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South American Wars


These few notes aim to provide some historical background on the events that have shaped the people I have met in the countries I visited in South America.


Wars of Independence (1806 - 1826)

At the end of the 18th century, the South American pie was shared between Portugal that ruled its territory from Rio de Janeiro and Spain to whose possessions were partitioned between the three Viceroyalties of New Grenada (Bogotá), of Lima and of Rio de la Plata (Buenos Aires). Power was maintained in the hands of a small European born elite in spite of the complaints of a growing number of American born colonists who had acquired wealth as landowners and merchants and resented their inferior status as "criollos". The colonies were allowed to trade only with their respective European powers who taxed all exports and imports.

This was a time of change when science and reason challenged monarchies, the church and class distinctions. The American Revolution (1775 - 1783) and the French Revolution (1789 - 1799) provided examples to the frustrated Criollos. In Europe, the Napoleonic wars weakened Spain's control over its American colonies and forced the Portuguese Court to flee to Brazil.


Independence in the East

After the French were driven from Portugal, the royal family chose to stay in Brazil which became a kingdom equal to Portugal in 1815. King Joao VI ruled both countries from Rio de Janeiro until his return to Portugal in 1822 leaving his son  Pedro  to rule in Brazil. When the Portuguese tried to regain control, Pedro refused and declared Brazil independent in September 1822. Brazil remained a monarchy until 1889. Brazil had been lucky to have a King to champion its independence. Not counting the Pernambuco Revolution which lasted 3 months in 1817 it become free without the ordeal of the vicious wars that Portugal's other colonies had to face a century and a half later.


Independence in the South

In 1806 a British naval squadron attacked Buenos Aires and took it with little resistance from the Spanish colonial forces. A few months later a volunteer militia of Porteños (people of Buenos Aires), forced the invaders out and resisted recapture by British reinforcements. When Spain fell to Napoleon in 1810, prominent Criollos in Buenos Aires backed by this militia forced the last Spanish viceroy to surrender power to a local junta. Spain attempted to retake the Viceroyalty by blockading the estuary and by sending an army from Peru but were soundly defeated by the Buenos Aires forces who then undertook to spread the cause of independence.

Central control was however contested by other provinces who resisted dominance by the Buenos Aires merchants who hoped to maintain their monopoly on trade. Across the river from Buenos Aires, Montevideo and its surroundings declared itself a separate "Eastern State" in 1815 (later Uruguay) under the leadership of  José Gervasio Artigas  backed by an army of gauchos. To the north-west,  Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia , "El Supremo", took control of Asunción in 1814, resisted the Buenos Aires forces and undertook to develop Paraguay in complete isolation. Distinct interests and long-standing resentment of the viceregal capital led some regions to pursue separate destinies. The assembly that finally proclaimed independence in 1816 received no delegates from several provinces, even though it was held outside Buenos Aires, in the interior city of Tucumán.

In Upper Peru, some Buenos Aires forces enjoyed initial victories but soon retreated leaving the battle in the hands of the local Criollo, Mestizo, and Indian guerrillas. Other southern independence forces had more success on the Pacific coast. In 1817 the Criollo General José de San Martín  crossed the Andes with 5000 men and took Santiago with the assistance of Chilean patriots led by  Bernardo 0'Higgins  who became Chile's first president. After establishing naval dominance with the help of British and North American finance, San Martin's forces gained control of the coast and captured Lima in 1821. The Clergy and many Criollos that had benefited from colonial monopolies were however not anxious to break with Spain and San Martín was unable to overcome loyalist resistance in the highlands. That had to wait for the intervention of liberation armies from the north.


Independence in the North

The struggle for independence was much more difficult in the north than in the south. Also, much more was at stake. It took 4 years after the first attempt by revolutionary Francisco de Miranda for the Criollos of the Viceroyalty of New Granada to organise revolutionary governments that proclaimed social and economic reforms in 1810 and openly declared a break with Spain the following year. Forces loyal to Spain fought the rebels from the start. Patriot rebels led by  Simon Bolivar held the capital Caracas and its surroundings but could not dominate large sections of the countryside.

