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on April 9, 2014
Argentina had only recently become independent from Spain when it fell into a prolonged series of civil wars lasting from 1814 to 1880. The conflict was chiefly between two factions, the Unitarios, who favored a strong central government headquartered in Buenos Aires, and the Federales, who preferred provincial autonomy in a weak confederation. In 1845 Domingo Sarmiento, a Unitario living in exile in Chile, published what was ostensibly a biography of Juan Facundo Quiroga, one of the Federales leaders. This highly polemicized biography of his now-dead enemy was also an attack on Juan Manuel de Rosas, the Federalist governor of Buenos Aires and de facto dictator of Argentina.
Sarmiento begins with several chapters on the geography and demographics of Argentina. His sentiments are immediately clear: "Civilization" is represented by urban life and European ideas. "Barbarism" is found in the countryside among the ignorant and brutal gauchos (cowboys) and the savage Indians. The goal of the Federales, as he saw it, was to keep Argentina divided and undeveloped so these "gaucho-outlaws" (as he frequently calls them) can pursue their careers of dissolution and banditry unmolested by any civil authority.
Facundo Quiroga (the two surnames are used interchangeably) was the foremost of the gaucho generals in the early stages of the war. His undeniable talents and powerful charisma were only partially offset by his ignorance and reckless behavior. He was especially known for his capricious and arbitrary brutality. When in a foul mood he would torture a man to death for an unintended slight, but on other days would not only pardon but reward an enemy who had the courage to defy or insult him. Sarmiento even shows a grudging admiration for Facundo's strength of character and occasional flashes of nobility. He is always quick to note, however, that Rosas has no such qualities. In the end, after a spell of residence in Buenos Aires, Facundo begins to show leanings toward the Unitario side, so Rosas has him assassinated.
It is impossible not to sympathize with Sarmiento, the author, a self-proclaimed child of the Enlightenment. He idolized French philosophers, believed in the separation of church and state, and later in his life, as Argentina's president, made public education his top priority. His ideas on education came from his friendship with Horace Mann, called the father of American public education. Sarmiento translated a biography of Mann into Spanish, and Mann's wife, Mary, translated Facundo into English. (Mary and Sarmiento are also presumed to have been lovers.) But critics have said there is more fiction than fact in Facundo, and the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano excoriates Sarmiento for his disenfranchisement as president of the rural poor and Native Americans. So we must take everything in this book with a hefty dose of skepticism.
Though it is beautifully written, Facundo is probably best read by someone who has more background than I do in Argentine history or is planning further reading. The many factions and shifting alliances of the civil war period are confusing, and Sarmiento is writing to an audience of his compatriots and contemporaries. Several times he says that something is too well known for him to bother describing or recounting it. So I would recommend this work chiefly to those with a special interest in the subject matter.