CHILE has a political history that marks an isolated chapter among Spanish-American republics. Its unique and significant feature is four successive and peaceful presidencies of ten years each. The phenomenon is worthy of study. The tributes which the Chileans pay themselves are merited. Their national growth has been a growth, not a series of spasms.
After independence was achieved through O’Higgins in 1818, the Liberator was sent into exile, because he sought to exert kingly powers as a dictator under the merest crust of republican forms. The riot of liberty followed for ten or twelve years with frequent revolutions, changes of rulers, and unavailing efforts to form a stable government. The anarchy of license under the mask of popular institutions reached its height during the period from 1828 to 1833, when the Liberal partythat is, liberal in namewas in power. Then came the Conservatives or reactionists. They forced the adoption of the Constitution of 1833, which remained unchanged for thirty-seven years. Order and tranquility was the motto, and general republicanism was choked in order that a government of law might live.
From 1833 to 1873 Chile had four presidents, all elected and reelected under constitutional forms. These chief magistrates were Joaquin Prieto, Manuel Bulnes, Manuel Montt, and Jose Joaquin Perez. During General Bulnes’ administration an army uprising was attempted; during that of President Montt a revolution started at Copoapo in the north. There were also other disturbances. But all of them were suppressed without long periods of civil dissensions, and though liberty seemed to be smothered under councils of war and the absolute suspension of individual rights, it was a hardy plant and after a brief period would begin to grow again.
Under the Constitution of 1833 the presidential term was five years, and there was no prohibition against a second term. In this manner each president re-elected himself and enjoyed a ten years’ tenure. But he could not have done this if the privileged classes, the family groups, had not sustained him. They were aggressive in defending their share in the oligarchy, and their individual independence they maintained as sturdily as did the English barons who forced the Magna Charta from King John. With the national development assured, the country began to chafe under the recognition of the autocratic power which was vested in the Executive, and to feel that the growth which would not have been possible without the colonial despotism under republican form had now reached the full measure. Consequently the agitation for liberalizing the constitution began and was continued persistently instead of intermittently. In the decade from 1860 to 1870 the Conservative reactionaries were pressed so vigorously and were on the defensive so constantly that the harsh features of the constitution were modified in the spirit if not in the letter.
During the life of this old parchment and the four Executives who put it into practice,for there never was a dictator among them; Chile consolidated her domestic interests, inaugurated the building of rail-ways, and by the navy and other means prepared for the war which it was felt one day would be had with Peru and Bolivia. In view of all that was accomplished, it can hardly be said that the Constitution of 1833 and the power of the one hundred families as exerted under that instrument, were bad for the country. But a change was inevitable, and in 1870 the constitution was reformed in a manner to bring it within the sphere of modern principles of government and remove its aggressive antagonism to republican institutions. Greater independence was conceded to the judicial power, and larger liberty of action to the municipal authorities, while the electoral right of the citizens was broadened. The presidential term remained at five years, but successive elections were prohibited so that the ten-year tenure could not continue.
Frederica Errazuriz was the first of the executives to serve under the amended constitution. His term was peaceful and progressive, but was devoted chiefly to preparing for war by ordering the construction of the armored cruisers which rendered the Chilean navy so formidable. He was succeeded by Anibal Pinto, who had served in the cabinet as Minister of War. A financial and economic crisis supervened during his administration, and in its closing year was fought the war of the Pacific, with Chile as the antagonist of allied Bolivia and Peru. Chile’s sweeping victories not only gave her the nitrate territory which she exacted as war indemnity; it made her the most aggressive and the most feared Power in South America.
It had been the custom for the outgoing president to intervene in the elections in order to insure the election of a candidate of his own choosing. President Pinto announced his purpose of repudiating this practice, yet he was succeeded by Domingo Santa Maria, who had held the portfolio of Foreign Relations in his cabinet. President Santa Maria found himself antagonized by the Conservatives and one wing of the Liberals. He tried to organize an administration party and to control the election of senators and deputies in the Congress, but failed. This was a clear manifestation of the inability of the Executive to rule with-out the consent of the families who composed the various political groups. But the issue between the Executive and the families was to be forced by a more resolute hand. Its outcome was dramatic, a tragedy for the nation and a tragedy for one of the country’s greatest men.
Jose Manuel Balmaceda was chosen president in 1886, after a sharp electoral struggle in which Conservatives and the reactionary faction of the Liberals opposed him. He sought to conciliate the latter by calling some of them to his cabinet. He had grand plans for the development of the nation, and he wanted a united support.
President Balmaceda strengthened the naval and military establishment out of the nitrate proceeds ; but his guiding ambition was to apply them to public improvements, railways, roads, harbors, and schools. The Conservative-Liberal fusion thwarted him. It prevailed in the Congress, and demanded that he name ministers satisfactory to the majority. This he claimed was in violation of his constitutional prerogatives. The Congress refused to authorize the taxes and appropriations necessary for carrying on the government. When for any reason this was not done at the regular session, the practice had been to convoke Congress in extra sessions. President Balmaceda, wearied with the controversy, abstained from taking this action. On January 1, 1891, he announced that the appropriations for the current year would be the same as during the previous year.
Bloody, merciless civil war followed. The Congressionalists proclaimed that their contest was against executive usurpation. They removed to Valparaiso, and took refuge on the warships which had been prepared for them. They named Captain Jorge Montt as Commander of the National Squadron. President Balmaceda declared Montt and the naval commanders who obeyed his orders traitors. The President organized an army, while the navy sailed for Iquique and seized the nitrate provinces.
The Congressionalists instituted their provisional government there to carry on the war against President Balmaceda. They organized troops which were transported to Valparaiso and defeated the garrison. A second victory at Placilla and they were in control of the capital, welcomed by the populace as liberators.
Balmaceda took refuge in the Argentine Legation. Flight across the Andes was open to him, but he disdained it. He waited calmly till September 19, the day on which his constitutional term as president ended, wrote farewell letters to his family and friends, arrayed himself in black, pointed a revolver at his right temple, discharged it, and died instantly. His policies live.
These swiftly tragic events have only been recalled to show their relation to the political system of Chile as it exists today, for they influenced it and caused modifications of the Constitutional restrictive of the Executive power.
By the books the form of Chilean government is popular representative. To the foreign observer the wonder grows that a system which gives such inordinate power to small groups of families, who call themselves political parties, and which binds the Executive hand and foot, can prove satisfactory. But it suits Chile, or has suited her, and the country progresses. That is the conclusive answer. If Chile chooses to make a straight-jacket for herself, that is her own concern, and if in that straight-jacket she expands and develops a progressive national life, she may be permitted to take her own way and her own time for freeing herself.
But what of the governing classes? Who compose them? The Chilean professional man or merchant or government official will tell you that there are no, class distinctions, and at the same time will take pride in drawing himself and his fellows far apart from the masses. It has been said that a hundred families have ruled Chile for seventy-five years. The numeral might be doubled or trebled, but the truth would not be changed. The landed interests, the commercial community, and the church have ruled the country, and it must be said that they have ruled well. They may accuse one another of being false to their trusteeship, but the foreign observer is not impressed with this charge. All of them have worked together to make Chile the powerful and aggressive little nation that she is, and have secured her respect that the rest of South America has given her. But they have taken all the benefits for themselves,the honors and emoluments of public office, the opportunities for wealth that came from the nitrate fields, the chances for careers that have been afforded by the army and navy. It may almost be said that the army and navy exist for the employment of the one hundred families.
Chile herself is not a country of great private fortunes. One or two families have been enriched by mines, a half-dozen by banking and commercial development, a larger number by nitrates. But when it is all said, the Chilean hundred families are kin of moderate means. Their main sources of income are from their landed estates. These land-owners do not tax themselves heavily. As in the majority of countries of Spanish-America, the government imposts are laid on the revenue from the land and not on the land it-self. The landed proprietors contrive that these imposts shall be light.
The existing regimen, as studied on paper, is almost a complete reversal of the regimen under which for nearly half a century Chilean nationality was developed and the little ribbon of a republic was consolidated and made strong. The old form was a colonial despotism, with monarchical powers for the Executive. The present system is congressional despotism without republican powers for the Executive, but under both forms the one hundred families have ruled. The president is selected by electors chosen in the provinces through direct suffrage, since there is no such thing as provincial legislatures.
In the fabric of Chilean social organization the warp is the individual unit known as the roto. The roto constitutes the mass. Pelucon, aristocrat, is a term transmitted from the old régime. Violent objection is made to its use at the present day on the ground that there are no privileged classes and that it never had more than a restricted meaning. But it describes the antithesis of the roto since his evolution into the proletariat began, and it typifies a recognized social distinction, so that its use is permissible. Pelucon comes within the designation of the governing classes and the one hundred families, and does not require further explanation.
One morning in May, 1903, the Chilean government and the foreign presidents awakened to the existence of the roto as an organized element in society, with destructive capabilities and the courage of destructive tendencies. Disputes with the steamship companies had resulted in a strike. That morning the mob seized Valparaiso and took to burning property, pillaging, and killing. It was a wild mob, but it had perception and direction. It burned the offices of the Chilean corporation known as the South American Steamship Company, and undertook to sack one of the newspapers, but it left unharmed the property of the Pacific Steam Navigation Company, which was a British corporation. Its grievances against both companies were the same, but this Chilean mob would give no ground for foreign intervention.
The authorities were blamed for the demoralization which the strike developed. It was charged that the forces were at hand to quell the disorder, and that a firm show of strength would have saved the hundred lives which were sacrificed before the rioting and sacking were ended. The inquiry was made why five hundred marines who were available were not utilized. The sinister reply was that they had refused to be used, that they had been on the point of mutiny when it was attempted to use them. They were of the roto class, recruited from the same ranks as the strikers. The exact truth never got to the public. The Chilean government vindicated its ability to maintain order and by the presence of warships and of troops silenced the clamor of the timid English and French residents who were calling for cruisers to be sent by their own governments.
