November 18, 2010 § Leave a comment

ChileWho lives there?: About seventeen million people.

Ethnicity in Chile can be viewed in a variety of ways. Most people are partly of European ancestry and partly of native (Mestizo) decent. Estimates of how much of Chile’s population is predominately of European descent range from 30% to 70% and the number considering themselves exclusively Amerindian is around 5%.

Whilst most Chileans trace there ancestry back to Spain, there are also groups from man other countries who settled here – Italians, Irish, British, French and Greek to name but a few. There are several groups that have developed a distinct identity:

Between 10 and 30 percent of the population of Chile have some Basque ancestry. There are more people of Basque origin in Chile than anywhere else in the world – and far more than there are in the Basque country. However very few Basque Chileans actually speak Basque.

Various government grants to German settlers to settle the sparsely populated south of the country mean that – whilst German descendants make up just 3% of Chile’s total population, and German speakers even less – Germans have had an incredibly strong cultural influence on rural southern Chile.

Croatians, Greeks, French and Middle Easterners (primarily Palestinian Christians) also have large semi-distinct communities; mostly in Santiago. 85% of the population live in cities – 40% in Santiago. Almost the entire country is Catholic.

How does the system work? (the theory): The President is in charge of the executive and also exerts influence over the legislative. The legislative in turn act as a check on the President’s power.  The President is elected by first past the post with a runoff if required for a four year term. There is an immediate re-election rule which prevents any Presidents from serving more than one consecutive term – but former Presidents can run again after taking time out.

The Chamber of Deputies is the lower of the two houses – and more powerful. 120 deputies are elected for a four year term by a unique binomial system. Each party stands two candidates in each of 60 electoral districts. If the first placed party outpolls the second by a ratio of 2:1 then the first placed party wins both seats. In every other instance the first placed and second placed parties win one seat each. As is to be expected this arrangement favours larger parties.

Following recent reforms, the Senate is now elected by the same system. It has 38 members and terms are of 8 years (half the seats coming up for election every four years).

Local government in Chile is considerably weaker than in any of its neighbouring countries. This is a consequence both of a deliberate policy by the previous dictatorship, and the subsequent stalling of the decentralisation programme due to political bickering. Chile is divided into 15 regions, 51 provinces and 300+ municipalities. The regional governments are appointed by the national government, the provincial governments are run by provincial councils elected by municipal councillors. The municipalities are run by directly elected councillors and mayors. There is no municipal superstructure for large urban areas – so Santiago is nothing more than a collection of 30 odd municipalities; or a small part of a larger province.

These lower tiers have very little power: they cannot borrow or raise their own revenues but are solely dependent upon government transfers.

How does the system work? (the practice): Elections are free and fair and Chile is a model democracy in many ways – but elections to the legislative are weird. Under the binomial system the two main parties could very likely win exactly 50% of seats each, by coming first or second in every seat (it doesn’t matter which way round). Therefore the tactic for the major parties is to identify areas where they can crush (either by taking 66+% percent of the vote or by exploiting splits in the voting for second) and take both seats; the tactic for minor parties it to look for seats where the second placed party is vulnerable to a charge for second (but not too vulnerable – otherwise both seats will just go to the first placed party).

How did we get here?: The recent political history of Chile is really interesting and has a strong bearing on the current political situation so we’re going to cover it quite fully. If you get bored you can skip to the end – just remember Pinochet=bad.

Chile, particularly southern Chile, was one of the last places on the planet to be inhabited by humans. The first humans only arrived here 10,000 years ago. Later it was home to the Mapuche civilization – the only serious regional rivals to the Inca. They fought several wars against the Inca and established a border across what is now northern Chile.

The Spanish attempted conquest from 1530 onwards but suffered multiple setbacks and Mapuche insurrections. In the end they established a colony in what is now central Chile, leaving the south to the Mapuche. The Mapuche were only finally conquered, and Chilean rule extended southwards, in 1887. The north was similarly not colonised,as it was regarded as useless desert; it only became part of Chile after a war with Bolivia over salt taxes in 1883 (the Bolivians bear a grudge to this day).

In the meantime, in 1818 to be exact, Chile had gained independence from Spain. This came as a direct consequence of the Bonapartes usurping the Spanish throne – Chile did not want to become part of Napoleon’s empire and so it rebelled against Spanish rule. By the time Napoleon was driven out of Spain, the die had been cast. They preceded the Bolivarian revolutions further north by a handful of years, but it was Argentina that had led the way, and Argentinian liberator José de San Martín helped organise the revolution.

In 1891 Chile fought a really odd civil war. There was a constitutional crisis whereby the president and the executive found themselves at loggerheads with the legislative. The army sided with the president but the navy sided with congress. For six months the president – backed by a huge army but with only two very small boats – fought congress – backed by a massive navy but with only a few hundred soldiers – in a series of understandably stilted encounters. If Chile weren’t so thin then the president would have doubtless prevailed.  Chile being the shape it is, he was instead forced to kill himself, ushering in an era of strong parliaments and weak presidents.

This ended in 1924 with the first of two military coups, which resulted in 15 odd years of instability and, more lastingly, restored the primacy of the executive. The last dictator, Ibáñez del Campo, was reasonably well liked and gained brownie points for ceding control peacefully. The political party he founded – the Radicals – dominated politics for the next 30 years, its shifting ideology finally settling on the left.

Which brings us to the 1960s. Before I go on, this blog strives for a neutral (albeit anti-tyrant) tone. However, since I may let my neutrality slip over the next couple of paragraphs I think I should come clean and say up front that I think Salvador Allende was one of the greatest leaders the world has ever seen ,and a personal hero of mine. I say this not so much for his politics (which are considerably to the left of my own), but for his intellect, his dignity and principal in the face of extraordinary provocation, and for his genuine compassion. He wasn’t a saint – as we will go on to see – but I think he was pretty close.

There were three major parties in the 1960s: Allende’s Popular Unity coalition (led by the Socialist Party and supported by the Radicals and Communists), the right wing National Party, and the centrist Christian Democrats led by Eduardo Frei Montalva. Chile had by this time become one of the most prosperous and stable countries in Latin America, but also one of the most unequal and Allende had been gathering support for a number of years on a “share the wealth” platform.

It was Frei though who won the elections in 1964, comfortably beating Allende. It is alleged that the CIA spent heavily to ensure Frei would win – and it is known that from this point forward both the CIA and the KGB were heavily involved in running campaigns against and for Allende respectively. However if Frei was a CIA purchase, they wouldn’t have been happy with their product (which might explain why they shifted their support further right). Judging the mood of the nation, Frei embarked upon an ambitious scheme of land seizures, redistribution, and nationalisation. This angered many on the right, whilst those on the left thought reforms did not go far enough.

As a president cannot stand for consecutive terms, Frei could not run in 1970. The election proved to be one of the closest and most contentious three way campaigns ever fought, with millions of dollars pouring in from abroad in support of both sides. The final results were:

Allende (Popular Unity): 36.6%

Rodríguez (National Party): 35.3%

Tomic (Christian Democrats): 28.1%

There was no popular vote second round in those days. Instead the rule was that the senate would choose between the two leading candidates. There was also a constitutional convention that the senate would always pick the candidate with the most votes in the first round: Allende. However it was not a convention which had ever been strongly tested and enormous amounts of effort went into lobbying the senators; the CIA even tried to split the Radicals away from the Popular Unity coalition.

In the end Frei proved the kingmaker, declaring that whilst he might not agree with Allende on everything he was the winner, and, more importantly, the National Party were the enemies of the Christian Democrat’s working class support and so to support them would be an act of class treason. Under this oh so heavy steer, the Christian Democrats endorsed Allende and he became the first Marxist to be democratically elected in the Americas and arguably (depending on your definitions of democratically and Marxist) the world.

Allende set about reforming Chile at a frantic pace. On the plus side, he revolutionised health care, education and local democracy, radically redistributed wealth and made the arts freely accessable to all for the first time. On the downside, the speed of his reforms angered many and lead to widespread strikes and other industrial actions. Particularly angered were those who found their assets nationalised without compensation: American mining companies who lost their copper mines were the angriest of all.

The myth is that Allende ruined Chile’s economy; it is not that simple. Allende introduced a highly sophisticated integrated telex system (almost a proto-internet) invented by a British scientist Stafford Been. It was hugely ahead of its time and it allowed for much better real-time reporting of economic events than had previously been possible. This however uncovered many of the flaws inherent in the Chilean economy, flaws which were exacerbated when the bottom dropped out of the copper market, and so undermined investor confidence.

GDP rose 9% a year in both 71 and ’72, unemployment fell from 20% to 3% and inflation went down from 35% to 20%. However in ’73 the copper crisis hit, the escudo fell apart (inflation reached 140%, negating the growth of GDP and meaning real terms growth in GDP was -5.6%) and the economy began to struggle. Allende’s Popular Unity party went to the polls for congressional elections in 1973 expecting a drubbing. They actually received their highest ever share of the vote – 43% – but this was negated by the fact the previously friendly Christian Democrats were now openly hostile to the Allende regime.

The Christian Democrat and National Party majority congress moved to have Allende impeached for exceeding his authority, but were not successful as there were no real grounds. Allende suggested putting the matter to the people in a referendum, if the people sided with congress he would go, but if they sided with him, congress would have to shut up and let him finish the job. The referendum was due to be announced on the evening of September 11th 1973; by then Allende was dead.

Allende knew the real risk to his authority came not from parliament but from the army; to this end he had been arming popular militias in the hope they would come to the aid of the state if the army launched a coup. The Army had already had a go in June of 1973, following on from which he had been able to cull the most troublesome generals and install a loyal head of the army: General Prats. Prats was then involved in a deeply weird event: the so called Alejandrina Cox incident.

Prats got involved in a road rage incident and ended up standing at an intersection, in front of a large crowd, waving his pistol at a woman (Alejandrina Cox) who he mistook for a man, and using abusive language towards her. This was successfully presented by the Army as proving that Prats did not have the dignity and comportment for high office and as a basis for insisting on a “loyal” (ie supportive of the Army and not the president) replacement as his successor. When Prats resigned, Allende knew he had to let them have their way, but he thought by going over the heads of senior generals and picking a junior nobody – Augusto Pinochet – he would ensure the army was in the hands of someone too stupid to launch a coup. It is amazing how often this is tried, and how rarely it works.


Pinochet and Allende

Allende (wearing the sash) in 1973 guarded by Pinochet (on the horse)

We now know that the CIA were instrumental in organising Pinochet’s coup. They may also have been involved in destabilizing Chile for some time before then. The exact level of CIA involvement is not known, although the Nixon tapes feature Kissinger saying, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people, the issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves” and the US ambassador to Chile saying, “not a nut or bolt shall reach Chile under Allende; once Allende comes to power we shall do all within our power to condemn Chile and all Chileans to utmost deprivation and poverty.”

What is known is the coup, on September 11th 1973, was incredibly well orchestrated and by the time anyone knew what was going on, Allende was surrounded in the presidential palace with just a few bodyguards around him and under areal bombardment, and the entire nation was under military rule. Knowing the game was up, Allende took to the radio, not to call upon the people to rise but to reassure them that this too shall pass:

“Workers of my country, I have faith in Chile and its destiny. Other men will overcome this dark and bitter moment when treason seeks to prevail. Keep in mind that, much sooner than later, the great avenues will again be opened through which will pass free men to construct a better society. Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers!”

He then took his gun (a gift from Fidel Castro) and went into the presidential palace, never to be seen again. It is thought he shot himself, but it is possible he was shot by the advancing forces of the junta. The palace was heavily bombed so the facts are hard to establish. This is the last photo that was ever taken of him:


Pinochet ruled as a military dictator for the next 15 years: his reign justified by a plebiscite in 1980, around which much suspicion remains. Economically he allowed Chile to become a testing ground for free market economics: Milton Friedman himself advising Pinochet by letter, and in a series of lectures, as to how the economy should be managed. As a result, Chile once again became one of the richest economies in Latin America, but once again became one of the most unequal and divided societies in Latin America.

