With the oldest inhabited site in the Americas, Chile's astounding past is only starting to be unearthed and understood. Chile has come far from its first days as a backwater of the Spanish empire. Today's culture still bears the marks of a small landowning elite, a long industry of mineral exploitation, and politics which both thwarted and strove for reform. Its ultimate resilience has led Chile to become one of the most stable and influential countries of Latin America.


A small child's footprint left in a marshy field rocked the foundations of American archaeology during the 1980s. The 12,500-year-old print proved human habitation in Monte Verde, near Puerto Montt. Other evidence dated back as far as 33,000 years. These highly controversial dates negate the long-accepted Clovis paradigm, which stated that the Americas were populated via the Bering land bridge some 11,500 years ago, after which the Clovis people scattered southward. New theories suggest multiple entries, different routes or coastal landings by the first peoples. Following a landmark 1998 convention, the Monte Verde site was acknowledged as the oldest inhabited site in the Americas, although more recent discoveries, notably in New Mexico, date back as far as 40,000 years.

Early Cultures

Most pre-Columbian remains have been recovered in the north of Chile, preserved by the extreme desert aridity. The nomadic Chinchorro culture left behind the oldest known intentionally preserved mummies. In north desert canyons, Aymara farmers cultivated maize, grew potatoes and tended llama and alpaca; their descendants still practice similar agricultural techniques around Parque Nacional Lauca. Also in Chile's northern reaches, the Atacameño culture left remarkably well-preserved remains, from mummies to ornate tablets used in the preparation of hallucinogenic substances. The El Molle and Tiwanaku left enormous geoglyphs, rock etchings and ceramics, still visible in the north. Meanwhile, Chango fisherfolk occupied northern coastal areas, and Diaguita peoples inhabited the inland river valleys.

The invasive Inka culture enjoyed a brief ascendancy in northern Chile, but its rule barely touched the central valley and the forests of the south, where the sedentary farmers (Picunche) and shifting cultivators (Mapuche) fiercely resisted any incursions. Meanwhile the Cunco fished and farmed on the island of Chiloé and along the shores of the gulfs of Reloncaví and Ancud.

Cold Hard Facts

Little is known about the Selk'nam (Ona) people who once inhabited Magallanes, but it is well documented that they withstood extreme temperatures wearing little or no clothing. On the government-run Chilean Cultural Heritage website (www.thisischile.cl/cultura/patrimonio-cultural), anthropologist Francisco Mena recounts, 'An investigator of the 19th century writes that he once met a naked man, and asked him how come he felt no cold. And the Selk'nam answered: My whole body has become face.'

For more interesting historical anecdotes, explore the website, which also has an English version.


In 1495, unbeknown to indigenous populations, the Americas were divided up by two superpowers of the day – Spain and Portugal. The papal Treaty of Tordesillas delivered all the territory west of Brazil to Spain. By the mid-16th century, the Spaniards dominated most of the area from Florida and Mexico to central Chile. Though few in number, the conquerors were determined and ruthless, exploiting factionalism among indigenous groups and intimidating native peoples with their horses and firearms. But their greatest ally was infectious disease, against which the natives lacked immunity.

The Spaniards' first ill-fated foray into northern Chile was led over frozen Andean passes in 1535 by Diego de Almagro. Though a failure, it laid the groundwork for Pedro de Valdivia's 1540 expedition. After surviving the parched desert, they reached Chile's fertile Mapocho Valley in 1541.Valdivia subdued the local indigenous groups, and founded the city of Santiago on February 12. Six months later the indigenous peoples struck back, razing the town and all but wiping out the settlers' supplies. But the Spaniards clung on, and the population burgeoned. By the time of his death in 1553, at the hands of Mapuche forces led by the famous caciques (chiefs) Caupolicán and Lautaro, Valdivia had founded numerous settlements and laid the groundwork for a new society.

