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Chile Politics



Much has been written about political unrest, dictatorships and poverty in South America and Chile is no exception. In order to understand the politics of Chile it is necessary to understand the history behind it. What follows is a very brief, chronological breakdown of the most important events that have led to the creation of the Chile we know of today. The irony is that many of the causes that led to social inequality Chile are sill present in societies all over the world today.


Chile operates a fully democratic presidential political system with an elected president, members of Congress in both a lower and upper house, and local mayors. It is without doubt one of the most stable and prosperous economies in Latin America, operating a free-market system that has been regularly growing for the past sixteen years. It is the world’s largest exporter of copper, which is its principal export, and the high world price in 2006 - 07 has swollen its state treasure chest. Other exports include more mineral deposits, sea fish, fresh water salmon, shell fish, fruit, vegetables, wine, wood pulp and tourism. Today Chile is modern and vibrant offering great business opportunities for budding entrepreneurs. Since 1990, when General Augusto Pinochet handed the reins of power to the democratically-elected Patricio Aylwin Chile has been free of the military coups, large bribery scandals and the massive economic meltdowns that have hindered some of its neighbouring nation states. It continues, however, to endure in a long-running border dispute with its neighbours Peru and Bolivia, the latter vying for direct access to the Pacific Ocean and still has far too many people not sharing in the newly-created wealth. Today Chile is relatively free of serious violent crime and terrorism and is considered to be a very safe country.


1500 The Spanish, who conquered practically all of the America is had its colonial power based in the region in Lima, Peru. Chile was then a backwater - not considered particularly important and only a place yet to be explored.


1536 Diego de Almagro led an expedition, on horse back, from Peru into Chile but did not get anywhere near to the future site of Santiago because the journey was fraught with difficulty.


1541 Pedro de Valdivia The man bestowed with the honour of being the original Spanish conquistador was Pedro de Valdivia. In 1540 he led an expedition from Peru to Chile arriving in 1541 to the site of where Santiago is today. Valdivia \"founded\" Santiago at the foot of the hill called \"Huelen\" (by the indigenous natives), but renamed it \"Santa Lucia\". He organised a local form of government and set about mining in areas that were rumoured to have had gold during the Inca period, enduring constant attacks from native Indians who were trying to repel them. It was clear that a more secure base was required and they set about building an infrastructure which led to the development of a fort and aptly named it the \"Plaza de Armas\" (Armed Plaza). Shortly after completion many of the buildings were destroyed by the rebellious, native Mapuche Indians.


Naturally the new settlers set about rebuilding and stuck to within the limits of the natural boundaries of the Mapocho River and Santa Lucia hill. Urban development continued to grow for the next decade and began to resemble a Colonial settlement of importance. However, the \"Conquistadores\" were here in search of mineral wealth and therefore \"followed their noses\" south to the area of Arauco, deserting Santiago which became more of a staging post.


1553 A violent backlash from the southern Mapuche Indians forced the Spanish invaders to retreat back to Santiago, reigniting population growth in Santiago once again.


1586 Construction on the \"Iglesia de San Francisco\" (Church) began and continued over a 44 year period until 1630. The church holds an item, which is on display, that Pedro de Valdivia brought with him on horse back all the way from Peru. Chile was now governed as part of the Viceroyalty of Peru from Lima and forced to trade with Spain via Lima, strictly forbidding \"Chile” to trade directly with any other country, which led to uncontrolled smuggling.

The Spanish Crown, as “owners” of the nation state called Chile decides to divide agricultural land and large houses between the leading families in Chile, who became extremely powerful and rich. With large swathes of land being owned by so few people, including the Jesuit church, a new underclass was created and known as \"inquilinos\". The inquilinos were only given permission to farm by the land owners if they worked for the land owner, thus creating a “serfdom” of workers who were at the mercy of the land owners they served.


Early economic demand focused on livestock as horses, leather and grease were needed to supply the mines in Bolivia and the continuing war against the Mapuche Indians.


1687 A massive earthquake destroyed the wheat crop in Peru, which enabled the superior quality Chilean wheat to fill gap and supply the mine workers there. This, in turn, affected the price of wheat which determined the price of land in Chile throughout the 18th century. Consequently any person owning land had the opportunity to increase his wealth, whilst the workers only continued to be workers, receiving as little as the landowners could get away with.


