How Come Chile Is Different?

08 March 2010
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Chile has shaken with an earthquake of 8.8. Every death gives pain but it is a fact that getting out of such a strong disaster with this number of death is a miracle. This disaster showed the world that Chile is not just another Latin American country that struggles with smuggling, theft, prostitution and other petty offences. It seems that Chile is a strong country that undertook its infrastructural problems. Chile showed that it was getting ready for such a disaster for years. Even being shaken by the seventh strongest earthquake of the history, 1000 times stronger than the one in Haiti, there was no tragedy experienced in Chile. In fact the very well organized government of Chile rejected some help offers kindly by saying: “we are all thankful to those countries because of their helps but we do not want any help right now not to hinder the welfare work.”

Surprisingly 27 February 2010 earthquake was a success for Chilean state system. The country still stands strong. But the question is: how come a country from South America can be at this level of progression while its neighborhoods struggling with all those crimes and corruptions? What is Chile’s difference than its counterparts?

Since the beginning, all of Chile’s neighbors suffered from political and economic difficulties that forced them to make changes in government. Human rights abuses, high rates of poverty and inequality, corruptions in governments, and continuous necessity of civilian and military leaders… So how can Chile’s new democratic system preserve and promote the welfare of its citizens? Not to mention the rest of Latin America, compared to Argentina, Bolivia and Peru, Chile, in these days looks fuzzy but hopeful.

In fact Chile is the only South American country with no corruption inside the state. Chilean President Sebastian Piñera is a Harvard-graduated, multi-millionaire businessman who took 52% of the votes and came to power against the center-left candidate Eduardo Frei. It is a country with 17 million of population and 10,000 dollars gross domestic product per head. In other words the country’s vivid economy provides 244 billion dollars GDP. Moreover Chile strengthened up its infrastructure for years. Roads and hospitals were planned suitable to disaster scenarios. Geographically Chile sits on a Circle of Fire and obviously it took some lesson from the previous earthquakes in Chilean history.  

Furthermore in general, most of the Chilean citizens actually pay their taxes, it is a country where the laws are compulsive, and bribing is a rarely seen crime. These are all unexpected things for a Latin American country and might be cause to be proud of. However the perception of rest of the region about Chile is like if there is something wrong with this country because it is not like “what the Brazilians call bagunca or what the Argentines call quilombo [which mean] passionately messy, turbulent and chaotic” (1).

Contrast to its neighbors, Argentina, Venezuela, Ecuador, Brazil, and Uruguay that move towards left at the same time criticizing free trade and open markets; Chile is a hyper-capitalist state. Since the 1980s, other Latin American countries have to follow Chile’s economic strategies in accordance with the demands of the USA, Europe and Japan, like opening their markets to the rest of the world more and fighting against corruption. The fact is that every country is fighting to become more like Chile but it might gives pain to see that Chile is to be well ahead.

From Statism to Neo-Liberalism
Chile had drawn expanded attention by electing a Marxist president, Salvador Allende Gossens on 1970. Allende was tending towards a new path to socialism.  In Allende’s time, the rate of economical growth in Chile was never adequate to cover up “the growing number of under and unemployed in the urban areas, many of whom had migrated to escape the rural” (2). The government motivated the centre and left parties and used the competition between them to its own benefit to support the marginalized groups in society.

Under these conditions of Chile, economic stagnation, hyper-inflation and political polarization emerged. As a result this competition caused the mobilization of these politically excluded and passive segments of society. Actually these mobilization efforts caused the military coup of 11 September 1973 and Pinochet regime’s reaction to Chile’s economic and political crises. After Allende was overthrown on September 11, 1973, Chile entered into military rule. An entirely new Constitution came into force by 1980 which was a mark for return into democracy. But the transition period was long. Because the democracy that was projected encompassed by authoritarian elements from the Pinochet period including a group of senators appointed for life and permanent militaristic guardianship on political affairs.

Despite its efficient economic history, the Pinochet dictatorship which was headed by General of the Army Augusto Pinochet Ugarte (1973-90), was widely cursed for interrupting Chile's “tradition of democratic politics and committing numerous violations of human rights” (3). From that time on, Chile was a politically isolated country with a government which was receiving international appreciation for its economic and social reforms that turned the country’s statist economy into open market system.

The developments in Chile’s economy on 1970s till 1980s attracted the investments of 1990s. As a result, the economic growth combined with the return of the democracy made Chile enter into the twenty first century as an affluent society in a peaceful atmosphere.

