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1891-1925 - Parliamentry Republic

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.

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Page last modified: 04-12-2012 19:01:51 ZULU