Before the Spanish conquest, several small groups of Amerindians lived in Chile. Araucanian Amerindians, who came under the influence of the Incas in the early 15th century, inhabited central and southern Chile. The conquistador Pedro de Valdivia founded Santiago in 1541, and brought Chile north of the Bío-Bío River under Spanish rule. The Araucanians resisted Spanish rule and killed Valdivia in battle. Amerindian resistance continued for 350 years, effectively barring Spanish settlement south of the Bío-Bío. The Araucanians (also known as Mapuches today) were not subjugated until the early 1880s.
During Spanish rule, Chile was subject to the viceroyalty of Peru. Later, the territory was given the status of captaincy-general and was largely administered from Santiago.
Chile had one of Latin America's first independence movements. A cabildo abierto ("town meeting") declared independence in 1810 in response to the French usurpation of the Spanish crown. Rival independence leaders Bernardo O'Higgins and José Miguel Carrera fought each other, then were overcome by Spanish troops. Eventually, Gen. José de San Martín, with O'Higgins as his chief ally, defeated the Spanish in 1817, and in 1818 Chile formally proclaimed independence. O'Higgins ruled from 1818 to 1823, during which time he built a navy and consolidated the Chilean government under his dictatorial regime. However, his anti-clerical and anti-nobility policies proved to be his undoing.
The next few years saw the growth of two political parties, the Conservative and the Liberal. While both were narrow elite factions, they differed in that Liberals favored a parliamentary, secular, federal system, while Conservatives wanted a traditional, religious, centralized system. The two groups fought bitterly, plunging Chile into civil strife until 1830 when Conservative Diego José Victor Portales assumed control of the political system.
Portales ruled as behind-the-scenes dictator from 1830 until his assassination in 1837. He launched a successful three-year war with Peru (1836–39), which destroyed a threatening Bolivian-Peruvian confederation. He also initiated a Conservative rule, which was to last until 1861. During that period, Chile's territory expanded with new claims to Patagonia and the island of Tierra del Fuego, and in 1847, the founding of Punta Arenas on the Strait of Magellan.
Between 1861 and 1891, the Conservatives were forced to share power with the Liberals, who had won several legislative victories. A wave of liberal reforms curtailed the power of the Roman Catholic Church and the presidential office. At the same time, both parties suffered a series of splits and realignments. But most notable during this period was Chile's greatest military achievement. In the War of the Pacific (1879–83), Chile again fought Peru and Bolivia, this time over possession of the Atacama Desert and its nitrate deposits. After victories on land and sea, Chilean forces entered Lima in 1881. By a treaty signed in 1883, Peru yielded Tarapacá, while Bolivia surrendered Antofagasta. The disposition of the other contested areas, Tacna and Arica, was not finally settled until 1929, when, with US mediation, Tacna went to Peru and Arica to Chile.
The military strongman Gen. Carlos Ibáñez del Campo ruled Chile from behind the scenes until 1927, then served formally as president until 1931. US banks loaned large sums to Chilean industry, and efforts were made to salvage the foundering nitrate trade and boost the copper sector. World depression struck, however, bringing an end to foreign loans and a catastrophic drop in world copper prices. A general strike caused Ibáñez to flee in 1931. After two years marked by short-lived juntas and
presidencies and a 100-day "socialist republic," Alessandri was again elected. In 1891, Jorge Montt, a naval officer, led a revolt that resulted in eight months of civil war. The triumph of Montt marked the beginning of a 30-year period of stable parliamentary rule. Bolstered by nitrate revenues, Chile's national treasury grew, especially during World War I. But at the same time the seeds of revolt were sown. Miners, farm workers and factory workers, sharing none of this prosperity, began to agitate for change. After the war ended, there was a recession, and the country was on the verge of civil war. In 1920, a coalition of middle and working class groups elected Arturo Alessandri Palma president. Alessandri, the son of an Italian immigrant, found himself in between the left's demands for change and the right's intransigence. He was deposed in a coup in 1924 but recalled in a countercoup in the following year. His second administration lasted only six months, but he left the legacy of a new constitution passed on 18 October 1925. The new system created a strong, directly elected executive to replace the previous parliamentary system.
