“Patriotism obliges us to proclaim a revolution as an extreme and necessary recourse to prevent the ruin of the country… we know the public approves and celebrates this effort, whatever sacrifices it demands.” – Excerpt from the manifesto of the Park Revolution, 26-29th July, 1890.
Leandro N. Alem was the last to leave the Artillery Park as night fell on 29th July, 1890. Testimonies from the time describe how he walked despondently to the corner of Talcahuano and Lavalle, ignoring the warning cries from a nearby officer as he approached an armed barricade…
Three days earlier, Alem had been the first to arrive to lead a plan, formed by some of Argentina’s most illustrious historical characters, to overthrow the widely discredited government of Miguel Juárez Celman in a civic-military coup d’etat. The so-called ‘Park Revolution’ was, according to the protagonists, an “extreme and necessary” measure to avoid the country’s downfall in economic, political, and moral terms.
The plot was, ostensibly, a failure: following a confused and questionable strategy, the armed uprising was put down in three days without achieving its goals. Already under intense pressure amid a growing financial crisis, President Juárez Celman did step down a few days later, but was replaced by his deputy, Carlos Pellegrini, another member of the establishment that did little to address the core concerns of the revolution.
Yet the frustrated revolt did sow the seeds for deeper change in Argentine politics and society. The broad alliance created in opposition to Juárez Celman would eventually evolve into the country’s oldest surviving political party, the Unión Cívica Radical (UCR). Perhaps even more importantly, it stirred a dormant electorate, which would slowly awaken over the subsequent decades to the need to challenge the country’s elitist and oligarchic leadership and demand political participation and representation; it marked, in other words, the first small step on the long road to modern democracy.
The ’80s Generation
The roots of the Park Revolution grew silently during the previous decade, the first of the so-called ‘Conservative Republic’ era that emerged from the country’s long civil war with the inauguration of General Julio Argentino Roca as president in 1880. Under the slogan “Peace and Administration”, Roca oversaw a period of rapid economic expansion financed by soaring agricultural exports and an influx of foreign capital, especially British.
However, power was concentrated within a small technocratic elite – later known as the ‘The ’80s Generation’ – while wealth remained in the hands of powerful landowners and businesses, called simply the ‘oligarchy’. Amid an air of optimism, there was little concern over rising external debt, little interest in strengthening national industry, and few checks on widespread corruption.
By the time Roca was preparing to hand over the leadership to Juárez Celman in another fraudulent election in 1886, even British newspaper The Financial Times was critical of the influence of the country’s landed gentry on the local economy, calling them an “enemy” of the national currency: “As the principal landowners and producers in the country, their interests lie in paying costs in paper money while obtaining high prices in gold with the sale of their goods. Their idea of paradise is based on good European markets and weak money at home, because that way the gold provides them with more land and cheap labour.”
Juárez Celman followed a broadly similar business ideology, but used the model to benefit his partners and allies almost exclusively, while monopolising his control over political institutions (his regime was referred to as the ‘unicato‘, or ‘one-man rule’). Reforms to the banking system unleashed a frenzy of speculative financial activity that created conditions for a major economic and debt crisis to explode towards the end of the decade.
The government, which had not heard any opposition or criticism in its first two years since 1886, suddenly faced workers’ strikes (routinely and violently suppressed by police) and the first outspoken voices of dissent in Congress. It was at this point that a heterogeneous group of influential intellectuals, professionals, and politicians that opposed the Juárez Celman regime – a disenfranchised faction of the elite – began to meet to discuss what they saw as the demise of the republic.
Among these familiar names, many of whom would play key roles in the country’s future political transition, it was Leandro N. Alem, a lawyer and former Congressman, that emerged as leader of a new opposition.
A Failed Uprising
In late 1989, Alem joined forces with an old ally, ex president and founder of La Nación newspaper Bartolomé Mitre, and other prominent figures marginalised by the government, to launch a united opposition front during a public act in Buenos Aires. With Juárez Celman increasingly isolated – including from Roca and the traditional oligarchy – as the economic crisis deepened, the fledgling movement gathered momentum quickly, and a second public act, in April 1890, in which the Union Civica was officially inaugurated, drew an estimated 15,000 out on the streets. A party manifesto, emitted a few days later, wrote of the need to “break the oppressive system with energetic civic organisation of the people, who will exercise the political rights that belong only to them.”
With elections consistently rigged, plans for a civic-military insurrection were made. According to the ‘Revolutionary Junta’, the use of force was a necessary means to bring a premature end to a corrupt and undemocratic regime; once this was achieved, a transitional government led by Alem would set up “free and fair” elections that would restore constitutional order and hand power back to the people.
