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The Unión Cívica Radical (UCR)—known commonly as simply ‘The Radicals’—finished second in the primary elections on 14th August, almost 40 points behind President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. It was a disappointing result for UCR candidate Ricardo Alfonsín, whose father Raúl had led the country’s exit from military dictatorship in 1983.
For the Radicals, it represented just another setback in the party’s turbulent 120-year history. Since its revolutionary beginnings, Argentina’s oldest party has survived military coups and economic crises on several occasions. Yet almost from the outset, internal divisions have undermined the party’s progress, weakening its standing even as it broke new ground in Argentine politics.
Origins: Emerging from the Oligarchy (1890-96)
The Unión Cívica Radical (UCR) has historically been considered as the party most representative of the middle class in Argentina, a malleable identity that has often proved more limiting than advantageous. In reality, the party was founded by a marginalised faction of the elite and only began widening its social base in the early 1900s.
The origins of the party can be traced back to opposition to the late-19th century oligarchic regime. In 1890, in the midst of an economic crisis, a group called the Unión Cívica carried out an unsuccessful revolt, known as the Park Revolution, against the government in the city of Buenos Aires. But despite claiming victory against the rebels, President Juárez Celman was forced to resign a week later, ushering in a new government headed by Carlos Pellegrini.
In 1891, the Unión Cívica split and those sectors of the elite that were left out of the Pellegrini government, led by Leandro N. Alem, formed the Unión Cívica Radical. It was a small minority, and in those first years Alem concentrated his efforts in widening its support base and gathering the means to carry out a successful revolution against the government.
His efforts were in vain, however, and, perhaps due to frustration, Alem committed suicide by shooting himself in the head in the back of his car in July 1896. His political testament read: “My career has come to an end, I have concluded my mission… rather than leading a sterile, useless and depressed life, it is better to die. Yes! It may break, but it will not bend. I fought in an indescribable manner in the last few years, but my strength—perhaps already spent—has been unable to stop the mountain… and the mountain has crushed me…!”
Hipólito Yrigoyen and the Rise of the Middle Class (1896-1922)
After the death of Alem, his nephew Hipólito Yrigoyen became UCR’s new leader. It was under his leadership that the party was able to attract the urban middle classes, mainly the children of immigrants. They wanted to replace the restrictive political system—access to which was available only to the oligarchy—for a democracy, receive university education, and gain social mobility in a highly elitist society.
The growing UCR, which did not abandon its revolutionary ways under Yrigoyen, soon became a threat to the oligarchic regime. In 1912, during the presidency of reformist Roque Sáenz Peña, a bill was passed (the ‘Sáenz Peña Law’) that established secret and compulsory voting for all males over the age of 18 (women would not be allowed to vote until 1947).
In 1916, Hipólito Yrigoyen became the first democratically-elected president of the country, doubling the votes of his closest opponents, the Conservative Party. Yrigoyen’s government has been considered by many as the first popular government of Argentina; some even draw an imaginary line between it and Juan Domingo Perón’s first government. Whilst it is widely acknowledged that Perón’s government was responsible for the social, economic and political inclusion of the working masses, Yrigoyen’s—30 years earlier—can be credited with the inclusion of the middle class after decades of elitist, oligarchic rule.
A classic policy example was the 1918 University Reform, which started out with student protests in Córdoba and soon spread out to other cities in Argentina and Latin America. The University Reform opened up the elitist university system to the middle classes, making universities free, autonomous and co-governed by the students.
Yrigoyen also created the national oil company YPF in 1922. YPF would become a symbol of economic nationalism and would be the at the centre of many disputes in the years following.
The relationship between the government and the working class, however, was more complicated. On the one hand, Yrigoyen was much more open to their demands than the previous presidents, meeting with unions—which at the time were controlled by anarchists, socialists and revolutionaries—and playing an important part in mediating conflicts.
On the other hand, many strikes carried out during this period were violently suppressed. The most famous cases are the so-called Semana Trágica (Tragic Week) in 1919, where 700 protesting workers died at the hands of the police and ultra-right wing militias, and the conflicts in Santa Cruz in 1920, where around 1,500 rural workers were massacred after demanding better working conditions (these events are usually referred to as ‘The Rebel Patagonia’ after Osvaldo Bayer’s book).
Yrigoyen himself was a mysterious character. He very rarely spoke in public and most of those who voted for him had never seen his face. He did not present an explicit programme, but instead built his political career around the ethically-based principles of honesty and institutional restoration, even talking about a “political religion” pure from contamination.
This broad outlook, based on formal principles rather than political ideology, has persisted within the UCR—at least in its discourse—to this day. It would become a unifying factor for all Radicals, though would also allow factions with divergent political leanings to develop and enter into a long-term struggle for control of the party.