Chile pulled out of the depression by 1938, but popular demand for social legislation remained unsatisfied. The 1938 election was narrowly won by Radical Party member Pedro Aguirre Cerda, running under the banner of a catchall coalition called the "Popular Front." His ambitious "new deal" program was never enacted, as Aguirre found himself in the crossfire of Chilean politics. His coalition dissolved formally in January 1941, and Aguirre died in November. In 1942, the Radicals won election easily over former dictator Ibáñez.
Juan Antonio Ríos governed moderately amid political conflict aroused by World War II. Ríos at first cooperated with Argentina in toning down the US-sponsored anti-Axis program but later led his country into a pro-Allied position, entering the war on the side of the United States in 1944. After World War II, Chile went into an inflationary cycle, and riots and strikes broke out throughout the country. Ríos died in 1946, and a special election brought to power a coalition of Communists and former Popular Front supporters under Gabriel González Videla. González's coalition soon broke down, as the Communists organized demonstrations and strikes. Within months, González fired the three Communists he had appointed to cabinet positions. He then broke off relations with the Soviet Union, and outlawed the Communist party. Strikes and violence grew, and Chile, an example of stability by Latin American standards for so long, seethed with tensions. Chile's pursuit of industrialization, which had started with the Aguirre and Ríos administrations, had led to increasing social problems as the cities bulged with unemployable rural workers. As the cost of living soared, the radicalism of the workers intensified.
The 1952 election brought the 75-year-old Carlos Ibáñez del Campo back to power. The ex-dictator, who had been plotting to return to power for years, defeated González Videla by exploiting a split among the Radicals and the disaffected Communists. Despite his reputation as an authoritarian and his connection with Argentina's Perón, Ibáñez ruled democratically until 1958.
By 1958, the cost of living had soared and Chile's trade balance had moved from a large surplus to a deficit. Evidence of a general discontent could be seen in the 1958 presidential election. A narrow victory was won by Jorge Alessandri Rodríguez (a son of President Arturo Alessandri Palma), who received support from both Liberals and Conservatives. The Socialist Salvador Allende Gossens, supported by his own party and the newly legalized Communist Party, won 29% of the vote (compared with only 5% in 1952), and Eduardo Frei Montalva, candidate of the new Christian Democratic Party (Partido Demócrata Cristiano—PDC), ran third with 20% of the vote.
Aware of popular pressure for reform, Alessandri drew up a 10-year development plan, initiated in 1959 with construction projects, tax reforms, and a token start at agrarian reform. A devastating earthquake and tidal wave in 1960 cut drastically into Alessandri's programs, and his government was unable to regain momentum. In 1964, the traditional parties of the right and center lost strength to a wave of reform sentiment that shifted public attention to a choice between the socialist Allende and the moderate reformer Frei. In September 1964, Frei was elected by an absolute majority, and congressional elections in March 1965 gave the PDC a majority in the Chamber of Deputies and a plurality in the Senate.
The Frei government implemented numerous social and structural reforms. These included educational reform, land reform and a scheme to create a majority Chilean interest in Chile's copper mines. Frei became a cornerstone of the Alliance for Progress, a harsh critic of communism, and a leading exponent of Christian democracy. However, the reforms did not deliver as hoped, and overall economic growth was sporadic. The Frei administration was not able to control the endemic inflation that had plagued Chile for more than 80 years.
In the 1970 presidential election there were three contenders: Jorge Alessandri, PDC candidate Radomiro Tomic, and the Socialist Senator Salvador Allende. Allende, who was supported by Popular Unity, a leftist coalition that included the Communist Party, received 36.5% of the total vote. Alessandri followed with 35.2%, and Tomic with 28%, with 0.3% of the ballots left blank as a protest. Since no candidate received a majority of the popular vote, Congress was required by the constitution to select the president from the two leading candidates. The PDC supported Allende in exchange for a promise of full constitutional guarantees. The victory was unique in that for the first time in the Western Hemisphere, a Marxist candidate took office by means of a free election. Dr. Allende, inaugurated on 3 November 1970, called for a socialist economy, a new, leftist constitution, and full diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba, China, and other Communist countries. It was later revealed through US congressional investigations and independent journalistic inquiries that the United States, with the help of the International Telephone and Telegraph Corp. (ITT), had secretly worked to thwart the election and confirmation of Allende.
