Chile History

The Inca and the Mapuche

Archaeological evidence indicates that societies settled throughout Chile as early as the 600s BC. The country encompasses a wide range of biomes, but by and large the country proved fruitful for growing populations. The peoples of Chile practiced various forms of megalithic construction, and are otherwise famous for their unique textiles and silverworking. 

Chile is home to many different indigenous peoples, with a diverse range of cultural practices and languages. These include the Aónikenk (commonly called by their Mapuche name Tehuelche), who were erroneously identified as giants in early colonial literature. For the most part, though, pre-Columbian Chile was under the control of the Inca in the north and the Mapuche (also known as the Araucanos) in the south. The Inca are known around the world as a wealthy and expansive empire, and they projected their power and control throughout large stretches of the Andes. They extended their control as far as central Chile before their collapse and conquest by the Spanish.

The Mapuche were much less centralized/organized than the Inca, but they fought together to resist the Inca and maintain their independence. The Mapuche won an important pyrrhic victory at the Battle of the Maule that would define the Incas' southern border for decades.



In the mid-1500s, the Spanish followed the same route of conquest out of Peru as had the Inca. In 1541, a Spaniard, Pedro de Valdivia, marched into Chile founded Santiago. The colony would provide substantial mineral and agricultural value, but its remoteness would make it difficult to protect from raids by local amerindian nations and by the English. The defense of the Chile colony would prove a significant drain on Spain's finances.

For nearly three hundred and fifty years, in a long-running conflict called the Arauco War, Mapuche groups would harass and resist Spanish rule. The Spanish made significant headway over the first fifty years of expansion, but by 1598 the native people were able to score major victories and establish a frontier between Spanish Chilean and Mapuche territory. They would remain largely independent until after Chile won its independence, and because of this the Mapuche have a heroic reputation in many circles. 



Chile began its bid for independence after the Spanish crown changed hands in the Napoleonic Wars. Chile won its independence from Spain in 1818 under Bernardo O'Higgins and an Argentinian, José de San Martin. O'Higgins, dictator until 1823, laid the foundations of the modern state with a two-party system and a centralized government.

The dictator from 1830 to 1837, Diego Portales, fought a war with Peru from 1836—1839 that expanded Chilean territory. Chile fought the War of the Pacific with Peru and Bolivia from 1879 to 1883, winning Antofagasta, Bolivia's only outlet to the sea, and extensive areas from Peru.


The Beginning of the Republic

Pedro Montt led a revolt that overthrew José Balmaceda in 1891 and established a parliamentary dictatorship lasting until a new constitution was adopted in 1925. Industrialization began before World War I and led to the formation of Marxist groups. Juan Antonio Ríos, president during World War II, was originally pro-Nazi but in 1944 led his country into the war on the side of the Allies.


The Presidency of Salvador Allende

In 1970, Salvador Allende became the first president in a non-Communist country freely elected on a Marxist program. Allende quickly established relations with Cuba and the People's Republic of China, introduced Marxist economic and social reforms, and nationalized many private companies, including U.S.-owned ones. In Sept. 1973, Allende was overthrown and killed in a military coup covertly sponsored by the CIA, ending a 46-year era of constitutional government in Chile.


The Pinochet Regime & Return to Democracy

The coup was led by a four-man junta headed by Army Chief of Staff Augusto Pinochet, who eventually assumed the office of president. Committed to eliminating Marxism the junta suspended parliament, banned political activity, and severely curbed civil liberties. Pinochet's brutal dictatorship led to the imprisonment, torture, disappearances, execution, and expulsion of thousands of Chileans. A government report in 2004 indicated that almost 28,000 people had been tortured during his rule, and at least 3,200 murders and disappearances had taken place.

The economy, in tatters after the recession that afflicted the Allende administration, gradually improved after Chile's privatization under Pinochet. In 1989, Pinochet lost a plebiscite on whether he should remain in power. He stepped down in Jan. 1990 in favor of Patricio Aylwin. In Dec. 1993, Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, the candidate of a center-left coalition and son of a previous president, was elected president.

Pinochet, who had retained his post as army commander in chief after the 1989 plebiscite, retired in March 1998. In Oct. 1998, he was arrested and detained in England on an extradition request issued by a Spanish judge who sought Pinochet in connection with the disappearances of Spanish citizens during his rule. British courts ultimately denied his extradition, and Pinochet returned to Chile in March 2000. He died in Dec. 2006 at age 91, before facing trial for the abuses of his 17-year dictatorship.