If you’ve been watching Argentina’s cable news outlets lately, there’s a good chance you will be left with a lingering question: “What’s with all those grainy photos of that guy with the bowler hat? Is there a Winston Churchill special going on?” The two do look somewhat similar, but their similarities don’t go much further than their taste in hats.
The man you’re seeing is Hipólito Yrigoyen, and there’s a reason he’s being so widely celebrated now. Few political figures can lay claim to such a significant role in making the country what it is today, both politically and culturally, or hold such a broad swathe of support from the left and right.
And 100 years ago today, he become the country’s first president elected via a popular, secret vote.
Challenging The Elite
Hipólito Yrigoyen (a name that might seem a bit complicated for Anglophones, until you hear his full name: Juan Hipólito del Corazón de Jesús Yrigoyen) was born in Buenos Aires in 1852, and his political career was very much a product of his times.
Yrigoyen was born into an Argentina embroiled in an ongoing conflict over whether Buenos Aires should secede or form part of a Federal country. When that conflict was finally put to rest, the political consensus that emerged was that of a very conservative status quo, which proceeded to create a sort of Argentine gilded age. While a few rich landowners did very well for themselves, exporting their goods with the help of a new railway network built by the British, average citizens were largely kept from enjoying any of the spoils of the economic system.
Nevertheless, the country’s elites maintained their grip on the political system for decades. They were helped by a friendly press; Bartolomé Mitre’s La Nación newspaper, for instance, regularly sang the praises of the country’s export-based economy – a position which, despite its digital makeover, it largely maintains today. And more than anything, they were helped by the country’s dubious voting process. Only males were allowed to vote, of course. And in addition, there was no secret ballot, allowing widespread repression on the basis of voting patterns, and leaving voters with little hopes of overturning the country’s rigged system.
Enter the Unión Cívica Radical (UCR). Founded in 1890, and originally known simply as the Unión Cívica, the group would splinter to form its more “radical” orientation a year later. The group’s key figure was initially Leandro N. Além who, despite his efforts at reform, became so distraught at his failures that he committed suicide, going out in a blaze of glory with a searing suicide note (his declaration that “[My mission] may break, but it shall not bend,” was later enshrined in the UCR’s theme song). Leadership of the group would then fall to Além’s nephew, Hipólito Yrigoyen.
It would take another 20 years for Yrigoyen to reach the presidency. Despite widespread dissatisfaction with the country’s situation, the political order proved difficult to challenge. In its fight for reform, the Radicals became increasingly focused on two areas: the struggle for social change and workers’ rights, and a righteous outrage at the widespread corruption in the country. Though at the time these beliefs were in no way contradictory, they would come to form an internal schism that would evolve into a never-ending source of conflict within the party.
But in addition to its purely political ends, for its adherents, “Radicalism” was becoming a way of life. As Yrigoyen fought his uphill battle against the country’s establishment, his followers began to adopt the moniker of boinas blancas, or “white berets”, for their preference in headwear that had sprung from the hats used by some involved in Além’s failed armed revolt of 1890.
Read More: On This Day in… 1890: The Park Revolution
As it progressed at the turn of the century, the Radical party became increasingly associated with a kind of politics known as “populism”, while at the same time gaining a reputation as a defender of policies widely seen to help the country’s middle class. Just as the party was divided politically, it was also divided culturally: the Radicals’ fury at corruption led them to adopt a stodgy respect for institutional principle, yet many of them also embraced a rowdy, messy kind of politics, one not altogether different from the culture surrounding the football teams taking root in the country at the same time.
The First Popular President
A key moment in Yrigoyen’s rise came with the reform of the country’s voting system, thanks in large part to the efforts of the UCR he led. Though sanctioned under president Luis Saenz Peña in 1912, it nonetheless would pave the way for Yrigoyen to take the presidency four years later. With the secret ballot firmly in place, Yrigoyen took 47% of the vote in the 1916 election. After two decades of struggle, the Casa Rosada was finally his.
And his inaugural ceremony was a perfect embodiment of the spirit of the party he had come to represent. An evocative account of the ceremony was given in José Landa’s biography of Yrigoyen. “He followed the protocol in every sense… he never strayed from the ritual at any time,” Landa wrote.
But even more telling was the description of the crowd, given by Argentina’s ambassador from Spain, Pablo del Soler Guardiola:
“[The ceremony itself] paled in comparison with the scene there in that immense plaza, an ocean of humanity boiling over with joy…
Did you know what my impulse was, me, a foreigner as I am in Argentina? To run, to lose myself in the crowd, to shout with them… in an unrepressable burst of admiration flowing from the center of my soul…
At that moment, my friends, believe me, I was a Radical, just as Radical as the people who covered the streets of this immense metropolis during those hours.”
It was a defining moment, perhaps the defining moment in the history of the Radical party. A moment where a president was able to win over the country’s more logical side, its reverential respect for institutions and traditions, and its hyper-energetic, frenetic, sometimes destructive but always passionate soul.
