Chile has set aside the Pinochet years, and now has a stable democracy and a successful economy
Chile is remarkably narrow: 4,329 kilometres long and on average no more than 180 kilometres wide. From north to south run the rolling hills of the coastal highlands in parallel with the massive ranges of the Andes to the east. Between them lies a central valley that is most evident in the middle third of the country. Chile's length also offers striking climatic variations, from the heat of the Atacama Desert in the north, through a temperate centre, then a cool, wet south extending through the lakes and fjords and on to the stormy Straits of Magellan. Chile is vulnerable to earthquakes, the latest of which in 2010 killed over 400 people.
Most of Chile's people are concentrated in the central valley and around the middle of the country. Around one third live in the capital, Santiago. Chileans are almost entirely of mestizo or of European descent. The small Mapuche Indian population is concentrated in an area 700 kilometres south of Santiago.
Chile has at times viewed itself as more European than South American, and has higher standards of education and health than its neighbours. All waged workers contribute to a health insurance system. However the country is steadily becoming more unequal: the income of the richest 10% of the population is 26 times greater than that of the poorest 10%.
Although the economy is now more broadly based it remains very dependent on natural resources. One of the economic mainstays is mining in the northern deserts. Chile is the world's largest producer of copper and has one-third of global reserves. The country is also rich in other minerals, including gold, molybdenum, silver, and iron; and it can count on substantial reserves of oil and gas.
Chile's climatic diversity also permits a diverse agricultural output. Agriculture and fisheries employ around 12% of the workforce. Chile is one of the world's largest fish producers. The climate in the central zone is ideal for multinational companies to grow apples, pears, and grapes for export. Although the industry is profitable, the workforce is often poorly paid. Also doing less well are the 200,000 wheat-growing campesino farmers who in a very liberal trade regime are suffering from cheaper imports. Land ownership is also becoming ever more concentrated into larger farms.
Chilean manufacturing has been diverse. In the past, it was designed for import substitution. But Chile's open economy now means that it tends to operate in areas where it has the greatest competitive advantage. Thus, leading manufactured exports are usually closely linked to agriculture, including cellulose and fishmeal. Chile is also now the world's fifth largest wine exporter.
Pinochet made Chile a byword for torture and repression
Chile's economic and political history was transformed in 1973. Previously, the country had enjoyed a long sequence of democratic governments, but this pattern was shattered by a CIA-supported military coup which ousted socialist President Salvador Allende and ushered in the era of General Augusto Pinochet. For the next 17 years, Chile became a byword for torture, repression, and the abuse of human rights: within three years around 130,000 people had been arrested. Ultimately 3,197 people were to die for political reasons, including 1,102 who ‘disappeared’.