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CHAPTER V NATIONAL, PROVINCIAL, AND MUNICIPAL GOVERNMENT
The Constitutions of Argentina and Uruguay differ chiefly in that while the former gives a large measure of autonomy to the Provinces (therein, as in other respects, being closely modelled on that of the United States), the latter does not, the whole legislative power being vested in the National Congress.[12]

Argentina has 14 Provinces and 11 National Territories, including the district of the Federal Capital, the city of Buenos Aires. Each of the Provinces has a Governor and a Parliament of its own, chosen by the local electorate, and possesses, as has been said, a very large measure of autonomy in the management of its own fiscal and other internal affairs. Other large areas which are not yet judged by Congress to have attained sufficient development to be able to support the financial burdens and status of autonomous Provinces have remained National Territories under the direct control of the National Government. The Municipal Council of the Federal Capital has wide administrative powers, always subject, however, to the sanction of the National Executive, and the “Lord Mayor” (Intendente Municipal) of Buenos Aires is appointed by the National Government.

The National Territory likely to be the first promoted to the rank of a Province is that of the Pampa Central; now one of the chief cereal areas of the Republic.

[63]

The Argentine Provinces and National Territories are the following:

PROVINCES

    1. Buenos Aires.
    2. Santa Fé.
    3. Entre Rios.
    4. Corrientes.
    5. Córdoba.
    6. San Luis.
    7. Santiago del Estero.
    8. Mendoza.
    9. San Juan.
    10. La Rioja.
    11. Catamarca.
    12. Tucumán.
    13. Salta.
    14. Jujuy.

TERRITORIES

    1. Federal Capital.
    2. Misiones.
    3. Formosa.
    4. Chaco.
    5. Pampa Central.
    6. Neuquen.
    7. Rio Negro.
    8. Chubut.
    9. Santa Cruz.
    10. Tierra del Fuego.
    11. Los Andes.

It should be added that all Public Acts and Judicial Decisions of one Province have legal effect in all the others. Sometimes, however, conflicts of jurisdiction afford matter for the decision of the Federal High Court.

Uruguay is divided into 19 Departments, each of which has a Governor appointed by the National Executive and an administrative Council chosen by local popular vote. The Departments of Uruguay are:

    Tucuarembo.
    Cerro Largo.
    Durazno.
    Paysandú.
    Salto.
    Minas.
    Florida.
    Artígas.
    Rocha.
    Rivera.
    Treinta y tres.
    Soriano.
    Rio Negro.
    San José.
    Colonia.
    Flores.
    Maldonado.
    Canelones.
    Montevideo.

[64]

It is perhaps not convenient here to discuss the comparative advantages of the two systems; but it must be said that evidence of the defects inherent to the qualities of both is not lacking. In Argentina the Provinces and in Uruguay the National Governments have frequently shown and still show a disposition to make ells out of the inches given them by their respective constitutions.

In Argentina this disposition was considerably scotched though not killed by the Centralizing policy of Dr. Figueroa Alcorta, the immediate predecessor in the Presidential chair of the recently deceased Dr. Roque Saenz Pe?a. Dr. Alcorta’s policy was fundamentally good and was carried out by him with, doubtless, the best of motives, if the manner of its execution was rather Gilbertian.

The evils he attacked arose from the fact that each of the more distant Provinces was practically under the almost autocratic domination of a great land-owning family; the descendants, usually, of the lords of the soil in the patriarchal days of the River Plate countries.

In those Provinces these families and their nearer ramifications formed powerful oligarchies; ruling over people who in their turn were the descendants of those who in bygone days had been little else than the vassals of the Great House. The head of the leading family was the Governor of his Province by an almost acknowledged right of inheritance; while his sons, nephews, and sons-in-law occupied the chief posts in the Provincial Government.

It is not too much to say that these people had, in measure as the National Government became more and more perfected in its conduct and outlook, become an insufferable obstacle to uniformity of ordered conduct of public affairs. Especially was this so in financial matters.

