Freedom of Association: Country Studies - Chile

Chile Country Study

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2016: Status: Free. Freedom Ranking: 1; Political Rights: 1; Civil Liberties: 1.



Since gaining independence from Spain in 1818, Chile has enjoyed a more democratic history than most Latin American countries. A “Golden Era of Democracy” began in 1932 and ended in 1973 with the overthrow of President Salvador Allende by General Augusto Pinochet. Chile endured 16 years of harsh military dictatorship until Chile’s voters defeated a referendum for continuing Pinochet’s rule in 1988 and returned the country to free elections in 1989. Since then, Chile has regained its place as one of the Western Hemisphere's most democratic countries. Chile has a long tradition of freedom of association and its free trade unions played an important role in resisting the Pinochet dictatorship and restoring the country’s democracy. Chile has a vibrant multiparty system with two main coalitions as well as smaller parties competing for positions in national and local elections. In 2013, voters returned Socialist Party leader Michelle Bachelet, the candidate of the New Majority coalition, to the presidency and New Majority retook the legislature from a conservative coalition that had held both houses of the congress since 2010.

Chile stretches 2,700 miles down the Pacific coast of Latin America from Peru south along the western borders of Bolivia and Argentina. Its most distinctive geographical feature is its small width which averages just 110 miles east to west (and never exceeds 150 miles). Chile’s overall area (756,000 sq. kilometers) places it 38th largest in the world (its claim to part of the Antarctica landmass would triple its size). The country's 18.2 million people (2016 estimate) are mostly white or mestizo (mixed race), but there is a small Amerindian population. Today, Chile is one of the best economic performers in Latin America (5th overall) and ranks 41st in the world, with $258 billion in nominal gross domestic product (GDP) for 2014, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In nominal gross national income (GNI) per capita, the IMF ranked Chile 53rd in 2015 ($13,331 per annum), a slight drop from 2013 but a significant improvement from its ranking of 76th in 2006. At the same time, Chile ranks highest in income inequality among 34 industrialized countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Transparency laws adopted in 2003 and 2007 have created conditions for high accountability of government actions, propelling Chile to 24th out of 176 countries in Transparency International’s 2016 index.


Precolonial Chile and the Spanish Conquest

Before the Spanish conquest in the early 16th century, the territory of Chile was divided by three main groups of Amerindians: the Inca-dominated north; the Araucanian people of the central-southern region; and tribes of the extreme south and Tierra del Fuego. In 1520, Ferdinand Magellan passed through the southern strait of the Western Hemisphere, now known as the Strait of Magellan, inaugurating a period of Spanish conquest of the western coast of Latin America. In 1540, an expedition by Pedro de Valdivia resulted in settlements in Santiago de Chile, Concepcion, and Valdivia. But in 1553, Pedro de Valdivia was prevented from going further, his forces defeated by the Mapuche, who continued to resist colonization until the late 19th century. Spain eventually established its dominance over much of Chile. After being subordinated to the viceroyalty of Peru, it became an autonomous colony after 1778.

The country served mostly as a source of food and animal products, not mineral wealth as in Peru and Bolivia. Agricultural settlers came to establish large estates, increasing the Spanish colonist population significantly after the mid–17th century. The estates were initially worked by the conquered indigenous people, and later by mestizo tenant farmers called inquilinos who were tied to the landowners through debt and barter relationships. The practice of outright slavery was not as significant in Chile as elsewhere in the Americas, with only a few thousand African slaves in the country during the colonial period. In 1823, Chile was among the first countries in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery.

Independence, Stable Governance, and Expanding Borders

Chile established local self-rule first in 1810 following Napoleon Bonaparte's invasion of Spain and his unseating of the Spanish royal government. As Napoleon’s empire collapsed and Ferdinand VII was restored to the throne, Spanish troops reestablished control over Chile in 1814. But the royalists were defeated in 1817 when Jose de San Martin and Bernardo O'Higgins brought an army over the Andes from Argentina and won the Battle of Chacabuco. Formal independence was declared in 1818. When San Martin went on to help liberate Peru, O'Higgins, the illegitimate son of a local notable's daughter and an Irish-born Spanish officer, became Chile's first "supreme director" or president. O'Higgins ruled until 1823. 

A constitution adopted in 1833 ended a period of instability and brought about a long stretch of stable governance with regular civilian transfers of power and only brief internal military interventions. While the constitution instituted a strong presidency and a weak legislature, the Congress gained greater authority in 1891 when legislators ousted President Jose Balmaceda for trying to establish a dictatorship. This action entrenched a multiparty parliamentary system, but suffrage remained restricted by literacy requirements and the dominant parties, the Conservatives and Liberals, represented property-owning classes. The country's current borders were largely established in 1881, when Chile and Argentina agreed to divide their territory along the Andean ridgeline and partition Tierra del Fuego. Chile also obtained the nitrate-rich Atacama region from Peru and Bolivia during the War of the Pacific (1879–84).

