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Chile: Copper, quakes and inequality
by AFP Staff Writers
Santiago (AFP) March 9, 2022

Long considered a Latin American paragon of stability and growth, Chile has been in turmoil for more than two years since protests pushed the country to redraft its dictatorship-era constitution.

But Chile looks set to embark on a new path of greater social equality as leftist Gabriel Boric takes over the presidency on Friday with the country at a crossroads.

- From dictatorship to democracy -

In 1973, General Augusto Pinochet toppled Socialist president Salvador Allende in a military coup. Allende committed suicide in the presidential palace as troops closed in.

Pinochet imposed a right-wing dictatorship that lasted for 17 years, during which at least 3,200 people were killed or disappeared. Some 38,000 were tortured.

The general lost a 1988 plebiscite on remaining in power. He handed the reins to democratically elected Patricio Aylwin in 1990, but remained head of the armed forces until 1998.

Pinochet died in 2006 without standing trial for atrocities committed under his regime.

In 2006, Socialist Michelle Bachelet, who herself had been tortured, became Chile's first female president.

Reelected in 2013, she was constitutionally barred from standing for a third time and was appointed UN human rights commissioner in 2018.

The 2017 elections were won by conservative billionaire Sebastian Pinera, who had already been president from 2010 to 2014.

Last year, MPs voted to impeach Pinera over the sale of a mining company through a firm owned by his children, revealed in the Pandora Papers leaks, but the Senate refused to put him on trial.

In December 2021, Boric defeated far-right candidate Jose Antonio Kast in a run-off to become Chile's youngest ever president at 36.

- Neo-liberal laboratory -

Pinochet applied neo-liberal, free-market methods, privatizing health care, education and pensions.

Foreign investment poured in during the 1980s and Chile became the world's biggest copper producer.

However, the Pinochet economic model created huge inequalities, including cash-strapped pensioners and expensive education and health care.

The gap between rich and poor sparked protests in 2019 and the unrest that followed left 34 dead and 460 people with eye injuries, including some who lost their sight from pellets and tear gas fired by police.

The demonstrations led to the decision to create a new body to draft a constitution to replace the one written during the Pinochet years. This historic process, due to last nine months, began in July 2021.

In 2020, Chile's GDP shrank by 5.8 percent due to the pandemic but rebounded with 12 percent growth in 2021.

- Pedophile priests scandal -

The staunchly Roman Catholic country has been rocked by allegations of sexual abuse within the church going back decades.

The scandals were highlighted by a controversial visit to the country in 2018 by Pope Francis, who has been accused of not doing enough in response.

Some 158 cases of sexual abuse implicating 219 members of the church are being investigated.

Ultra-conservative Chile allowed divorce only from 2004 and legalized abortion in certain cases in 2017. Same-sex marriage was legalized in December.

- Super seismic -

Bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Andes mountain range to the east, the world's narrowest country is also one of the most seismically active.

In 1960 it was hit by the most powerful earthquake ever registered, measuring 9.5. More than 5,700 people were killed.

In 2010, an 8.8-magnitude quake unleashed a tsunami that swept away entire villages in the south and center of the country, leaving about 520 people dead.

Chile also has numerous active volcanos.

- Star-gazer's paradise -

Benefiting from a totally clear sky for most of the year, northern Chile is home to some of the world's most powerful telescopes.

The construction of the planet's biggest telescope was launched in 2017 in the Atacama desert by ESO, the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere.


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