El Libertador Part 2: General Jose de San Martin- Argentina, Chile, Peru war of Independence and Latin American politics

La guerra de la independencia: Arriving in Buenos Aires, capital of the Viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata; San Martin and his companions were faced with a colonial government in disarray. Not quite revolutionary, and not quite loyalist; attempting to form a new United Provinces; factional infighting so preoccupied them that they proved ineffective not only in subjugating outlying provinces, but barely securing their external borders. To be sure, there was much pride in the repulsion of two British invasions a couple of years earlier; which, it could be said was the primary trigger for self-determination; but beyond that, the local government struggled to define its purpose or its capacity to lead the rest of the colony.

Outlying provinces were suspicious of the motives of Buenos Aires, and pursued a federalist agenda, which carried its own risks, as border security was flimsy, and led by heroic leaders who for the most part, were nevertheless not professional soldiers.

San Martin was ideally suited to reorganise the military, but suspicions as to his motives ran deep, so early on he was assigned to mobilise a small cavalry regiment and police the river towns along the Parana River. Several successful engagements quickly proved his loyalty and skill and he was catapulted into senior leadership roles and quickly began re-organising the army.

His primary goal was to secure external borders, particularly against the northern Viceroyalty of Peru, which posed a huge threat of attack from the Highlands. Seeing no way to win in the mountainous terrain, he instead formed a new army, and crossed the Andean Alps into Chile, in a Herculean feat not seen since Hannibal’s crossing of the Italian Alps into Rome, taking the enemy by surprise and liberating Santiago, and eventually sweeping up the coast and taking Peru, in battles that had so few casualties, that commentators were shocked at his ability to achieve victory.

From here he met up with the swashbuckling Bolivar, who, not willing to share the glory of Liberating the rest of the continent, insisted on going it alone rather than join forces with his southern ally. Low on funds, and lacking the support of Buenos Aires, who was embroiled in a civil war, San Martin left the war to the politicians and retired. Still unsatisfied, the ruling elites feared his political clout, so he voluntarily exiled himself to Europe, watching from afar, as his homeland continued to be plagued by both civil war as well as Portuguese incursion, entirely of their own making.

At the time, he was seen as a controversial figure by the ruling elite, refusing to raise a sword against his own countrymen in a civil war that to him, seemed like an unnecessary distraction from the wider scope of liberation from Colonial oppression. It took many decades for successive governments to begrudgingly recognise what the ordinary folk knew all along- that he was the enabler not only of liberation of the entire southern half of the continent, but also of the further ability of Simon Bolivar to finish what San Martin himself had started. It is highly probable that without San Martin’s actions, Bolivar would have failed to take Peru, or indeed proceed any further south than Guayaquil in modern Ecuador, as he desperately needed San Martin’s reinforcements even in that outlying campaign.

Forgotten for decades, San Martin now lies in the cathedral of Buenos Aires, rightly venerated by ordinary Argentines, Chileans and Peruvians alike, as “el libertador”, the Liberator.

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