As the Inca Empire expanded it was only able to integrate the northern part of Chile. Incan attempts to colonize Central Chile were unsuccessful, having met fierce resistance by Mapuche warriors in the Battle of the Maule. The Maule River subsequently became the boundary between the Incan empire and the Mapuche lands.
The first European to sight Chilean territory was Ferdinand Magellan, who crossed the Strait of Magellan on November 1, 1520. However, the title of discoverer of Chile is usually assigned to Diego de Almagro. De Almagro was Francisco Pizarro's partner, and he received command of the southern part of the Inca Empire (Nueva Toledo). He organized an expedition that brought him to central Chile in 1537, but he found little of value to compare with the gold and silver of the Incas in Peru. Left with the impression that the inhabitants of the area were poor, he returned to Peru, later to die in a Civil War.
After this initial excursion there was little interest from colonial authorities in further exploring modern-day Chile. However, Pedro de Valdivia, captain of the army, realizing the potential for expanding the Spanish empire southward, asked Pizarro's permission to invade and conquer the southern lands. With a couple of hundred men, he subdued the local inhabitants and founded the city of Santiago de Nueva Extremadura, now Santiago de Chile, on February 12, 1541.
Although Valdivia found little gold in Chile he could see the agricultural richness of the land. He continued his explorations of the region west of the Andes and founded over a dozen towns and established the first encomiendas. The greatest resistance to Spanish rule came from the Mapuche culture, who opposed European conquest and colonization until 1880s; this resistance is traditionally labeled as the Arauco War.
Valdivia died at the Battle of Tucapel, defeated by Lautaro, a young Mapuche toqui (war chief), but the European conquest was well underway. The Spaniards never subjugated the Mapuche territories; various attempts at conquest, both by military and peaceful means, failed. The Great Uprising of 1598 swept all Spanish presence south of the Bío-Bío River except Chiloé (and Valdivia which was decades later reestablished as a fort), and the great river became the frontier line between Mapuche lands and the Spanish realm. North of that line cities grew up slowly, and Chilean lands eventually became an important source of food for the Viceroyalty of Peru.
Chile was the least wealthy realm of the Spanish Crown for most of its colonial history. Only in the 18th century did a steady economic and demographic growth begin, an effect of the reforms by Spain's Bourbon dynasty and a more stable situation along the frontier.
The drive for independence from Spain was precipitated by usurpation of the Spanish throne by Napoleon's brother Joseph Bonaparte; and can be divided into 3 stages. A national junta was established in the name of Ferdinand VII— the deposed king — on September 18, 1810. This period is known as the "Patria Vieja" (old republic). The second was characterized by the Spanish attempts to reimpose arbitrary rule during the period known in Chile as the Reconquista ("Reconquest": the term echoes the Reconquista in which the Christian kingdoms retook Iberia from the Muslims) which in turn led to a prolonged struggle under José de San Martín and Bernardo O'Higgins, Chile's most renowned patriot and a member of South America's Irish diaspora. Other revolutionary leaders included the guerrilla leader Manuel Rodríguez and the exiled British admiral Thomas Cochrane, who commanded the Chilean Navy from 1817-1822.
The political revolt brought little social change however and nineteenth century Chilean society preserved the essence of the stratified colonial social structure, family politics, and the influence of the Roman Catholic Church. The system of presidential power eventually predominated, but wealthy landowners continued to control Chile.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the government in Santiago consolidated its position in the south by persistently suppressing the Mapuche during the Occupation of the Araucanía. In 1881, it signed a treaty with Argentina confirming Chilean sovereignty over the Strait of Magellan, but conceding all of oriental Patagonia, and a considerable fraction of the territory it had during colonial times. As a result of the War of the Pacific with Peru and Bolivia (1879-1883), Chile expanded its territory northward by almost one-third and acquired valuable nitrate deposits, the exploitation of which led to an era of national affluence.
In the 1870s, the church influence started to diminish slightly with the passing of several laws that took some old roles of the church into the State's hands such as the registry of births and marriages.
In 1886, José Manuel Balmaceda was elected president. His economic policies visibly changed the existing liberal policies. He began to violate the constitution and slowly began to establish a dictatorship. Congress decided to depose Balmaceda, who refused to step down. Jorge Montt, among others, directed an armed conflict against Balmaceda, which soon extended into the Chilean Civil War of 1891. Defeated, Balmaceda fled to Argentina's embassy, where he committed suicide. Jorge Montt became the new president.