Colonial Chile

Lust for gold and silver was always high on the Spaniards' agenda, but they soon realized that the true wealth of the New World consisted of the large indigenous populations. The encomienda system granted individual Spaniards rights to indigenous labor and tribute. It was easily established in northern Chile (then part of Peru) where the indigenous population were highly organized and even accustomed to similar forms of exploitation.

The Spaniards also established dominance in central Chile, but the semi-sedentary and nomadic peoples of the south mounted vigorous resistance. Feral horses taken from the Argentine pampas greatly aided the Mapuche, whose new mobility enhanced their ability to strike.

Despite the Crown's distant disapproval, Valdivia began rewarding his followers with enormous land grants. Such latifundios (estates) became an enduring feature of Chilean agriculture and society, with many intact as late as the 1960s.

Mestizo children of mixed Spanish and indigenous parentage soon outnumbered the indigenous peoples, whose population declined after epidemics, forced-labor abuses and warfare. Chile's neo-aristocracy encouraged the landless mestizo population to attach themselves as inquilinos (tenant farmers) to large rural estates.


Independence movements sparked between 1808 and 1810 were born from the emergence of the criollo (creole) class – American-born Spaniards pushing for self-government. To facilitate tax collection, Madrid decreed that all Spanish trade pass overland through Panama rather than directly by ship. This cumbersome system hampered commerce and eventually cost Spain its empire.

During colonial times, Chile was judged a subdivision of the Lima-based Viceroyalty of Peru. Called the Audiencia de Chile, it reached from present-day Chañaral south to Puerto Aisén, plus the present-day Argentine provinces of Mendoza, San Juan and San Luis. Chile developed in near isolation from Peru, creating a wholly distinct identity.

By the 1820s, independence movements were igniting throughout South America. From Venezuela, a criollo army under Simón Bolívar fought its way toward Peru. The Argentine liberator José de San Martín marched over the Andes into Chile, occupied Santiago and sailed north to Lima.

San Martín appointed Bernardo O'Higgins second-in-command of forces. O'Higgins, the illegitimate son of an Irishman who had served the Spaniards as Viceroy of Peru, became supreme director of the new Chilean republic. San Martín helped drive Spain from Peru, transporting his army in ships either seized from the Spaniards or purchased from Britons or North Americans seeking commercial gain. Thus it was that Scotsman Thomas Cochrane, a colorful former Royal Navy officer, founded and commanded Chile's navy.

The Early Republic

Battered but buoyed by independence, Chile was a fraction of its present size, sharing ambiguous boundaries with Bolivia, Argentina and the hostile Mapuche nation south of the Río Biobío.

Politically stable, Chile rapidly developed agriculture, mining, industry and commerce. O'Higgins dominated politics for five years after formal independence in 1818, but the landowning elite objected to increased taxes, abolition of titles and limitations on inheritance. Forced to resign in 1823, O'Higgins went into exile in Peru.

Diego Portales was interior minister and de facto dictator until his execution following an 1837 uprising. His constitution centralized power in Santiago, limited suffrage to the propertied and established indirect elections for the presidency and senate. It lasted until 1925.

The end of the 19th century was an era of shifting boundaries. Treaties with the Mapuche (1881) brought temperate southern territories under Chilean authority. Chile focused much of its energy on northern expansion and the War of the Pacific. Forced to abandon much of Patagonia to Argentina, Chile sought a broader Pacific presence, and annexed the tiny remote Easter Island (also known as Rapa Nui) in 1888.

Mining for Prosperity

Chile's wealth and prosperity is owed in part to its wrangling of the north in 1879. In the five-year War of the Pacific (1879–84) Chile annexed vast areas of land from Peru and Bolivia. The battles began after Bolivia prohibited a Chilean company from exploiting the nitrate deposits in Atacama, then owned by Bolivia. Chile retaliated by seizing the Bolivian port of Antofagasta and wresting the Tacna and Arica provinces from Peru, thus robbing the Bolivians of all access to the Pacific. This fiercely fought campaign is still celebrated by Chileans with as much gusto as it is bitterly resented by Peruvians and Bolivians. And it's still a prickly thorn in their neighborly relations today.

