Chile - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about Chile: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Chile, country in southwestern South America, occupying a long, narrow ribbon of land along the Pacific Ocean. Chile stretches approximately 4,270 km (about 2,650 mi) from north to south but its average width is less than 180 km (110 mi). Its landscapes range from arid desert in the north to windswept glaciers and fjords in the south. A fertile valley covers the center of the country. The snowcapped peaks of the Andes Mountains run along the border with Argentina to the east. Santiago, Chile’s capital and largest city, is located in the Central Valley.

The overwhelming majority of the people live in the middle of Chile, in towns and cities in the fertile lowland known as the Central Valley. Most of the people are of mixed Spanish and Native American ancestry. Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion, and Spanish is the official language.

Chile is one of the leading industrialized nations of Latin America. It has a strong economy based on mining, especially copper mining, and agricultural goods, largely for export. Chile is the world’s largest producer and exporter of copper. It also exports fruits and vegetables, and its wines have become popular in many countries.

Chile was a colony of Spain from the 1500s until it achieved independence in the early 1800s. It prospered from its exports through the 1800s, but the country’s economic growth primarily benefited the landowning upper class. The gap between rich and poor in Chile remains wide.

Until 1973 Chile largely avoided the military coups that had beset other Latin American countries. That year a military regime seized power and suppressed Chile’s democratic institutions until democratic elections were restored in 1989. At the beginning of the 21st century, Chile was still struggling to deal with the legacy of its military rule.


Chile is bounded on the north by Peru, on the east by Bolivia and Argentina, and on the south and west by the Pacific Ocean. The dominant physical feature of Chile is the Andes Mountains, which extend the entire length of the country, from the Bolivian plateau in the north to the islands of Tierra del Fuego in the south. Chains of islands extend along the southern coast. Chile has a total area of 756,626 sq km (292,135 sq mi).

Chile owns a number of islands, including Easter Island, the Juan Fernández Islands, and Sala y Gómez in the South Pacific. One of the Juan Fernández Islands is named for Alexander Selkirk, who presumably inspired the fictional shipwrecked character Robinson Crusoe in the novel by Daniel Defoe. Cape Horn in the Tierra del Fuego Archipelago marks the southernmost point of the South American continent. Chile shares Tierra del Fuego with Argentina. The Chonos Archipelago hugs Chile’s southern coast.

Land Regions in Chile

Chile can be divided along its length into three topographic zones: the lofty Andes on the east; the low coastal mountains on the west; and the plateau area, which includes the Central Valley, between these ranges. The country has three major geographical and climatic regions: the dry northern region; the central region, with a Mediterranean (mild to warm) climate; and the southern regions, with a temperate sea climate.

The Andes are widest in the northern region, where broad plateaus occur and where many mountains rise more than 6,100 m (20,000 ft) above sea level. The country’s highest peak, Ojos del Salado (6,880 m/22,572 ft), is found on the border with Argentina. Between the Andes and the Pacific the Atacama Desert occupies a plateau. This vast desert contains large nitrate fields and rich mineral deposits.

In the central region the plateau gives way to a valley, known as the Central Valley. The Central Valley is 1,000 km (about 600 mi) long and ranges from 40 to 80 km (25 to 50 mi) in width. The central region is the most heavily populated area of the country, with nearly 90 percent of Chile’s people. It also forms the agricultural heartland of Chile. The central Andes are narrower in width and have lower elevations than the mountains in the north. The most important passes in the Andes are located in the central region.

The southern region is without an interior valley; the valley disappears below the sea at Puerto Montt. The long chains of islands along the Pacific coast are formed by the peaks of submerged coastal mountains. Numerous fjords—narrow, steep-sided inlets—indent the coastline here. Glaciers discharge icebergs into the coastal fjords. The southern Andes have elevations that seldom exceed 1,800 m (6,000 ft), but many summits have snowcaps. The region has some of the world’s most beautiful mountain peaks, glacial valleys, lakes, and tumbling waterfalls. Chile lies in a zone of geologic activity and is subject to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

Rivers and Lakes in Chile

The many rivers of Chile are relatively short. Most of them rise in the Andes and flow west to the Pacific. In the northern and central regions the rivers are fed primarily by the perpetual snow cover of the Andes. The most important rivers (from north to south) are the Loa, Elqui, Aconcagua, Maipo, Maule, Biobío, and Imperial. Although the rivers have limited value for navigation because of cascades, they are vital for the irrigation and hydroelectric power they furnish. Many of Chile’s major lakes, including Lake Llanquihue, are concentrated in the scenic lake district of the southern region.

Climate in Chile

Because of its great latitudinal range, Chile has a diversity of climates. In general, temperatures are moderated by oceanic influences. Winters are mild, and summers are relatively cool. Precipitation is generally concentrated in the winter months (May to August), and rainfall increases southward.

The northern region is almost entirely desert and is one of the driest areas in the world. Temperatures, however, are moderated by the offshore presence of the cold Peru, or Humboldt, Current. The average temperatures at Antofagasta range from 18° to 23°C (64° to 74°F) in January and from 12° to 16°C (53° to 62°F) in July. This area gets very little precipitation with an annual average of 2 mm (0.1 in) at Antofagasta.

The central region of Chile has a mild climate. In Santiago the average temperature range is 12° to 29°C (54° to 85°F) in January and 3° to 15°C (38° to 58°F) in July. Temperatures decrease about 1 Celsius degree for each 150 m (about 1 Fahrenheit degree for each 275 ft) of elevation in the Andes. Santiago receives an annual total of 360 mm (14 in) of precipitation.

The southern region is cooler and experiences year-round rainfall. Precipitation reaches a maximum of about 5,000 mm (about 200 in) near the Strait of Magellan, much of it in the form of snow. The average annual temperature at Punta Arenas in the far south is about 7°C (about 44°F). Strong winds and cyclonic storms (see Cyclone) are common in the southern region.

Plant and Animal Life in Chile

The indigenous plant life of Chile varies according to climatic zone. Plant life in the northern region includes brambles and cactus and has little variety. Here, the Atacama provides one of the best examples on Earth of an absolute desert. The more humid Central Valley supports several species of cacti, espino (a thorny shrub), grasses, and the Chilean pine, which bears edible nuts. Dense rain forests are located south of Valdivia with laurel, magnolia, false beech, and various species of conifers. In the extreme south, a steppe vegetation of grasses is found.

