Biography of Eloy Alfaro

Former President of Ecuador

Bust of Eloy Alfaro

Edjoerv/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Eloy Alfaro Delgado was President of the Republic of Ecuador from 1895 to 1901 and again from 1906 to 1911. Although widely reviled by conservatives at the time, today he is considered by Ecuadorians to be one of their greatest presidents. He accomplished many things during his administrations, most notably the construction of a railroad linking Quito and Guayaquil.

Early Life and Politics

Eloy Alfaro (June 25, 1842 - January 28, 1912) was born in Montecristi, a small town near the coast of Ecuador. His father was a Spanish businessman and his mother was a native of the Ecuadorian region of Manabí. He received a good education and helped his father with his business, occasionally traveling through Central America. From an early age, he was an outspoken liberal, which put him at odds with staunch conservative Catholic President Gabriel García Moreno, who first came to power in 1860. Alfaro participated in a rebellion against García Moreno and went into exile in Panama when it failed.

Liberals and Conservatives in the Age of Eloy Alfaro

During the Republican era, Ecuador was only one of several Latin American countries torn apart by conflicts between liberals and conservatives, terms which had different meaning back then. In Alfaro's era, conservatives like García Moreno favored a strong connection between church and state: the Catholic Church was in charge of weddings, education and other civil duties. Conservatives also favored limited rights, such as only certain people having the right to vote. Liberals like Eloy Alfaro were just the opposite: they wanted universal voting rights and a clear separation of church and state. Liberals also favored freedom of religion. These differences were taken very seriously at the time: the conflict between liberals and conservatives often led to bloody civil wars, such as the 1000 days' war in Colombia.

Alfaro and the Liberal Struggle

In Panama, Alfaro married Ana Paredes Arosemena, a rich heiress: he would use this money to fund his revolution. In 1876, García Moreno was assassinated and Alfaro saw an opportunity: he returned to Ecuador and began a revolt against Ignacio de Veintimilla: he was soon exiled once again. Although Veintimilla was considered a liberal, Alfaro did not trust him and didn’t think his reforms were sufficient. Alfaro returned to take up the fight again in 1883 and was again defeated.

The 1895 Liberal Revolution

Alfaro did not give up, and in fact, by then, he was known as “el Viejo Luchador:” “The Old Fighter.” In 1895 he led what is known as the Liberal Revolution in Ecuador. Alfaro amassed a small army on the coast and marched on the capital: on June 5, 1895, Alfaro deposed President Vicente Lucio Salazar and took control of the nation as dictator. Alfaro swiftly convened a constitutional Assembly which made him President, legitimizing his coup.

The Guayaquil - Quito Railroad

Alfaro believed that his nation would not prosper until it modernized. His dream was of a railroad which would connect Ecuador’s two main cities: the Capital of Quito in the Andean highlands and the prosperous port of Guayaquil. These cities, although not far apart as the crow flies, were at the time connected by winding trails that took travelers days to navigate. A railroad linking the cities would be a great boost to the nation’s industry and economy. The cities are separated by steep mountains, snowy volcanoes, swift rivers, and deep ravines: building a railroad would be a herculean task. They did it, however, completing the railroad in 1908.

Alfaro in and out of Power

Eloy Alfaro stepped down briefly from the presidency in 1901 to allow his successor, General Leonidas Plaza, to rule for a term. Alfaro apparently didn’t like Plaza’s successor, Lizardo García, because he once again staged an armed coup, this time to overthrow García in 1905, in spite of the fact that García was also a liberal with ideals nearly identical to those of Alfaro himself. This aggravated liberals (conservatives already hated him) and made it difficult to rule. Alfaro thus had trouble getting his chosen successor, Emilio Estrada, elected in 1910.

Death of Eloy Alfaro

Alfaro rigged the 1910 elections to get Estrada elected but decided he would never keep hold of power, so he told him to resign. Meanwhile, military leaders overthrew Alfaro, ironically putting Estrada back in power. When Estrada died shortly thereafter, Carlos Freile took over the Presidency. Alfaro’s supporters and generals rebelled and Alfaro was called back from Panama to “mediate the crisis.” The government sent two generals—one of them, ironically, was Leonidas Plaza—to put down the rebellion and Alfaro was arrested. On January 28, 1912, an angry mob broke into the jail in Quito and shot Alfaro before dragging his body through the streets.

Legacy of Eloy Alfaro

In spite of his inglorious end at the hands of the people of Quito, Eloy Alfaro is remembered fondly by Ecuadorians as one of their better presidents. His face is on the 50-cent piece and important streets are named for him in nearly every major city.

Alfaro was a true believer in the tenets of turn-of-the-century liberalism: the separation between church and state, freedom of religion, progress through industrialization, and more rights for workers and native Ecuadorians. His reforms did much to modernize the country: Ecuador was secularized during his tenure and the state took over education, marriages, deaths, etc. This led to a rise in nationalism as the people began to see themselves as Ecuadorians first and Catholics second.

Alfaro's most enduring legacy—and the one that most Ecuadorians today associate him with—is the railroad that linked the highlands and the coast. The railroad was a great boon to commerce and industry in the early twentieth century. Although the railroad has fallen into disrepair, parts of it are still intact and today tourists can ride trains through the scenic Ecuadorian Andes.

Alfaro also granted rights to the poor and native Ecuadorians. He abolished debt passing from one generation to another and put an end to debtors' prisons. Indigenous peoples, who had traditionally been semi-enslaved in the highland haciendas, were freed, although this had more to do with freeing up the workforce to go where labor was needed and less to do with basic human rights.

Alfaro had many weaknesses as well. He was an old-school dictator while in office and firmly believed at all times that only he knew what was right for the nation. His military removal of Lizardo García—who was ideologically indistinguishable from Alfaro—was all about who was in charge, not what was being accomplished, and it turned off many of his supporters. The factionalism among liberal leaders survived Alfaro and continued to plague subsequent presidents, who had to fight Alfaro's ideological heirs at every turn.

Alfaro's time in office was marked by traditional Latin American ills such as political repression, electoral fraud, dictatorship, coup d'états, rewritten constitutions, and regional favoritism. His tendency to take to the field backed by armed supporters every time he suffered a political setback also set a bad precedent for future Ecuadorian politics. His administration also came up short in areas such as voter rights and long-term industrialization.


  • Various Authors. Historia del Ecuador. Barcelona: Lexus Editores, S.A. 2010
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Minster, Christopher. "Biography of Eloy Alfaro." ThoughtCo, Nov. 24, 2020, Minster, Christopher. (2020, November 24). Biography of Eloy Alfaro. Retrieved from Minster, Christopher. "Biography of Eloy Alfaro." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).