The outlying and, mostly, poorer Provinces were always needing, or at any rate wanting, money; and at the same time not over-nice about their lack of unpledged security when they found a European financier, as untrammelled by[65] scruple as they themselves, willing to engineer a further Provincial loan under the independent borrowing powers given by the Constitution to each Province. Some of them also wished to continue and even increase the issue of notes the value of which was shockingly depreciated, and which were only legal tender within the boundaries of the particular Province. Almost in vain, the National Government issued diplomatic and consular circulars to the effect that Provincial loans were not Argentine National loans, and that it, the National Government, would only hold itself responsible for the latter. The financiers who floated new Provincial loans were well aware that the majority of those persons whom they could induce to take up such bonds knew little or nothing of the distinction between National and Provincial. The loan was an Argentine one; puffed with perfectly true statistics of the progress and prosperity of the Argentine Republic—without too much insistence on that of the particular Province concerned. Besides, these financiers and, possibly, some of their clients calculated on the extreme probability of the National Government, if an awkward situation really did arise, not allowing its Provinces to be declared defaulters in Europe, because of the consequent slur which must inevitably, though unjustly, fall on the name of “Argentina”; a name the credit of which the untiring and scrupulous efforts of the National Government have built up since the crisis of 1891.

The Provincial Oligarchies had also other ways of jockeying National Government. They would ask for all sorts of things, and if refused would proceed to rant shamelessly in the Senate. This was blackmail, nothing more nor less; but frequently effective, since Provincial Governors are practically always members of the National Senate; in which the President must, obviously, have a majority if he is to carry on the Government.

Such situations Dr. Figueroa Alcorta determined to take[66] in hand; and the only way of doing this was to break up the offending Oligarchies.

Much of the humour of his doing so lay in the fact that he owed his high post to an original miscalculation of his character as that of a pleasant enough figure-head certain to be docile in the hands of the wire-pullers. Therefore he was appointed Vice-President to be a negligible quantity under the Presidency of Dr. Manuel Quintana. On whose death he, ipso facto, under the Constitution, became acting President for the remainder of Dr. Quintana’s term of office. The developments of Dr. Figueroa Alcorta were as much a surprise to Argentine politicians as were those of Bret Harte’s “Heathen Chinee” to his associates in “the game he did not understand.” And realization came as late in the day in the one case as in the other.

A veritable epidemic of local Revolutions sprang up in one after the other of the oligarchically ruled Provinces. On each occasion an “Interventor” was, as is provided by the Constitution for such cases, sent down by the National Government to enquire into the causes of the disturbance, and particularly to ascertain if the Province concerned were being ruled “in accordance with the Constitution and democratic principles.” If the answer to this last question were found to be in the affirmative, National troops could be sent down to support the existing Provincial Government; if in the negative, the ruling party, including, of course, the Governor, could be deposed and a successor appointed by the National Government in his stead.

As a result it gradually (but not till it was very nearly all over) dawned on the general intelligence of the country that the Governors who had been found to have ruled their Provinces “in accordance with the constitution, etc.,” were faithful supporters of the Presidential policy; whilst those who had been deposed for misrule happened, strangely enough, to be those who had kicked over, or shown an overt disposition to kick over, the Presidential traces.

[67]

This appealed to the public sense of humour and “Revolución de arriba” (Revolution from above, i.e. instigated in high quarters[13]) became a catch phrase. Thus were the Oligarchies brought to naught and the central power greatly strengthened thereby.

Dr. Figueroa Alcorta’s crowning coup d’état was, however, his shutting Congress out of its own Palace in consequence of its conspired refusal to pass one of his budgets. One fine day, the National Senators and Deputies on reaching the Congress building found it in possession of troops who refused them admission. Remonstrance was unavailing, and they perforce returned home. Meanwhile, the President passed the Budget himself, as the Constitution gives him power to do “when Congress is not sitting.”

In the result Dr. Figueroa Alcorta’s Budget (which was a perfectly wise and necessary one) remained operative and the officer who had commanded the troops was heavily fined for disrespect shown to the sacred offices of Senator and Deputy. The gallant officer’s plea in defence that the President whose orders he had obeyed on that occasion was, as constitutional Commander-in-Chief of the Forces, his Military Superior, availed him nothing. Nobody else was one penny the worse. Possibly, the payment of Colonel Calazza’s fine came “de arriba” like the Revolutions.

