Irigoyen, Hipólito (1852–1933)

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Irigoyen, Hipólito (1852–1933)

Hipólito Irigoyen (or Yrigoyen) was the president of Argentina (1916–1922 and 1928–1930), the first to assume office through free elections. Controversial and charismatic, Irigoyen was Argentina's most popular president before Juan Domingo Perón. As leader of the Unión Cívica Radical (UCR), he built a democratic, populist, and nationalistic organization comprising an efficient urban-based political machine and a national party sharing many features with the U.S. Democratic Party (i.e., a federally organized, catch-all coalition based on strong local parties). In 1930, in the context of a deteriorating economy, profound disenchantment of the conservative political elites with democracy (having been unable to win any free election within full constitutional rule of law), and a loss of support by a military minority allured by the "time of the sword," a coup removed Irigoyen from power.

Born on July 12, 1852, into an middle-class family in provincial Buenos Aires, Irigoyen developed a personality that defies easy explanation. Virtually every author who has assumed the task has resorted to the term enigmatic. Over the masses he exercised an extraordinary fascination and displayed a quiet charisma, with a strong power of conviction in person-to-person campaigning; indeed, he never made a public speech. His political mission was buried in the moralistic rhetoric of his manifestos, and his eclectic philosophy, derived partly from the works of the German philosopher Karl Krause, was equally somewhat obscure, stressing a mystical belief in God-given harmony, moral living, and a principled political behavior that, when projected toward the international arena, resulted in an autonomous and idiosyncratic foreign policy that was at the same time rather effective. Even in later life, he continued to wear suits of somber shades, lived in modest dwellings in the poorer districts of Buenos Aires, and shunned photographers.

Irigoyen's public career began in 1872. His uncle, Leandro Alem, secured for him the position of police superintendent in the district of Balvanera, Buenos Aires. In 1877 Irigoyen, together with Alem and Artistóbulo del Valle, formed the short-lived Republican Party, which supported provincial rights and attacked corrupt politics. In 1879 he successfully ran for a seat in Congress and in 1880 was chosen for a high position on the National Council for Education. When his term of office ended in 1882 he bought land and entered the cattle-raising business, which helped him fund successive revolutions to attain constitutional rule.

In 1890 Irigoyen joined the Unión Cívica and participated in "El Noventa," an armed insurrection that sought respect for fundamental rights and toppled the government of Miguel Juárez Celman. Following a struggle over the extent of reforms and leadership, the party split in 1891 into two factions. The Unión Cívica Nacional was led by Bartolomé Mitre, a reformist within the oligarchical elite. The Unión Cívica Radical was initially guided by Leandro Alem, who thought of free elections and public liberties, politics as an ethical creation, and federalism as the Argentine way of life—as nonnegotiable values that the UCR needed to sustain against the oligarchic regime. Irigoyen, advocating intransigence and civil resistance, worked successfully to wrest control of the UCR from Alem (who committed suicide in 1896). By 1898 Irigoyen was the acknowledged leader of radicalism. Irigoyen's leadership meant a distancing from the radical liberalism of Alem and a partial mutation of the UCR's idea of political representation. From the UCR's perspective, illegitimate government legitimized insurrection. In the words of Irigoyen (1905): "Revolutions are an integral part of the moral law of society." The UCR refused to run as an electoral party for fifteen years, pursuing a strategy of abstention from polls until 1912, and became an all-encompassing reform crusade. According to Manuel Gálvez, Irigoyen realized that he had a mission and destiny that called for the moral and political regeneration of the nation. In this respect, he thought of the UCR not as a party but as a movement, as the incarnation of the growing nation, and he believed that the only UCR program was the Constitución Nacional. At any rate, after 1900 he cultivated an air of mystery that he effectively combined with a remarkable behind-the-scenes personal persuasiveness. Electoral abstention slowly eroded the old regime. Argentina's political scene shifted fundamentally in 1912, when an electoral reform law that provided for universal male suffrage and obligatory and secret voting took effect. Offered a long-awaited political opening, the UCR ran candidates for elected office. In 1916 Irigoyen won the presidency of Argentina.

