DURING my stay in Argentina a new president was elected. General Julio A. Roca, the Ulysses S. Grant of the Argentine Republic, was again chosen as the head of the government. His election did not mean that he was the choice of a majority of the Argentines, but merely that he was the strongest man in the small coterie that governs the country. South American elections are not like those of the United States; each nation is only nominally a republic, and the people have but a nominal right to vote. A few persons in each country really control everything political, and the ballot-boxes are stuffed to suit their designs and conspiracies.
In Buenos Aires the elections are held on Sundays in the porches of the churches. Outside the church doors are tables, around each of which sit several seedy-looking men, the receivers of the election. The ballots are of paper, and are dropped through slits in the boxes. Many voters hand their ballots to the receivers and ask them to vote for them. One man often repeats his votes, giving another name at each repetition. The receivers recognize the fraud and are a party to it; at least they do not object.
The better classes of the people realize the impossibility of a fair election and refrain from voting. As an instance of how things are done, take the last election for Senator in Buenos Aires. The city has a population of 800,000. At the election there were only 2,000 votes cast, whereas reckoning one vote to each family of five, there must have been 160,000 possible votes. The election lists are scanned by the candidates beforehand and added to or taken from as is desired. Not long ago the mayor of Olivera was looking over such a list with a friend of mine, when he came to a name which we shall call ” Munyoz,” and my friend said, “Why, mayor, Munyoz is dead. Don’t you remember we were together last month when the report of his death came in?” “Oh, yes, I remember,” replied the mayor, “but if he is dead that is all the better: he can’t now make any fuss as to how his vote shall be cast.”
This corruption in politics extends to every part of the re-public. Every province has its political factions, most of which are connected with the ring in Buenos Aires and take their cue from it. The government is entirely in the hands of the native Argentines, who are natural politicians, and work the business for what it is worth. But the serious thing is that the country is overgoverned. It has, all told, only 4,000,000 people, of whom one-fifth live in the capital. Yet every state has its own senate and popular chamber, each with its own minor officers. The result is that with a population not greater than that of the State of Ohio Argentina has, in addition to a horde of federal officers, 15 senates, 15 chambers of deputies, and 15 sets of revenue col-lectors; it has small officials without number, all of whom receive salaries and most of whom add to them in some way or other not sanctioned by law.
All the provinces are in debt, and but a few of them pay their interest. The internal debt of the country now amounts to almost $200,000,000, and in 1895 the provincial debt, including unpaid interest, amounted to more than $137,000,000 in gold. At present (1899), the city debts foot up more than $24,000,000 in gold, while the country has a national debt of over $350,000,000. A large number of the provinces have annually to be assisted by the government so to pay the salaries of their officials.
The Argentine Republic has a federal congress, which meets at Buenos Aires. There are two houses, one composed of senators, the other of deputies. Senators must be thirty years of age, have resided six years in their districts, and have annual in-comes of $12,000 each. A deputy must be twenty-five years of age and must have been a citizen for four years. The deputies are elected for four years and the senators for nine years The president is elected for six years. Members of congress each receive $12,000 in Argentine money per year; the president has a salary of $36,000. The vice-president receives just half as much as the president, and each of the cabinet ministers gets $16,800 per annum.
You sometimes see statements in Northern papers that there is a close telephonic connection between the national capital at Washington and Wall street. The Argentine congressman is not troubled by having to telephone. The houses of congress in Buenos Aires are just across the square from the stock-exchange, and the president’s house stands between. Some of the greatest scandals of the Argentine Republic have been in connection with the misuse of the public funds by government officials, and this especially as to the national banks and stocks. There has seldom been such corruption as there was in connection with the National Bank of the Argentine, which failed for many millions. The bank was largely political, and a prominent official could cause it to pay out money to almost anyone. Many of the congressmen drew upon it for their support. I heard of one deputy who borrowed a million dollars from the bank and with this built a palace at Belgrano, one of the suburbs of Buenos Aires. In getting the loan he agreed to repay it in instalments, so much every three months. When the first payment came due the bank directors sent for him. On his appearing they presented the note; he looked at it and coolly said that he had no money. They then asked him to pay the interest, but he nonchalantly replied,
“I have nothing.” He was then asked if he could not pay some of the interest, whereupon he burst out in a rage, saying: “I have no money, I tell you. I doubt whether I will ever have any for you, and I want to know right here and now whether you expect me to fight the battles of your bank in congress and then pay back the money I get from it just as other people do?” The last accounts indicate that the million dollars and accumulated interest were still outstanding, and that the indebtedness will probably remain until the end of time.
Another instance of the looseness of the business methods of the bank is shown in the case of an irresponsible army officer of Cordoba, who wanted to borrow $6,000 to build a house. He knew Julius Celman, who was then president of the Republic, and called upon him for a note of introduction to the officials of the bank. President Celman not only introduced him, but recommended that the money be lent him and by a slip of the pen I suppose, asked that he be given $60,000 instead of $6,000. The – officer went to the bank, showed the letter and signed an application, which the clerk made out for him, the clerk putting in the $60,000 as requested by the president. The bank directors voted that he should have the money, and the papers were made out, the officer signing the note without scanning the figures. When this was done the teller of the bank handed out $6 D, 000 to the officer, whereupon he replied that he had not asked for $60,000 but only wanted $6,000. Whereupon they showed him the papers. The army officer pointed out the mistake and asked what he should do. They replied that he had better take the $6,000 and leave the remainder of the money on deposit. and that when the first payment came due he could pay the whole note. So leaving the $54,000, the officer went away. Later on, however, he met a friend who persuaded him he would be a fool not to take all the money, as he could certainly make more by using it for speculating. The result was that he did take it and lost the whole, and the bank was never repaid.