Marcelo T. de Alvear and the Break Up of the UCR (1922-30)
The seeds of this internal struggle were sown when Yrigoyen’s succesor, Marcelo Torcuato de Alvear, won the 1922 election for the Radicals by a landslide. Alvear came from a wealthy, traditional family and was well respected by the establishment. He had been out of the country since 1917 (in fact, he was in Paris when he won the election) and was therefore removed from the local conflicts, including those already stirring within the UCR.
The conservative profile of Alvear’s government—in contrast with Yrigoyen’s popular orientation—consolidated the division within the party. The so-called “personalists” (who supported Yrigoyen and his socially-oriented policies), still had a majority in Congress, prompting Alvear’s “anti-personalists” to seek alliances with the Conservative party, some socialists, and small provincial parties.
The conflict intensified in 1927, when the campaign for the presidential election started, and the party split. Personalists and antipersonalists competed against each other in the election and Hipólito Yrigoyen was re-elected for office. Alvear handed over the presidency to Yrigoyen in October 1928; amazingly this would be the last time a Radical president finished his term.
However, by the time Yrigoyen took office again he was 76 and suffered from ill health. His second term turned out to be much more complicated than the first one: the global economic crisis of 1929 hit Argetine exports hard, disrupting activity and raising unemployment, while Yrigoyen’s supporters in the UCR lost their majority in Congress. In the meantime, the president opened up another battle front when he tried to nationalise oil production and expropriate all private oil fields.
In September 1930, Yrigoyen’s weak government was deposed in a coup d’etat headed by fascist General José Félix Uriburu and supported by the press, the army, and some political parties. It was the first of a long series of coups that would dominate Argentine political life for the following 50 years.
Yrigoyen remained in prison until January 1933 and died in July of that year. Nearly half a million people attended his funerals.
La Década Infame (1930-43)
The historic period that began with the 1930 coup and lasted 13 years is known as the Década Infame (Infamous Decade); it was marked by political persecution and rigged elections.
When the military regime called for presidential elections in 1931, the UCR put forward Alvear—who had reclaimed the party leadership—as the candidate. This was unacceptable for the regime, who wanted a “softer” candidate, and Alvear and his running mate Adolfo Güemes were banned from taking part in the election. As a response, the UCR decided to abstain from participating in elections—returning to a protest tactic not used since the oligarchic regime.
In 1935, the anti-personalist radicals ended the abstention period by participating in, and winning, elections in Entre Ríos and Córdoba. This was the last straw for the more combative, Yrigoyen followers, a group of which broke away and created FORJA, which sought to uphold the former president’s legacy and ideals. The group lasted for just over ten years and in February 1946, with Perón on the rising, it dissolved itself claiming that their objectives had been met. Many of their members became peronists, forming a direct link between Yrigoyen and Perón.
Meanwhile, four years after losing another fraudulent election, Alvear died in 1942, deepening the crisis within the UCR. The following year, as the regime prepared the candidacy of “one of their own”, a coup was carried out by the GOU (Grupo de Oficiales Unidos)—amongst which was a young Colonel Juan Domingo Perón—bringing the Década Infame to an end.
Perón: A New Rivalry Begins (1943-58)
Perón’s swift rise to the presidency, which he achieved in 1946 after winning 55% of the vote, widened the cracks within the UCR, which struggled to adapt to a two-party political environment.
The party had originally sought support from new US ambassador Spruille Braden and other political parties to stand against the supposed fascist ideals of Perón and the pro-worker measures he was carrying out as labour minister.
However, a dissident group called UCR Junta Renovadora supported Perón and, together with the union-based Labour Party, formed the alliance that would bring him to power. Perón’s vicepresident, Hortensio Quijano, was, in fact, a radical, and The UCR Junta Renovadora integrated itself within the Partido Peronista soon afterwards.
The electoral defeat changed the balance of power within the UCR, giving rise to the more progressive and so-called “intransigent” group (yrigoyenist), whose opposition to Perón was more moderate that the more conservative “unionists” (alvearist).
This split was formalised in the 1951 elections—the first election where women were allowed to vote—when the UCR’s two, distinct candidates, Ricardo Balbín and Arturo Frondizi were defeated by Perón again, this time in a landslide.
The 1955 military coup that deposed Perón—sending him into exile for almost 20 years—received broad support from the opposition, with the divided UCR sensing an opportunity to return to power. However, peronism was now well-established in Argentina. The previously unrepresented working class had been mobilised and the Radicals were more conflicted than ever about how to respond.
In 1956, the party formally split in two again: the UCR del Pueblo (UCRP), headed by Balnín, considered it necessary to “de-peronise” the country, while Frondizi’s UCR Intransigente (UCRI) had a more conciliatory approach towards peronist ideology.