Animal life is less diversified than in other parts of South America because of the barrier to animal migration presented by the Andes. Indigenous mammals include llama, alpaca, vicuña, guanaco, puma, Andean wolf, huemul (a large deer, also spelled guemal), pudu (a small deer), and chinchilla. Birdlife is varied, but most of the larger South American types are absent. Aside from trout, which were introduced from North America, few freshwater fish inhabit Chilean streams and lakes. The coastal waters abound in fish and marine animals.

Mineral Resources in Chile

Chile is rich in mineral resources, chiefly because of the size of the deposits rather than because of the diversity of minerals. Copper is by far the most important mineral. Others include nitrates, iron ore, coal, molybdenum, manganese, petroleum and natural gas, silver, and gold.

Environmental Issues in Chile

Nearly two-thirds of Chile’s population lives in the fertile region surrounding Santiago. This high concentration of people has led to severe environmental deterioration in this area. Many water systems are polluted with sewage, and urban air pollution is severe. An increase in automobile ownership in recent years prompted the government to establish a complex management plan with strict emission standards and a modernized public transport system.

Chile’s forests, especially temperate rain forests, are being harvested at a high rate, mostly in the south by foreign companies. The native trees are being replaced with extensive tree farms, so the total forest cover is actually increasing, although at the expense of natural biodiversity. Soil erosion is widespread, and desertification in some areas is significant.

Chile has an extensive protected area system made up of 30 national parks, 36 national reserves, and 10 natural monuments, but it excludes many important ecotypes, especially those of the central and northern regions. Overall, nearly 20 percent of the country was protected by the late 1990s. Through its ratification of an agreement called the Western Hemisphere Convention, Chile pledged to protect its wildlife. The country also ratified the Antarctic-Environmental Protocol and the Antarctic Treaty, as well as treaties on biodiversity, climate change, endangered species, environmental modification, hazardous wastes, marine dumping, nuclear testing, plant protection, and ship pollution. Regionally, Chile has joined with its neighbors in signing the Convention for the Conservation and Management of Vicuña.


Compared with other South American countries, Chile has a population that is relatively homogeneous. The early Spanish settlers intermarried with the Native Americans, notably the Araucanian. Mestizos, people of mixed Spanish and Native American ancestry, constitute 93 percent of the current population. Only 3 percent of the population is pure Native American, mainly Araucanians who are concentrated in the southern region, and 2 percent of the country’s population is of unmixed European stock. European immigration has not been as important in Chile as in other countries of the Americas. German immigrants have, however, been an important influence in the southern and south-central provinces of Valdivia, Llanquihue, and Osorno. An Irish Chilean, Bernardo O’Higgins, led Chile’s struggle for independence.

German immigrants arrived in Chile following the failure of the liberal revolutions of 1848 in Germany. They settled the rainy and, until then, largely unimproved provinces south of the Biobío River. This region had remained largely controlled until the mid-19th century by the indigenous Araucanians. The German settlers introduced small industries and farming and in the lake district established resorts that remain popular with tourists. Small groups of settlers from Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Spain, and Yugoslavia also came in the mid-19th century. Most of them settled in the same area as the Germans.

The population of Chile at the 2002 census was 15,116,435. The 2009 estimated population was 16,601,707, giving the country an overall population density of 22 persons per sq km (57 per sq mi). About nine-tenths of the people live in the central region between Concepción and La Serena.

Chile is one of the most urbanized countries in South America. About 88 percent of the population lives in urban centers, and nearly one-third of the country’s population lives in the capital city of Santiago. Communities both in the south and in the northern desert are generally isolated and separated by vast, virtually unpopulated stretches. Most of the people in the north work in mining towns or seaports. Punta Arenas in southern Chile is one of the southernmost cities in the world.

Principal Cities of Chile

Santiago, the capital and largest city of Chile, has a population of 5,477,804 (2003 estimate) for its urban agglomeration. The country’s other major cities are Puente Alto, an industrial center that was formerly a suburb of Santiago (population, 2006 estimate, 627,263); Viña del Mar, a popular resort (292,203); Antofagasta, a mining center and harbor (341,942); Valparaíso, a principal seaport (276,474); and Concepción, an agricultural and industrial center (225,158). The main cities of the north are the ports of Antofagasta, Arica, and Iquique. The main cities of the south are Temuco, the gateway to Chile’s Lake District; Osorno, a commercial and industrial center in the heart of the Lake District; and the seaport of Puerto Montt.

Social Structure of Chile

During colonial days and for a long time after independence, Chile had a rigid society consisting of a privileged landowning aristocracy, descended from the original Spanish settlers, and a lower class of peasants and domestic servants. The Indians lived as a nation apart. The aristocrats, bound together in the National Agricultural Society, dominated the government and led comfortable and cultured lives. They escaped heavy taxation because of the high revenues the government obtained from the export duty on nitrate (Saltpeter). Most Chileans, denied the vote by property and literacy qualifications, were poorly housed and fed, and illiterate.

In the latter part of the 19th century the middle class began to increase in size; it consisted mainly of mestizos who were able to acquire some education. Eventually, as trade and industry grew, and especially after the nitrate market collapsed following World War I (1914-1918), the tight control of the landowning aristocracy was loosened. New groups, among them traders, manufacturers, professional people, and intellectuals, began to swell the ranks of the middle class and to press for social reforms. In addition, by 1920 there was an organized and impatient working class that lacked the ingrained loyalty to the landlords that had developed in the tenant farmer class. All these groups demanded the attention of the government and began to promote economic and social change.

Today Chile’s social structure can be roughly divided into three classes. In the upper class are members of the old landed aristocracy as well as a more recently wealthy group of industrialists, merchants, politicians, and military men. Although these two segments of the upper class have power and prestige in common, they are often at odds politically and economically. Both groups supported the imposition of military rule, but by the end of the 1980s many backed the restoration of democratic politics.

Chile’s lower class consists of farm laborers, crafts workers, factory workers, and miners. This is the class that backed Salvador Allende’s coalition before 1973, that suffered the most from the policies of the military regime, and that again turned to left-wing parties after the end of military rule in 1990. Sharply falling real wages—wages calculated in terms of buying power—from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s increased the size of this group. Government policy in the 1990s and early 2000s endeavored to improve the health and education of this neglected part of the population.

The middle class, largely urban, is extremely varied in incomes, occupations, and interests. It is composed of professionals, teachers and university professors, civil servants, many private employers, and some small merchants, industrialists, and investors. Many members of the middle class benefited from Chile’s rapid economic growth in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s. Politically, members of the middle class participate in all parties.

Social mobility has been high in Chile, and upward social movement has been common. The period of military rule in the late 1900s at first appeared to be simply reactionary and traditionalist. But the free-market economic policies that it adopted ultimately led to increased social mobility.

