Jose Manuel Balmaceda was a liberal Chilean politician who served as president from 1886 to 1891. He was a true humanitarian, who wanted to use Chile’s newfound wealth to improve the nation through social programs for the poor, education, infrastructure and land reform. His ambitious programs were consistently stymied by Congress, however, and he killed himself in 1891. Today, he is remembered fondly by Chileans as one of their best presidents.
Before the Presidency:
Balmaceda was born to an upper-middle class family with some wealth whose background was in agriculture. He was educated at the Seminary school in Santiago but declined to join the clergy. Instead, he spent some time running family businesses before running for Congress. He was elected to several terms as Congressman from Carelmapu and soon became known for his dignified demeanor and outstanding speaking skills. He was young, popular, handsome and a rising star in Chilean politics.
The Atacama Desert:
The Atacama Desert is a barren wasteland in northern Chile. During the colonial era, the Spanish never bothered to survey it and when South America became independent, it was unclear if the desert belonged to Chile, Peru or Bolivia, although all three more or less owned parts of it. When nitrates were discovered there in the 1830’s, ownership suddenly became very important. By the 1870’s the three nations were squabbling over the rich deposits, and in 1879 a full-fledged war broke out. The War of the Pacific would last until 1883 and prove to be one of the most devastating conflicts ever fought in South America.
Balmaceda and the War of the Pacific:
Balmaceda did not personally fight in the war, but he nevertheless served a very important role. In the administration of President Aníbal Pinto he served as plenipotentiary minister (an ambassador with the authority to make agreements on behalf of his government) to the government of Argentina. Balmaceda convinced powerful Argentina to remain neutral during the war, and Chile eventually defeated both Bolivia and Peru, leaving those nations in ruins.
Balmaceda, with the full support of the National and Liberal Parties, was elected president in 1886. He immediately began taking steps to unify the various factions, even reaching out to the Catholic Church by sending one of his brothers to Rome, which resulted in improved relations with the church, who traditionally distrusted liberal presidents. Balmaceda also reached out to the various blocs of the liberal party, giving important Cabinet positions to the faction leaders. Confident that he had a majority in Congress, he embarked upon his ambitious reform plans.
Balmaceda had a vision of a modern, educated nation where all of the people shared in the country’s wealth. With the War of the Pacific over, the rich nitrate deposits, combined with revenue from mining and other industries, Chile was quite wealthy. Balmaceda spent state money on a new navy and equipment for the armed forces, education, and modern railways and transportation. Santiago underwent a renaissance and many impressive new buildings were built, including the Ministry of Industry, School of Medicine and a number of hospitals and clinics. Other cities saw new investment and construction as well.
Balmaceda and Congress:
Balmaceda’s majority in Congress was not as secure as he thought. The conservatives naturally fought him, and many liberals turned on him as well. Although nineteenth century Chilean liberals paid lip service to social progress, the politicians themselves often came from wealthy families, and Balmaceda’s somewhat radical (for the time) focus on improving the lot of the poor turned them off. He was seen as a big spender and wastrel: the corruption that siphoned off considerable sums of money off of his projects no doubt made things worse. Balmaceda had to fight increasingly hard to keep his supposed allies in line.
As 1890 drew to a close, Balmaceda’s problems with Congress came to a head. Balmaceda made it clear that he would see to it that his hand-picked successor, Enrique Salvador Sanfuentes, was elected to the presidency in 1891. Congress responded by freezing the budget. After some attempts at compromise failed, Balmaceda declared that the 1891 budget would simply be the same as the 1890 budget. This act was not within his rights as president, and Congress correctly took it as an act of dictatorship. In the second week of January, Congress declared that Balmaceda was stripped of the presidency and civil war broke out.
Balmaceda was supported by the army. He silenced the press and jailed critics and those members of Congress who had not fled. The Congress appointed Jorge Montt, a naval officer, to be president. Montt, with the support of the navy, captured key Chilean ports and collected the lucrative tax revenues. After Balmaceda’s forces were defeated at the battle of La Placilla, the end was near. Starved for revenue, he appealed to the wealthy class for funds, but they had turned on him long ago. By August, Balmaceda had to give up and took asylum in the Embassy of Argentina.
Death and Legacy:
On September 19, with Montt and Congress firmly in control of Chile, Balmaceda committed suicide inside the embassy of Argentina with a single gunshot to the head. He left a letter asking for clemency for those who had supported him and claiming that all of his actions had been motivated by "love of my country."
After years of strong executives which culminated in the Balmaceda administration, Chilean lawmakers had seen enough. For decades, the role of the president would be severely weakened, and the three main parties: conservative, Liberal and Radical, battled over power in Congress.
Balmaceda left a lasting mark on the nation, primarily through the money that he spent on transportation, education and public works. Chile would not see a similar investment in itself for years to come. Secondly, he came to be seen as a sort of visionary martyr, and most Chileans today would agree that in spite of his autocratic tendencies, Balmaceda was simply a man ahead of his time.
Today there is a town that bears his name in addition to a park in Santiago and numerous streets, schools, etc.
Cruz, Alejandro Concha and Julio Maltés Cortés. Historia de Chile (22nd Edition: 2008). Santiago: Editorial Bibliografica Internacional.
Herring, Hubert. A History of Latin America: From the Beginnings to the Present. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962.