Santiago's intervention proved a bonanza. The nitrate boom allowed Chile's high society to prosper. British, North American and German investors supplied most of the capital. Railroads revolutionized infrastructure and the economy boomed. The addition of ports such as Iquique and Antofagasta only augmented Chile's success.

When the nitrate bubble eventually burst, copper, which still propels the Chilean economy, was there to replace it.

Civil War

Mining expansion created a new working class, as well as a class of nouveau riche, both of which challenged the political power of the landowners. The first political figure to tackle the dilemma of Chile's badly distributed wealth was President José Manuel Balmaceda, elected in 1886. Balmaceda's administration undertook major public-works projects, revolutionizing infrastructure and improving hospitals and schools. In 1890, a conservative Congress voted to depose him.

Naval Commander Jorge Montt was elected to head a provisional government. In the ensuing civil war, Montt's navy controlled the ports and eventually defeated the government, despite army support for Balmaceda. Over 10,000 died and Balmaceda shot himself.

Twentieth Century

The Chilean economy took a hit for its crippling dependence on nitrates, which were being replaced by new petroleum-based fertilizers. The 1914 opening of the Panama Canal made the Cape Horn route, and its many Chilean ports, nearly obsolete.

After periods of poor leadership, several leftist groups briefly imposed a socialist republic and merged to form the Socialist Party. Splits divided the Communist Party, while splinter groups from radical and reformist parties created a bewildering mix of new political organizations. For most of the 1930s and 1940s the democratic left dominated Chilean politics.

Meanwhile, the early 20th century saw North American companies gain control of the copper mines, the cornerstone – then and now – of the Chilean economy. WWII augmented the demand for Chilean copper, promoting economic growth even as Chile remained neutral.

Land Reform

In the 1920s, haciendas (large rural landholdings) controlled 80% of the prime agricultural land. Inquilinos remained at the mercy of landowners for access to housing, soil and subsistence. Even their votes belonged to landowners. Haciendas had little incentive to modernize, and production stagnated – a situation that changed little until the 1960s.

Reformist sentiment stirred fear in the old order. Conservative and liberal parties decided to join forces. Their candidate, Jorge Alessandri, son of former president Arturo Alessandri, scraped through the 1958 election with less than 32% of the vote. An opposition Congress forced Alessandri to accept modest land-reform legislation, beginning a decade-long battle with the haciendas.

The 1964 presidential election was a choice between socialist Salvador Allende and Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei Montalva, who drew support from conservative groups. Both parties promised agrarian reform, supported rural unionization and promised an end to the hacienda system. Allende was undermined by leftist factionalism and Frei won comfortably.

Christian Democratic Period

Committed to social transformation, the Christian Democrats attempted to control inflation, balance imports and exports and implement reforms. However, their policies threatened both the traditional elite's privileges and the radical left's working-class support.

The country's economy had declined under Alessandri's presidency, driving the dispossessed to the cities, where squatter settlements, known as callampas (mushrooms), sprang up almost overnight. Attacks increased on the export sector, then dominated by US interests. President Frei advocated 'Chileanization' of the copper industry (getting rid of foreign investors), while the Allende camp supported placing the industry under state control.

The Christian Democrats also faced challenges from violent groups such as the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionario (MIR; Leftist Revolutionary Movement), which began among upper-middle-class students in Concepción. Urban laborers joined suit, forming the allied Frente de Trabajadores Revolucionarios (Revolutionary Workers Front). Activism also caught on with peasants who longed for land reform. Other leftist groups supported strikes and land seizures by the Mapuche and rural laborers.

Frei's reforms were too slow to appease leftists and too fast for the conservative National Party. Despite better living conditions for many rural workers and gains in education and public health, the country was plagued by inflation, dependence on foreign markets and capital, and inequitable income distribution. The Christian Democrats could not satisfy rising expectations in Chile's increasingly militant and polarized society.