Women have always had a higher degree of independence in Chile than in any other Latin American country. They participate in public life and are numerous in the trades and in professions. Many women from the middle and upper classes attain higher education and pursue teaching and other professional careers. After women received the vote in 1949 they came to play a decisive role in Chilean elections. The rise of the Christian Democratic Party to power was due partly to its appeal to women.

Women assumed very important roles in the defense of their families against the repression and the economic privations of the Pinochet dictatorship. They emerged as leaders of human rights movements and of so-called popular economic organizations—collective gardens, communal kitchens, and other survival strategies in the poorest neighborhoods. They also played an important role in the redemocratization movement that finally brought a return to civilian rule in 1990.

Many such organizations remained active and new ones emerged in the 1990s to enable women to play an important role in the reconstruction of social service programs. Women also organized to promote change of discriminatory social legislation, including the prohibition of divorce. In 2004 Chile finally legalized divorce, and in 2006 Chileans elected their first female president.

Languages spoken in Chile

Spanish is the official language of Chile and is spoken by virtually the entire population. Although some inhabitants continue to speak Mapuche, an Araucanian language, or German, nearly all of them are also fluent speakers of Spanish. Many Chileans also speak English and other languages of international commerce.

Religion in Chile

Roman Catholics constitute 78 percent of the population of Chile. The Roman Catholic Church has been a major force in Chilean society, although church and state were officially separated in 1925. Protestants make up about 3 percent of the population. The remainder are primarily people who profess no religion. Native Americans practicing traditional religions constitute a very small minority.

In the late 1960s, influenced by papal social encyclicals and by European Catholic social thought, the church played a prominent role in the introduction of social reforms in Chile, and the number of socially concerned priests increased. These representatives of the church took progressive positions, even on delicate issues such as birth control, as part of their efforts to remedy pressing social problems. A sector of the Catholic hierarchy was also influential in the rise of the Christian Democratic Party.

After 1973 the church initially backed the overthrow of the leftist government but subsequently strongly condemned the abduction, torture, and murder practiced by the military dictatorship. The Vicariate of Solidarity founded by the archdiocese of Santiago called for a return to full democracy and became a key provider of legal defense for political prisoners. In the 1990s the church abstained from direct involvement in politics even while it strived to promote its conservative social positions. Divorce was prohibited in Chile until 2004, and abortion remains illegal.

The Protestant churches initially came to Chile because of a British presence in the country and as a result of several educational and social institutions established in Chile by North American churches. German immigrants founded Lutheran denominations in their areas of settlement south of the Biobío River. Starting in the 1970s evangelical congregations began to convert many nominal Catholics among the urban and rural poor.

Education and Cultural Activity in Chile

A distinctive cultural tradition has evolved in Chile that combines elements of the various ethnic groups. To a large extent, the arts and the educational system of Chile are based on European models.

Education in Chile

Chile’s modern education system had its origins in the mid-19th century. Today, Chile has one of the best educational systems in Latin America. Education is free and compulsory for all children between the ages of 6 and 13. The school system is administered by the national government under the minister of education. The national literacy rate of 97 percent is one of the highest in Latin America. Chile conducted intensive adult literacy campaigns in the 1980s and initiated adult education programs in the 1990s.

In 2006, 1.7 million students were enrolled in primary schools and 1.6 million were enrolled in secondary schools. Chile also has a national preschool program. Among the institutions of higher education, the University of Chile (founded in 1738), a state-operated university in Santiago, is highly respected throughout the world. Other centers of higher learning include the Catholic University of Chile (1888), also in Santiago; the University of Concepción (1919); the Catholic University of Valparaíso (1928); and several technical universities. Most of the regional capitals have a university. Total annual enrollment in institutions of higher education in 2006 was 661,142.

Cultural Life in Chile

The culture of Chile is largely Spanish. Two lively and contrasting cultural strains predominate in Chile: the cosmopolitan culture of the affluent urban population, and the popular culture of the peasants, which is predominantly Spanish but contains traces of Araucanian heritage. The latter influences are strongest in Chilean music and dance.

Chile has a flourishing literary tradition and has produced two Nobel Prize winners in literature, Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda, both poets. This literary tradition dates back to the 1500s, when soldier-poet Alonso de Ercilla y Zúñiga wrote what is considered the greatest Spanish American epic poem, La Araucana, about the Spanish struggle against the Araucanians. The names of some of the Indian heroes of the poem are cherished by Chileans.

During the early years of independence Chile was a center for intellectual exiles, around whom a generation of talented writers flourished. The greatest of the exiles was Venezuelan jurist, grammarian, educator, and poet Andrés Bello, who lived in Chile from 1829 until his death in 1865. Bello organized the National University of Chile in 1842. Exiles from Argentina, among them Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, later president of Argentina, brought South American romanticism, which had begun in Argentina, to Chile. It was also in Chile, at the end of the 19th century, that the modernist movement in Spanish American literature got its first focus with the publication in 1888 of Azul, a book of poems by Nicaraguan Rubén Darío. Darío, considered to be one of the greatest Latin American poets, was living in Chile at the time.

In the late 19th century and the 20th century Chile produced many top-flight historians and writers of fiction. The best-known fiction writers are Alberto Blest Gana, one of the first realistic novelists in the Spanish language; Eduardo Barrios, the writer of several penetrating psychological novels; Manuel Rojas, a novelist who often incorporated his own experiences into his works; and Maria Luisa Bombal, one of the finest writers of psychological short stories in the Spanish language. Chilean novelists José Donoso and Isabel Allende both spent time in exile during the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Allende won popular acclaim in Latin America, Europe, and North America during the 1980s and 1990s. However, the best-known Chilean writers internationally are the two Nobel Prize winners, Neruda and Mistral.

Colonial painting in Chile was not outstanding. The best-known 20th-century artist to come from Chile was surrealist painter Roberto Matta Echaurren, who spent much of his life in France and the United States.

The folk music of Chile is of Spanish origin and came to Chile via Peru and Argentina. The national folk song and dance is the spirited cueca, or zamacueca, a courtship dance performed with handkerchiefs that is of Peruvian origin. The zapateo, a dance with intricate footwork, is also popular in Chile.

Cultural Institutions in Chile

Chile’s most important cultural institutions are concentrated in the large cities of the central region. These institutions include the National Museum of Fine Arts, the National Historical Museum, and the National Museum of Natural History, all located in Santiago, and the Natural History Museum in Valparaíso. The Salvador Allende Museum of Solidarity, which features contemporary works by artists from around the world, opened in Santiago in 1999. The country’s largest library is the National Library in Santiago, with about 3.5 million volumes. It is one of the best libraries in Latin America.


The Chilean economy has been dominated by the production of copper since the early 20th century. Chile remained the world’s leading producer and exporter of copper in the early 21st century. Beginning in the 1940s the government worked to diversify the economy, rapidly expanding the industrial sector. In the 1970s and 1980s the government made efforts to improve the neglected agricultural section and to reduce the country’s dependence on imported food. Today Chile is one of the leading industrial nations in Latin America as well as one of its largest mineral producers. Chile is also known for its fruit and wine production. By the end of the 1980s fruit ranked second to copper in export earnings. However, fruit production has since suffered as a result of drought and weather patterns created by El Niño.

During the period of military rule from 1973 to 1990, the government played a less prominent role in the economy and most nationalized companies were returned to private ownership. Since the return to civilian government in 1990, spending on social welfare has increased, although exports, business investments, and consumer spending have also grown. Privatization of industry has continued but at a slower pace. In 2007 the national budget had $45 billion in revenues and $28.3 billion in expenditures. Chile’s estimated gross domestic product (GDP) in 2007 was $163.9 billion.

Agriculture of Chile

About 13 percent of the labor force of Chile is engaged in agriculture, forestry, and fishing, and these sectors account for 4 percent of the GDP. The bulk of Chile’s agricultural activity is concentrated in the Central Valley except for sheep raising in the far south. Since the 1960s agrarian land-reform programs have been instrumental in increasing the number of small landowners, and modern farming methods have increased productivity. While only 3 percent of Chile’s land area is currently under cultivation, agricultural production has increased significantly since the early 1980s. Chile is one of the Southern Hemisphere’s largest exporters of fruits, sending much of its crop to North America, where the fresh produce enjoys a market advantage due to the inverted growing season. The country also has an important wine-making industry. During the 1990s Chilean wines gained popularity abroad, especially in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

Leading crops in 2007, with production in metric tons, included fruits—particularly grapes and apples (1.3 million)—vegetables (2.9 million), root crops such as sugar beets and potatoes (1.5 million), and maize (1.6 million). Fruits and vegetables contributing to export income included asparagus, avocados, beans, citrus fruits, garlic, grapes, nuts, onions, peaches, pears, and plums.

Sheep are raised in large numbers in the Tierra del Fuego and the Magallanes regions of Chilean Patagonia. The country had about 3.4 million head of sheep in 2007, with a wool output of 14,000 metric tons. Other livestock include cattle, pigs, and horses.

Forestry and Fishing in Chile

Forests cover 21.3 percent of Chile’s land area. About 52.9 million cu m (about 1.9 billion cu ft) of timber was cut in 2007. Output consists of both hardwoods (such as laurel and oak) and softwoods (such as pine and cedars). Lumber, pulp, and paper are made from the annual timber cut. The forestry industry accounts for about one-tenth of annual exports.

Chile has one of the largest fishing industries in South America. A catch of 5.3 million metric tons was taken in the country’s rich fishing waters in 2007. Principal species include mackerel, anchovy, sardine, and herring. Processing plants pack much of the fish catch for distribution.

Mining in Chile

Mining continues to play a critical role in Chile’s economy, although it is decreasing as a percentage of exports due to gains in other economic sectors. Chile has some of the world’s largest known copper deposits and is the world’s leading producer of this metal. Copper is the leading export, accounting for more than 40 percent of all annual exports by value. The government owns and operates the giant copper company, CODELCO (Corporacíon Nacional del Cobre de Chile). About 5.4 million metric tons (metal content) were produced in 2004.

Petroleum and natural gas (first discovered in 1945) are extracted on Tierra del Fuego and in the Strait of Magellan. In 2004 Chile produced 2.2 million barrels of petroleum and 1 billion cu m (35 billion cu ft) of natural gas. Iron ore, with production of 5 million metric tons, is the country’s other leading mineral product. Chile also has large deposits of nitrates, zinc, sulfur, and coal, as well as silver, gold, manganese, and molybdenum.

Manufacturing in Chile

The manufacturing sector (along with mining and construction) contributes 47 percent of Chile’s annual national output. Manufacturing is largely based on the refining and processing of the country’s mineral, agricultural, and forestry resources. Chile is a major South American producer of steel. Copper is also refined, and the several oil refineries use both domestic and imported petroleum. Other important manufactured goods include food products, cement, pulp and paper products, textiles (cotton, wool, and synthetics), tobacco products, glass, chemicals, refined sugar, and electronic equipment. The assembly of automobiles is also important. The bulk of the country’s manufacturing industry is located near Santiago and Valparaíso. Concepción is the other major industrial center.

Tourism of Chile

Tourism is of growing importance to Chile’s economy. The country offers a variety of landscapes, from the desolate beauty and salt lakes of the Atacama Desert to the picturesque peaks and Lake District of the Andes Mountains. Among the many national parks is Torres del Paine in the south, a place to see Andean condors, rugged mountain peaks, glaciers, waterfalls, and mountain lakes. Chile also offers a variety of activities. Beaches line the country’s lengthy coastline. Hiking and skiing draw visitors to the mountains near Chile’s cities. Wine-sampling tours are available in the vineyards of the Central Valley. Boat tours from Tierra del Fuego travel past elephant seals and penguin colonies.

Little of Chile’s colonial heritage remains in Santiago, the capital, largely as a result of earthquake damage. But the historic quarter of Valparaíso, which features some of the finest Latin American architecture of the 19th century, is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. The name Valparaiso means “valley of paradise,” and the city’s situation on hills that slope down to the harbor bears out the name. Nearby is the beach resort of Viña del Mar.

Energy in Chile

The electricity-generating plants in Chile produced 50.4 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2006. The fast-flowing rivers that descend from the Andes and the coastal ranges are rich sources of hydroelectric power. In 2006 about 56 percent of Chile’s energy was generated from waterpower.

Transportation in Chile

Chile has good internal transportation. A network of roads, of which 20 percent are paved, covers 79,604 km (49,464 mi). Railroad lines total 6,008 km (3,733 mi) in length and extend from Iquique in the north to Puerto Montt in the south. The main north-south system is connected by spur lines to important coastal towns and by trans-Andean lines to points in Argentina and Bolivia. The railway also links Chile with Peru.