1740 Direct trade with Spain was now permitted and in 1750 Chile was allowed to mint its own currency.


1760 It was accepted that tenants working the land should provide a son or daughter to the landlord for household duties. By the end of the 18th century, after 250 years of colonial rule, Santiago had virtually been destroyed, once by native Indians and twice by massive earthquakes. The population at this time was circa 50,000 people.



Independence and Political Unrest

1808 The French, under Napoleon, successfully invaded Spain resulting in confusion among the Spanish colonies as to where their allegiance lay, this in turn weakened Spanish military control in the colonies which led to the beginning of the independence movement. In 1810 a local military \"junta\" was formed. This \"junta\", along with patriots loyal to Chilean independence fought many battles against troops loyal to the Spanish crown. These battles continued through to 1818.



“President” Bernardo OHiggins

The illegitimate son of a Peruvian Viceroy, Chile is first elected leader following independence from Spain in 1818.


There were two key men who played a vital role in bringing independence to Chile. One was Bernardo OHiggins, born in 1778 in Chillan (southern Chile) as the illegitimate son of an Irishman, Ambrose OHiggins. Ambrose OHiggins rose up through the Spanish colonial ranks to become Governor of Chile and then Viceroy of Peru. Bernardo was sent to London to be educated and during his time there he met with a number of exiles who were plotting to overthrow their own Spanish rulers. In 1882, after his father died, Bernardo returned to Chile to inherit his father’s estate and take his surname. Bernardo OHiggins led his own army of men to take on the Spanish Royalists, but after one serious defeat he retreated over the Andes to Mendoza, in Argentina, where he met up and joined forces with the other key player in the Chile independence movement: Jose San Martin de Los Andes. San Martin de Los Andes had been planning to enter Chile from Argentina and overthrow the Spanish too. O’Higgins and San Martin de Los Andes joined forces and after winning a major battle in 1818 at Rancagua (just south of Santiago) OHiggins was asked to be the \"Supreme Director\" of the newly independent Chile.


Independence was officially claimed in February 1818 with Bernardo OHiggins as head of the first Chilean government. As you travel throughout Chile you will notice a street named after him in almost every Chilean city, town or village. Independence day is, however, celebrated on the 18 September each year and known as the “dieciocho”, which means 18.

After independence from Spain, which was 277 years after Pedro de Valdivia first arrived, Santiago began its journey to become a serious urban base.


1822 Valparaiso was declared a free port by the independent administration, which enabled it to develop into an important financial centre and principal through fare for business connected to the booming nitrate mining in the north and successful cattle ranching in southern Patagonia. Also at this time over 30 canals were constructed in the fertile, central valley to provide much needed irrigation to the crop and fruit farming in this area. 1851, the first vineyards began to appear.


1879 Arturo Pratt and “The War of the Pacific”

Chilean naval hero who led the winning naval battle against Peru.


On 21 May 1879 Pratt, on board the Chilean ship Esmeralda, beat the Peruvians in the Pacific off the coast of the Chilean city of Iquique, which led to Chile gaining the land north of Iquique and up to Arica, cutting off Bolivia from the sea at the same time.


1900 The first significant fruit harvest is reaped. Santiago is booming from mining and agriculture. New constructions go up and areas are gentrified (Santa Lucia Park), but the vast majority of the population lives as servants to rich land owners.


In the early 1900 is with riches generated from the mining of nitrate in the north, people were in town to make money and live well. Large houses and mansions were built. The State commissioned the construction of a new Congress building and Municipal Theatre. It was the newly-arriving Europeans who drove the pace as they set about recreating the kind of European city they were used to, leaving the poorer natives and mix-raced peoples to fill in where they could, many flocking to Santiago in search of a better life, but often living in simple shacks and treated as second-rate citizens.

As the city entered the 20th century it expanded eastwards, towards the magnificent Andes mountains, creating new \"barrio altos\" (literally meaning higher settlements in terms of new wealth and altitude). Many large farming properties (haciendas), a result of land being handed down the family line from the days of the Spanish conquerors, are broken down into smaller holdings forcing agricultural workers leave the land they used to work to find more affluent work in the nitrate mines and in Santiago. The Santiago population is now around 600,000 people.


