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«STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS Stanford, California 1986 Modern Latin American Historiography and the Labor Movement Twentieth-century Latin American ...»

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The Distinctiveness of Chilean History It is customary to begin studies of Chile with an emphasis on its distinctiveness. Its geography is unique and spectacular. M o r e than 4,000 kilometers in length, the country averages less than 180 kilometers in width. Chile's ecology ranges from the arid Atacama Desert in the north, through the Mediterranean climate of the central valley (where most Chileans live), to the rain-swept forests of the south. Bounded by sea and desert, and by the massive Andes on the east, Chile lies farthest of all Latin American countries from the N o r t h Atlantic centers of the Western civilization of which it forms an integral part. Yet of all the Latin A m e r ican nations, Chile seems to have evolved politically in a way that most closely approximates patterns in the industrialized nations of the N o r t h Atlantic Basin.

T h u s a second distinctive feature of Chile, one stressed tirelessly, at least until recently, by observers both Chilean and foreign: its stable, democratic political system. Unlike the new nations of the rest of Spanish America, Chile quickly stabilized politically following independence.

D u r i n g the nineteenth century it developed a relatively strong state and a vigorous party system. Periodic elections were held, and rules were established for the peaceful transfer of political power. This process continued in the twentieth century and, as suffrage slowly expanded, Chile developed a very wide spectrum of ideologically oriented, mass-based political parties and a reputation for democratic pluralism. Finally, it distinguished itself in 1970 by electing the first Marxist head of state in the Western Hemisphere.

Chile 21 The military coup of September 1973, which ended that remarkable democratic experiment and destroyed the political institutions that had made the election of such a government possible, raises serious questions about the alleged distinctiveness of Chilean political history. Looking back, the coups and attempted coups that dot Chilean history over the last 150 years now become more salient. The civil war of 1891, with its tragic parallels to the events of 1973, takes on new significance. So also does the period of military intervention and extreme political repression and instability of the years 1924 to 1932.

In fact, paradoxical as it may sound, what is unique in Chilean political history is in large part the result of an important characteristic of Chilean social development that is shared by all Latin American nations: its dependence, since the nineteenth century, on exports of primary commodities to the industrialized nations of the North Atlantic. It is this shared characteristic, as much as the legacy of Western culture and Iberian colonialism, that justifies speaking of the whole of Latin America as an analytical unit in the modern period, and that largely determined which elements of Western culture (such as a strong state and a vigorous party system) grew and developed in Chile and which elements (such as economic and social structures) remained stunted or distorted.

Thus, for all that Chilean historiography niay emphasize the role of great men and the early imposition of centralized political institutions in determining the political stability and economic growth of the nineteenth century,' the reality is somewhat more prosaic. Although the inheritance from the colonial era, particularly the relative cultural and ethnic homogeneity of Chilean society and the absence of powerful regional interests outside the heartland of central Chile, was an important factor, the overriding determinant of early-nineteenth-century political stability was the fact that Chile, alone among Spanish-American countries, developed a viable export economy in the period 1830-60. Expanding exports of silver, copper, and wheat underwrote the community of interest within the dominant class of exporters and importers in central Chile. This class divided into contending parties over secondary issues such as the role of the Church (an institution relatively weaker in Chile than in its Andean neighbors), but it was united over the basic issues of liberal political economy and maintenance of the social status quo. Growing international trade stimulated by exports reinforced this consensus and provided reveIn more vulgar cultural-racial interpretations, nineteenth-century Chilean political stability, economic growth, and military success are the result of a felicitous mixture of selected regional varieties of Spanish blood and culture, a sparse and proud Araucanian Indian £ ? p u ' a t l o n ' a n d t h e v i g ° r o u s g e n e s a n d world view of Northern European immigrants, he biocultural offspring of this happy marriage became the "Prussians" or the "English" ot South America.

