History of Chile


The so-called Parliamentary Republic was not a true parliamentary system, in which the chief executive is elected by the legislature. It was, however, an unusual regime in presidentialist Latin America, for Congress really did overshadow the rather ceremonial office of the president and exerted authority over the chief executive's cabinet appointees. In turn, Congress was dominated by the landed elites. This was the heyday of classic political and economic liberalism.

For many decades thereafter, historians derided the Parliamentary Republic as a quarrel-prone system that merely distributed spoils and clung to its laissez-faire policy while national problems mounted. The characterization is epitomized by an observation made by President Ramón Barros Luco (1910-15), reputedly made in reference to labor unrest: "There are only two kinds of problems: those that solve themselves and those that can't be solved." At the mercy of Congress, cabinets came and went frequently, although there was more stability and continuity in public administration than some historians have suggested.

Political authority ran from local electoral bosses in the provinces through the congressional and executive branches, which reciprocated with payoffs from taxes on nitrate sales. Congressmen often won election by bribing voters in this clientelistic and corrupt system. Many politicians relied on intimidated or loyal peasant voters in the countryside, even though the population was becoming increasingly urban.

The lackluster presidents and ineffectual administrations of the period did little to respond to the country's dependence on volatile nitrate exports, spiraling inflation, and massive urbanization. They also ignored what was called "the social question." This euphemism referred mainly to the rise of the labor movement and its demands for better treatment of the working class. Critics complained that the upper class, which had given Chile such dynamic leadership previously, had grown smug and lethargic thanks to the windfall of nitrate wealth.

In recent years, however, particularly when the authoritarian regime of Augusto Pinochet is taken into consideration, some scholars have reevaluated the Parliamentary Republic of 1891-1925. Without denying its shortcomings, they have lauded its democratic stability. They have also hailed its control of the armed forces, it respect for civil liberties, its expansion of suffrage and participation, and its gradual admission of new contenders, especially reformers, to the political arena.

In particular, two young parties grew in importance--the Democrat Party, with roots among artisans and urban workers, and the Radical Party, representing urban middle sectors and provincial elites. By the early twentieth century, both parties were winning increasing numbers of seats in Congress. The more leftist members of the Democrat Party became involved in the leadership of labor unions and broke off to launch the Socialist Workers' Party (Partido Obrero Socialista--POS) in 1912. The founder of the POS and its best-known leader, Luis Emilio Recabarren Serrano, also founded the Communist Party of Chile (Partido Communista de Chile-- PCCh), which was formed in 1922.


Beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, Chile's cities grew rapidly. They absorbed a trickle of immigrants from abroad and then vast numbers of migrants from the Chilean countryside. Improved transportation and communications in the second half of the nineteenth century facilitated these population movements. Although Santiago led the way, smaller cities such as Valparaíso and Concepción also swelled in size.

The founding of the Industrial Development Association (Sociedad de Fomento Fabril--Sofofa) in 1883 was another indication of urbanization. It promoted industrialization long before the intense efforts of the 1930s to the 1960s. Manufacturing grew in importance in the latter decades of the nineteenth century and the opening decades of the twentieth. Most industry remained smallscale , with most of the labor performed by artisans. Protected industrialization did not become the vanguard of economic development until the period between the world wars.

The urban middle class also grew in size and became more politically assertive by the turn of the century. Whereas the economy and the society became more urban and diversified, the political system lagged behind, remaining mainly in the hands of the upper class. Nevertheless, more members of the middle class began appearing in party leadership positions, especially among the Democrats and Radicals. They were also prominent in the Chilean Student Federation (Federación de Estudiantes de Chile--FECh), based at the University of Chile. Equally important was their presence among the top commanders in the armed forces, who increasingly identified primarily with middle-class interests.

In the closing years of the nineteenth century, labor organizations gathered force, first as mutual aid societies and then increasingly as trade unions. In the opening decades of the twentieth century, labor organizing, unrest, and strikes reached new levels of intensity. In the northern nitrate and copper mines, as well as in the ports and cities, workers came together to press demands for better wages and working conditions. Attracted strongly to anarchist, anarcho-syndicalist, and socialist ideologies, they were harshly repressed during the Parliamentary Republic. The government carried out several massacres of miners in the nitrate camps; the most notorious took place in Iquique in 1907. Thus, a pattern of violent clashes between soldiers and workers took shape.

