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Freedom of Association: Country Studies - Chile

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2010: 1 Political Rights, 1 Civil Liberties (Free)


Chile stretches some 2,700 miles (4,300 kilometers) from north to south, but its average width from east to west is only about 110 miles. It borders Peru and Bolivia in the north, and Argentina lies to the east. The country's 16 million people are mostly white or mestizo (mixed race), though there is a small Amerindian population. Chile is one of the best economic performers in Latin America, ranking 38th in the world in nominal gross domestic product (GDP) in 2006, with $146 billion. Its nominal gross national income (GNI) per capita in 2006 was 76th ($6,980). By purchasing power parity (PPP), which accounts for relative price differences, Chile's GDP in 2006 ranked 43rd ($208 billion), and its GNI per capita ranked 81st ($11,270). After enduring more than 15 years of military dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet, the country returned to free elections in 1989, restoring its tradition as one of the Western Hemisphere's most democratic countries. In 2006, Michelle Bachelet became the first woman to be elected president of Chile.



Precolonial Chile and the Spanish Conquest

Before the Spanish conquest, the territory of Chile was inhabited by three main groups of Amerindians: those in the north who were dominated or influenced by the Inca Empire; the Araucanian people of the central-southern region; and the tribes of the extreme south and Tierra del Fuego. The sea in the west and mountains in the east made the territory relatively inaccessible, but the Inca twice attempted to invade the central portion of the country in the 15th century. They were turned back by the Araucanian tribes, especially the Mapuche.

The Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan, employed by Spain, passed through the strait in southern Chile that bears his name in 1520. Diego de Almagro, a commander who had assisted Francisco Pizarro in the conquest of the Inca Empire, marched into Chile in 1535 but returned after failing to find another wealthy civilization. His successor, Pedro de Valdivia, launched another expedition in 1540 and founded the settlements of Santiago de Chile, Concepcion, and Valdivia. However, he was defeated during an uprising by the Mapuche in 1553 and killed shortly thereafter. The Mapuche continued to resist colonization until the late 19th century.

Chile was long governed as a captaincy general subordinate to the viceroyalty of Peru, but it became a largely autonomous colony after 1778. In this period, Chile served as a source of food and animal products, not mineral wealth as in Peru and Bolivia. Agricultural settlers came to establish large estates, increasing the Spanish colonist population significantly after the mid–17th century. The estates were initially worked by conquered indigenous people, and later by mestizo tenant farmers called inquilinos who were tied to the landowners through debt and barter relationships. The practice of outright slavery was not as significant in Chile as elsewhere in the Americas, with only a few thousand African slaves in the country during the colonial period. Chile was among the first countries in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery, in 1823.

The Struggle for Independence

Chile established local self-rule in 1810, after Napoleon Bonaparte's invasion of Spain unseated the royal government, and some Chileans pushed for complete independence. Spanish troops reestablished control in 1814, but the royalists were defeated in 1817 when Jose de San Martin and Bernardo O'Higgins brought an army over the Andes from Argentina and won the battle of Chacabuco. Formal independence was declared in 1818, and another victory over Spanish forces that year cemented Chile's freedom. San Martin went on to help liberate Peru, but O'Higgins, the illegitimate son of a local notable's daughter and an Irish-born Spanish officer, became Chile's first "supreme director," or president. O'Higgins ruled until 1823, relying on a new military class to establish a strong central government. A British expatriate, Lord Cochrane, helped build Chile's navy.

Expanding Borders, Establishing Stability

The country's current borders were largely established in 1881, when Chile and Argentina agreed to divide their territory along the Andean ridgeline and partition Tierra del Fuego, and after the War of the Pacific (1879–84), in which the nitrate-rich Atacama region was acquired from Peru and Bolivia (see Country Study of Bolivia). Internally, the military finally defeated the Mapuche in the south in 1882 and confined them to reservations while agricultural settlers moved into the area.

After a period of political turmoil following O'Higgins's forced resignation in 1823, Chile adopted a constitution in 1833 and entered a long stretch of stable governance, with regular civilian transfer of power and only brief conflicts and military interventions. While the constitution established a strong presidency and a weak legislature, Congress gained influence over time. President Jose Balmaceda was overthrown in 1891 after legislators accused him of trying to establish a dictatorship. This entrenched a multiparty parliamentary system, although the dominant parties, the Conservatives and Liberals, both represented the property-owning classes. Even after an electoral reform in 1874, suffrage was restricted by literacy requirements.

