1830-1891 - Aristocratic Republic
Scholars have long pondered why Chile was the first country in Latin America to achieve stable civilian rule in a constitutional, electoral, representative republic. This Constitution provided for a republican form of government, with a property qualification so high that the voters formed practically an oligarchy. 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.
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.
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.
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