The landed elite and the Clergy reacted with open distrust and opposition. In 1812 loyalist forces crushed the rebels and drove Bolívar into exile but he soon returned with a new army in 1813 and the battle entered a violent phase of "war to the death". Loyalist José Tomás Boves and his llaneros (cowboys) pushed Bolívar out of his home country once more in 1815 and a large military expedition sent by Ferdinand VII reconquered Venezuela and most of New Granada. In 1816, another invasion led by Bolívar failed miserably but following year a larger and revitalised independence movement emerged, winning the struggle in the north.

A mixed-race group of llaneros led by  José Antonio Páez  and the recruitment of British mercenaries proved crucial to the patriots' military victories. After leading his army up the face of the eastern Andes, Bolívar dealt a crushing defeat to his enemies in the Battle of Boyacá in August 1819. The "Libertador" entered Bogotá and proclaimed the independent Republic of Gran Colombia embracing Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador in December that year. Further military campaigns liberated New Granada and Venezuela and a constituent congress held in Cúcuta in 1821 chose Bolívar president of a centralised Gran Colombia. Leaving  Santander  to run the country, Bolivar marched to Ecuador to support their claim to independence which was achieved only two years later when Marshal Antonio José de Sucre defeated the royalists at the Battle of Pichincha near Quito in May 1822.

Then, the two great heroes of South America's independence, San Martín and Bolívar came face-to-face on July 1822 in a private encounter in Guayaquil Ecuador. What was said remained a secret but after that, San Martin went to live in France leaving Bolivar and Sucre in charge of completing the liberation of Peru and Bolivia.

When the Spanish threatened to recapture the lands that San Martín had liberated, Bolívar responded to the calls of Peruvian Criollos by leading his forces to victory in Lima and sending his lieutenants to win the highlands of Peru and Upper Peru which was named Bolivia in his honour. The last major battle of the Wars of Independence was won in 1824 at Ayacucho in the Peruvian highlands by the Venezuelan Sucre. Within two years independence fighters mopped up the last of loyalist resistance, and South America was free of Spanish control.




Paraguayan War (1864 - 1870)

When Argentina proclaimed its independence of Spain in 1810, Paraguay refused to join it and instead proclaimed its own independence on May 14, 1811. Three years later José Gaspar Rodríguez Francia made himself dictator, called himself "El Supremo" and ruled absolutely until his death in 1840. The leading political figure at that time was his nephew Carlos Antonio López who became president and dictator from 1844 until his death in 1862. He was succeeded by his son, Francisco Solano López who, seeking to build an empire, led the country into a war against an alliance of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. The war devastated Paraguay, and when López's death ended the conflict in 1870, more than half of the population had been killed, the economy had been destroyed, agricultural activity was at a standstill and the country had lost more than 142,500 sq km (55,000 sq mi). The country was occupied by a Brazilian army until 1876, and had to pay heavy war indemnities.




War of the Pacific (1879 - 1884)

In 1874 Bolivia and Chile signed a treaty recognising Bolivia's sovereignty over the Atacama Desert but exempting Chile's nitrate companies from paying new taxes for 25 years. When Bolivia demanded a new tax in 1878, Chile occupied the port of Antofagasta and Bolivia declared war with the support of Peru. The Chilean navy won a decisive victory at Point Angamos in 1879, and its army followed with the capture of Tacna and Arica in 1880. Bolivia withdrew from the war but Chile went on to occupy Lima, forcing the Peruvian government into the highlands. After two years of occupation, Peru accepted Chile's peace terms in the Treaty of Ancón in October 1883, ceding the province of Tarapacá to Chile along with the provinces of Tacna and Arica on condition that a referendum be held in 10 years. Under a treaty signed in 1884, Bolivia ceded its Atacama Province to Chile and became landlocked. The referendum was never held but a treaty was finally arranged and subsequently ratified in 1929 giving Tacna to Peru and Arica to Chile with the latter agreeing to pay Peru an indemnity of 6 million dollars.