The first full year of rule by Allende witnessed a rise in economic prosperity and employment, as well as an improvement in the standard of living of the poorer elements of the population. Allende expropriated US copper interests, and turned large rural landholdings into peasant communes. By 1972, however, the economy began to lag, and the situation was aggravated by middle- and upper-class resentment over the government's seizures of industrial and agricultural property. In June 1973, against a backdrop of strikes and street brawls beginning in the previous year, an abortive coup attempt was staged by a rightist army contingent. Throughout this period, the US Central Intelligence Agency had secretly supported the 1972 and 1973 strikes and disturbances, especially the truckers' strike, which had caused nationwide shortages of food and consumer goods.
On 11 September 1973, the Allende government was violently overthrown. Allende himself died—officially reported as a suicide. A four-man junta headed by Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte seized power, dissolved Congress, banned all political activities, and declared that Marxism would be eradicated in Chile. At least 3,000 and possibly as many as 10,000 people were killed or "disappeared" without a trace during and immediately after the coup. The military declared a state of siege and assumed dictatorial powers.
During its 16 years in power, the military attempted to eradicate not only Marxism, but all vestiges of leftism, trade unionism, reformism, and, for that matter, any other deviation from the official military line. High on their list of priorities was the privatization of the Chilean economy, which had gradually become more dependent on the state over three decades, a movement that had accelerated dramatically under Allende. This included the attracting of foreign investment, virtually untouched by government regulations or requirements. With unions under siege, workers' rights rapidly eroded under the regime.
This powerful dose of economic liberalization was administered within a continuously authoritarian political system. After the original state of siege was lifted in 1978, Chile continued under a "state of emergency" until another state of siege was declared from November 1984 to June 1985. A third state of siege was in effect from September 1986 to January 1987, after a failed assassination attempt against Pinochet. At each denial of democracy, the Pinochet government insisted that it was not yet done with the task of "redeeming" Chile, and that full political rights could not be restored until then. A constitution that outlawed the advocacy of Marxism and gave Pinochet eight more years of rule was passed by 67% of voters in 1980.
Although forced to operate clandestinely, an opposition nevertheless emerged. A collection of political factions found common cause with the Roman Catholic Church, forming a group called the Civic Union. The Church had become increasingly critical of the Pinochet regime, despite the latter's insistence that Catholicism was the cornerstone of the new Chile. When Pope John Paul II visited Chile in 1987, he brought accusations of torture and other human rights abuses. Finally, in 1988, Pinochet was pressured to call for a plebiscite to determine whether he should become president for another eight years. In February 1988, 16 political parties came together to form the "Coalition for the 'No'." In October 1988, Pinochet was soundly defeated, and in 1989 new elections were held. Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin, running as the candidate of a 17-party Concert of Parties for Democracy (Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia) received 55.2% of the vote and assumed office in 1990. The election was hailed as a victory for democracy, but Chile remained under the watchful eye of the military. Pinochet, who remained head of the armed forces, retained enormous power.
The general resisted Aylwin's efforts to place the military firmly under civilian control, and threatened a return to military rule if any of his officers were prosecuted for human rights violations. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established during the Aylwin administration, recorded 1,102 disappearances and 2,095 executions and death from torture during the dictatorship years. Those figures did not include thousands of others who were detained, tortured, and exiled.
Little could be done to prosecute military abuses. Aylwin's administration was hampered by the constitution approved during the military regime. Pinochet had engineered the constitution to his favor, allowing the regime to appoint eight senators for life in the new government. With eight pro-military senators, the Senate's democratic coalition was unable to reach a majority and make constitutional changes. Military leaders also pushed through an Amnesty Law, which covered human rights abuses between 1973 and 1978. The Supreme Court remained under the control of judges sympathetic to the former military regime.