Because of the difficult terrain, many coastal cities rely on water transportation. Fine harbors are few, however. The principal ports are Valparaíso, Talcahuano and Tomé (both located on Concepción Bay), Antofagasta, San Antonio, and Punta Arenas. The most important international airports in the country are located near Santiago and Arica; others are at Antofagasta, Puerto Montt, and Punta Arenas. Airlines also facilitate travel between major cities within Chile.

Communications in Chile

Chile has a wide variety of modern communications media. In 2004 the country had 59 daily newspapers. El Mercurio, La Nación, and La Tercera de la Hora, all published in Santiago, have considerable influence. The constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the media, and the media are able to criticize the government and retain their independence. Television includes a national government network, several independent stations, and many cable networks. In 1997 there were 354 radios and 244 televisions in use for every 1,000 residents; there were 211 telephone mainlines per 1,000 inhabitants in 2005.

Currency and Banking of Chile

The basic unit of currency is the Chilean peso (523 pesos equal U.S.$1; 2007 average). The peso was introduced in 1975 to replace the escudo. The Central Bank of Chile, established in 1926, issues Chile’s currency, and it has broad powers to regulate monetary policy. Other banks include a state bank and a number of commercial and development banks.

Foreign Trade in Chile

In 2007 total annual exports were valued at $68.3 billion. Metals and mineral ores typically constitute nearly half of the export total. Other important exports include fruits and vegetables, wood pulp and paper products, and chemicals. In 2007 imports were valued at $47 billion. Principal imports are machinery and transportation equipment, electric equipment, mineral products, and chemicals. Chile’s chief trading partners for exports are the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom, China, Brazil, and Mexico. Principal sources for imports are the United States, Argentina, Brazil, China, Germany, Mexico, and Japan.

Chile is a member of several international trade organizations, including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the Latin American Integration Association (LAIA). Chile is also an associate member of Southern Cone Common Market (known by its Spanish acronym, MERCOSUR).


The government of Chile was based on the constitution of 1925 until a military coup d’état in 1973. Although the constitution remained nominally in effect, most of its provisions guaranteeing popular democracy and due process were suspended. A new constitution was approved in 1980 and enacted in 1981, although its major provisions were not fully implemented until 1989. Significant changes were made to the constitution in 2005. All citizens aged 18 and older are entitled to vote.

Executive of Chile

The 1981 constitution vests executive power in a president who is popularly elected, and a cabinet that is appointed by the president. Military leaders controlled the government from 1973 until 1989, when popular elections for a civilian president were held. The military continued to wield significant power in the government, however, until constitutional changes in 2005 greatly reduced its influence. The modifications reduced the military-controlled National Security Council to an advisory role and gave the president the power to remove members from the council. In 1994 the legislature extended the presidential term from four to six years, but it reverted back to four years in 2005.

Legislature of Chile

In 1989 Chilean voters elected a bicameral legislature, called the National Congress. The Chamber of Deputies consists of 120 members and the Senate comprises 38 members.

Judiciary in Chile

The highest judicial body in Chile is the Supreme Court. Judges are appointed for life by the president from a list submitted by the Supreme Court judges.

Local Government of Chile

For the purpose of local administration, Chile is divided into 15 regions (including Greater Santiago), which are subdivided into 53 provinces. The governors, who preside over the regions, and the officials who govern the provinces are appointed by the president. Provinces are further divided into municipalities.

Political Parties of Chile

Chile’s political parties have generally been divided into three blocs of the right, the center, and the left. In 1973 the military government crushed and banned leftist parties and ordered others to suspend activity, declaring them to be in “indefinite recess.” From 1977 to 1987 all parties were banned.

Political parties were again legalized in 1987. However, the law was devised to defeat parties of the center and left and to enable the military and its civilian allies to control the electoral process and the governments it produced. Ironically, some of the party registration requirements forced party leaders to organize strong local bases and probably strengthened the forces of the center-left coalition. In addition, district boundaries were redrawn to favor those areas, particularly rural ones, where conservative and pro-military forces were stronger. Despite these handicaps, the process of transition maintained a remarkably steady course and virtually replaced the party system that had been violently dissolved in 1973. Party alignments and voting constituencies split once again into relatively even and stable blocs of right, center, and left.

Two important changes emerged after the restoration of political parties. The center and left maintained a strategic alliance in which the center was dominant, and the right became divided early on over the appropriate degree of proximity to maintain to the Pinochet regime. In the 2001 legislative elections the center-left coalition Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia (Coalition of Parties for Democracy) was victorious, winning 62 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. The center-right coalition Alianza por Chile (Alliance for Chile) won 57 seats.

Social Services in Chile

Social welfare legislation was first enacted in the 1920s, and by the early 1970s the country’s welfare program ranked as one of the most extensive in the world. After the 1973 coup, the military government abandoned or dismantled much of the social welfare system. In 1981 a new social security system displaced the state-run system that had been in place since 1952. The new system, privately administered but government regulated, was based on the notion of individual capitalization accounts similar to a private insurance policy. Contributions amounting to 10 to 15 percent of earnings are obligatory, and the government guarantees a minimum benefit to contributors. The majority of the people receive free medical care under the National Health Service.

Defense of Chile

Military service of one year in the army or two years in the navy or air force is compulsory in Chile for all able-bodied 18- or 19-year-old men. In 2006 the country’s military force of 75,698 people was distributed as follows: 47,700 in the army; 19,398 in the navy; and 8,600 in the air force.


The first European to visit what is now Chile was Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who landed at Chiloé Island following his voyage, in 1520, through the strait that now bears his name. The region was then known to its native population as Tchili, a Native American word meaning “snow.” At the time of Magellan’s visit, most of Chile south of the Rapel River was dominated by the Araucanians, a Native American people remarkable for its fighting ability. The Native Americans occupying the northern portions of Chile had been subjugated during the 15th century by the Incas of Peru. In 1535, after the Spanish under Francisco Pizarro had completed their conquest of Peru, Diego de Almagro, one of Pizarro’s aides, led a gold-hunting expedition from that country overland into Chile. The expedition spent nearly three fruitless years in the country and then withdrew to Peru.

Spanish Settlement

Pedro de Valdivia, another of Pizarro’s officers, led a second expedition into southern Chile in 1540. Despite fierce resistance from the Araucanians, Valdivia succeeded in establishing several settlements, including Santiago in 1541, Concepción in 1550, and Valdivia in 1552. In 1553, however, the Araucanians organized a successful uprising, killing Valdivia and many of his followers and devastating all the towns except Concepción and La Serena. The rebellion was the initial phase of warfare that lasted nearly 100 years.

