This week we find ourselves in the fascinating South American country of Chile. Despite a tumultuous history, today Chile ranks first among Latin American countries in human development, economic freedom, income per capita, and more.
Chile’s success story makes it an appealing South American destination for many. Despite bordering the better-known Argentina, Chile has found its own place on the international stage and should not be overlooked in favour of its larger neighbour or nearby Brazil.
- Capital (and Largest City): Santiago
- Population (2015): 18,006,407 (61st)
- Total Area: 756,096 km² (38th)
- National Language: Spanish
- Currency: Chilean peso ($) (CLP)
The Spanish, a Dictator, and a Bright Future
Before the first Europeans arrived in what is now Chile, the region was fought over between the Inca Empire (predominantly based in modern day Peru) and the Mapuche. Though the Incas attempted to conquer the region, they were defeated and pushed back north. In 1520 however, the destiny of Chile was forever changed.
Ferdinand Magellan was the first European to set foot in Chile, however the full effect of colonization was felt when the Spanish conquistadors arrived. Pedro de Valdivia led the Spaniards into Chile in 1540 – capturing the region, founding the city of Santiago, and making use of the arable land for the good of the Spanish Empire. Despite continued resistance to the Spanish, they cemented their hold on the region, turning it into a colonial military power.
Following the rise of Napoleon in Europe and the decline of Spanish power, Chile became fully independent on February 12, 1818. Various democratically elected leaders and constitutional challenges would characterize the next century and a half. In 1970, a socialist named Salvador Allende became president. However, his term would only last three years before he was overthrown in a military coup. The architect? A General by the name of Augusto Pinochet Ugarte.
Pinochet reigned as dictator from 1973 to 1990. His reign was characterized by the brutal oppression of opponents. As many as 1200-3200 people were killed and tens of thousands imprisoned or tortured. Capitalist economic reforms were instituted, and by the 90’s Chile’s economy was outperforming all other Latin American countries despite widespread inequality – however there is still much debate over Pinochet’s economic legacy. Eventually the dictator was removed from power though he remained a ‘Senator for Life’ until 2002 – when he was indicted for human rights abuses. Pinochet died on December 10, 2006 – with around 300 criminal charges still pending.
Today, Chile stands as one of the most well developed and high-functioning countries in Latin America. Despite the occasional economic crisis and natural disasters (such as the February 2010 earthquake), Chile stands as a strong, democratic country.
Like much of South America, Chile has a diverse culture influenced by both indigenous traditions (largely the Mapuche) and centuries of Spanish colonization. Due to strong natural borders isolating Chile from other countries in the region, the population is relatively homogenous. Despite this, the heritage of the various regions differs, resulting in diverse music and dance throughout the country.
Much like the geography of the country itself (more on that later), the practices and activities of the people vary considerably. Whether it’s skiing in the mountains or surfing on the coast, you’ll find Chilean’s passionate about a tremendous variety of things. Sport (especially soccer and rodeo) is popular throughout the country. In addition, Chile has a large amount of vineyards, and Chilean wine is enjoyed throughout the world.
North to South
Chile is geographically one of the most unique countries in the world. It has an unusual long, thin shape – extending 4 270 km north to south but only averaging 177 km across. The country features an extremely long coastline but also mountain ranges, including the famous Andes. There are over 600 volcanoes within the borders of Chile, resulting in over half of the country being of volcanic origin.
Chile’s rugged land isn’t all the country has to offer. Chile claims part of Antarctica – so it can be said that the country stretches all the way to the South Pole. In addition, the fabled Easter Island in the Pacific – known for the numerous iconic moai statues – is also a part of Chile. So whether you’re looking for relaxing beaches in an agreeable climate, harsh but beautiful mountains, stunning lakes, or diverse wildlife – Chile has it all!
Despite a long, sometimes troubled history, Chile is a modern success story. Though some might overlook Chile in favour of other, larger countries – you’d be doing a disservice to yourself by not making the trip.
Stay tuned to the Continental Current for our Country of the Week. We’ll explore the familiar and the foreign, plus uncover some hidden gems.
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