Chile Table of Contents

Chileans have a remarkable facility for forming organizations and associations. This propensity perhaps has something to do with the fact that for more than three centuries both the Spanish-Chilean and the indigenous components of the country led a precarious life of conflict with each other, a situation that forced people to rely more than usual on collective organizing, especially, as was the case for both sides, given the weakness of the state. In contrast to North Americans, however, Chileans usually take a formal approach to creating organizations. In addition to electing a president, a treasurer, a secretary, and perhaps a few officers, they prefer to discuss and approve a statement of purpose and some statutes. This is a ritual even for organizations that need not register legally, obtaining what is called a "juridical personality" that will enable them to open bank accounts and to buy and sell properties. It is not known for certain where and how this formalism originated; it perhaps could be traced back to the densely legalistic approach adopted by Spain toward the governance of its faraway colonies and to the legalism of Roman Catholic canonical law, which applied to many aspects of society. Whatever grain of truth there is to these speculations, observers of Chilean society are rapidly struck by the density of its organizational life and the relatively high degree of continuity of its organizations and associations.

In any Chilean community of appreciable size can be found sports clubs, mothers' clubs, neighborhood associations, parent centers linked to schools, church-related organizations, youth groups, and cultural clubs, as well as Masonic lodges and Rotary and Lions' clubs. Virtually all of the nation's fire fighters are volunteers, with the exception of members of a few fire departments in the largest cities. Government statistics greatly understate the number of community organizations because they refer mainly to those having some contact with one or another state office. According to the official estimate for 1991, there were about 22,000 such organizations, the main ones being sports clubs (6,939), neighborhood councils (6,289), mothers' clubs (4,243), and parent centers (1,362). Government publications do not report membership figures for these organizations.

Most of the important urban areas in Chile also include a broad sample of the local chapters of a wide variety of occupational associations. These include labor unions and federations, public employee and health worker organizations, business and employers' associations, and professional societies of teachers, lawyers, doctors, engineers, dentists, nurses, social workers, and other occupational groups. Membership in labor unions, which declined significantly under the military government, has been growing rapidly since the late 1980s, a change directly related to the transition to democracy. Affiliation with organizations recognized as unions in labor legislation was officially estimated in 1990 at 606,800, a 20 percent increase over 1989. That figure did not include individuals affiliated with public employee associations (including health workers), who were estimated to number about 140,000, nor the members of the primary and secondary teachers' association, who numbered about 105,000. But these two groups usually have been closely tied to the labor movement through the national confederations of labor. Thus, about 19 percent of a total labor force of 4,459,600 was linked to unions or union-like associations in 1990. With the continuing increases in union affiliations, which are especially significant in rural areas, a conservative estimate is that the unionized population (in legal as well as de facto organizations) stood in 1992 at between 22 percent and 24 percent of the labor force. The most important union confederation, which encompasses the great majority of the nation's unions and union-like organizations, is the United Labor Federation (Central Única de Trabajadores--CUT). CUT is the heir to a line of top labor confederations that can be traced back through various reorganizations and name changes to at least 1936, and perhaps to 1917.

There are numerous business and employer associations in Chile. Their total membership is about 190,000, although they collectively claim to speak for about 540,000 proprietors of businesses of all sizes. The most important business organization, the Business and Production Confederation (Confederación de la Producción y del Comercio--Coproco), encompasses some of the very oldest ongoing associations in Chile: the National Agricultural Association (Sociedad Nacional de Agricultura--SNA), founded in 1838, groups the most important agricultural enterprises; the Central Chamber of Commerce (Cámara Central de Comercio), founded in 1858, includes large wholesale and retail commercial enterprises; the National Association of Mining (Sociedad Nacional de Minería), founded in 1883, affiliates the main private mining companies; the Industrial Development Association (Sociedad de Fomento Fabril--Sofofa), founded in 1883, organizes the principal manufacturing industries; the Association of Banks and Financial Institutions (Asociación de Bancos e Instituciones Financieras), founded in 1943, is the main banking-industry group; and the Chilean Construction Board (Cámara Chilena de la Construcción), founded in 1951, organizes construction companies.