Telephone lines go up. The Panamerican highway is constructed north and south from the capital. Hydro electricity provides energy. Demand from the USA and Europe to fuel World War II provides a boost to the economy.


1920 The nitrate mining industry collapses, which leads to the 1920 great depression, which leads to social tension and unrest.


1952 The population in Santiago reaches over 1 million people.


1970 Pressure is on to reform the land ownership problem (too few land owners with vast swathes of land and too many poor people with nothing).


President Salvador Allende (in power: 1970 – 1973)

The first ever freely-elected communist leader who ruled Chile as president from 1970 to 1973 when he was ousted from power by a bloody coup.


On September 4, 1970, Salvador Allende, a Marxist, headed a coalition of socialist parties and was democratically elected president, with a slim majority, by the poor people in the belief that he would be able to provide the changes needed for them to have a better life.


One half of the country was happy, but the other half – the richer half - was very concerned that the country would become a communist state like Cuba. Allende had good intentions to help the poor, but unfortunately his government programs resulted in severe economic chaos with his policy of expropriation, taking land from land owners and giving it to the workers, who had no idea how to manage it and, fuelling in the process, a movement totally against him. With the entire country in economic meltdown it was not long before the people demanded change. There is tension in the streets, with people having to queue 24 hrs for a loaf of bread. Garages had no fuel. People scream to uniformed police and army personnel to “do something”. There are rumours that Allende and his supporters had imported arms from Cuba to fight an anticipated coup from the military.


President Agusto Pinochet (in power: 1973 – 1990)

In 1973 Allende, anticipating an imminent coup appoints Agusto Pinochet head of the Chilean army thinking that by replacing the previous army leader he would be safe. However, shortly after his appointment Pinochet led the armed forces in a coup against Allende. The Palace of La Moneda is bombed by the Chilean air force and Allende is found dead in his office. General Pinochet takes control and runs the country with an “iron fist” as well as implementing free market economic practices under policies drawn up by economic whiz-kinds from the University of Chicago. Over the period that followed, the economy went from boom to bust followed by a prolonged period of economic growth.

The coup was seen by the army as a \"military mission\" to save the country. General Pinochet ruled Chile for an unbroken 17-year period until 1990, during which time thousands of people with communist or socialist tendencies are said to have been tortured and went missing. On October 5 1988 a plebiscite was held to see if the people wanted a continuation of military rule or free elections. By a slim majority, considering that he had been in power for so long and that he was supposed to be an “evil dictator” people voted 55% in favour elections to 45% to continue with Pinochet (many governments get elected to power with a “mandate” on less than 45% of the vote). The following year, on December 14, 1989, the left-of centre-politician Patricio Alywin was elected as Chile is new president and military rule ended. Pinochet continued as head of the army for a few years as a way of ensuring that the newly-elected administration “behaved” itself.

During his presidency he has been credited for \"saving\" Chile from terrible economic decline and a communist take over, ridding the country of \"the enemy\" (Marxist forces backed by Cuba who were on the verge of ruling the country by force prior to the coup) to being accused of running a brutal regime that abused peoples’ human rights by use of ruthless torture and the cold killing of civilians.


It has been reported in the press that the coup was \"supported\" by the then US government, which, at the time was hell bent on any effort to counteract the \"advancement of Communism anywhere in the world\" and depending on which side of the political spectrum you are on the coup was either the best thing to happen to Chile or a vile and ruthless dictatorship that abused peoples’ human rights. Consequently Pinochet is seen as a hero by roughly half the Chilean population (those on the right of the political spectrum, who are also generally those with wealth) and an evil villain by the other half (those on the left of the political spectrum who are those who are poor). Even today the country is still polarised into two political camps, right and left, although for the younger generation this contentious period is, year by year, being consigned to the history books as they grow up in a stable, modern, relatively safe country far removed from the Chile that General Pinochet inherited.


