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     Relative stability
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Relative stability: 1831-1952

To match its military prestige, Chile has a political stability which puts most other Latin American republics to shame. The constitution of 1833 makes a mockery of democracy (property qualifications restrict the electorate to about 10% of the population) but it is well adapted to accomodate differences of opinion within the small ruling class. Thus an unbroken period of conservative rule, to 1861, gives way without violence to a series of liberal governments lasting until 1891.

With the wealth deriving from the international demand for Chile's nitrates and copper (much increased with the annexation of new territory in 1883-4), the nation is both calm and prosperous.


This situation breaks down in 1891 when the liberal president, José Manuel Balmaceda, falls so far out of sympathy with congress that disagreement degenerates into civil war. The navy, siding with congress, seizes the nitrate ports, the possession of which proves a decisive factor - but only after eight months of war and the loss of thousands of lives.

The victory of congress leads to a period of parliamentary rather than presidential rule. It proves less efficient, with a bewildering succession of cabinets entering and leaving office, but it does lead to greater democracy. Left-wing parties emerge, eager to wrest power from the long-established Chilean oligarchy.


The new direction is enshrined in the constitution of 1925, providing for the election of the president on the basis of universal suffrage. The new constitution also achieves, at last, the separation of church and state. And it introduces various measures of state welfare, such as compulsory primary education.

The world depression of 1929 drastically affects Chile's mineral exports, bringing great economic hardship and (in 1931-2) a renewal of civil war. But stability returns in the late 1930s under the Radical party, supported by a coalition of groups from the centre and left of the political spectrum. Three successive Radical presidents are elected in an unbroken spell from 1938 to 1952.


Allende: 1952-1973

Salvador Allende, a pivotal figure in Chilean history of the late 20th century, is a founder member of Chile's Socialist party in 1933 and is in the chamber of deputies from 1937. He first contests a presidential election in 1952 (coming on that occasion last out of four). He comes a close second to the conservative candidate in the election of 1958.

By the election of 1964 it is certain that a centre-left or far-left candidate will win. The only serious contenders are Eduardo Frei, a Christian Democrat, and the Marxist Allende. By a wide margin the electorate chooses Frei, who promises a more cautious programme of reform than Allende's.


However Frei's policy of partial nationalization of the mining companies and tentative agrarian reform fails to stem rising inflation and unemployment. By 1970 the country is ready for a more radical approach. Allende, representing a coalition of his own Socialist party together with Communists, Radicals and a few other minor groups, is elected president by a narrow margin.

In power he puts into effect the radical left-wing programme which he has promised. Mining companies owned in the USA are nationalized without compensation. Large agricultural estates are expropriated, to be transformed into peasant communes. Wages are increased. Prices are frozen. Money is printed and the inflation level rises. Strikes proliferate.


These events do not endear Allende to the international banking community. More specifically they prompt a very hostile response from the US government. Economic aid to Chile is ended, and the CIA funds an active but secret programme in support of the Chilean opposition - linked to which are senior officers in the army.

In an effort to keep the military on his side, Allende appoints generals to his cabinet. One of them is Augusto Pinochet, whom Allende makes commander-in-chief of the army in August 1973. Just eighteen days later, on September 11, Pinochet leads the violent coup during which Allende is murdered (or, his opponents say, commits suicide) in the presidential palace.


Pinochet: 1973-1989

Pinochet and his junta bring in a regime of terror, arguing that a 'national security state' is necessary to combat the threat of communism. Abduction and torture become the everyday tools of government. Within the first three years about 130,000 people suspected of leftist sympathies are arrested. Many are never seen again.

Pinochet is able to revive the economy, reducing inflation and encouraging a renewal of foreign investment, but his violation of human rights prompts widespread international condemnation. It also becomes clear that he does not see military rule as a temporary measure to ease the return of democracy.


In 1974 he takes sole power (it has previously been assumed that leadership will rotate within the junta). In 1980 he puts before the public a new constitution, which wins 75% approval in a referendum. It gives Pinochet another eight-year term as president. At the end of this time, in October 1988, a single presidential candidate chosen by the junta is to be offered for the people's approval in a referendum.

The candidate, to no-one's surprise, is Pinochet. But such by now is his unpopularity that 55% of the voters say No. He accepts this verdict and free elections are arranged for December 1989.


Pinochet trades his relinquishing of power for measures designed to protect him from reprisals for acts committed during his regime - including, for example, a guaranteed lifetime seat in the Chilean senate. These arrangements successfully protect him in Chile during the 1990s, but there is a dramatic twist to the tale when he is abroad in Britain for medical treatment during 1998.

An extradition request arrives in Britain from a Spanish judge, charging Pinochet with the murder of Spanish nationals in Chile and demanding that he stand trial in Spain. Pinochet is placed under arrest in his hospital bed in London. Months of legal argument follow as to what should be done with him.


Return to democracy: from1989

Pinochet's rule is the longest period of unelected dictatorship in the entire history of Chile, which has made more consistent use of the ballot box (albeit at first with a very limited suffrage) than any other Latin American republic. With his departure in 1989 the country returns eagerly to democracy.

In December 1989 a Christian Democrat, Patricio Aylwin, is elected president for a four-year term. In 1993 Eduardo Frei (son of the earlier president of the same name) succeeds him. In 2000 Chile elects its first socialist president since Allende when Ricardo Lagos (a committed opponent of Pinochet even when he was in power) wins a narrow victory.


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