views updated


POPULATION: 16.5 million
LANGUAGE: Spanish, Mapudungun
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism; Protestantism; and indigenous religions


Several Amerindian cultures such as the Atacameño and the Diaguita in the north, and the Mapuche further south thrived in Chile prior to the arrival in the 15th century of Inca invaders from Peru. The Incas extended their empire for a short time as far as Santiago, which is now Chile's capital city.

In 1520 the Portuguese explorer Fernando de Magallanes (or Ferdinand Magellan) sailed through the straits at the southern tip of Chile. In 1536, the Spaniard Diego de Almagro crossed into Chile from Peru, but it was Pedro de Valdivia who established the first Spanish settlement at Santiago in 1541. Spanish colonial rule lasted until the beginning of the 19th century, when conflicts with Spain led the Chilean military leader, Bernardo O'Higgins, to join forces with José de San Martín from Argentina to liberate the Chileans from Spanish rule. O'Higgins became the first ruler of the independent republic of Chile in 1818, and in further struggles this joint Andean army also fought the Spanish royalists as far as Peru.

Chile developed two main political parties, the Conservatives and the Liberals, and Chile's economy developed as a result of trade that flourished with European powers such as England in the 19th century and the United States in the 20th century. First, there was a nitrate boom in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Copper and silver mining became important sources of income, and farming developed. Initially wheat was an important crop, but gradually a variety of fruits and vegetables gained in importance as they found markets locally and abroad.

In the 20th century Chile experienced dramatic changes of government, including the socialist rule of Salvador Allende (1970–1973), who was the first Marxist Socialist president in the world to be freely elected in 1970. The socialist project of the Popular Unity (UP) ended on 11 September 1973 when the armed forces, with support from the parties of the Right and the Center, attacked the government palace, La Moneda. Immediately after General Augusto Pinochet took power, a group of Chilean economists, who had been trained at the University of Chicago on scholarships, implemented for the first time a package of radical neoliberal reforms. In order to maintain stability, the public sphere was reduced through censorship and repression, social movements were crushed, and people had to endure in silence the hardships caused by economic policies aimed to deregulate and fragment the labor market and to reduce state intervention in the economy. The resulting increase in poverty, from 17% to 38.6% of the total population, and inequality changed the social landscape and exacerbated class divisions.

Even though Pinochet's rule lasted 17 years, his regime ended without bloodshed when Patricio Aylwin, leader of a Center-Left coalition, Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia, was elected president in 1989. The peaceful transition of leadership was built upon negotiations between the elites and the military and was framed by guidelines introduced in the 1980 Constitution that were aimed to maintain political and economic stability. The Concertación committed to continue the economic model and to respect the self-granted amnesty of the military. Despite the constitutional restraints, economic growth averaged 6.3% a year, and targeted social spending to the poorest sector helped Aylwin's government achieve a 10 point reduction in poverty by the end of his administration in 1994. For the second presidential elections since the return to democratic rule, the economy was growing at a steady rate of 6% and inflation had been cut in half. Chile was in the middle of the so-called "golden decade of growth" and Eduardo Frei, the Concertación's candidate, was rewarded with 57.98% of the national vote.

In July 1997 the Asian financial markets fell and the world experienced the effects of the so-called Asian Crisis. Chile, one of the most open countries to the world market, was strongly hit by the debacle. After 13 years of constant economic growth, Chile's economy began to slow down. For the 1999 presidential elections the support for the incumbent coalition declined and during the 1999 presidential election the Concertación's candidate Ricardo Lagos, a former minister of education and public development, almost lost the election. Nevertheless, Lagos was successful in signing free-trade agreements with the United States and the European Union (EU) and in putting an end to the authoritarian elements still present in the Constitution. By the end of his presidency, Lagos enjoyed a 60% approval rating.

