power in Buenos Aires.

During the 17 years that Rosas was dictator of Argentina, he used police and spies to destroy his political opponents. His mazorca, the political police, arrested and tortured with impunity.

His wife, Encarnación, also used the mazorca against her enemies, and a century later journalist Fleur Cowles, in her dual biography, Bloody Precedent, was to draw startling parallels between the ruthlessness of Juan and Encarnación Rosas and that of Juan and Evita Perón. Much is made of Rosas ordering his portrait to be displayed in public places and in churches.

Putting aside his treatment of political opponents, Rosas managed initially to achieve economic stability and massively increase the prosperity of Buenos Aires. The period coincided with an increase in the cattle industry, with tanning and salting works, and also a rise in migration from Europe to Argentina.

Although many French migrated to the city, their government was unable to gain for them the privileges afforded to the British, and they became liable for national service and high local taxes. This resulted in many French businesses moving their headquarters to Montevideo in neighboring Uruguay, and in 1838, a French fleet blockaded Buenos Aires.

As trade in Buenos Aires dried up, Rosas responded by tripling the amount of paper money in circulation; massive inflation resulted. It also led to regional caudillos to try to achieve regional autonomy. The British eventually persuaded the French to stop the blockade, and Rosas paid a token indemnity.

Rosas was also forced to end the blockade he had been imposing on Paraguay, allowing that nation to start trading with Britain and other countries. In 1841 Rosas was able to destroy and then kill his main political opponent (and predecessor), Lavalle, who had been leading a small rebellion in the north.

In 1845 Rosas started his own blockade of the River Paraná in order to bring some of the provinces into line. The British and French sent in their navies to reopen trade but soon had to balance the small amount of commerce with these provinces, with far greater money to be made from Buenos Aires. After two years the blockade was abandoned, leaving Rosas triumphant. However, he had made many enemies.

Paraguay was much angered by the seemingly cavalier fashion in which Rosas had been able to close the river, and it started to industrialize and then build its own arms industry. Brazil had been unable to send goods by ship to the Mato Grosso region of the country, and Uruguay became the place for many exiles from Buenos Aires.

When the blockade of the Paraná River started again in 1848, the governor of Entre Ríos, Justo José de Urquiza, who was actually placed in charge of a large part of the army by Rosas, launched a rebellion against Rosas. In May 1851 Urquiza opposed the reelection of Rosas as governor of Buenos Aires, forcing him to adopt the title supreme chief of the confederation.

Urquiza then led his forces against those of Rosas and defeated them at the battle of Caseros on February 3, 1852. As Urquiza was about to enter Buenos Aires, Rosas fled onto a British naval vessel, leaving hundreds of his supporters to be massacred by Urquiza’s men.

Rosas settled in England and took up farming near Southampton, Hampshire. He died on March 14, 1877, and was buried in Southampton. Despite his long dominance of Argentine politics, or possibly because of it, it was not until 1935 that he was featured on an Argentine postage stamp in a series that included all the famous figures of 19th-century Argentina; the series also included Urquiza.

A grandson, who shared the same name as the dictator, became governor of Buenos Aires province in 1910. In 1990 the family moved the body of Rosas from England back to Buenos Aires, and it was interred in the family mausoleum at Recoleta.