However, in 1998, during his retirement and on a private visit to the UK to receive medical treatment for a back complaint a Spanish court (from a European member state country) issued an arrest warrant and the UK authorities, as a European member state, had to be seen to follow international law and had no choice other than to put General Pinochet under \"house arrest\". He was held for almost two years at a large house in Surrey, England whilst the British courts wrangled over how to handle this rather uncomfortable situation they found themselves in. It was, after all, Pinochet who helped the British government of Margaret Thatcher to win victory over Argentina over the Falklands war in 1982. Finally the British doctors deemed him unfit to face trial and the UK government therefore released him to return to Chile in 2000.

He arrived back to Chile in March 2000 to a warm welcome from the country is military and supporters, but spent the next six years fighting the Chilean judicial system as the Chilean courts attempted to bring him to trial, however, as in the UK he was been declared \"unfit\" to endure such a process. This decision was, however, overturned but then, at the age of 91 Pinochet died in December 2006.


The 50% of Chileans who thought that he was the true saviour of their country laying the foundations for the stability and economic success that Chile enjoys today paid their respects to their “hero” and the other 50% celebrated in the streets.

The issue of Pinochet is an interesting one and is not a simple “black and white” case. Indeed, if one considers the current political hard line of the West in Iraq and Afghanistan, where “terrorists” are captured and taken to the “illegal” base at Guantanamo bay and subjected to methods described by some as torture, it could be argued that Pinochet ran a similar policy, in which case should not the leaders of the UK and USA face trial for abuses of human rights? Also, one only has to see the economic strife suffered by many other South America countries to see that Chile would likely be enduring the same fate if it had not been for Pinochet. For the Chilean military the coup was a “war” and the army, as mentioned earlier, viewed it as a mission, which is also how President Bush views his fight against those who are against the “West”. The answer, as with so many of these difficult decisions will depend on which side of the political spectrum you are on and what view of the world you hold. However, on the other side of the divide are those totally innocent people who suffered quite severely under his presidency and who feel that he never faced justice for the abuse of their human rights and equally true are those innocent people who suffer as a consequence of the policies decided by President Bush and Prime Minister Blair, especially today in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Since 1989, when democracy returned to Chile after 17 years of military rule, rapid economic growth has resulted in a massive construction boom and the redevelopment of sectors of the city into a modern-day metropolis. Yet, despite all this, the \"Plaza de Armas\", founded by Pedro de Valdivia in 1541 is still there, and remains the symbolic centre of the city.



Presidents of Chile since Pinochet:


Patricio Aylwin Azócar (in power: 1990 - 1994)
The first democratically-elected president after Pinochet. Alywin headed a centre-left coalition government called the Concertacion, and continued with the free-market economics of the previous administration and at the same time skilfully nurtured relations with the “ousted” Pinochet who still held considerable influence not only in the army, but throughout many sectors of Chilean society.


Eduardo Frei (in power: 1994 - 2000)
Son of a previous president of Chile, Frei was from the same political coalition party as Alywin and continued with the same policies for economic development as well as introducing some social programmes.


Ricardo Lagos (in power: 2000 - 2006)
Ricardo Lagos was an experienced government minister having served in the government of Eduardo Frei. He was also from the same centre-left coalition party as Frei and continued with the same agenda.


Michelle Bachelet (in power: 2006 - March 2010)
The first female president of the Republic of Chile who took office in March 2006. Michelle Bachelet is father was a general in the Chilean air force, but was opposed to the military government that took power 1973 and was arrested and died in prison. During the Pinochet years she worked clandestinely for a socialist youth group, for which she was arrested along with her mother, Angelica. However, in 1975 she was allowed to leave the country as an exile and fled to Germany where she studied, and trained to be a doctor. She is the former health and defence minister in the Lagos administration and the fourth consecutive president from the centre-left Concertacion coalition (following Patricio Alywin, Eduardo Frei and Ricardo Lagos), which has led Chile since the end of military rule in 1990. During the Concertacion coalition period the authoritarian Pinochet-era constitution has been revised and the judicial system overhauled to be inline with that of a mature democratic nation. The country enjoyed the fastest-growing economy in Latin America the 1990s posting regular double-digit annual growth and has weathered recent regional economic instability. But it faces the challenges of having to diversify from its highly dependent copper-mining economy and of addressing the still vastly uneven wealth distribution.