Soon afterwards Dr. Figueroa Alcorta was the courteous and diplomatic host of Personages (including the Infanta Isabella) at the 1910 Centenary Festivities; and, shortly after that again, vacated the Presidential chair in favour of Dr. Saenz Pe?a, his successor “by consent.” The usual and graceful, though officially unacknowledged, custom in Argentina being that the Presidential Election shall follow a prearranged course.[14]

[68]

With the matter of elections Dr. Saenz Pe?a’s name is, as has been said, intimately and honourably associated, and it may be repeated that by his death the Republic lost one of its most broad-minded and straightforward statesmen.

Up to the passing of his Electoral Reform Law, no self-respecting private citizen ever dreamed of voting: simply because if he favoured the Government policy his doing so would be a mere work of supererogation, while if he held opposition views it would be sheer waste of time and trouble on his part; and if he were a provincial voter he would certainly find himself the object of unpleasant attention by the police, whose really chief duty was to “conduct” elections to the satisfaction of the ruling party. Anyhow, his voting could not influence the preordained result of the election one way or the other. Voting was done by the mere deposit of a “Libreta” or certificate of citizenship, and libretas deposited in favour of the ruling party were subject to little scrutiny as to whether the persons named in them were alive or dead. They were thrown in at the polling stations in bundles. Some were bought; though at a low figure, because there were thousands of blank libretas at Government House ready to be filled in by quick-writing clerks in the very remote event of any booth being reported to have received a disconcerting number of votes adverse to the Government.

In the Provinces the proceedings were rougher and readier; the comparative smallness of the communities enabling the Police Commissary to know the political views of all persons in his district. Did a would-be opponent of the ruling powers heave in sight, he was hustled as if to make room for others who had arrived before him, and if he were still foolish enough to persist in trying to vote he was arrested for making a disturbance, and locked up till the election was over. The Provincial Police Authorities could hardly be blamed for their share in this scandal, because the successful conduct of elections was really a sine qua non condition of[69] their tenure of office. Failure meant for them being almost immediately superseded.

In Uruguay, no matter whether Reds or Whites (the two great political parties) were in power, the rural population, the true backbone of the agricultural country, were perennially in opposition: because they found that the atmosphere of the capital somehow or another always infected their rulers with ideas of government which, however splendid they might be in theory, were more often than not quite out of harmony with, and often contradictory to, practical agricultural needs and conditions.

Thus, to cite an instance often referred to in this regard, it is not long since a German agricultural expert, specially imported with the best of intentions by the Government, showed them that wheat allowed to mature for a while in stacks had a greater commercial value in Europe than that thrashed simultaneously with reaping and shipped immediately. This is, in itself, undeniable fact; from which, however, the Uruguayan Government drew the conclusion that it would be well to pass a law making it obligatory, under penalty for not doing so, on every farmer in the country to stack all his wheat for a certain period before sending it for export. This proposal naturally raised an outcry throughout the country. Because a practice which presents little practical inconvenience and much advantage in an European country, where small wheat fields and a more or less damp climate are the rule, would be monstrously ridiculous in a land where grain is grown by the square league, and where, accidents of weather apart, the standing crops are well dried by the sun. Just imagine the enormous expense involved in stacking wheat over such vast areas as are covered by cereals in the River Plate countries. In which countries, moreover, the greatest of all difficulties in the way of production is the scarcity of labour! The stacking method would cost vastly more than the difference in the value between stacked and unstacked grain.

[70]

Needless to say, this brilliantly conceived law was never passed; but the idea of it stands as an example of the doctrinaire tendencies of Montevidean statesmen of which the rural industries complain.

That there is a mysterious something in the air of Montevideo which influences men in the direction of abstract idealism, and at the same time blinds them to facts which their cherished theories will not fit, seems undeniable. But it is unlikely that Uruguay will ever again be plunged into the ruinous throes of Revolution.

Once the leaders of Uruguayan opinion grasped the fact that Revolution is the greatest possible impediment to the best interests of the country, the peaceful future of the Republic was assured; and they now seem to have grasped it clearly and firmly.