A date was set for 26th July – Mitre would be out of the country, but a loyal follower of his, General Manuel Campos, who had joined the conspiracy in its early stages, was put in charge of the military operations. Most of Buenos Aires was still sleeping when the insurgent forces – a mix of rebel military units and armed civilian activists – took up their positions in and around the Artillery Park, an area of the capital known today as Tribunales, at 4am.
Once established in the Artillery Park, the plan for combat, as agreed by the revolutionary leaders, was to advance on the enemy rapidly, taking advantage of dispersed and unprepared government forces to seize control of key public buildings and transport hubs. However, Campos changed this strategy at the last moment, insisting that the forces hold and defend their positions. Despite Alem’s protestations, Campos argued that it would be prudent to see if still-loyal military units would join the revolution if asked “patriotically”, and risky to chase the enemy across the city.
The government troops, led by General Nicolas Levalle, made the most of this hesitation to reorganise, though their initial attacks were convincingly repelled by squads of armed civilians, firing from the windows and balconies of corner buildings in the blocks surrounding Artillery Park.
After the first day of running battles, the revolutionary forces arguably had the upper hand, yet still Campos refused to launch a full attack. Moreover, he sent an alarming message to the Revolutionary Junta that their forces were running low on ammunition, advising that they seek a temporary ceasefire under the excuse of burying the dead to restock.
A 24-hour armistice was hastily arranged with Vice-President Pellegrini (Juárez Celman had been instructed to leave the capital when hostilities began) on the morning of the 27th, a decision that most historians agree was decisive for the defeat of the revolution. The government was able to use the time to regroup and strengthen with forces arriving from other parts of the country, and on 28th July, to the chagrin of many of those involved in the fighting, the capitulation was confirmed. As a prerequisite for laying down arms, the revolutionary leaders demanded a guarantee that no charges would be brought against them, and the resignation of Juárez Celman; they received only the former.
Seeds of Change
The causes of the failure of the Park Revolution are clouded by the lack of definitive, impartial information about it. Alem himself would later write: “The failure of the July revolution was exclusively down to not executing the military plan designed by the Revolutionary Junta, remaining on the defensive and besieged in the park instead of quickly taking control of the city and, subsequently, the republic.”
General Campos undoubtedly played a key role, though again, his motives are still debated. Some historians point to a possible agreement made with Roca, who visited Campos alone when he was briefly detained in the run up to the Park Revolution. Campos had surprised the conspirators by sending word that they could proceed with the attack as planned, and that on the chosen day, he would join them, along with the battalion that was holding him captive.
The basis of the Campos-Roca pact, according to historian José Mendía in his 1892 book ‘El Secreto de la Revolución‘ (‘The Secret of the Revolution’) was an assurance of a swift victory for the rebels, provided that it was Mitre – and not Alem – that would be pronounced president. The theory continues that Roca backtracked on this deal when it emerged that Alem remained the chosen candidate, with Mitre not even in the country when the attempted coup took place.
What is known, however, is that Roca once again became the figurehead and preferred leader of the oligarchic establishment, dominating politics in the subsequent decade, and even returning to the presidency in 1898.
Alem, meanwhile, whose life was saved on the day of the Park surrender by the officer who dragged him to the ground before he was shot, continued to unsuccessfully plot against the regime. The Park Revolution had not been the popular rebellion he had envisaged – with only a limited civilian participation – while it became clear after the departure of common enemy Juárez Celman that there were fundamental differences within the opposition alliance.
In 1891, the Unión Cívica formally split in two after Mitre made a deal with Roca to join with the ruling elite. Alem thereby founded the UCR, which would go on to become Argentina’s most important political force until the rise of Peronism. Progress was slow, however: another revolutionary uprising led by Alem in 1893 was soundly defeated, and an even larger rebellion led by Alem’s nephew and protege, Hipólito Yrigoyen, was put down in 1905.
Yet the pressure on the Conservative Republic was building, causing ruptions within the ruling classes. This led to the decisive Sáenz Peña law, which demanded secret ballots and universal male suffrage at elections, in 1912, and led to the election of Yrigoyen – the first ‘popular’ president – four years later.
Alem, however, never witnessed the Radical triumph: on 1st July, 1896, he shot himself in the head. “My strength, perhaps already spent, has been unable to stop the mountain… and the mountain has crushed me!” read his suicide note, . “I’ve given the first push, but I cannot go on… Onward those who remain!”