Early History

Little is known of Chile's history before the arrival of the Spaniards. Archaeologists have reconstructed what they can of Chile's indigenous history from artifacts found at burial sites, in ancient villages, and in forts. Because of this, much more is known about the northern cultures of Chile than their southern counterparts: The north's extraordinarily arid climate has preserved, and preserved well, objects as fragile as 2,000-year-old mummies. Northern tribes, such as the Atacama, developed a culture that included the production of ceramic pottery, textiles, and objects made of gold and silver, but for the most part, early indigenous cultures in Chile were small, scattered tribes that fished and cultivated simple crops. The primitive, nomadic tribes of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego never developed beyond a society of hunters and gatherers because severe weather and terrain prevented them from ever developing an agricultural system.

In the middle of the 15th century, the great Inca civilization pushed south in a tremendous period of expansion. Although the Incas were able to subjugate tribes in the north, they never made it past the fierce Mapuche Indians in southern Chile.

The Spanish Invade

In 1535, and several years after Spaniards Diego de Almagro and Francisco Pizarro had successfully conquered the Inca Empire in Peru, the conquistadors turned their attention south after hearing tales of riches that lay in what is today Chile. Already flushed with wealth garnered from Incan gold and silver, an inspired Diego de Almagro and more than 400 men set off on what would become a disastrous journey that left many dead from exposure and famine. De Almagro found nothing of the fabled riches, and he retreated to Peru.

Three years later, a distinguished officer of Pizarro's army, Spanish-born Pedro de Valdivia, secured permission to settle the land south of Peru in the name of the Spanish crown. Valdivia left with just 10 soldiers and little ammunition, but his band grew to 150 by the time he reached the Aconcagua Valley, where he founded Santiago de la Nueva Extremadura on February 12, 1541. Fire, Indian attacks, and famine beset the colonists, but the town nonetheless held firm. Valdivia succeeded in founding several other outposts, including Concepción, La Serena, and Valdivia, but like the Incas before him, he was unable to overcome the Mapuche Indians south of the Río Biobío. In a violent Mapuche rebellion, Valdivia was captured and suffered a gruesome death, sending frightened colonists north. The Mapuche tribe effectively defended its territory for the next 300 years.

Early Chile was a colonial backwater of no substantive interest to Spain, although Spain did see to the development of a feudal land-owning system called an encomienda. Prominent Spaniards were issued a large tract of land and an encomienda, or a group of Indian slaves that the landowner was charged with caring for and converting to Christianity. Thus rose Chile's traditional and nearly self-supporting hacienda, known as a latifundo, as well as a rigid class system that defined the population. At the top were the peninsulares (those born in Spain), followed by the criollos (Creoles, or Spaniards born in the New World). Next down on the ladder were mestizos (a mix of Spanish and Indian blood), followed by Indians themselves. As the indigenous population succumbed to disease, the latifundo system replaced slaves with rootless mestizos who were willing, or forced, to work for a miserable wage. This form of land ownership would define Chile for centuries to come, and traces of this antiquated system hold firm even in modern Chilean businesses today.

Chile Gains Independence

Chile tasted independence for the first time during Napoleon's invasion of Spain in 1808 and the subsequent sacking of King Ferdinand VII, whom Napoleon replaced with his own brother. On September 18, 1810, leaders in Santiago agreed that the country would be self-governed until the king was reinstated as the rightful ruler of Spain. Although the self-rule was intended as a temporary measure, this date is now celebrated as Chile's independence day.

Semi-independence did not satisfy many criollos, and soon thereafter Jose Miguel Carrera, the power-hungry son of a wealthy criollo family, appointed himself leader and stated that the government would not answer to Spain or the viceroy of Peru. But Carrera was an ineffective and controversial leader, and it was soon determined that one of his generals, Bernardo O'Higgins, would prove more adept at shaping Chile's future. Loyalist troops from Peru took advantage of the struggle between the two and crushed the fragile independence movement, sending Carrera, O'Higgins, and their troops fleeing to Argentina. This became known as the Spanish "reconquest." Across the border in Mendoza, O'Higgins met José de San Martín, an Argentine general who had already been plotting the liberation of South America. San Martín sought to liberate Chile first and then launch a sea attack on the viceroyalty seat in Peru from Chile's shore. In 1817, O'Higgins and San Martín crossed the Andes with their well-prepared troops and quickly defeated Spanish forces in Chacabuco, securing the capital. In April 1818, San Martín's army triumphed in the bloody battle of Maipú, and full independence from Spain was won. An assembly of prominent leaders elected O'Higgins as Supreme Director of Chile, but discontent within his ranks and with landowners forced him to quit office and spend his remaining years in exile in Peru.

The War of the Pacific

The robust growth of the nation during the mid- to late 1800s saw the development of railways and roads that connected previously remote regions with Santiago. The government began promoting European immigration to populate these regions, and it was primarily Germans who accepted, settling and clearing farms around the Lake District.

Growing international trade boosted Chile's economy, but it was the country's northern mines, specifically nitrate mines, that held the greatest economic promise. Border disputes with Bolivia in this profitable region ensued until a treaty was signed giving Antofagasta to Bolivia in exchange for low taxes on Chilean mines. Bolivia did an about-face and hiked taxes, sparking the War of the Pacific that pitted allies Peru and Bolivia against Chile in the fight for the nitrate fields. The odds were against Chile, but the country's well-trained troops were a force to reckon with. The war's turning point came with the capture of Peru's major warship, the Huáscar. Chilean troops invaded Peru and pushed on until they had captured the capital, Lima. With Chile as the final victor, both countries signed treaties that conceded Peru's Tarapacá region and Antofagasta to Chile that, incredibly, increased Chile's size by one-third with nitrate- and silver-rich land, and cut Bolivia off from the coast. More than a century later, Bolivia and Peru are still rallying against the Chilean government for wider access to the coastal waters off northern Chile.

The Military Dictatorship

No political event defines current-day Chile better than the country's former military dictatorship. In 1970, Dr. Salvador Allende, Chile's first socialist president, was narrowly voted into office. Allende vowed to improve the lives of Chile's poorer citizens by instituting a series of radical changes that might redistribute the nation's lopsided wealth. Although the first year showed promising signs, Allende's reforms ultimately sent the country spiraling into economic ruin. Large estates were seized by the government and by independent, organized groups of peasants to be divided among rural workers, many of them uneducated and unprepared. Major industries were nationalized, but productivity lagged, and the falling price of copper reduced the government's fiscal intake. With spending outpacing income, the country's deficit soared. Worst of all, uncontrollable inflation and price controls led to shortages, and Chileans were forced to wait in long lines to buy basic goods.

Meanwhile, the United States (led by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger) was closely monitoring the situation in Chile. With anti-Communist sentiment running high in the U.S. government, the CIA allocated $8 million (£5.3 million) to undermine the Allende government by funding right-wing opposition and supporting a governmental takeover.

On September 11, 1973, military forces led by General Augusto Pinochet toppled Allende's government with a dramatic coup d'état. Military tanks rolled through the streets and jets dropped bombs on the presidential palace. Inside, Allende refused to surrender and accept an offer to be exiled. After delivering an emotional radio speech, Allende took his own life.

Wealthy Chileans who had lost much under Allende celebrated the coup as an economic and political salvation. But nobody was prepared for the brutal repression that would haunt Chile for the next 17 years. Pinochet shut down congress, banned political parties, and censored the news media, imposed a strict curfew, and inexperienced military officers took over previously nationalized industries and universities. Pinochet snuffed out his adversaries by rounding up and killing more than 3,000 citizens and torturing 28,000 political activists, journalists, professors, and any other "subversives." Thousands more fled the country.

Pinochet set out to rebuild the economy using Milton Freeman-inspired free-market policies that included selling off nationalized industries, curtailing government spending, reducing import tariffs, and eliminating price controls. From 1976 to 1981, the economy grew at such a pace that it was hailed as the "Chilean Miracle," but the miracle did nothing to address the country's high unemployment rate, worsening social conditions, and falling wages. More importantly, Chileans were unable to speak out against the government and those who did often "disappeared," taken from their homes by Pinochet's secret police never to be heard from again. Culture was filtered, and artists, writers, and musicians were censored.

The End of the Military Dictatorship

The worldwide recession of 1982 put an end to Chile's economic run, but the economy bounced back again in the late 1980s. The Catholic Church began voicing opposition to Pinochet's brutal human-rights abuses, and a strong desire for a return to democracy saw the beginning of nationwide protests and international pressure, especially from the United States. In a pivotal 1988 "yes or no" plebiscite, 55% of Chileans voted no to further rule by Pinochet, electing centrist Christian Democrat Patricio Alywin president of Chile, but not before Pinochet promulgated a constitution that allowed him and a right-wing minority to continue to exert influence over the democratically elected government. It also shielded Pinochet and the military from any future prosecution.

It is difficult for most foreigners to fathom the unwavering blind support Pinochet's followers bestowed upon him in spite of the increasing revelation of grotesque human rights abuses during his rule. Supporters justified their views with Chile's thriving economy as testament to the "necessity" of authoritarian rule and the killings of the left-wing opponents. Following Alywin's election, Pinochet led a cushy life protected by security guards and filled with speaking engagements and other social events. What Pinochet hadn't counted on, however, was the dogged pursuit by international jurists to bring him to trial, and when in London in 1998 to undergo surgery, a Spanish judge leveled murder and torture charges against the former dictator and issued a request for his extradition.

Sixteen months of legal wrangling ended with Pinochet's release and return to Chile, but the ball was set in motion and soon thereafter Chile's Supreme Court stripped Pinochet and his military officers from immunity in order to face prosecution. Pinochet began pointing fingers, and old age and dementia shielded him from prosecution -- but not from public humiliation. In 2004, it emerged that Pinochet had stashed $28 million (£19 million) in secret accounts worldwide, quashing his support by even his closest allies given that Pinochet advocated austerity and rallied against corruption as proof of his "just" war. Endless international news reports and the publication of torture victims' accounts furthered the humiliation that many believe caused Pinochet more harm than any trial ever could.

The election of Chile's first female president, Michele Bachelet, in 2006 grabbed headlines around the world and proved how far Chile had come since the brutal repression of Pinochet. Bachelet, a Socialist who was tortured and exiled during Pinochet's rule, is also a divorcee who worked her way up the political ranks, including a post as the Minister of Defense. Shortly after Bachelet's election, Pinochet died at age 91.

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