Cover image for Argentina's Radical Party and Popular Mobilization, 1916–1930 By Joel Horowitz

Argentina's Radical Party and Popular Mobilization, 1916–1930

Joel Horowitz

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$46.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03404-1

$30.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03405-8

256 pages
6" × 9"
2008

Argentina's Radical Party and Popular Mobilization, 1916–1930

Joel Horowitz

“At a time when historical scholarship on Latin America is awash in postmodern cultural and gender studies, often dealing with subjects of trivial consequence, Joel Horowitz’s book tackles an enormously important subject. Argentina’s Unión Cívica Radical was Latin America’s first mass-based political party, arguably the first to emerge in the former colonial world. The UCR’s history ranks with that of the Congress Party in India and a handful of other examples of attempts to institutionalize and democratize politics on the remnants of colonial structures and practices. The UCR thus occupies a prominent place not only in Argentina’s history but also in the history of twentieth-century democracy. This is a story ripe for a reassessment. Horowitz provides the most detailed study of labor politics in the decade that exists in any language; no historian, even from Argentina, has his command and understanding of the politics of labor in this decade. He covers all the major ideological tendencies, labor confederations, and key unions with absolute mastery. His research is extraordinarily deep here, and the chapters are brimming with insights. The publication of Joel Horowitz’s book confirms Penn State University Press’s status as the leading English-language publisher of Argentine history.”

 

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Democracy has always been an especially volatile form of government, and efforts to create it in places like Iraq need to take into account the historical conditions for its success and sustainability. In this book, Joel Horowitz examines its first appearance in a country that appeared to satisfy all the criteria that political development theorists of the 1950s and 1960s identified as crucial. This experiment lasted in Argentina from 1916 to 1930, when it ended in a military coup that left a troubled political legacy for decades to come. What explains the initial success but ultimate failure of democracy during this period?

Horowitz challenges previous interpretations that emphasize the role of clientelism and patronage. He argues that they fail to account fully for the Radical Party government’s ability to mobilize widespread popular support. Instead, by comparing the administrations of Hipólito Yrigoyen and Marcelo T. de Alvear, he shows how much depended on the image that Yrigoyen managed to create for himself: a secular savior who cared deeply about the less fortunate, and the embodiment of the nation. But the story is even more complex because, while failing to instill personalistic loyalty, Alvear did succeed in constructing strong ties with unions, which played a key role in undergirding the strength of both leaders’ regimes.

Later successes and failures of Argentine democracy, from Juan Perón through the present, cannot be fully understood without knowing the story of the Radical Party in this earlier period.

“At a time when historical scholarship on Latin America is awash in postmodern cultural and gender studies, often dealing with subjects of trivial consequence, Joel Horowitz’s book tackles an enormously important subject. Argentina’s Unión Cívica Radical was Latin America’s first mass-based political party, arguably the first to emerge in the former colonial world. The UCR’s history ranks with that of the Congress Party in India and a handful of other examples of attempts to institutionalize and democratize politics on the remnants of colonial structures and practices. The UCR thus occupies a prominent place not only in Argentina’s history but also in the history of twentieth-century democracy. This is a story ripe for a reassessment. Horowitz provides the most detailed study of labor politics in the decade that exists in any language; no historian, even from Argentina, has his command and understanding of the politics of labor in this decade. He covers all the major ideological tendencies, labor confederations, and key unions with absolute mastery. His research is extraordinarily deep here, and the chapters are brimming with insights. The publication of Joel Horowitz’s book confirms Penn State University Press’s status as the leading English-language publisher of Argentine history.”
“This book sheds new light on a crucial chapter in the struggle for democracy in Argentina. Drawing on approaches from political and labor history, Horowitz’s study examines the complex negotiations among party leaders, state officials, and working people that shaped public life during the heyday of Radical Party rule. In the process, it questions familiar assumptions regarding cronyism and popular politics associated with the Argentine republic in the early twentieth century.”
“[Joel Horowitz] has made a fantastic contribution to the historiography with this finely researched monograph.”
“Joel Horowitz has written a thoughtful and well-researched book for a period of Argentina’s history much in need of further understanding.”

Joel Horowitz is Professor of History at Saint Bonaventure University.

Contents

Acknowledgments

List of Abbreviations

Introduction

1. The Economic and Political Setting

2. Creating the Image: Construction of the Images of Yrigoyen and Alvear

3. The Limits of Patronage

4. When Bosses and Workers Agreed: The Failure of Social Welfare Legislation

5. Yrigoyen and the Limitations of Obrerismo, 1916–1922

6. Alvear and the Attempted Establishment of an Institutionalized Relationship with Labor, 1922–1928

7. Yrigoyen and the Failure to Reestablish Obrerismo, 1928–1930

Conclusion

Bibliography

Index

In recent decades the establishment of democracy has become a panacea for political, social, and economic problems. Often forgotten in the desire to create democracies and the difficulties in establishing them is the problem of sustaining them. Democracy is an extremely volatile form of government, particularly in societies in which it is not deeply rooted enough to overcome crisis.