In addition to the popularity of her predecessor, Michelle Bachelet, the fourth president of the Concertación and the first woman to be elected to the highest office, won in 2006 thanks to the support of women. She managed to break the tendency of women to vote for the conservative Right and increased her female vote by almost 5 points over Lagos. As a newcomer to politics, Bachelet represented a new style of participatory democracy. In addition, her biography turned her into a symbol of reconciliation. Her father, a high-ranking army general, died after being tortured by Pinochet's supporters. She and her mother were also tortured and then sent to exile. However, she embraced the idea of reconciliation and focused on renewing the people's trust in the armed forces.


Chile's Pacific coastline is over 4,000 km (2,485 mi) long. The Andes Mountains run the full length of this immensely long, narrow country, which borders Argentina to the east and Peru and Bolivia to the north. Chile has a varied climate, from the northern Atacama desert, through snow-clad Andean peaks, to farmlands where grapes provide excellent Chilean wine and other fruits, such as apples and cherries are grown for export, to grain and cattle country, as well as fishing zones further south where snow-covered volcanoes and lakes abound. Despite the natural beauty, about 6.5 million people 40% of the total population live in the capital, Santiago.

Chile is a relatively homogeneous country regarding race and ethnicity. About 70% of the population is Mestizo (European and Amerindian descent), one fifth is of European descent (mainly Spanish, but also German, Italian, and British), and around 10% are indigenous. The Mapuche in the Araucanía region are the more numerous with almost a million people, followed by the Aymara in the north and the Rapanui in Eastern Island.


The official language of Chile is Spanish. However, there are several indigenous languages such as Aymara, Mapudungun, and Rapanui, which are spoken in indigenous communities in the north, south and Eastern Island, respectively. In addition, English as a second language is currently being taught in public school throughout the country, as well as in almost all private schools.


One of the important folk heroes of Chile is a Mapuche Indian named Lautaro, who learned Spanish and was at the service of the Spanish conqueror Pedro de Valdivia. He was chosen by his people to lead the resistance against the Spanish. Having learned the Spanish ways and arts of war, he proved a formidable opponent, teaching his people to ride horses and developing effective war tactics that gave Mapuches an advantage in known terrain. Lautaro was already at the gates of Santiago, the capital, when he was killed, and the Mapuches retreated southward where they continued to fight the Spanish. Still, many of them continue to resist assimilation.

Another folk hero is Captain Arturo Prat who represents honor and determination during troubled times. Even though his brave resistance aboard the battleship Esmeralda during the War of the Pacific in 1879 did not result in victory, the Batalla de Iquique, in which he died, is commemorated every May 21 with a national holiday.

Many myths and legends survive in Chilean folklore. One of the most common comes from the islands of Chiloé in southern Chile. It is the tale of a large phantom ship, the Caleuche, which sales the seas around Chiloé at night. It appears as a beautiful sailing ship with the sounds of a party onboard that is crewed by the drowned.


Even though around 70% of the population identifies itself as Roman Catholic, only 16% are churchgoers. Around 18% are Evangelical, 8% are atheists or agnostics, and some Mapuche Indians continue to practice their own religion. Their beliefs include worship of the creator Ngenechen and the destroyer Wakufu.

Among the religious festivals is the feast of San Sebastian in Yumbel, near the city of Chillán; the Fiesta de Cuasimodo during Easter in the outskirts of Santiago; and the religious festival of La Tirana near the northern city of Iquique, which includes dances representing good and evil forces in the form of maidens and devils. The latter developed out of a mixture of Catholic and Amerindian beliefs.


Aside from the main Catholic holidays, Chileans celebrate Labor Day on May 1, Naval Glories Day on May 21, Independence Day on September 18, Army Glories Day on September 19, and Race Day on October 12, which commemorates the discovery of America by the Spaniards in 1492.


Many Chilean Catholics consider baptism and First Communion important for the identity of a child. Civil marriage is often accompanied by a church ceremony, which is considered more significant. In some very religious families, when a person dies, nine days of prayers according to Catholic custom are held in the home and attended by the person's family and close friends.

According to popular beliefs still adhered to in the countryside by some campesinos or peasants, and among city dwellers known as pobladores in poorer neighborhoods, the spirits of people who have died violently will continue to linger in the area where they died, and the living can appeal to them in their prayers, asking them to intercede on their behalf. Little shrines with flowers and candles, known as animitas (which means "little spirits") are often set up in the vicinity and sometimes become places of prayer and pilgrimage.


