An antecedent of the Mercosur in 1882
Por Rosendo Fraga

 

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Last May, at an arts and antiques auction of the Gaona Wernicke house I acquired a document dated June 10, 1882 labeled ‘Confidential’, in which the then President Julio Argentino Roca was giving instructions to the Argentine diplomat in Rio de Janeiro Jacinto Villegas on how to handle relations with the Brazilian Empire.

Apart from Roca, the document is signed by Victorino de la Plaza –his fellow student at the Colegio de Concepción del Uruguay- who was at the time Foreign Affairs Minister.

But the background of our diplomat to the Brazilian Court is little known. Jacinto Mariano de la Natividad Villegas had been borne in Buenos Aires on September 11, 1819, son of Doctor Miguel de Villegas.

Since young he joined the forces that opposed Rosas, seeking exile in Montevideo.

In 1842 he published under pseudonym a work entitled: "Rasgos de la política de Rosas: o escenas de barbarie, seguidas a la Batalla del Quebracho. Por un testigo presencial y paciente" (‘Traits of Rosas’ policies: or barbaric scenes in the wake of the Quebracho Battle, by first-hand witness’). The work relates the cruelties committed on the forces, which led by Oribe, defeated the antiterrorist coalition headed by Lavalle in the Quebracho Herrado battle on Nov. 28, 1840, where young Villegas took part.

It specifically covers the taking of Lavalle’s Army Infantry by the rosistas forces and the barbaric scenes against prisoners.

This work was firstly issued at the Comercio del Plata Printing House and after Rosas’ fall in 1854.

Villegas served for more than three decades with devotion, fulfilling diverse diplomatic activities.

In 1872 he acts as Argentine consul in Montevideo –a city he knew well for having lived there during his exile- when on April 6 that year, he conducts the mediation in the peace treaty mending fences between the two traditional parties in Uruguay, which had been bitterly at odds for long.

Some weeks later, he is appointed ‘Plenipotentiary Minister’ to Brazil, an appointment which drives the ‘confidential’ instruction which we mentioned.

The Argentine diplomatic representation in Rio had been discharged by Luis L. Dominguez between 1875 and early 1882. He was then replaced by José E. Uriburu –later appointed minister in Santiago de Chile, Vice President and President of the Nation – who did not take on the post.

Under these circumstances, Foreign Affairs Minister Victorino de La Plaza appoints Villegas.

As regards the foreign policy conducted by Argentine President Julio A. Roca at the time, it is interesting to analyze the message he read before Congress on May 1, 1882 a few days before signing the appointment of his new minister to Brazil.

He underscored the pivotal peace with Chile which had been reached through the border deal signed the previous year, pointing that ‘ the border issue with the Republic of Chile, which is of great concern and had gone through several and dangerous stages, is finally over as you well know and our relationship with this Nation now rests on the greatest harmony’.

But while stressing this achievement he also warned against the risk implied for the region’s peace of the so-called ‘War of the Pacific’ Chile was waging against Peru and Bolivia.

In this regard Roca expressed ‘how sensitive I feel to announce that the Pacific issue in which three friend nations are embroiled, keeps such a warfare state and uncertainty that it is impossible to foresee its end’.

Then, he was considering the actions he had taken along with Brazil to mediate: ‘Encouraged by the friendship with the nations at war, the Argentine Government was determined to offer a joint mediation with Brazil and the American States to find a solution to the conflict through equitable and proper means. In fact, it expressed its intention to the Brazilian government and even when it disagreed in some points, it welcomed the thought with deference’.

Roca immediately expresses the reason why Argentina calls off its diplomatic effort to achieve a joint mediation with Brazil and thus put an end to the War of the Pacific arguing that ‘Under those circumstances, the US government stepped in and it was decided to suspend every proposal in this regard so as not to disrupt the negotiations that had been promoted’.

Here rises something that will be constant in the next sixty years: the dispute between Washington and Buenos Aires over leading the diplomatic initiatives in the region. It had happened with the War of the Pacific and over half a century later with the War of Chaco.

Instructions given by Roca to his envoy to Brazil begin:

‘The President of the Republic has considered it convenient to appoint temporarily as Extraordinary Envoy and Plenipotentiary Minister Don Jacinto Villegas before the Brazilian Government and for the discharge of his duties he is given the following instructions’.

The aim of keeping good relations with Brazil is in the following paragraph when it says:

‘This government intends to foster good relations between both countries and their respective governments forging friendly bonds when possible to which end the Minister will do as prudence and deference tell’.

This last phrase underscores certain degree of freedom of action to the Argentine diplomatic representative as to determining the means to reach the fixed goal.

The following paragraph reasserts this idea though recommends to ask for ‘special instructions’ if the situation requires so:

‘In view of any emergency, the Minister should act with the prudence and deference the situation allows for asking for special instructions if necessary’.

Since the end of the War of the Triple Alliance –these instructions are written twelve years after the battle- Brazil and Argentina had been struggling for the regional leadership which translated into actions on Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia, which had created certain preventions between the two countries, as shown by the following paragraph:

‘As a widespread opinion, traditional preventions and distrust exist between the two countries giving way to cautious political relations of both Governments. The Minister, inspired by these instructions, will try to make that government feel that Argentina is loyal and moderate in its power and that the safety of our relations must rest on the mutual respect and consideration’.

