|Chile Table of Contents
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 He repealed Liberal reforms that had threatened church privileges and properties.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.
Prieto and his adviser, Portales, feared the efforts of Bolivian general Andrés de Santa Cruz y Calahumana to unite with Peru against Chile. These qualms exacerbated animosities toward Peru dating from the colonial period, now intensified by disputes over customs duties and loans. Chile also wanted to become the dominant South American military and commercial power along the Pacific. Portales got Congress to declare war on Peru in 1836. When a Chilean colonel who opposed the war killed Portales in 1837, this act and the suspicion that Peruvians were involved in the assassination plot inspired an even greater war effort by the government.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress