Before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th cent., the Araucanians had long been in control of the land in the southern part of the region; in the north, the inhabitants were ruled by the Inca empire. Diego de Almagro, who was sent by Francisco Pizarro from Peru to explore the southern region, led a party of men through the Andes into the central lowlands of Chile but was unsuccessful (1536) in establishing a foothold there. In 1540, Pedro de Valdivia marched into Chile and, despite stout resistance from the Araucanians, founded Santiago (1541) and later established La Serena, Concepción, and Valdivia. After an initial period of incessant warfare with the natives, the Spanish succeeded in subjugating the indigenous population.
Although Chile was unattractive to the Spanish because of its isolation from Peru to the north and its lack of precious metals (copper was discovered much later), the Spanish developed a pastoral society there based on large ranches and haciendas worked by indigenous people; the yields were shipped to Peru. During the long colonial era, the mestizos became a tenant farmer class, called inquilinos; although technically free, most were in practice bound to the soil.
During most of the colonial period Chile was a captaincy general dependent upon the viceroyalty of Peru, but in 1778 it became a separate division virtually independent of Peru. Territorial limits were ill-defined and were the cause, after independence, of long-drawn-out boundary disputes with Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. The movement toward independence began in 1810 under the leadership of Juan Martínez de Rozas and Bernardo O'Higgins. The first phase (1810–14) ended in defeat at Rancagua, largely because of the rivalry of O'Higgins with José Miguel Carrera and his brothers. In 1817, José de San Martín, with incredible hardship, brought an army over the Andes from Argentina to Chile. The following year he won the decisive battle of Maipú over the Spaniards.
O'Higgins, who had been chosen supreme director, formally proclaimed Chile's independence Feb. 12, 1818, at Talca and established a military autocracy that characterized the republic's politics until 1833; O'Higgins ruled Chile from 1818 until 1823, when strong opposition to his policies forced him to resign. During this time the British expatriot Lord Cochrane, commanding the Chilean navy, cleared (1819–20) the coast of Spanish shipping, and in 1826 the remaining royalists were driven from Chiloé island, their last foothold on Chilean soil. The colonial aristocracy and the clergy had been discredited because of royalist leanings. The army, plus a few intellectuals, established a government devoid of democratic forms. Yet with the centralistic constitution of 1833, fashioned largely by Diego Portales on Chile's particular needs, a foundation was laid for the gradual emergence of parliamentary government and a long period of stability.
During the administrations of Manuel Bulnes (1841–51) and Manuel Montt (1851–61) the country experienced governmental reform and material progress. The war of 1866 between Peru and Spain involved Chile and led the republic to fortify its coast and build a navy. Chileans obtained the right to work the nitrate fields in the Atacama, which then belonged to Bolivia. Trouble over the concessions led in 1879 to open war (see Pacific, War of the). Chile was the victor and added valuable territories taken from Bolivia and Peru; a long-standing quarrel also ensued, the Tacna-Arica Controversy, which was finally settled in 1929. Chile also became involved in serious border troubles with Argentina; it was as a sign and symbol of the end of this trouble that the Christ of the Andes was dedicated in 1904. With the exploitation of nitrate and copper by foreign interests, chiefly the United States, prosperity continued.
The Transandine Railway was completed in 1910 (closed 1982), and many more railroads were built. Industrialization, which soon raised Chile to a leading position among South American nations, was begun. Meanwhile, internal struggles between the executive and legislative branches of the government intensified and resulted (1891) in the overthrow of José Balmaceda. A congressional dictatorship (with a figurehead president and cabinet ministers appointed by the congress) controlled the government until the constitution of 1925, which provided for a strong president. Former president Arturo Alessandri (who had instituted a program of labor reforms during his tenure from 1920 to 1924, and who commanded widespread popular support) was recalled (1925) as a caretaker until elections were held.
Although Chile enjoyed economic prosperity between 1926 and 1931, it was very hard hit by the world economic depression, largely because of its dependence on mineral exports and fluctuating world markets. Large-scale unemployment also had occurred after World War I when the nitrate market collapsed. The rise of the laboring classes was marked by unionization, and there were many Marxists who advocated complete social reform. The struggle between radicals and conservatives led to a series of social experiments and to counterattempts to suppress the radicals (especially the Communists) by force. During Arturo Alessandri's second term (1932–38) a measure of economic stability was restored; however, he turned to repressive measures and alienated the working classes.
A democratic-leftist coalition, the Popular Front, took power after the elections of 1938. Chile broke relations with the Axis (1943) and declared war on Japan in 1945. Economic stability, the improvement of labor conditions, and the control of Communists were the chief aims of the administration of Gabriel González Videla, who was elected president in 1946. He ruled with the support of the Communists until 1948, when he gained the support of the Liberal party and outlawed the Communists. His efforts, as well as those of his successors, Carlos Ibáñez del Campo (1952–58) and Jorge Alessandri (1958–64), were hampered by chronic inflation and repeated labor crises.
In the 1964 presidential election (in which Eduardo Frei Montalva was elected) and in the 1965 congressional elections, the Christian Democratic party won overwhelming victories over the Socialist-Communist coalition. Frei made advances in land reform, education, housing, and labor. Under his so-called Chileanization program, the government assumed a controlling interest in U.S.-owned copper mines while cooperating with U.S. companies in their management and development.