Allende's Rise to Power

In this discomforting political climate, a new leftist coalition coalesced. With Allende at its head, the Unidad Popular (UP) was shaping a radical program that included the nationalization of mines, banks and insurance, plus the expropriation and redistribution of large landholdings. In the 1970 election, Allende squeezed 36% of the vote against the National Party's 35%, becoming the world's first democratically elected Marxist president.

But the country – and even Allende's own coalition – was far from united. The UP consisted of socialist, communist and radical parties conflicted over objectives. Allende faced an opposition Congress, a suspicious US government, and right-wing extremists who even advocated his overthrow by violent means.

Allende's economic program, accomplished by evading rather than confronting Congress, included the state takeover of many private enterprises and massive income redistribution. By increasing government spending, the new president expected to bring the country out of recession. This worked briefly, but apprehensive businesspeople and landowners, worried about expropriation and nationalization, sold off stock, machinery and livestock. Industrial production nose-dived, leading to shortages, hyperinflation and black marketeering.

Peasants, frustrated with an agrarian reform, seized land and agricultural production fell. The government had to use scarce foreign currency to import food. Chilean politics grew increasingly polarized and confrontational, as many of Allende's supporters resented his indirect approach to reform. The MIR intensified its guerrilla activities, and stories circulated in Santiago's factories about new armed communist organizations.

Expropriation of US-controlled copper mines and other enterprises, plus conspicuously friendly relations with Cuba, provoked US hostility. Later, hearings in the US Congress indicated that President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had actively undercut Allende by discouraging credit from international finance organizations and supporting his opponents. Meanwhile, according to the memoirs of a Soviet defector published in 2005, the KGB withdrew support for Allende because of his refusal to use force against his opponents.

Faced with such difficulties, the Chilean government tried to forestall conflict by proposing clearly defined limits on nationalization. Unfortunately, neither extreme leftists, who believed that only force could achieve socialism, nor their rightist counterparts, who believed only force could prevent it, were open to compromise.

Rightist Backlash

In 1972 Chile was paralyzed by a widespread truckers' strike, supported by the Christian Democrats and the National Party. As the government's authority crumbled, a desperate Allende invited constitutionalist army commander General Carlos Prats to occupy the critical post of interior minister, and he included an admiral and an air-force general in his cabinet. Despite the economic crisis, results of the March 1973 congressional elections demonstrated that Allende's support had actually increased since 1970 – but the unified opposition nevertheless strengthened its control of Congress, underscoring the polarization of Chilean politics. In June 1973 there was an unsuccessful military coup.

The next month, truckers and other rightists once again went on strike, supported by the entire opposition. Having lost military support, General Prats resigned, to be replaced by the relatively obscure General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, whom both Prats and Allende thought loyal to constitutional government.

On September 11, 1973 Pinochet unleashed a brutal golpe de estado (coup d'état) that overthrew the UP government and resulted in Allende's death (an apparent suicide) and the death of thousands of Allende supporters. Police and the military apprehended thousands of leftists, suspected leftists and sympathizers. Many were herded into Santiago's National Stadium, where they suffered beatings, torture and even execution. Hundreds of thousands went into exile.

The military argued that force was necessary to remove Allende because his government had fomented political and economic chaos and because – so they claimed – he himself was planning to overthrow the constitutional order by force. Certainly, inept policies brought about this 'economic chaos,' but reactionary sectors, encouraged and abetted from abroad, exacerbated scarcities, producing a black market that further undercut order. Allende had demonstrated commitment to democracy, but his inability or unwillingness to control factions to his left terrified the middle class as well as the oligarchy.

Military Dictatorship

Many opposition leaders, some of whom had encouraged the coup, expected a quick return to civilian government, but General Pinochet had other ideas. From 1973 to 1989, he headed a durable junta that dissolved Congress, banned leftist parties and suspended all others, prohibited nearly all political activity and ruled by decree. Assuming the presidency in 1974, Pinochet sought to reorder the country's political and economic culture through repression, torture and murder. The Caravan of Death, a group of military that traveled by helicopter from town to town, mainly in northern Chile, killed many political opponents, several of whom had voluntarily turned themselves in. Detainees came from all sectors of society, from peasants to professors. Around 35,000 were tortured and 3000 'disappeared' during the 17-year regime.

The CNI (Centro Nacional de Informaciones, or National Information Center) and its predecessor DINA (Directoria de Inteligencia Nacional, or National Intelligence Directorate) were the most notorious practitioners of state terrorism. International assassinations were not unusual – a car bomb killed General Prats in Buenos Aires a year after the coup, and Christian Democrat leader Bernardo Leighton barely survived a shooting in Rome in 1975. Perhaps the most notorious case was the 1976 murder of Allende's foreign minister, Orlando Letelier, by a car bomb in Washington, DC.

By 1977 even air-force general Gustavo Leigh, a member of the junta, thought the campaign against 'subversion' so successful that he proposed a return to civilian rule, but Pinochet forced Leigh's resignation, ensuring the army's dominance and perpetuating himself in power. By 1980 Pinochet felt confident enough to submit a new, customized constitution to the electorate and wagered his own political future on it. In a plebiscite with narrow options, about two-thirds of the voters approved the constitution and ratified Pinochet's presidency until 1989, though many voters abstained in protest.

Return to Democracy

Cracks in the regime began to appear around 1983, when leftist groups dared to stage demonstrations and militant opposition groups began to form in the shantytowns. Political parties also started to regroup, although they only began to function openly again in 1987. In late 1988, trying to extend his presidency until 1997, Pinochet held another plebiscite, but this time voters rejected him.

In multiparty elections in 1989, Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin, compromise candidate of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia (Concertación for short), defeated a conservative economist. Consolidating the rebirth of democracy, Aylwin's term was followed by another Concertación president, Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle.

The Concertación maintained Pinochet's free-market reforms, but Pinochet's military senate appointees could still block other reform. Pinochet assumed a senate seat upon retirement from the army in 1997 – at least in part because it conferred immunity from prosecution in Chile.

This constitutional hangover from the dictatorship was finally swept away in July 2005 when the president was granted the right to fire armed-forces commanders and abolish unelected senators.

The Pinochet Saga

The September 1998 arrest of General Pinochet in London at the request of Spanish judge Báltazar Garzón, who was investigating deaths and disappearances of Spanish citizens in the aftermath of the 1973 coup, caused an international uproar.

Following the arrest, US president Bill Clinton released files showing 30 years of US government covert aid to undermine Allende and set the stage for the coup d'état. Pinochet was put under house arrest, and for four years lawyers argued whether or not he was able to stand trial for crimes committed by the Caravan of Death, based on his health and mental condition. Both the Court of Appeals (in 2000) and the Supreme Court (2002) ruled him unfit to stand trial. As a consequence of the court's decision – that he suffered from dementia – Pinochet stepped down from his post as lifetime senator.

It seemed the end of judicial efforts to hold him accountable for human rights abuses. But in 2004 Pinochet gave a TV interview in which he appeared wholly lucid. A string of court decisions subsequently stripped Pinochet of his immunity from prosecution as a former head of state. One of the key human rights charges subsequently brought against him revolved around his alleged role in Operation Condor, a coordinated campaign by several South American regimes in the 1970s and 1980s to eliminate leftist opponents.

Chileans then witnessed a string of yo-yoing court decisions that first stripped his immunity, subsequently reversed the ruling, then again decided that he could stand trial. Revelations made in early 2005 about Pinochet's secret foreign bank accounts containing US$27 million added to the charges and implicated his wife and son. The judge investigating the bank accounts received death threats.

Despite the intense legal activity, Pinochet never reached trial. He died on December 10, 2006 at the age of 91. In Santiago's Plaza Italia, 6000 demonstrators gathered to celebrate, tossing confetti and drinking champagne, but there were also violent riots. Tens of thousands of Pinochet supporters attended his funeral and honored him as a patriot who gave Chile a strong economic future.

