History of Chile


Scholars have long pondered why Chile was the first country in Latin America to achieve stable civilian rule in a constitutional, electoral, representative republic. They have also asked why Chile was more successful at constitutional government thereafter than its neighbors. One part of the answer is that Chile had fewer obstacles to overcome because it was less disturbed by regional, church-state, and ethnic conflicts. The geographically compact and relatively homogeneous population was easier to manage than the far-flung groups residing in many of the other new states of the hemisphere. As the nineteenth century wore on, slow settlement of the frontiers to the north and south provided a safety valve without creating a challenge to the dominance of the Central Valley.

As with regionalism, the church issue that rent many of the new republics was also muted in Chile, where the Catholic Church had never been very wealthy or powerful. Some historians would also argue that Chilean criollos, because they lived on the fringe of the empire, had more experience at self-government during the colonial period. In addition, the Chilean elite was less fearful than many other Spanish Americans that limited democracy would open the door to uprisings by massive native or black subject classes. At the same time, the ruling class was cohesive and confident, its members connected by familial and business networks. The elite was powerful partly because it controlled the main exports, until foreigners took over trade late in the nineteenth century. The rapid recovery of the export economy from the devastation of the wars of independence also helped, as economic and political success and stability became mutually reinforcing. Capitalizing on these advantages, however, would require shrewd and ruthless political engineers, victory in a war against Chile's neighbors, continued economic growth, and some luck in the design, timing, and sequence of political change.

The Conservative Era, 1830-61

Members of the first political parties, the Conservatives (pelucones, or bigwigs) and the Liberals (pipiolos, or novices), began to coalesce around the church-state issue. Not only more favorably inclined toward the church, the Conservatives were also more sympathetic than the Liberals toward the colonial legacy, authoritarian government, the supremacy of executive powers, and a unitary state. After their victory at the Battle of Lircay, the Conservatives took charge, spearheaded by a Valparaíso merchant, Diego Portales Palazuelos.

The Portalian State, 1830-37

Although never president, Portales dominated Chilean politics from the cabinet and behind the scenes from 1830 to 1837. He installed the "autocratic republic," which centralized authority in the national government. His political program enjoyed support from merchants, large landowners, foreign capitalists, the church, and the military. Political and economic stability reinforced each other, as Portales encouraged economic growth through free trade and put government finances in order.

Portales was an agnostic who said that he believed in the clergy but not in God. He realized the importance of the Roman Catholic Church as a bastion of loyalty, legitimacy, social control, and stability, as had been the case in the colonial period. He repealed Liberal reforms that had threatened church privileges and properties.

Portales brought the military under civilian control by rewarding loyal generals, cashiering troublemakers, and promoting a victorious war against the Peru-Bolivia Confederation (1836-39). After defeating Peru and Bolivia, Chile dominated the Pacific Coast of South America. The victory over its neighbors gave Chile and its new political system a psychological boost. Chileans experienced a surge of national enthusiasm and cohesion behind a regime accepted as legitimate and efficacious.

Portales also achieved his objectives by wielding dictatorial powers, censoring the press, and manipulating elections. For the next forty years, Chile's armed forces would be distracted from meddling in politics by skirmishes and defensive operations on the southern frontier, although some units got embroiled in domestic conflicts in 1851 and 1859. In later years, conservative Chileans canonized Portales as a symbol of order and progress, exaggerating the importance of one man in that achievement.

The "Portalian State" was institutionalized by the 1833 constitution. One of the most durable charters ever devised in Latin America, the Portalian constitution lasted until 1925. The constitution concentrated authority in the national government, more precisely, in the hands of the president, who was elected by a tiny minority. The chief executive could serve two consecutive five-year terms and then pick a successor. Although the Congress had significant budgetary powers, it was overshadowed by the president, who appointed provincial officials. The constitution also created an independent judiciary, guaranteed inheritance of estates by primogeniture, and installed Catholicism as the state religion. In short, it established an autocratic system under a republican veneer.