The longest lasting of the ten governments between those years was that of Gen. Carlos Ibáñez, who briefly held power in 1925 and then again between 1927 and 1931 in what was a de facto dictatorship. When constitutional rule was restored in 1932, a strong middle-class party, the Radicals, emerged. It became the key force in coalition governments for the next 20 years.
The Seguro Obrero Massacre took place on September 5, 1938, in the midst of a heated three-way election campaign between the ultraconservative Gustavo Ross Santa María, the radical Popular Front's Pedro Aguirre Cerda, and the newly-formed Popular Alliance candidate, Carlos Ibáñez del Campo. The National Socialist Movement of Chile supported Ibáñez's candidacy, which had been announced on September 4. In order to preempt Ross's victory, the National Socialists mounted a coup d'etat that was intended to take down the rightwing government of Arturo Alessandri Palma and place Ibáñez in power.
During the period of Radical Party dominance (1932-52), the state increased its role in the economy. In 1952, voters returned Ibáñez to office for another 6 years. Jorge Alessandri succeeded Ibáñez in 1958.
The 1964 presidential election of Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei Montalva by an absolute majority initiated a period of major reform. Under the slogan "Revolution in Liberty", the Frei administration embarked on far-reaching social and economic programs, particularly in education, housing, and agrarian reform, including rural unionization of agricultural workers. By 1967, however, Frei encountered increasing opposition from leftists, who charged that his reforms were inadequate, and from conservatives, who found them excessive.
Allende received a plurality of the votes cast, getting 36% of the vote against Alessandri's 34% and Tomic's 27%. This was not the first time the leading candidate received less than half of the popular vote. Such had been the case in every post-war election, save that of 1964 — Alessandri himself was elected president in 1958 with 31%. In the absence of an absolute majority, the Chilean constitution required the president-elect to be confirmed by the Chilean parliament. This procedure had previously been a near-formality, yet became quite fraught in 1970. After assurances of legality on Allende's part, and in spite of pressure from the U.S. government, Tomic's Christian Democrats voted together with Allende's supporters to confirm him as president. Allende received 153 votes to Alessandri's 35. Following his election, indigenous and peasant forces across the country violently took control of ranches, forcibly fulfilling Allende's land redistribution promises.
Immediately after the election, the United States expressed its disapproval and raised a number of economic sanctions against Chile. In addition, the CIA's website reports that the agency aided three different Chilean opposition groups during that time period and "sought to instigate a coup to prevent Allende from taking office(.)
In the first year of Allende's term, the short-term economic results of Minister of the Economics Pedro Vuskovic's expansive monetary policy were unambiguously favorable: 12% industrial growth and an 8.6% increase in GDP, accompanied by major declines in inflation (down from 34.9% to 22.1%) and unemployment (down to 3.8%). However, these results were not sustained and in 1972 the Chilean escudo had runaway inflation of 140%. The combination of inflation and government-mandated price-fixing led to the rise of black markets in rice, beans, sugar, and flour, and a "disappearance" of such basic commodities from supermarket shelves.
By 1973, Chilean society had grown highly polarized, between strong opponents and equally strong supporters of Salvador Allende and his government. Military actions and movements, separate from the civilian authority, began to manifest in the countryside. A failed military coup was attempted against Allende in June 1973.
In its "Declaration of the Breakdown of Chile’s Democracy", on August 22, 1973, the Chamber of Deputies of Chile asserted that Chilean democracy had broken down and called for Allende's removal, by military force if necessary, to restore constitutional rule. Less than a month later, on September 11, 1973, the Chilean military deposed Allende, who allegedly committed suicide as the Presidential Palace was surrounded and bombed. Subsequently, rather than restore governmental authority to the civilian legislature, Augusto Pinochet exploited his role as Commander of the Army to seize total power and to establish himself at the head of a junta.
