Francisco Bilbao
America in Danger, 1862

Original Electronic Texts at the web site of the Buried Mirror.

Editor's introductionAFTER THE WINNING OF INDEPENDENCE Spanish America began a long uphill struggle to achieve stable, democratic government. The new states lacked a strong middle class, experience in self-government, and the other advantages with which the United States began their independent career. The result was an age of violence, of alternate dictatorship and revolution. Its symbol was the caudillo, or "strong man," whose power was always based on force, no matter what the constitutional form.

Whatever their methods, the caudillos generally displayed some regard for republican ideology and institutions. Political parties, usually called Conservative and Liberal, were active in most of the new states. Conservatism drew its main support from the landed aristocracy, the Church, and the military; liberalism attracted the merchants and professional men of the towns. Regional conflicts often cut across the lines of social cleavage, complicating the political picture.

As a rule the conservatives regarded with sympathy the social arrangements of the col nial era and favored a highly centralized government; the liberals, inspired by the success of the United States, advocated a federal form of government, guarantees of individual rights, lay control of education, and an end to special privileges for the clergy and the military. Neither party displayed much interest in the problems of the landless, debtridden peasantry that formed the majority of every nation.

After the middle of the nineteenth century a growing trade with Europe helped to stabilize political conditions in Latin America. The new economic order demanded peace and continuity in government. Old party lines dissolved as conservatives adopted the "positivist" dogma of science and progress, while liberals abandoned their concern with constitutional methods and civil liberties in favor of an interest in material prosperity. A new type of "progressive" caudillo--Diaz in Mexico, Nunez in Colombia, Guzman Blanco in Venezuela--symbolized the politics of acquisition. The cycle of dictatorship and revolution continued in many lands, but the revolutions became less frequent and devastating.

As the century drew to a close, in a number of countries dissatisfied middle-class and laboring groups combined to form parties, called Radical or Democratic, that challenged the traditional domination of political affairs by the landed aristocracy. But the significance of this movement, like that of the small socialist groups that arose in Argentina and Chile in the 90's still lay in the future.

"There is no good faith in America," wrote Bolivar in 1829, "nor arnong the nations of America. Treaties are scraps of paper; constitutions, printed matter; elections, battles; freedom, anarchy; and life, a torment." Many Spanish-American observers echoed Bolivar's cry of despair during the chaotic half-century that followed the winning of independence. A fiery Chilean liberal, Francisco Bilbao (1823-1865), subjected republican government in Latin America to a penetrating critique in his essay America in Danger, written in 1862.

THE CONQUEST OF POWER is the supreme goal.

This leads to the immoral doctrine that "the end justifies the means...."

But since there are constitutional provisions that guarantee everyone his rights, and I can not violate them, I invoke the system of "preserving the form."

If the constitution declares: "Thought is free," I add: "within the limits established by law"- and since the law referred to is not the constitutional provision but one that was issued afterwards, I inscribe in it the exceptions of Figaro. "Thought is free," but there can be no discussion of dogma or exposition of systems that attack morality. And who is to judge? A commission or jury named in the last analysis by the authorities. And we have the colonial "censorship" reestablished under the guise ol the freest institution of all, the jury. Sublime victory of duplicity! "But the form has been preserved."

The electoral power is the only power exercised by the "sovereign people," and it exercises this power not to make the laws but to select the persons who will make them. Very well. The majority vote, then is the expression . . . of the popular will.

That is the basis of republican power, and that is why free and legitimate elections establish the legitimacy of power.

The election is free, it is said; but what if I control the election returns? What if I, the established power, name the inspector of the election returns, if the law permits one to vote twenty times a day in the same election? What if I dominate the elections and frighten my opponents away with impunity?

What happens then? Why, the government party is perpetuated in office, and the popular will is flouted and swindled.

But "the form has been preserved," and long live free elections

"The domicile is inviolable," but I violate it, adding: "save in the cases determined by law." And the "cases" are determined in the last analysis by the party in power.

"The death penalty in political cases is abolished," but I shoot prisoners because I consider that these are not "political cases"; and since I am the infallible authority I declare that these political prisoners are bandits, and "the form has been preserved."

The Executive can be accused before the Chamber of Deputies and is subject to impeachment for one year after leaving office.

But that Chamber has been selected by me, and functions for one year after my departure. The persons who must judge me are my employees, my proteges, my creatures, my accomplices. Will they condemn me? No. Nor will they dare to accuse me. I am vindicated, and the "form" has saved me. Montt smiles over the bodies of his eight thousand victims.

"The press is free." But I name the jury, and, backed by the authority of that free institution, I can accuse, harass, persecute; I can silence free speech. Then there reigns, absolute and sovereign, the opinion of one party. I spread the shroud ol infamy over the corpse of the vanquished and cry: "The press is free!"

