(Born Lambayeque, 19 Feb. 1863; died Lima, 6 Feb. 1932)
Peruvian; Finance Minister 1903, Prime Minister 1904, President 1908–12, 1919–29 Born into a middle-class provincial family of Basque origin, Leguía received his secondary education in the British school in Valparaiso (Chile). Upon returning to Peru, he engaged in commerce, becoming the Lima representative of the New York Life Insurance Company, before being appointed as manager of the Peruvian properties of the British Sugar Co. On the basis of his foreign connections, Leguía became Finance Minister and later Prime Minister in the Partido Civil administration headed by José Pardo. With his reputation suitably enhanced as a result of his administrative competence and energetic debating style in Congress, Leguía was chosen as presidential candidate of the Partido Civil in 1908.
Having attained the presidency, he endeavoured to introduce mild reforms but faced stiff opposition from more conservative ‘oligarchic’ members within his party. After completing his term in office, Leguía went into voluntary exile, returning to contest the May 1919 general election. To political and élite groups, he argued that if revolution was to be averted it was necessary to pursue a policy of capitalist modernization from above, while simultaneously implementing mild reforms to Peru’s archaic social and political system.
To the lower classes, Leguía expressed sympathy with their demands for reform and succeeded in forging a coalition strong enough to defeat the official conservative candidate of the Partido Civil. Fearful of being prevented from taking office by powerful enemies from within his own party, Leguía organized a pre-emptive coup with backing from rival parties and sections of the military, but once installed in the presidential palace, strove to undermine all rival political forces, as well as imprisoning or sending into exile prominent members of the civilista élite.
He then built up a personalist authoritarian regime, based on a large clientelist network, an amenable Congress, allied to a strengthening of the bureaucratic and coercive arms of the state. The constitution was rewritten to facilitate his re-election in 1924 and 1929.
On the economic front, Leguía embarked on a policy of rapid modernization from above, financed through foreign loans and the encouragement of outside investment. However, the Wall St. crash of 1929 and the attendant steep fall in commodity prices destabilized his regime and provoked a successful military coup in August 1930. The first conscious attempt in twentieth-century Peru to modernize the country thus ended with Leguía in prison and the military in power. Despite declining health, the incoming regime prevented him from receiving medical attention until it was too late, with the result that the longest serving president in modern Peruvian history died in prison a broken man in February 1932.