The "Golden Era" of Democracy

In 1924, the military overthrew the populist president Arturo Alessandri, who had sought to address the concerns of the middle and working classes, but another coup reinstalled him temporarily in 1925. Although a new constitution was enacted that year, military officers remained in control. Civilian democracy was reestablished in 1932 with the reelection of Alessandri, ushering in a 40-year period known as Chile's golden era of democracy. The 1925 constitution separated church and state and provided greater checks and balances, in part by increasing the power of the president. Also during this period, a new labor code legalized labor unions and strikes but subjected them to government controls.

Beginning in 1938, Chile's politics were dominated by the middle-class Radical Party, which ruled in shifting coalitions with left- and right-wing parties, including a leftist Popular Front grouping. The country remained neutral for most of World War II but broke relations with the Axis in 1943 and cooperated with the United States economically. In 1952, former military dictator Carlos Ibanez, who had ruled from the late 1920s until 1931, was elected president as an independent, ending the Radicals' dominance. He was succeeded by Alessandri's son in 1958. When Eduardo Frei won the presidency in 1964 and his Christian Democrats gained a congressional majority in 1965, he adopted a program called "Revolution in Liberty," which included land reform, investment in education and housing, the "Chileanization" of the copper industry (including the takeover of majority stakes in U.S.-owned copper mines), and expansion of suffrage by lowering age limits to 18 and eliminating literacy requirements.

Augusto Pinochet
The Golden Era Ends: Allende and Pinochet

In the 1970 elections, the Socialist Salvador Allende, candidate of a left-wing coalition that included the Communists, gained a plurality of 36 percent and was awarded the presidency by Congress, marking the first time Chile had elected a Marxist leader. Allende undertook an even more radical program than the Christian Democrats, nationalizing mines, industries, and large estates and opening friendly relations with the Soviet Union and Cuba at a tense period in the Cold War. Economic dislocation and stiff political opposition ensued, leading to violent strikes and street demonstrations. In 1973, General Augusto Pinochet, supported by the United States, led a military coup to depose Allende, who reportedly committed suicide during a massive military assault on the presidential palace.

Pinochet's Dictatorship and a Novel Campaign to Defeat It

Pinochet introduced a prolonged period of military dictatorship. His harsh rule lasted for 16 years and was marked by disappearances, extrajudicial killings (including assassinations outside the country), political detentions, limitations on all basic freedoms, and suppression of Chile's democratic institutions. The regime's human rights violations isolated Chile from the democratic world, including the United States, which after initially supporting the coup grew increasingly critical of Pinochet's excesses.

The 1980 constitution, which superseded the 1925 charter, was designed to make permanent the authoritarian military regime. Major protests beginning in 1983 failed to topple the government, and a 1986 assassination attempt on Pinochet by Marxist guerrillas led to a severe crackdown. However, a broad coalition of democratic political parties, trade unions, and civic groups mobilized to defeat the president in a constitutionally mandated 1988 referendum on whether he should rule for another eight years. With the process under close scrutiny by the opposition and foreign governments, electoral officials established relatively fair rules for the plebiscite. On October 5, the "no" vote won, 55 percent to 43 percent. Pinochet was forced to accept defeat and honor the constitution, which required an open presidential election within 17 months in light of the "no" vote.

A New Golden Era

A set of 54 constitutional reforms, negotiated between the democratic parties and the government, was overwhelmingly approved by referendum in July 1989. The amended constitution protected the military's institutional privileges (including a lifetime Senate seat for Pinochet) but also reestablished free elections and other democratic norms. Patricio Aylwin of the Christian Democratic Party ran in the December presidential elections as the candidate of the anti-Pinochet Coalition of Parties for Democracy, defeating a government-backed former finance minister and a populist businessman. Aylwin's inauguration in March 1990 brought Chile back into the community of democratic nations.

Three presidential and four congressional elections have been held since 1990, and subsequent amendments to the constitution, especially those in 2005, removed the charter's remaining nondemocratic provisions. Michelle Bachelet of the Socialist Party won the latest presidential contest in 2005, running as the candidate of the Coalition of Parties for Democracy. The 1989 constitutional settlement left Pinochet and his cohorts with a degree of immunity regarding their past crimes, thanks in large part to a 1978 amnesty decree, but some officers and generals have nevertheless been convicted by the courts. Pinochet's death in December 2006 allowed him to escape justice, prompting Bachelet to announce a new push to have the amnesty revoked. In the economic sphere, Bachelet has continued her predecessors' policies of increasing the state's role and investing in health care, housing, and education. However, she has not uprooted the foundation of free-market principles established under Pinochet.