Chileans have a relaxed attitude towards time and, on social occasions in particular, people are not expected to arrive on time, but rather to be up to an hour late. This approach is often misunderstood in cultures where the attitude is that "time is money." In Chile, this is occasionally true in some business or professional sectors where the sense of hurry and the virtues of efficiency have been adopted from other cultures, such as European or North American. But in general, this flexibility also has its virtues, enabling people to enjoy themselves with a carefree attitude and to accept the unexpected with greater ease.

One of the best types of gatherings is the typical Chilean asado or barbecue, which involves large quantities of meat in large cuts, grilled on open charcoal fires in private yards and gardens or in parks or other public places during festivals. This is an occasion for family and friends to gather.

Formal greetings and introductions involve handshakes, but among friends, both women and men, the usual greeting is a kiss on the cheek.


About 40% of Chile's population is considered middle class. The majority of Chileans go to semi-private or public schools and live in the new suburban neighborhoods in the capital, Santiago, such as La Florida and Maipú. The richest 20% of the population live in elegant houses in neighborhoods such as Providencia, La Dehesa, or Vitacura Santiago and go to private schools. This elite group continues to deploy strong economic, social, and political influence, and quite often a family in these conditions will have a summer home in the coastal resort area. It is also a landowning class, and many families of this type will also own a ranch.

In 2007, 13.7% of the population was living under the poverty line. Half of them, the pobladores, live in crowded shanty-towns, particularly in Santiago, where housing is often a type of squatter's home made from every and any material at hand, such as zinc, bits of wood and brick, or any other available building material. Unlike their middle-class counterparts, the pobladores do not own cars, but rather use public transportation. In more remote areas, where there are fewer roads, particularly in the south, boats are important means of transport. In the countryside, particularly in rural areas such as the Andes Mountains, pack animals and horses are used as transport for local people.


Until recently, most Chileans had large families, although modern urban lifestyles, particularly among the middle classes, have included a change in family size, with modern families tending to have only two children. Even though many poor working women have to leave their children to go to work and middle-class professional women employ servants to help them look after their own families, women everywhere in Chile are considered pillars of family life and are expected to fulfill their maternal roles. This often means that women take up a larger share of chores as well as family duties in addition to work outside the home, since men are not as willing to share household responsibilities as in some European or North American environments. This is particularly true in poorer households, where women have little extra help and often rely on older children to look after the youngsters.


Modern, middle-class city dwellers dress in Western-style clothes. Men wear suits, and women in offices are expected to dress quite formally, with suits or dresses, although trousers are also accepted. Good grooming is expected of women, including regular hairstyling and makeup. Given Chile's large middle class and lively cultural life, exceptions to this rule are found, for example, among those involved in the arts.

In the countryside, Chile's huasos or cowboys wear the poncho, a type of cloak, often with colorful stripes worn for festivities. Regular ponchos worn at other times are usually earth colors. They also wear chupallas, broad-brimmed straw hats in summer and felt hats in winter, and boots with finely crafted spurs.


A typical Chilean dish is pastel de choclo (baked corn paste). A much-loved soup, a hearty meal in itself, is porotos granados or white bean soup, which also includes pumpkin, peppers, and sweet corn. A delicious and popular snack is a type of turnover made of wheat flour, called empanada. Many Latin Americans have interesting variants of fillings for the empanada. In Chile the most typical empanada is oven baked, and it is called empanada de pino, which means it is filled with minced meat, onions, a slice of hard-boiled egg, and an olive. Other empanadas are fried and filled with cheese. During popular street festivals, empanadas are often accompanied by fermented fruit juices, such as a thirst-quenching type of apple cider called chicha de manzana.

Avocados, called palta in Chile, are used in salads or mashed up as a topping for bread (usually eaten for the afternoon snack called onces) or as an accompaniment to grilled meat. Native stews called cazuelas are made from beef, chicken, or fish, and include potatoes, pumpkins, corn, and green beans.

