“The provisional government thanks the serious press for keeping alive, through patriotic and inspired propaganda, the nation’s civic spirit, and provoking this popular revolt against the government’s excesses” – Excerpt of manifest emitted by José Félix Uriburu, 6th September, 1930.
For the casual spectator, the events of 6th September, 1930, might have looked more like a military parade than a coup d’etat. General José Félix Uriburu rode through the streets in an open top vehicle, waving to a jubilant public as he made his way unobstructed to the Casa Rosada. Meanwhile, the constitutional president, Hipólito Yrigoyen, who two years earlier had been elected into office with a resounding 61% of the vote, fled to La Plata, where he would later tender his immediate resignation.
Yrigoyen’s demise, broadly welcomed by society, would later be called a “tragedy” for Argentina’s fledging democracy, which would only be restored over half a century later. It showed, as renowned historian Osvaldo Bayer described: “that democracy didn’t know how to defend itself, and that the military could take control of power without any difficulty.” It set, in other words, a precedent of intervention in the constitutional order that would become accepted by society, and be repeated over and over, with increasing intensity, through to 1976.
A Democratic Experiment
Yrigoyen became Argentina’s first president elected by popular vote in 1916, four years after the Sáenz Peña Law regulated universal, secret male suffrage. Nephew of Leandro N. Alem, he had taken part in the failed Park Revolution of 1890, and later, as leader of the Unión Civica Radical (UCR), was instrumental in bringing an end to a long period of elitist rule.
In his first, six-year term, Yrigoyen enacted key progressive and nationalist policies – including the 1918 University Reform and the creation of emblematic state oil company YPF in 1922 – but also presided over the most brutal state repression of workers’ protests outside of military rule (notably the ‘Tragic Week’ of 1919 and ‘Rebel Patagonia’ in 1921). Still, his commitment to democratic institutions and role in incorporating the middle class into politics made him clear victor over the more conservative faction of the UCR in the 1928 vote.
Yrigoyen’s second term, which he began aged 76 and with health problems, faced immediate challenges. Already criticised by the country’s influential economic elite – encouraged by foreign business interests, especially in the oil sector – for his broadly progressive outlook, the president also faced attacks from socialist, student, and anarchist groups for not pursuing more aggressive pro-worker reforms. When the country slid into difficulties in 1930 as the Great Depression gripped the world economy, this heterogeneous opposition converged behind a media campaign that portrayed Yrigoyen as “old and incapable” and as a “tyrant”.
The Hour of the Sword
Amid an increasingly unstable political and economic climate, retired general Uriburu, who also took part in the Park Revolution but had since become a staunch conservative with leanings towards fascism, was conspiring to renew the military’s role in society and politics. It was a role famously promoted back in 1924 by influential writer Leopoldo Lugones, who would write Uriburu’s debut manifesto as de facto leader. Lugones called for the “hour of the sword… to implant the indispensable hierarchy that democracy has failed to achieve so far”.
By the start of September, 1930, rumours of a ‘revolution’ were rife, the speculation fanned daily in the pages of ‘Critica’, ‘La Nacion’ and ‘La Prensa’. Yrigoyen himself had taken a leave of absence due to a bout of the flu, leaving his vice, Enrique Martínez, in charge. The leader was warned about the imminent revolution, but refused to call on still loyal forces to pre-emptively crush it. It was Martínez who would hand over control of the Casa Rosada to Uriburu and his military entourage on the 6th without offering resistance, while Yrigoyen escaped to La Plata as a mob ransacked his home on Av Brasil.
A manifest issued on the same day included a warning to potential opponents of the new regime: “Rejecting any feelings of bitterness or vengeance, this provisional government will try to respect all freedoms, but will repress without hesitation any effort to incite a return [of the previous government].” Five days later, Joaquín Penina, a Spanish-born builder and activist in Rosario, became the first victim of the country’s 20th century military governments, after he was detained and executed without trial for distributing pamphlets criticising Uriburu.
The 6th September manifest also sought to reassure those concerned about Uriburu’s disbanding of Congress and political parties. “The provisional government proclaims its respect for the Constitution and existing laws and longing for a swift return to normality, offering absolute guarantees that, in a short time, the nation will be able to choose its new and legitimate representatives in free elections.”
However, less than a year later, the de facto president would reveal his own ideas of democracy. “The difficulty is ensuring the ‘best’ people exercise [power],” he said in a public speech in July 1931. “That is difficult to do in any country, like ours, where 60% are illiterate, as clearly this 60% would govern the country as a majority in legal elections.”
The ‘Infamous Decade’
The groups that united against Yrigoyen would not remain so for long. Uriburu’s radical ideas to change the country’s constitution and system of governance were not shared by other military leaders, led by General Agustín Pedro Justo, or the national oligarchy, who preferred a return to the pre-1916 practices of conservative rule and electoral fraud.
In fraudluent elections in November 1931, in which the anti-Yrigoyenist wing of the UCR abstained after its own leader, Marcelo T. de Alvear, was prohibited from running, Justo triumphed over the Progressive-Democrat party candidate Lisandro de la Torre. His six-year rule, the longest of the four leaders that oversaw the so-called ‘Infamous Decade'(Década Infame) of 1930-1943, was characterised by a controversial shift in economic policy under the Roca-Runciman treaty, designed to boost trade between Argentina and the UK.
The deal granted major concessions to British companies in exchange for a promise to buy Argentine beef at reduced prices, and turned the country, as its architect Julio Roca Jr explained, into an “integral economic part of the British Empire.” It would last until 1945, when the nationalist backlash led by Juan Domingo Perón opened a new chapter in the country’s political, economic and social history.
Yrigoyen, who was held captive for over a year after the coup, never recovered full health, and died on 3rd July, 1933. His funeral was marked by a massive, spontaneous public gathering, a surprise given how few supporters he had left when Uriburu relieved him from office. Perón, who took part in the 1930 coup, wrote later: “I remember Yrigoyen as the first Argentine president to stand up to foreign and national forces of the oligarch to defend his people. I saw him fall ignominiously amid rumours and falsehoods. I was young then, and against Yrigoyen, because the rumours had reached me, and there was no-one to deny them and tell the truth.”
Perón’s regret, likely shared by many in the multitude that mourned Yrigoyen’s death, came too late. A blueprint for military intervention in politics – supported by conservative civil groups and the mainstream media – had been drawn, and would be followed, with increasing volatile and violent consequences, until the eventual restoration of democracy, on 10th December, 1983.