The Society and Its Environment

Chile Table of Contents

THE DEVELOPMENT OF CHILEAN SOCIETY since the country broke away from Spain early in the nineteenth century reflects in many ways a significant incongruity. On the one hand, the nation's political institutions and many of its social institutions developed much like their counterparts in the United States and Western Europe. On the other hand, the economy had a history of insufficient and erratic growth that left Chile among the less developed nations of the world. Given the first of these characteristics, Chilean society, culture, and politics have struck generations of observers from more developed nations as having what can be described, for want of a better expression, as a familiar "modernity." Yet this impression always seemed at odds with the lack of resources at all levels, the highly visible and extensive urban and rural poverty, and the considerable social inequalities.

Chile's location on the far southern shores of the Americas' Pacific coast made international contacts difficult until the great advance in global air travel and communications of the post-World War II period. This relative isolation of a people whose main cultural roots lay in the Iberian-Catholic variant of Western civilization probably had the paradoxical effect of making Chileans more receptive to outside influences than would otherwise have been the case. The small numbers of foreign travelers reaching the country in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries usually found a warm welcome from people eager to hear of the latest trends in leading nations. The immigrants to the country were similarly accepted quite readily, and those who were successful rapidly gained entry into the highest social circles. One result was a disproportionate number of non-Iberian names among the Chilean upper classes. Moreover, many Chileans, the wealthy as well as artists, writers, scientists, and politicians, found it virtually obligatory to make the long voyage to experience firsthand the major cities of Europe and the United States, and they rapidly absorbed whatever new notions were emerging in more advanced nations.

At the same time, Chile's physical isolation probably buttressed the commitment of the nation's leaders in all walks of life to building strong national institutions, which then developed their peculiarly Chilean modalities. For example, the rich could not easily envision sending their children to universities in Europe or the United States, and this created a demand that would not otherwise have existed for strong domestic centers of higher learning. A feeling of pride in these various institutions soon developed that contributed to Chile's strong sense of national identity.

This combination of openness to outside influences and commitment to the nation is undoubtedly related to the relative "modernity" that has been a feature of Chilean life since independence from Spain. From the very first national administrations, there was a strong expression of commitment to expanding the availability of education to both boys and girls, principally at the primary level. The University of Chile was established by the national government in 1842 and soon had a large, centrally located building in Santiago. In a matter of decades, the University of Chile became one of the most respected institutions of higher learning in Latin America. Women were admitted to the University of Chile beginning in 1877, making it a world pioneer coeducational instruction; by 1932 about a third of the university's enrollment was female.

In the Americas, Chile was second only to Uruguay in creating state-run welfare institutions, adopting a relatively comprehensive social security system in 1924, more than a decade before the United States. A national health system was created by pooling existing state-founded institutions into a comprehensive organization in 1952. Under this program, curative and emergency care were provided free of charge to workers and poor people; in the early 1960s, preventive care became available to all infants and mothers.

However, inadequate development of the economy undermined Chile's relatively modern institutional edifice. The lack of resources often led to sharp conflicts between different groups trying to obtain larger pieces of a meager pie. As better placed and politically more influential groups were able to draw disproportionate benefits for themselves, inequalities were generated, as was made apparent by the wide disparities in the pension benefits that were paid by the state-run system. Despite the government's early commitment to public education, budgetary limitations meant that illiteracy decreased very slowly. By 1930 about a quarter of the adult population still could not read or write, a low proportion by Latin American standards but a far cry from the universal literacy existing at the time in France, Germany, and Belgium, whose educational systems had served as models for Chilean public education. Primary school attendance only approached universal levels in the 1960s, and full adult literacy was not achieved until the 1980s. The lack of educational opportunities limited social mobility, and investments in new technologies often ran into the difficulty of not having properly trained workers. The nation's industries, mines, and farms had at their disposal a large pool of unskilled or semiskilled workers, and for most jobs the wages, benefits, and working conditions were generally deplorable. On numerous occasions, worker demands met with heavy-handed repression, and class divisions became deep fault lines in Chilean society.

The military government that took over after the bloody coup of 1973 embarked on a different course from that followed by the country's governments over the previous half-century. Based on economic neoliberalism, the military regime's primary objectives were to reduce the size of the state and limit its intervention in national institutions. Most state-owned industries and the staterun social security system were privatized, private education at all levels was encouraged, and labor laws limiting union rights were enacted. Although new programs enhancing prior efforts to deal with the poorest segments of the population were successfully put into place, the authoritarian regime's overall social and economic policies led to increased inequalities.

At the start of the 1990s, Chile began to recover its democratic institutions under the elected government of Patricio Aylwin Azócar (president, 1990-94). Committed to redressing the social inequalities that had developed under the military regime, the new government redirected more resources to programs and institutions in education and health in order to improve their quality and the population's access to them. Although the Aylwin administration made some changes in these institutions, there was no attempt to undo the privatization of the social security system, which was now based on individual capitalization schemes rather than on the old state-run, pay-as-you-go system.

In 1993 and early 1994, there was a sharp sense of optimism regarding the Chilean economy. High rates of economic growth were expected to last through the 1990s. With its newfound economic dynamism, Chile seemed poised in the early 1990s to begin resolving the long-standing incongruity of a relatively advanced social and political system coexisting with a scarcity of means.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress