Tuesday, June 2, 2009

A Brief Introduction to Chile

The Republic of Chile, as it is formally known, is home to nearly seventeen million residents. Nearly seven million people live in the greater Santiago metropolitan area. Santiago is also the capital of Chile, although Valparaíso, located fifty miles away on the coast houses the national congress. Chile is somewhat unique in it’s geography. Its coastline stretches over 2,880 miles, but Chile is only 265 miles at its widest point. Because of the sheer length of the country, Chile’s geography, climate, and natural resources vary. The Atacama Desert in the north is one of the driest places on the planet. It is also where the newest James Bond film Quantum of Solace was filmed. In the south, numerous glaciers create a stunning landscape.

History and Politics:
Migrating Native Americans settled in Chile at least 10,000 years ago. In the 1500s, Spanish conquistadores conquered Chile in search of silver and gold. Ultimately, agriculture became an important stable of Spanish Chile. Chile finally declared independence in September of 1810, but a decade long struggle with Spain and various political parties ensued.

After the Chilean Civil War in 1891, Chile established a parliamentary style democracy. The 20th century saw the rise and fall of many politicians and general political instability. The rise of Marxism after the Russian Revolution and the threat of Communism after World War II led to a continuous effort by the United States and CIA operatives to undermine communism and socialism. In 1970, Salvador Allende, head of Chile’s Socialist Party, Unidad Popular (Popular Unity), was elected President of Chile. He aimed to advance workers’ interest and pursued agricultural reform to help Chile’s lower class. Richard Nixon’s administration organized secret operations to destabilize Allende’s government. A military coup by General Augusto Pinochet overthrew Allende on September 11, 1973. Allende reportedly committed suicide.

General Pinochet’s regime was marked by numerous human rights violations, especially in the years immediately following the coup. Thousands of Chileans “disappeared” during General Pinochet’s reign as he moved Chile toward a free market economy and controlled inflation, which previously was as high as 300% per year. Finally, in 1990, General Pinochet replaced by Patricio Aylwin after Pinochet was denied another term in a 1988 plebiscite. Nonetheless, General Pinochet remained “Senator for Life.” During the 1990s and even until now, Chile dealt with reconciling the human rights violations committed by General Pinochet and his regime with moving forward.
Michelle Bachelet is currently President of Chile. This center-left politician became the first female to lead Chile when she was elected in 2006.

Copper is one of Chile’s most important exports. In fact, Chile is responsible for over one third of the world's copper production The GDP per capita taking into account purchasing power parity is $14,510. The U.S. is Chile’s most important trading partner. A free trade agreement between the two countries came into effect in 2004. As a result of conservative government spending and prudent saving practices, Chile has weathered the current global economic crisis fairly well. Chile has the most successful economy of any Latin American country.

A recent Wall Street Journal article outlines Chile’s success: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124337806443856111.html

Even with Chile’s economic success, especially compared to other Latin American countries, poverty and inequality continue to be a problem. According to Government polls, poverty levels fell from 46% in 1987 to 14% in 2006. However, critics argue that poverty rates are much higher, possibly as high as 29% when using more developed yardsticks.

Spanish is the official language of Chile, although Chilean Spanish is quite different than that of neighboring Spanish-speaking countries. Nearly 95% of the population is white when mestizos with predominantly white (castizos) ancestry are included). The Mapuche are the largest indigenous group at over 4% of the population. In a 2002 census, 70 percent of the population identified as Roman Catholic and 15% as evangelical.

Chile’s most popular sport is fútbol (soccer), while rodeo is the country’s national sport. Basketball has also grown in popularity.

Famous People:
Pablo Neruda, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, is Chile’s most famous poet.

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