Organizational efforts in the mines and cities culminated in the creation of the first national labor confederation, the Workers' Federation of Chile (Federación Obrera de Chile--FOCh) in 1909. The organization became more radical as it grew and affiliated with the PCCh in 1922, under the leadership of Recabarren. Its greatest strength was among miners, whereas urban workers were more attracted to independent socialism or to anarchosyndicalism . The latter movement grew out of resistance societies and evolved into the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Unlike the FOCh, the IWW spurned ties with political parties.

The emergence of working-class demands and movements spawned the so-called social question. Intellectuals and writers began criticizing the ruling class and the Parliamentary Republic for their neglect of workers and of social ills. New census data and other studies at the beginning of the twentieth century shocked the proud Chilean elite with revelations about the extent of poverty, illiteracy, and poor health among the vast majority of the population. Especially alarming were infant mortality figures that far exceeded those of Western Europe. Realization of the squalor and anger of the working class inspired new reform efforts.

Arturo Alessandri's Reformist Presidency, 1920-25

President Arturo Alessandri Palma (1920-24, March-October 1925, 1932-38) appealed to those who believed the social question should be addressed, to those worried by the decline in nitrate exports during World War I, and to those weary of presidents dominated by Congress. Promising "evolution to avoid revolution," he pioneered a new campaign style of appealing directly to the masses with florid oratory and charisma. After winning a seat in the Senate representing the mining north in 1915, he earned the sobriquet "Lion of Tarapacá." As a dissident Liberal running for the presidency, Alessandri attracted support from the more reformist Radicals and Democrats and formed the so-called Liberal Alliance. He received strong backing from the middle and working classes as well as from the provincial elites. Students and intellectuals also rallied to his banner. At the same time, he reassured the landowners that social reforms would be limited to the cities.

Alessandri also spoke to discontent stemming from World War I. Although Chile had been neutral, the war had disrupted the international commerce that drove the economy. German development of artificial nitrates was especially damaging, and thereafter copper would gradually surpass nitrates as the leading export, taking over conclusively in the 1930s. Inflation and currency depreciation compounded the country's economic woes.

During and after the war, the United States displaced Britain as Chile's most important external economic partner, first in trade and then in investments. American companies, led by Kennecott and Braden, took control of the production of copper and nitrates. As corporate investors, bankers, salesmen, advisers, and even entertainers, such as actor and humorist Will Rogers, came to Chile, a few Chileans began to worry about the extent of United States penetration.

As the candidate of the Liberal Alliance coalition, Alessandri barely won the presidency in 1920 in what was dubbed "the revolt of the electorate." Chilean historians consider the 1920 vote a benchmark or watershed election, along with the contests of 1938, 1970, and 1988. Like other reformers elected president in the twentieth century--Pedro Aguirre Cerda (1938-41), Gabriel González Videla (1946-52), and Salvador Allende Gossens (1970-73)-- Alessandri had to navigate skillfully through treacherous waters from the day he was elected until his inauguration, warding off attempts to deny him the fruits of victory. Mass street demonstrations by his middle- and working-class supporters convinced the conservative political elite in Congress to ratify his narrow win.

After donning the presidential sash, Alessandri discovered that his efforts to lead would be blocked by the conservative Congress. Like Balmaceda, he infuriated the legislators by going over their heads to appeal to the voters in the congressional elections of 1924. His reform legislation was finally rammed through Congress under pressure from younger military officers, who were sick of the neglect of the armed forces, political infighting, social unrest, and galloping inflation.

In a double coup, first military right-wingers opposing Alessandri seized power in September 1924, and then reformers in favor of the ousted president took charge in January 1925. The latter group was led by two colonels, Carlos Ibáñez del Campo and Marmaduke Grove Vallejo. They returned Alessandri to the presidency that March and enacted his promised reforms by decree. Many of these reforms were encapsulated in the new constitution of 1925, which was ratified in a plebiscite.

Chile History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress