The Historical Text Archive: Electronic History Resources, online since 1990 Bringing you digitized history, primary and secondary sources
HTA Home Page | Articles | Latin America/Chile | Chile: A Guide to the 20th Century

Email to a friend
Printer friendly

Chile: A Guide to the 20th Century

by Kristi Armstrong

The Republic of Chile, more commonly known as Chile, is a country on the west coast of South America. Chile has many characteristics that make it an interesting subject. Whether one would like to learn more about Chile's diverse geography or maybe its turbulent history, the many facts listed below will help guide one through his/her journey.


Chile is a little larger than Texas, but Chile differs from Texas in that it stretches out along 4,022 miles of the west coast. Its average width is less than 100 miles, but the square miles of Chile total 289,112. Besides the mainland, Chile has two territorial islands: Easter and the Isla Sala y Gómez.

Chile features a very diverse area and climate. Three major geological divisions are found in Chile: the Andes Mountains, the Central Valley, and the Coastal Plains. Since Chile has such a diverse landscape, it is usually divided into three sections, containing a northern, central, and southern region. The northern region is dry and desertlike. The central region has forests, lakes, and mountains, and most Chileans call this region home. The southern region consists of lakes, forests, fjords, and islands. Besides having beautiful features such as lakes and forests, Chile has rich agricultural regions, volcanoes, and extensive mineral resources. Some of its principal rivers are as follows: Aconcagua, Baker, Bío Bío, Loa (the longest), Maipo, Maule, Palena, Tolten, and Valdivia. The country is also subject to earthquakes. The climate of Chile ranges from sub-tropical in the north to moderate in the central region and sub-arctic in the south. Chile's seasonal climates are opposite those in the United States.


Chile has a population of 13,528,945 people. There is an uneven distribution between urban and rural sectors of the population. Eighty-four percent of Chile's population is in the urban areas. Santiago is Chile's capital and major city. Chileans have a strong cultural background. About two-thirds of Chileans are mestizos (mixed Indian and European descent). A small amount of Chilean ancestry comes from Germans, Swiss, Italians, British, French, and Yugoslavs who settled in Chile during the 19th and 20th centuries. Some Araucanian Indians still reside in the forests south of the Bío Bío River. While most of these people still retain their native languages, the official language of Chile is Spanish and eighty percent of the population practices the Roman Catholic faith.

Education is very important to Chileans. Primary education is compulsory, and secondary education is structured for students who either want to later attend the universities or who want to seek technical and vocational training. Chile features 23 universities, including the University of Chile. The country claims to have ninety-three percent literacy rate, which is one of the highest in Latin America.

The family unit plays a major role in Chilean society. Chileans believe in the extended family. While the father is still the head of the household, females have recently attained a position of prominence in the family. Almost half of the Chilean work force is female, and many women hold distinguished business and political positions in Chile. People in Chile marry at older ages, because earning one's education before marriage has become a popular practice.

Chilean's enjoy a diverse amount of popular activities such as sports, theater, music, and movies. While soccer is the most popular sport, Chileans take part in such pastimes as swimming, going to parks, fishing, and traveling to the rodeo. Weekend and holiday gatherings are almost traditional in Chilean society. At these gatherings, Chileans might prepare dishes made up of fish, seafood, chicken, beef, beans, eggs, and corn. Chileans have the main meal of the day at midday. The evening meal is a lighter one. During the afternoon, it is customary for Chileans to take a teatime. The typical Chilean dish is a stew called cazuela de ave. It consists of chicken, potatoes, rice, and maybe onions and peppers. While there are large supermarkets in most of the major cities, many of the people continue to purchase food from traveling markets.


Chile's economy is prosperous and growing. The country is one of the most economically developed nations in Latin America. The peso is the official currency of Chile. Government has played a major role in the economic development of Chile. It intervened in order to stimulate social spending. Foreign debt has decreased, and the country has become open to more foreign investments. Trade partners include the European Community, the United States, Japan, and Brazil. Unemployment and inflation are both at manageable levels. The average person in Chile has enough income to meet his/her basic needs. The labor force concentrates in three major areas. These include manufacturing, agriculture, and services. Mining only employs a small percentage of the labor force.

Mining, manufacturing, and agricultural endeavors help to account for Chile's economic success. Copper is Chile's number one export. The mining of other minerals such as iron ore, gold, silver, nitrates, and petroleum fields is also important to the economy. Some of the major manufactures include automobiles, chemicals, rubber products, cement, and consumer goods. Agriculture plays an important role in the Chilean economy. Foreign countries import Chile's grapes, apples, nectarines, peaches, and other miscellaneous fruits. Forestry and fishing economies has grown in importance. Stock raising is a chief activity in most rural areas. Wheat, other grains, and vegetables are used as food. Chile has become famous for its production of fine wines.


Chile is a multiparty republic. The country has executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Executive power rests with the directly elected president, who can serve only one term. The candidates must win by a majority or face a runoff. In the legislative branch, Congress has two houses: the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. The judicial system consists of a Supreme Court and various other lower courts. Several political parties have membership in Chilean government. The voting age is 18, and the law requires that all eligible citizens are to vote.


Chile's history in the 20th century has been one of turbulence and change. Chile entered the new century under a parliamentary system of government. The Congress, who served as the supreme authority in the country at the time, elected the president. Presidents, who served during this time, include Germán Riesco Errazuriz, Pedro Montt, Ramón Barros Luco, and Juan Luis Sanfuentes. While these presidents did not have very much power, Chile remained stable. However, by the 1920s there was a growing gap between the middle class and the lower class. The masses were getting desperate. They looked for a leader -- Arturo Alessandri Palma. He was a well -intentioned reformist. Alessandri thought he could do anything, and he tried hard to keep his promises. The Conservative Congress would not cooperate with him. In 1924 Alessandri was overthrown by a military coup, and he left the country. Then, pro-Alessandri reformers overthrew the military government and returned Alessandri to power. He was able to push a new constitution through Congress that called for the direct, popular election of the president, separation of church and state, and compulsory primary education. Alessandri served as president for only a couple of months in 1925. Carlos Ibañez, who had helped return Alessandri to power, forced Alessandri out of office. After an interim president served for about two years, Ibañez had himself elected president through carefully manipulated elections. He was clearly a military dictator, but he promoted industry and public works. Chile's economy was doing well until the Great Depression struck the world in the 1930s. The Depression was to be Ibañez's downfall.

From 1932 to 1973 Chile enjoyed electoral democracy without any outside diversions. In 1932 Arturo Alessandri returned to power after a period of juntas and uncertainty. He restored the power of the Constitution of 1925. Upon returning to power, Alessandri acted as a conservative and ruled almost like a dictator. Other political factions began to plot for a way to get rid of Alessandri in the election of 1938. Collectively, they created the Popular Front Party, which was a coalition of Communists, Radicals, and Socialists. Their candidate, Pedro Aguirre Cerda, narrowly defeated Alessandri in the election. He was competent, but he retired in 1941 due to illness. Juan Antonio Ríos Morales was elected president in 1942. Ríos' policies reflected those of Aguirre, but the Popular Front coalition came apart almost immediately. Ríos created new coalitions in an effort to establish an effective government. He died in 1946, and Chile had to hold new elections. The next man elected to the presidency was Gabriel González Vidala. He was a reformist, and he sided with the United States in the Cold War. He outlawed the Communist Party in Chile. By the end of González's term in 1952, Chileans were tired of politicians. In the election that same year, they chose Carlos Ibañez. He returned to office as a reformer, but again economic difficulties due to the Korean War plagued his presidency.

In the elections of 1958, three factions competed for the presidency: Jorge Alessandri Rodríguez (Conservative), Salvador Allende (Socialist), and Eduardo Frei Montalva (Christian Democrat). Alessandri won the election. He was sensible and was able to maintain political and economic stability. He also helped to put a halt to inflation.
The 1964 election pitted Allende and Frei against each other. Frei defeated Allende in the largest margin in history. His major accomplishment during his presidency was to take control of Chile's copper industry from foreign companies. In other areas, he was not able to fulfill his promises, and by 1970 much of his power had eroded. The 1970 elections were controversial. The Socialist, Allende, won the election. He became the first constitutionally elected Marxist in the Western Hemisphere. Allende finished nationalizing United States copper firms, nationalized banks, and sped up land distribution. He was determined and continued to promote his socialist programs.

Some leaders in Chile could not tolerate the Marxist command over their country. With help from the United States, a military coup ousted Allende in 1973. He committed suicide. The military junta put Augusto Pinochet in power. His regime would last until 1990, and he ruled Chile with an iron fist. Strict social and economic conditions plagued Chileans. Pinochet returned many banks, factories, and land to private owners. Chile experienced some economic growth in the 1970s, but by the 1980s the country had plunged into a recession. In 1980 a plebiscite approved a new constitution, which called for a reformist policy. Public opinion began to mount against him. In 1988 ,Pinochet arranged a plebiscite to ask the people whether he should rule for another eight years. It backfired on him, but Pinochet remained in power until 1990.

Chile returned to a democratic government in 1990 after 17 years of dictatorial rule. A Christian Democrat, Patricio Awlyn Azocar won, but Pinochet remained as the head of the military. The country made some progress under Awlyn. Christian Democrat, Eduardo Frei, son of the former president, won the election of 1993. Currently, conditions are stable in Chile, but there is some tension between the government and the military.


Bizzarro, Salvador. Historical Dictionary of Chile. 2d ed. Metchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1987.
Box, Ben, ed. South American Handbook. Chicago, IL: NTC Publishing Group, 1995.
Brigham Young University. Culturgram 96. Provo, UT: Brigham Young University, 1995.
Halperin, Arturo. Nationalism and Communism in Chile. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 1965.
Hudson, Rex A, ed. Chile, A Country Study. Washington D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1994.
Loveman, Brian. Chile: The Legacy of Hispanic Capitalism. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Pearson, Neil J., "Chile." In Grolier Electronic Publishing, 1995.
Valenzuala, Arturo and J. Samuel Valenzuala, eds. Chile: Politics and Society. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, Inc., 1976.
Weil, Thomas E. Area Handbook for Chile. Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1969.
Zanartu, Mario and John J. Kennedy, eds. The Overall Development of Chile. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1969.