CULTURE History of Chile

The Curse of the Piocha de O’Higgins

SANTIAGO – The current social crisis in Chile has resurrected one of Chile’s oldest legends: the Curse of the Piocha. It says that any president who drops the Piocha, a medal used  during his or her presidential inauguration, will not be able to serve his full presidential term. Should President Piñera be worried?

The O’Higgins Piocha is a small star that latches at the end of the presidential band and it is mostly used for important presidential ceremonies. To date, four presidents have dropped the piocha; three of them have been forced out of their position, the fourth and last one being current president Sebastian Piñera.

When it happened, most of Piñera’s aids just laughed it off as one of the president’s snafus, but most of the press who were present commented on the curse’s other victims. All were former presidents who were unable to fulfill their agendas and whose terms were full of political struggles and civil unrest, the first one dating back to more than a hundred years ago.

President Balmaceda and the Civil War of 1891

Jose Manuel Balmaceda, born in 1840 into an aristocratic family, got a head start on his political career by getting elected as a representative at the age of 24. Sticking to his liberal ideals and earning a reputation as a great orator, Balmaceda managed to rise in the ranks until 1886, when he announced his candidacy for president, which he easily won.

That is how on Sept. 18, 1886, Balmaceda was sworn into office with big plans to reform and improve the Chilean public education system. However, when he put on the presidential band, the star that was latched onto one end fell off, an event to which no one gave much thought.

As president of Chile, Balmaceda was fully determined to make his ambitious plans a reality with the help of his liberal coalition, however he immediately clashed with Congress, who wanted to reduce the president’s executive power. While Balmaceda attempted to fulfill his presidential promises congress denied some of his most important projects. 

That tension came to a head when, in December 1890, Congress denied the president’s annual budget, to which he responded by deciding to use the same budget from the previous year. Congress, furious at his actions, left Santiago and declared that the president’s act was unconstitutional. Balmaceda responded by dissolving Congress and declaring war on them, resulting in the Civil War of 1891.

The war lasted about six months and resulted in over 4,000 deaths. On Aug. 29 1891, Balmaceda resigned from office in disgrace, gave control over to General Baquedano, and left the presidential palace for the Argetinian embassy, where he stayed, holed up, for 20 days until he ultimately killed himself.

This is the first time that a president’s failure to finish the term was foretold by a falling Piocha. The curse, however, was not recognized until later.

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Arturo Alessandri and the 1925 Constitution

Considered to be one of Chile’s most influential politicians, Arturo Alessandri was born in 1868 to Italian immigrants. By 1893, he had graduated as a lawyer, gotten married, and begun his political career with the liberal party. In 1897, he was elected as a representative, a position he would hold for nearly 20 years until he was elected as a senator for the province of Tarapacá in 1915. During his campaign Alessandri would give passionate speeches directed at working class people, earning him the nickname “The Lion of Tarapacá.”

In 1920, Alessandri was elected President of the Chilean Republic, during his inauguration the piocha once again fell off. The senator Luis Claro Solar, picked it up and handed back to Alessandri who remarked “Bad omens follow me, Luis. Even the presidential seal wants to get away.” Unfortunately, he wasn’t too far from the truth.

Alessandri’s main legislation was held hostage by Congress. After the Civil War of 1891, the legislative branch made sure that no president would have more power than them by modifying the Constitution, meaning that they could block and suppress any bill that Alessandri created, slowing the country to a standstill.

This culminated in Sept. 4, 1924, when a military junta took control of the situation and dissolved Congress. Alessandri in turn gave the power to his vice president and took off to Europe. In January 1925, however, a new military junta took control and called Alessandri back into power and Allesandri returned to office in March that same year. Back in Chile, he oversaw the creation of a new Constitution that gave more power to the executive branch.

Even after all of his reforms, Alessandri was still ousted from office by Carlos Ibáñez del Campo in 1927, ending his first presidential term on a bad note. 

Unlike Balmaceda, however, Allesandri ultimately triumphed: he took office again in 1932 and helped stabilize Chile.

Alessandri’s case shows that the curse of the piocha doesn’t necessarily mean death or ignominy, sometimes it just means they have to work harder to help the Chilean people.

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Allende and the 1973 Coup

Salvador Allende was born in 1908 in Valparaíso. While studying medicine at university, Allende developed an interest in public service, and, at 25, he became the Socialist party’s first regional secretary. After graduating as a surgeon, he focused his energy on public health, even becoming health minister to Pedro Aguirre Cerda. In 1945, he was elected senator, and, during his tenure he ran four times for president in 1952, 1958, 1964, and lastly in 1970, when he won.

During Allende’s inauguration, he too dropped the piocha, an event that was now considered to be a bad omen. 

Once in power, Allende decided that he was going to transition Chile to socialism in a democratic way, but, unfortunately for him and his supporters, Congress only passed a few of his laws, and his efforts inspired massive opposition, nationally and even internationally, due to the cold war.

This resulted in Allende’s government being rife with strikes and food shortages, and, by 1973, many people had had enough, and they only wanted him gone. On Sept. 11, 1973, the opposition got its wish: the armed forces staged a military coup and called for Allende to be turned over to them. He responded by saying that he was going to die in the position that the Chilean people had chosen for him, killing himself that very same day.

September 11: It Happened Here

What Does the Piocha Have to do with Piñera?

Allende and Balmaceda decided to take a stand against those who wanted to bring them down, resulting in their own demise.

The other side of that coin is Alessandri who took his troubles and errors and learned from them. He was exiled from Chile and when he came back he managed to create a brand-new Constitution that helped the country. 

Piñera, too, needs to look back at his predecessors and find a way to solve his problems and mistakes, for the current social upheaval in Chile likely could be fixed by taking a more active approach to the events, much as Alessandri did.

Will the curse of the piocha be Piñera’s downfall or his salvation? Time will tell.

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