State insurance, State railways, State tramways, water and gas works, electrical power stations and, in fact, State everything was Se?or Batlle’s[15] plan for holding Uruguay up to the world as a splendid object-lesson in State Socialism. Here again one sees the fire of patriotism gleaming through a mass of practical difficulties (the obtaining of necessary capital for the purpose, and on the necessary conditions of the execution of such splendid plans, for instance) in the way of the accomplishment of the President’s dream.

Equally patriotic were those who endeavoured to keep the brakes well pressed on to the wheels of the “progressive” Presidential car; hoping for the conclusion of Se?or Batlle y Ordo?ez’s term of office before too much harm were done. But, mark this, not a sign of overt rebellion in a situation over which only a few years ago the whole country would have been engaged in a fratricidal struggle.

Se?or Batlle y Ordo?ez was an autocratic democrat; desiring and firmly, even obstinately, determined, to rule as[71] absolutely as any Tsar in what he conceived to be the true interests of all classes of the population.

The present writer well remembers hearing him, on the first day of the great general strike of 1911, addressing the strikers from the balcony of Government House at Montevideo.

He told them that were it not for his high office he would be among them and with them; counselled them to stand firmly for their rights; and wound up with a warning that any acts of intimidation or violence on their part would not only injure their just cause, but expose the guilty parties to extremely severe punishment.

By way of underlining this last wholesome admonition, Martial Law was immediately declared, and the next day saw the town filled with Horse, Foot and Artillery. This move (which caused some doubt in the mind of the extreme Labour Party as to which way the Presidential wind was really blowing), and the fact that the flags, illuminations and firework installations were already nailed up for the celebration of the Centenary of Artígas, the National Hero, whose memory has of late years been completely whitewashed by the National Historians, caused the strike to fizzle out and all hands to join, a day or two later, in festivities the brilliance of which confirmed the reputation of the Montevideans as past masters of artistic illumination.

The only net result of the strike appeared to be the fining, in the strict terms of its concession, of the Montevideo Tramways Company for neglecting to run cars according to schedule during a period when it was physically impossible for it to have done so. When no bread was baked and even doctors were forced by the strike leaders to abandon the use of their carriages; when, in fact, the whole city kept a sabbath during which no man might do any manner of work. A state of things enforced by patrols of strikers armed with revolvers—until the troops of their friend the President suddenly appeared upon the scene.

[72]

Of both Argentina and Uruguay it may be said that their Constitutions, Laws (National and Provincial) and Municipal by-laws and regulations are as nearly perfect models of what such things should be as can well be imagined. If they were not sometimes honoured in the breach of them and if isolated provisions were not sometimes hauled out to meet cases pretty obviously not exactly contemplated by their framers, all would be even better in lands where, on the whole, Laws and Regulations, as occasionally varied by tacit custom, generally work very well indeed. Such custom, it should be noted here, is not, however, altogether reliable and would be useless as a defence in the frequently recurring event of some Authority or other, perhaps piqued by an ambition to distinguish itself or to be revenged on a torpid liver, suddenly insisting on the observance of the strict letter of the law. In that case, several unsuspecting people get fined; journalists are inspired for paragraphs and even articles; a, say, three days’ wonder is created; and custom resumes her sway until the next temporary upheaval.

The writer once lived in a district of Argentina where, as elsewhere in that country, all dairy farmers must, under penalty, use milk cans duly certified and marked by the Authority appointed for that purpose, as being according to standard measure. A fee is payable on each can so certified. One day, being in a curious mood, one not uncommon in journalists, he asked Authority to show him the standard measures. The latter, a good fellow, was pleased to consider the writer as another; so he laughed and said he had never seen nor asked to have such a thing. He knew that all these milk-cans were turned out accurately enough by the manufacturers. So what was the use of bothering further? He just marked them and took the fee.

Some day, he or his successor or a colleague of some other district, will be caught by some Higher Authority in a fit of zeal and made an example of. Someone will get a profitable contract to furnish Standard milk-cans throughout the[73] Republic, these will duly get lost or be appropriated by Authority’s wife for household purposes, and dairymen’s cans will be certified on sight as before.

It is only just to say that this story is rather illustrative of Argentine life than Uruguayan: the Uruguayan generally takes more strict a view of his duties and obligations than his over-river cousin.