The first Portalian president was General Joaquín Prieto Vial, who served two terms (1831-36, 1836-41). President Prieto had four main accomplishments: implementation of the 1833 constitution, stabilization of government finances, defeat of provincial challenges to central authority, and victory over the Peru-Bolivia Confederation. During the presidencies of Prieto and his two successors, Chile modernized through the construction of ports, railroads, and telegraph lines, some built by United States entrepreneur William Wheelwright. These innovations facilitated the export-import trade as well as domestic commerce.

Prieto and his adviser, Portales, feared the efforts of Bolivian general Andrés de Santa Cruz y Calahumana to unite with Peru against Chile. These qualms exacerbated animosities toward Peru dating from the colonial period, now intensified by disputes over customs duties and loans. Chile also wanted to become the dominant South American military and commercial power along the Pacific. Portales got Congress to declare war on Peru in 1836. When a Chilean colonel who opposed the war killed Portales in 1837, this act and the suspicion that Peruvians were involved in the assassination plot inspired an even greater war effort by the government.

Two Conservative Presidencies, 1841-61

Chile defeated the Peruvian fleet at Casma on January 12, 1839, and the Bolivian army at Yungay, Peru, on January 20. These Chilean victories destroyed the Peru-Bolivia Confederation, made Chile lord of the west coast, brought unity and patriotism to the Chilean elites, and gave Chile's armed forces pride and purpose as a military with an external mission. The successful war also helped convince the European powers and the United States to respect Chile's coastal sphere of influence. Subsequently, the country won additional respect from the European powers and the United States by giving them economic access and concessions, by treating their citizens well, and by generally playing them off against each other.

Since its inception, the Portalian State has been criticized for its authoritarianism. But it has also been praised for the stability, prosperity, and international victories it brought to Chile, as well as the gradual opening to increased democracy that it provided. At least in comparison with most other regimes of the era, the Portalian State was noteworthy for being dominated by constitutional civilian authorities. Although Portales deserves some credit for launching the system, his successors were the ones who truly implemented, institutionalized, legitimized, and consolidated it. From 1831 to 1861, no other country in Spanish America had such a regular and constitutional succession of chief executives.

Manuel Bulnes Prieto (president, 1841-51), hero of the victories over the Chilean Liberals at the Battle of Lircay in 1830, and over the Bolivian army at Yungay in 1839, became president in 1841. As a decorated general, he was the ideal choice to consolidate the Portalian State and establish presidential control over the armed forces. He reduced the size of the military and solidified its loyalty to the central government in the face of provincial uprisings. As a southerner, he was able to defuse regional resentment of the dominant Santiago area. Although Bulnes staffed his two administrations mainly with Conservatives, he conciliated his opponents by including a few Liberals. He strengthened the new political institutions, especially Congress and the judiciary, and gave legitimacy to the constitution by stepping down at the end of his second term in office. Placing the national interest above regional or military loyalties, he also helped snuff out a southern rebellion against his successor.

Intellectual life blossomed under Bulnes, thanks in part to the many exiles who came to Chile from less stable Spanish American republics. They clustered around the University of Chile (founded in 1842), which developed into one of the most prestigious educational institutions in Latin America. Both foreigners and nationals formed the "Generation of 1842," led mainly by liberal intellectuals and politicians such as Francisco Bilbao Barguin and José Victorino Lastarria Santander. Through the Society of Equality, members of the group called for expanded democracy and reduced church prerogatives. In particular, they defended civil liberties and freedom of the press, seeking to constrain the government's authoritarian powers.

Bulnes presided over continued prosperity, as production from the farms and mines increased, both for external and for internal consumption. In response to foreign demand, especially for wheat during the California and Australia gold rushes, agricultural exports increased. Instead of importing scarce and expensive modern capital and technology, landowners expanded production. They did this primarily by enlarging their estates and absorbing more peasants into their work forces, especially in the central provinces, where the vast majority of Chileans toiled in agriculture. This expansion fortified the hacienda system and increased the numbers of people attached to it. The growth of the great estates also increased the political power of the landed elites, who succeeded in exercising a veto over agrarian reform for a century.