The need to maintain good relations between Brazil and Argentina was constant in Roca’s policy and was a key element in its strategic approach. Suffice it to recall that during his second term the first visits of presidents between the two countries took place and during the presidency of José Figueroa Alcorta, when Estanislao Zeballos was Foreign Minister and the two countries faced strong tension, Roca visited Río invited by the Baron of Rio Branco. His last service to the country was as Extraordinary Ambassador to Brazil for President Hermes de Fonseca’s inauguration in 1912, two years before passing away.

The fact that the struggle would focus on the influence on the smallest countries in the region is clearly explained in the following lines:

‘The Empire’s policy constantly deals with neighboring nations and it is convenient for the interests of the Republic to keep abreast of everything concerning them. Then, it is up to the Minister’s decision and judgment to impose himself and report in detail to the government on those matters’

At the time an underlying suspicion had it that a Brazil-Santiago axis could stand against Argentina and that the Brazilian Empire was conducting a policy aimed at estranging us from our neighbors. Meanwhile, at the Rio de Janeiro government there was an analogous perception heightened by the fact that Brazil was the only monarchy in South America, the only country still practicing slavery and surrounded by nations speaking another language. Against this background, mutual suspicions must be understood and serve to construe this excerpt taken from the instructions:

‘It is likewise advisable for the Minister to impose himself on the relations the Brazilian government should forge with other Nations, inquiring into the closest ties and the motives or circumstances allowing for them, giving due notice’.

Roca’s wit surfaces when telling Villegas:

‘To find out who the representatives of the European or American Nations present are, their background and relationship with the Emperor, their Ministers and influential people’.

Roca always stood out for being a well-informed man and his administration in the foreign relations realm always stuck to this rule.

‘The pending issue of borders over the Misiones territory was a pivotal point in the bilateral relation. To this end, Villegas was instructed:

‘As the border issue comes next, the Minister must heed this question showing by a friendly approach that this Government will staunchly defend the rights of the Republic and find a proper solution. On this matter, you will timely receive the suitable instructions’.

The Argentine President knew well that the own sense of consequence in a negotiation, avoids blunder or misconstructions. The border issue will be solved after a decade by a ruling from the American President, who will hand the disputed land over to Brazil. The Brazilian delegate’s victory in the arbitration –Baron of Rio Branco- will consolidate him in his country while the Argentine defeat will make our representative, Estanislao Zeballos, undertake an opposing stand against Brazil and the Baron, as will be seen during Figueroa Alcorta’s administration.

But the economic and trade front play a pivotal role in the instructions in a time when they were of less interest in diplomacy. Here rises an antecedent of the Mercosur (over a century ago).

‘It is important to hold a customs convention among the Republic, the Empire, the Eastern Republic and Paraguay with the purpose of thwarting and punishing smuggling. To that end, the Minister will make a great effort showing the mutual benefits from this measure and the importance it will have to forge friendly ties’.

The four countries included in the customs convention are exactly the same that in March 1991 sign the Treaty of Asunción that gives rise to the Mercosur.

On the one hand, they are answering to the reality of the region –the Plata Basin- which has historically had a different course than that of the Pacific countries.

But we must also recall that when instructions were signed Chile was staging a war against Peru and Bolivia and it was impossible to consider the integration of these countries into the customs convention.

Roca’s positive formation made him priorize the economic aspect in his administration and this is apparent in the following paragraph:

‘It is fundamental to propose and take all the measures that could be a trading benefit for us’.

On the administrative front, instructions to Villegas point:

‘Special care must be taken on the influence on our Consuls’ behavior and performance considering that whatever their judgment holds must be conducted whether on the personnel, powers and even the creation of new Consulates’.

Communications restrictions at the time, which forced diplomats to take decisions without prior consultation, make Roca claim the following:

‘The President of the Republic hopes that the Minister will act by his renowned patriotism and skill in those circumstances that fall outside instructions, always considering his country’s interests’.

Villegas will serve as diplomat in Rio de Janeiro for a year later to act in Peru, a key destination for Argentina for the War of the Pacific had just ended with Chile’s landslide victory. Vicente G. Quesada will be our new diplomat to Rio de Janeiro.

In his 1883 speech before Congress, Roca will say that ‘our ties with the Brazilian Empire are stronger than ever, ruling out the slightest fear of danger, cooperating both nations and governments to strengthen the mutual feeling of friendship’.

The border issue will play a pivotal role in his presidency. Hence, in May 1884 in a new message to Congress, he claims: ‘The border issue with the Brazilian Empire remains at the same stage without sparking fears. I embrace the hope to solve it meeting the expectations of both nations’.

The border treaty with Brazil –which won’t be definitive- is signed on Sept. 28, 1885 and the following year Roca will express before Congress that ‘The issue of borders with Brazil has reached an end through the Sept. 28 treaty the previous year’.

The goal of reaching a customs convention among the four Mercosur countries, set by Roca in the ‘confidential’ instructions given to the Argentine diplomat in Rio de Janeiro, stands as the antecedent to the Mercosur agreement, proving that the integration of the regional countries is deeply rooted in history and rules out the idea of a short-lived policy.

But his document also enables to analyze the quest for a good relation on the one hand, and the resentment at the regional leadership on the other, that underlay the relationship between Brazil and Argentina in the last decades of the XIX century.

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