Portales Palazuelos, Diego José Pedro Víctor (1793–1837)

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Portales Palazuelos, Diego José Pedro Víctor (1793–1837)

Diego José Pedro Víctor Portales Palazuelos (b. 15 June 1793; d. 6 June 1837), Chilean political leader and architect of his nation's political stability. Portales was one of more than twenty-three children of a Spanish colonial official who directed the mint. Originally destined for the church, he switched to more secular pursuits. A graduate of the University of San Felipe, he abandoned the study of law to become an assayer in the mint.

Both of Portales's parents participated in the struggle for independence and suffered for their political beliefs: His father was exiled to the Pacific island of Juan Fernández and his mother incarcerated. In 1819, Portales married his first cousin, Josefa Portales y Larraín, who died two years later. Her death, as well as that of his infant son, deeply affected Portales, who went through a religious crisis, vowing never to marry again. Although Portales's religious fervor subsequently subsided, he never did remarry. Still, while he eschewed matrimony, it is clear that he did not lead a celibate life.

After these events, Portales moved to Peru, where in 1821 and 1822 he established a business in partnership with José Manuel Cea. This experience apparently was pivotal in shaping Portales's political philosophy. Peru's political environment became so chaotic that Portales had to close his business, at great personal cost. In 1824 he returned to Chile, where he and Cea purchased from the government a concession giving them the exclusive right to sell tobacco, playing cards, and liquor. However, the same problems that had plagued Portales in Peru dogged his footsteps in Chile: Domestic violence made it impossible for him to make a profit from his government concession. For a second time, political turmoil cost Portales his investment.

Portales concluded that because Latin America's citizens lacked the requisite civic culture or education, its countries could not function under democracy. He felt that years would pass before the Latin nations would be ready for this form of government. Not surprisingly, Portales concluded that Chile desperately needed internal order if it were to survive and prosper. Hence, he became involved in a political bloc called the estanqueros, which advocated the creation of a strong central government that would guarantee property rights and restore domestic stability. Portales allied himself with the Conservatives, who defeated the Liberal forces at the 1830 battle of Lircay. This victory provided Portales with the opportunity to implement his ideas.

Portales feared and loathed the prospect of political instability. Consequently, he worked strenuously to ensure that the government possessed the necessary political powers. He backed the 1833 Constitution, which virtually delivered control of the nation's political system to the oligarchy. Moreover, he moved to eradicate his political opposition, depriving the supporters of Bernardo O'Higgins and the old Liberals of their power and, in some cases, their lives. Portales also purged the army of any officers who might possibly threaten the government, founded a military academy to train professional—and, hopefully, apolitical—subalterns, and created a national guard, which could, in an emergency, subdue military conspirators. Although he was not religious, he gave the Catholic Church a privileged position, even requiring government officials to attend mass in return for the Church's support of his regime.

Portales struck a Faustian bargain with the nation's oligarchy: The same constitution that granted the aristocrats control of the government also expected them to obey the laws they had enacted. Once established, this principle, backed up by the government's bayonets, ensured order, out of which perhaps prosperity might come. Though the constitution seemed democratic, the high voting restrictions made Portales a virtual dictator.

Consistent with Portales's ideas was his desire to limit partisan activity to a minimum, not because he personally lusted for power but because, like Henry VIII, he saw bending the rules as a means of guaranteeing political order. Presidential campaigns, Portales rightly believed, revived vendettas, which the recently established republic could not withstand. Hence, he insisted that President Joaquín Prieto remain in office rather than subject Chile to a campaign which, he correctly feared, would plunge the nation into the maelstrom of civil war.

Although Portales wielded enormous power, he never held elective office, preferring to be Prieto's éminence grise. He did serve in various capacities, including minister of the interior, the second most important position after president, and as minister of war, navy, and foreign relations, as well as governor of Valparaíso. Portales never actively sought office. Indeed, in 1833 he quit public service to retire to his hacienda, El Rayado. There he remained in touch with the government, which often consulted him.

In September 1835, when a struggle between ministers Joaquín Tocornal and Manuel Rengifo threatened to disrupt the national political balance, Portales reentered public life, first as minister of war and the navy and then as minister of the interior and foreign relations. For all intents and purposes, Portales was running Chile. But as before, he preferred to remain outside the seat of power, from where he choreographed Prieto's reelection to the presidency.