In the mid-1800s, the rural labor force, mainly mestizos, was a cheap and expanding source of labor. More and more of these laborers became tenant farmers (inquilinos). For a century thereafter, many workers would remain bound to the haciendas through tradition, lack of alternatives, and landowner collusion and coercion. Itinerant rural workers and even small landowners became increasingly dependent on the great estates, whether through part-time or full-time work. The landed elites also inhibited industrialization by their preference for free trade and the low wages they paid their workers, which hindered rural consumers from accumulating disposable income. For a century, the lack of any significant challenge to this exploitive system was one of the pillars of the social and political hierarchy.

Liberals and regionalists unsuccessfully took up arms against Bulnes's conservative successor, Manuel Montt Torres (president, 1851-61). Thousands died in one of the few large civil wars in nineteenth-century Chile. The rebels of 1851 denounced Montt's election as a fraud perpetrated by the centralist forces in and around Santiago. Some entrepreneurs in the outlying provinces also backed the rebellion out of anger at the government's neglect of economic interests outside the sphere of the central landowning elites. Montt put down the uprising with help from British commercial ships.

From 1851 to 1861, Montt completed the construction of the durable constitutional order begun by Portales and Bulnes. By reducing church prerogatives, Montt eased the transition from a sequence of Conservative chief executives to a series of Liberals. As a civilian head of state, he was less harsh with his liberal adversaries. He also promoted conciliation by including many northerners as well as southerners in the government.

Benefiting from the sharp growth in exports and customs revenues in the 1850s, Montt demonstrated the efficacy of the central government by supporting the establishment of railroads, a telegraph system, and banks. He created the first government-run railroad company in South America, despite his belief in laissezfaire . He also initiated the extension of government credit to propertied groups. Under President Montt, school construction accelerated, laying the groundwork for Chile to become one of the most literate nations in the hemisphere. Expanding on the initiative started by Bulnes, Montt also pushed back the southern frontier, in part by encouraging German immigration.

As the next presidential succession approached, a second rebellion ensued in 1859. The rebels represented a diverse alliance, including Liberals who opposed the right-wing government and its encroachments on civil liberties, Conservatives who believed the president was insufficiently proclerical, politicians who feared the selection of a strongman as Montt's successor, and regionalists who chafed at the concentration of power in Santiago. Once again, Montt prevailed in a test of arms, but thereafter he conciliated his opponents by nominating a successor acceptable to all sides, José Joaquín Pérez Mascayano (president, 1861-71).

Under Bulnes and Montt, economic elites had resisted paying direct taxes, so the national government had become heavily dependent on customs duties, particularly on mineral exports. Imports were also taxed at a low level. The most important exports in the early years of independence had been silver and copper, mined mainly in the northern provinces, along with wheat, tallow, and other farm produce. The Chilean elites eagerly welcomed European and North American ships and merchants. Although these elites debated the issue of protectionism, they settled on low tariffs for revenue. Despite some dissent and deviations, the dominant policy in the nineteenth century was free trade--the exchange of raw materials for manufactured items, although a few local industries took root. Britain quickly became Chile's primary trading partner. The British also invested, both directly and indirectly, in the Chilean economy.

The Liberal Era, 1861-91

Following Pérez's peaceful ten-year administration, Chilean presidents were prohibited from running for election to a second consecutive term by an 1871 amendment to the constitution. Pérez was succeeded as president by Federico Errázuriz Zañartu (1871-76), Aníbal Pinto Garmendia (1876-81), and Domingo Santa María González (1881-86), the latter two serving during the War of the Pacific (1879-83). All formed coalition governments in which the president juggled a complicated array of party components.

The Liberal Party (Partido Liberal--PL), the Conservative Party (Partido Conservador--PC), and the National Party (Partido Nacional--PN) were formed in 1857. Once the Liberal Party replaced the Conservative Party as the dominant party, the Liberal Party was in turn challenged from the left by the more fervent reformists of the Radical Party (Partido Radical--PR). A spin-off from the Liberal Party, the Radical Party was founded in 1861. Reformists of the Democrat Party (Partido Demócrata), which in turn splintered from the Radical Party in 1887, also challenged the Liberal Party. The National Party also vied with the Conservatives and Liberals to represent upper-class interests. Derived from the Montt presidency, the National Party took a less proclerical, more centrist position than that of the Conservatives. Party competition escalated after the electoral reform of 1874 extended the franchise to all literate adult males, effectively removing property qualifications.

