Balmaceda Fernández, José Manuel (1840–1891)

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Balmaceda Fernández, José Manuel (1840–1891)

José Manuel Balmaceda Fernández (b. 19 July 1840; d. 19 September 1891), diplomat, politician, and president of Chile (1886–1891). The son of politically prominent and wealthy parents, Balmaceda briefly studied at a seminary, an experience that may have contributed to his anticlericalism. Although a large landowner, he also became involved in a variety of tasks: editor of various newspapers, private secretary to a president, and a diplomat. Not surprisingly, he won, at age twenty-four, the first of his many congressional elections. While serving as a deputy he also undertook certain diplomatic missions, arranging a border settlement with Argentina. During the administration of Domingo Santa María (1881–1886), he held the posts of minister of foreign relations, minister of war, and the more important position of minister of the interior. Since he was handpicked by Santa María, his election to the presidency was virtually assured, thanks to his mentor's massive intervention in the political process.

Balmaceda took over Chile at a transitional time. Increasingly, the nation's economy, and its revenue base, rested on the mining and exporting of nitrates. The new president had clear ideas of what he wanted to do with these funds: build railroads and public buildings, expand educational facilities, modernize the military, colonize the newly opened southern territories, and reward his political henchmen and their families with lucrative government positions and contracts.

Certain forces, however, stood in the way of Balmaceda's programs. The politicians wanted their place at the public trough. They particularly disliked the fact that the newly created ministry of public works seemed so powerful and that Balmaceda often used his executive powers to create jobs without consulting the legislature. The deputies and senators resented that the president alone seemed to have the power to dispense largess.

The second problem was the nature of the nitrate trade. Nitrates, while an essential component of fertilizers and explosives, were still a commodity whose value fluctuated with the state of the world economy. When prices fell, the nitrate producers, or salitreros, generally responded by limiting production, in hopes of driving up the mineral's value. While such production cutbacks proved beneficial to the mining interests, they hurt the government, which depended upon the export levy on nitrates to sustain the régime and its various public-works projects. Hence, Balmaceda viewed as an enemy anyone who could reduce production. His particular bête noire was John Thomas North, an English financier who owned much of what was worth owning in the nitrate-rich province of Tarapacá: a bank, a supply company, the local source of water, and the railroad that carried the salitre from the pampas to the port of Iquique.

The conflict between these two men became quite hostile. North, by keeping prices high for transport, increased the cost of the nitrate and hence limited its sale. Balmaceda, who resented the loss of potential income, tried to break North's monopoly on the nitrate-transportation network by offering railroad concessions to other foreign financiers. North deeply resented Balmaceda's efforts and tried to marshal his friends in the Chilean Congress to prevent the president from implementing his policies.

Balmaceda's principal problem was not North or his associates but his own methods of ruling. Although Balmaceda had initially enjoyed the support of a majority of the congress, he began to lose popularity. In part, various politicians, including some in his own party, disliked the way Balmaceda had been elected president. Others resented his seemingly unlimited control over patronage, particularly his willingness to appoint men to positions on the basis of talent, not political connections.

Legislative animus toward the president increased when he ruthlessly intervened in the 1888 congressional elections. Worse, Balmaceda lost his majority in Congress when the legislators concluded that he would select Enrique Salvador Sanfuentes to succeed him. It became obvious that if he wished to rule, Balmaceda would have to consult the legislature.

Balmaceda went on the offensive, demanding a strengthening, not a diminution, of presidential powers. Doubtless, these proposals shocked the Congress, which might have expected compromise. Clearly, the nation had reached an impasse: throughout 1890 the Congress demanded that the president create a cabinet to its liking before the legislature would approve the budget. Balmaceda refused. Since the president and the Congress seemed more intent on insulting each other than on addressing the country's pressing problems, the nation stagnated.

Thanks to the intervention of Archbishop Mariano Casanova, Balmaceda succeeded in forming a new cabinet acceptable to the legislature. When it collapsed, Balmaceda formed one composed of his friends, further antagonizing the Congress, which still refused to pass a budget.

Increasingly, Balmaceda ruled by decree, which created more uncertainty than it solved problems. Believing that the president might act illegally, his legislative foes created a junta to coordinate their efforts should it be necessary to resist his government. They soon had a reason: in January 1891, Balmaceda, citing the legislature's earlier refusal to approve his request for funding, unilaterally declared that he would use the budget authorized for 1890 for 1891 instead. Considering this act a violation of the 1833 Constitution, the junta rebelled, thereby initiating the Revolution of 1891.

Balmaceda's military efforts seemed as ill-fated as his political programs. Since the rebels controlled the nitrate-rich north, they had more money than the legitimate government. Worse, the rebels, who enjoyed naval supremacy, successfully prevented Balmaceda from taking possession of two cruisers under construction in Europe. All the president could do was mobilize his army, whose morale seemed to have deteriorated as much, if not more than many of their weapons, and await the ultimate invasion.

The attacks came in August. By the end of the month, the rebels controlled Santiago. As the congressionalist mobs looted the homes of his supporters and killed his officers, Balmaceda took refuge in the Argentine embassy. He remained there until 19 September 1891, the day after his term of office expired. Then he shot himself.

It is easier to say what Balmaceda was not than what he was: his willingness to deal with foreign investors other than North indicated that he was not an economic nationalist; his cynical manipulation of elections demonstrated that he was not a democrat; his brutal suppression of strikes showed that he was not a friend of the worker. While he was perhaps a visionary, his political methods seemed more typical of a bygone era than of a nation groping its way toward democracy.

See alsoChile, Constitutions; Chile, Revolutions: Revolution of 1891; Nitrate Industry.


Harold Blakemore, "The Chilean Revolution of 1891 and Its Historiography," in Hispanic American Historical Review 45, no. 3 (1965): 393-421, and his British Nitrates and Chilean Politics, 1886–1896: North and Balmaceda (1974): Hernán Ramírez Necochea, Balmaceda y la contrarevolución de 1891, 2d ed. (1969).

Ricardo Salas Edwards, Balmaceda y el parlamentarismo en Chile, 2 vols. (1925).

Julio Bañados Espinosa, Balmaceda: Su gobierno y la revolución de 1891 2 vols. (1894).

Maurice H. Hervey, Dark Days in Chile: An Account of the Revolution of 1891 (1892).

José Miguel Yrarrázaval Larrain, El presidente Balmaceda, 2 vols. (1940).

Crisóstomo Pizarro, La revolución de 1891 (1971).

                                          William F. Sater