The "Golden Era" of Democracy

After a brief period of military rule, a civilian democracy was restored in 1932 with the election of Arturo Alessandri. The election marks the beginning of a 40-year period known as Chile's “golden era” of democracy. An earlier democratic constitution adopted in1925, suspended during military control, was restored. A new labor code enacted during this period legalized labor unions and strikes. In this period, Chile's politics initially were dominated by the middle-class Radical Party, which ruled in shifting coalitions among left- and right-wing parties. Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei won the presidency in 1964 and led his party to a congressional majority in parliamentary elections in 1965. He adopted the "Revolution in Liberty" platform, which included land reform, investment in education and housing, the "Chileanization" of the copper industry (taking majority stakes in US-owned copper mines), and expanding suffrage by lowering the age limit to 18 and eliminating literacy requirements.

Augusto Pinochet

 The Golden Era Ends: Allende and Pinochet

In the 1970 elections, Socialist Party leader Salvador Allende, the candidate of a left-wing coalition that included the Communist Party, won a plurality of 36 percent and was awarded the presidency by Congress. It was the first time Chile had elected a Marxist leader. Allende set out on a much more radical program than the Christian Democrats, nationalizing mines, industries, and large estates. He also established friendly relations with the Soviet Union and Cuba at a tense period in the Cold War. His policies, which caused major economic dislocation, faced broad political opposition from center and right political parties, business interests, and the military. In 1973, General Augusto Pinochet, with public support from the United States, led a military coup to depose Allende. During a massive assault on the presidential palace, Allende took his own life rather than surrender to arrest. Eighty people died during the coup.

Pinochet's Dictatorship and the Campaign for the NO.

Pinochet introduced a harsh military dictatorship marked by disappearances and extrajudicial killings of opponents (including assassinations outside the country), mass political detention, limitations on all basic freedoms, and suppression of Chile's democratic institutions. The regime's human rights violations isolated Chile from the democratic world, including the US, which was increasingly critical of Pinochet's rule. According to two commissions charged with documenting human rights violations after the return of democracy, more than 3,000 people were killed or “disappeared” and 38,254 were imprisoned or tortured under the 16 years of Pinochet’s dictatorship.

Popular protests beginning in 1983 failed to topple the government. An assassination attempt on Pinochet carried out by Marxist guerrillas in 1986 led to a severe crackdown. Already, a new constitution adopted in 1980 had entrenched Pinochet’s military regime. The constitution, however, required that a referendum be held after eight years on whether the general should rule for another eight-year term. Pinochet had included the provision as a nod to democratic formality, but a broad coalition of democratic political parties, trade unions, and civic groups turned the referendum into a genuine contest with the “Campaign for the NO.” Mass rallies were held, the country was adorned in “No Mas” (No More) shirts, buttons, and other paraphernalia, and citizens were mobilized to vote “No” to dictatorship and return the country to democracy. With the process under close scrutiny by the US and other foreign governments, electoral officials established relatively fair rules for the plebiscite. On October 5, 1988 the "No" vote won, 55 percent to 43 percent. Pinochet accepted the defeat. By terms of his own constitution, he had to step down as president, amend the constitution, and hold a presidential election within 17 months of the plebiscite.[A] broad coalition of democratic political parties, trade unions, and civic groups turned the referendum into a genuine contest with the 'Campaign of the NO.' . . . On October 5, 1988, the 'NO' vote won.

A New Democratic Era

A set of 54 constitutional reforms negotiated between the democratic parties and the government was approved by overwhelming margin in a referendum held in July 1989. The opposition agreed to maintain some of the military's institutional privileges (including a lifetime Senate seat for Pinochet), but it won on other issues, including the reestablishment of free elections and full democratic norms. In presidential elections held in December, Patricio Aylwin ran as the candidate of the anti-Pinochet Coalition of Parties for Democracy, known as the Concertación, which included the Christian Democrats, the Socialists, and the Radical Party, among others. Aylwin, from the Christian Democratic Party, soundly defeated a government-backed former finance minister and a third candidate. Aylwin's inauguration in March 1990 brought Chile back into the community of democratic nations.