Another important confederation of business groups is the Council of Production, Transport, and Commerce (Consejo de Producción, Transporte y Comercio). In contrast to Coproco, this organization groups primarily medium-sized to small businesses, including many self-employed individuals who do not hire nonfamily members on a regular basis. Its main components are the 120,000- member Trade Union Confederation of Business Retailers and Small Industry of Chile (Confederación Gremial del Comercio Detallista y de la Pequeña Industria de Chile), founded in 1938, and the 24,000- member Confederation of Truck Owners of Chile (Confederación de Dueños de Camiones de Chile), founded in 1953.

Professional societies are also well established. The largest ones, aside from the teachers' organization noted previously, are those for lawyers (about 12,000 members), physicians (about 14,500), and engineers (about 11,500). Affiliation figures for most of the more than thirty professional societies were unavailable, but there are at least 100,000 members in such associations aside from teachers. If these figures are added to those for membership in business groups and unions, it appears that about a third of the labor force is involved in occupationally based associations.

The organized groups of Chilean society have long played an important role in the nation's political life. The elections in some of them--for example, in major labor federations, among university students, or in the principal professional societies-- usually have been examined carefully for clues to the strength of the various national political parties. Most of the nation's university and professional institute students, totaling 153,100 in 1989, belong to student federations. The various associations also make their views known to state or congressional officials when issues of policy that affect them are debated.

Some associations traditionally have been identified with particular political parties. This was the case, to a greater or lesser extent, with Masons, fire fighters, teachers' federations, and the Radical Party (Partido Radical); union confederations and the parties of the left; employer associations and the parties of the right; the Roman Catholic Church, as well as its related organizations with the Conservative Party (Partido Conservador); and, in recent decades, the Christian Democratic Party (Partido Demócrata Cristiano--PDC). Many of the most militant party members have also been active in social organizations. In addition, party headquarters in local communities often have served as meeting places for all kinds of activities. The Radical clubs of small towns in the central south are especially active, often sponsoring sports clubs as well as the formation of fire departments.

Chilean social life also has definite subcultures, with the main lines of cleavage being proximity to or distance from the Roman Catholic Church and social class. The schools that parents select for their children closely reflect these subcultural divisions. The latter are also strongly mirrored in associational life, as Chileans tend to channel their sports and leisure activities into organizations within their subculture. Schools, churches, and unions contribute to this pattern by being foci for such organizing. In addition, there are some clubs and centers related to specific ethnicities, such as Arab, Italian, or Spanish clubs, even though, as noted previously, such identities traditionally have been much less salient than religion and class. Occupational associations have been an important component of class and social status identities in Chilean society, with most of them affiliating people of like occupations regardless of their religious identities or preferences. Although this has helped diminish the significance of religiously based identities, the leadership divisions and conflicts within the nation's associations can often be traced back to those subcultural differences. People's political preferences follow the subcultural lines of cleavage as well in most cases.

Social organizations did not fare well under the military government. Those that were perceived to be linked, however loosely, to the parties of the left were subjected to sometimes severe repressive measures. This was particularly the case with labor unions, whose activities were suspended for more than six years. They were only permitted to reorganize under new legislation beginning in 1979. Moreover, most associations, including those of business groups, were hardly ever consulted on policy matters, and, in the absence of normal democratic channels for exerting influence, they found their opinions and petitions falling on deaf ears. Eventually, the most prominent social organizations joined in voicing their discontent with the military government through what was called the Assembly of Civility (Asamblea de la Civilidad), and their efforts contributed to the defeat of President Augusto Pinochet Ugarte (1973-90) in the 1988 plebiscite. The only organizations that thrived under the military government were the women's aid and mothers' clubs, which were supported by government largesse and headed at the national level by Pinochet's wife, Lucía Hiriart.

With the return to democracy, social organizations recovered the ability to pressure Congress and the national government. The new government opted for explicit solicitation of the opinions of important interest associations on some of the policies it was considering. It also fostered negotiations between top labor and business leaders over issues such as labor law reforms, minimum wage and pension levels, and overall wage increases for public employees. These negotiations led to several national agreements between state officials and business and labor leaders, thereby inaugurating a new form of top-level bargaining previously unknown in Chile.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress