Donned spontaneously by thousands of young women streaming into downtown Santiago to celebrate the electoral victory of Michelle Bachelet on 15 January 2006, Chile’s tri-coloured presidential sash suddenly became the fashion statement of a generation.

Bachelet, a 54-year-old former health and defence minister, handily beat her opponent to become the first woman elected to govern Chile. And while their platforms were barely distinguishable – jobs, social welfare, market-oriented economic growth and global integration – the contenders starkly epitomize two contrasting faces of contemporary Chile. On the one hand there was the Harvard-trained billionaire entrepreneur from the political right, espousing his Catholic faith and traditional family values. On the other there was the public health paediatrician and socialist militant, professed agnostic and single mother of three, who had once been detained in a torture centre and later exiled.

Bachelet belongs to the centre-left _Concertación_ coalition that has governed Chile for 16 years, since the end of military rule in 1990. The recent elections also swept its candidates into a Congressional majority, allowing the new President a running start on her pledge to increase spending on social welfare. Pension reform is high on her agenda, as are improvements to public education and health services.

During his six-year term, outgoing President Ricardo Lagos kept the business élites happy, signing no less than half a dozen free trade agreements. Concessions for roadways, utilities and other public infrastructure not already privatized by his predecessors were sold to the highest bidder. In one of his farewell appearances, Lagos reaped almost as much applause as Bono in a U2 concert in Chile’s infamous National Stadium, site of deaths and detentions following General Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 military coup.

Pinochet, now 90, bequeathed to Chile what may be his final ignominy when US banking authorities uncovered his personal fortune of at least $27 million stashed in secret accounts. Indicted on charges of tax evasion and false passports, he’s been in and out of house arrest for ongoing murder and torture investigations and is more likely to die than be sentenced.

Far from the political turmoil and brutal repression of the 1970s and 1980s, today’s Chile is peaceful, democratic and prosperous – for the privileged. But this narrow strip of land between the Pacific and the Andes, spanning deserts and icebergs, has social and economic inequalities as extreme as its geography.

In Santiago’s ubiquitous skyscrapers and shopping malls, modernity and wealth are everywhere to be seen. An estimated seven million mobile phones out-chirp the birds; car alarms are the new national anthem. It’s easy to be blinded by the glitter and the glass into seeing the sheen of success reflected across the social spectrum.

But behind Chile’s reputation as a Latin American economic tiger is an income distribution so skewed that it ranks among the worst in world, in the same league as Namibia, Brazil and South Africa.

Around a million Chileans earn the minimum wage of $225 a month. Not that a full-time job guarantees an exit from poverty: in this nation of runaway consumer credit, personal indebtedness is more widespread than malnutrition, and even the pizza parlours offer slices by instalment.

Popular movements are more quiescent than restive these days, product, some believe, of the consumer culture: the ‘haves’ are consumed by consuming and the ‘have-nots’ are consumed by survival. The revolutionary transformations that inspired so many to fight for freedom and democracy in the past are being carried out by new and re-emerging social actors, including environmentalists, urban cyclists, women, university students, indigenous rights activists and the indomitable poor.

Fact file

Monetary unit
Main exports
Human Development Index
Last profiled August 1995

At a glance

Country profile: Star rating: 

  • Income distribution
  • Life expectancy
  • Position of women
  • Freedom
  • Literacy
  • Sexual minorities
  • NI Assessment (Politics)