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Hipólito Yrigoyen: 100 Years On from the People’s First President

7 0 14

If you’ve been watching Argentina’s cable news outlets lately, there’s a good chance you will be left with a lingering question: “What’s with all those grainy photos of that guy with the bowler hat? Is there a Winston Churchill special going on?” The two do look somewhat similar, but their similarities don’t go much further than their taste in hats.

Hipólito Yrigoyen

The man you’re seeing is Hipólito Yrigoyen, and there’s a reason he’s being so widely celebrated now. Few political figures can lay claim to such a significant role in making the country what it is today, both politically and culturally, or hold such a broad swathe of support from the left and right.

And 100 years ago today, he become the country’s first president elected via a popular, secret vote.

Challenging The Elite

Hipólito Yrigoyen (a name that might seem a bit complicated for Anglophones, until you hear his full name: Juan Hipólito del Corazón de Jesús Yrigoyen) was born in Buenos Aires in 1852, and his political career was very much a product of his times.

Yrigoyen was born into an Argentina embroiled in an ongoing conflict over whether Buenos Aires should secede or form part of a Federal country. When that conflict was finally put to rest, the political consensus that emerged was that of a very conservative status quo, which proceeded to create a sort of Argentine gilded age. While a few rich landowners did very well for themselves, exporting their goods with the help of a new railway network built by the British, average citizens were largely kept from enjoying any of the spoils of the economic system.

Nevertheless, the country’s elites maintained their grip on the political system for decades. They were helped by a friendly press; Bartolomé Mitre’s La Nación newspaper, for instance, regularly sang the praises of the country’s export-based economy – a position which, despite its digital makeover, it largely maintains today. And more than anything, they were helped by the country’s dubious voting process. Only males were allowed to vote, of course. And in addition, there was no secret ballot, allowing widespread repression on the basis of voting patterns, and leaving voters with little hopes of overturning the country’s rigged system.

Enter the Unión Cívica Radical (UCR). Founded in 1890, and originally known simply as the Unión Cívica, the group would splinter to form its more “radical” orientation a year later. The group’s key figure was initially Leandro N. Além who, despite his efforts at reform, became so distraught at his failures that he committed suicide, going out in a blaze of glory with a searing suicide note (his declaration that “[My mission] may break, but it shall not bend,” was later enshrined in the UCR’s theme song). Leadership of the group would then fall to Além’s nephew, Hipólito Yrigoyen.

Yrigoyen’s uncle, Leandro N. Alem, led the 1890 armed revolt against the country’s elitist leaders, wearing a traditional white beret.

It would take another 20 years for Yrigoyen to reach the presidency. Despite widespread dissatisfaction with the country’s situation, the political order proved difficult to challenge. In its fight for reform, the Radicals........

© Argentina Independent