José Eloy Alfaro

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José Eloy Alfaro

José Eloy Alfaro (1842-1912) was an Ecuadorian revolutionary leader and president. He is the great hero of Ecuadorian radicals.

José Eloy Alfaro was born on June 25, 1842, in Montecristi in the coastal province of Manabi. His father, Manuel Alfaro, was a Spaniard who came to the town as a buyer of straw hats and settled down to live with Natividad Delgado, a girl with mixed white, Indian, and African ancestry. They had eight children, and their common-law marriage was legalized through a church wedding in 1863.

Eloy Alfaro was 22 years old when he started his revolutionary career by taking prisoner the governor of the province. From then till 1889, he was constantly engaged in efforts to subvert the successive governments of Ecuador, either as an independent guerrilla leader, as an officer in a bigger revolutionary movement, or as the backer of other revolutionaries. His originally successful business ventures in Panama and his marriage there to Doña Ana Paredes y Arosemena gave him the financial means to pursue these activities. Even though he invariably failed, his constant activity led to his recognition by liberals as a general, and his prestige further increased as a result of contacts with outstanding liberal revolutionaries from other countries.

In 1895 the coalition of moderates and extreme conservatives in power in Ecuador split, with the conservatives revolting. The liberals seized the opportunity and rose in the coastal city of Guayaquil. Lacking a military leader with sufficient prestige, they remembered Alfaro and called him back. The Old Fighter, as he was known, marched with his army on Quito and soon had his authority established over the country.

Alfaro occupied the presidency from September 1895 until January 1901. His successor, Gen. Leónidas Plaza, had been his first choice for the post, but at the last moment he pressed for Plaza's withdrawal. Alfaro was unsuccessful, and relations between the two men remained cool. When, in 1905, Plaza handed over the presidency to his own candidate, Lizardo García, Alfaro overthrew the new president within 4 months and on Jan. 17, 1906, assumed that office himself.

Alfaro remained president until Aug. 11, 1911, when he was ousted for refusing to hand over the presidency to his legally elected successor—again originally handpicked by himself—Emilio Estrada. Alfaro and his followers were sent into exile. But within 4 months President Estrada died, and Alfaro immediately returned to Guayaquil to launch a revolt against the provisional government, which was favorable to Gen. Plaza. His attempt failed, and Alfaro was captured with his most important followers and sent to Quito. On the day of their arrival, Jan. 28, 1912, they were lynched by a mob that broke into the prison.

Alfaro did not deserve the way he died, but he certainly had been courting a violent death. With the exception of his years in the presidency, he had been a threat to his country's political stability for 50 years. As president, he condoned and occasionally even ordered political murders. Under him rapacious militarism became the curse of the country, and electoral fraud and nepotism were institutionalized. He pursued a bungling foreign policy. The essential aspect of his reforms was the separation of Church and State, by no means an unmixed blessing in the case of Ecuador. He was able to reduce the political influence of the great landowners of the central highlands, though at the cost of strengthening the power of the coastal oligarchy. Perhaps the greatest achievement of his 11 years as president was the completion of the railroad linking Guayaquil to Quito, through the efforts of Archer Harman, an entrepreneur from the United States.

Further Reading

There are several good biographies of Alfaro in Spanish. In English, Emeterio S. Santovenia, Eloy Alfaro (trans. 1935), is a biased, uncritical work. Background studies which discuss Alfaro include John Edwin Fagg, Latin America: A General History (1963; 2d ed. 1969), and Edwin E. Erickson and others, Area Handbook for Ecuador (1966). □