Freedom of Association

Chile has a long history of social, religious, economic, political, and other forms of association, dating from before its independence from Spain. The country's labor movement emerged in the 1880s with the industrial exploitation of nitrate and copper mining. Luis Emilio Recabarren, a founder of the Chilean labor movement, led several organizing efforts and published a number of worker-oriented newspapers, having initially worked as a typesetter. Although elected to Congress in 1906, he was prevented from taking his seat. This early period of the labor movement featured the violent and repressive clashes that were common in other countries, especially in mining and lumber regions. A year after the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) established offices in Chile in 1919, the Chilean government launched a campaign to destroy the organization, which led to the arrests of almost 100 members as well as the destruction of print shops, assembly halls, offices and more. In the years to follow, the state continued to severely repress IWW members.

A limited right to organize unions was established in the 1925 constitution, and workers increasingly grouped themselves into party-linked federations.
A Party-Based Trade Union Movement Leads to Politicization

Recabarren, like many labor and leftist leaders in Latin America, pursued a party-based trade union movement, delving into national politics rather than confining union activity to specific trades or industries. He tied Chile's main trade unions first to the Socialist Workers Party, which was founded in 1912, and then to the Communist Party, formed in 1922. A limited right to organize unions was established in the 1925 constitution, and workers increasingly grouped themselves into party-linked federations. During the Popular Front period after 1938 (see above), labor relations were characterized by state intervention in the interest of national industrial development, rather than direct worker benefits. Strikes and unionization efforts among agricultural workers continued to be suppressed.

The politicization of the trade union movement continued through the 1960s, and left-wing unions and parties pushed for more radical policies than those initiated by President Eduardo Frei and the Christian Democrats. Salvador Allende's subsequent moves to nationalize industries and redistribute land and wealth were encouraged by some factions but met with criticism from others.

Pinochet's "Labor Plan"

Pinochet's dictatorship banned most union activity, outlawed unions linked to leftist political parties, and generally targeted the labor movement for repression. Its Labor Plan of 1979 severely circumscribed collective bargaining, in part by confining it to the company level and excluding larger federations. (In response to Chile's worker rights violations, the U.S. labor federation, the AFL-CIO, filed a petition in 1985 to deny Chile trade benefits under the U.S. government's Generalized System of Preferences, one of the first such petitions to be successful.) These harsh conditions created a new consensus within the Chilean labor movement, driving activists away from ideological division and toward a broad coalition. The Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT) labor federation worked to maintain union organizations throughout Chile, built an alliance with political parties, and supported a nonviolent political opposition. The CUT, together with other union-linked professional organizations like the Colegio de Profesores (Association of Teachers), played a significant role in the 1987–88 campaign for the "no" vote that forced Pinochet from power.

Pinochet's dictatorship banned most union activity, outlawed unions linked to leftist political parties, and generally targeted the labor movement for
Campaign for the "No"

The campaign for the 1988 referendum on Pinochet's rule renewed and reinvigorated Chile's associational life. Because citizens were required to reregister for the vote, the campaign became a massive lesson in how to organize political and social movements. It continues to inspire a sense of citizen participation in the country even today. In 2006, students demonstrated this spirit by mounting massive protests to demand greater investment and key reforms in the education system.

As in other developed countries, union membership rates are not as high as in earlier periods of industrialization. However, labor reforms enacted since the end of the dictatorship have generally restored respect for freedom of association and collective bargaining. Remaining limitations include the controversial "needs of the company" clause, which is designed to allow dismissals for economic reasons but is sometimes abused by employers seeking to fire union members or strike participants.

Chile has been a member of the ILO since its founding in 1919. By 2000, it had ratified all of the organization's eight core conventions, including Nos. 87 and 98 on freedom of association and collective bargaining, No. 105 prohibiting forced labor, and No. 138 on child labor (see also above). Partly as a result of legislative reforms and the enforcement of ILO conventions, Chile has reversed a downward trend in unionization rates and returned overall union membership to more than 10 percent of the workforce (roughly 600,000 members).