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Chile - Introduction

Chile may derive its name from the indigenous Mapuche word "Chilli," which may mean "where the land ends. The Mapuche's own name means "people (che) of the land (mapu)." Another meaning attributed to Chilli is the onomatopoeic cheele-cheele--the Mapuche imitation of a bird call. The Spanish conquistadors heard about Chilli from the Incas of Peru, who had failed to conquer the land inhabited by the Araucanians, of which the Mapuche in central Chile was the most warlike group. The few survivors of Diego de Almagro's first Spanish expedition south from Peru in 1535-37 called themselves the "men of Chilli."

As native American tribes became for the United States, the Araucanians, who mastered horsemanship and Spanish military strategy, became part of Chile's "noble savage" lore. This is exemplified by the legend of the Mapuche warrior Lautaro (the Chilean equivalent of the North American Apache Geronimo) in the epic poem "La Araucana," written, initially on bark, in the 1560s by Spanish soldier-poet Alonso de Ercilla y Zúñiga. This conquistador may have been the first to employ the term "Araucanian" (araucano, from arauca, the Inca word for enemy), which has been widely used as a general term for Chile's indigenous peoples. The Spaniards and their criollo successors continued to wage warfare against the Mapuche until 1883, when the government was forced to grant them autonomy. The Mapuche population has increased significantly in the twentieth century, to about 928,000 in 1992, but they have not had much cultural influence on the largely European and mestizo (see Glossary) population of Chile.

Despite its geographical isolation by formidable barriers--the Andes Mountains on its eastern flank, the Atacama Desert in its northernmost area, and the Pacific Ocean on its western side-- Chile, after Uruguay, traditionally has been one of South America's best educated and most stable and politically sophisticated nations. Chile enjoyed constitutional and democratic government for most of its history as a republic, particularly after adoption of the 1833 constitution. After a period of quasi-dictatorial rule in the 1920s and early 1930s, Chile developed a reputation for stable democratic government. Like Uruguayans, Chileans have benefited from state-run universities, welfare institutions, and, beginning in 1952, a national health system. Sociologist J. Samuel Valenzuela points out in "The Society and Its Environment" chapter that Chilean universities, for example, contributed to the Chileans' strong sense of national identity.

Throughout the 1970-90 period, however, Chilean national identity was tested as the country was subjected to profound political, economic, and social changes. Although the country began the 1970s by embarking on what soon proved to be a disastrous experiment in socialism, it ended the 1980s with a widely acclaimed free-market economy and a military government that had committed itself, albeit inadvertently, through a plebiscite, to allowing a transition to democracy in 1990. Since the restoration of democracy, Chile has served as a model for other developing nations and the East European countries that are attempting to make a similar transition to democratic government and an antistatist, free-market economy. Yet the Chileans endured rough times before finding an economic prescription that works for them.

Various explanations for Allende's downfall and the coup are posited by analysts of the different political tendencies. There was ample blame to go around, and groups at all points on the political spectrum helped destroy the democratic order by being too ideological and too intransigent. Prior to the coup, Chilean society became polarized between Allende's supporters and the growing opposition, particularly during the culmination of the constitutional crisis in August 1973. In political terms, society was divided into three hostile camps--the Marxist left, the Christian Democratic center, and the conservative right. Some blame the Allende government's downfall to a large extent on its disregard of many of the key principles of traditional economic theory. In this analysis, Allende's UP government did this not only in its monetary policies but also in its lack of attention to the role that the real exchange rate plays in a country's international competition and balance of payments.

Thanks in large part to the assassination myth that Cuban president Fidel Castro Ruz and Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez helped to create, the left-wing version is still widely believed. Available evidence, however, is adequate to reasonably conclude that Allende committed suicide with the AK-47 assault rifle given him by Castro. Scholars such as Paul E. Sigmund and James Dunkerley believe it was suicide, and reference sources and mainstream news media tend to use this version. For example, in a New York Times report on the twentieth anniversary of the coup, correspondent Nathaniel C. Nash states that Allende "killed himself rather than be taken."

The Allende episode has remained politically charged during the past two decades, as evidenced by the march by Socialists and Communists on La Moneda and their skirmishes with police on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of Allende's overthrow. A peculiar aspect of the historiography of the military coup, one that is illustrative of the political sensitivities surrounding it, is how Allende's death has been described. Some scholars have mentioned both versions of his death--the official military account that he committed suicide and the left-wing version that he was assassinated by the military. Others, including historian Mark Falcoff, have used the more noncommittal phrase that Allende "died in the coup."

Chile remains one of the most stable and prosperous developing nations and consistently ranks high on international indices relating to economic freedom, transparency, and competitiveness. It also fares very well in terms of democratic development, gross domestic product per capita, freedom of the press, and was the highest ranked country in Latin America in terms of competitiveness, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2009-2010.

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Page last modified: 23-12-2019 18:06:09 ZULU