Orders like this for money from public officials were frequently given to the national banks. The standing of the man who was to receive the money was seldom questioned, although cash was given in exchange for his notes. I have heard of common peons who thus got money on their worthless notes at the instance of politicians, who paid them for the use of their names.
The bank would accept drafts twenty or thirty times greater than those which its directors authorized. One of the directors was always to be bought by a bribe. False balance sheets were periodically published to deceive the public, and dividends which had never been earned were paid out of the bank funds. The bank at its inception had a capital of $8,000,000; ten years later this was raised to about $20,000,000, and it was afterwards in-creased to $50,000,000. In one year its deposits were $253,000,000, and its loans were $412,000,000. It had in its vaults $432,00,000 of national treasury bills, and it had a savings department in which $1,400,000 were deposited. The bank went down in the panic, as did other banks of similar character. One was a mortgage bank whose business was lending good money on bad property. The government was also interested in this, and many a swamp lot was used as security for a $10,000 loan. To-day such banks have passed away, and the man who makes :money out of the government must do so either through bribery or by getting a fat contract.
Buenos Aires has many fine public buildings. It has as fine steamship docks as any European port, and it is now erecting a great structure to correspond with our national capitol at Washington. I do not know the exact amount of money that is to be spent upon this, but it will probably be enormous, as Buenos Aires is extravagant beyond description in such matters. Take, for in-stance, the water-works. The houses of rich millionaires in New York have no finer tiles about their mantels than the material which adorns the outside of this public building. The structure covers four acres, and it is all faced, not with stone or pressed brick, but with costly porcelain tiles. Every tile was imported from England. I have seen the tiled walls and roofs of the pal-aces of the Emperor at Peking, but the water-works building at Buenos Aires has a finer covering. The building has cost about as much as our national library at Washington, and its only use is to hold twelve huge iron tanks, through which is filtered the water of Buenos Aires. The tanks themselves, which are worth seeing, cost $2,000,000. Each of them weighs 14,000 tons, and all fill the great building from floor to mansard roof. The water flows in from the river through pipes so large that they can carry 20,000,000 gallons in twenty-four hours. The tanks will hold 15,000 gallons at one time, and a continuous stream of water is filtering through them, so that they contain much more than this amount in a day. It is said that there was corruption in the letting of the contract for this building, and that the government officials who secured it were able to put in the neighbourhood of $1,000,000 into their own pockets.
The Argentine government finds that it cannot afford to hold on to its railroad property. There are annually deficits, where there should be dividends. The lines are consequently passing into the hands of the English. Those that are still controlled by the government have such poor rolling stock that the private companies will not allow government cars to pass over their rails; they prefer to tranship. Appointments on the government railways are commonly made without regard to efficiency or previous experience; politicians after jobs apply for the places. One prominent man recently asked to be made assistant-manager of the Central Argentine system. He was questioned as to his experience, and replied that he knew all about the railroad, for he had travelled over it as a passenger several times ! The govern-ment lines are generally in bad condition. All sorts of jokes are made concerning them, a common charge being that they should put cow-catchers on the rear of the trains to keep the cattle from running over them. The private lines, on the other hand, make money; they are carefully constructed, well managed, and economically run.
Theoretically, the judicial system of the Argentine Republic is admirable. There is a supreme court of five judges, which is also a court of appeal. There is an attorney-general, who is supposed to bring criminals to the bar, and there are a number of inferior and local courts. According to the constitution, trial by jury must be given in criminal cases and each state has its own judicial system. In 1895, 4,500 criminal cases were tied in Buenos Aires, and there were during that year 14,000 arrests for breaches of the peace. You find policemen on every corner in the Argentine capital; they are well dressed, and carry swords, with which they are ready to cut down any one who resists them. On opera nights a company of mounted police on prancing steeds guards the streets leading to the opera house, and on every public occasion the police are out in force. As a rule, you will find order in Buenos Aires as well kept as in any city in the world.
The matter of a police appointment is one of political:’, influence, and the police are very careful whom they arrest. One of the distinguidos, or upper class of young men, may get as drunk as he pleases and it is rarely that he is arrested, while a poor Italian or Spaniard will be quickly taken to jail. In the courts the rich stand a much better chance than the poor. There are, of course, some just judges, but the judges who will not accept bribes are in the minority. Prominent Argentines are awarded the preference in the courts where the matter of right is not at all equally balanced; as a rule, the man who sees” the judge first has the best chance of a decision in his favor. There is no lack of lawyers, for many of the young Argentines of good families adopt law as a profession, some not expecting to practice, but only to have the title of doctor before their names. There are many good lawyers and not a few have large incomes from their practice.
During my stay in Buenos Aires I have seen much of the Argentine army. The regular soldiers are drilling daily in Palermo Park, and companies of militia are being organized. While at the races I saw military recruiting officers go from man to man and demand papers showing whether or not they were Argentine citizens. If Argentines, of a given age, they had to ex-plain why they were not in the national guard or accompany the officer to be enrolled. The strained relations between Argentina and Chile require each nation to be in good fighting trim, and for this reason the armies of both are carefully trained. The Argentine republic has now a regular force of about 30,000 officers and men and a national guard of 480, 000. It has one of the best navies in South America, including fine coast-defence ships, armour clads, six armoured cruisers, three second-class cruisers, and seven smaller cruisers and gunboats. Its naval vessels are in number and size about equal to those of Chile, though I doubt if they are in as good condition or as well manned. The Argentines can put more men in the field than Chile, but from cursory investigation I should say that the Chilenos have by far the better drilled and physically the stronger soldiers.