Chile is truly a one-of-a-kind geographic wonder. It is nearly 2900 miles long, running from the Peruvian border in Arica, to the southern Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire), but it’s only 265 miles wide at its widest point. It shares the vast majority of its long border with Argentina, but also borders Peru and Bolivia in the north.
While the northern half of Chile is dry and arid, comprised mainly of the Atacama desert, the southern half is lush and fertile, filled with lakes and forests. The south of Chile includes the vast and pristine ecological wonders of Patagonia.
Northern Chile includes the mostly coastal cities of Iquique, Antofagasta, Copiapo, and La Serena, and revolves around the prosperous business of mineral extraction, mainly copper. Chile’s population is largely concentrated in the center: the bustling port of Valparaiso, and it’s nearby neighbor, the capital of Santiago.
South of Santiago, Chile’s geography becomes more complex, with an amazing array of fjords, canals, peninsulas, volcanoes, and, further south, glaciers. Popular stops include Isla Chiloe, Puerto Montt, and Valdivia.
Chile’s pre-colonial history revolves around the central theme of indigenous groups fending off the increasing political and military power of the Inca. The Mapuche, in particular, proved to be fierce warriors, and proudly resisted domination by the Incas, and the conquistadores after them.
In 1541 Pedro de Valdivia founded Santiago, following a hellish southbound journey. The conquistadors set up a system of forced labor, and the vast majority of the land was taken over by large estates known as encomiendas.
With the beginning of the 19th century seeing growing discontent over Spanish rule, Jose de San Martin swooped into Santiago, liberating the city in 1818. The first half of the century saw the rule of two strongman dictatorships: first Bernardo O’Higgins, followed by Diego Portales.
It was the end of the 19th century that saw Chile transformed into a regional power, with its victory over Peru and Bolivia in the War of the Pacific (1879-1883), and a negotiated peace with the fearsome southern Mapuche. The Atacama desert soon paved the road to nitrate wealth, as foreign capital poured in, and the once desolate north boomed.
As the nitrate boom subsided due to petroleum-based fertilizers, Chile’s mineral wealth boom was just beginning. Copper-mining became the cornerstone of the Chilean economy, a trend that continues to this day. Yet, for the working class Chileans, who saw the majority of earnings being repatriated to Europe and the United States, unrest was brewing. Centrist President Eduardo Frei attempted to stem the tide by taking 50% ownership of the mines for the Chilean state.
Yet, it was the 1970 election of socialist Salvador Allende that lit the powder keg of Chilean society, and serves as a marker for the beginning of modern history. Allende nationalized key industries, advocated expropriation of large landholdings, and courted Castro’s Cuba. Centrist and right-wing elements led nation-wide strikes, paralyzing the Chilean economy.
The unrest paved the way for little known General Augusto Pinochet to take power in 1973. He unleashed a reign of terror on leftist elements. Many were imprisoned or killed, while hundreds of thousands went into exile. Pinochet’s rule from 1973 to 1989 was characterized by a mix of political repression and economic stability and growth.
Pinochet was ultimately removed from power in 1989, and was placed under house arrest in London for his role in crimes against humanity. The Chilean Supreme Court, however, found him unfit to stand trial, and he returned to Chile, where he died in 2006.
Following Pinochet’s dictatorship, Chile elected a series of center-left figures including Patricio Aylwin, Ricardo Lagos, and Michelle Bachelet, who had been imprisoned and tortured under Pinochet’s rule. While 2008 saw a global financial crisis, Chile weathered it well with its massive reserves from copper exports.
Under the tenure of Ricardo Lagos, Chile took steps towards increasing democracy; reforms signed by Lagos eliminated appointment of senators, and senatorship for life, while also reducing the presidential term from six to four years, and prohibiting direct re-election of presidents.
In 2010 Chile elected center-right Sebastian Pinera as president. He narrowly defeated center-left candidate Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle. Pinera, who is Chile’s wealthiest man, has an academic background in economics, and is Chile’s wealthiest man. Much of his wealth comes from investments in transportation, telecommunications, and finance.
Pinera has seen his popularity plummet in recent years, especially during the 2011 Chilean student protests, which in many ways foreshadowed the Bogota student protests at the end of 2011. Chilean students protested the lack of funding for public education, as well as the high cost and prevalence of private educational institutions. But the protests reflected a deep discontent over high levels of inequality as well.
Chile has long enjoyed the most prosperous and stable economy of Latin America. Both right and left-wing governments since the fall of Pinochet have maintained sound, centrist, and prudent economic measures that encourage business and foreign investment. Chile is often cited as the economic model for Latin America.
Chilean agriculture and fisheries are large and well-managed. Due to the southern hemisphere’s opposite growing seasons, Chile exports a great deal of its produce to the northern hemisphere during the Chilean summer (December to February). Fruits, grains, beef, and wool, are among Chile’s top exports. Chile also has the world’s second highest production of salmon.
Similarly, Chile is the world’s fifth largest exporter of wine, with over seventy wineries, and that number is rapidly growing. Chile’s Mediterranean climate makes it, along with neighboring Argentina, an ideal area for vineyards, and Chilean wines are highly regarded world-wide. Paper and forestry products, mainly produced in the south, are also an important sector of the company.
Yet, in Chile, copper is king. In fact, copper is so powerful that the exchange rate of the Chilean peso generally moves in tandem with copper prices on the world market. Chile currently produces over a third of the world’s copper, and mining accounts for nearly half of Chile’s exports.
Chile pursues an aggressive policy of trade liberalization with its neighbors, and has negotiated free trade agreements throughout North America, the European Union, and Asia.
Chile is known as a land of poets, and Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda offer no better examples. Neruda also dabbled in politics, as well. The 1960s saw the birth of folk rock music and the Nueva Cancion Chilena (New Chilean Song) movements. Many artists went into exile during the repressive Pinochet years. Some of the most popular Chilean artists include Los Jaivas (The Crabs), Los Prisioneros (The Prisoners), and folk singer Victor Jarra who was murdered by the military during the beginning of Pinochet’s reign at the National Stadium, which now bears his name.
Chile, which is largely composed of Spanish and Italian immigrants, feels very different from its neighbors to the north. Although technically an Andean country, it bears much more resemblances to its cono sur neighbors Argentina and Uruguay. Chileans may be more reserved than their Colombian or Venezuelan counterparts, but get to know the Chilean people and you will fall in love.