Forwarded from Nestor (barbed wire)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri May 9 15:32:24 MDT 2003

Argentina and Uruguay, barbed wire was the topmost feature of oligarchic
appropiation of land.

The whole history of wire fences in the area is a chapter in the social war
of the oligarchy against the gauchos. This social war is wonderfully
depicted, from the point of view of the gaucho, in our national poem, the
_Martín Fierro_. The poem, at the same time, is a powerful piece of social
denounciation of unequalled artistic quality, singing the last moments of an
exceptional human type under the yoke of oligarchic and imperialist rule in
agro-export Argentina: its author, José Hernández, had been in exile because
he had been a fighter on the "Federal", that is, popular, party during the
civil wars between 1860 and 1870. Allowed to return, he was forbidden to
work in his job (he was a great journalist); thus, and let us thank
political censorship for this, he opted for poetry and wrote the _Martín

There is some confusion about what a "gaucho" is (to be sure, we must speak
of "what a gaucho was", since this social type became a folkloric tenet
around the 1920s). Let us begin by establishing what they were NOT. Up to
the last third of the 19th. Century, the gauchos were not (and in this they
could be clearly distinguished from the cowboys) a rural proletariat -and of
course they were anything but a bunch of tame semi-feudal serfs. The
gauchos, who appeared as a social group by the late 17th./ early 18th.
Century and as a political force between 1810 and 1830, during the early
years of Argentinean independence, were rather a self-sustaining,
independent and free roaming population of mixed Indian and Spanish origin
who would, from time to time, work for an "estanciero" (ranch owner) in
order to get some cash that would enable them to purchase what they knew as
their "vicios" (the "vices"), that is tobacco, sugar, maté grass, sometimes
a "limeta" (bottle of gin) at some "pulpería" (the general stores of the

Freedom of movement across the plains, as if they were sailing a sea of
land, was essential for their independence and freedom. They used to
traverse the Pampas through the traditional "rastrilladas" (trails) that
linked watering points on the streamless and treeless plains. These
rastrilladas, together with free access to the resources of the land, were
one of the bases for their livelihood. Thus, one of the essential points in
the struggle to tame the gaucho and enforce the law of the ranch owner on
him was to curtail and eventually put an end to the right to roam freely
across the Pampas. Extensive fencing was a most important weapon in that
struggle. A move to fence with wires the rural properties in the Pampa
region started and acquired great momentum during the last 30 years of the
19th. Century. Though this move had some relation with elementary measures
of cattle management on natural grassland, their most important social
meaning was quite different.

By the late 1890s and early 1900/10s, the last free gauchos turned
Anarchists, and there appeared in Argentina a host of Anarchist "payadores".
The payadores were wandering gaucho bards -not unlike those bards who would
sing the Illiad or the Oddyssey in Ancient Greece- who sang epic poems
helped with their guitars; many of them knew the _Martín Fierro_ by heart
(as late as the 1930s, Carlos Alberto Leumann met old gauchos in Entre Ríos
plains who would say, tears in their eyes, "Martín Fierro, ah, that was a
gaucho indeed!"; without the payadores this tradition wouldn´t have existed,
since the Martín Fierro was not official literature until very late, when
the gauchos had almost disappeared). The main theme of their songs of revolt
was "Pampa libre para todos" (Free Pampa for all!), and was concentrated on
the struggle against fencing with wires. There are even some Anarchist
dramatic pieces (if I am not wrong, by González Castillo) where the node of
the tragedy was fencing and the hero an Anarchist payador.
The general design of the rastrilladas across the vast expanses of tall,
strong Pampa grasses, copied the old network -sometimes 30 or 40 meters
wide- that the Araucano or Araucanized tribes had established by the after
the 18th. Century in order to carry cattle from Argentinean land to Chile.
The rastrilladas started at the Southern and Western border of the Creole
formation, along a line that ran roughly between Bahía Blanca, Río Cuarto
and San Rafael. This border was, in fact, a buffer zone sometimes 200 miles
wide where the power of the Argentinean government faded into what was known
as the "desert" meaning areas without Christian settlement. The whole place
was aptly known as the "frontera", frontier. and ran across the semiarid
Western Pampas and Northern Patagonia in search of the mountain passes to
Chile. A very active trade existed between Chilean ranchers and the tribes,
who exchanged stolen cattle from the Humid Pampa to the East for diverse
goods (in fact, this became their almost exclusive activity by 1860 and

Thus, -as against what would happen once the railroads established the
fan-shaped network curving into the great export ports of Buenos Aires,
Rosario and Bahía Blanca- the general design of the network of rastrilladas
ran from the East to the West with some occasional branchings linking the
Southeast to the Nortwest and the Southwest to the Northeast. Gauchos would
traverse the area along these rastrilladas, then seek their best preferred
places by simply leaving the troden path into the unfenced land. During the
last period of their drama (somehow depicted in Favio´s _Juan Moreyra_, by
the way, although the film and the novel deal with a gaucho who choses to
become "urbanized" and to work as a killer for a local strong man in the
"civilized" section of the country), one of the most important places
outside the rastrilladas were the "pajonales", dense islands of original
grass many times tall enough to hide a man on horseback, which became the
last hideaway for the free gauchos during the last quarter of the 19th.

There is a great moment in the _Martín Fierro_ where Fierro fights against a
posse that has been sent against him and wins -thus saving his life- because
the Sergeant in command, Sergeant Cruz, decides to change sides: he would
not allow that such a brave man be killed as a wild beast; action takes
place, very aptly, in a "pajonal". But both rastrilladas and pajonales were
elliminated from the life of gauchos by extensive fencing (through wiring)
of the region. Order was set upon the land for the benefit of the landlords,
and wire fences were the material expression of that order. Free roaming
gauchos were thus hemmed into a network of rural roads under close
surveillance by the police. The railroad (mostly British owned, many times
also a rural land development enterprise, thus promoting fencing) was
another element in the destruction of the life of the gaucho, because all
the lines were fenced with wires also.

In order to stop trespassers, barbed wire was used very early in the Pampas,
almost as soon as it was invented in the US and France. It had very bad
consequences on cattle (torn hides, infected wounds, and so on), but it
provided an extraordinary means to establish, for ever, the grip of the
Argentinean oligarchy on the Pampas. The whole thing was worth the price of
ruining some hides: barbed wire was the ultimate expression of oligarchic
victory on the gaucho. Those who would not become a "peón", a rural
proletarian (or, in the last phase of this history, be as lucky as to get
some job as a peón) found their whole Universe latticed by a stinging net of
material expressions of property. They gathered, jobless and living in the
worst areas of land, around the languishing urban centres in the rural
Pampas, waiting for the moment in which, through industrialization after
1930, they would mix with the European working class in the outskirts of the
large towns.

15 years later, this new proletariat made its victorious entry into history.
But this is an entirely different tale.

Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list:

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