Hostile to colonization, the Araucanians were the only important Native American people who were never entirely subdued by the Spaniards. Not until the last quarter of the 19th century did the Chileans succeed in pushing them into the forests of the south and bringing them under government control. The fierce and persistent resistance of the Araucanians gave a frontier flavor to the history of Chile for several centuries. In spite of their bitter fight against the Araucanians, the Spanish came to admire them and to mix with them, so that a majority of Chileans today probably have Araucanian ancestors.

In the Spanish colonial organization Chile originally was a dependency of the Viceroyalty of Peru and later had its own government. The country developed slowly because there was not enough silver or gold to attract the Spanish. Moreover, it was far from the main centers of Spanish colonization in Peru and was difficult to reach. Most of those who did settle in Chile became farmers, and Chile supplied Peru with foodstuffs, especially wheat. Orchards, ranches, and vineyards also prospered. The townspeople lived by trade.

Independence from Spain

Chile took the first steps toward independence in 1810, after Chilean colonists learned that the king of Spain had been deposed by Napoleon I of France. On September 18 of that year, the Santiago town council deposed the colonial governor of Chile, delegating his powers to a council of seven. This act marked the formal establishment of Chilean independence from Spain, and September 18 is now celebrated as Chile’s Independence Day. Within four years, however, the Spanish viceroy of Peru regained control of Chile, but by that time the taste for independence was strong.

The most important leader who emerged during Chile’s struggle for independence was Bernardo O’Higgins. As a young man O’Higgins had spent several years in Europe, where he came under the influence of various revolutionaries. When he returned to Chile, O’Higgins involved himself in the patriot cause. By 1816 he was commander of exiled Chileans who had joined the Army of the Andes, which was preparing for the liberation of Chile and the southern part of South America. Early in 1817 an epic crossing of the Andes brought the liberating forces into Chile. See also Latin American Independence.

In February 1817 the rebel army decisively defeated a Spanish royalist army at Chacabuco, ending Spanish control of northern Chile. O’Higgins was declared supreme director, and on February 12, 1818, he proclaimed the absolute independence of Chile. Nevertheless, royalist forces were not completely expelled from the country until 1826.

Thus Chile became free from Spain, but its colonial social structure remained intact. At one end of the social scale was an aristocracy with little political experience, composed of conservative landowners and urban merchants, united by blood ties and family interests. At the other end was an uneducated and submissive mass, ill-prepared to practice the rights and duties of a free people.

O’Higgins ruled the country until 1823. The five years of his rule were typical of the experience of liberators in other parts of Latin America. Great popularity and high hopes soon gave way to bickering and slander as the ruling class disagreed over what should be done and as personal ambitions emerged. O’Higgins made enlightened efforts to create schools and import teachers from England, to suppress banditry and promote foreign trade, to construct roads and water supply systems, and to encourage libraries and newspapers. Yet radicals were dissatisfied in some respects, and conservatives opposed O’Higgins’s abolition of titles of nobility and his efforts to terminate entailed estates—estates whose ownership was restricted to descendants of current owners. The clergy was offended by his efforts to control the church and introduce toleration. O’Higgins found no way to share his power or to delegate his authority. He resorted to strong methods to maintain his power, but by 1823 his opponents forced him to resign. The disillusioned liberator moved to Peru, where he lived until his death in 1842.

Conservative Rule

A liberal constitution, establishing a republican form of government, was adopted after O’Higgins’s departure. But political strife between Conservative and Liberal groups contending for power kept Chile in turmoil until 1830. In that year conservative elements, headed by General Joaquín Prieto, organized a successful rebellion and seized control of the government. In 1831 Prieto became president, but the leading person in the government was Diego Portales, who filled various cabinet posts during Prieto’s administration. A new constitution was adopted in 1833. It established a centralized government under a strong president who had absolute veto power. The vote was limited to literate male citizens who met a specified property qualification. Roman Catholicism was the official religion, and the practice of other religions was prohibited. Liberal groups launched armed attempts to remove the Conservatives from power in 1835, 1851, and 1859, but these attempts failed.

Despite its authoritarian character, the Conservative Party government fostered domestic policies that contributed substantially to the commercial and agricultural development of Chile. Steps were taken to exploit mineral resources, railroads were constructed, and immigration was encouraged. Foreign trade expanded, greatly facilitated by the steamship. A school system and cultural institutions were established. The chief development in Chilean foreign relations during this period of Conservative dominance was a series of conflicts with Bolivia and Peru, which were united in a confederation from 1836 to 1839. Fearing a powerful rival for dominance in the region, Chile invaded Peru in 1839 and defeated the Peruvian navy and the Bolivian army. The Chilean victories put an end to the Peru-Bolivia Confederation.

Liberal Rule and Foreign Wars

Conservative rule continued through the presidency of Manuel Montt, which ended in 1861. The remarkable economic progress during this 30-year period gave rise to a new and vigorous group of wealthy mining and merchant families, who, rebelling against the existing authoritarian system, began to demand reforms. During the 1850s the Liberal Party became more determined. President Montt yielded to them by abolishing entailed estates and by encouraging religious tolerance. By 1861 the Liberals were strong enough to detach moderate Conservatives from the ruling oligarchy.

Beginning in 1861 the liberal wing of the Conservative Party, in coalition with the Liberal Party, instituted a number of constitutional reforms. The constitution was amended to prohibit consecutive presidential terms, prevent presidents from exercising an absolute veto, and permit literate males to vote without regard to their wealth. Laws limiting the special privileges of the landed aristocracy and of the Catholic church were passed. Education was broadened, transportation and public services were improved and extended, and immigration and further colonization of the land were encouraged.

In 1865 Chile became embroiled in an inconsequential Spanish-Peruvian war that continued sporadically until 1869. Of greater importance was the War of the Pacific (1879-1883), which broke out over control of nitrate. Nitrate found in the desert of northern Chile, coastal Bolivia, and southern Peru became immensely valuable in the 1860s. It was used in fertilizer and in explosives. The boundaries between the countries were poorly defined, and after a series of disputes over the extraction and taxation of nitrate, Chile sent a small army into Bolivian territory in 1879. A war with both Bolivia and Peru followed, which Chile won.

As a result of its victory in the War of the Pacific, which ended in 1883, Chile acquired considerable territory, including the province of Antofagasta from Bolivia and the province of Tarapacá from Peru. Peru also yielded Tacna and Arica to Chile, on condition that after ten years a plebiscite be held to determine their status. The plebiscite was never carried out satisfactorily from the standpoint of Peru, and Chile held the entire area until 1929. That year mediation by the United States finally ended the bitter and tedious dispute: Tacna became a possession of Peru and Arica went to Chile. See Tacna-Arica Dispute.

