Country Profile


Country profile: Chile

Where is Chile? With its emaciated outline and its amazingly diverse landscape – from the parched Atacama Desert in the north, through fertile farmland and volcanoes to the fjords and glaciers of the south – Chile is a country of extremes. But the extremes it is best known for are political rather than geographic. The democratic election in 1970 of charismatic Marxist Salvador Allende led in 1973 to a US-backed military coup. Allende was murdered and the human-rights atrocities committed under the regime of General Augusto Pinochet caused consternation the world over. Even now, on each anniversary of the coup the Right holds a mass and celebrates while the Left demonstrates and demands justice for victims and their families. In the Pinochet years Chile also became the laboratory in which the Thatcher-Reagan guru Milton Friedman tested his monetarist economic doctrine in its most extreme form.

It is now seven years since the Chilean people voted ‘yes’ to democracy, effectively ending Pinochet’s dictatorship, and five since they elected a new President. Yet Pinochet’s influence remains: he is still head of the armed forces and has a high media profile as well as the support of the wealthy élite. In 1993, while President Aylwin was giving a speech in Norway about the good relationship between the Army and the Government, every member of the armed forces, including Pinochet himself, dressed in camouflage gear and took to the streets of the capital, Santiago, for ‘training exercises’. Helicopters flew low over the city with soldiers hanging from ropes and Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries blaring out – an echo of Coppola’s Vietnam movie Apocalypse Now. Many politicians took refuge in foreign embassies and for a few days a coup seemed imminent.

But in reality a coup is not necessary. Pressure from the armed forces has reduced the number of people imprisoned for torture and murder during the dictatorship to a handful.

Besides, Chile is a democracy founded on a dictator’s constitution: the civilian government is obliged to continue Pinochet’s right-wing economic policies and has virtually no power to make constitutional changes. The two-thirds majority needed to pass legislation in Congress means that only laws approved of by the Right go through. And ‘security’ matters are handled by a seven-person national Security Council on which the President, the Senate leader and the head of the Supreme Court are outvoted by the heads of the four armed services.

The strategy has paid off. The democratic apparatus means the rest of the world no longer disapproves and the economy is the fastest growing in the region – as a result Chile is the first South American country to have been invited to join the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). But the new wealth is not trickling down to the inhabitants of the poblaciones, or shanty towns. And while Chile’s economy is being called the tiger of Latin America those who wish for a change in political priorities are all too aware of the Army’s sharp teeth.

Charlie Warshawski


LEADER: President Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle

ECONOMY: GNP $2,730 (US $23,240)
Monetary unit: Chilean peso
Main exports: Copper, fishmeal (Chile is the world’s biggest producer of both), fresh fruit and lithium (newly exploited but Chile has 40% of the world’s reserves).
Copper accounts for almost half of exports so Chile remains very vulnerable to shifts in its price on the world market. Privatized industries have been largely swallowed by financial conglomerates.

PEOPLE: 13.8 million

HEALTH: Infant mortality 15 per 1,000 live births (Canada 9 per 1,000). Doctors: 1 for every 2,150 people (Australia 1 for 436).

CULTURE: 90 per cent of Chileans are mestizos (of mixed race). The Mapuche in the south are the main indigenous group but there are also the Aymara in the desert north and the Rapa Nui on Easter Island.
Religion: Roman Catholicism. Also small numbers of evangelical Protestants as well as indigenous faiths.
Languages: Spanish, though the indigenous groups each retain their own tongue.

Sources: The World: A Third World Guide 1995/96; State of the World’s Children 1995; The Americas Review 1993/94.

Previously profiled June 1986.


[image, unknown] INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Richest 20% of the population have 63% of the wealth; poorest 40% have only 11%.
1986 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
At 93%, only surpassed in Latin America by Cuba.
1986 [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Agriculture sufficient to feed the entire population. Export-led economy dependent on world prices.
1986 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Some cases of torture and mysterious deaths in custody still reported. Homosexuality and divorce illegal.
1986 [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Equal in law and active in the workplace but few in top positions. Traditional macho attitudes prevail in many quarters.
1986 [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
72 years. Compares with a regional average of 67 and a rich-world average of 76.
1986 [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]


[image, unknown] NI ASSESSMENT [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
President Frei was elected in 1993 as representative of a centre-left coalition, succeeding the Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin. His room for manoeuvre is limited by the armed forces’ continuing influence but in any event the pursuit of economic growth and NAFTA membership will continue to take precedence over concern for the poor.

NI star rating

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995

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