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Modern History Sourcebook:
Francisco Bilbao (1823-1865):
from America in Danger, 1862

There is a tendancy to make unfavorable comparison between the beneficial political development of the United States and Canada towards political stability, and the extreme instability of 19th and 20th-century Latin American politics. It is, however, arguable that the value of a society cannot be measured entirely by political indicators.   Nevertheless, there are important questions to ask about what happened to the promise of constitutional government in Latin America. (as seen in Bolivar's Message to Angostura) and how it was perverted by caudillos and military dictators.

Francisco Bilbao here recapitulates the sort of through processes and justifications seen in military dictatorships. Unlike pre-Enlightment political leaders, 19th and 20th century figures have not been able to justify their rule by dynastic or theocratic arguments. What they do is to transform the usual meaning of liberal democratic concepts. The problem for such rules has always been that there government does not coincide with basic post-Enlightenment political assumptions and none had been able to establish a secure government of more than a few decades.

The conquest of power is the supreme goal. This leads to the immoral doctrine that "the end justifies the means. . ." But since there are constitutional provisions that guarantee everyone his rights, and I cannot violate them, I invoke the system of "preserving the form." If the constitution declares: "Thought is free," I add: "within the limits established by law"---and since the law referred to is not the constitutional provision but one that was issued afterwards. . .The election is free, it is said: but what if I control the election returns? What if I, the established power, name the inspector of the election returns, if the law permits one to vote twenty times a day in the same election? What if I dominate the elections and frighten my opponents away with impunity? What happens then? Why, the government party is perpetuated in office, and the popular will is flouted and swindled. But "the form has been preserved," and long live free elections! . . . "The death penalty in political cases is abolished," but I shoot prisoners because I consider that these are not "political cases"; and since I am the infallible authority I declare that these political prisoners are bandits, and "the form has been preserved."

The Executive can be accused before the Chamber of Deputies and is subject to impeachment for one year after leaving office. But that Chamber has been selected by me, and functions for one year after my departure. The persons who must judge me are my employees, my proteges, my creatures, my accomplices. Will they condemn me? No. Nor will they dare to accuse me. I am vindicated, and the "form" has saved me. "The press is free." But I name the jury, and backed by the authority of that institution, I can accuse, harass, persecute; I can silence free speech. Then there reigns, absolute and sovereign, the opinion of one party. I spread the shroud of infamy over the corpse of the vanquished and cry: "The press is free!"

"The guarantees established by this constitution cannot be suspended." But if I have the power to declare a province or the Republic in a state of siege...what security can a citizen have? . . .There is discussion, the press is free; citizens come together, for they have the right of assembly; an enlightened public opinion almost unanimously clamors for reforms; preparations are made for elections that will bring to power representatives of the reform movement; and then the Executive Power declares the province or the Republic in a state of siege, and the suspended guarantees soar over the abyss of "legal" dictatorship and constitutional despotism! And then? Either resignation or despair, or civil war, etc., etc. Then revolution raises its terrible banner, and blood flows in battles and on scaffolds. Respect for law and authority is lost, and only force holds sway, proclaiming its triumph to be that of liberty and justice. . .And if it governs with coups d'etat, states of siege, or permanent or transitory dictatorships, while the constitutional guarantees are flouted, mocked, or suppressed, the party in power will tell you: civilization has triumphed over barbarism, authority over anarchy, virtue over crime, truth over lie. . .We have behind us a half-century of independence from Spain. How many years of true liberty have any of the new nations enjoyed? That is difficult to say; it is easier to reckon the years of anarchy and despotism that they have endured.

 


Source:

Scanned by: J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton. Prof. Arkenberg has modernized the text.


This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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© Paul Halsall, July 1998
halsall@murray.fordham.edu