Chaco War (1932 - 1935)

Beginning in 1906, Bolivia began constructing small forts in the Chaco plain, inching progressively farther into what Paraguay considered its territory. Paraguay countered with its own forts and encouraged the settlement of Mennonites in the area to support its claims in 1927. The discovery of oil in the Bolivian lowlands and the alleged involvement of American oil companies led to full-scale warfare in 1932. The larger and better-trained Bolivian army initially held the advantage, but the Bolivians, used to a mountain climate, found it difficult to operate in the hot and dry conditions of the Chaco lowlands. Superior tactics and knowledge of the terrain, combined with fierce fighting, enabled the Paraguayans to gain control of most of the area by 1935. A truce was agreed upon and a final treaty was signed in 1938, giving Paraguay three-fourths of the region and Bolivia the rest. About 50,000 Bolivians and 35,000 Paraguayans died in the war.




La Violencia (1948 - 1957)

Bolivar's goal of uniting Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador into the centralised Republic of Gran Colombia he proclaimed in Cúcuta in 1821 did not materialise as Venezuela broke away in 1829 and Ecuador followed suit in 1830. This breakdown reflected regional disparities much more importantly it was caused by the profound conflict between the political visions of the Conservatives and the Liberals in a Spanish colonies. Following the Spanish Absolutist tradition, the pro-clerical Conservatives favoured an authoritarian central government that was abhorrent to the anticlerical liberals who, attracted by the new ideas on the "rights of man" and the separation of Church and State developed by the French and American revolutions, might have accepted a loose federation had it been offered.

Strife between uncompromising Conservatives holding on to "God-given" privileges and Liberals wanting change is a cultural heritage common to all ex-Spanish colonies but it reached its most violent expression in Columbia at the turn-of-the-century and just after World War II.

Colombia suffered 8 debilitating civil wars in the 19th century as power passed from one party to the other and centralist constitutions were replaced by federalist ones and vice versa. In 1899 a Liberal revolt against the centralist 1886 constitution turned into a devastating civil war (War of a Thousand Days) won by the Conservatives in 1902 after 100 000 had been killed. (When the terms of a US proposal to build a canal were rejected in 1903 the United States sponsored the secession of the Province of Panama from war-weakened Colombia.)

Conservatives held power for the next four decades but civil war broke out again in 1948 as Liberals took up arms following the assassination of one of their popular leaders. This time, grass roots guerrillas took to the hills and allied with communist guerrilla bands. Atrocities were carried out by both parties in the name of their respective ideologies earned this war the name of "La Violencia". The carnage cost 300 000 lives and lasted until a military dictator, Rojas, forced the two parties to accept an uneasy truce in 1957.

The truce amongst members of the political class did not however eliminate the existence of a number of competing guerrillas such as the FARC, the ELN, the EPL, the CNG and the M-19. Since then several truces and amnesties have been decreed and broken and the situation has been further complicated by the emergence of the drug merchants as an armed force more or less allied with some of the politically motivated guerrillas. In other words, it's an awful mess...




Ecuador-Peru Conflict (1941 & 1995 )

When Ecuador broke away from Gran Colombia in 1830, it signed a treaty with Peru defining their common boundary along the Marañon river.

In 1941, Peru nevertheless invaded Ecuador occupying more than half of its territory in the Amazon basin in a 10 day war. In the context of WW II peace in South America was essential and it was achieved with the signing of the Rio de Janeiro Protocol in 1942, which defined the border in favour of Peru. The U.S., Brazil, Chile, and Argentina agreed to act as guarantors of the peace treaty. The U.S. Air Force completed mapping and marking most of the border by 1947 but a 78 km stretch in the Cordillera del Cóndor remained unmarked.

Skirmishes occurred several times in this area where there were believed to be deposits of gold, uranium, and oil. War flared up again in January 1995 causing dozens of casualties and harming the economies of both countries. A cease-fire signed in Rio de Janeiro was not respected. A second one signed in Montevideo is holding but it did nothing to alleviate intense feeling on both sides.


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