But to return to our subject. Generally speaking, and especially in Argentina with its Provincial Autonomy, the further one journeys from the National Capital the slacker and more irregular one finds the administration of Laws and By-Laws, the greater the resemblance of the manners and methods of Authority to that of the Kadi under a palm tree. And the more one realizes the truth of the proverb that while one man may steal a horse another may not look over a gate. In country districts personal influence is wellnigh everything. If one be on good terms with the Municipal Intendente (Mayor) or the Comisario of Police (it is generally a case of being friendly, if at all, with both and the other members of the official clique; all usually to be found together in the same bar or restaurant), the law looks very indulgently on one, and at a pinch will turn a blind eye to one’s, really only humorous, peccadillos. If not, one must walk carefully like Agag until one has gathered common sense enough to approach Authority in a properly friendly (and acceptable) spirit.

Does the Comisario’s horse go lame, he will ask you to lend him one. You do so, saying at the same time that you have no further need of it. And the next time you have trouble with your peons, or anyone else with less influence than yourself, send for the Comisario, he will soon straighten the matter out for you. Even if your trouble be with an equal or superior in influence, smiling Authority will discover a modus vivendi and drinks all round will seal the friendly compact. It is seldom one meets anyone who is not on good terms with his Authorities. Not to be so would[74] remind one of the story of Carnot, who refused to stand in with Napoleon I. The Emperor told him frankly that he who was not with him was against him, and that he, Carnot, was much too powerful a person with the people to be permitted to be at large in France under the latter condition. He must be exiled, and had better see Fouché on the matter.

Carnot went; and, addressing Fouché, asked sternly, “Where must I go? Traitor!” “Wherever you like. Imbecile!” was Fouché’s cynical retort.

So, in Argentine rural ethics, if you are not friendly with Authority you have only your own folly to thank for the usually inconvenient consequences.

It is wonderful how much money Authority has to spend on amusement when it gets a day or two’s holiday in Buenos Aires; and it is great fun as well as good policy to go round with him, if you also are in funds. Argentine Authority seldom gives or expects anything for nothing; but usually is a pleasant enough fellow withal, if taken the right way.

The Uruguayan, in such regards as in all others, is a less sophisticated and, in country districts, a more primitively minded person; though always hospitable, usually courteous in his manner, and particularly so to strangers.

The most exalted Governmental spheres, those of the National Governments in the Cities of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, respectively, are nowadays almost entirely free from any suggestion of the mildest form of even technical corruption. It certainly is easier to obtain a personal interview with the President or a Minister if one personally knows one of his intimate friends or subordinate officials; but that is all that influence really amounts to as regards any question affecting overseas Commerce, Concessions or Foreign Affairs. In regard to home politics, doubtless a good deal of intrigue is constantly at work at Government House in Buenos Aires, but those are matters which the foreign settler leaves exclusively to the Argentines themselves. So long as they do[75] nothing which may affect trade or credit, even the representatives of the largest foreign interests are careful to avoid any act or word which might savour of interference in the sole management by the Argentine of purely Argentine affairs. As has been indicated elsewhere in these pages, such interference is the one thing regarding which the Argentine is very jealously suspicious. He may have framed most of his Constitution on that of the United States, but he never would have permitted the States or anyone else to do it for him.

Apart from the transparent incorruptibility, from without, at all events, of all members of the National Governments of both Republics, there is a pleasant free-and-easiness about the manner of Presidential and Ministerial receptions.

The salons in which all-comers are received are large, airy and well lighted; and are furnished with leather-covered sofas, seated on which visitors wait their turn for the President or Minister to grant them a few words of conversation; during which his Excellency sits down on the sofa beside them, cigarette in hand like everyone else in the room.

At a longer, special, conference, coffee also is served, hot in winter and iced in summer, even in the offices of subordinate officials; and rumour has it that it is over this inexhaustible supply of Nationally provided coffee and cigarettes that internal politics are “made.” In Argentina politics of this kind are kaleidoscopic; groups and individuals forming fresh combinations and antagonisms too rapidly and from too deeply underlying motives for anyone not profoundly versed and continually engaged in the game to be able to follow it with anything approaching comprehension.