All liberal publicists, it can be said, accept the doctrine of "the separation of powers," as indispensable for the safety of the Republic.

But if the Executive has the power to name the judges; if the Executive participates in the framing of the laws; if the Executive can use the electoral law to name the members of Congress, what remains, in the last analysis, of the famous separation of powers?

"The guarantees established by this constitution cannot be suspended." But if I have the power to declare a province or the Republic in a state of siege, authorized to do so, as in Chile, by a "Council of State" appointed by the President, what security can a citizen have?

This miserable Machiavellianism has "preserved the forms" at the cost of plunging Chile into bloodshed and reaction for a space of thirty years.

There is discussion, the press is free; citizens come together, for they have the right of assembly; an enlightened public opinion almost unanimously clamors for reforms; preparations are made for elections that will bring to power representatives of the reform movement; and then the Executive Power declares the province or the Republic in a state of siege, and the suspended guarantees soar over the abyss of "legal" dictatorship and constitutional despotisml

And then? Either resignation or despair, or civil war, etc., etc. Then revolution raises its terrible banner, and blood flows in battles and on scaffolds. Respect for law and authority is lost, and only force holds sway, proclaiming its triumph to be that of liberty and justice....

We have seen that our republican constitutions bear in themselves the germ of "legal despotism," a monstrous association of words that well describes the prostitution of the law. And since despotism, being "legal," is vindicated, the result is that the sentiment of justice is erased from the consciences of men.

Its place is taken by sophistry, duplicity, and intrigue, used to win power at all cost, for power legitimizes everything....

Experience proves that in the legal combat of the parties the party in power always gains the victory. Experience shows that the party that conducts itself loyally is swindled and routed. What can be the result of this state of affairs? That justice is forgotten, and success becomes justice. To win, then, is the supreme desideratum.

Then the debased conscience alters even the countenances of men, and their words, in the expression of Talleyrand, serve only "to mask their thought."

Then chaos emerges. Words change their meaning, the tongues of men become as twisted as serpents, their speech grows pompous and hollow, the language of the press is like the tinsel thrown on a grave to adorn "a feast of worms," and the prostitution of the word crowns the evolution of the lie.

The conservative calls himself a progressive.

The liberal protests that he is a loyal Catholic.

The Catholic swears by liberty.

The democrat invokes dictatorship, like the rebels in the United States, and defends slavery.

The reactionary asserts that he wants reform.

The educated man proclaims the doctrine that "all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds."

The "civilized man" demands the extermination of the Indians or of the gauchos.

The "man of principles" demands that principles yield to the principle of the public good. There is proclaimed, not the sovereignty of justice, presiding over the sovereignty of the people, but the sovereignty of "the end"--which legitimizes every "means."

The absolutist proclaims himself the savior of society.

And if it governs with coups d' etat, states of siege, or permanent or transitory dictatorships, while the constitutional guarantees are flouted, mocked, or suppressed, the party in power will tell you: civilization has triumphed over barbarism, authority over anarchy, virtue over crime, truth over the lie....

We have behind us a half-century of independence from Spain. How many years of true liberty have any of the new nations enjoyed?

That is difficult to say; it is easier to reckon the years of anarchy and despotism that they have endured.

Shall Paraguay be the "model," with its forty years of dictatorship?

Or shall it be the Argentine Republic, with its provincial and national dictatorships, culminating in the twenty-year tyranny of Rosasi

And who knows what is to come?

Shall it be Chile, beginning with the dictator ship of O'Higgins and continuing with an intermittent dictatorship of thirty consecutive years?

Shall it be Bolivia, with its terrifying succession of sanguinary dictatorships?

Shall it be Peru, which has had more dictators than legal presidents?

Shall it be Ecuador, with its twenty years of the dictatorship of Flores?

Shall it be New Granada? And there one almost finds the exception, but Obando, the liberal legal president, was "overthrown for being a dictator."

Shall it be Venezuela, with its twenty years o Monagas?

Shall it be the little republics of Central America, and even Mexico? But this will suffice.

And these dictatorships have proclaimed all the principles.

The pelucones, the conservatives, the reds, the liberals, the democrats, the Unitarians, the Federalists, all have embraced dictatorship. With the best of intentions the parties geniallv proclaim: "dictatorship in order to do good."

That is to say: despotism in order to secure liberty.

Terrible and logical contradiction!

Keen, Benjamin (ed.) Readings in Latin American Civilization. 1492 to the Present. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1955.
From Francisco Bilbao, La América en peligro. Santiago de Chile , 1941.
Dictators and revolutions

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