During the period of prosperity, resentment of presidential domination of the government grew, particularly in Congress. The contest for supremacy between the president and Congress reached a climax in 1891, when President José Manuel Balmaceda retained a cabinet opposed by Congress and declared he would adhere strictly to the constitution in spite of unwritten parliamentary theories. His defiance led to a civil war. The rebels, who termed themselves Congressionalists, seized the Chilean fleet and the rich nitrate provinces in the north, under the leadership of naval officer Captain Jorge Montt. In August of 1891 they defeated a government army near Valparaíso.
This city fell to the rebels, as did Santiago, virtually ending the civil war. More than 10,000 lives had been lost and considerable property destroyed. Balmaceda committed suicide in September 1891. Shortly thereafter Montt became president.
During the era of the democratic (or parliamentary) republic from 1891 to 1920, presidents were little more than figureheads. Their powers were restricted, and control of the government was vested in a cabinet of ministers responsible to Congress. Civil rights were generally respected, and a multitude of political parties flourished. Some progress was made in education.
Manufacturing received considerable impetus, and copper and nitrate production gave a surface prosperity to the country.
However, the parliamentary experiment proved a failure as government efficiency decreased and many national problems were neglected. Congress was still dominated by the wealthy landowners. Although material progress was notable and the landed aristocracy lived elegantly, the farm workers lived little better than enslaved laborers and the wandering day laborers, or rotos (broken ones), were often destitute. As cities grew and light industries and copper mining developed, the new class of urban workers became restless, often through the influence of European radical teachings and the Mexican revolution of 1910. The middle class began to acquire a class consciousness, and its members became the principal source of political agitation. Gradually, political forces among the workers and the middle class started to make electoral alliances, and the pattern of Chilean society began to change. It was no longer characterized by the existence of a small ruling elite and an ill-defined and indifferent mass. Now sections of society were demanding a fundamental redistribution of power. The impetus for change finally came with the collapse of Chile’s lopsided economy at the end of World War I when the prices paid for copper and nitrate fell.
Demand for Chile’s nitrate never fully recovered. In 1906 a disastrous earthquake virtually destroyed Valparaíso and extensively damaged Santiago, killing more than 3,000 people and leaving about 100,000 homeless. The damaged areas were rapidly rebuilt, however. "Chile" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia
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