Eloy Alfaro, the Greatest Ecuadorian

Like many of South America’s fledgling nations, Ecuador in the 19th century sought to find stability amid contesting conservative and liberal forces. In general, periods of harsh conservative rule were punctuated by years of chaos and anarchy that led, in a sort of vicious circle, back to more rigid conservatism. Such was the situation in Ecuador when, in 1860, Gabriel García Moreno came to power. Moreno saw in the Roman Catholic Church a means to control and unify Ecuadorians that surpassed anything politicians could devise.

Depending on whom you ask today, Moreno was either a brutal dictator or the savior of the country. In his time, however, the question was decided much differently: Moreno was murdered on the steps of the presidential palace in 1875. A period of instability then ensued, ending in 1895 with the triumph of the Liberal Revolution, led by Eloy Alfaro.

Alfaro was the leader of the Radical Liberal Political Party, and Liberals in the past had not been able to make much headway against formidable conservative forces, backed by the Church, who opposed change in Ecuador. Alfaro was different, however. He consolidated his power base by claiming to represent not only those of liberal politcal views, but also the people of the coast who had long felt dominated and disenfranchised by the economic and political elite in Quito. Alfaro immediately instigated construction of the Guayaquil-Quito Railroad, both to provide work and to link the country. He also instituted far-reaching social and political reforms, including removing the Church from any role in government, legalizing divorce, opening public schools and initiating public works projects.

Eloy Alfaro was Ecuador’s president from 1895 to 1901, and then again from 1906 to 1911. Unfortunately, and in common with far too many Ecuadorian politicians, Alfaro was assassinated in 1912 and his body was dragged through the streets of Quito. His killers reportedly acted on the wishes of wealthy conservatives and agents of the Church, none of whom were arrested, prosecuted nor held responsible. Reactionary forces may have killed Eloy Alfaro, but they could not reverse the tide of change that he had unleashed upon Ecuador. Today, Alfaro is considered to be a hero of the people, directly responsible for the fundamental freedoms, civil rights and entrepreneurial spirit enjoyed and practiced by all Ecuadorians. Recently, one of Ecuador’s major television channels conducted a public survey, asking who people thought was The Greatest Ecuadorian. The winner, hands down, was Eloy Alfaro.