The importance to Chile of the nitrate industry can scarcely be overstated. Chile increased its territory by more than a third, and the income generated by the nitrate industry increased private wealth as well as public revenue. For years the export duty on nitrate supplied half or more of the national revenue. The War of the Pacific opened an era of prosperity that radiated to all the social classes but was concentrated in particular in the upper classes of society.

Civil War and a Parliamentary Republic

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.

Between the World Wars

Chile was neutral in World War I (1914-1918). After the war, great strife developed between Liberals and Conservatives. The Liberals gained power with the election in 1920 of former minister of the interior Arturo Alessandri Palma, but the senate blocked nearly all of his proposals for reform. In 1924 Alessandri resigned at the demand of the army and navy. In 1925 he was recalled, however, and won approval of a new constitution that established the separation of church and state, made primary education compulsory, and made the cabinet responsible to the president rather than to the Congress.

Emiliano Figueroa, a Conservative, was elected president in 1925, but an army officer, Carlos Ibáñez del Campo, wielded governmental authority and ruled as president from 1927 until 1931. The Ibáñez administration was unable to cope with the effects of the world economic depression, however. With the drop of copper and nitrate prices, the economy of Chile virtually collapsed. A general strike spread rapidly and Ibáñez resigned in mid-1931. For more than a year Chile was in turmoil. The economy foundered, revolts flared, and a series of juntas and short-lived presidents attempted to rule.

Alessandri was once again elected president in 1932. His six years in office were notable for the reestablishment of order, often with strong methods, and for his alliance with the Conservatives. Chile had emerged from the period of depression by the time his term ended in 1938. However, the growing demand for increased social legislation started a new period of internal strife. The Radical Party, which had supported Alessandri, together with several leftist groups and the Communists, organized the so-called Popular Front. Pedro Aguirre Cerda, the Popular Front candidate, won the 1938 election by a narrow margin.

Aguirre had an ambitious program resembling the New Deal in the United States. He was able to carry out part of it despite vigorous opposition from the Conservatives. His reforms were also disrupted in 1939 by a devastating earthquake that killed about 28,000 people. This coalition was successful again in 1942, when Radical Party member Juan Antonio Ríos was elected president. Ríos governed moderately amid the conflicting political sympathies during World War II (1939-1945). Chile first followed a policy of neutrality and then entered the war on the side of the United States in 1944.

Postwar Governments (1946-1970)

The 1946 presidential election was won by Gabriel González Videla, a Radical Party leader who was supported by a left-wing coalition. Although the Communists had supported González Videla and he had given them cabinet posts, he broke with them because they organized demonstrations, precipitated and aggravated strikes, and created general unrest. Further troubles ensued, resulting in a break of relations between Chile and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the outlawing of the Communist Party in Chile in 1948. (The Communist Party remained underground until 1958, when it was again legalized.)

After World War II ended, Chile, like other Latin American nations, was eager to import goods the world struggle had long denied it. A catastrophic inflation began as money poured into imports. Subsequent economic dislocations caused riots and strikes. In spite of González Videla’s efforts, economic realities harassing the Chilean population were not alleviated. The old landed aristocracy still owned most of the productive land. Chile’s ability to import goods depended largely on the export to the United States of copper and nitrate, whose price depended almost entirely on the U.S. market.

A reaction against the traditional parties resulted in the surprising election of General Carlos Ibáñez the following year. The dictator, who was overthrown in 1931 and had led unsuccessful revolts with Nazi (National Socialism) support in 1938 and 1948, was known to be a reactionary nationalist and admirer of the Argentine dictator Juan Perón. Chilean voters apparently turned to him in the hope he would control inflation and labor violence and perhaps curb U.S. influence as well.

Ibáñez did not justify the uneasiness often expressed that he would govern as a dictator. He restored some order but did not effectively cope with Chile’s economic and social problems. Rapid inflation continued, and strikes and riots persisted. In 1958 Jorge Alessandri Rodríguez, a former senator and son of Arturo Alessandri Palma, heading a Conservative-Liberal coalition, was elected to the presidency on a platform favoring free enterprise and the encouragement of foreign investment. He undertook vigorous austerity measures and developed public works, schools, and housing. However, a series of earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions killed thousands and dealt a severe blow to the economy in 1960. An earthquake on May 22 of that year ranked 9.5 on the Richter scale, making it the strongest ever measured.

Strong popular sentiment for more thoroughgoing social and economic change made the presidential election of 1964 a contest between leading reform candidates. Former Senate member Eduardo Frei Montalva, candidate of the centrist Christian Democratic Party, defeated a leftist coalition. Frei’s administration began to acquire government ownership of the copper industry, and it also made important advances in agricultural reform, housing, and education. But by the end of the 1960s the middle class was becoming impatient with moderate reforms.

Allende Regime

As the presidential election of 1970 approached, leftist opposition united to form a Popular Unity coalition; it nominated Salvador Allende Gossens, who waged his campaign on a platform that promised full nationalization of all basic industries, banks, and communications. He received about 37 percent of the votes, and Congress backed him overwhelmingly against his rightist opponent, former president Alessandri.

Once installed as president, Allende quickly began to implement his campaign promises, turning the country toward socialism. State control of the economy was instituted; mineral resources, foreign banks, and monopolistic enterprises were nationalized; and land reform was accelerated. In addition, Allende initiated a redistribution of income, raised wages, and controlled prices. Diplomatic relations were established with Cuba, China, and other communist countries.

Allende’s election coincided with a severe fall in the price of copper, Chile’s major export. Inflation became ever more drastic when his nationalization efforts halted private investment and when agrarian reform disrupted agricultural production. Labor unrest hobbled industrial production, and the suspension of loans by major U.S. and international banks additionally was severely damaging to the economy.

Opposition to Allende’s program, moreover, was strong from the beginning. The legislature was controlled by the opposition parties, principally the Christian Democrats and the conservative National Party. Allende’s plans for a socialist Chile, though popular with the working classes, were opposed by the middle classes. The situation was aggravated by the United States. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which initially sought to prevent Allende from taking office, then spent large sums of money to destabilize and undermine the regime.

The country became polarized along class lines. Terrorism and violent clashes between armed right- and left-wing groups increased. An abortive military coup in June 1973 was followed by a wave of antigovernment strikes. The climax came on September 11, 1973, when the military stormed the presidential palace and seized power. After the coup Allende was found dead of bullet wounds. Officially his death was declared a suicide, although some believe he was assassinated by the military after the presidential palace was seized.

