Hipólito Irigoyen

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Hipólito Irigoyen

Hipólito Irigoyen (ca. 1850-1933) was an Argentine president. As leader of the Radical party, he united the country behind him in opposition to the landholding oligarchy; but unable to cope with Argentina's economic problems, he was deposed by Conservatives.

Hipólito Irigoyen received little formal education but was taken under the protection of his uncle Leandro Alem, in whose office he read law. For some years he worked at a variety of jobs, including an instructorship in a girls' school and minor government posts.

In his youth Irigoyen also dabbled in politics on a local level. When Alem organized the Union Civica in 1890 as a protest movement against the dominant rural-based oligarchy, Irigoyen joined the new group. He also followed Alem 2 years later in converting the group, which had originally sought alliances with elements of the old regime to participate in elections, into the Union Civica Radical (Radical Civic Union, UCR), pledged to a policy of electoral abstention so long as fraud and violence were used by the government as the principal determinants of elections.

With Alem's suicide in 1896, Irigoyen succeeded his uncle as the principal leader of the UCR, or Radical party. For 15 years he held the party firmly to the policy of not participating in elections and built up a wide rank-and-file base for the party. Penetrating into even remote parts of the country, Irigoyen and his associated established units of the UCR throughout the nation. The party became the principal spokesman for the burgeoning middle classes and for a considerable segment of the working classes as well.

As the Radical party chief, Irigoyen demanded strict obedience and at times even obeisance from his associates. He kept firm control of the party machinery, although he had few intimates, was a mediocre orator, and only rarely appeared in public. Despite his lack of humor and reticence about public exposure, Irigoyen became vastly admired by his followers because of his modest circumstances—he lived largely from the income from a small property and gave much of his income to charity—and because of his uncompromising fight against the political and economic status quo.

Under President Roque Sáenz Peña, who was elected in 1910, the electoral law was finally changed so as to provide for the secret ballot and the assurance of minority representation in all legislative bodies. As a result, the Radicals began to participate in elections. In 1916 Irigoyen was victorious as his party's first candidate for president.

Irigoyen demonstrated the same character traits in the presidency he had shown in the chieftainship of his party. He ruled with a firm hand, made liberal use of the president's right to oust provincial governors, and made virtually all important decisions of his administration. However, he was unsuccessful in carrying through any basic reforms. Although he was sympathetic to organized labor, little social legislation was passed during his presidency. Although he was a strong nationalist, his administration took few measures to protect national industry or to weaken Argentine dependence on British markets for its major exports of grain and meat.

In 1922 Irigoyen was succeeded by another Radical, Marcelo T. de Alvear. However, during De Alvear's administration a split developed between the two Radical leaders, and two separate parties emerged, the UCR Personalista, consisting of supporters of Irigoyen, and the UCR Anti-Personalista, made up of backers of De Alvear.

Irigoyen was elected to the presidency once again in 1928, at the expiration of De Alvear's term. However, by this time he was senile, and the corruption on the part of high officials (but not Irigoyen) which had long characterized the Radical governments reached unequaled heights. Finally, Irigoyen was faced with the Great Depression, which he was not able to handle any more effectively than leaders of most other countries.

These circumstances gave right-wing opponents of Irigoyen the opportunity to carry out a coup against him on Sept. 6, 1930, backed by Anti-Personalista Radicals, Conservatives, and dissident Socialists. With his ouster, Irigoyen retired from politics.

Further Reading

There is no full-length biography of Irigoyen in English. However, Robert A. Potash, The Army and Politics in Argentina (1969), contains considerable material about him. See also such standard histories of Argentina as Ricardo Levene, A History of Argentina, translated and edited by William Spence (1937), and Ysabel F. Rennie, The Argentine Republic (1945). □