It was Frondizi who eventually won the 1958 election, in which Peronist parties were banned. The Radicals had returned to power after almost 30 years, but Frondizi’s victory had a lot to do with a secret agreement with Perón, who continued to exert influence over his movement from abroad. Peronists voted for Frondizi in exchange for favourable policy pledges and a lift on the ban on the party.
Frondizi became trapped in what Argentine political scientist Guillermo O’Donnell called “an impossible game”. If the president honoured his agreement with Perón, he risked being deposed by the military, but if he did not, he would lose the support of the peronists that had put him in power. The Radicals were stuck in a difficult balancing act between the peronists and the military, with different factions pulling the party in opposite directions.
The fragile situation was well illustrated by a headline in the Wall Street Journal just a week after Frondizi took office. The American newspaper asked: “How long will Frondizi last?”
Frondizi and Illia: A Battle for Survival (1958-1966)
In the end, Frondizi’s presidency lasted four years, from 1958 until 1962, in a period plagued with political suspicion and social conflicts. His efforts to boost economic growth and investment clashed with demands from peronist groups—especially unions—and workers’ strikes were common. Meanwhile, a plan to introduce private universities—supported by the Catholic Church—met fierce resistance among students who demanded free and secular education.
Frondizi was under suspicion from all sides of the political spectrum. Peronists felt their agreement had been betrayed, and after Perón publicly admitted to his secret pact with the president, Frondizi’s reputation was tainted both with the unions and the military.
The president tried to appease the Armed Forces, which were already uneasy about the rise of Communism in the context of the Cold War, by naming conservative economic ministers, but this was not enough.
The tension was such that during his government there were six attempted coups d’etat. The visit in 1961 of Cuba’s Minister for Industry Ernesto “Che” Guevara was a major cause for concern amongst the military. But the final straw was Frondizi’s decision to lift the ban on peronism in 1962 in time for provincial elections. Peronist candidates won in ten out of 14 ballots, including in the Province of Buenos Aires, and when the military demanded Frondizi annul the vote, he refused.
On 29th March 1962, Frondizi was deposed and jailed. The Armed Forces tried to make it look as though the president had resigned—clearly not the case—the president of the Senate and next in line for presidency (as the vice-president had resigned on the first year of his term), the radical José María Guido took office until elections were called the following year.
Guido’s presidency was a façade, as the power was held by the Armed Forces. During the 18 months of his presidency, he annulled the 1962 elections, dissolved Congress, banned peronism again, and called for elections, which were tightly controlled by the military. The vote was held in July 1963 and the UCRP candidate Arturo Illia, of yrigoyenist tradition, was elected president with a very low percentage of the vote: 25% (blank ballots came second with 18.8%)
Illia’s presidency was weak from the beginning, constrained by a low level of public support, the ever present threat of the military, and the opposition of the peronists and their unions. He was the subject of a massive publicity campaign against him, making fun of the slowness of his government by portraying him in cartoons as a tortoise.
Despite this, Illia managed to implement some important policies. One of the first measures to be carried out by his government was the annulment of the oil contracts signed by the state oil company YPF with foreign companies during Frondizi’s term after considering them “contrary to the national interest”. Other significant policies included lifting the ban on peronist activities, establishing a minimum wage, and passing the 1964 Medicines Law. In just three years, Illia managed to reactivate the economy with a period of rapid industrialisation.
When the inevitable coup d’etat carried out against him came in June 1966, his position was so weak that it was in fact pre-announced by the leader of the Army in a public speech a month earlier. Still, the coup was met with indifference by most people and active support by the political opposition, including the faction of the Radicals led by Frondizi.
The morning of the 28th June, Illia was met at his office by a group of men from the Armed Forces who had been sent to overthrow him. The president resisted, reminding the officials that he was still Commander in Chief and telling the soldiers and policemen “Your conscience will reproach you for what you are doing… Remember: when you tell your children what you did at this moment, you will feel ashamed…”. Finally, he was forcibly removed from office, walked out of the Casa Rosada almost alone and took a taxi to his brother’s house (he had sold his car).
The military once again took the reins of the country, this time, under General Juan Carlos Onganía, who banned all political parties and dissolved Congress, sending the UCR underground and paving the way for one of the darkest chapters of Argentine history.
Nonetheless, it was a time of renewal, with many of today’s prominent radical figures taking their first political steps during this period. One of these figures was Raúl Alfonsín, who distanced himself from the more conservative elements of the UCR leadership and formed a party faction with a social-democrat orientation. At this stage, however, few could have guessed that Alfonsín would be the man to defy the military dictatorship and reunite the Radicals on his way to becoming “the father of democracy”.