Discover the general overview on the history of Chile

The History of Chile

by Joel Walsh

Joel Walsh ( has written for numerous web sites, in addition to the Let's Go: Mexico travel guidebook, and translations for a Venezuelan human rights NGO. At university, he studied Spanish literature and the history of Spanish-speaking countries, spending his final semester at the University of Havana.

On a map, Chile looks a little like a very, very long beach. But though the extraordinarily long coast has helped to shape the history of Chile, so have the rocky mountains of the interior, the high desert of the north, and the archipelago to the south. Meanwhile, Chile’s political and social life, though not on the whole as problematic as that of other countries in the Americas, has hardly been a day at the beach.

The history of Chile before the arrival of the Spaniards

The three major civilizations that are of the origin of the history of Chile were determined in large part by the country’s geography.

Aymara farmers grew corn and herded llamas and alpacas in the desert areas of the north.

The Diaguita, who also had settlements in what is now Argentina, lived in the mountains in the interior of Chile.

The Araucanians, were fierce fighters who fended off the Incas and later the Spaniards with some success. They also came to inhabit large parts of present-day Argentina, but their roots were as fishers and farmers toward the center and south of present-day mainland Chile.

In the distant southern archipelago, indigenous people hunted and fished.

Looming over all the people of mainland Chile was the mighty Inca Empire, which made fairly regular incursions into the area.

The Spaniards Arrive in the history of Chile

The Spaniards, of course, made the Incas look like angels. Pedro de Valdivia was the conqueror put in charge of subduing Chile in 1541. He got as far south as the fertile Mapocho Valley. Santiago was founded the same year. La Serena, Valparaiso, Concepcion, Valdivia and Villarrica were built not much later. During the colonial era, Spanish power did not extend further south than the Rio Biobio, thanks to the resistance by Mapuche tribes.

Huge landed estates were created, modeled after similar estates in Spain. The estates are extremely important in the history of Chile as they dominated much of the country’s life for centuries, even after mining, commerce, and other activities came to form the bulk of the economy. Some were still around as late as the 1960s when serious reform finally began.

The indigenous people in the areas under Spanish control mostly died off from infectious European diseases. Mestizos (people of mixed European-indigenous heritage) were forced to work in the great estates. Today, Chile has one of the highest proportions of people with primarily European heritage in the Americas.

The Independence: a period of turmoil in the history of Chile

When Simón Bolívar’s revolutionaries swept Spain from South America, Chile was freed, too. However, it was not until 1826 that the last royalist forces were kicked out, ending a blooody struggle in the history of Chile that had begun in 1810.

Meanwhile, Bernardo O’Higgins, a former viceroy of Peru, became Chile’s new head of government in 1817, ruling the country essentially as a dictator becoming the first dictatorship in the history of Chile. His unpopularity forced him to resign in 1823.

Like almost every other former Spanish colony, the history of Chile in the nineteenth century was marked by sometimes-elected governments that never represented more than a small proportion of the country’s people, along with outright military dictatorships, coups, and revolts.

Sadly, what makes Chile stand out in this period is its extreme aggression toward its neighbors, a peculiarity in the history of Chile unparalleled in any country in the Americas except the United States of America.

When Chile became independent, it was little more than half its current size. It gained most of its territory during the War of the Pacific fought against Peru and Bolivia.

Chile took territory from both countries, even taking Bolivia’s entire seacoast, forcing it to become a landlocked nation and helping to mire it deeper in its historical poverty. Disputes over part the provinces of Tacna and Arica, which Chile took from Peru, were not settled until 1928, when Chile kept Arica and gave Peru back Tacna.

For most of the rest of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Chile remained at least nominally stable and democratic. But the constant political discord, even if mostly peaceful, meant neglect of Chile’s severely deficient infrastructure—bad roads, poor coverage of electricity and other utilities, and badly planned urbanization.

Chile Tries Reform

In the mid-twentieth century, the Christian Democrat party was formed, which pushed through reforms in education, healthcare, and infrastructure when it won the presidency in the 1960s. But the reforms went too far for many of Chile’s ultra-conservative elite, and not far enough for the rapidly radicalizing segments of Chile’s vast working class.

In 1970, a coalition of socialist, Communist, and other leftist groups formed a popular front that brought Allende to power. Allende, an avowed non-Communist Marxist, avoided taking the country down the Soviet-aligned path Cuba had just recently taken.

But Allende’s government did institute sweeping reforms, redistributing wealth and land on a scale unprecedented in South America. They nationalized all the monopoly industries, infuriating the government of the United States, where many of the companies, particularly those that controlled copper mines, were headquartered.

The Devil Comes to Chile

The arrival of one of the most sectarian people in the history of Chile

Conservative elements in Chile, with the backing of the US government, and particularly the CIA, began a destabilization campaign. The destabilization, coupled with the dislocation already caused by the wholesale restructuring of vast parts of the economy, created a national crisis.

Allende’s government had gotten the most votes in the previous election, but had not won an absolute majority, and the crisis helped to erode popular support still further. Still, most Chileans refused to abandon their democratically elected government, at least before its term of office had expired.

So, on September 11, 1973, General Pinochet led one of the most violent coups in the history of the Americas. Jet planes bombed the presidential palace, while President Allende made a final, impassioned radio address to the people of his country. “History is ours,” he said, “it is made by the people.”

Pinochet’s troops later presented the world with Allende’s dead body, a gunshot in his head. The dictatorship claimed it was self-inflicted, though since the coup’s leaders had been bombing the presidential palace with Allende inside, many people naturally found this explanation disingenuous at best.

Heavy marks in the history of Chile

Allende would not be the last person to die under the new dictatorship. A “caravan of death” traveled the country, rounding up supporters of the old regime and anyone else they felt like taking, around 80,000 people in total. The victims were taken to prisons and makeshift detention centers, including a soccer stadium in Chile. They were tortured mercilessly, and thousands died.

Meanwhile, the regime, with the aid and support of US leaders, including personal attention from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and economists from the University of Chicago, began selling off the country’s economy wholesale to foreign investors.

The economy, supposedly a justification for the bloody dictatorship, went from bad to virtually nonexistent as businesses and farms went bankrupt and unemployment skyrocketed.

The economy picked up in a few years, but once again suffered during the worldwide recession of the early 1980s.

Democracy’s Slow Return

In 1988, the weakened regime finally had to submit to a popular referendum as to whether or not to hold real elections the following year. The regime lost the election, which only came as a surprise to those who thought the election would be rigged. In 1989, the Christian Democrat candidate, Patricio Aylwin, beat Pinochet’s candidate, who will remain in the history of Chile as a crual and merciless dictator, to become president.

Democracy was mostly restored, but with conditions. Not only were members of the regime granted immunity for thousands of kidnappings, assaults, and murders. But Pinochet himself had to be made a senator for life, as well as commander in chief of the armed forces.

In the following years, some of that immunity has been stripped away. A number of high-level officials have been sent to prison (though sadly, not for life). Pinochet himself was arrested during a trip in London, at the request of a Spanish judge investigating the murder of Spanish nationals in Chile. In a case that drew worldwide attention, a special UK judicial panel judged Pinochet too old and infirm to be extradited, and sent him home.

The economy, meanwhile, has been doing relatively well—relative, that is, to the troubled standards of Chile and South America as a whole.

With a political stability that is increasingly democratic, and an economy that is becoming ever more stable, Chile promises modest but real future improvements in the quality of life of most of its people.

Now that you know the history of Chile learn more about its geography

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