Roque Sáenz Peña
|16th President of Argentina|
October 12, 1910 – August 9, 1914
|Vice President||Victorino de la Plaza|
|Preceded by||José Figueroa Alcorta|
|Succeeded by||Victorino de la Plaza|
|Born||March 19, 1851|
|Died||August 9, 1914 (aged 63)|
|Political party||National Autonomist Party|
|Spouse(s)||Rosa Isidora González Delgado|
Roque Sáenz Peña Lahitte (March 19, 1851 – August 9, 1914) was the sixteenth President of Argentina, serving from October 12, 1910 to his death in office on August 9, 1914. He was the son of former President Luis Sáenz Peña.
He was responsible for passing Law 8871, known as "Sáenz Peña Law", which greatly reformed the Argentine electoral system, making the vote secret, universal and compulsory for males over 18. This effectively ended the rule by electoral fraud of the conservative Argentine oligarchy, and paved the way for the rise of the Radical Civic Union in the first free elections of the country. President Roque Sáenz Peña Avenue in Buenos Aires is named after him.
He also served in the War of the Pacific as a lieutenant colonel of the Peruvian Army, and was made prisoner by Chile for six months following the Battle of Arica. He later served as Ambassador to Spain (1906–1907) and Italy (1907–1910).
Roque Sáenz Peña was born on March 19, 1851 in Buenos Aires to an aristocratic family. His father was Luis Sáenz Peña, the president of Argentina between 1892 and 1895. Sáenz Peña inherited the opponents of his father, who was forced to resign, and traveled throughout Europe before he entered politics. He studied law during the unsuccessful 1874 revolution started by the Liberal party lead by Bartolomé Mitre, in which Sáenz Peña did not participate. After earning his law degree in 1875 and joining the National Autonomist Party (Partido Autonomista Nacional –PAN), he joined the militia and was under the orders of General Luis María Campos until 1877. In 1876 he was elected to the Buenos Aires Legislature as a member of the Autonomist Party.
The War of the Pacific (La Guerra del Pacífico) pitted Chile against an allied Bolivia and Peru. Later, Argentina secretly joined the alliance. The dispute was over territory on the Pacific coast that had never been resolved, specifically control of a part of the Atacama Desert. The area contained high amounts of sodium nitrate which is a valuable mineral resource.
During the war, Sáenz Peña left Argentina to fight with the Peruvians. His main motivation was not patriotic or to show solidarity, but rather to escape Buenos Aires due to an unrequited love affair. After his superior officers had been killed in the Battle of Arica he assumed their roles and commanded a very weak Peruvian division. Sáenz Peña was captured after the Peruvian’s defeat at the battled and imprisoned briefly by the Chileans.
When Sáenz Peña returned to Buenos Aires he was appointed sub-secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Relations under Minister of Foreign Relations Bernardo de Irigoyen in 1880. He soon left politics only to return in 1887 when he accepted the ministership to Uruguay. He represented Argentina at the 1888 Montevideo Congress. Sáenz Peña held firm to his legal and political doctrines and definitively stated that Argentine was immune to any action taken by the assembly.
Along with Manuel Quintana, Sáenz Peña represented Argentina in the first Pan American Conference in 1889. The two delegates made a 40-day journey to New York and then a four-day trip to Washington for the meeting that was taking placed in the State Department building. The Argentine delegation boycotted the opening meeting over, as they saw it, a violation of diplomatic custom. Custom requires a delegate from an invited country to preside over the conference, but the U.S. Secretary of State was elected to be the permanent chair of the conference. The delegates attended the second session. Throughout the conference Sáenz Peña advocated against an American free trade area. Nevertheless, the United States and twelve nations voted for a “recommendation to work for inter-American reciprocity treaties.” Only Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia voted against it.
During Sáenz Peña’s tenure as foreign minister he traveled the world and effectively argued for policies that benefited Argentina. He also performed traditional ceremonial duties, like in 1906 when he attended the wedding of Spanish king Alfonso XIII. He worked with the Italian government to increase trade while providing them with official cables from Argentina telling of the economic developments within the country. He distributed these cables to other European governments and businessmen as well. Before his presidency, Sáenz Peña made Europeans aware of Argentina's significance internationally.
On October 1, 1910, Roque Sáenz Peña assumed the presidency of Argentina. In his first inaugural address he declared: “My international policy if known to you. It will be friendship for Europe and fraternity for America.” He came into power without the support of his own party, like his father. Sáenz Peña was elected while tensions were high in 1910 while promising electoral reform to curb the power of the oligarchy and to prevent a revolution.
Electoral reform was debated in Congress in 1911 and then implemented in 1912 as La ley 8.871, now known as the Sáenz Peña Law. The president said, "I have told my country my thought, my convictions, and my hopes. Let my country listen to the words and advice of its head of state, may it vote." The law established compulsory and universal male suffrage for those who are over eighteen years of age. There was no discussion of whether the enfranchisement should extend to women. The law required voting in order to increase civic engagement, and in order to stop corruption the Army was deployed during elections. One third of the vote turned out before the passage of the legislation compared to 70 to 80 percent of it afterwards. Political corruption was successfully curbed. The core purpose of the law was to create a new large conservative voting bloc and force oligarchs to adapt to changing times. After the law was implemented, the newly formed opposition to the oligarchs won positions after the elections of 1912 and 1914, but Hipolito Yrigoyen’s and his Radical Party’s presidential victory in 1916 was the greatest blow to the old elite .
In describing his motivation for the promulgation of the law to the Argentine legislature, Sáenz Peña said, "I aspire, senators and representatives, for minorities to be represented and widely guaranteed in the integrity of their rights. It is indubitable that the majority should govern, but it is not less true that minorities should be heard, collaborating with their thought and with their action in the evolution of the country."
During the last days of his life, Sáenz Peña remarked “I have lost almost all my friends, but I have governed for the Republic.” He died during his six-year term as president on August 9, 1914 due to complications related to diabetes. Sáenz Peña is known today for his electoral reform and his fierce determination to protect the interests of Argentina abroad.
| President of Argentina
Victorino de la Plaza