Much of this has doubtless disappeared under the influence of Dr. Saenz Pe?a; whose fearlessly honourable nature judged, and judged rightly, that the National Government of Argentina is now in a position to face without apprehension any public opinion of its acts and policy.

[76]

Naturally the spirit of intrigue, the love of which, almost for itself, has roots deep down in Argentine human nature, cannot yet be reckoned as dead; but it is certainly in the course of being driven further and further away from the centres of higher civilization by a superior ethical conception of the duties of Government; even as the long-horned native cattle have been ousted to frontier districts by the appreciation by Estancieros of the incomparable advantages, to themselves, of Shorthorns and Herefords.

In Uruguay there always has been much less tendency to intrigue. There, a man was a Red or a White, a conscientious supporter of the Rural or Urban party. While as for Finance the Commercial Community has always and unswervingly seen to it that its realm be kept clean and untarnished by even the breath of scandal. It may here be objected that now and again, foreign concessionaires have made bargains with the National Government strangely profitable to themselves. The true answer to such an observation would be that in such cases the Government has invariably been the quite innocent victim of greater experience and far-sightedness in such matters than its own advisers had ever had opportunity to attain.

Uruguayans would maintain the National credit by emptying their own private pockets if need be and, in fact, have expressed their intention of doing so on more than one occasion when, as is mentioned in another chapter, the Government allowed itself to be frightened into proposals for issues of paper currency not founded on a strictly gold basis. A proceeding which would have spelt repudiation of a portion of the National liabilities; in the manner of the Argentine “Conversion Law.”

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. And it is no sign of bias to give Uruguay credit for plain facts which incontrovertibly prove her sense of the sanctity of moral as well as legal obligation.

True, she was never in quite such a financial tangle as[77] that in which Argentina found herself in 1891; but she has often been poverty-stricken, and yet has always paid to the utmost centesimo.

Generally, it may be said that a similar honesty prevails in all branches of Government and fiscal affairs throughout Uruguay.

For a glance at some small ways that are dark and tricks that are vain, before these are entirely swept away, as they now are being, before the healthy wind of moral improvement (healthy even though, as some cynics assert, it has been raised only by perception of the fact that in the long run, honesty is the best policy) one must go to distant parts of Argentina and there grope amid the intricacies of Provincial and Municipal Administration. There, undoubtedly, we may come across semi-obscure corners from which a highly respectable chartered accountant would fly horror-stricken. But we should also recognize that the whole small fabric of intrigue and petty robbery is a Punchinello’s secret; well known to and sympathetically approved by the whole surrounding populace, whose attitude to the robber is that of “Good luck to him! I should do the same if I had his chance.” Of no use to endeavour to stir up public opinion to demand the prosecution or dismissal of Authorities or Officials who are perfectly well known to have been defrauding the public for years.

Not a bit of it. You would only get for an answer, “What? get rid of him now that he’s fat and get a lean one in his place who would be far worse!” Meaning that a needy man would steal more than a rich one. Local opinion would hold that that way lay madness only; and the would-be reformer would be merely regarded with pitying scorn.

No. The change is coming and coming rapidly with the spirit of the age, and cannot be hastened in its inevitable course; and this change will be thorough, for it will only encounter the ineffectual opposition of a quite infantile dishonesty which has never seriously tried to keep secret the[78] practices which its vanity considered as so much evidence of its own admirable cleverness.

Do you think the milk-can inspector did not delight in telling that he had never seen a standard measure? Of course he did; and a Municipal Intendente of a small country town gets just as much pleasure from the knowledge that, while ten men appear on his Municipality’s monthly wage-sheets as road-menders, there are in fact only two and the remaining eight receipts are signed, for a consideration, per signature, by independent persons. A proceeding which, of course, is perfectly well known to and indeed accepted as immemorial custom by the general public. In these cases no one ever gets caught; because those chiefly concerned have always a pull in Provincial politics—otherwise they would never have found themselves occupying the positions they are in.

But, as the reader can see, all these are childish things; already vanishing and soon to be completely put away by the general and swift advance, moral as well as material, of the Republic.


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