And it was a moment Yrigoyen would have trouble repeating while in office. As president, he implemented a number of important policies. The railroad system dominated by the British would be reformed to provide greater benefit to locals. Universities were made public, and more accessible to the middle class. The country’s oil resources were to be managed by a state oil company: YPF.
Read More: A History of the UCR (Part I)
But despite marked improvements over his predecessors, Yrigoyen failed to fully remedy the dire situation faced by many of the country’s workers. His presidency also saw the country’s worst ever acts of repression: during the “tragic week” in 1919, in which 700 workers were killed, and the massacre of roughly 1,500 rural workers in Patagonia, as chronicled by the historian Osvaldo Bayer in his work “Rebel Patagonia”.
A Troubled Legacy
Yrigoyen was also significantly hampered by internal struggles. Termed out in 1922, he was replaced by his fellow Radical, Marcelo T. Alvear; when Yrigoyen wanted his old job back six years later, Alvear would accuse him of “personalism”: putting his own glory above political principle. The contradiction at the core of Radicalism had become a definitive split within the party.
But Yrigoyen’s downfall would come on the heels of the global effects of the Great Depression. Managing to quell the unrest launched by Alvear, he was reelected in 1928, only to be caught in the wrong place as the global economy collapsed. Within a year of the crash, hard times and Yrigoyen’s weakened government was taken down by a military coup – a precedented that would be repeated frequently in the next half century. His house was burned, and he himself was sent to rot in a prison cell.
Disgraced and in poor health, Yrigoyen would die in that cell three years later. It would have been all but impossible for him to imagine the respect he would command so many decades later. The ruthless shifts in Argentina’s political preferences would make him a villain at the end of his life, then much later, with the benefit of decades of hindsight, turn him back into the hero he was when he took office.
The Radical party itself was never the same after Yrigoyen. Much of that was external, as the rise of Peron siphoned off much of the Radicals’ populist base. In response the party’s successful candidates: Arturo Frondizi, José Maria Guido, and Arturo Illia, would generally tend to towards the centre, leaning heavily on their institutionalist ethos while shying away from the fervour that had been so essential to their early success.
This trend was reversed under the presidency of Raúl Alfonsín, winning in an upset victory in the wake of the brutal 1976-1983 dictatorship. Though lacking in popular support from the Peronist faithful, Alfonsín made up for it with his fiery, progressive speeches: his defence of democracy, his famous “Happy Easter” speech, and his blistering roast of Argentina’s Rural Society.
Read More: The History of the UCR (Part II)
But after Alfonsín’s presidency ended in hyperinflation, the Radicals tacked back to the centre, embracing the neoliberal status quo that Carlos Menem established in the 1990s. Fernando De La Rúa’s presidency would end in an even bigger disaster: the crash of 2001, in which he was forced to step down, famously forced to flee the Casa Rosada on a helicopter. Under De La Rúa, the same plaza that had been filled with enthusiastic revelers under Yrigoyen was instead filled with angry protesters calling for his head.
The Radicals Today
Despite this collapse in 2001, today’s Radical party, by and large, has stuck with the course charted under De La Rúa – a fact ultimately underscored by the party’s contested decision to ally with Mauricio Macri’s PRO at a summit in Gualeguaychú in 2015. This support played a key role in Macri’s narrow victory that year, and the new president made sure to return the favor by posting several Radicals in his cabinet and frequently gushing about past administrations, particularly that of Arturo Frondizi.
Plenty of Radicals seem to be just fine with this alliance. With many of the more populist-prone former Radicals having long abandoned the party to the siren song of Peronism, those left behind are a more reserved lot who, like Macri, tend to gravitate toward the Frondizi-Illia-De La Rúa axis of the party. These are suit-and-tie Radicals, much more likely to launch into bursts of hand-wringing over corruption scandals than to take a critical eye to conservative groups like the Rural Society.
But there are those among the “boinas blancas” whose support for Macri is beginning to waver. Those who are irritated at his social media shenanigans: his Facebook photo of his dog sitting in the president’s chair, or his heavily photographed trip on a bus in Pilar that was later revealed to be completely staged. While Macri’s media guru Jaime Durán Barba feels stunts like these will make traditional political participation obsolete, many Radicals feel that there’s no replacement for old fashioned grass-roots activism.
The country’s press has spilled a good deal of ink on this topic, Clarín bigwig Julio Blanck notably pointed out the roiling conflict between the Radicals and Durán Barba in a column last week. To make matters worse, some Radicals have gone so far as to invite Macri’s arch-rival, ex-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, to a centennial festival honouring Yrigoyen. These are Radicals who, unimpressed by the party’s more recent drift to the centre-right, yearn for its now distant glory days: the days of Raúl Alfonsin, the days of Hipólito Yrigoyen.
Time will tell if the Radicals will once again put forward a leader in line with the most inspiring figures of its history. As it stands, the same split that has its roots in the party’s genesis still remains. Its centre of gravity hangs somewhere between the well-kept fineries inside the Casa Rosada and the Plaza de Mayo, patiently waiting for another president who will draw in scores of ecstatic supporters, filling the plaza and spilling out into the street nearby.
A street, incidentally, named Hipólito Yrigoyen.