Eduardo Frei Montalva (1911-1982) was president of Chile and one of the most widely known and respected spokesmen for democratic reform in Latin America.
Eduardo Frei was born into a middle-class family in Santiago on January 16, 1911. His father was a Swiss immigrant, his mother, Chilean. Growing up, he was educated in Catholic elementary and secondary schools. In 1928 he entered Santiago's Catholic University to study law, graduating near the top of his class in 1933. Frei was a Chilean delegate in 1934 to the Congress of University Youth, a Catholic conference in Rome, a pivotal moment in Frei's life, for during this gathering he met Pope Pius XI; Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli, who was later to become Pope Pius XII; and French social philosopher Jacques Maritain. These three men had a profound impact on the young Frei's political philosophy.
Deeply religious and increasingly drawn to politics, Frei became disenchanted with the orientation of the traditional representative of Chilean Catholic thought, the Conservative party. The Conservatives stubbornly resisted change, Frei believed, and were losing strength to new parties that postulated solutions to social problems. Active in the youth group of the party and editor of a newspaper in northern Chile, Frei and fellow youth group members finally broke with the Conservatives. The youth group grew into the National Falange, a party reflecting reformist Catholic thinking. Anti-Marxist and anticapitalist, the Falange sought inspiration in the writings of Maritain and the papal encyclicals of Leo XIII and Pius XI. Under the banner of the Falange, Frei ran in 1937 for a seat in the provincial legislature of Tarapacá, where he was managing the operations of a newspaper in the coastal town of Uquique. In his first run for office, Frei was unsuccessful.
Teaching, Political Inroads
In 1940 Frei became a member of the labor law faculty at the Catholic University while continuing to be an active participant in the affairs of the Falange party, taking the party's presidency in 1941. He was reelected to that post in 1943 and 1945. In May 1946 he was appointed minister of public works and communications in the Popular Front government of President Juan Antonio Ríos, but he resigned in January 1947 after the Ríos government brutally put down a demonstration by Chilean workers. He later was reappointed to the public works post by President Gabriel Gonzalez Videla, who had succeeded Ríos. Frei was nationally respected for his efforts to improve Chile's antiquated transportation systems. After running unsuccessfully in several elections, he was finally elected to the Senate in 1949 and reelected in 1957. The Falange and Social Christian Conservative parties joined in 1957 to form the Christian Democratic party.
In 1958 Frei ran for the presidency and, maintaining the party's independence from electoral alliances, came in a third. From 1958 to 1964 the Christian Democrats attracted new recruits, while the rightist parties were discredited by their inability to deal effectively with the worsening national economic crisis. By 1964 Frei had emerged as a serious contender for the presidency and the only alternative to the well-organized and powerful leftist coalition, FRAP. In the election of 1964 Frei decisively defeated Salvador Allende Gossens, the FRAP candidate, receiving an absolute majority of the votes. For the nation Frei promised a "profound revolution within liberty and law": agrarian reform, an end to inflation, Chilean control of the foreign-owned copper industry, expansion of educational facilities, better housing, and incorporation of the masses into the political and economic life of the country. After victories in the congressional elections of 1965, Frei and his party had some degree of success in achieving these goals, although the nationalization of 51 percent of the nation's copper industry proved satisfactory to no one. His attempts at agrarian reform were largely a failure, only a small number of peasants having received their own plots of land by the end of Frei's term. In 1970 Frei was constitutionally unable to succeed himself and gave way to Allende.
Opposed Pinochet Regime
When Allende was overthrown and murdered in 1973 by Chile's right-wing military, led by General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, Frei was initially supportive of the coup. Before long, however, he turned against the repressive Pinochet regime, speaking out against the ruling junta with a freedom accorded few in Chile at that time, a freedom to dissent that some felt was given Frei because of his international standing. In 1978, he led the unsuccessful campaign against Pinochet's plebescite to uphold the legitimacy of the junta's rule. The Pinochet forces carried the day, winning about two-thirds of the votes cast in the ballot.
In 1973, just after winning reelection to another term in Chile's Senate but before the coup against Allende, a probe in Washington by the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Intelligence disclosed that the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States had funneled $20 million into Frei's 1964 presidential campaign. These revelations, some of which were and continue to be suspect, came at a difficult time for Frei and for Chile and left many of his countrymen questioning the accuracy of Frei's portrayal of himself as a political centrist.
In his final years, Frei was active as a member of a global commission on international development led by German Willy Brandt. After complications from hernia surgery, Frei died in Santiago on January 22, 1982, less than a week after his seventy-first birthday.
Further Reading on Eduardo Frei Montalva
Selections from Frei's many publications can be found in The Ideologies of the Developing Nations, edited by Paul E. Sigmund (1963; rev. ed. 1967), and in sections of Religion, Revolution and New Forces for Change in Latin America, edited by William V. D'Antonio and Frederick B. Pike (1964). Leonard Gross wrote a popular and highly sympathetic study of Frei, The Last, Best Hope: Eduardo Frei and Chilean Democracy (1967). Federico G. Gil, The Political System of Chile (1966), details the development of the party system. A study of Christian Democracy in Latin America is Edward J. Williams, Latin American Christian Democratic Parties (1967).
Further information about Frei's later years can be found in The Annual Obituary 1982, edited by Janet Podell and published by St. Martin's Press, New York, in 1983.