While exiled in Chile, Sarmiento wrote Facundo in 1845 as an attack on Juan Manuel de Rosas, the Argentine dictator at the time. The book was a critical analysis of Argentine culture as he saw it, represented in men such as Rosas and the regional leader Juan Facundo Quiroga, a warlord from La Rioja. For Sarmiento, Rosas and Quiroga were caudillos—strongmen who did not submit to the law. However, if Facundo's portrait is linked to the wild nature of the countryside, Rosas is depicted as an opportunist who exploits the situation to perpetuate himself in power.
Sarmiento's book is a critique and also a symptom of Argentina's cultural conflicts. In 1810, the country had gained independence from the Spanish Empire, but Sarmiento complains that Argentina had yet to cohere as a unified entity. The country's chief political division saw the Unitarists (or Unitarians, with whom Sarmiento sided), who favored centralization, counterposed against the Federalists, who believed that the regions should maintain a good measure of autonomy. This division was in part a split between the city and the countryside. Then as now, Buenos Aires was the country’s largest and wealthiest city as a result of its access to river trade routes and the South Atlantic. Buenos Aires was exposed not only to trade but to fresh ideas and European culture. These economic and cultural differences caused tension between Buenos Aires and the land-locked regions of the country. Despite his Unitarian sympathies, Sarmiento himself came from the provinces, a native of the Western town of San Juan.
Argentine civil war
Argentina's divisions led to a civil war that began in 1814. A frail agreement was reached in the early 1820s, which led to the unification of the Republic just in time to wage the Cisplatine War against the Empire of Brazil, but the relations between the Provinces reached again the point of breaking-off in 1826, when Unitarist Bernardino Rivadavia was elected president and tried to enforce a newly enacted centralist Constitution. Supporters of decentralized government challenged the Unitarist Party, leading to the outbreak of violence. Federalists Juan Facundo Quiroga and Manuel Dorrego wanted more autonomy for the provinces and were inclined to reject European culture. The Unitarists defended Rivadavia’s presidency, as it created educational opportunities for rural inhabitants through a European-staffed university program. However, under Rivadavia's rule, the salaries of common laborers were subjected to government wage ceilings, and the gauchos ("cattle-wrangling horsemen of the pampas") were either imprisoned or forced to work without pay.
A series of governors were installed and replaced beginning in 1828 with the appointment of Federalist Manuel Dorrego as the governor of Buenos Aires. However, Dorrego's government was very soon overthrown and replaced by that of Unitarist Juan Lavalle. Lavalle's rule ended when he was defeated by a militia of gauchos led by Rosas. By the end of 1829, the legislature had appointed Rosas as governor of Buenos Aires. Under Rosas's rule, many intellectuals fled either to Chile, as did Sarmiento, or to Uruguay, as Sarmiento himself notes.
Juan Manuel de Rosas
According to Latin American historian John Lynch, Juan Manuel de Rosas was "a landowner, a rural caudillo, and the dictator of Buenos Aires from 1829 to 1852". He was born into a wealthy family of high social status, but Rosas's strict upbringing had a deep psychological influence on him. Sarmiento asserts that because of Rosas's mother, "the spectacle of authority and servitude must have left lasting impressions on him". Shortly after reaching puberty, Rosas was sent to an estancia and stayed there for about thirty years. In time, he learned how to manage the ranch and he established an authoritarian government in the area. While in power, Rosas incarcerated residents for unspecified reasons, acts which Sarmiento argues were similar to Rosas's treatment of cattle. Sarmiento argues that this was one method of making his citizens like the "tamest, most orderly cattle known".
Juan Manuel de Rosas's first term as governor lasted only three years. His rule, assisted by Juan Facundo Quiroga and Estanislao López, was respected and he was praised for his ability to maintain harmony between Buenos Aires and the rural areas. The country fell into disorder after Rosas's resignation in 1832, and in 1835 he was once again called to lead the country. He ruled the country not as he did during his first term as governor, but as a dictator, forcing all citizens to support his Federalist regime. According to Nicolas Shumway, Rosas "forced the citizens to wear the red Federalist insignia, and his picture appeared in all public places... Rosas's enemies, real and imagined, were increasingly imprisoned, tortured, murdered, or driven into exile by the mazorca, a band of spies and thugs supervised personally by Rosas. Publications were censored, and porteño newspapers became tedious apologizers for the regime".
Domingo Faustino Sarmiento
In Facundo, Sarmiento is both the narrator and a main character. The book contains autobiographical elements from Sarmiento’s life, and he comments on the entire Argentine circumstance. He also expresses and analyzes his own opinion and chronicles some historic events. Within the book's dichotomy between civilization and barbarism, Sarmiento's character represents civilization, steeped as he is in European and North American ideas; he stands for education and development, as opposed to Rosas and Facundo, who symbolize barbarism.
Sarmiento was an educator, a civilized man who was a militant adherent to the Unitarist movement. During the Argentine civil war he fought against Facundo several times, and while in Spain he became a member of the Literary Society of Professors. Exiled to Chile by Rosas when he started to write Facundo, Sarmiento would later return as a politician. He was a member of the Senate after Rosas's fall and president of Argentina for six years (1868–1874). During his presidency, Sarmiento concentrated on migration, sciences, and culture. His ideas were based on European civilization; for him, the development of a country was rooted in education. To this end, he founded Argentina's military and naval colleges.