Chile nue to build a strong, effective state. 2 Then, as the technical limits of Chilean agriculture and mining were reached and the export economy ceased to grow (a crisis made much more serious by the worldwide depression of the 1870's), Chile was able to use the strength and resources of its early development to m o u n t a successful war (1879-83) against its weaker neighbors, Peru and Bolivia, and annex a new and exploitable export resource base, the nitrate fields of the Atacama Desert. There followed an enormous increase in the value of Chilean exports. And although much of the ownership of the nitrate industry passed from Peruvian into British hands in the aftermath of the war, the Chilean state, from 1880 to 1930, derived huge revenues directly (through export taxes) and indirectly (through customs receipts) from the foreign trade it generated. Meanwhile, Chilean agriculturalists, merchants, and industrialists benefited handsomely as government nitrate revenues grew, and the whole economy, stimulated by the growth in the mining sector, expanded.





The nitrate export economy transformed the dynamics of Chilean politics. T h e issues of Chilean control of the nitrate enclave and the disposition of government nitrate revenues precipitated the breakdown of elite consensus and constitutional n o r m s in the short, bloody civil war of

1891. But nitrate expansion also underwrote the stability and form of the political arrangements that grew out of the war. T h e executive would not play a direct, developmentalist role in the investment of nitrate revenues.

Nitrate revenues were too central to the economic life of the nation to leave t h e m to the discretion of one man (the president) or to the party or parties he represented. Rather, control of the state and its revenues was vested in the parliament. There, all sectors of the dominant class and their foreign allies—their weight measured by their ability to control local elections and form party alliances—could struggle over the division and destination of the spoils.

T h e social and political forces unleashed by the expansion of the nitrate

economy in the half century following 1880 generated a third distinguishing characteristic, the most important of m o d e r n Chilean history:

the rise of a strong, leftist labor movement. The implications of this deThe point is not that there were no sectoral economic and ideological interests contending within this broader class framework. Issues such as free trade and the role of the state in economic development also divided the social elite and, like the Church issue, precipitated several attempts to bypass constitutional and political norms to impose programs and win control of the spoils of government. But these divisions were not as sharp, nor were their partisans as desperate, as in other Latin American countries, particularly the ones discussed in this volume. Political contention in Chile developed within a broader and deeper elite consensus backed by the greater legitimacy and coercive capability of the state.

Each of these distinguishing political characteristics was fostered and maintained by a viable export economy. This issue is discussed separately in each of the country chapters and treated more generally in the concluding chapter.

Chile 23 velopment are systematically ignored in liberal historiography, yet it is the one development that most decisively sets the nation off from its Latin American neighbors. The rise of a leftist labor movement after the turn of the century destroyed the country's political stability and caused the temporary breakdown of the party system in the 1920's. In the decades following the collapse of the nitrate economy in 1930, in an environment conditioned by the exploitation of a new mineral resource, copper, the Chilean labor movement helped reconstruct the party system and pushed the entire body politic to the left. That process not only decisively influenced the course of Chilean political history, it fundamentally altered the pattern of Chilean economic development.

To summarize, then, it is the rise of a powerful, institutionalized, Marxist labor movement that most fundamentally distinguishes modern Chilean history. If the early emergence of a viable export economy in central Chile helps explain the political distinctiveness of nineteenth-century Chilean history, it is the nitrate and copper export economies that mold that legacy in the twentieth century. It is through the labor movement that the complex relationship between export structure and Chilean economic and political development becomes clear, and the meaning for modern human history of Chile's unique geography is revealed.

