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President Sebastián Piñera of the center-right Coalition for Change faced growing political challenges in the second half of 2011 due principally to an impasse on education reform between the government and student leaders. The government’s harsh response and inability to control the demonstrations resulted in plummeting popularity for both the president and his coalition. Separately, the Chilean government continued to promote the economic development and increased rights of the Mapuche Indians.
The Republic of Chile was founded after independence from Spain in 1818. Democratic rule predominated in the 20th century until 1973, when General Augusto Pinochet led a military coup against President Salvador Allende. An estimated 3,000 people were killed or “disappeared” under Pinochet’s regime. The 1980 constitution provided for a plebiscite in which voters could bar another presidential term for the general. When the poll was held in 1988, some 55 percent of voters rejected eight more years of military rule, and competitive presidential and legislative elections were scheduled for the following year. Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin of the center-left bloc Concertación (Coalition of Parties for Democracy) won the presidential vote, ushering in an era of regular democratic power transfers as well as two decades of Concertación rule.
In the first step in what would become a years-long effort to hold Pinochet responsible for his regime’s human rights atrocities, the former leader was detained in London in 1998 under an extradition order from Spain. After being released for health reasons in 2000, he returned to Chile, where he was eventually indicted in 2004 for tax evasion and two outstanding human rights cases. A September 2006 Supreme Court decision cleared the way for his trial, but Pinochet died in December of that year.
Michelle Bachelet, who served as health and defense minister under the outgoing Concertación president, won the 2006 presidential election. Bachelet presided over popular spending projects, including the construction of new hospitals, homes, and nursery schools.
In December 2009 congressional elections, the center-right Coalition for Change edged out Concertación in the 120-seat lower house, 58 seats to 57, with the remainder going to small parties and independents. In the Senate, the two main blocs split the 18 seats at stake, leading to a new total of 19 for Concertación, 16 for the Coalition for Change, and 3 for independents.
Sebastián Piñera of the center-right Coalition for Change was elected president in January 2010. The new administration was challenged by a massive earthquake that struck Chile in late February, but Piñera was able to carry out effective reconstruction due to Chile’s sound public finances. The government also assumed full control of rescue operations after an accident trapped 33 miners in a gold and copper mine in northern Chile in August. Their successful rescue in October boosted Piñera’s popularity as well as Chile’s international image. In response to the incident, Chile ratified an International Labour Organization convention in April 2011 on occupational safety and health.
However, Piñera’s popularity was short-lived, plummeting to a record low 26 percent approval rate by mid-2011. The government’s plan to build dams in Patagonia was met with fierce resistance from environmentalists and protesters. Months of student protests and strikes beginning in April also brought hundreds of thousands to the streets of Chile’s large cities with demands for a major overhaul of the education system. Students occupied more than 200 institutions of learning, calling for changes to Chile’s largely privatized education system, including free public college education for low-income students. Piñera responded by replacing his education minister in July, and promised $4 billion in new education spending financed by copper revenues, as well as a 24 percent rise in student scholarships. In October, Congress also passed a law to cut interest rates on student loans by more than half. However, the government’s attempts to criminalize the protests by imposing harsh sentences for arrested protesters prompted increased student intransigence. At the end of 2011, there was still no resolution to what had easily become one of Chile’s most intractable political problems in decades.
Chile is an electoral democracy. The president is elected for a single four-year term. The Senate’s 38 members serve eight-year terms, with half up for election every four years, and the 120-member Chamber of Deputies is elected for four years. In 2005, the Senate passed reforms that repealed some of the last vestiges of military rule, ending authoritarian curbs on the legislative branch and restoring the president’s right to remove top military commanders.
The major political groupings in Chile include the center-left Concertación, composed of the Christian Democratic Party, the Socialist Party, the Party for Democracy, and the Social Democratic Radical Party; the center-right Alliance coalition, consisting of the Independent Democratic Union and the National Renewal party; and the Communist Party. The Coalition for Change, encompassing the Alliance coalition, independents, and some Concertación defectors, was formed in 2009.
Congress passed significant transparency and campaign-finance laws in 2003 that contributed to Chile’s reputation for good governance. A 2007 law further improved transparency by offering protections for public employees who expose corruption. Chile was ranked 22 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Guarantees of free speech are generally respected, and the media operate without constraint, though some laws barring defamation of state institutions remain on the books. The print media are dominated by two right-leaning companies, but the television market is considered highly diverse. A freedom of information law enacted in 2008 was praised by civil society groups. However, in 2011 many members of the press—mainly photojournalists—were detained, harassed, and attacked by the police while covering the environmental and student protests. There are no government restrictions on the internet.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the government generally upholds this right in practice. The government does not restrict academic freedom.
The rights to form nongovernmental organizations and to assemble peacefully are largely respected. Although the government regularly granted permits for student demonstrations in 2011, police allegedly used excessive force against participants during a number of protests. Despite laws protecting worker and union rights, antiunion practices by private employers are reportedly common.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the courts are generally free from political interference. The right to legal counsel is constitutionally guaranteed, but indigent defendants have not always received effective representation. Approximately 75 percent of the some 3,000 documented “disappearances” under military rule have been heard by courts or were under court jurisdiction by the end of 2011. Further, Chilean courts have convicted hundreds of military officers of committing heinous crimes during military rule, though sentences have tended to be lenient.
The government has developed effective mechanisms to investigate and punish police abuse and corruption. However, excessive force and human rights abuses committed by the Carabineros—a national police element of the armed forces—still occur. Chile’s prisons are overcrowded and increasingly violent. Inmates suffer from physical abuse as well as substandard medical and food services.
In early 2010, the Bachelet administration introduced a bill that would remove a relic of the former regime—the Copper Reserve Law—which obliged the state-owned copper producer Codelco to transfer 10 percent of its earnings to the military. Public support for stopping the automatic military transfer increased after the massive reconstruction costs resulting from the February 2010 earthquake. Piñera sent a bill to Congress in June 2011 to repeal the Copper Law; the bill was pending at year’s end.
Approximately 1 million Chileans identify themselves with indigenous ethnic groups. While they still experience societal discrimination, their poverty levels are declining, aided by government scholarships, land transfers, and social spending. In August 2010, President Piñera announced a development plan for the southern Araucanía region, one of Chile’s poorest regions and the homeland of the Mapuche Indians. The “Plan Araucanía” will finance educational opportunities, tax incentives for investors, widespread road building, and construction of both a freight port and reservoir.
A 1993 law officially recognized the Mapuche and paved the way for the return of their land but rather than appeasing the Mapuche, it prompted additional land claims, land seizures, and violence. Over 30 Mapuche accused of attacks participated in an extended hunger strike in 2010, which prompted a change to Chile’s antiterrorism law. The law, which dated to the Pinochet era, allowed for secret witnesses, pretrial detention, and the use of military courts in trying Mapuches employing arson and other violent means to reclaim ancestral lands. As amended by Congress in September 2010, the law presumes innocence and carries a reduced sentence for arson. However, trials of Mapuche Indians under the antiterrorism law, and prosecutions through the military justice system continued in 2011.
President Michelle Bachelet made great strides to reduce gender discrimination, including appointing women to half of the positions in her cabinet. She also enacted new laws to increase women’s labor rights and to eliminate the gender pay gap. However, violence against women and children remains a problem. In August 2011, President Piñera introduced legislation that would give same-sex couples the same rights as married couples; Congress was preparing to debate the proposed law at year’s end.