Irigoyen's first term (1916–1922) was marked by contradiction. Whereas the UCR purported to stand for open and honest politics, Irigoyen did not hesitate to use his executive powers for political ends associated with the fulfillment of the political program of moral regeneration. He intervened in provincial elections to assure Radical victories because most of the districts were not holding free local elections as Roque Sáenz Peña (president of Argentina 1910–1914, responsible for reforming the Argentine electoral system) had assured. The Senate was appointed by state legislatures mainly controlled by the fraudulent conservative opposition, so Irigoyen used (and abused) his decree powers to mitigate legislative impasses, including congressional refusal to approve any kind of federal budget.

Irigoyen was popular among middle- and lower-class voters, and with the end of World War I—during which Irigoyen stubbornly stuck to a neutrality policy in the face of international and domestic pressure—the Argentinean economy prospered. Social security benefits were extended and education was a top priority of the government, which built a record number of schools and initiated a thorough restructuring of universities to make improvements in teaching quality, democratic policies, and universal access. Irigoyen's noisy economic nationalism targeted foreign capital investment and was particularly strident at election time. Resisting strong pressures from Royal Dutch Shell and Standard Oil, he devised a new model of public corporation to exploit national oil fields and distribute fuel at lower prices than those of its private competitors. The UCR attempted to forge an alliance with organized labor, and eventually the strong unions with anarchistic roots turned into steadfast supporters. But the violence of the times and the impact of the Russian Revolution led to the use of government-authorized violence against strikers in some cases, particularly during the meat-packing plants strikes and riots of 1921.

Ostensibly a party of the middle class but reaching out to all sectors of society, the UCR under Irigoyen's personalist rule, according to Susan and Peter Calvert, "failed to build up a middle-class political philosophy or establish viable institutions for the continued political involvement of newly mobilised groups" (p. 97). Lacking programmatic unity, the UCR acted pragmatically as it played to the wide-ranging interests and coalitions that had to be rewarded for their political support. Importantly, the focus of the party's unity became its leader, Irigoyen. Personalism, patronage, and political loyalty rather than open participation came to typify the years of Radical control. (Although it must be noted that his power of patronage was much less than his opponent would have: An ECLAC study shows that the rise of public expenditure was chiefly due to investments, not pork-barrel politics.) In his second term, he stood up to U.S. President Herbert Hoover's expansionist policies in Central America and the Caribbean.

Irigoyen's most problematic policy was his so-called politicization of the Argentine military. He offended their sense of professionalism when he promoted officers dropped from military service for their participation in the 1905 uprising in defense of the Constitution. He challenged their perceived sense of mission when he used troops to break strikes or to monitor federal interventions in elections; he became deeply involved in the army's inner institutional life. After Irigoyen won a second term as president in 1928, his meddling in military matters became intolerable, helping to lay the groundwork for the military coup of 1930 that removed him from power.

To military unrest must be added spreading economic dislocation occasioned by the Great Depression (though some measures taken by decree after congressional refusal, such as abandonment of the gold standard, prevented Argentina from suffering the worst extremes of the depression). The depression destroyed the ability of the state to grant patronage and undermined the UCR's popular base of support. As the party disintegrated and economic conditions worsened, Irigoyen lost prestige. But the main issue at stake was that, in what was regarded as a serious challenge to the whole economic system, the ruling elite could not permit the state apparatus—a key player since the 1880s—to remain in the hands of an outsider such as Irigoyen. On September 6, Irigoyen was deposed by retired General José Félix Uriburu, an open admirer of Fascist doctrines and procedures. Irigoyen died on July 3, 1933, and, in the words of the Calverts, "was accorded the spontaneous tribute of a splendid funeral and became a myth, a symbol of the aspirations of the middle class"

See alsoAlem, Leandro; Argentina, Political Parties: Radical Party (UCR); Juárez Celman, Miguel; Mitre, Bartolomé; Sáenz Peña, Roque; Uriburu, José Félix.


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Potash, Robert A. The Army and Politics in Argentina, 1928–1945: Yrigoyen to Perón. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1969. See chapter 2.

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Smith, Peter H. Argentina and the Failure of Democracy: Conflict among Political Elites, 1904–1955. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1974. See Chapter 1.

Solbert, Carl. Oil and Nationalism in Argentina: A History. Chaps. 2, 3, and 5. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1979. See especially chapters 2, 3, and 5.

                                        Paul B. Goodwin

                                        Vicente Palermo