The Structure of the Nitrate Export Economy The action of frigid Antarctic currents, prevailing winds, and elevated daytime temperatures makes a desert of a long strip of the central west coast of South America. In the driest part of this desert, the 700 kilometers from roughly 190 to 260 south latitude, lies a vast, elevated flatland, or pampa. Beneath the pampa's arid surface, in an area roughly 20 to 80 kilometers from the coast, lie shallow, discontinuous deposits of caliche, the raw material from which the natural fertilizer sodium nitrate can be extracted.1 Here, far removed from populous central Chile, a huge mining and industrial complex emerged in the last decades of the nineteenth century. (See Map 2.1.) Virtually unexploited until the nineteenth century, the nitrate fields of South America were developed in response to the changing needs and technology of European industrialization. The spread of capitalist relations of production in European agriculture, the movement of millions of people off the land into cities and factories, and the explosive growth 3- See Javier Gandarillas and Orlando Ghigliotto Salas, eds., La industria del salitre en Chile por Semper i Michels (Santiago, 1908), for a translation of the detailed and lavishly illustrated report of two scientists sent to Chile in 1903 under the auspices of the German government and an organization of beet-sugar producers. The origins of the nitrate industry are thoroughly examined in the classic work by Oscar Bermudez, Historic! del salitre desde sus origenes hasta la Guerra del Pacifico (Santiago, 1913).

Map 2.1. Chile, ca. 1900, Showing Nitrate Fields and Major Nitrate Ports.

Chile 25 of population led to ever more intensive and scientific farming and a growing need for fertilizer. Guano, the fossilized bird excrement preserved on the easily accessible rainless islands off Peru's southern coast, was first tapped in the 1830's and 1840's to meet this need. But as supplies were depleted, as demand continued to grow, and as scientific understanding of plant nutrition broadened, the fertilizing qualities of sodium nitrate became widely appreciated. Nitrate was far less accessible and much more costly to produce than guano had been. But large capital investments and the application of new European technology to production and transport systems made large-scale exploitation of nitrate deposits in the deserts of southern Peru, Bolivia, and northern Chile possible after 1870. Although the bulk of nitrate production would always be used in fertilizer, nitrate served another need of the expanding capitalist nation-states of Western Europe—it furnished the raw material for g u n powder and explosives. 4 The nitrate export economy, forcibly appropriated by Chile in 1880, profoundly influenced every aspect of Chilean society for the next half century. Part of: that influence can be measured statistically. Export figures illustrate the expansion and cyclical nature of the industry, and annual employment figures tell us the n u m b e r and nationality of the w o r k ers involved. O t h e r available data allow us to estimate the industry's contribution to the national treasury and gauge the influence of those revenues on the government's fiscal policies; to sketch the evolving structure of the ownership of the production facilities; to estimate, through the figures on production costs and profits, the industry's contribution to national income and the process of capital accumulation in Chile; and to see some of the effects the nitrate sector had on other parts of the Chilean economy. T h e remainder of this section presents and evaluates information on these and other broad structural features of the Chilean nitrate economy. 5 O n l y with that structure clearly in mind can we begin to probe its implications for social and political developments in Chile.

Figure 2.1 provides information on the growth, crisis, and ultimate collapse of the Chilean nitrate export economy during the period 1880We can see that nitrate exports grew impressively, if a bit unsteadily, up to the First World War.

Exports, which stood at 330,000 metric tons in 1875, topped 1,000,000 tons in 1890 and reached 2,000,000 by

1908. In 1913, on the eve of the war, they peaked at 2,750,000 tons. T h e

4. Mirko Lamer, The World Fertilizer Economy (Stanford, Calif., 1957), Chap. 3.

5. Much of this information and analysis is drawn from two excellent studies co-authored by Carmen Cariola and Osvaldo Sunkel: "Chile," in Roberto Cortes Conde and Stanley J. Stein, eds., Latin America: A Guide to Economic History, 1830-1930 (Berkeley, Calif, 1977), pp. 273-363; and "Expansion salitrera y transformaciones socio-economicos en Chile: 1880-1930," unpublished manuscript. I wish to thank Mr. Sunkel for sending me this paper.

Figure 2.1. Chilean Nitrate Exports (in metric tons) and Workers Employed in the Nitrate Industry (in thousands), 1880-1934. Source:

Arthur Lawrence Stickell, "Migration and Mining Labor in Northern Chile in the Nitrate Era, 1880-1930" (Ph.D. diss., Indiana University, 1979), Appendix A..



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