In 1970, Salvador Allende Gossens, head of the Popular Unity party, a coalition of leftist political parties, won a plurality of votes in the presidential election and became the first Marxist to be elected president by popular vote in Latin America. Allende, in an attempt to turn Chile into a socialist state, nationalized many private companies, instituted programs of land reform, and, in foreign affairs, sought closer ties with Communist countries.
Widespread domestic problems, including spiraling inflation, lack of food and consumer goods, stringent government controls, and opposition from some sectors to Allende's programs, led to a series of violent strikes and demonstrations. As the situation worsened, the traditionally neutral Chilean military began to pressure Allende; he yielded to some of their demands and appointed military men to several high cabinet positions.
In Sept., 1973, with covert American support, the armed forces staged a coup during which Allende died by his own hand; it also led to the execution, detention, or expulsion from Chile of thousands of people. Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte took control of the country. The economy continued to deteriorate, even though the government sought to return private enterprise to Chile by denationalizing many industries and by compensating businesses taken over by the Allende government. In 1974, Pinochet became the undisputed leader of Chile, assuming the position of head of state, and in 1977 he abolished all political parties and restricted human and civil rights. Unemployment and labor unrest grew, although the economy improved steadily between 1976 and 1981 with the help of foreign bank loans and an increase in world copper prices. In the early 1980s, the country was plagued by a recession and foreign debt grew significantly, but the economy leveled off late in the decade.
The 1981 constitution guaranteed elections in 1989, and in the 1980s political parties began to re-form despite Pinochet's opposition. In Oct., 1988, the electorate voted against the extension of Pinochet's term to 1997. In 1989, Patricio Aylwin Azócar, a member of the Christian Democratic party who headed a coalition of 17 center and left parties, was elected president by popular vote. However, under the military-drafted constitution, Pinochet remained head of the army. Under Aylwin, Chile again turned toward democracy; the country's economy strengthened, as its exports were increased and its debt lowered.
In 1994, Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, the son of Allende's predecessor, a Christian Democrat, and the leader of another center-left coalition, became president. Frei's free-market policies led to a massive flow of foreign investment. Pinochet stepped down as head of the army in 1998 and was made a senator for life. Later that year, during a visit to London, Pinochet was arrested and held for possible extradition to Spain, on charges stemming from his repressive regime; he was released for health reasons and returned to Chile in Mar., 2000. Falling copper prices, exacerbated by an Asian economic crisis, caused economic and social problems in 1998 and 1999.
Ricardo Lagos Escobar narrowly defeated Joaquín Lavín of the right-wing Alliance for Chile in a runoff election in Jan., 2000. Lagos, the candidate of the Christian Democratic–Socialist coalition, became Chile's first Socialist president since Allende. A moderate leftist, he appointed a cabinet consisting largely of nonideological technocrats.
The military violence of the Pinochet era remains an incompletely resolved issue in Chilean society. Under Lagos investigations into human rights cases proceeded to a greater extent than his two civilian predecessors, although not with the vigor demanded by some leftists and rights advocates. In 2000 prosecutors successfully brought human-rights-related charges against Pinochet, but they were dismissed because of health issues. A new criminal investigation began in 2004, and revelations of hidden offshore bank accounts led to tax evasion charges as well; this time the charges were not dismissed, but his death in 2006 ended all attempts to try him. A government report (2004) on the Pinochet regime denounced its widespread use of torture and illegal imprisonment and led the Chilean congress to enact a compensation program for the victims of military rule. In addition, the army accepted institutional responsibility for the human rights abuses that occurred under Pinochet. Since 2004 a number of former senior military officers in Pinochet's régime have been convicted of crimes relating to murders and other human rights offenses following the coup.
In 2005, the constitution was amended to reduce the national influence of the military and reassert civilian control over it, eliminating the vestiges of Pinochet's dictatorship that had been preserved in the document. Also in 2005, the border with Peru again became a source of international tension as Peru laid claim to offshore fishing waters the Chile controlled. Michelle Bachelet, a Socialist and a defense minister under Lagos, was elected president in Jan., 2006, after a runoff; she was the first woman to be elected president of Chile. Bachelet, the center-left candidate, won more than 53% of the vote, defeating conservative business entrepreneur Sebastián Piñera. The center-left coalition also won majorities in both houses of the Chilean congress.
In June, 2006, Chile saw massive protests over secondary school funding, some of which resulted in clashes with the police, and in early 2007, there were significant protests in Santiago over the disruption caused by a new public transportation system. The nation weathered the 2008–9 global financial crisis and recession relatively well as the government used financial reserves from the 2003–8 copper boom for a stimulus program. Twenty years of center-left rule ended in 2010 when Piñera defeated Frei Ruiz-Tagle, the former president who was the center-left candidate, in a January runoff election.
In Feb., 2010, the country was struck by a devastating earthquake, and significant aftershocks occurred in subsequent weeks. The worst damage was in Concepción and surrounding areas, but significant damage also occurred in Santiago and Valparaiso. Areas along the central coast also suffered from tsunamis. Deaths from the temblor were in the hundreds, but damage was estimated to be $30 billion. Some 220,000 homes were destroyed, and the wine and fishing industries were particularly affected by the earthquake. By mid-2012, however, the Chilean government estimated that three fourths of the needed reconstruction had been completed.