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Chile from 1818 to 1920

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The Chilean oligarchy had little sympathy with O’Higgins, who favoured reducing their privileges. They accepted him, however, because he was supported by the army and because of dangers posed by Spaniards still in Peru and in parts of Chile (Valdivia and the island of Chiloé) and by internal guerrillas loyal to the Spanish monarchy. Opposition to O’Higgins began to make itself heard once the Chilean-Argentine army expelled the Spaniards from Peru; it increased after 1822, when the Chileans succeeded in driving the remaining Spaniards from Chile. O’Higgins’ attempt, by means of a new constitution, to concede a larger political role to the oligarchy did not increase his support, and general unrest and poor harvests forced him to abdicate in 1823.

The years 1823–30 were troubled by an internal political split between the oligarchy and the army; 30 successive governments held office, and a variety of political experiments were tried. Rivalries developed between federalists and centralizers and between authoritarians and liberals. To the political chaos were added financial and economic disorder and an increase in lawlessness that tended to strengthen the authoritarian members of the oligarchy. Rival political factions were eliminated in 1829 when authoritarians, with the help of a part of the army, were able to install a junta (collegial government) that nominated José Tomás de Ovalle as provisory president. Actual power, however, was held by Diego Portales, who, as either a cabinet member or a private citizen, in fact ruled as a virtual dictator.

THE CONSERVATIVE HEGEMONY, 1830–61

During the next 30 years, Chile established its own definitive organization, made possible by a compromise among the members of the oligarchy. Portales played an important role in the compromise, and a new constitution achieved as a result (1833) remained the basis of Chilean political life until 1925. It created a strong central government, responsive to the influence of the landowning class, which controlled the parliament.

The establishment of this new political structure united the different factions that brought Ovalle and later Joaquín Prieto to power. The new government was strengthened by a successful war against the Peruvian-Bolivian Confederation (1836–39), during which it broadened its support by reinstating army officers ousted when the conservatives had seized power in 1829–30.

ECONOMIC PROSPERITY

The government of Prieto and the succeeding governments of Manuel Bulnes and of Manuel Montt dedicated themselves to developing the economy. Their first and most pressing need was to reestablish the state finances, exhausted by the war. To this end, measures were taken to expand the principal source of state income—foreign trade. A free port was created at Valparaíso to encourage trade by foreign, especially British, merchants. These measures, however, would not have worked if Chilean products had not found new markets abroad. The discovery of gold in California (1848) and in Australia (1853) assured Chilean grain a vast market as the populations of those two areas expanded. The production of silver and copper increased in response to European demand, thereby increasing the wealth of the state and the dominant class. The economic development helped overcome political disagreements and aided the consolidation of internal peace.

Political stability and economic prosperity opened the way to modernization: the construction of the first railroads began, new roads were opened, and the harbours were improved. The government tried also to develop education, though largely for upper-class children. The University of Chile was founded, and foreign scholars were recruited to foster geologic, botanical, and economic studies. The development of commerce attracted numerous foreign entrepreneurs (British, French, and North American), who came to dominate the import-export trade.

POLITICAL DIVERSIFICATION

The increase of wealth that especially favoured the oligarchy and foreign merchants also contributed to a diversification of the ruling class; the development of mining production in the north and of agriculture in the south created new fortunes, whose owners soon made their entry into the political world. An attempted coup d’état, the “revolution of 1851,” failed but was an indication of the political awakening of these new elements. A new development among younger members of the traditional oligarchy was the growth of liberalism and the appearance of political clubs around the middle of the century.

The impact of these forces was felt inside the political establishment, so much so that a minor conflict between the state and the church over the right to make ecclesiastical appointments was sufficient to break the unity of the dominant political class. The oligarchy was divided into two groups: conservatives, who defended the traditional privileges of the church; and nationalists, who maintained the supremacy of the state. A part of each group, dissatisfied by the authoritarian government of President Montt, united and created a separate faction, the liberals.

THE WIDENING OF LIBERAL INFLUENCE, 1861–91

The period after 1860, known as the “Liberal Republic,” saw the emergence of many rival political groups whose common characteristic—following an unsuccessful armed insurrection by radicals in 1859—was an attempt to gain power by peaceful means.

POLITICAL FACTIONS

After 1855 the conservative element, supporting the hegemony of the church, had allied with the liberals in opposing President Montt. The radicals joined the alliance against Montt. José Joaquín Pérez (1861–71), though elected with the support of the “nationalists,” governed with the help of the liberal-conservative alliance. A division in the dominating political classes occurred about 1872, when the liberals started to draw away from the conservatives; the liberals succeeded in ending the Roman Catholic Church’s monopoly in religious matters.