While he was politically innovative, Portales did not deviate substantially from his predecessors' economic policies. Fortunately for Chile, the War for Independence did not damage the nation's mines, located in the north. Consequently, this most valuable of Chile's natural resources continued to contribute mightily to the economy. Gold production slowed, but silver mining, fueled by discoveries at Chañarcillo, increased by 60 percent in the period of 1830 to 1840, while the output of copper almost doubled. The mining of these metals attracted substantial foreign investment, which provided the state with substantial revenues.

In conjunction with the minister of Hacienda Pública, Manuel Rengifo, Portales developed Valparaíso into the hemisphere's premier port on the Pacific. In order to attract international shipping en route to the Orient and the Pacific coast of the Western Hemisphere, the state spent large sums improving Valparaíso's facilities, building new wharfs as well as secure warehouses. An 1832 law permitted the storage of cargoes in Valparaíso, at very low tax rates, for up to three years. A combination of innovative laws and modern facilities made Valparaíso the ideal place for merchant vessels to drydock for repairs and to revictual. The government also modernized the ports of Coquimbo and Huasco. In addition, it promulgated a new aduana (customs) code, which attempted to encourage the creation of a merchant marine and reserved coastal traffic to Chilean nationals.

If not an economic innovator, Portales did forge new foreign policy goals for Chile. Officially, he stated that Chile, while zealously defending its sovereignty, would remain aloof from hemispheric squabbling. In fact, however, Portales seemed willing to impose Chile's will on its neighbors, as its national motto stipulated, either "by reason or force." Fundamentally, Portales sought to ensure that no hemispheric nation could threaten Chile's territorial integrity. Consequently, he disdained the United States and its Monroe Doctrine, warning all his Hispanic neighbors to beware of Washington's evil intentions.

The creation of the Peru-Bolivia Confederation in 1836 by Bolivia's General Andrés Santa Cruz threatened Portales's vision of the Pacific. Clearly, this new nation, whose combined land mass and population dwarfed that of Chile, posed a potential military threat to the government in Santiago. Moreover, the confederation early on demonstrated an unhealthy independence, one example of which was the Santa Cruz government's abrogation of an 1835 treaty granting Chilean wheat access to Peru's markets. Worse still was Santa Cruz's wish to restore the port of Callao to its colonial preeminence. In pursuit of this goal he imposed special taxes on all imports entering the confederation via Valparaíso. Clearly, the Bolivian leader, whom Portales deprecated for being an "Indian," was challenging Valparaíso's attempt to secure commercial hegemony. Fearful that Chile's northern neighbor might eventually turn on it, Portales launched a preemptive war in December 1836 to destroy the confederation before it could jeopardize Chile's economic and political domination of the region.

The onset of this unpopular conflict—the masses did not want to serve in the army and had to be impressed into the military—threatened to destroy Portales's government. Political conspirators hoped to take advantage of the popular discontent to overthrow the government of Joaquín Prieto. Portales responded by organizing flying courts-martial, which tried and executed individuals suspected of plotting against the regime. This tactic had only limited success. A mutinous army unit captured Portales after he had come to visit the garrison at Quillota. The rebels took Portales to Valparaíso, where they hoped to entice other military units to join in a revolt. When the loyal garrison refused, the rebels murdered Portales, mutilating his body with more than thirty stab wounds and stripping him of his clothes, which they divided among themselves.

The political system that he established survived Portales's death. Though harsh, this form of government imposed the order necessary for economic development and progress. Thus, while other Latin American nations seemed convulsed in internal upheavals, Chile, largely thanks to Diego Portales, prospered.

Interestingly, his remains, missing since his assassination, were found on March 2005 in Santiago's Metropolitan Cathedral during renovations.

See alsoChile, Political Parties: Conservative Party; Peru-Bolivia Confederation.


Luis Galdames, A History of Chile (1941), pp. 236-240, 255-256, 262-263, 265-270.

Simon Collier, Ideas and Politics of Chilean Independence, 1808–1833 (1967), pp. 133-134, 295-296, 321-332, 334-335, 339, 342-345, 353-360.

Jay Kinsbruner, Diego Portales: Interpretative Essays on the Man and Times (1967).

Roberto Hernández Ponce, Diego Portales, vida y tiempo (1974).

Bernardino Bravo Lira, ed., Portales, el hombre y su obra: La consolidación del gobierno civil (1989).

Sergio Villalobos R., Portales, una falsificación histórica (1989).

Additional Bibliography

Barba, Fernando. Argentina y Chile en la época de Rosas y Portales. La Plata: Editorial de la Universidad de La Plata, 1997.

Bravo Lira, Bernadino. El Absolutismo ilustrado en Hispanoamérica. Santiago de Chile: Editorial Universitaria, 1994.

                                   William F. Sater