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The History of Chile

Chile has a long history of rugged isolation. The indigenous people who settled there had to adapt to some of the harshest conditions on Earth. Most famously, the Yaghan people in the deep south routinely went around naked even as the wind whipped the snow around them: they hunted sea lions in freezing water with stone knives.

In other parts of Chile, men and women adapted to deserts, rocky islands and snow-capped mountains. The climate made the people tough: the Mapuche people fought off the Inca Empire and then the Spanish: the conquest of the Mapuche took 300 years. The first Europeans to visit this formidable land were defeated as much by the conditions as the people who lived there. As for the Yaghan, they started to die off when missionaries introduced them to clothing.

Early Explorers

The first Europeans to see Chile were Ferdinand Magellan and his expedition, which sailed past after discovering the Strait of Magellan in 1520. In 1535, conquistador Diego de Almagro led a large force of Spanish mercenaries and native auxiliaries south from Peru, but harsh conditions and fierce natives made them turn back empty-handed.

In 1540 Pedro de Valdivia, a veteran of the conquest of the Inca Empire, once again invaded the area and founded the city of Santiago. Santiago was plagued by Mapuche attacks - Valdivia himself was killed during a Mapuche raid - but it managed to survive.

The Colonial Era

Chile remained a backwater of the Spanish Empire during the colonial era. It did not have the mineral wealth of Peru to the north or the vast grazing lands of Argentina to the east, plus its remoteness made it difficult to reach. The fertile valleys proved good for agriculture, and the waters off the coast were very rich with fish, so the colony was largely self-supporting and quiet. Chile has great mineral wealth, and mining has always been an important industry.


In September of 1810, Chile joined most of the rest of Latin America in rebelling against Spain, then ruled indirectly by Napoleon. Fighting was intermittent until 1817, when local patriot Bernardo O’Higgins was joined by a force of Argentines led by Jose de San Martin: together, they were able to finally remove the Spanish from Chile and O’Higgins became the new nation’s first president.

A New Republic

Chile remained a quiet backwater for the first years of its independence until the latter part of the nineteenth century, when it began to expand. A massive new offensive against the resilient Mapuche finally opened up the south, and to the north, Chile was victorious in the 1879 – 1883 War of the Pacific, gaining lands rich in nitrates and cutting Bolivia off from the Pacific. After the War of the Pacific, Chile began a brief period of great affluence.

Civil War

It was not to last long, however. Conflicts between President Jose Manuel Balmaceda and Congress over Balmaceda’s unchecked spending on new social programs deteriorated into a civil war in 1891. The war only lasted a few months but thousands of Chileans were killed. Balmaceda was defeated and took refuge in the Embassy of Argentina, where he committed suicide. The war was a costly one for Chile and set its development back.

Early twentieth century

Chile was torn by strife in the first half of the twentieth century, and went through a series of governments in a short time. Meanwhile, world events began to be felt in Chile more than ever before. After the Russian Revolution, Marxist groups popped up soon to be followed by fascists trying to emulate Mussolini’s Italy. A growing middle class mitigated the crises and provided some stability, although very few Chileans could agree on how their country should be run.

By the 1950’s, at least elections were taking place and transitions of power were generally peaceful. From 1964 to 1970 Chile was ruled by moderate Eduardo Frei Montalvo, who managed to annoy liberals, who felt he was too conservative, and conservatives, who felt he was too liberal. Trouble was certainly brewing.


In 1970, Chileans elected Salvador Allende, a former Senator and well-known Socialist. He immediately began a radical program of socializing Chile’s economy and cultivated close ties to the USSR and Fidel Castro’s Cuba. His economic reforms mostly failed and by 1973 the economy was in a major crisis.

On September 11, 1973 Allende was removed y a coup d’etat led by several high-ranking military officials. As soldiers invaded the Presidential palace, Allende took his own life. After the dust settled, career military officer General Augusto Pinochet assumed control of the nation.

Pinochet and Operation Condor

Allende still had his supporters despite his poor handling of the economy. Leftist Marxist groups such as the MIR (Revolutionary Left Movement) were carrying out urban guerrilla attacks, trying to destabilize the government. As one of his first acts, Pinochet ordered the arrest of thousands of leftists, communists and suspected insurgents. The stadium in Santiago was for a time used to hold these suspected enemies of the state.

Within a month, Pinochet had authorized the “Caravan of Death,” a group of army officers who traveled by helicopter to different cities executing the most likely insurgent leaders: as many as 100 jailed civilians may have been executed by these officers without any sort of trial.

Sadly, this was just the beginning. The “Caravan of Death” was only the first ugly incident in a long war waged by the government of Chile on its own citizens. Pinochet and his inner circle were determined to stamp out the MIR and other Marxist groups by whatever means necessary. Thousands were tortured, imprisoned and murdered for nothing more than thought crime. During Pinochet’s dictatorship, which lasted until 1990, it is estimated that some 6,000 Chilean citizens were executed by the government and countless more detained and tortured.

Pinochet was also the architect behind “Operation Condor,” which was a collaborative effort of several South American governments to help one another round up and eliminate suspected insurgents. Chile teamed with Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia to root out and murder one another’s problems. It was very effective: by the late 1970’s, the MIR and other Marxist groups were all but neutralized in the southern cone of South America. But the torture and death continued.

Pinochet left the Presidency in 1990, although he kept his status as a senator and army officer, mostly to escape prosecution for human rights abuses. International courts tried to bring him to trial between 2002-2006, but he died before anything could come of it.

The Modern Era

Since Pinochet, Chile’s democracy has been stable: aided no doubt by a strong economy anchored by mining, wine, fishing and tourism. The biggest issue facing Chile currently is what to do with former army officers suspected of horrible human rights violations in the 1970’s and 1980’s: some, like Manuel Contreras (former head of the DINA, Chile’s secret police) have been convicted.

Much like the people of Argentina, the people of Chile are torn between thinking that the past should be put behind them and confronting it in public courtrooms.

Chileans elected their first woman president, Michelle Bachelet Jeria, of the Socialist Party in 2006. Bachelet is remarkable for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that she was one of the thousands of young Chileans who were detained and tortured during the Pinochet regime.

Fortunately, she survived in time to go into exile: her father, an army officer who resisted Pinochet’s power grab, died in prison. During her time in office, she made steady gains in social programs aimed at helping the poorest Chileans. 

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Chile: Norte Grande History, History of the Lakes District, Chile History Timeline, History, History of Rapa Nui, The History of Santiago, Chile, Padre Antonio Ronchi, The Day the Earth Moved, Fuegian Film and History of the Carretera Austral and Northern Patagonia.

By Christopher Minster
I am a writer and editor at V!VA Travel guides here in Quito, where I specialize in adding quality content to the site and also in spooky things like...
11 May 2009

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