Alem, Leandro N. (1842–1896)

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Alem, Leandro N. (1842–1896)

Leandro N. Alem was one of the founders of Argentina's Radical Civic Union Party (Unión Cívica Radical). He served as the party's president and was its principal leader from its founding until his own tragic death.

Alem was born on 11 March 1842, in Buenos Aires. His father, Antonio Alén, was a member of Argentina's Mazorca secret police during the dictatorship of Juan Manuel de Rosas (1835–1852) and was sentenced to death and hanged in a public square. His death brought public contempt on the family and deprived it of a regular income. Leandro, who was eleven years old when his father was executed, changed his last name to Alem. He left his law studies several times for service in the army (at Cepeda in 1859, at Pavón in 1861, and in the Paraguayan War in 1865) and finally earned his law degree in 1869.

Alem began his political career in the Autonomist Party and was elected deputy to the provincial legislature of Buenos Aires in 1872 and reelected two years later. Alem's most prominent roles prior to his founding of the Radical Civic Union Party were as founding member of the Republican Party in 1878 and as fervent opponent of the federalization of Buenos Aires in 1880. The Republican Party had split off from the Autonomist Party in opposition to the policy of conciliation of President Nicolás Avellaneda (1874–1880). After an initial success that took Alem to the legislature in 1878, the party dissolved when it was defeated in the elections for governor of the province of Buenos Aires that same year. In 1880, after the National Congress approved the law to federalize Buenos Aires and when the provincial legislature was debating it, Alem led the small minority that opposed federalization, giving one of the most passionate speeches of his political career in defense of the federal system.

After federalization was approved, Alem resigned from his party and withdrew from public life for almost a decade. He returned to politics in late 1889 when opposition began to form against President Miguel Juárez Celman (1886–1890). During the presidency of Julio A. Roca (1880–1886) and then during the subsequent presidency of Juárez, the National Autonomist Party was in government and dominated national politics. Except for brief participation in the presidential elections 1886, the opposition parties in Buenos Aires (the Mitrista, Autonomist, and Catholic parties) abstained from participating in elections during that decade, arguing that suffrage was not guaranteed. Rival political careers and struggles for leadership made it difficult for these groups to form a united front of opposition to the political dominance of the National Autonomist Party. The economic crisis that began in 1889 and intensified the following year and the involvement of younger generations of political leaders made it possible for the older politicians of Buenos Aires (Bartolomé Mitre, Aristóbulo del Valle, Bernardo de Irigoyen, Alem, and others) to work together temporarily. At the end of 1889, these leaders agreed to form a group called the Civic Union, a smoke screen for organizing a revolution to overthrow Juárez. The revolution took place in July 1890, and although the government withstood it, Juárez resigned in early August.

Alem was elected president of the Civic Union Party and entrusted with the political organization of the revolution. Juárez's resignation prompted internal divisions within the party concerning which strategy to follow. The Mitre faction chose to make an electoral pact with the National Autonomous Party for the presidential elections of 1892, while Alem, along with Bernardo de Irigoyen, led the faction that decided to form a party in opposition to the government and called it the Radical Civic Union. The party's initial stages were strongly marked by Alem's leadership, and under his guidance the party withstood strong opposition from the administration that emerged in after Juárez's resignation and which deployed an arsenal of resources against it. The Radical Civic Union Party ran candidates in national elections in the city and province of Buenos Aires and obtained a minority of representatives in the National Congress. Within Congress, the Radical representatives attempted to improve the electoral process and, above all, pushed for economic liberalism and free trade as opposed to the national government's preferred policy of industrial protection. But what most characterized the party was its public defense of the revolution in the pages of its principal newspaper, El Argentino, and the implementation of its ideas through a series of uprisings that kept the national government on edge. El Argentino joined together into a single voice traditional ideas of the political parties of Buenos Aires. The Radicals accused the government of monopolizing power, doing away with the representative system, eliminating political life, distorting the political traditions forged over the two preceding decades, interfering with the federal system by centralizing power in the hands of the national executive, and having thereby violated the national constitution. In their eyes, this situation legitimized revolutionary action to restore the nation's institutions.

The Radicals' principal revolutions took place during 1893 in the provinces of Santa Fe, San Luis, Buenos Aires, Corrientes, and Tucumán. Revolutionary defeats and electoral successes in the city and province of Buenos Aires triggered a series of disputes within the party between those who wanted to continue the revolutionary route and those who preferred to concentrate on competing within the context of elections. At the height of the dispute, Alem committed suicide on 1 July 1896. His followers were left confused, and the party, unsettled by internal pressures, dissolved and was later revived in the first decade of the twentieth century under the leadership of Alem's nephew, Hipólito Irigoyen. Alem's personality, courage, moral dictums, and suicide made him a legendary figure in Argentine politics.

See alsoArgentina, Political Parties: Radical Party (UCR); Irigoyen, Bernardo de; Irigoyen, Hipólito.


Aguirre, Gisela. Leandro N. Alem. Buenos Aires: Planeta, 1999.

Peralta, Wilfrido R. Historia de la Unión Cívica Radical: Su origen, su vida, sus hombres: Estudio politico 1890 y 1916. Buenos Aires: G. Pesce, 1917.

                                        Paula Alonso

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Alem, Leandro N. (1842–1896)

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