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
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
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.