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    Chile Historical Setting
    Source: The Library of Congress Country Studies


    A textile figure depicting a tree (temu, meaning the tree Temu divaricatum), from a seventeenth-century Mapuche woman's belt called ñimintrarüwe

    FROM ONE OF THE MOST neglected outposts of the Spanish Empire, Chile developed into one of the most prosperous and democratic nations in Latin America. Throughout its history, however, Chile has depended on great external powers for economic exchange and political influence: Spain in the colonial period, Britain in the nineteenth century, and the United States in the twentieth century.

    Chile's dependence is made most evident by the country's heavy reliance on exports. These have included silver and gold in the colonial period, wheat in the mid-nineteenth century, nitrates up to World War I, copper after the 1930s, and a variety of commodities sold overseas in more recent years. The national economy's orientation toward the extraction of primary products has gone hand in hand with severe exploitation of workers. Beginning with the coerced labor of native Americans during the Spanish conquest, the exploitation continued with mestizo (see Glossary) peonage on huge farms in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and brutal treatment of miners in the north in the first decade of the twentieth century. The most recent victimization of workers occurred during the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet Ugarte (1973-90), when unions were suppressed and wages were depressed, unemployment increased, and political parties were banned.

    Another persistent feature of Chile's economic history has been the conflict over land in the countryside, beginning when the Spaniards displaced the indigenous people during their sixteenthcentury conquest. Later chapters of this struggle have included the expansion of the great estates during the ensuing four centuries and the agrarian reform efforts of the 1960s and 1970s.

    Politically, Chile has also conformed to several patterns. Since winning independence in 1818, the nation has had a history of civilian rule surpassed by that of few countries in the world. In the nineteenth century, Chile became the first country in Latin America to install a durable constitutional system of government, which encouraged the development of an array of political parties. Military intervention in politics has been rare in Chile, occurring only at times of extraordinary social crisis, as in 1891, 1924, 1925, 1932, and 1973. These interventions often brought about massive transformations; all the fundamental changes in the Chilean political system and its constitutions have occurred with the intervention of the armed forces, acting in concert with civilian politicians.

    From 1932 to 1973, Chile built on its republican tradition by sustaining one of the most stable, reformist, and representative democracies in the world. Although elitist and conservative in some respects, the political system provided for the peaceful transfer of power and the gradual incorporation of new contenders. Undergirding that system were Chile's strong political parties, which were often attracted to foreign ideologies and formulas. Having thoroughly permeated society, these parties were able to withstand crushing blows from the Pinochet regime of 1973-90.

    Republican political institutions were able to take root in Chile in the nineteenth century before new social groups demanded participation. Contenders from the middle and lower classes gradually were assimilated into an accommodating political system in which most disputes were settled peacefully, although disruptions related to the demands of workers often met a harsh, violent response. The system expanded to incorporate more and more competing regional, anticlerical, and economic elites in the nineteenth century. The middle classes gained political offices and welfare benefits in the opening decades of the twentieth century. From the 1920s to the 1940s, urban laborers obtained unionization rights and participated in reformist governments. In the 1950s, women finally exercised full suffrage and became a decisive electoral force. And by the 1960s, rural workers achieved influence with reformist parties, widespread unionization, and land reform.

    As the political system evolved, groups divided on either side of six main issues. The first and most important in the nineteenth century was the role of the Roman Catholic Church in political, social, and economic affairs. Neither of the two major parties, the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party, opposed the practice of Catholicism. However, the Conservatives defended the church's secular prerogatives; the Liberals (and later the Nationals, Radicals, Democrats, and Marxists) took anticlerical positions.

    The second source of friction was regionalism, although less virulent than in some larger Latin American countries. In the north and south, reform groups became powerful, especially the Conservatives holding sway in Chile's Central Valley (Valle Central), who advocated opposition to the establishment. Regional groups made a significant impact on political life in Chile: they mobilized repeated rebellions against the central government from the 1830s through the 1850s; helped replace a centralizing president with a political system dominated by the National Congress (hereafter, Congress) and local bosses in the 1890s; elected Arturo Alessandri Palma (1920-24, 1925, 1932-38) as the chief executive representing the north against the central oligarchy in 1920; and cast exceptional percentages of their ballots for reformist and leftist candidates (especially Radicals, Communists, and Socialists) from the 1920s to the 1970s. Throughout the twentieth century, leaders outside Santiago also pleaded for administrative decentralization until the Pinochet government devolved greater authority on provincial and municipal governments and even moved Congress from Santiago to Valparaíso.

    The third issue dividing Chileans--social class--grew in importance from the nineteenth century to the twentieth century. Although both the Conservatives and the Liberals represented the upper stratum, in the nineteenth century the Radicals began to speak on behalf of many in the middle class, and the Democrats built a base among urban artisans and workers. In the twentieth century, the Socialists and Communists became the leaders of organized labor. Along with the Christian Democratic Party, these parties attracted adherents among impoverished people in the countryside and the urban slums.

    In the twentieth century, three other issues became salient, although not as significant as divisions over social class, regionalism, or the role of the church. One was the cleavage between city and country, which was manifested politically by the leftist parties' relative success in the urban areas and by the rightist groups in the countryside. Another source of strife was ideology; most Chilean parties after World War I sharply defined themselves in terms of programmatic and philosophical differences, often imported from abroad, including liberalism, Marxism, corporatism (see Glossary), and communitarianism (see Glossary). Gender also became a political issue and divider. After women began voting for president in 1952, they were more likely than men to cast ballots for rightist or centrist candidates.

    As Chile's political parties grew, they attracted followers not only on the basis of ideology but also on the basis of patronclient relationships between candidates and voters. These ties were particularly important at the local level, where mediation with government agencies, provision of public employment, and delivery of public services were more crucial than ideological battles waged on the national stage. Over generations, these bonds became tightly woven, producing within the parties fervent and exclusive subcultures nurtured in the family, the community, and the workplace. As a result, by the mid-twentieth century the parties had politicized schools, unions, professional associations, the media, and virtually all other components of national life. The intense politicization of modern Chile has its roots in events of the nineteenth century.

    During the colonial period and most of the twentieth century, the central state played an active role in the economy until many of its functions were curtailed by the military government of General Pinochet. State power was highly centralized from the 1830s to the 1970s, to the ire of the outlying provinces.

    Although normally governed by civilians, Chile has been militaristic in its dealings with native people, workers, and neighboring states. In the twentieth century, it has been a supporter of arbitration in international disputes. In foreign policy, Chile has long sought to be the strongest power on the Pacific Coast of South America, and it has always shied away from diplomatic entanglements outside the Americas.

    Data as of March 1994

    NOTE: The information regarding Chile on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Chile Historical Setting information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Chile Historical Setting should be addressed to the Library of Congress.

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    Revised 04-Jul-02
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