80 years after the death of Pedro Aguirre Cerda, the "President of the Poor" who created Corfo and expanded education

This Thursday, November 25, they were fulfilled 80 years since the death of President Pedro Aguirre Cerda, the first of three successive administrations led by the Radical Party towards the end of the first half of the 20th century.

Son of farmers, the February 6, 1879 on Pocuro, near Los Andes (Valparaiso Region) and was orphaned at the age of eight, according to his biography on the Chilean Memory platform of the National Library.

To finance his university studies, he taught in various high schools, while giving classes for free in night schools for workers. Thus, overcoming the modesty of its resources and with great effort, He managed to qualify as a professor of Spanish and philosophy at the University of Chile in 1900 and as a lawyer from the same house of studies, four years later.

Once received, he was a professor of Civic Education, Spanish and Philosophy at the School of NCOs of the Army, at the Barros Borgoño High School and at the National Institute.

For those years He joined the Radical Party – which he presided between 1919 and 1921 – and later (in 1906) to Freemasonry. In 1910, he continued his higher studies in law and economics in France and, on his return to Chile, he began a successful political career.

In 1916, and when they were both nearing 40, Aguirre Cerda married Juana Aguirre Luco, his first cousin and daughter of the prominent physician José Joaquín Aguirre. Their marriage left no descendants.


After two consecutive periods like deputy representing the departments of San Felipe, Putaendo and Los Andes (1915-1918) and the Santiago province (1918-1921), Aguirre Cerda was named Justice minister and Public Instruction, between January and September 1918, during the presidency of the liberal Juan Luis Sanfuentes.

Then he was promoted as Interior holder during the first government of Arturo Alessandri Palma, briefly in 1920 and in 1924.

Supported by the Popular Front, Aguirre Cerda was elected as President of the Republic on October 25, 1938, after winning with the 50.45 percent of the vote to the businessman and candidate of the liberal-conservative right, Gustavo Ross Santa Maria, in one of the tightest elections in Republican history.

Aguirre Cerda assumed as President on December 24, 1938, supported by the Popular Front.


Before completing a year of government, in 1939, he had to face the Chillán earthquake, the deadliest earthquake in the history of Chile -more than 24,000 deaths- and the so-called “Ariostazo”, an attempted coup led by Ariosto Herrera with Carlos Ibáñez del Campo.

During his tenure, he promoted a strong industrialization process, for which he founded the Production Promotion Corporation (Corfo) as part of an ambitious economic development plan that included the construction of electric and steel plants, the exploitation of oil, support for the manufacturing industry and the mechanization of agriculture.

Regarding this last topic, despite having proposed in his book The Agrarian Problem (1929) that the State should redistribute unproductive lands and that its own government program contemplated agrarian reform, which was never carried out in these years.

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President Aguirre Cerda, his wife Juanita, and others, leaving the Talca railway station after the 1939 earthquake. (Source: Memoria Chilena)


In keeping with your campaign motto “to govern is to educate”Another fundamental axis of his administration was the expansion of primary education, with the construction of more than 500 schools and almost six times the number of students enrolled.

His Government also stood out for developing an active cultural policy. In 1939 he promoted the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Gabriela Mistral, with whom he was united by a close friendship, although this one only obtained it in 1945.

He also ordered the preparation of a bill to create the National Literature Prize which was finally enacted in 1942.

In the popular sectors, he created spaces aimed at occupying the free time of men, women and children.

Become first lady, “mission Juanita”, as the President’s wife was known, led several initiatives that had a great impact on the popular sectors, such as the massive celebration of the “Poor Children’s Easter” that came up with the motto of not leaving a child without toys at Christmas.

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Cover of Vea magazine of December 27, 1939. (Source: Memoria Chilena)


In the international arena, after the defeat of the republican side in the Spanish civil war, Aguirre Cerda managed the transfer to the country of numerous Spanish refugees in the cargo ship Winnipeg and later received Jewish refugees fleeing the territories occupied by Nazi Germany.

On the other hand, after the claim made by Norway about antarctic territory, the Government of Aguirre Cerda officially declared in 1940, its intention to incorporate into national life the territory over which it claimed sovereignty, establishing the limits of the Chilean Antarctic.

During his tenure, the magazine Topaz turned it into “Don Tinto”Due to the vineyards it owned and its motto “to govern is to educate” was modified to “to govern is to travel”, due to its constant exits abroad.


On November 10, 1941, Pedro Aguirre Cerda, already very ill, he left his post as President, handing it over to the Minister of the Interior, Jerónimo Méndez.

After 15 days of agony, died on November 25 due to tuberculosis that afflicted him, ceasing to exist after three years of government.

Their funerals showed the huge darling that people had him and thousands of people took to the streets to fire the “President of the poor”.

After his death, the figure of the president was consolidated in the popular imagination through his widow Juanita, who continued to display an active social role that helped to enhance her own work and that of her husband, as exponents of a popular policy put to the service of the most deprived.

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“El adios del pueblo”, the cover of Vea magazine of December 3, 1941. (Source: Memoria Chilena)

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