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Long and narrow, Chile clings to the western edge of South America's South­ern Cone. Hugging - page 2 / 46





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438         '                   Politics of Latin America

population lives in the Magallanes region, where sheep ranching, fishing, oil, and timber extraction are the major economic activities.

Most analysts describe Chile as a country with a strong democratic tradi­tion that overcame near civil war in the early 1970s, economic chaos, and a harsh military dictatorship through the 1980s to emerge as a model of eco­nomic and political stability in the 1990s. In 1973, the armed forces, in al­liance with socioeconomic elites and conservative middle classes, overthrew the constitutionally elected socialist government of Salvador Allende. Thou­sands lost their lives, and tens of thousands went into exile (forced or self-imposed) as the military violently purged Leftists and Marxists from Chilean institutional life. Exercising autocratic rule, general Augusto Pinochet im­posed a radical free-market economic restructuring of Chile's economy and society that yielded rapid, sustained economic growth from the mid-1980s to the year 2000. The military government oversaw a transition to civilian rule in the late 1980s, and the democratic regime established in 1990 was re­markably stable during the first decade of its existence. It avoided many of the ills that plagued other Latin American democracies, such as temporary breakdowns, guerrilla movements, putsches, impeachments, electoral volatility, and debilitating corruption. Instead, regular, peaceful elections, the rule of law, constitutional order, and reasonably well-functioning pub­lic administration were the norm. Equally encouraging, democratically elected governments managed the economy in a manner that ensured con­tinued high growth.

This rosy assessment, however, must be tempered by the darker legacies of Chile's military government. A decade after the end of military rule, Chile's constitution was still full of antidemocratic clauses that protected the interests of the socio-political forces that supported the dictatorship: socio-economic elites and the armed forces. The constitution engineered by the dictatorship permitted conservative political parties to block any legislation they strongly opposed. It also ensured the military an influential role in pol­icy making on issues that should be the exclusive domain of civilian rulers, issues such as human rights and constitutional reform. Moreover, the em­phasis on economic growth masked glaring socio-economic problems. In the year 2000, Chile was a more unequal country than it was before the dicta­torship's imposition of the free-market economic model. Thanks to those economic and social policies, in the late 1990s Chile had one of the worst in­come distributions in all of Latin America. Not only did the upper income brackets receive more of the nation's wealth than before 1970, but general poverty and indigence rates were higher, real wages just managed to pass those of the early 1970s, and few of the hard-earned labor rights abolished by the military government had been reinstated. These inequalities extended to the provision of health services, education, and housing. In addition to these problems, for all its growth Chile's economy had not developed be­yond the agro-mineral export profile of traditional underdeveloped nations and paid a heavy cost in terms of environmental degradation and natural resource depletion.

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