Controversy surrounds alleged CIA involvement in the coup. As early as the Church Committee Report (1975), publicly available documents have indicated that the CIA attempted to prevent Allende from taking office after he was elected in 1970; the CIA itself released documents in 2000 acknowledging this and that Pinochet was one of their favored alternatives to take power. Still, they deny having taken any active role in the events in Chile after Allende took office. (See: U.S. intervention in Chile)
Following the coup in 1973, Chile was ruled by a military regime which lasted until 1990. The army established a junta, made up of the army commander, General Augusto Pinochet; the navy commander, Admiral José Toribio Merino; the air commander, Gustavo Leigh; and the director of the carabineros; César Mendoza. Resigning after disagreements with Pinochet on July 24, 1978, Leigh was replaced by General Fernando Matthei. Mendoza resigned after the carabineros were blamed for the deaths of three communists in 1985 and was replaced by Rodolfo Stange.
The military dictatorship pursued decidedly laissez-faire economic policies. During Pinochet's 16 years in power, Chile moved away from a largely state controlled economy towards a free-market economy, increasingly controlled by a few large economic groups that fostered an increase in domestic and foreign private investment.
After the coup, Chileans witnessed a large-scale repression, which started as soon as October 1973, with at least 70 persons murdered by the Caravan of Death. The four-man junta headed by General Augusto Pinochet abolished civil liberties, dissolved the national congress, banned union activities, prohibited strikes and collective bargaining, and erased the Allende administration's agrarian and economic reforms. The junta jailed, tortured, and executed thousands of Chileans. According to the Rettig commission and the Valech Report, close to 3,200 were executed, murdered or "disappeared", and at least 29 000 imprisoned and tortured; higher estimates exist. According to the Latin American Institute on Mental Health and Human Rights (ILAS), "situations of extreme trauma" affected about 200,000 persons; this figure includes individuals killed, tortured or exiled, and their immediate families.
The secret police, DINA (Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional) spread its network throughout the country and carried out targeted assassinations abroad, made possible by Operation Condor, an operations and intelligence sharing network of the security services of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay, formed in the mid-1970s. The junta also set up at least six concentration camps.
The regime outlawed or suspended all political parties and suspended dissident labour and peasant leaders and clergymen. Eduardo Frei and other Christian Democratic leaders initially supported the coup. Later, they assumed the role of an opposition to the military rulers, but soon lost most of their influence. Meanwhile, left-wing Christian Democratic leaders like Radomiro Tomic were jailed or forced into exile. The church, which at first expressed its gratitude to the armed forces for saving the country from the danger of a "Marxist dictatorship," became increasingly critical of the regime's social and economic policies.
In 1974, the country was divided into 13 regions (it had previously been divided into provinces). This design has continued until today, with the addition of two new regions on 2005: Region XV Arica y Parinacota on the north and region XIV De los ríos.
The junta embarked on a radical program of liberalization and privatization, slashing tariffs as well as government welfare programs and deficits. The new economic program was designed by a group of technocrats known as the Chicago boys because many of them had been trained or influenced by University of Chicago professors.
The economy grew rapidly from 1976 to 1981, fueled by the influx of private foreign loans until the debt crisis of the early 1980s. Despite high growth in the late 1970s, income distribution became more regressive. While the upper 5% of the population received 25% of the total national income in 1972, it received 50% in 1975. Wage and salary earners got 64% of the national income in 1972 but only 38% at the beginning of 1977. Malnutrition affected half of the nation's children, and 60% of the population could not afford the minimum protein and food energy per day. Infant mortality increased sharply. Beggars flooded the streets.
The junta relied on the army, the police, the oligarchy, huge foreign corporations, and foreign loans to maintain itself. As a whole, the armed services received large salary increases and new equipment. The oligarchy recovered most of its lost industrial and agricultural holdings, for the junta sold to private buyers most of the industries expropriated by Allende's Popular Unity government. This period saw the expansion of monopolies and widespread speculation.
Financial conglomerates became major beneficiaries of the liberalized economy and the flood of foreign bank loans. Large foreign banks received large sums in repayments of interest and principal from the junta; in return, they lent the government millions more. International lending organizations such as the World Bank, the IMF, and the Inter-American Development Bank lent vast sums. Foreign multinational corporations such as International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT), Dow Chemical, and Firestone, all expropriated by Allende, returned to Chile.
Chile's main industry, copper mining, remained in government hands, but new mineral deposits were open to private investment. Capitalist involvement was increased, the national pension system and healthcare were privatized, and Superior Education was also placed in private hands. One of the junta's economic moves was fixing the exchange rate in the early 1980s, leading to a boom in imports and a collapse of domestic industrial production; this together with a world recession caused a serious economic crisis in 1982, where GDP plummeted by 14%, and unemployment reached 33%. At the same time a series of massive protests were organized trying to cause the fall of the regime, without success.
After the economic crisis of 1982, Hernan Buchi became Minister of Finance from 1985 to 1989. He allowed the peso to float and reinstated restrictions on the movement of capital in and out of the country. He introduced banking legislation, simplified and reduced the corporate tax. Chile pressed ahead with privatizations, including public utilities plus the re-privatization of companies that had returned to the government during the 1982–1983 crisis. Under these new policies, the rate of inflation dropped from about 1,000% per year to about 10% per year. While this was still a high rate of inflation, it allowed the economy to start recovering. From 1984 to 1990, Chile's gross domestic product grew by an annual average of 5.9%, the fastest on the continent. Chile developed a good export economy, including the export of fruits and vegetables to the northern hemisphere when they were out of season, and commanded high prices.
An important initiative begun in 1981 and carried on until today, aimed at modernizing the use of Information and Communication technology, greatly contributed to disentangle the traditional bureaucratic and cumbersome clerical procedures in all dealings with branches of the government, from civil registry to import/export documentation, thereby fostering a more agile economy and a more efficient public administration.
The military junta began to change during the late 1970s. Due to problems with Pinochet, Leigh was expelled from the junta in 1978 and replaced by General Fernando Matthei. Due to the Caso Degollados ("slit throats case"), in which three Communist party members were assassinated, César Mendoza, member of the junta since 1973 and representants of the carabineros, resigned in 1985 and was replaced by Rodolfo Stange. The next year, Carmen Gloria Quintana was burnt alive in what became known as the Caso Quemado ("Burnt Alive case").
Problems with Argentina coming from the 19th century reached a high in 1978, with disagreements over the Beagle Canal. The two countries agreed to papal mediation over the canal. Chilean-Argentine relations remained bad, however, and Chile helped the United Kingdom during the Falklands War.
Chile's constitution was approved in a national plebiscite held in September 1980. It came into force in March 1981. It established that in 1988 there would be another plebiscite in which the voters would accept or reject a single candidate proposed by the Military Junta. Pinochet was, as expected, the candidate proposed, and he was denied a second 8 year term by 54.5% of the vote.
Representing the Concertación coalition which supported the return to democracy, gathering the Christian Democrat Party (PDC), the Socialist Party (PS), the Party for Democracy (PPD) and the Social Democrat Radical Party (PRSD), Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin won a sweeping victory in the first democratic elections, in December 1989, since the 1970 election won by Salvador Allende. Patricio Aylwin had gathered around him 3,850,023 votes (55.17%), while the center-right supermarket tycoon Francisco Javier Errázuriz, who represented the UCCP party, managed to take 15.05% of the vote, which had as main effects to lower right-wing candidate Hernán Büchi's score to 29.40% (approximately 2 million votes, almost half of Patricio Aylwin).
The Concertación coalition would dominate Chilean politics for the next two decades, with its most recent victory being the 2006 election of Socialist candidate Michelle Bachelet. It established in February 1991 the National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, which released in February 1991 the Rettig Report on human rights violations during Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship. This report, contested by human rights NGOs and associations of political prisoners, counted 2,279 cases of "disappearances" which could be proved and registered. Of course, the very nature of "disappearances" made such investigations very difficult, while many victims were still intimidated by the authorities, and did not dare go to the local police center register themselves on lists, since the police officers were the same as during the dictatorship. The same problem arose, several years later, for the Valech Report, released in 2004 and which counted almost 30,000 victims of torture, among testimonies from 35,000 persons. However, the Rettig Report did list important detention and torture centers, such as the Esmeralda ship, the Víctor Jara Stadium, Villa Grimaldi, etc. The registering of victims of the dictatorship, and then, in the 2000s, trials of militaries guilty of human right violations, would dominate the
In the 1993 election, Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle of the Christian Democratic Party was elected president for a 6-year term leading the Concertacion coalition, and took office in March 1994. Following an agreement between Pinochet and Andrés Zaldívar Larraín, president of the Senate, the latter voted to abolish the date of 11 September as a National Holiday which celebrated the 1973 coup. Supporters of Pinochet had blocked until then any such attempt. The same year, Pinochet traveled to London for an operation. But under orders of Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón, he was arrested there, lifting world-wide attention, not only because of the past history of Chile and South America, but also because this was one of the first arrest of a dictator based on the universal juridiction principle. Pinochet tried to defend himself by referring to the State Immunity Act of 1978, an argument rejected by the British justice. However, UK Home Secretary Jack Straw took the responsibility to release him on medical grounds, and refused to extradite him to Spain. Thereafter, Pinochet returned to Chile in March 2000. Upon descending the plane on his wheelchair, he stood up and saluted the cheering crowd of supporters, including an army band playing his favorite military march tunes, which was awaiting him at the airport in Santiago. President Ricardo Lagos, who had just sworn in on March 11, said the retired general's televised arrival had damaged the image of Chile, while thousands demonstrated against him.