In 2014, a Chilean court made a landmark ruling to compensate 31 former dissidents who were tortured and detained on Dawson Island with a sum of US$7.5 million. Later ratified by the Chilean Supreme Court, it was the first time that victims tortured under the dictatorship were compensated. In 2015, two former military intelligence officers were charged with the 1973 disappearance and death of two Americans – one of them, journalist Charles Horman, had inspired the 1982 movie Missing.

Documenting the Pinochet Years

  • Chilean director Andrés Wood's hit Machuca (2004) depicts the bittersweet coming-of-age of two very different boys during the class-conscious and volatile Santiago of 1973.
  • Epic documentary La Batalla de Chile, by Patricio Guzmán, brilliantly chronicles the year leading up to the military coup of 1973. Filmed partly in secret on stock sent from abroad, the footage had to be smuggled out of Chile.
  • March Cooper, Allende's translator, takes an insightful and poignant look at Chile's politics and society from the coup to today's cynical consumer society in Pinochet and Me: A Chilean Anti-Memoir (2002).

The Rise of the Left

The Concertación narrowly scraped through the 2000 elections for its third term in office. Its candidate, the moderate leftist Ricardo Lagos, joined a growing breed of left-leaning governments elected across South America, all seeking to put space between themselves and Washington. Lagos became an important figure in this shift in 2003 when he was one of the most determined members of the UN Security Council to oppose war in Iraq.

In these years, Chile began to shed much of its traditional conservatism. The death penalty was abolished in 2001 and a divorce law was finally passed in 2004 (although the morning-after pill still provokes controversy). The arts and free press began once again flourishing, and women's rights were increasingly recognized in law.

The 2006 election of Michelle Bachelet, former minister of defense under Lagos, was a watershed event. Not only because she is a woman, but because as an agnostic, socialist single mother she represented everything that Chile superficially was not. Her father was an air-force general who died at the hands of Pinochet's forces; she was also detained and tortured but released, and lived in exile abroad. Her skill as a consensus builder helped her to heal old wounds with the military and the public. For voters, she represented a continuum of the policies of Lagos, moving forward Chile's already strong economy.

Bachelet took the presidency with initially strong approval ratings, but increasing divisions within her coalition (La Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia) made reforms difficult. She also was tested by emerging crises with no easy answer. An upgrade of urban buses to Transantiago abruptly consolidated and eliminated routes, leaving many riders stranded on the curb. The student protests of 2006–07 also put the government on the defensive. It took a massive natural disaster for the public to once again rally around Bachelet.

A Seismic Shift

In the early hours of February 27, 2010, one of the largest quakes ever recorded in history hit off the coast of Central Chile. The 8.8 earthquake caused massive destruction, triggering tsunamis along the coast and in Archipiélago Juan Fernández and claiming 525 lives. Many homes and highways were destroyed, and insurance companies estimated billions of dollars worth of damages.

After some initial looting in affected areas, order returned quickly. Chile's Teletón, a yearly charity fundraising event, raised an unprecedented US$39 million for the cause. Several government officials faced charges for failing to warn Archipiélago Juan Fernández of the tsunami. Although there was debate about whether she should be considered responsible, ex-president Bachelet was ultimately not charged. Overall, the government was praised for its swift action in initial reparations. At the same time, the outpouring of solidarity demonstrated by the Chilean people was a boost to national pride.

Bachelet's tenure was nearly over at the time of the earthquake. After 20 years of rule by the liberal Concertacíon, Chile had elected conservative billionaire businessman Sebastián Piñera from the center-right Alianza por Chile, technically the first right-wing government since Pinochet. While Piñera took his oath of office, a 6.9 magnitude aftershock rocked Santiago. Liberal commentators, including novelist Isabel Allende, seized on this as a metaphor.

Months later, Chileans banded together again as the country cheered on 33 miners trapped in the San José mine. While rescue crews worked against the clock, the workers managed to survive 69 days underground, and emerged to both their families and the whole world watching.

