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The origins

Human inhabitants first came through the Bering Strait and probably from the South Pacific to settle in South America about 10,000 years ago, though recent archaeological evidence argue that the first migrations occurred 40,000 years ago. Chile was the last part of the Americas to be populated.

Among the diverse Indian ethnic groups, the Mapuche (literally, “the people of the earth”) were the largest population on this part of the continent. Around 1450, the Incas invaded Chile but could never conquer the Mapuche territory. The Inca domination didn’t last very long, less than a century, and they didn’t leave many traces.

The Spanish conquest

When the Spanish arrived, the land that would soon become Chile was inhabited by hundreds of thousands of Amerindians belonging to different cultures. The Amerindians were mostly making their living from hunting and agriculture.

The first European to discover Chile was the Portuguese Magellan, sent by the Spanish king, Carlos I. He left from Sanlúcar de Barrameda on September 26, 1519, and sailed along most of Brazil and Argentina. Then, he discovered the Strait that still wears its name today, which connects the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans on November 1, 1520, a very important date in Chile’s history. When discovering this strait, Magellan had to face terrible storms and, once he had crossed it, he discovered a much calmer ocean, which he called the “Pacific”.

In 1535, Diego de Almagro, lieutenant of Francisco Pizarro, governor of Peru, started the conquest of Chile. Once again, the Mapuche living in the southern part of today’s Chile were the only ones to fiercely resist the Spanish and to defeat the conquistadores.

A new expedition, led by Pedro de Valdivia, was sent in 1540 and 1541. This expedition gathered 175 Spanish and many Amerindians auxiliaries. These troops went around the Mapuche territory, by sea, and Pedro de Valdivia founded the city of Santiago on February 12, 1541, before submitting the region to the Spanish domination. Valdivia died in 1533 in a battle against the Mapuche, but the colonizing movement was already on its way.


The Spanish didn’t discover the enormous amounts of gold and silver they were hoping for, but they identified the advantage the region could represent for agriculture.

In 1683, slavery was abolished, which allowed the colonists to establish more harmonious relations with the Mapuche. Later, a series of confrontations occurred between them until the middle of the 19Th century for the possession of the southernmost lands. For a long time, the Biobío River marked the barrier between the colonial government and the Amerindians ethnic groups.

Much later, the Chilean republican troops encountered the stubborn resistance from the Mapuche until the end of the 19th century. In total, the Mapuche defended their territory for more than 350 years, which led to one of the longest wars in the history of mankind.

Chile’s independence

In 1809, the announcement of the arrest of the Spanish king, Fernando VII, by Napoleon, had the effect of a bombshell in South America: the almighty Spain was no more invincible and the first desires for independence started rising. Soon, revolutionary movements were formed across the continent, and gradually, the American countries gained their independence. On September 18, 1810, Chile’s independence was proclaimed but will only be effective in 1818, when Bernardo O’Higgins and its Argentinian counterpart, José San Martin, freed the country from the Spanish domination. Bernardo O’Higgins became the first President of the country; he enacted a new constitution, installed the Senate and abolished the aristocratic titles.

Then, unlike the other South-American countries, Chile will face very few coup or serious public disturbances.

The Pacific War or The Saltpeter War

In the middle of the 19th century, the Atacama Desert, belonging mostly to Peru and Bolivia, had gained a great economic value thanks to the discovery of enormous deposits of saltpeter, a material used as a natural fertilizer and gunpowder.

These deposits aroused the greed of the Chilean state and the army invaded Antofagasta in 1879. Two years later, the Chilean troops arrived at the doors of Lima and annexed the Peruvian provinces of Tarapaca, Arica and Tacna, as well as the former Bolivian province of Antofagasta, depriving Bolivia from its only access to the ocean. Chile’s victory mostly satisfied the British who bought the saltpeter at low prices. Moreover, Chile also took the Bolivian land where is located the Chuquicamata mine, the largest copper mine in the world, which still stands today and keeps Chile’s economy running.

Chile’s modern history

Salvador Allende

He was the first socialist president to be elected through open election. As he didn’t gain a majority, he was elected by congress in a run-off. He then decided to govern by decree, thus avoiding dealing with Parliament, while workers militias were organized in the cities and in the countryside to prepare a revolution.

Allende adopted a policy of nationalization of industries and collectivization (nine banks out of ten were nationalized as well as the copper mines representing 75 % of exports), and brought about a complete land reform.

Supported by the United States, the Conservative opposition and the Christian Democrats were unable to stop those reforms, despite their dominant position in Parliament. The United States was fiercely opposed to the politic conducted by Allende. The Nixon administration started to exert economic pressure against Chile through multilateral bodies, and kept supporting Allende’s opponents. By 1971, the United States stopped helping Chile and discouraged international investment. They supported the opposition and even went so far as financing Chilean truck divers’ strikes to paralyze the country’s internal transport system. Allende’s reform measures were rejected by the right wing, except for the Government’s key project: copper nationalization. On July 15 1971, the project was approved unanimously by the two chambers. The state, through Codelco Chile, became owner of all the copper companies, which received compensation subtracted from the profit they had generated in the past, result of the low or no taxes they paid.

The dictatorship and Chile’s September 11

On September 11, 1973, the Chilean coup d’état was led by the infamous Augusto Pinochet, Allende’s appointed army chief. He suspended the constitution, banned opposing political parties and syndicates and replaced the democratically elected government by a military dictatorship. Parliament was closed and the judges, in theory still exercising autonomous authority, were limited to corroborate the government’s decisions, without calling into question human rights abuses.

The very essence of the dictatorship was the repression. More than 3,000 people disappeared or were killed, 35,000 were systematically tortured, including the future president, Michelle Bachelet, 300,000 others were detained by government organisms and hundreds of thousands were condemned to exile.

From 1990 to the present day

Pinochet, criticized by its American allies and wanting to legitimize its position at the head of the state, decided to hold a referendum to reinforce its position and make sure he would rule for many more years. The NO to Pinochet won the elections, and the government, though it kept a certain influence in the senate, accepted to hand over the power to Patricio Aylwin, representative of the “Concertación“, the coalition of parties which had opposed the dictatorship for the last years.

The “Concertación” achieved good results on the economic front. During the 90’, the PNB increased by 6 % per year, best result for a Latin-American country and among the best worldwide.

Return to democracy also meant the restoration of fundamental freedoms (freedom of the press, of assembly, etc.). Progress was significant, but the legacy of the dictatorship couldn’t be totally forgotten. In 1991, a report identifying the victims of the dictatorship (not the persons responsible for it) was published and the 1978 “Self-Amnesty” law is still in force because former partisans of the dictatorship still have power in the Congress and prevent the voting of laws that would reform the Constitution in more depth. But the “Concertación” has not insisted on these reforms, focusing on stimulating the economic growth and on national reconciliation to set aside the dictatorship legacy.

One of the major current problems is the inequality in the wealth redistribution. There is unanimity between the political parties to criticize the poor level of public education, one of the reasons of these inequalities. Since 2006, many student demonstrations have demanded an educational reform, reform that is still under consideration.

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