Like Montt, most Liberal chief executives were centrists who introduced change gradually. Their administrations continued to make incremental cuts in church privileges but tried not to inflame that issue. Secularization gradually gained ground in education, and Santa María transferred from the church to the state the management birth, marriage, and death records.

Even during internal and external conflicts, Chile continued to prosper. When Spain attempted to reconquer Peru, Chile engaged in a coastal war (1864-66) with the Spaniards, whose warships shelled Valparaíso. Once again, Chile asserted its sway over the west coast of South America. Farming, mining, and commerce grew steadily until the world depression of the 1870s, when Chile again turned to a war against its Andean neighbors.

War of the Pacific, 1879-83

Chile's borders were a matter of contention throughout the nineteenth century. The War of the Pacific began on the heels of an international economic recession that focused attention on resources in outlying zones. Under an 1866 treaty, Chile and Bolivia divided the disputed area encompassing the Atacama Desert at 24° south latitude (located just south of the port of Antofagasta) in the understanding that the nationals of both nations could freely exploit mineral deposits in the region. Both nations, however, would share equally all the revenue generated by mining activities in the region. But Bolivia soon repudiated the treaty, and its subsequent levying of taxes on a Chilean company operating in the area led to an arms race between Chile and its northern neighbors of Bolivia and Peru.

Fighting broke out when Chilean entrepreneurs and mine-owners in present-day Tarapacá Region and Antofagasta Region, then belonging to Peru and Bolivia, respectively, resisted new taxes, the formation of monopoly companies, and other impositions. In those provinces, most of the deposits of nitrate--a valuable ingredient in fertilizers and explosives--were owned and mined by Chileans and Europeans, in particular the British. Chile wanted not only to acquire the nitrate fields but also to weaken Peru and Bolivia in order to strengthen its own strategic preeminence on the Pacific Coast. Hostilities were exacerbated because of disagreements over boundary lines, which in the desert had always been vague. Chile and Bolivia accused each other of violating the 1866 treaty. Although Chile expanded northward as a result of the War of the Pacific, its rights to the conquered territory continued to be questioned by Peru, and especially by Bolivia, throughout the twentieth century.

War began when Chilean troops crossed the northern frontier in 1879. Although a mutual defense pact had allied Peru and Bolivia since 1873, Chile's more professional, less politicized military overwhelmed the two weaker countries on land and sea. The turning point of the war was the occupation of Lima on January 17, 1881, a humiliation the Peruvians never forgave. Chile sealed its victory with the 1883 Treaty of Ancón, which also ended the Chilean occupation of Lima.

As a result of the war and the Treaty of Ancón, Chile acquired two northern provinces--Tarapacá from Peru and Antofagasta from Bolivia. These territories encompassed most of the Atacama Desert and blocked off Bolivia's outlet to the Pacific Ocean. The war gave Chile control over nitrate exports, which would dominate the national economy until the 1920s, possession of copper deposits that would eclipse nitrate exports by the 1930s, greatpower status along the entire Pacific Coast of South America, and an enduring symbol of patriotic pride in the person of naval hero Arturo Prat Chacón. The War of the Pacific also bestowed on the Chilean armed forces enhanced respect, the prospect of steadily increasing force levels, and a long-term external mission guarding the borders with Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. In 1885 a German military officer, Emil Körner, was contracted to upgrade and professionalize the armed forces along Prussian lines. In subsequent years, better education produced not only a more modern officer corps but also a military leadership capable of questioning civilian management of national development.

After battling the Peruvians and Bolivians in the north, the military turned to engaging the Araucanians in the south. The final defeat of the Mapuche in 1882 opened up the southern third of the national territory to wealthy Chileans who quickly carved out immense estates. No homestead act or legion of family farmers stood in their way, although a few middle-class and immigrant agriculturalists moved in. Some Mapuche fled over the border to Argentina. The army herded those who remained onto tribal reservations in 1884, where they would remain mired in poverty for generations. Like the far north, these southern provinces would become stalwarts of national reform movements, critical of the excessive concentration of power and wealth in and around Santiago.

