New Internationalist

Simply… A History Of Chile

August 1987

new internationalist
issue 174 - August 1987

[image, unknown] a history of Chile
Illustrations: Hervi
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[image, unknown] Conquest and independence

Until the 16th century and the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors much of the territory that today is Chile was occupied by the Mapuche Indians. For two centuries they fiercely defied the invaders but were driven further and further south while the rest of the country was ruled by Spain.

But the mixing of Spanish and Indian blood was producing an independent-minded Chilean nation which resented Spanish rule. In 1810 a revolt against Spain was led by Bernardo O'Higgins, the illegintimate son of an Irish-born Viceroy of Peru. The rebel navy was led by the British Lord Cochrane. After seven years of war they achieved independence and O'Higgins became the first President.

He didn't last long, his liberal sentiments clashing with those of the landowners. It was a conservative President, Diego Portales, who in 1830 set the pattern of authoritarian rule by a landed oligarchy which was to last for the next 100 years.

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Foreigners and fertilizer

Pirates and traders from other European nations, notably Britain and France, had long been interested in Chile. A much more lucrative activity, however, was to be that of mining the nitrate deposits of the Atacama desert. Most of this strip of arid coastline originally belonged to Bolivia. It passed to Chile with victory in the War of the Pacific in 1883. The nitrates of sodium and potassium were a valuable fertilizer for Europe's agricultural revolution. But Chile saw little of the profits. Much of the trade was controlled by a British investor John North. Working conditions for nitrate workers were harsh - 2 000 were massacred by soldiers after one protest in the northern port of Iquique in 1907. At the beginning of the 20th century, however, US investment to take over from British with the development of copper mining and the arrival of corporations started like Bethlehem Steel and Kennecot Copper.

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Democracy at work

[image, unknown] Chile's miners were to form the basis of a new working class which spread throughout the country. Conflict between these workers and the old entrenched aristocracy produced a series of strikes often brutally repressed. However, all this political activity helped produce a democratic constitution in 1922 and led to the formation of numerous political groupings including communist and socialist parties. And from 1932 to 1973 Chile was the only country in Latin America in which competitive party politics produced a series of legally elected civilian governments.

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Reaching for reform

[image, unknown] The Christian Democrat party, which occupied the centre of thepolitical spectrum, starte to compete for the votes of the working class in the 1950s. Eduardo Frei, the party's founder, became President in 1964, defeating a coalition of left-wing parties led by Salvador Allende. The right-wing parties had withdrawn their candidate when they saw that Allende could win.

Frei called his reform programme a 'Revolution in Liberty', of which land reform was one of the most successful elements. But he created higher expectations than he could meet. His economic strategy had little success and attempts at combating inflation through wage control alienated may people, including left-wing elements in his own party, who broke away to form another party, MAPU.

For the 1970 election the Christian Democrats faced challenges from left and right. MAPU joined Allende's coalition and the right-wing parties, incensed by Frei's land reform, put up their own candidate.

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Popular Unity

[image, unknown] Salvador Allende won the 1970 Presidential Election with 36% of the vote in a three-cornered fight. His 'Popular Unity' coalition included his own Socialist Party, MAPU, and the Radical Party, a centre party which had been in power in the 1930s and 1940s.

Popular Unity described itself as a government of 'transition to socialism'. It extended Frei's reforms but took a more radical economic line. This included nationalizing the US Copper companies and raising wages in the hope that this would stimulate the economy. Allende also started to build a welfare state by tackling malnutrition, poor housing and inadequate health and education services.

But he did not have a majority in Congress and had to rely on the support of Christian Democrats who eventually started to block legislation. There were also divisions between the cautious communists and the more radical socialists. And on top of this came an economic crisis with a fall in the price of copper - exacerbated by destabilizing pressure from the US.

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Coup d'état

[image, unknown] On the 11th September 1973 the military intervened. This followed a series of strikes and protests by the middle-classes. The coup had the support of the Christian Democrats who hoped they would now be returned to power. But the takeover was more bloody than anyone could have imagined - including a bombing raid on the Presidential palace that killed Allende. The armed forces killed 10,800 people in the following three months and torture and 'disappearances' became a routine part of daily life. More than 200 000 people fled the country.

It soon became clear that the military junta with General Pinochet at its head was intent on removing not just a government but democracy itself.

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The Chicago boom

[image, unknown] Pinochet had no particular economic philosophy when he seized power. But by 1975 he had passed over economic management to Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago. To them state intervention in the economy was anathema and they argued that the only solution to Chile's economic ills would be untrammelled free enterprise. Their response to economic crisis was shock treatment which included reducing the import tariffs which protected local industry and dramatic cuts in government expenditure. This restored the confidence of international banks and billions of dollars in loans were made to Chile fuelling a consumer boom based on imported products.

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A new constitution

[image, unknown] In the midst of the boom a new constitution was devised and - without any political debate - was approved by a plebiscite in 1980. It extended the dictatorship to 1989 when the military junta would nominate a presidential candidate (probably Pinochet) to be approved by a plebiscite. If this person is rejected then a contested presidential election would be held a year later.

But the constitution puts strict limits on which political parties will be allowed to operate (they cannot be marxist) and on what they will be allowed to do: they cannot promote an ideology, and must confine their activities largely to putting forward electoral candidates.

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Economic collapse

Little of the money which had been loaned to Chile went into productive investment. So although old industries were killed off by imports there was little to take their place. The economy collapsed in 1982 by which time the total foreign debt was $17 billion. General Pinochet responded by briefly imprisoning his advisers. Since 1982 average wages have fallen by 20 per cent and the value of the minimum legal wage has been halved.

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The years of protest

[image, unknown] 1983 saw the first of a series of strikes and street protests against the economic and political policies of the dictatorship. In 1983 and again in 1986 this looked as though they could bring the Government down. But the ruthless efficiency of the oppressive forces of the State and the disorganization and divisions within and between the political parties have meant that the unrest has come to nothing. A series of attempts at uniting the opposition including the 'National Accord' of 1985 and the 'Civilian Assembly' of 1986 have produced little. The 1987 political initiative is a campaign for 'Free Elections'. It remains to be seen whether this will have any more success.

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This feature was published in the August 1987 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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