A generation ago, J. V. Lastarria, the Chilean diplomat and historian, asserted: “The Chileans are the most homogeneous people of Spanish-America, and they know how to use in the most practical and prudent manner their political rights.” He also declared that the physical and social elements of his country explained her salvation from the disastrous anarchy which the other republics had suffered and her progress in all spheres of human activity.
This complacent judgment was not unjust, but in describing his countrymen Senor Lastarria meant chiefly the higher stratum, the governing classes. When he wrote, the robust race mixture was yet going on, the amalgam of peasant northern Spain and of the Basque, after two centuries of transplantation, with the fierce Araucanian Indian blood. Not all of the original amalgam has been Araucanian. There are ten distinct aboriginal tribes known in Chile, and in the northern part the mixture has been more that of the Indians of the historic Upper Peru or Bolivia. All of these tribes have been habituated to hardship, and the grosser qualities of civilization have been developed aggressively.
The Chilean lower stratum of today is far from the refinements of civilization. Its vices and its virtues are equally strong. Among the virtues is native independence. The vices are of crude, half-conscious brute power, with little restraint of the passions.
The roto has many qualities in common with the higher classes. His patriotism is fully as deep. Heretofore he has been willing to fight at the dictation of the military commander, but the threatened mutiny of the marines was a warning. At the very time the conscription was going on, and an uncommon sullenness was shown by the conscripts in the interior, and a vague resentment against being enlisted to fight their brothers. This was when the necessity of employing the army to break the strike was most openly discussed.
Among the qualities of the roto, whether in the army or navy or in the mass of the population, is persistence in his prejudices. He is not easily changed from that which is taught him. I was in Santiago during the celebration of the peace pacts with Argentina. The governing classes and the merchants entered heartily into those festivities. They knew that the prevention of war by the treaties had saved the country from bankruptcy, even though war might have brought territorial extension. But it was noticed everywhere that the masses took no part in the demonstrations. They either were surly or indifferent. They had been taught to believe that Argentina was an enemy with whom they would have to make war and from whom they would have a chance to take spoils. They could not readily turn about and join in the celebrations of peace.
In the economic discussion of the social movement, citations will be made of the lack of thrift on the part of the roto classes, and their unwillingness to do anything for themselves. This is a loose assumption, which is not warranted. On the seacoast he may be reckless with his wages, but in the interior this is not true, and I question whether it is true to the extent claimed even in the seaports. There is some reason for this doubt, since it is shown that the savings bank carries 50,000 small accounts, and some of them very small indeed. The depositors represented by these accounts are soldiers, sailors, servants, students, seam-stresses, shoemakers, merchants, farmers, and laundresses. This surely indicates thrift on the part of the mass of the population.
Trade and industry in the future will have a broader scope in Chilean national policies. The passing of the era of unlimited naval expansion assures this result. After the peace pacts with Argentina were made effective, and the building of new battle-ships was stopped, it was estimated that $1,000,000 went into industries of the soil. By the sale of other superfluous naval armament to European Powers, more funds can be released for public works and agricultural development.
The industrial resources of Chile are mirrored, though not with completeness, in the Permanent Industrial Exhibition which opened in 1904. This covers not only the products of the soil, but also the home manufactures that are fabricated either from imported raw material or from half-manufactured products brought in to encourage home industries. The Chilean policy is protective both by bounties and by duties. The sugar refineries, which import the raw cane-sugar from Peru, are among the most stable of the industries. The flour mills are also profit-able enterprises. They grind the native wheat, and have a market for the flour for export in Bolivia and Peru, as well as farther up the coast.
The country has about 8,000 industrial establishments. Among these are 400 engaged in tanning and curing hides, 430 in various kinds of woodworking, 308 in metallurgy, 268 in chemical products, 560 in ceramics or pottery, 1900 in food products, 1920 in cloth manufacturing and tailoring, 700 in building, and so on. Carshops are maintained in connection with the state railways. A disposition on the part of foreign capital to engage in textile manufactures has received encouragement, and woolen and cotton mills are being established. The native labor, judged by the experiments, is competent.
The public works policy has become the program of all political groups, though the Congress sometimes is laggard in voting the appropriations recommended by the Executive. Railways are its most important feature. No chapter in Chile’s history is more creditable to her people than the sacrifices made for building railways, and nothing shows the national instinct bet-ter than the perception that was demonstrated of the part which railroads play in both the industrial and the political development of a nation. Over three thousand miles are in operation and new lines are under way. The majority of the lines are owned by the government, with the exception of the nitrate roads and the Chilean section of the Antofagasta and Bolivian Railway.
What Chile needs most is immigration and this she is seeking from northern Europe and Scandinavia. Then with closer relations with neighboring countries of South America and a wider trade with the world, her industries will expand and she will enter upon a new era of commercial and industrial life. With these economic forces recognized and given proper sphere, the collisions and the cross-purposes of domestic politics need have no deterrent influence on the industrial future of Chile. Agriculture, mining, and trade are better for her than battleships.