Soon controlled by British and then by United States investors, the nitrate fields became a classic monocultural boom and bust. The boom lasted four decades. Export taxes on nitrates often furnished over 50 percent of all state revenues, relieving the upper class of tax burdens. The income of the Chilean treasury nearly quadrupled in the decade after the war. The government used the funds to expand education and transportation. The mining bonanza generated demand for agricultural goods from the center and south and even for locally manufactured items, spawning a new plutocracy. Even more notable was the emergence of a class-conscious, nationalistic, ideological labor movement in the northern mining camps and elsewhere.

Prosperity also attracted settlers from abroad. Although small in number compared with those arriving in Argentina, European immigrants became an important element of the new middle class; their numbers included several future manufacturing tycoons. These arrivals came from both northern and southern Europe. People also emigrated from the Middle East, Peru, and Bolivia. Although most immigrants ended up in the cities of Chile, a minority succeeded at farming, especially in the south. In the early twentieth century, a few members of the Chilean elite tried to blame the rise of leftist unions and parties on foreign agitators, but the charge rang hollow in a country where less than 5 percent of the population had been born abroad.

Downfall of a President, 1886-91

The controversial downfall of President José Manuel Balmaceda Fernández (1886-91) represented the only occasion when power was transferred by force between 1830 and 1924. This event resulted in the most important alteration in the constitutional system between 1833 and 1925. In many respects, the Balmaceda episode was the culmination of two trends: the growing strength of Congress in relation to the president, and the expanding influence of foreign capital in the mining zone. In essence, the rebels opposed Balmaceda's plans to expand the role of the executive branch in the political and economic systems.

Although scholars have debated whether the uprising against Balmaceda was mainly a fight over political or economic privileges, the bulk of research has supported the primacy of political over economic issues. From the 1830s to the 1880s, Congress had gradually asserted more and more authority over the budget and over cabinet ministers. Balmaceda tried to circumvent that budgetary power and break the hold of congressmen and local bosses on congressional elections.

Complaining about the heavy-handed rule of the president, and in particular his interference in congressional elections, Congress led a revolt against Balmaceda in 1891. Conservatives generally supported the rebels; Liberals and Democrats backed the president. Along with some renegade Liberals, the newly emergent Radical Party aligned with the so-called congressionalists, not wishing to see legislative prerogatives curtailed just as the party was gaining clients and strength. Those provincials resentful of the growing centralization of political and economic power in and around Santiago also backed the rebellion, especially in the north. Initially, the navy, the armed service that included the highest percentage of aristocrats, sided with the rebels; the army sided with the president.

The rebellion also attracted British entrepreneurs worried by Balmaceda's threat to encroach on the independence and revenues of the foreign-owned nitrate mines. Although not opposed to foreign investment, Balmaceda had proposed a greater role for the state and higher taxes in the mining sector. Tension mounted because nitrate sales were in a slump, a recurring problem because of the volatility of that commodity's price on international markets. The most famous British mine owner was John North, the "nitrate king," who was angry that his nitrate railroad monopoly had been terminated by Balmaceda. Although not directly involved, the United States supported Balmaceda as the legal president.

The insurgents won the bloody but brief Civil War of 1891, when the army decided not to fight the navy. As a result of the rebel victory, Congress became dominant over the chief executive and the nitrate mines increasingly fell into British and North American hands. Having gained asylum in the Argentine embassy, Balmaceda waited until the end of his legal presidential term and then committed suicide. As Portales became a legendary hero to the right, so Balmaceda was later anointed by the left as an economic nationalist who sacrificed his life in the struggle for Chilean liberation.

Already tense as a result of the civil war over Balmaceda, United States-Chilean relations deteriorated further as a result of the Baltimore incident. In late 1891, sailors from the U.S.S. Baltimore brawled with Chileans during shore leave in Valparaíso. To avert a war with an angry United States, the Chilean government apologized and paid reparations.

Chile History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress