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Portales, Diego: A Chilean Biography

by Charlene Richardson

One of the most influential people in the history of Chile was Diego Portales. Born in 1793, died in 1837, Portales lived a rather short life, but made an unquestionable mark on the Chilean economic and political history that has long since outlived him.
Portales was born the son of the superintendent of the royal mint at Santiago in 1793. At the age of 28, in 1821, Diego traveled to Peru, hoping to boost up his newly formed merchant business. He remained in Peru until late 1823. It was during this time that he organized his conservative political thoughts and views: "A strong government, centralizing, whose men are true models of virtue and patriotism, and set the citizens on the road of order and virtues. When they have made themselves moral, the government comes to be completely liberal, free and full of ideals, where all citizens take part."(Mabry on Chile) Little did he know, at that time, that these beliefs would lay the foundation for the new Chilean rule.
Even at such as young age, Portales was very ambitious. In 1824, he signed a contract with the government for monopoly or estanco of the importation and selling of tobacco and other regulated commodities. According to the contract, his company would service the external debt. This estanco contract was a bad deal because there was no way to regulate the illegal sales and growth of tobacco and it was unpopular with the people. Unfortunately, Cea and Company was unable to earn enough capital to stay afloat. By February of 1825, the deal became a major political issue and pipilos rallied to put an end to it. If only it were that simple. Finally, in 1826, the government created a commission whose sole purpose was to eliminate the contract. Not only did the commission abolish this contract, but it also found that the Chilean government owed Portales 87,000 pesos. This ruling increased the power of the estanqueros (supporters) as they became a central force of the broader pelucones coalition.
Seizing the opportunity to be the center of public attention, Portales purchased a press in Valparaiso. He used the newspaper to defend his company, the estanco. This was the first of many political opportunities seized by Portales.
In 1829, as a result of national elections, a major revolt began in Chile, allowing Diego?s supporters, the pelucones, to seize control of the government. In February of that year, a Congress of Plenipotentiaries met in Santiago, now the capital, to elect government officials. They chose Portales to be their minister of interior (government). He persuaded large landowners to end the small armies that had formed since the O?Higgins Era, by convincing them that these groups were a threat to life and property. One of Portales? chief goals was to bring order to the chaos that followed independence and O?Higgins? rule. Ending the small unities and establishing one militia, the Civic Guard, helped to gain and maintain order. Establishing a coalition of landowners, military, and church was the next step towards domestic unity. Once this network of communication and peace was established, Chileans no longer battered against each other, but rather worked together to establish a stable civilian government. From April 1830 until August 1831, Portales was the unofficial dictator of Chile.
Establishing political stability in Chile also helped to increase the country?s overall economy. The year 1831 brought both economic and political developments. Portales? newly invoked ideas ended Chile?s civil wars, freeing individual resources. People were finally able to invest their money for gain instead of protection. Chileans no longer had to fear the constantly changing rules they had grown accustomed to.
Portales? ideals lay foundation for the Constitution of 1833, which remained effective until 1924. His vision and specifications thereof entangled in the document were at best, brilliant. The highly centralistic, seemingly democratic foundation for government affirmed a newly-established order. Very similar to our own Constitution, Portales? ideals lay a solid foundation intended to create and support a rich and well born government. The Chilean leader proposed a system utilizing only a few presidential electors. Only males over 25 and married men over 21 could vote ? and they had to be property owners. As a result, only a few thousand citizens were able to vote. The Constitution also invoked certain literacy requirements that would become effective later (1840). The newly-formed government consisted of three branches including a bilateral legislature. And the President elected would serve one, possibly two five-year terms. He specified high voting requirements, specifically pertaining to property and income ? hoping to enlist and retain the support of hacendados or rich landowners. With the Constitution of 1833 effective, Portales could use legal and extralegal means to control the presidential elections.
Even though the Constitution seemed democratic, its high voting restrictions made Portales a virtual Dictator. The society he recreated was neither paternalistic, nor personalistic, but he was without a doubt, the true leader. Portales dismissed many of the leading generals because of their political ties; he intermingled the Catholic Church with government, restoring all the privileges therein and even granted new, special privileges or fueros; and created a military academy coinciding with the civic guard. His constitution outlawed provincial assemblies and reinstated mayorazgos. Catholicism became the official religion. Portales rule also reintroduced the primogeniture system of inheritance, thereby preventing large estates and landownings from being broken up into smaller pieces and preserving the social positions and prestige of certain families. This practice also helped to reduce or even suppress the lowest possible numbers of eligible voters.
The O?Higgins period, 1817-1823, established Chile?s independence, but left her under the Supreme Dictatorship of one Bernardo O?Higgins. Bernardo?s position as a well to do land owner affected his ideals for running the country. Not a laissez-faire liberal, O?Higgins believed state intervention was necessary to change social and economic conditions. He felt economic improvement was best achieved by raising the cultural standards of both the elite and the underprivileged. His ideas differed from those held by Portales. In fact, well after O?Higgins was sent to exile, in 1830, he developed hopes of returning to Chile, especially after receiving the friendliest of letters from the current head of state, President Joaquin Prieto. Of course, the true leader and dominant power in Chile at that time, was minister of Interior Diego Portales. Portales resolutely opposed O?Higgins return! His power and influence forced Prieto to discontinue support for O?Higgins return. Portales held definite ideas about his country?s future and he realized that O?Higgins? presence could intensify partisanship (which he hated) ? so he could not let that happen.
In late 1831, Portales decided to end his political career and return to the business sector. He found his decision impossible to carry out because Congress then elected him Vice President. Portales, now eager to leave the political scene, refused the vice presidency and resigned form all his other posts. The Congress refused to accept any of his resignations, so he remained active until they (Congressmen) were all abolished in according to the Constitution of 1833.
Eventually, Portales was able to leave politics, only to have President Prieto convince him to return in hopes of saving the government from a complete breakdown in 1835. By this time, Portales? party, the pelucone coalition was on the verge of breaking apart completely. Portales, once again Minister of Interior, had now also become minister of foreign relations, war, and marine. In essence, his dictatorship had been reinstated.
Despite his reluctance to serve, Portales accepted the challenge he was destined to inherit.
In 1836, Portales initiated contention against the Bolivian Confederation. The war lasted from the late 1836 until 1839. Portales, however, did not live to see his country?s victory. Political enemies assassinated him in June of 1837, while he was busy preparing troops for battle.
Many ideas brought forth by Portales are still effective in Chile today. His brilliantly conceived constitution of 1833 remained the country?s dominant doctrine, with some changes, until 1924. Portales believed the nation should develop a deep respect for the institutions of his new state?that citizens should regard the Law as mightier than any other leader. This businessman turned politician joined forces with the conservatives against liberal minds to fight anarchy. Even though he was never the President or head of state, Diego Portales? ideals and principles were the building blocks that Chilean government rests upon. His desire to design and manage a stable, peaceful government allowed the country to behold the beginning of economic prosperity and growth.