Socially Pinochet was a totalitarian despot who certainly murdered many of his own citizens. Most of these murders took place under “Operation Condor”, a secretive plot about which we still know very little – and around which fact and fiction become densely tangled. It is thought around 3000 people were killed, maybe more, and around 30,000 tortured.

Operation Condor was a government plot to subdue the left in Latin America through the kidnapping and murder of prominent activists. It started in Chile, and most of its victims were Chilean, but it expanded to include the governments and citizens of Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil, Bolivia  and (peripherally) Ecuador and Peru. The CIA certainly played an advisory role, but the level of complicity has never been established. Bizzarely, the seemingly most far fetched element of the story – that escaped Nazis led by Paul Shafer set up their own self governing colony under Pinochet, complete with torture camp to which dissidents were sent – appears to be true. The involvement of Josef Mengele at “Colonia Dignidad” has however never been proven. The most famous victim of Operation Condor was former president Frei – who was killed by gradual poisoning with small doses of mustard gas.

By the 1980s, Chileans were desperate for change and the gradual reforms Pinochet had been forced to bring in made his position untenable. After losing a second plebecite in 1988, Pinochet stood down in 1990 in exchange for a life senatorship (and the immunity from prosecution that came with it). The left and centre came together in a political party known as Concertación and won every election between the restoration of democracy and 2010. Presidential candidacies have been rotated between the Christian Democrats and the Socialists but the dominant character has always been the Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, eldest son of former President Frei and president from 1994-2000.

The right has had an image problem, and a Pinochet problem, and so has struggled. However they were rebuilt as the Coalition for Change under Sebastián Piñera.

Who’s in charge?: The 2010 elections saw the two heavyweights of Chilean politics go head to head. Frei stood for Concertación and Piñera for the Coalition for Change. The cat amongst the pigeons was the left wing French-Chilean film-maker Marco Enríquez-Ominami, running as an independent. With the left split, the first round saw Piñera pick up 44%, Frei 30% and Enríquez-Ominami 21%. That meant for the first time ever, under new constitutional reforms, there would be a popular vote run-off: this was very close, but Piñera beat Frei 52% to 48% to become the first leader of Chile from the right since Pinochet.

Since then Piñera has proven to be an extraordinary politician. You would have thought that the incompetence, bungling, and terrible safety record which led to 33 miners being trapped underground for 69 days would have led to massive unpopularity, calls for resignation at the highest level, and the government being shaken to its foundations. Far from it, Piñera has managed to spin the situation as a marvellous example of Chilean spirit and ingenuity – an incompetence to be proud of – and his popularity has soared throughout the crisis. In any other country in the world there would be calls for his Minister for Mining to be sacked or worse, but with Piñera’s handling they are instead calling for the Minister for Mining to be beatified. Its a bit odd, but it speaks for an amazing knack for PR.

The legislative is evenly divided between the two main coalitions – as one would expect under the binomial system. The Coalition for Change has the most seats (but not a majority) in the Chamber of Deputies, with 58 seats from 120. By internal agreement, 37 of these are held by the right-wing Independent Democratic Union, 18 by Piñera’s liberal right National Renewal and 3 by independent conservatives.

Concertación are not far behind with 54 seats. By internal agreement 19 are held by the Christian Democrats, 18 by the social democrat Party for Democracy (this party has roots in the time when, under Pinochet, the Socialist Party was banned, and until recently double PD/SP membership was allowed) , 11 are held by the Socialist Party, 5 by the liberal Social Democrat Radical Party (who trace their ancestry back to Campo’s Radicals), and 1 by an independent socialist.

Two political parties, each with 3 seats, refuse to join either coalition: the Communists and the Regionalists. There are two independent deputies.


Its a similar story in the Senate, but Concertación can just about block a bill on their own. They have 19 seats (split 9, 4, 5, 1) to Coalition for Change’s 16 (split 8 all). There are three independents, one of whom is allied to the regionalists via a coalition called “Clean Chile Vote Happy”


Outside of Parliament the three main pressure groups are: the Catholic Church (normally supporting the right), the students (normally supporting the left), and the Labour unions (normally supporting the centre, Chilean unions tend to be economically left but very small c conservative).

