Although the export of its mineral wealth has served as el sueldo de Chile for the past century and a half, works by Arnold Bauer, Brian Loveman, and other scholars clearly demonstrate that the key to understanding Chilean history lies in the structures of its rural sector. This book, which analyzes perhaps the best-known institutional symbol of landowner power in Latin America, represents another advance in the study of the Chilean countryside and its role in the nation’s historical evolution. In view of the recent interest in corporatist analysis of Latin American societies, and the proven resilience of conservative elites, Wright’s work is certain to be of intense interest to all Latin American specialists. The central focus of the work is the Sociedad Nacional de Agricultura s (SNA) attempt to prevent or limit efforts to transform the traditional countryside. Wright details the strategies that the SNA employed against the process of change, including geographic and numerical expansion of its membership, lobbying efforts, and its use of the corporatist structures of the state. The effectiveness of the society’s campaign against reform is amply illustrated by the emasculation of the Caja de Colonización Agrícola (intended to finance land reform during the 1930s) and Arturo Alessandri’s suspension of rural unionization. In the final chapter, Wright summarizes the SNA’s repetition of such tactics in response to a new wave of reform after 1957, and finally its resort to violence to halt and reverse the disintegration of its rural power base.
Wright’s work is rich in detail. Particularly useful are the extensive tables that trace the society’s membership patterns and the political and social positions of its directors. The author uses this mass of evidence to substantiate his findings, and his conclusions are carefully considered. Indeed, if the book has a flaw, it lies in the author’s cautious approach to his subject.
One can hardly ask a scholar to write beyond his evidence, but there are tantalizing questions raised by this study that beg for some response. Since the book treats landowners as one segment of the political right, the reader cannot help but wonder what the precise relationship was between landowners and the other segments of the right. And one also wonders whether the right’s continued acceptance of a grossly inefficient agricultural system was based solely on the landowners’ control of rural votes. Furthermore, as Wright correctly points out, rural unionization was viewed with far greater concern by landowners than was the issue of land reform. The urgency with which the SNA sought to preserve a labor-repressive order is a vital clue to understanding the basis of the rightist political alliance, and more important, the contradictions that underlay Chile’s social and economic structures. Yet here, too, the author does not fully explore the implications of his evidence.
Despite its overly cautious approach, the book is a valuable addition to the literature; a solid piece of scholarship, it expands our understanding of Chile’s landed elite and the persistent and often innovative tactics that it employed to preserve its power during the twentieth century.