Argentina’s difficulty in sustaining a democracy has always been puzzling. It certainly met many of the criteria that theorists in the 1950s and 1960s posited that nations needed for a functioning democracy: a sizeable middle class, urbanization, relatively high literacy rates, and so on. Yet after a relatively brief experiment with democracy between 1916 and 1930, Argentina descended into an ever-worsening cycle of political failure, which hopefully has recently been overcome.

The nature of that initial experiment with full democracy is vital to understanding Argentina’s subsequent political history. As Peter Smith has stated in his recent study of democracy in Latin America:

History matters. One of the most conspicuous weaknesses of the current literature on democratization in Latin America tends to be shortsightedness. Analyses concentrate on trends and events of the past quarter century, with only a passing nod, at most, to earlier political experience. Yet awareness of the past is vital. As the historical record indicates, democratization is by no means an inexorable process: democracies can rise, fall, and return. History also shapes the collective imagination. In nations with long-standing and continuous democracies . . . citizens find it hard to imagine plausible alternatives. In new democracies, however, people have no reason to share this assumption.

We have known very little about how that initial Argentine democratic political system functioned, but its legacy persists and it set the style of politics for generations. The Radical Party, which dominated the initial opening to democracy, remains a key factor in politics, and the Peronists, its principal rivals, see themselves as the true inheritors of Radical traditions. For example, the logo of the 2002 presidential campaign of Peronist Adolfo Rodríguez Saá contained a photograph of Hipólito Yrigoyen, the dominant Radical figure during the period we are considering, along with images of the national hero, José de San Martín, and Juan and Eva Perón. The Peronists’ historical tie to the Radicals is more than just rhetorical. It is clear that Perón borrowed a great deal of his approaches to the popular classes from the Radicals, though he took their ideas much further.

This book focuses on how the Radical Party attempted to rally support and widen its base, especially within the city of Buenos Aires. This emphasis is based on several premises. More than an organization driven by ideas, the Radicals were motivated by the hope of electoral success. Most of their policies were based on a desire to win an increasing number of votes. The manner in which they went after votes helped to create important fissures in the society. The concentration on Buenos Aires is based on practicality. Argentina is a large country with a federal tradition. The Radical Party differed greatly from province to province, although certain characteristics remained constant. The city of Buenos Aires was and is the center of power and what happens there has an exaggerated impact on the rest of the country. For example, in 1930 the Radical defeat in the congressional elections in Buenos Aires clearly outweighed its respectable showing in the rest of the country; this development helped lead to the coup that ended the experiment in democracy.

The Radical era began after the first fair presidential election in Argentine history with Yrigoyen’s assumption of the presidency in October 1916 and continued until his overthrow by the military in September 1930. The Radical era is not a united whole. The two presidents, Hipólito Yrigoyen (1916–22, 1928–30) and Marcelo T. de Alvear (1922–28), were very different. The period under examination could just as easily be labeled the age of Yrigoyen; he was dominant regardless of whether he sat in the presidential palace. He became a larger-than-life figure with a widespread popular appeal that is, to some extent, difficult to understand three-quarters of a century later. Alvear, although he became president because he was the choice of Yrigoyen, tried to a limited extent to break free of Yrigoyen's influence. Alvear, however, failed to establish widespread popularity or a clear set of policies.

The focus is primarily on the Radical Party’s search for votes. With the passage of the Ley Sáenz Peña in 1912, which limited the use of voting fraud, voting became the key legitimizing act for politicians. Even the Conservatives argued for the importance of voting. In the debate on the electoral reform measure, Ramón J. Cárcano argued, “The proof . . . is there in Santa Fe which offers the most grand and noble spectacle of democracy. No one fails the appointment at the ballot box. All are fighting in a manly manner for their ideals, even the revolutionary party advances to the election not with arms but with their vote with the ordinary encouragement of faith and of hope.” In a message to congress in 1912 President Roque Sáenz Peña quoted Carlos Pellegrini as having said, “The generation that succeeds in taking the country out of its lethargy and guides it to the voting box will have given such transcendent service as that of independence.” At least through the early years of the Radical period, almost all major political actors believed in the legitimacy conferred by the vote. As Ana María Mustapic has argued, Yrigoyen saw himself as executing the mandate given to him by the people. The Buenos Aires of the 1860s and 1870s so brilliantly described by Hilda Sabato, where legitimacy was in large part bestowed by civil society and its public demonstrations of support, had been changed. By 1916 the percentage of foreign adult males had declined (and they were excluded from voting) and the percentage of Argentine males who did vote went up considerably. Elections had become meaningful exercises that could bestow legitimacy by demonstrating popularity.

The Radicals continued to organize demonstrations, many of them leading up to elections, but they were in large part geared to raise the enthusiasm of potential voters and to dishearten the opposition. They did so during a time of a burgeoning civil society, as organizations of all types were being formed, from unions to neighborhood associations and soccer clubs. Despite economic downturns, it was a relatively prosperous country and one that, with the exception of the era of World War I, attracted immigrants.

