Diego José Víctor Portales Plazazuelos

The Chilean statesman Diego José Víctor Portales Plazazuelos (1793-1837) laid the foundations, after the anarchy of the postindependence years, of orderly government, respect for law, financial probity, and a strong sense of Chilean nationhood.

Diego Portales was born in Santiago of a good family. He played no part in the wars of independence against Spain but entered commerce and became drawn into politics through operating the tobacco monopoly, the proceeds from which were intended to amortize the Chilean foreign debt. Though a pragmatist rather than an orthodox party man, he championed the conservative side against the democratic liberalism which had animated the founders of independence but had led to anarchy and factionalism in political life. He was particularly opposed to the cult of the caudillo, or personal leader, which he strove to replace by a respect for law, constitutional processes, and the office, rather than the person, of those in power.

Portales held a succession of ministerial offices but refused to stand for the presidency himself. After withdrawing into private life for a few years to observe the effect of his reorganization of the state finances and administration, he again took over the portfolios of war and the interior in 1835 and again became the right-hand man of his friend President Joaquin Prieto. After the suppression of an attempted coup by the turbulent caudillo Gen. Ramón Freire, who had been exiled to Peru, Portales became convinced that Peru, which had been united in a confederation with Bolivia under the ambitious Gen. Andrés Santa Cruz and seemed to threaten Chile, must be taught a lesson. Though Chile was far inferior in population and resources, Portales prepared his country for war.

Portales did not live to see the success of Chilean arms. Though he had reorganized the army and founded a military academy to promote a spirit of professionalism and to attract the sons of good families, his authoritarian actions and caustic tongue had won him many enemies. Santa Cruz had also been stirring up the anti-Portales faction. When, on June 6, 1837, Portales went to Quillota near Valparaíso to review the troops, he was seized by a group of mutinous officers and murdered.

Though he himself fell a victim to turbulence and factionalism, Portales had succeeded in laying the foundations in Chile of honest, efficient government by civilians. Though often criticized for his high-handed ways with opponents and troublemakers, Portales was far from being a typical dictator. He hated personal display and bombast, used power for what he believed to be the indifferent to money and fame. Though admiring the pragmatic spirit of the English and believing that the Chileans, like them, should become a commercial and seafaring nation, he distrusted abstract thinking and foreign models and held that every nation must work out for itself the institutions best adapted to its own needs.

Further Reading on Diego José Víctor Portales Plazazuelos

There is an extensive literature in Spanish on the controversial Portales. In English see the essay by Lewis W. Bealer in Alva C. Wilgus, ed., South American Dictators during the First Century of Independence (1937).

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