Chile Today


While the Chile of today is a democratic and peaceful country, it wasn’t always that way. A military dictatorship led by General Augusto Pinochet shaped the country for 17 years, from 1973 until a return to democracy in 1990. Since then, this isolated nation at the end of the world has made great strides on several fronts. The World Bank classifies Chile's national economy as upper-middle income with only moderate debt, a drastic change from 30 years ago. Corruption is lower here than anywhere else in South America, one of the factors contributing to the country’s political stability and economic development. On the political front, Chileans have democratically elected six presidents since 1990, including Chile's first female president, Michelle Bachelet, who was elected twice, and the more conservative billionaire Sebastián Piñera, who governed Chile from 2010 to 2014, and was elected again in 2017. Though income inequality is a significant concern, the number of people living below the poverty line in Chile was reduced by 18.1% (from 26% to 7.9%) from 2000 to 2017.

As for confronting Chile's recent torrid past, humans rights abusers from the dictatorship continue to be prosecuted, though the Chilean Supreme Court often reduces their sentences. These lenient decisions on ensuring punishments do not fit the crime continues to divide Chileans today.

The Environment

Unfortunately, Chile faces an array of environmental issues ranging from deforestation to intense mining, while air pollution is a serious problem in capital city Santiago. Between 1985 and 1995, some 2 million hectares of forest were lost to the pulping industry, causing high levels of soil erosion while mining aftercare is given far less attention than the actual extraction of natural resources such as copper and silver. Booming industries close to Santiago ensure the country’s smog levels rank among the world’s highest. Measures taken by the government to combat these issues include a carbon tax and district energy strategies. Chileans are now taking a more serious attitude toward climate change after joining the Paris Agreement in 2017 and setting two emissions reduction targets for 2023, though with just 10% of the nation’s trash recycled, there’s still plenty of work to be done.

Things are looking up for the country's national parks though. Via their Land Conservation Trust, North Americans and former CEOs of the outdoor clothing company Patagonia Inc., Douglas and Kristine Tompkins purchased vast swathes of land and recuperated them to create—then gift to the government—national parks. Yendegaia in the Magallanes region and Corcovado in the Lakes region are two such projects donated to Chile respectively in 2014 and 2005. A third national park, Parque Pumalín, an 988,000-acre private nature reserve near Puerto Montt, is currently in the pipeline.

Women and the Family

Over the past decade, women in Chile have become increasingly influential in both the government and the private sector. When the country’s first female President, Michelle Bachelet, began her first term in 2006, she launched a campaign to promote gender equality in Chile and named women to a number of influential posts in her cabinet. During her second term between 2013 to 2017, she proposed legislation on women’s sexual reproductive rights and same-sex marriage, which is considered groundbreaking for this predominantly Catholic nation. Despite many advances, salaries for men and women remain unequal in Chile, and men typically occupy the most influential positions, particularly in the private sector.

Two government policies have had a particularly important impact on women and the family in Chile. In November 2004, divorce became legal, then in 2006, state-run hospitals were given clearance to distribute the morning-after pill free of charge. Before legalizing divorce, Chile was one of the few countries in the world to prohibit this practice, which resulted in many Chileans forming new families without legally divorcing. Those who could afford it had their marriages annulled. These new policies have directly challenged the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in Chile (about 60% of Chileans are Catholic), and were resisted by the powerful conservative sectors of the Chilean population.

Chilean Identity

Due in part to its overall economic success, Chilean identity is in flux. While Chileans are proud of their nationality and celebrate the fiestas patrias (independence-day holidays) with fervor, they also increasingly value cultural and material imports from abroad. Many Chileans flock to malls to buy the latest technological toys, and SUVs are common, despite high gas prices. Many members of the expanding middle class are moving to the suburbs and sending their children to private, bilingual schools; incorporating English words into conversations and having coffee at Starbucks have become status symbols.

Other sectors of the Chilean population, however, resist these influences, including members of the political left and indigenous groups. A number of popular Chilean artists have also commented on Chile's increasingly materialistic and outward-looking culture, including writer Alberto Fuguet and musicians Los Chancho en Piedra and Joe Vasconcellos.

An interesting example of these tensions in Chilean identity is the annual pre-Christmas charity event, the Teletón. Modeled on telethons in the United States, the Teletón is billed as "27 hours of love" and presided over by Chilean TV personality Don Francisco. Despite its growing commercialization—companies showing off with big donations to strengthen their branding—the event is remarkable not only because it raises large sums of money for children with disabilities, but also because almost all Chileans watch it and contribute funds, despite class, ethnicity, or geographic differences. The Teletón is truly an expression of modern chilenidad (Chileanism).

Chile on the International Stage

Since its return to democracy in 1990, Chile has been active in international politics and trade relations. A strong proponent of free trade, Chile has signed more than 26 Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with 65 countries. It participates actively in United Nations agencies and has sent Chilean soldiers on UN peacekeeping missions in countries such as Haiti and Iraq.

Despite its increasingly important role on the global stage, Chile's relations with its immediate neighbors are somewhat contentious. Chile and Argentina have ongoing disputes over natural gas, and Bolivia and Chile have maintained only consular relations since 1978 due to a long-standing conflict over Bolivia's sea access. After Peru elevated its dispute over the demarcation of the coastline between the two countries to The Hague, the court ruled against Chile in 2014. While Chile lost 8,000 square miles of maritime territory, it was able to keep its rich coastal fishing waters. The case has been in the hands of the International Court of Justice since 2015.

Healthy Eating

Facing an ever-growing obesity epidemic (nearly three-quarters of adult Chileans are considered obese or overweight), the Chilean goverment has decided to step in to regulate the packaging, marketing, and labeling of food sold in Chile, particularly junk food and sugary cereals. A bill was introduced in the Chilean legislature in 2007, requiring the removal of cartoon characters from food boxes and the addition of black warning labels for foods that are high in fat, sugar, salt, and calories. Due to intense opposition from major corporations, it took nearly a decade for the rules to finally be enacted (they became law in 2016), but now Chile is on the forefront of the push against the obesity epidemic. The sale of junk food is also prohibited in schools, and advertising for candy and junk food is banned during television programs aimed at young viewers. Obsesity rates have yet to fall (and many think the new president will push back on these regulations), but a visit to a Chilean grocery store can be quite the experience for those used to the colors and logos (and lack of black warning labels) found in most Western grocery stores.

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