Sarmiento’s Facundo is an incisive critique of Argentinian dictator and caudillo Juan Manuel de Rosas, which necessitates a more nuanced look at this figure.
Rosas was born in 1793 to a wealthy family in Buenos Ayres. As a young man, he hated school and thus learned the ins and outs of the cattle industry, embracing the life of the gaucho. His renown as a rancher and militia commander helped him enter politics. He supported the Federalist Party in its goals to push back against the “Unitarians” who wanted to centralize the government and to model the country after the emerging democracies of North America and Europe. As a result of civil wars, he was appointed the governor of Buenos Ayres, serving from 1829-1832 and 1835-1852. In the interregnum, he fought Indians and doled out their lands to his supporters. This not only increased his reputation as a fighter of savages, but also solidified his support among the people.
Rosas amassed a great deal of power through his coterminous role as leader of the Argentinian Confederation. He brutally suppressed opposition through assassinations and executions, and refused to institute a national constitution. Portraits of Rosas were placed in churches, and schools had to teach his virtues and legend. His secret police (the Mazorca Club) was particularly oppressive in ferreting out dissent. Jesuits, who opposed his rule, were expelled from the country. Rosas spent a lot of his rule attacking other South American countries such as Uruguay and Bolivia.
Distressed by the totalitarian state that they found themselves in, many Argentinians left the country and began to foment dissent in exile with writings and occasionally armed uprisings.
By the 1850s, Rosas saw those within the interior turning against him; this was concomitant with external pressure from foreign powers for free trade and treaty rights. According to his secretariat, “The dictator is not stupid: he knows the people hate him; he goes in constant fear and always has one eye on the chance to rob and abuse them and the other on making a getaway. He has a horse ready saddled at the door of his office day and night." He was defeated in 1852 by an army from the interior supplemented with Brazilian troops. This fact embittered him, and he claimed that his own people did not want him gone (although the facts do not exactly bear this out).
He spent the last twenty-five years of his life in exile in Britain. When he died, he was buried in Southampton, but in 1989 his remains were exhumed and brought back to Argentina, where they now reside in Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Ayres.
In terms of his reputation within Argentina, some see him as a champion of Argentinian sovereignty and culture, and as the man who did the most to keep the country free from European rule; however, he is most commonly viewed as a tyrant and an extension of earlier Spanish colonial rule.