The range of climates produces an interesting selection of food in Chile, and in the south along the coast excellent varieties of shellfish are often eaten raw with lemon juice or prepared on open charcoal grills. In the more remote islands of Chiloé in southern Chile, stones are heated and placed in a hole to form a type of oven called a curanto where fish, beef, pork, and vegetables (mostly potatoes) are wrapped in vegetable leaves and covered with soil, then steamed for hours for special occasions, such as communal house-building. Ththe community helps build a new house and the owners "pay" back the favor with a curanto.


Primary schooling has been free in Chile since 1860, and literacy rates have been improving steadily since then, with a current estimated 95.7% literacy rate. On 7 May 2003 President Ricardo Lagos issued a law making high-school education mandatory, giving the state responsibility for educating all Chileans younger than 18 years of age. Also, there is a new law being discussed that guarantees full coverage of care and education to children from ages 2 to 5.

Regarding higher education, students can choose between 25 public or private universities. Universidad de Chile was founded in 1843, and since then increasing numbers of Chileans have attended university, forming a rapidly growing middle class. The Catholic Church has also played an important role in developing education with its Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, founded in 1888. For admission to public universities, students must do a University Selection Test or PSU, which consists of two mandatory tests on math and literature, plus other specific exams depending on what the student wishes to study. According to official statistics, in 2006 a total of 241,390 students took the PSU. The majority of the schools offer licenciaturas, which are equivalent to bachelor's degree, but in a specific area such as architecture, journalism, and physics.


Chileans have a rich cultural heritage and a love for the arts, and they enjoy numerous literary, theatrical, and musical activities. The national dance of Chile is the cueca, which involves rapid, emphatic steps, reminiscent of the Spanish zapateado (flamenco) in which the feet tap the beat on the floor.

An important political and artistic protest movement arose during the 1960s, acquiring a special force and meaning later during the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s. Its most famous figure was Violeta Parra, whose passionate voice embodied the yearning of an entire people, and whose style blended folk, classical, and modern influences. Her children Isabel and Angel continued this creative movement, which became known as the New Song Movement (La Nueva Canción Chilena). Other groups such as Inti Illimani or Quilapayún also blended folk traditions and instruments from other Latin American countries. While in exile, their members toured the world, sharing their music with young people everywhere.

Chile has a strong literary tradition and has the distinction of having produced two Nobel Prize winners, the poets Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda. Their powerful poetry goes beyond the individual to sing about the condition of human-kind. These poets not only conveyed an intensely personal and intimate voice in their work, but also genuine social concerns. An interesting and very modern playwright who also gave expression to the suffering in his country caused by the Pinochet dictatorship is Ariel Dorfman. The work of modern novelists such as José Donoso, Jorge Edwards, Antonio Skármeta, Isabel Allende, and Roberto Bolaño have been translated into various languages including English.


Chile has undergone a modern economic experiment that began during the 1980s and that has resulted in many benefits for some sectors of the economy. Growing crops for export, especially fruit and excellent wines, has been one success story. Copper mining continues to be very important. However, working conditions vary sharply according to social class, and economic improvements have not reached marginalized poor people, particularly pobladores of the shantytowns, who often work in the informal market. This situation is repeated throughout Latin America, where many people cannot find secure employment and poor people's needs are ignored.


The most popular sport is soccer, which is played and followed enthusiastically by many Chileans, who mostly support one of the three national teams, Universidad de Chile, Universidad Católica, and Colo Colo.

Rodeos are also popular in Chile. The Chilean huasos or cowboys compete in medialunas (corrals in the shape of a half moon), parts of which are heavily padded. The steers have to be driven against this padded section by two mounted huasos; one drives the steer from behind and the other has to press the steer against the padded wall and bring the steer to a full stop. The technique is difficult and involves unusual movements that demand great agility. Chilean horses, called corraleros, are short and stocky and well suited for the rodeo. It is not a violent sport and is popular only in the central valley and in the south of Chile.