Los 33

Six months after the massive earthquake, Chile rebounded on to the world stage when 33 miners became trapped 700m underground in the Atacama Desert when the mine that they were in collapsed on August 5, 2010. After 17 days they had been feared dead, when a borehole broke through their emergency shelter. Miners relayed a scrawled message read live on TV by President Piñera himself: 'We are well in the shelter. The 33.'

After the hole came a tube and what the Chileans called palomas – messenger doves. In these capsules, videos and love letters went up, baked pies and medication went down. It was the line that connected the surface to the depths, life to a world devoid of it, and billions of viewers to 33 anxious souls.

Awaiting the rescue, the miners' families and world media held vigil nearby, in the desert 45km north of Copiapó. World attention and an outpouring of public empathy encouraged the government to take over the flailing rescue, with help from NASA and private companies, but complications drew out the drama. On October 13, after enduring 69 days underground, the 33 were finally rescued.

The aftermath for the survivors has been difficult, with survivors suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), financial woes and depression. The incident led to some long-overdue mining reforms, with the adoption of the International Labour Organization's (ILO) convention on mining safety a year after the incident.

Taking it to the Streets

Once rare in this former dictatorship, public protests have become a fixture in the political landscape. Starting during the term of Bachelet, Chilean students – nicknamed pinguinos (penguins) for their uniforms – began to protest the dismal quality of state schooling en masse. Violence marred some protests, yet they eventually succeeded in propelling the government to implement improvements in primary and secondary education.

Inequity has driven the issue: on a national test, private-school fourth-graders were outperforming their public-school counterparts by 50%. Less than half of Chilean students attend the underfunded public schools, while those who can afford private education gain significant advantages. The Bachelet administration promised state grants and a new quality agency for monitoring. Under the administration of Sebastián Piñera, the issue refocused on expensive higher education. When the Piñera government failed to respond, protesters broke out into Michael Jackson's Thriller and paraded as zombies outside the presidential palace. The Chilean Winter became the largest public protest in decades.

In Februrary of 2012, citizen protests in Puerto Aisén and Coyhaique shut down much of the Patagonian province for nearly a month. Joined by unions, protesters from the Social Movement for the Aysén Region organized blockades and shut down roads, turning the biggest tourism month into a no-show. The issues included the region's lack of quality health care, education and infrastructure, in addition to the much higher costs of living in the neglected provinces.

Along with public appeals, large protests also had a heavy hand in the government's 2014 canceling of the US$3.2 billion HidroAysén dam projects. The largest energy project ever proposed in Chile, it planned for five major dams on two Patagonian rivers with a heavy impact on surrounding communities and parks.

Mapuche unrest has been another constant. Land disputes with forestry companies and individuals resulted in fatal arson attacks between 2011 and the present. Relations with the state were already poor since the police killings of Mapuche youth in 2005 and 2008, which had sparked massive demonstrations and vandalism. Tensions continue between the state and the Mapuche indigenous community, who today number around one million.

Building Foundations

In the first decade of the millennium Chile rose as an economic star – boosted by record prices for its key export, copper. When the world economic crisis hit, Chile remained in good standing. It was the first Latin country to enter into a free trade agreement with the US, though now its main trading partner is China. As hard as Chile tries to diversify, copper still accounts for a whopping 60% of exports. Yet, with diminishing demand for copper in China, the once-bulletproof Chilean peso is finally slipping in value.

Chile closed out 2013 by electing Michelle Bachelet once again to the presidency. At the first presidential election in Chile in which voting was no longer mandatory, turnout was notably low. Bachelet made addressing inequality the mission of her administration. The elections also brought young reform candidates to congress like Camilia Vallejo and Giorgio Jackson, the former undergraduate leaders of the student protests.

There's a sense that Bachelet was taking on unfinished business in her second term. Her administration created a ministry of women and gender equality, legalized abortion in some cases and promoted transgender and gay rights, including same sex marriage. Aided by donations by Tompkins Conservation, her government also set aside 40,500 sq km of land for national parks.