Pinochet Government

The military ruled through a junta headed by General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte. It immediately suspended the constitution, dissolved Congress, imposed strict censorship, and banned all political parties. In addition, it embarked on a campaign of terror against leftist elements in the country. Tens of thousands were arrested, and nearly all those arrested were tortured. Thousands were executed or exiled, while still others languished in prison or simply disappeared.

For the next few years the junta retained its iron grip on the country, although some token relaxation could be seen toward the end of the decade. In 1976 Chilean opposition leader and former foreign minister Orlando Letelier and his U.S. secretary were killed by a car bomb while in Washington, D.C. At the time, the assassinations were widely believed to have been ordered by Chile’s secret police. The state of siege was lifted in 1978 (although a state of emergency remained in effect), and more civilians were added to the cabinet. Chile, however, remained a police state. A new constitution, accepted by a referendum on the seventh anniversary of the military coup, legalized the regime until 1989, and Pinochet began another eight-year term as president in March 1981.

Economically, the Pinochet government, with its austere controls, slashed inflation and stimulated production between 1977 and 1981. Starting in 1982, however, a worldwide recession, declining copper prices, the burden of paying interest on Chile’s huge foreign debt, and the government’s heavy military spending plunged Chile’s economy into a depression. There were large-scale protests against the government in 1983, followed by a wave of bombings in major cities. Rising popular unrest and continued economic deterioration led Pinochet to reimpose a state of siege in 1984. After an unsuccessful attempt on Pinochet’s life in 1986, he launched new repressive measures.

Civilian Rule Restored

The state of emergency was finally lifted in 1988, and that October Chileans were permitted to hold a plebiscite on whether Pinochet’s term should be extended to 1997. After nearly 55 percent of the electorate voted no, Pinochet’s term ended in March 1990, following free presidential and legislative elections. To avert a prolongation of military rule backed by right-wing parties, the center and leftist parties united to elect a moderate, Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin, in December 1989. It was Chile’s first presidential election in 19 years.

Pinochet resigned the presidency as planned in 1990, but he remained the commander in chief of the armed forces. Aylwin initiated modest economic reforms and appointed a commission to investigate human rights violations by the Pinochet regime. The Aylwin government had to operate under a constitution and body of legislation that had been designed to legitimate an authoritarian regime. Changing this system was not easy, as electoral and legislative rules had been drawn up so as to limit, rather than broaden, the base of political participation and representation.

Moreover, while the private sector of the economy was thriving during military rule, in part on resources and markets previously in the public domain, the public sector had been gutted. Social needs had grown as economic growth had served to widen an already wide gap between rich and poor. The proportion of the population defined as living in poverty had risen from 20 percent in 1970 to 40 percent in 1989. Growing poverty and inequality had been reinforced over the period of military rule by a 20 percent reduction in social spending.

Given the challenges the new elected governments faced, the progress they achieved in restoring social services and raising living standards was remarkable. Inflation was gradually tamed, dropping to single digits by 1995. Growth was maintained until the recession of the early 2000s. Spending on education, health care, and housing increased. Politicians, journalists, and community organizers applied continual pressure to extend the boundaries of civil and political rights.

The civilian government progressed in its attempts to hold the military accountable for human rights abuses, despite fierce resistance. The truth and reconciliation committee appointed by the Aylwin government unearthed mass graves and documented more than 3,000 cases of persons “disappeared” by the Pinochet government. Such documentation enabled parents, children, widows, and widowers of victims to claim government benefits.

In the 1993 elections Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, son of Eduardo Frei Montalva, was elected president. He continued the country’s movement toward civilian-controlled politics.

Also in 1993 the former head of Chile’s secret police during the Pinochet government and his deputy were sentenced to seven- and six-year sentences for masterminding the 1976 Letelier assassination. The case, which was widely seen as a test of Chile’s fragile democracy, was appealed and upheld by the Chilean Supreme Court in May 1995. While Chilean military leaders agreed to abide by the court’s decision, the former police commander vowed to resist arrest and called on Pinochet to intervene. Pinochet denounced the decision and challenged the authority of the Supreme Court to sentence the men. After a tense standoff between the military and the civilian government, the two convicted men were arrested in June 1995.

In 1998 Pinochet retired from the army. A judge from the Santiago Court of Appeals began to review murder charges brought against Pinochet by the Chilean Communist Party for crimes carried out during his dictatorship.

The legal proceedings against Pinochet and others who committed crimes during his regime divided Chilean society and exposed the unresolved issues remaining from that period of the nation’s history. The country debated whether to bring legal proceedings against those who committed human rights abuses and how to pursue justice without risking the overthrow of the country’s fragile democracy. Although some Chileans believed that the past should not be reopened, others argued that those responsible for the kidnappings, disappearances, and murders needed to be held accountable.

21st-Century Events

In 2000 Ricardo Lagos Escobar, a member of the ruling center-left Concertación coalition, became the first Socialist to be elected president since Salvador Allende. As president, Lagos worked to decrease poverty and improve social services, including an increase in unemployment insurance and available housing. He also finalized a number of free trade agreements with countries such as the United States and South Korea. These agreements will eventually reduce or eliminate tariffs on traded goods.

Under the Lagos government, Chile again tried to come to grips with the legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship. In 2001 Pinochet was indicted on charges of kidnapping and murder and placed under house arrest. But the appeals court ruled that Pinochet was mentally unfit to stand trial and dismissed the legal proceedings against him. The Chilean Supreme Court upheld the appeals court decision in 2002.

In November 2004 an official Chilean government report concluded that more than 27,000 Chileans had been tortured during the Pinochet regime. In December Chile’s National Congress approved compensation for the torture victims in the form of a monthly pension and access to housing, education, and health benefits.

In 2005 the Chilean courts continued to battle over whether Pinochet could be charged with the various crimes committed during his presidency. At the same time Pinochet’s political and popular support suffered after investigations revealed he may have stolen millions in government funds while in power. Pinochet died in December 2006 before he could ever be brought to trial. At the time of his death he was under indictment for tax evasion and human rights violations.

In January 2006 the Socialist candidate Michelle Bachelet was elected Chile’s first female president. Bachelet and her family were arrested and tortured by Pinochet’s regime in the mid-1970s, and her father (a military officer) died in prison during this time. She and the rest of her family were eventually released and forced into exile before returning to Chile later in the decade. In the election Bachelet’s ruling coalition won control of both branches of the National Congress. The new president vowed to increase the number of women serving in the Chilean government and to narrow the gap between rich and poor in the country.

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