Sunday, January 13, 2013

El Viejo Luchador!!! What I Learned on My Vacation.

That's right I took an actual vacation this year. I was able to get away over the holidays to the tropical country of Ecuador. Why Ecuador you may ask? Well it just so happens to be the country my beautiful fiancée Emily was born in. During my trip (which actually was my third time there) I enjoyed amazing food, good people, cheap alcohol and the finest beaches in South America, but enough about my trip. The nation of Ecuador has a rich and deep history, but one person reigns supreme in the history of Ecuador. Across the nation: streets, schools, military bases, hotels and so on all bear his name. His face is everywhere, and he is unmistakably the Ecuadorian hero. His name, José Eloy Alfaro Delgado, or Eloy Alfaro for short. He was an Ecuadorian President but more importantly he was a man of the people, and is often an overlooked figure in South American History.

Alfaro was born in the small town of Montecristi, June 25, 1842. Aside from being his birth place of the great Alfaro, the town is also famous for its production of Panama Hats, which now you know don't actually come from Panama, but from Ecuador. Now Alfaro's life would be the life of a political mover and shaker, which was most likely an influence from his father. His father was don Manuel Alfaro y González.
 Mr. Alfaro Sr. was originally from Spain, but lived in Ecuador as a political exile. Eloy was locally educated in Montecristi and would assist in his father's business after schooling. Alfaro was a rebel. He was a anticlerical liberal and was quite fearless. He partook in several armed combat excursions throughout Ecuador. Alfaro's "balls over brains" characteristics are exemplified at the Battle of Alajuela. There, while fighting the Conservative Government, Alfaro was engaged in a naval fight, his ship sank and saved himself by holding on  to a barrel for dear life, while another version states he swam back to shore after the ship sank. Either way Alfaro was a man who lived by his convictions and his quest for freedom and liberty. It would be from here on out that Alfaro would cement himself into Ecuadorian History as perhaps the greatest of all the Ecuadorian leaders.

Alfaro would quickly learn that fighting tyranny was no easy feat. He would have many ups and downs in his war for liberty. His fight was long, roughly from about 1860 until 1895 he fought against the oppressive government,  and because of that Alfaro would become known as the "Viejo Luchador" or for those not familiar with the Spanish language, the Old Warrior. Alfaro would eventually work his way through the minefields of 19th century Ecuadorian politics and find himself on the verge of becoming President. Riding a wave of liberal policies and progressive thought, he'd find himself in Quito. In 1895, the Ecuadorian Liberal Revolution took place and Alfaro was leading the charge. During the revolt, Alfaro personally showed then sitting President Vicente Lucio Salazar the door and assumed leadership of the nation. Alfaro would the lead the country from January of 1897 until September of 1901. In that short time he would take the small nation of Ecuador from old world thinking and put it on the path to being an example of 20th century progressiveness, liberal thought and all around utopian society.

Under Alfaro's guidance Ecuador's theocratic government was dismantled and a separation of church and state took place. He also pushed for education reforms including all the high schools within the city of Quito and at the Escuela Politecnica Nacional, where an emphasis on the sciences and technology had been implemented under the new President. After his term was over Alfaro continued to stay active in making Ecuador a better nation. In 1906, he again led a revolt and retook power with not only the support of the military but of the people. This time Alfaro would hold office from 1906 until 1911. In that time he continued to change the face of Ecuadorian politics, the standard of living and continued to extend personal freedoms. Again, education was a main focus. He ordered construction of numerous schools throughout the nation, both free and private. He gave the people freedom of speech, a right previously unknown to the Ecuadorian people. Along with that, civil marriages and divorces were also legalized. There was a constant suppression of the religious influence on government, especially the Catholic Church. Under Alfaro, no new monasteries or convents were built and much of the Church's land was seized and given back to the people or used for public works programs. The crowning jewel of the Alfaro administration may have been the Ferrocarril Transandino. This was a railroad project connecting Ecuador's two largest cities, Quito and Guayaquil. With Alfaro at the helm, times were good in Ecuador. Education, work, civil liberties and advancements all took place under the watch of Alfaro, but dark days were in Alfaro's future.

In 1911 Alfaro was removed from office, due to pressure from the Catholic Church. Not being one to walk away from a fight, again Alfaro made a push for the Carondelet Palace. However, it didn't exactly go according to plan and he was captured in Guayaquil. In a weird ironic twist, Alfaro was transported as a prisoner to Quito on the same railroad system that he ordered constructed. Once in Quito, President Carlos Freile Zaldumbide showed mercy on Alfaro, mainly due to his popularity with the people, and had him exiled to Panama. Again, Alfaro thumbed his nose at the opposition and returned to Ecuador in January of 1912 and again attempted another coup, but was stopped by General Leonidas Plaza and jailed. It was then on the night of January 28th that a group of pro-Catholic soldiers attacked the prison Alfaro was held in. Under the motto "Viva la religión y mueran los masones" (Long live religion and death to the Freemasons.), they enraged a mob and lead a charge for Alfaro. And of course even in South America, the Freemasons are thought to be the root of all things evil. After the prison walls were breached, Alfaro and his men were dragged to death through the cobble stone streets of Quito. Once the mob had their fill of vengeance for Alfaro anticlerical views, they then piled the corpses and burnt then in what is present day El Ejido. A few days later remains believed to be Alfaro's were buried in Quito, in the middle of the night by his supporters and friends. Later they were exhumed and transported to Guayaquil in the 1940s. It wouldn't be until 2007 that Alfaro would finally rest in peace, as current President Rafael Correa would exhumed some of Alfaro's ashes and have them interred in his home town of Montecristi.

So is Eloy Alfaro Ecuador's Che Guevara? A face on a t-shirt that teenagers wear as a rebellious statement?  Or is he a symbol of liberty? Or even Nationalism? It seems that in Ecuador he is all that and more. He is the most overlooked icon in the subject of liberalism. He believed in a separation of church and state, freedom of religion, industrialization & modernization, workers rights and the rights of indigenous peoples. He enacted these ideas through reforms led by the government. It was during this time that the Ecuadorian identity was found, no longed would the people be held under the thumb of the Catholic Church. However, in the steps Alfaro took to take power, he rewrote the playbook for Ecuadorian politics. After Alfaro, others tried to duplicate him yet never could get the support Alfaro had, thus leading them to take different and ineffective routes.  Yet in the end, Alfaro is held in the highest of regards amongst Ecuadorians. His legacy within the country parallels that of our own American progressives, Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and so on, but without the tragic ending of being dragged through the street. The ideas of Alfaro are now again resurfacing not just in Ecuador, but through Latin America and the world. Again, the life and times of Alfaro are another example of humanity's struggle and fight for equality, freedoms and liberty.

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