Before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, the north of Chile was under Inca rule, while the indigenous Araucanians (Mapuche) inhabited the centre and south of the country. The Mapuche were also one of the last independent indigenous groups in America, and were only fully integrated into the Spanish-speaking order after Chile’s independence. Although Chile declared its independence in 1810 (in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, which deprived Spain of a functioning central government for some years), the decisive victory over the Spanish was not achieved until 1818. In the Pacific War (1879-83), Chile conquered parts of Peru and Bolivia and maintained its presence in the northern regions. It was not until the 1880s that the Araucanians were completely subjugated. Although they were relatively untouched by the coups and arbitrary governments that plagued South America until the 1970s, things took a turn for the worse in that decade. When the popular communist/socialist democrat Salvador Allende won the free and fair elections of 1970, he ran on a platform of social justice and narrowing the gap (even then) between a handful of rich people and the rest of the population. However, although some centre-right parties (notably the Chilean Christian Democrats) supported his government, or at least did not attack it directly, he faced domestic opposition from some sectors of society as well as from the army, and also a difficult international situation, since the United States does not tolerate any kind of “communists” in its “backyard”. On 11 September 1973, the Allende government was overthrown by a coup d’état led by army chief Augusto Pinochet (whom Allende himself had chosen, believing him to be, if not loyal to himself, at least loyal to the constitution). Following the coup, Chile experienced Augusto Pinochet’s 17-year military dictatorship (1973-1990), during which some 3,000 people, mostly leftists and socialist sympathisers, died or disappeared. Although it is not clear to what extent the US or the CIA were involved in the coup that brought Pinochet to power, it is now widely accepted that Nixon and his foreign policy adviser Henry Kissinger were not unhappy with the outcome, and that the US and some European conservative leaders were among the biggest supporters of Pinochet’s regime in the 1970s and 1980s.
Pinochet was reviled worldwide for his methods, but a centre-left government came to power in Chile after he resigned following the loss of a national referendum. Although Pinochet’s neo-liberal policies (deregulation and privatisation above all) grew the economy, they hugely harmed the poorer segments of the population and widened the gap between rich and poor, a problem that, like Pinochet’s amendments to the constitution to ensure he got away with it (which he more or less did) and the fact that the conservatives still have a de facto veto on certain issues, still affects the country today. The new government of Patricio Aylwin has seen fit to maintain the free market policies that still characterise Chile to some extent today. Despite a comparatively higher GDP and a more robust economy than most Latin American countries, Chile currently has one of the most unequal distributions of wealth in the world, second only to Brazil in the Latin American region and even behind most developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The ten richest people in Chile own almost 42% of the country’s total wealth. In terms of income distribution, about 6.2% of the country is upper class, 19% middle class, 24% lower middle class, 38% lower class and 13% extreme poverty. These extreme distributions have caused much unrest in recent years, and in the early 2010s a youth and student protest movement drew attention to these problems. Although some measures have been proposed or adopted to alleviate the most extreme inequalities, their impact seems minimal in early 2015.
Chile is a founding member of the United Nations and the Union of South American Nations (Unasur), and is now a member of the OECD, the group of “most developed” countries by today’s international standards, making it the first South American country to have this honour.
Argentina and Chile have overlapping claims to Antarctica. Chile also claims a 1.25 million square kilometre portion of Antarctica, but due to the provisions of the Antarctic Treaty, a country’s territorial claims to Antarctica are never recognised or allowed to be exercised at any time. However, like Argentina, some Chileans take their claims in Antarctica and the surrounding islands seriously.