In the December 1993 presidential elections, The Concertación backed Christian Democratic Party candidate Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, the son of former President Eduardo Frei Montalva. With more than 58% of the vote, Frei continued the economic policies of his predecessor, with an even greater emphasis on social spending. It was estimated that about one million Chileans emerged from poverty in the first half of the decade. The Frei regime also emphasized privatization of state-owned enterprises, protection of foreign investment, and trade liberalization. Chile remained the world's leading producer and exporter of copper, but with a greatly diversified export base. By 1998 the nation had achieved 15 consecutive years of economic growth. After a short recession in 1999, growth resumed in 1999 but at lower rates.
While the country's commitment to democratic, representative government appeared secure and stable, Pinochet remained a feared political figure in Chile, and an impediment to real democratic reforms. In 1998, Pinochet retired as head of the military and became a senator for life. Despite eight years of democratic government, relations between the government and the military, which continued to assert its independence, remained tense. In October 1998, Pinochet traveled to London for back surgery. At the request of Spanish authorities, British police arrested Pinochet, who was recovering at a private hospital. A Spanish judge wanted to take Pinochet back to Spain to try him on charges of torture, kidnapping, genocide, and murder. The arrest became a major international incident, and shocked Chileans, most of whom thought Pinochet was untouchable. Other European countries sought to extradite Pinochet, whose detention strained relations between Chile, England, and Spain. Following a lengthy legal battle that stretched across two continents and three nations, a London court in October 1999 ruled Pinochet could be extradited to Spain to stand trial on one charge of conspiracy to torture and 34 charges of torturing individual Chileans. Back in Chile, the armed forces remained loyal to Pinochet, and his arrest raised tensions between the military and the government. Yet, in his absence, Chilean politics were changing dramatically. While he languished in detention in England, dozens of military and police officers accused of human rights violations were arrested in Chile. Threatened by Supreme Court actions, the military began to talk directly to human rights lawyers. Some military leaders acknowledged that victims' families had a right to know what happened to the "disappeared." In March 2000, after 16 months in detention, the 84-year-old Pinochet was released. British authorities cited humanitarian reasons, saying Pinochet was medically unfit to stand trial. Pinochet returned to Chile, where he faced more than 70 criminal charges and efforts to remove him as senator for life. Chilean courts eventually ruled that he was unfit to stand trial in Chile for health reasons. He was forced to resign from the Senate and retired from public life. He currently lives in Santiago but does not appear in public or make public statements.
During his absence, the Concertación had backed the Socialist Ricardo Lagos for President. Joaquín Lavín, the conservative candidate, distanced himself from the hard politics of Pinochet and appealed for votes among Chile's poorest. Strains were beginning to show in the center-left coalition, which had ruled the country since 1990. Early in the campaign, Lavín, a former member of Pinochet's government, was not considered a strong candidate against Lagos. But both men finished tied in the December 1999 election, forcing a runoff election a month later. In the second round, Lagos captured 51.3% to narrowly defeat Lavín, who obtained 48.69% of the vote. With the victory, Lagos became the first Socialist to hold office since Allende. Lagos is a reformed Socialist who distanced himself from Allende's Marxist ideas. More of a social democrat similar in political style to England's Tony Blair, Lagos promised moderate policies and no changes to the nation's free-market economy. During the 1999 presidential campaign, the Chilean economy faced its worse recession in 20 years, with unemployment reaching 11%. By 2003, the country showed signs of recovery three years into Lagos presidency. Ambitious programs of new infrastructure, health reform, judicial reform and educational reform were moving forward but the government was hurt when accusations of corruption surfaced that resulted in the indictments of several government coalition legislators and former cabinet ministers. The signing of a Free Trade Agreement with the European Union and a much-awaited Free Trade Pact with the United States have helped boost Lagos's popularity and have consolidated Chile as the most open economy in the region. Although many expect the conservative opposition to win the 2005 presidential election, after a 16-year rule by the governing Concertación coalition, the municipal elections in 2004 will be a prime opportunity for the Lagos government to transform his popularity into a new electoral victory for his coalition.