What does it look like?: It is very long and thin. Andy Zaltzman nominated it the country-which-if-you-baked-a-biscuit-in-its-shape-would-be-the-most-likely-to-break, which is kind of harsh on Indonesia. The top is the Atacama desert – one of the driest places on earth, the east is the Andes mountains, the south is full of lakes, Fijords, and glaciers, and the west it the rugged Pacific shoreline. There is a small fertile valley in the middle where nearly 50% of the population live.


Chile also claims parts of the Antarctic (which is disputed) and administers Easter Island, Robinson Crusoe Island and surrounding uninhabited islands – these are all on the easternmost point of Polynesia, 2000 miles west of Chile.

What are the issues?: The main issues are economic: how to preserve Chile’s status as South America’s richest and most stable nation whilst shedding Chile’s status as one of South America’s most iniquitous and societally divided nations. The other issue is dealing with the historical legacy. The complex issue of if and how to put Pinochet on trial was only solved by his death, and even now there is a reluctance on all sides to dig deep and find out what really happened under his rule.

Another issue which has led to many protests recently is a demand from indigenous communities to repeal antiquated laws which designate all Mapuche people as terrorists.

A good source of impartial information is: There is a thriving free press in Spanish and German; in English there is the Santiago Times, which is aimed at the expat community. Two Weeks Notice is an English language Latin American politics blog which concentrates on Chile. Its written by an American political scientist, and has a slight American slant.

A good book is: I picked up Francesco Alegría’s Allende: A Novel by mistake (I was looking for a book on Algeria, I was tired) but it became one of my favourite books of all time. Written in the style of a novel, but a serious biography all the same, it is a gripping read. It’s a warts and all portrait, but a warts and all portrait by an artist who clearly loves his subject. For a more critical view, try The Nixon Administration and the Death of Allende’s Chile: A Case of Assisted Suicide . Nixon, Kissinger, and Allende: U.S. Involvement in the 1973 Coup in Chile is another brand new and highly acclaimed look at CIA involvement in the Pinochet coup – one which points the finger more firmly at the USA.

One of the delights of Chilean politics is how many incredible writers have written about it. First and foremost is Pablo Neruda. Neruda was a Chilean communist party senator in the ’50s and a supporter of Allende thereof. He was terminally ill when Pinochet seized power and only lived ten more days. Some of his last words were to the police who came to ransack his house following the coup, “look around, there’s only one thing of danger for you here, poetry“, It is extraordinary poetry, even Bart Simpson is a fan. Canto General is one if his most political works: it caused him to fall out with the Argentinian poet Jorge Borges over his refusal to censure Juan Peron.

Isabel Allende is another extraordinary writer, as much of her work is semi-autobiographical and Salvador was her uncle it can’t really help but be political. My Invented Country: A Memoir is the most directly so.

Whilst not a Chilean, Gabriel García Márquez has always had a deep interest in the politics of Chile. He wrote much of The Autumn of the Patriarch before Pinochet’s coup, but rewrote it with Pinochet in mind and vowed he would not write again until Pinochet was removed from power. In the end he changed his mind and wrote Chronicle of a Death Foretold because he “could not remain silent in the face of such injustice”. It has even been suggested that the world’s most famous literary feud (Márquez and Mario Vergas Llosa were best friends until Llosa punched Márquez in the face in 1976 and neither have spoken to each other since – or explained what happened) was due to an argument about the Pinochet regime (another theory is that it was due to a love quadrangle involving the two novelists, a Swedish air hostess and Llosa’s wife).

As for books not written by Nobel Prize for Literature winners (pffh why bother?): The Condor Years: How Pinochet and His Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents is probably the most respectable study of Operation Condor. Friedman (who only won a Nobel Prize for Economics) wrote about Chile in Free to Choose: A Personal Statement. The most modern book on Chilean politics is El Discolo which tells the story of the most recent election from the point of view of Enríquez-Ominami, and is receiving rave reviews. So far its only available in Spanish. In the Name of Reason: Technocrats and Politics in Chile is the most up to date book on Chilean Politics available in English.

When are the next elections?: Half the senate, the entire Chamber, and the Presidency will be up for election in 2014. Piñera can’t run next time.


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