Actually there was something extraordinary in the process of Chile’s transition to democracy: it was the important place of the intellectuals. In other examples the important actors of the transition would be “some combination of military officers, party leaders, and economic elites” (4). As the American sociologist Lewis Coser pointed out: “Knowledge may bring power; but, even so, men of knowledge have only rarely been men of power.” However, on the contrary of what Coser said, during the dictatorship most of the observers who visited Chile so often, were astonished by the by the powerful existence and enthusiasm of the numerous successful, foreign-trained intellectuals working in the private research centers. Pinochet could not destroy the antagonism against him and carry his presidency to further years. However he constructed an institutional legacy as a heritage to Chilean intellectuals to be reformed if Chile really wanted to become a fully democratic country.

Economically Chile owns its success to include the marginal segments of society to the work force. This economic and political connection of labour leaded to an increased economic development and social stability. The concept of “Miracle of Chile” was used by the economist Milton Friedman to define the free market orientation and neo-liberalism in Chilean economy since 1980s till today. According to an opinion it was not because of the invisible hand of the market that caused the new raise in Chile’s economy but most of the credit belongs to the state. For example,


"most of the strategies-such as new product development, risk capital, technical training, advising, marketing, quality control-and many of the personnel involved in the new Chilean miracle were products of the old, and much derided, state interventionism" (5).


Economically and politically the relations between Latin America and the United States are always hot. But Latin American countries have tense diplomatic relations also among themselves like the one between today’s President of Chile Sebastian Piñera and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a strong advocate of regional integration based on collaboration rather than the free market. Chavez, a strong opponent of the US imperialism, underlined about the new Chilean President that, “it is not recommendable that such a rich man be president of a country, but the Chilean people know what they’ve done, and we respect that” (6). Piñera’s response to Chavez was harsh:


"I respect all countries and governments, but I also have the right to express my opinion. What I have said is that the form in which we want democracy in Chile and the model of economic development in Chile is very distinct from the formula that President Chavez is implementing in Venezuela."


Chile is commonly portrayed as the great exception to Latin America's long and difficult struggle to overcome economic backwardness and instability. It is visible that other Latin American countries follow Chile’s lead to be successful. Among those who congratulated Piñera for his victory were Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and other right-wing presidents in the region, including Alan García of Peru and Felipe Calderon of Mexico. Bolivian President Evo Morales, one of Chavez’s strongest anti-imperialist allies was among the one who congratulated Sebastian Piñera.


The long, narrow country on the west coast of South America has strong claims to be considered as a country that has made most progress towards consolidating democracy in Latin America. This seems surprising in the region. One of the explanations of why the Chilean transition can be considered as successful is because of the continuing policies of a successful authoritarian government. Which means compared to other transitions to democracy in Latin America, Chile accomplished its own, by using traditional and institutional ways in a framework of an authoritarian regime. And this characteristic of Chile contradicts with the political conflict and consensus requirement in the incoming democratic governments of Peru and Argentina.

The economic pains of the 1980s and the problems that were associated like international loans, mass poverty and hyper-inflation; it is obvious that an important element of political legitimization in Latin America should be successful economic stabilization. Poverty shakes the democracy in Peru; hyper-inflation devastated the Brazilian democracy. One of the few countries that achieve both stabilization and growth in South America is Chile. However the Pinochet government’s success at actualizing an economic revolution could not be happen in the political arena. The military members could not see the rising democratic movements which would become Chile’s national character and end the authoritarian regime.

At the end of January 2010 a meeting was done between Latin America and Caribbean in Mexico, and promises were made that an economic aid valued at $100 million US dollars will be granted to Chile for to cover up the earthquake wounds. I doubt that this international community will have to donate that much to Chile. On the contrary in Haiti’s case this kind amount of a donation is a vital issue. In short the metamorphosis of Chile lies on the successful works of intellectuals. Chile’s strong democratic system cannot be compared to Haiti’s cranky, open governmental system. In other words, Chile has a structured democracy, but Haiti is a banana republic with carnival democracy.


As a result, although Chile has undertaken a growing economy and attracted investments and Chilean intellectuals tested the limits of traditional roles and showed us something new about how intellectuals might contribute to democratic transition; Chile was thought as a psychologically isolated country by the rest of the world. Chile’s image is distinct, solitary and unique. It is a fact that Chile handled with the economic problems very well, but more important than that the military junta was replaced by a democratic, liberal society. This means the transition to democracy worked well with the transition to neo-liberal market and a free society was emerged as a result of this cooperation.




2. Davis, E. D. (2007): Political Power and Social Theory. JAI Press.


4. Puryear, J. (1994): Thinking Politics: Intellectuals and Democracy in Chile. The Johns Hopkins Press Ltd.



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