Representing the Concertación coalition for democracy, Ricardo Lagos had won the election just a few months before, by a very tight score of less than 200,000 votes (51,32%) against Joaquín Lavín (less than 49%), who represented the right-wing Alliance for Chile. None of the six candidates had obtained an absolute majority on the first turn held on December 12, 1999. Lagos was sworn in March 11, 2000, for a 6-year term.
In 2002 Chile signed an association agreement with the European Union (comprising FTA, political and cultural agreements), in 2003, an extensive free trade agreement with the United States, and in 2004 with South Korea, expecting a boom in import and export of local produce and becoming a regional trade-hub.
Meanwhile, the trials concerning human rights violations during the dictatorship continued. Pinochet was stripped of his parliamentary immunity in August 2000 by the Supreme Court, and indicted by judge Juan Guzmán Tapia. Guzmán had ordered in 1999 the arrest of five militaries, including General Pedro Espinoza Bravo of the DINA, for their role in the Caravan of Death following the 11 September coup. Arguing that the bodies of the "disappeared" were still missing, he made jurisprudence which had as effect to lift any prescription on the crimes committed by the militaries. Pinochet's trial continued until his death on December 10, 2006, with an alternance of indictments for specific cases, lifting of immunities by the Supreme Court or to the contrary immunity from prosecution, with his health a main argument for, or against, his prosecution. The Supreme Court affirmed in March 2005 Pinochet's immunity concerning the 1974 assassination of General Carlos Prats in Buenos Aires, which had taken place in the frame of Operation Condor. However, he was deemed fit to stand trial for Operation Colombo, during which 119 political opponents were "disappeared" in Argentina. The Chilean justice also lifted his immunity on the Villa Grimaldi case, a detention and torture center in the outskirts of Santiago. Pinochet, who still benefited from a reputation of righteousness from his supporters, lost legitimacy when he was put under house arrest on tax fraud and passport forgery, following the publication by the US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of a report concerning the Riggs Bank in July 2004. The report was a consequence of investigations on financial funding of the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US. The bank controlled between USD $4 million and $8 million of Pinochet's assets, who lived in Santiago in a modest house, dissimulating his wealth. According to the report, Riggs participated in money laundering for Pinochet, setting up offshore shell corporations (referring to Pinochet as only "a former public official"), and hiding his accounts from regulatory agencies. Related to Pinochet's and his family secret bank accounts in United States and in Caraïbs islands, this tax fraud filing for an amount of 27 million dollars shocked the conservative sectors who still supported him. Ninety percent of these funds would have been raised between 1990 and 1998, when Pinochet was chief of the Chilean armies, and would essentially have come from weapons traffic (when purchasing Belgian 'Mirage' air-fighters in 1994, Dutch 'Léopard' tanks, Swiss 'Mowag' tanks or by illegal sales of weapons to Croatia, in the middle of the Balkans war.) His wife, Lucía Hiriart, and his son, Marco Antonio Pinochet, were also sued for complicity. For the fourth time in seven years, Pinochet was indicted by the Chilean justice.
Suggested historical references are: Paul Drake et al., Chile: A Country Study (Library of Congress, 1994). Brian Lovemen, Chile: The Legacy of Hispanic Capitalism, 3rd. ed., (Oxford University Press). John L. Rector, The History of Chile, (Palgrave Macmillian, 2005). Simon Collier and William F. Sater, A History of Chile, 1808-1994, (Cambridge University Press).