To understand federalism’s future, we must look to the past

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From the cyclical nature of history we can learn a lot. In our current turbulent political atmosphere we may look to historical antecedents for knowledge and wisdom. As the general election looms ever closer on the horizon and the political arguments take shape one issue will ever present in the mind of Scottish voters whether they were in the Yes or No camp, that is the promise of ‘near federalism’ by Westminster officials. This is the story of a struggle for federalism from which we may gain some insight.

The protagonist of this tale is José Gervasio Artigas, the celebrated father of Uruguayan independence and nationalism. Born in Montevideo in 1764 the young Artigas was educated in a Franciscan monastery while he also spent a significant period of his life in the countryside of the Banda Orientale, as Uruguay was then known. While in the country he learned the ways of the gauchos who made up the bulk of the population of the rural lands around Montevideo. He spent much time working upon his father’s cattle ranching estates and in his earlier years he engaged in illicit smuggling across the northern borders with Portuguese Brazil. The experience would prove crucial later in the life of Artigas when he would play such a momentous role in the future of Uruguay and South America.

Around the time of the great crisis which struck the Spanish Monarchy in 1808, Artigas was serving in the royal army of Spain. He promptly left his post to join the Buenos Airean junta which had broken from Napeleon’s Spain. It would not be long before Artigas returned to Uruguay and fought with the gauchos whom he was so familiar with. In the battle of Las Piedras in March 11, 1811 he led a force which routed the Spanish Viceroy’s army. Artigas’ star was quickly rising. He was firmly establishing himself as a leader amongst the Orientales.

The already fraught situation in the Banda Orientale became tenser as the Portuguese staged an invasion pushing the Orientales forces back and frightening the government of Buenos Aires into signing an armistice. This action was seen as a betrayal by Artigas and his legions. Their response has become a founding story in the national identity of Uruguay, Artigas led an exodus of some 16,000 people into Argentina to settle in the Entre Ríos region. Fearful of the advancing Portuguese army they had little choice but to flee their homeland.

For fourteen months Artigas remained in self-imposed exile until a second invasion of the Banda Oriental was made possible by the collapse of the fragile armistice. He and his forces hastened to assist the forces of the Porteños, natives of Buenos Aires, in the siege of Montevideo. It was here, at the gates of his capital city that Artigas would become the founding father of freedom and liberty in Uruguay and one of the first to declare for federalism in South America.

The oligarchic leaders of the military junta in Buenos Aires saw themselves as direct descendants to the right of sovereignty over the vast Viceroyalty of the Rio Plata which spanned modern day Uruguay to the North, Paraguay and Bolivia to the North West and the entirety of Argentina. From Buenos Aires they sought to dictate the outlying provinces. Paraguay was the first to break away in 1810 and its remoteness provided it with a shelter from the forces sent by Buenos Aires to bring it to back to heel.

On October 24th, 1812 the Porteño leaders called a constitutive general assembly and sought representatives from the provinces. Artigas, perhaps emboldened by his new status and his recent success on the battlefield, drafted a document which would be his lasting legacy in history. The document was a list of instructions to his delegates to the general assembly and within this fascinating piece of history are laid out the demands for a truly federal system of government within the former Viceroyalty de la Plata. As the crux of Artigas’ demands it was stated:

‘Be it known that, under whatever constitution that may emerge, this province (the Banda Oriental) retains its liberty, its sovereignty, its independence of action, and all powers, rights, and jurisdictions not expressly delegated to the national congress’

The demands carried with them as strong a message of federalism as was possible. Artigas was impassioned with the idea of territorial freedom and sovereignty, a sympathy which he may have gained from the US Constitution which was often smuggled into the Spanish colonies and translated to be disseminated to intellectuals and lay people alike. Artigas sought to stop Buenos Aires installing itself as another Spain. However, the dictatorial rulers of Buenos Aires had just this ambition. All of the things which the federalists demanded would be directly harmful to the Porteño’s political and economic powerbase. In response to these demands the delegates were refused entry to the conference. This was to be the final split between the two sides. It was a rupture that could not be healed until either the federalists were humbled or Buenos Aires was forced to submit to their demands.

What followed was a prolonged and dogged battle which like a ferocious maelstrom hauled in other regions that began to demand equality within a federal system for themselves. After withdrawing from the siege of Montevideo, Artigas became the de facto leader of this coalition of regions which included Entre Ríos, Corrientes, Santa Fe, Cordoba – all part of modern day Argentina. A fractious and prolonged war began with little advancement for either of the two sides until, after a convincing victory in late 1814 against the Portenos, Montevideo finally fell to the federalists on January 10th 1815. It was an exceptional result for Artigas and the federalists and he was rewarded with the title of Protector de los pueblos libres. At the end of the siege on commentator said gleefully; ‘at last Montevideo was free. The Spaniard was gone, the Porteño had departed. The Oriental had come into his own.’

Peace finally reigned over Uruguay. Across the war stricken land there was much rebuilding to be done. But there was to be little respite for Artigas and the federalists as within six months the Portuguese King Joaó VI ordered a second invasion of the Banda Oriental. The brief period of success evaporated and the federalist’s were placed firmly upon the back foot. Under pressure the alliance fractured. Federalism begot yet more federalism and the regions turned upon each other, the demands for local power were localised to such an extent that some towns declared their independence from their provincial capitals. After fighting valiantly for nearly two years Artigas finally admitted defeat and retreated to the relative safety of the isolated pseudo-dictatorship of Dr Francia in Paraguay. There he remained, not entirely against his own will, until his death in 1850.

His was a prolonged battle which morphed from a struggle for freedom to a struggle for federalism, and finally back to a struggle for freedom. The story of Artigas is one with certain historic resonance today. As the United Kingdom is straining under a faltering democratic system in need of reform we may see the same parallels that were called for between Montevideo and Buenos Aires, and between Edinburgh and London. There is the perception that London has become a great vacuum for all the opportunities, wealth, and power in the UK today. Just as Buenos Aires sought to maintain control over the Banda Oriental the political class in Westminster is attempting to thwart any dilution of its power. It is beneficial to learn the lesson of history that the struggle against centralisation of power and the control of distant regions is one which has been fought for decades. It is a fight which has a certain sense of inevitability about it. Change begets change and those who value freedom and sovereignty are not sated by partial reforms. The lesson of history may well beckon to the future state of the UK as we have begun down the road to federalism and once upon that road it is very difficult to detour from it.

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About Sean Mowbray 9 Articles
Sean is a History & International Relations graduate from the University of Dundee. He blogs on a number of political issues and writes short stories in his spare time. A lover of travel, he is always counting down the days until the next adventure begins.

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