EUROPEAN INFLUENCES

The fight to secularize the state opened the country to European influences in cultural activities and civil reforms. Young members of the economic and political oligarchy began to travel and study in Europe. They brought back many political, literary, and scientific ideas.

This new political and cultural opening toward Europe was linked to closer economic relations, especially with Great Britain, Chile’s main trading partner. The British began to invest directly in Chile, supplying the capital needed to bring about the construction of railroads and the modernization of ports and public services. The increase of imports and the payment of interest from loans aggravated an already weak balance of payments and resulted in a continuing devaluation of the Chilean peso in relation to the British pound sterling.

THE WAR OF THE PACIFIC (1879–83)

The need to improve its balance of payments attracted Chile to saltpetre mines situated along the Chilean border in the Bolivian province of Antofagasta and in the Peruvian provinces of Tarapacá and Arica. Ill-defined borders and oppressive measures allegedly taken against the Chilean migrant population in these territories furnished Chile with a pretext for invasion. Chile defeated the Peruvian-Bolivian army and annexed these provinces.

The War of the Pacific had broad repercussions. France, Germany, and especially Britain had strong interests in the saltpetre mines, and they threatened to intervene. The United States, hoping to restrict European influence, offered to resolve the conflict by mediation; Chile refused the U.S. offer, fearing that it would have to give up its territorial gains. German support of the Chilean position further impeded European intervention.

The war weakened Chilean finances, and the economic situation continued to worsen. During the presidency of José Manuel Balmaceda (1886–91) the government tried to claim the revenues from the saltpetre mines and thus to assert major responsibility in economic matters. Nearly all of the oligarchy, however, was looking for a weaker, rather than a stronger, central power and objected to this attempt to strengthen the executive. The clash was resolved in a brief civil war, which ended with Balmaceda’s abdication of the presidency.

POLITICAL DEVELOPMENT, 1891–1920

The coalition that overthrew Balmaceda resulted from a large political regrouping of all those who wanted to strengthen the parliament; thus, after the civil war Chile’s presidential republic was converted into a parliamentary republic. This meant that the oligarchy, which had extended itself into commerce and banking, needed only to assure itself of control of parliament—and thus of the various ministries—to dominate the political life of the country. In order to remain in office, governments now had to have the confidence of the parliament. What emerged was a continual struggle for power among the factions, which began to organize themselves as real political parties.

GROWTH OF THE MIDDLE AND LOWER CLASSES

The period between 1891 and 1920 was one of intense political activity that saw the formation of new political parties and tendencies that tried to express the political desires of the middle and lower classes. The development of a state bureaucracy and the growth of the railroads and of commerce favoured the formation of social groups with urban concerns, rarely linked to the landed oligarchy, and increasingly aware of their possible political roles.

An active working class developed in the saltpetre mines, in the large public utility enterprises (railways, gas, electricity), and in the many factories that began to appear in the urban centres, especially in Santiago. The first strikes to obtain better salaries and working conditions occurred during this period.

FORMATION OF NEW POLITICAL PARTIES

The radical political faction—born as a dissenting wing of the liberals and striving toward the secularization of the country—became the Radical Party in 1888 and tended progressively to voice the concerns of the growing middle class.

The Democratic Party (Partido Democrático; formed 1887) was led by Malaquías Concha, who spoke for the needs of the artisans and a part of the urban workers. Founded by former radicals, this party differed from the Radical Party only in the particular emphasis it gave to the labour movement.

Marxist ideology had begun to spread among Chilean workers. The first socialist group, founded in 1897, advocated anarchism and a worker-controlled economy. It became the Socialist Party in 1901 but had a fleeting life. The increase of strikes and dissatisfaction of the miners, however, led to the formation (1912) in the mining region of a new Worker’s Socialist Party (Partido Obrero Socialista), which influenced workers and university students and advocated an international class struggle; it became the Communist Party in 1922.

DECLINE OF THE RULING CLASS

The radicalization of the parties of the left was caused largely by the ruling class’s neglect of Chile’s complex economic and social problems. The ruling class, concerned with protecting its own interests, failed to introduce needed reforms, and as a result the political instability already evident in the late 19th century grew worse. The traditional Liberal and Conservative parties were unable to adapt to the country’s changing situation.

Along with the growing political and social problems, the economic situation also worsened. Loans obtained from Britain and, after 1916, from the United States served more to pay the interest on previous debts and to cover state expenses than to allow productive investments. The country consumed more than it produced, and this was translated into an annual inflation rate of more than 10 percent and to the constant devaluation of the currency in relation to the pound sterling and the dollar. Agrarian production barely kept pace with home consumption, but the large landowners were unable to introduce techniques to increase it. Industrial development lagged because of insufficient capital.