Chile has fine beaches, and many people enjoy swimming in beach towns such as Valparaíso and Viña del Mar. Boating and fishing in Chile's beautiful lakes are also popular, and there are several ski resorts near Santiago and in the south (Chillán has the longest ski run in South America), among which is the well-known resort of Portillo, visited by both Chileans and Argentines.


Chilean town-dwellers enjoy movies, and there is a lively theatrical tradition in Chile. Santiago's Municipal Theater is a well-known venue, but there are many smaller venues for artists, playwrights and poets, actors, and singers to get together. Chileans are distinctive because they enjoy themselves not only as spectators but also as enthusiastic participants in a variety of activities that blend art and popular culture with recreation. In Santiago's main square, the Plaza de Armas, there is open-air evening entertainment with musicians, dancers, and comedians attracting people who are out for a stroll or a leisurely drink or snack. Young people often meet in the evening in cafés or bars and enjoy dancing. People also enjoy shopping, and some neighborhoods have elegant shopping districts and malls.

Chileans enjoy snacking and eating out, and one of the popular venues is the large Mercado Central, a lovely market that includes many small snack bars and informal eateries offering varieties of seafood.

Chileans also enjoy trips. Even though trips to the seaside to places such as Valparaíso and Viña del Mar are very popular, people also enjoy excursions to the rich farmlands of the central valley, to the lake district, and to the southern Andes, enjoying fishing, hiking, boating, white-water rafting, visiting farms, ski resorts, or thermal baths. Chile has over a hundred volcanoes and many beautiful national parks, some of which, in the north, have geysers, and in the south, glaciers.


In Chile, taking part in some kind of artistic activity is not left simply to professionals, because Chileans have a tradition of expressing themselves through a variety of artistic media where historical, social, and political concerns blend with purely artistic ones. Many people combine a career or various types of work with an artistic hobby, which can include playing musical instruments, singing, painting, writing poetry, dancing, or acting. There are many musical groups or peñas in towns across Chile, playing a variety of music ranging from folk to salsa music from other Latin American countries as well as modern, Western-style pop music.

Weaving, basket making, pottery, woodcarving, and jewelry making are crafts practiced in Amerindian communities such as the Aymara in the north, close to the Bolivian border, or the Mapuches in the south. Leatherworking began as a craft and has continued in a more modern, industrial setting. The town of Pomaire is famous for its pottery. It includes many potters who often make miniature figures that derive from storytelling or religious traditions, and the beautiful clay pailas or pots of varying sizes and shapes find their way into many Chilean gardens and kitchens.

A unique feature of Santiago is the large cluster of arts and crafts shops called Los Graneros del Alba (in the back of the church of Los Dominicos) where visitors can watch artisans in the process of making their wares. In a uniquely Chilean way, this is combined on weekends with music and dancing.


Chile's social problems relate directly to the poverty-stricken conditions not only of the surviving Amerindian groups, but also of city dwellers or pobladores who do not have enough work or can only find temporary work. Official poverty figures for 2007 show that nearly 14% of the population lives below the poverty line, however, experts argue that there are more people living in poor conditions because of high unemployment and informal jobs. Currently, 36% of the active population works in the informal economy, thus without rights to social security or protection from the state as workers.

In addition to poverty, extreme socio-economic inequality is a problem that has marked the country since the 1973 Coup. Despite poverty reduction since the return to democracy (from almost 40% of the population in 1990 to 14% in 2007), the participation of lower- and middle-income workers in the economy declined and income inequalities have worsened. While in 1990 the average income of the richest decile (10% of the population) was 27.5 times greater than the poorest decile, six years later this proportion had grown to 29 to 1, and has remained virtually unchanged since then. The wealthy landowners and industrialists possess not only most of the economic wealth but also the greater share of political power and social influence. The growth of a significant and well-educated middle class does not of itself solve the problem of underemployed and undereducated poor people, although it is an important indicator of development.


