History of Chile

MILITARY INTERVENTIONS, 1925-32

As in 1891 and 1973, the military intervened in national politics in the 1920s partly because of economic distress, partly to break a stalemate between the legislative and executive branches, and, above all, to change the political system. Colonel Ibáñez (president, 1927-31, 1952-58), quickly promoted to general, became the dominant power. He ruled, either behind or on the seat of power, until the economic crisis caused by the Great Depression in 1931 prompted his resignation.

The 1925 Constitution

The 1925 constitution was the second major charter in Chilean history, lasting until 1973. It codified significant changes, including the official separation of church and state, which culminated a century of gradual erosion of the political and economic power of the Roman Catholic Church. The constitution also provided legal recognition of workers' right to organize, a promise to care for the social welfare of all citizens, an assertion of the right of the state to infringe on private property for the public good, and increased powers for the now directly elected president in relation to the bicameral Congress, in particular concerning the removal of cabinet ministers, which heretofore had often been removed at the whim of the legislature.

Presidential and congressional elections were staggered so that a chief executive could not bring a legislature in on his coattails. The new constitution extended presidential terms from five to six years, with immediate reelection prohibited. It established a system of proportional representation for parties putting candidates up for Congress. The government was divided into four branches, in descending order of power: the president, the legislature, the judiciary, and the comptroller general, the latter authorized to judge the constitutionality of all laws requiring fiscal expenditures.

The Office of Comptroller General of the Republic (Oficina de la Contraloría General de la República) was designed by a United States economic adviser, Edwin Walter Kemmerer. In 1925 he also created the Central Bank of Chile and the position of superintendent of banks, while putting the country on the gold standard. His reforms helped attract massive foreign investments from the United States, especially loans to the government.

Although a labor code was not finalized until 1931, several labor and social security laws enacted in 1924 would govern industrial relations from the 1930s to the 1970s. The legislation legalized unions and strikes but imposed government controls over unions. Union finances and elections were subjected to government inspection. The laws also restricted union activities and disallowed national confederations, which therefore subsequently arose outside the legal framework. Only factories with at least twenty-five workers could have an industrial union, even though approximately two-thirds of the industrial enterprises employed four or fewer workers, in effect artisans. Workers in smaller shops could form professional unions with workers of the same skill employed nearby. Agricultural unions remained virtually outlawed or extremely difficult to organize until the 1960s. The code left unions disadvantaged in their bargaining with employers and therefore reliant on political parties as allies. Those allies were crucial because the new code made the state the mediator in labormanagement disputes.

Carlos Ibáñez's First Presidency, 1927-31

After a weak successor served in the wake of Alessandri's resignation in 1925, Ibáñez made himself president in a rigged election in 1927. He based his reign on military support (especially from the army), on repression (especially of labor unions, leftists, and political parties), and on a flood of loans from private lenders (especially from New York). He also created the national police, known as the Carabineros. His expansion of the central government found favor with the middle class. While Ibáñez promoted industry and public works, the economy fared well until torpedoed by the Great Depression.

According to the League of Nations, no other nation's trade suffered more than Chile's from the economic collapse. Unemployment approached 300,000, almost 25 percent of the work force. As government revenues plummeted, deficits grew. Chile suspended payments on its foreign debt in 1931 and took its currency off the gold standard in 1932. Expansion of the money supply and increased government spending thereafter generated inflation and rapid recovery. Also helpful was an emphasis on import-substitution industrialization and the revival of exports, especially copper.

Rather than run the risk of civil war, Ibáñez went into exile in Argentina in July 1931 to avert clashes with demonstrators protesting his orthodox economic response to the depression and generally oppressive rule. His regime was followed by a kaleidoscope of governments, made and unmade through elections and military coups. The most notable short-lived administration was the twelve-day Socialist Republic of 1932, led by an air force commander, Marmaduke Grove, who would establish the Socialist Party (Partido Socialista--PS) in 1933. Exasperated by depression and instability, Chileans finally restored civilian rule by reelecting Alessandri to the presidency in 1932. Although the depression capsized civilian governments in most of Latin America, it discredited military rule in Chile. Now the 1925 constitution took full effect; it would remain in force until the overthrow of Salvador Allende Gossens in 1973.

Chile History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress