Carlos S. Dimas is an assistant professor of history at the University of Nevada–Las Vegas. His newest book, Poisoned Eden (Nebraska, 2022), was published this month.
Biomedical Uncertainty and the Politics of Public Health
In 1893 Jacobo García, mayor of San Miguel, Tucumán, published his yearly report on the city. He discussed its financial state and future projects and spent considerable time expressing his concerns on public health in San Miguel. In the report García declared San Miguel’s hygienic conditions abysmal, concluding that Tucumán merited the moniker of “Poisoned Eden” instead of its official title of “Garden of the Republic.” In his comments García touched on a long-standing chord that locals believed their province to be a progressive, bountiful garden of industry and agriculture, but also a land of disease and death.
In the late 1800s, Tucumán’s meteoric rise differentiated it from the other northwestern provinces. It possessed fertile soils, picturesque mountains, a robust community of medium- and small-scale farmers, and a booming sugar industry that attracted people and capital to the province. During the colonial era, farmers and merchants helped Tucumán develop into an important trade hub between the silver mines of Potosí in modern-day Bolivia to the then small coastal settlement of Buenos Aires. The prosperity continued following independence. Fields of various crops, sugarcane fields, and the chimney stacks of sugar mills processing the sweet commodity dotted the densely populated landscape. The arrival of the railroad in 1876 and its expansion over the next decades facilitated the continued shift to sugarcane cultivation through the importation of machinery for the mills, new markets for consumption, and new laborers. By the end of the century, Tucumán’s sugar industrialists made the province the undoubted sugar center of the nation and even inspired colleagues in neighboring provinces to try their hand at the sweet commodity. The happenings of Tucumán caught the attention of travelers across the nineteenth century who remarked on Tucumán’s success. Many considered Tucumán’s fertile soil, industrious people, and infrastructure testimony to its prosperity and deserving of the name Garden of the Republic.
Yet, “poisons” did exist in Tucumán. In his lifetime alone, García witnessed outbreaks of diphtheria, measles, dysentery, and smallpox in Tucumán. He saw endemic levels of malaria among the province’s population. He likely walked along the various shantytowns that encircled San Miguel. By the end of the nineteenth century médicos (physicians) reported that Tucumán had one of the highest infant mortality rates in Argentina. On top of these medical realities, García experienced the three cholera epidemics at the center of this book (1867–68, 1886–87, and 1894–95). There is no doubt these collective factors influenced García’s assessment of his home province. Other public officials shared García’s concern for the health of Tucumán. García’s words echoed the internalized frustrations provincial elites connected between disease and social backwardness, and their frustrations on the dual existence of economic progress and social underdevelopment. As Eric Carter shows in his study of malaria in early twentieth-century Tucumán, regardless of the demographic impact of a disease, elites fixated on its symbolic power. For instance, the limited demographic data available for deaths across the cholera epidemics only amounts to some two thousand, but provincial officials routinely returned to the epidemics as important moments in Tucumán’s history. In 1894 Governor Benjamín Aráoz, a licensed physician who treated cholera patients during the epidemic of 1886–87, agreed that cholera highlighted Tucumán’s medical problems. Aráoz, however, found the silver lining in epidemics. Like other medical actors of the period, he considered epidemics important political and medical opportunities to spur government investment in public health and further solidify the provincial state as an overseer of health. Thus, for provincial leaders cholera epidemics fell somewhere between apocalyptic crisis and opportunity.
This book centers on the three cholera epidemics that erupted in the northwestern Argentine province of Tucumán in the latter half of the nineteenth century to examine the Argentine state-building process from both the national (Buenos Aires) and provincial perspective. I define the state as an institution able to create and execute policy, and as a malleable entity that changes across diverse contexts, situations, and historical actors and in response to different social, political, economic, and, in the case of this book, medical stimuli. Thus, I hold that the state is a negotiated space and is in a continual process of dialogue, formation, and building. This study privileges epidemics and builds upon the foundation and context more traditional approaches to studying Argentine state-building have opted for, such as revolt, the complicated web of nineteenth-century Argentine high politics, and armed conflict. I opt for epidemics as they offer ideal spaces to examine how states govern because of their wonderful ability in paralyzing a society and undoing order, even if temporary. Societies and states cannot ignore an epidemic or choose when to respond, as in the case of endemic diseases. The arrival of an epidemic conjures images of bodies piling up on the streets, the economy nose-diving, religious leaders declaring the disease a higher power’s punishment for pervasive wickedness, and politicians simultaneously doling out blame and hoping to save their careers. In short, they reopen old wounds.