To begin to understand why subsequent experiments in democracy in Argentina failed, one needs to understand better why the first one collapsed. Although it is clearly impossible to give a full and definitive set of reasons, it is possible to examine some of them. Certainly a key reason was the unwillingness, or at least the failure, to set out clear rules of the game and play according to them. Some of the elites objected to being ruled by the middle class. The inability of the Radicals to accept other political parties as legitimate is also very important, as was the Radicals’ consistent attachment to the leadership of one person, Hipólito Yrigoyen. This dependence on one person helped limit the potential outcomes, but, as important, the personalism led to a dependence on individuals rather than laws and institutions. For example, the Radicals never made a major effort to bureaucratize their relationships with the labor movement; they preferred to depend on personal relationships. They also neglected the building of efficient bureaucracies. Conjunctional issues also played a key role: the Depression, the failing health of Yrigoyen, the fracturing of party unity, and the inability of Yrigoyen’s opponents to mount serious electoral challenges.

In cataloging the Radicals’ shortcomings, it is necessary to remember that luck counts. If it were not for the Depression and its immense economic and social consequences, it is quite possible that the party would have managed to overcome the series of crises that helped lead to its overthrow in September 1930.

We need to be careful not to exaggerate the Radicals’ failings in carrying out democracy. As Alan Knight has noted recently, even the paradigm of liberal democracies in this epoch, the United States, had severe lapses. The red scare and labor violence marked the era. The labor-related violence in Argentina, although clearly a major flaw, is a product of similar historical forces. This does not mean that it had no impact, but we need to keep the context in mind when we look at the problems of democracy in the era. Similarly, the large amounts of patronage dispersed by the Radicals should not necessarily be seen as abnormal for democracies of the time.

What this study will make clear is how, despite several massacres that killed hundreds (the Tragic Week in Buenos Aires in 1919 and the slaughter of ranch hands in Patagonia in 1921–22, both discussed in Chapter 5), the Radical governments garnered significant popular support, which was frequently extremely fervent. The Radicals had a special opportunity to shape the norms for mobilizing popular support: only with the passage of electoral reforms in 1912 (the Ley Sáenz Peña) did fair voting became the norm. Before 1912, the pursuit of popular support was not a vital part of the electoral process. The psychological importance of the establishment of fair voting should not be underestimated. Pierre Rosanvallon has argued that in France universal suffrage transformed the society. The manner in which popular support was mobilized served as a model for later politicians.

A key focus will be the government’s relations with unions. Unions became an important mechanism through which the Radicals attempted to mobilize support. In addition, this will enable the reader to see more clearly the nature of the government and how it operated concerning an important social question. Although relationships with unions were never defined by law and remained highly vague, they existed and were more complex than previous authors have stated. Ideology did not characterize the Radical interest in labor. They never articulated any clear goals beyond the vague doctrine of obrerismo, a stated concern for the betterment of the working class, which had paternalistic overtones. The concept will be discussed in much more detail in the following chapters. A clear, if usually unstated goal was the attraction of popular support that would be then transferred to the electoral arena. Juan D. Perón pursued similar strategies during the 1940s. Perón built on an existing model in a more industrialized country, however, and pursued his goals with more intensity and success.

The Radicals called on nationalism and identified their party with the nation itself. They became the sole embodiment of good. The Radicals developed around Yrigoyen what almost could be called a cult of personality. Despite their nationalism, they also appealed to immigrant communities.

Although creating a new political style, the Radicals also depended on traditional methods of attracting popular support. Clientelism, a practice of long standing, was further developed. The Radicals dispensed jobs as political rewards. The party and its bosses also helped secure cheap food (the so-called pan radical), toys for children, and free or inexpensive medical care. Through the use of patronage, the Radicals created well-oiled machines in different regions of the country, especially in Buenos Aires. Although such activities engendered gratitude and loyalty, it is doubtful that they could do more than that. This was a reciprocal arrangement—political support in return for favors—but the popular classes had too many alternatives to ensure passionate loyalty. Rival political forces also used similar tactics with much less success.

Clientelism was not the only traditional mechanism that was deployed. The police continued to play a crucial role in the political world. This paralleled traditional practices in the countryside, where police powers and political activity always had been combined. Police chiefs became the principal contacts with labor unions. This reflected the Radicals’ tendency to keep things at a personal level. This was much more common under Yrigoyen than Alvear, but it remained a consistent feature.

The political machinery of the Radicals enabled them to stage large, centralized rallies and parades but also to conduct political activities in each of Buenos Aires’s neighborhoods. Elections became popular spectacles. The rhetoric of the Radicals helped rally support for the party. They represented the nation; they stood for fair elections and nationalism. Although operating within a democratic system, the Radicals viewed all opposition as unpatriotic. Only they understood the nation and strived for its betterment. They constructed a vision of the political system in which they portrayed themselves as the true representatives of the people; opposition forces were portrayed as the other. This vision of the political world, while not without precedent in Argentina, made the continuation of democracy difficult, especially when the Radicals came close to dominating all branches of government, as they did by 1930.