SANTIAGO – On Sept. 11, 1924, the Chilean military took over and dissolved Congress due to alleged inaction over deteriorating social conditions. Three months later, the junta was overthrown and the exiled president returned and helped draft a new constitution. The forgotten military coup of 1924 highlights history’s cycles.
In 1924, Chile reached a breaking point. The economy crashed and made everyday workers’ already miserable conditions that much worse. In response, the president proposed various reforms, but Congress ignored him, emboldened by a constitution that gave it much power.
This led to a tense standoff between the military and Congress, which resulted in the president fleeing to Europe and a military junta taking over the executive branch and closing Congress for the first time in Chile’s history.
Three months later, one of the junta’s original proponents led a coup against it, the exiled president was brought back, and a new constitution was created.
The Parliamentary Republic
The prior constitution was created in 1833, but reforms nearly 60 years later are what contributed to the circumstances in 1924. As a result of the 1891 civil war, which pitted then-President José Manuel Balmaceda against Congress, the constitution was dramatically altered. These changes gave the legislative branch power over the executive, transforming Chile into an unofficial parliamentary republic. This was followed by a prosperous and stable period during which Chile began to profit from its newly-acquired northern territories, mostly thanks to the saltpeter mines.
By the time Chile celebrated its centennial in 1910, however, the public was unhappy with Congress. It was seen as an elitist institution and accused of creating an oligarchy. Its failure to react to mounting social issues that combined to aggravate the lives of most citizens proved its inefficiency, as the social reforms it passed were too little, too late, and too few and far between. Meanwhile, Congress’ ability to impeach any minister led to constant cabinet changes.
In 1920 the economy crashed, because, among other things, many countries stopped buying Chilean saltpeter, switching to cheaper sodium nitrate that could be found elsewhere.
That same year, Arturo Alessandri was elected president. The son of an Italian immigrant, Alessandri was an outsider who appealed to the working classes by critiquing the political class and the ineffectiveness of the parliamentary republic. As soon as he was sworn into office, he attempted to answer the public’s demands by implementing a series of social reforms.
Alessandri had little to no support in Congress, however, and this led to a revolving door of interior ministers: over 16 in just four years as his reforms were left on the Congress floor, with Congress refusing to even discuss them. Four years later, Congress voted itself a pay raise, an act that might have gone unnoticed by the military in years past, but this time it was a stick in the eye to many young officers.
This too was a function of social changes that started years earlier. The high ranks of the Chilean military had previously consisted of aristocratic family members, but over time the prestige of serving in the armed forces had faded away, and the lack of high ranking officers from these families led to the promotion of soldiers from the lower classes. By 1924, many of them could see the harsh reality that working class Chileans faced and at the same time the disregard that Congress had for them.
On Sept. 2, 1924, while the Senate was discussing the proposed bill to raise its own salaries, the military’s Carlos Ibañez del Campo and Marmaduke Grove led a group of young officers to observe the proceedings. Feeling intimidated, the head of the Senate ordered them to leave. They complied, but, as they left, the soldiers made sure to rattle their sabers against the floor. Over the next few days, Congress unanimously passed all of the bills that Alessandri had presented. The event became known as “the Saber Rattle.”
Shortly after the Saber Rattle, Ibañez del Campo, Grove and General Luis Altamirano presented their demands to President Alessandri, one of which was appointing Altamirano as interior minister. The president complied, but they still returned and demanded the dissolution of Congress. Alessandri refused and presented his resignation. He fled the country on Sept. 9.
Altamirano was named president that same day, but on Sept. 11, he resigned and allowed a military junta to take power in a coup, making him the de facto leader.
When the military junta started, the older generals pushed aside the younger soldiers who had led the charge, preferring to maintain the previous military hierarchy. But worried about the coup’s legacy, Ibañez del Campo overthrew the military junta in January 1925 and installed Emilio Bello Codesido as leader until Alessandri returned from exile in March.
The Aftermath: The Presidential Republic
Upon regaining power, Alessandri spearheaded a new constitution that placed the executive branch above the legislative and diminished the president’s reliance on Congress. The new constitution also marked a definitive separation between church and state and created an electoral court to regulate elections.
The 1925 constitution was ratified by a plebiscite on Aug. 30, 1925, debilitating the old ruling class and paving the way for more citizen participation. As result, socialist and anarchist groups formed rapidly and became more relevant in politics. Alessandri remained in power with Ibañez del Campo as War Minister. Their relationship was so tense, however, that Alessandri resigned on Oct. 1 already, when fearing Ibañez del Campo was plotting another coup. His resignation then paved the way for Ibañez del Campo’s reign from 1927 until 1932.
Diego Rivera is currently a senior in University, finishing up his audiovisual degree. You can find him on Twitter as @Piover45.