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A brief history of Chile

When the Spanish founded a colony in 1541 at Santiago, Chile was sparsely inhabited by the Araucanians. Although the Spanish controlled the whole Pacific coast north of Santiago (about half of what is now Chile), they were never able to conquer the land to the South from the Araucanians. Indians were enslaved and forced to work for the Spanish, who used Chile mainly for wheat and cattle production. When slavery was abolished in the 17th century, it was replaced by another exploitative system, sharecropping, that persisted until recently.

Chile was one of the first countries to declare its independence from Spain. The colonists fought their mother country for eight bloody years, from 1810 to 1818, until victorious under the leadership of General Bernardo O’Higgins. By the middle of the 20th century Chile had emerged as one of the most heavily industrialized countries in Latin America. It had one of the most comprehensive social welfare systems in the world and had a long tradition of political stability and respect for democracy.

In 1970 Salvador Allende, a socialist, was elected president. He instituted agrarian reform, nationalized the copper industry, utilities and some banks and improved the lot of the poor by increasing wages and imposing price controls. In 1973 the military, led by General Augusto Pinochet, staged a coup and murdered Allende. Shortly after the coup, the military systematically rounded up its opponents and murdered or “disappeared” them. The Pinochet dictatorship was probably the bloodiest and most ruthless of the military regimes that dominated most South American countries during the 1970s and 1980s. The Catholic Church led the fight for human rights in Chile during the dictatorship, becoming in effect the only legal opposition.

A plebiscite in 1988 rejected eight more years of military rule, and in 1989 elections were held that returned government to civilian rule. Pinochet continued as head of the armed forces, however. An amnesty was decreed for all political crimes committed by the military during the dictatorship, but a Chilean “Truth Commission” continued to investigate these crimes in order that the families of the disappeared will know how and when their loved ones died.

Pinochet was arrested and subsequently held in detention in London in October 1998 following an extradition request from Spain. Court decisions stripped him of his immunity from prosecution, and the former president has been questioned over the killings of dissidents by South American governments in the 1970s and 1980s.

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