José Manuel Balmaceda Fernández (1840-1891) was the last of the strong 19th-century presidents of Chile. His personality and policies provoked a constitutional crisis between Congress and the presidency and led to a civil war.
José Balmaceda was born in Santiago, Chile. He was destined for the Church but entered politics instead as a liberal reformer. In 1878, after gaining a reputation as an orator and a forceful politician, he was sent as Chilean envoy to Buenos Aires, where his diplomatic skill helped to keep Argentina from joining Peru and Bolivia against Chile in the War of the Pacific. He then was made minister of foreign affairs and of the interior, and in 1886 he became president of Chile.
Balmaceda's presidency was one of the stormiest in Chilean history. Despite the instability of his cabinets and the turbulence of opposing congressional factions, Balmaceda carried through an energetic program of public works. Though the country suffered setbacks from the 1886-1887 cholera epidemic and from incipient labor troubles, its flourishing nitrate industry brought growing prosperity. Balmaceda held that the state should have the major voice in controlling the economic expansion, and he thereby came into conflict with the business circles who believed in a laissez-faire policy.
In 1890 Balmaceda's policies and increasingly autocratic conduct of affairs precipitated a major constitutional crisis. The opposition made use of its majority in Congress to withhold funds and impose the appointment of a cabinet acceptable to itself. Balmaceda then replaced this cabinet by one of his own choice, dissolved Congress, and began to assume openly dictatorial powers. Congress attempted to depose him and civil war broke out. The navy supported Congress, and most of the army, the president. Congressional leaders established a junta at lquique and set about raising an army in northern Chile, which they financed from the nitrate revenues. Balmaceda summoned a fresh Congress and began energetically to organize his forces. These forces, however, suffered defeat in the battles of Concón and Placilla, and the President was forced to abdicate and seek asylum in the Argentine embassy. There he committed suicide on Sept. 18, 1891.
Balmaceda—the handsome, gifted, and wealthy liberal reformer whose evolution into the most authoritarian of presidents ended in civil war and personal tragedy— remains one of the most striking and controversial figures in Chilean history. His defeat, vindicating the ultimate supremacy of Congress over the presidency, was regarded by his opponents as the triumph of democracy over dictatorship. His admirers claimed that it represented only the triumph of an oligarchy of wealthy families, backed by foreign nitrate interests, who felt threatened by the President's nationalist policies and his concern for social justice.
Balmaceda is the subject of a large and mainly polemical literature in Spanish. In English there is an essay by Lewis W. Bealer in A. Curtis Wilgus, ed., South American Dictators during the First Century of Independence (1937). Background studies that include a discussion of Balmaceda are Isaac J. Cox's chapter in A. Curtis Wilgus, ed., Argentina, Brazil and Chile since Independence (1934), and Luis Galdames, A History of Chile (1925; trans. 1941). Fredrick B. Pike, Chile and the United States, 1880-1962 (1963), has exhaustive Chilean material and extensive footnotes and bibliography, but it has been criticized for the author's politically leftist outlook.