From the beginning of the 20th century to the 1970s, the access of women to formal education increased significantly regarding the amount and diversity of the instruction received. In the early 1930s, men and women had achieved equal access and rates of attendance to elementary school. However, women had to wait two more decades for this same degree of equality to reach higher education. Even though women had been allowed to attend university since 1877, mass admittance to any type of higher education became regularized only in the mid-1960s. Despite access to education, women's inclusion in the job market proceeded at a slower pace. In the 1920s, women constituted only 15% of the formal working force. Fifty years later, this proportion had only risen to nearly 20%.

During the 1970s and 1980s, there was a Latin American feminist line of thought that claimed the "personal is political." With this slogan in mind, women living in poor neighborhoods of Santiago took domestic activities such as cooking, eating, sewing, washing clothes, and looking after children to the public sphere, and organized clubs and cooperatives with the help of the Catholic Church. In 1982 the debt crisis resulted in high unemployment levels and the plummeting of salaries. Unemployment rates rose to almost one third of the active labor force, while wages declined by 20% during the 1980s. This scenario led to more women entering the labor force as part-time and temporary laborers mainly in the fishery, forestry, and agricultural industries and substantially augmented the number of homes with two employed adults. Female workers increased from 19.6% of the formal working force in 1970 to 32.4% in 1987, and constituted nearly 40% of temporary wage-workers in certain productive areas as the fruit industry.

Even though one in three people that worked were women, there was still strong discrimination against female workers regarding the quality of jobs they could aspire to and the amount of money they could expect to be paid. Women had difficulty gaining access to managerial positions and were paid less than men in the same jobs. The average salary paid to women holding a bachelor's degree was only 50% of the wages of men who had some university studies. This explains why more than half a million families headed by women had severe economic difficulties during this period.

During the first democratic government, women obtained only a 5% average representation in the legislature. Something similar happened in the executive branch where Patricio Aylwin appointed only one woman as minister, three as under-secretaries, and four as governors of the regional administrations, which meant that women's representation in non-elected public posts was only 8.5%. In the general elections of 1993, women's representation in Congress remained extremely low at a meager 7%. While women were largely excluded from legislative power, their incorporation into the state apparatus almost doubled during the same period. The new Christian Democratic president, Eduardo Frei, increased women's presence in the executive branch by appointing three female ministers and four under-secretaries to his cabinet. Consequently, women's presence in non-elected public posts reached 16.8%.

After 10 years of democratic rule, the presence of women in non-electoral public posts increased by six points when Ricardo Lagos appointed five women as ministers of his cabinet. One of them was Michelle Bachelet who, after serving as the minister of health for two years, became the first female minister of defense in Chile and Latin America. Also, during Lagos' administration women achieved one long-denied right: divorce. Because of the strong influence of conservative values on the two dominant coalitions, approval of a divorce law was blocked for 14 years. Finally, President Lagos promulgated the new law in mid-2004.

Following a run-off in January 2006, Michelle Bachelet was elected as Chile's first female president and Latin America's first woman obtaining the highest office due to her own popularity—with 53.3% of the national vote. Her election marked a turning point in the evolution of Chile's political system, not only because a woman president meant a break from a predominantly male-dominated public sphere, but also because she represented a more radical leftist project inside Concert-ación, a rejection of politics as usual, and the demand for popular political participation in the country. She expanded healthcare coverage and reformed the pension system, policies that have improved women's daily lives.


Galeano, Eduardo. Memorias del fuego: III. El siglo del viento. Madrid: Siglo Veintiuno de España Editores S. A., 1993.

Hagopian, Frances and Scott P. Mainwaring. The Third Wave of Democratization in Latin America. Advances and Setbacks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Oppenheim, Lois Hecht. Politics in Chile: Democracy, Authoritarianism, and the Search for Development. 2nd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999.

Perrotet, Tony, ed. Insight Guides: Chile. Hong Kong: APA Publications Ltd, 1995.

Taylor, Lucy. Citizenship, Participation and Democracy: Changing Dynamics in Chile and Argentina. New York: St. Martin's Press. 1998.

Winn, Peter, ed. Victims of the Chilean Miracle. Workers and Neoliberalism in the Pinochet era, 1973–2002. Durham: Duke University Press. 2004.

—revised by C. Vergara

More From