The 1989 constitutional settlement left Pinochet and his cohorts with a degree of immunity regarding their past crimes by respecting a 1978 amnesty decree issued under the Pinochet regime. Pinochet, however, was detained by British authorities in London in 1998 on an extradition order issued by Spain’s Supreme Court, which asserted jurisdiction on international human rights grounds to try Pinochet for violating international human rights conventions. Released in 2000 for health reasons, Pinochet returned to Chile, where he faced charges of tax evasion in 2004. He died in December 2006 shortly after the Supreme Court withdrew his immunity as a lifetime Senator but before court proceedings in the case. The 1978 decree was subsequently revoked by the legislature, allowing the government to prosecute former officials and military officers for human rights violations. Of the more than 1,000 cases initiated against individuals for human rights abuses as of 2014, 260 people had been convicted, but only 60 served or are serving prison sentences.

Subsequent amendments to the constitution removed the charter's remaining nondemocratic provisions, including restoring civilian control over the military (top commanders are now appointed by the president) and expanding the powers of the bi-cameral legislature, comprised of a 120-member Chamber of Deputies and a 38-member Senate. Presidential terms were shortened from six to four years and a bar was put on serving consecutive terms.

Five presidential and five congressional elections have been held since 1990, along with regular off-year municipal elections. The Concertación won subsequent presidential elections in 1993 and 1999 and legislative elections in 1993, 1997, and 2001. In 2005, Socialist Party leader Michelle Bachelet won the presidential elections as the candidate of the Concertación, becoming the first female president in Chile’s history. She gained high popularity for revoking the amnesty of Pinochet-era officials and for infrastructure investment projects, especially in health and education. But she could not run for consecutive presidential terms. In January 2010, the candidate of the pro-business Coalition for Change, Sebastián Piñera, defeated the Concertacióncandidate. The Concertación also lost its majority in both legislative chambers of Congress, ending its 20-year political dominance and achieving a full civilian transfer of power.

Piñera earned initial popularity for his economic growth policies, reconstruction efforts following an earthquake in 2010, and for the government’s efforts the same year in saving 33 miners trapped for 69 days following a collapse of a gold mine. Starting in 2011, however, the Piñera government faced ongoing national student protests after the government proposed tuition increases. As the demonstrations continued, Piñera and parliament agreed to significantly increase the education budget, but the Coalition for Change government faced widespread criticism for its handling of the crisis and its popularity dropped entering the 2013 election campaign (see Current Issues below).

Freedom of Association

Chile has a long history of freedom of association dating from even before its independence from Spain. Its worker organizations and labor movements played an important part in Chile’s modern history and its democratic governments, but its organization within party-affiliated federations created divisions that contributed to the political turmoil of the Allende government that was overthrown by General Pinochet. Often at great cost, free trade unions strongly opposed the Pinochet dictatorship, which repressed freedom of association and tried to impose regime-controlled official unions. In the late 1980s, the free trade union federation was central to the Campaign for the NO, whose victory ended Pinochet’s rule. But the labor movement did not benefit significantly from succeeding democratic governments, which adhered to Pinochet’s free market economic policies and failed to significantly broaden worker rights. Recently, in response to student organizations and protests against inequities in Chile’s education system, there has been an attempt to address the country’s high level of income inequality and adopt a new labor law.

The Emergence of Chile’s Labor Movement [Pinochet's] regime, most union activity was illegal and unions linked to leftist political parties were banned.

Among the most significant early worker organizations were mutual aid societies initiated by Francisco Bilbao. A liberal reformer who had traveled to Europe and experienced the revolutionary events of 1848, he returned in 1850 to organize the Sociedad de la Igueldad (Society of Equality) in 1850, which attracted urban skilled workers and artisans. The Societies became centers for political radicalism in Chile’s conservative society and at one point helped organize a rebellion against a military takeover. Mostly, however, the hundreds of Societies, involving 600,000 workers by the turn of the century, promoted mutual aid programs for workers and worker education through newspapers. The first trade union was confederation of artisan workers organized in 1878. Textile and mining unions emerged in the 1880s, especially with the growing industrial exploitation of nitrate and copper mining. This early period of the labor movement featured some early victories for the eight-hour day but also violent and repressive clashes, similar to other countries. Notable in this history was the government’s campaign against the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) after it established offices in Chile in 1919. The government arrested almost 100 IWW members and destroyed the union’s print shops, assembly halls, and offices.

Party-Based Trade Union Movement Leads to Politicization

In the early 1900s, Luis Emilio Recabarren, a typesetter by trade, adopted a common labor strategy in Latin America of tying trade unions to political parties. When he was refused a seat in the legislature in 1906 (because as an atheist he refused to swear his oath of office on a Bible), he organized the Socialist Workers Party in 1912 and later the Communist Party in 1922, in each case allying the trade unions he helped organize to them. The right to organize unions was established in the 1925 constitution and workers increasingly grouped themselves into party-linked federations. Still, these unions generally succeeded in improving wages and conditions for Chile’s workers over time.  In the 1960s, left-wing unions and parties pushed for more radical policies than those initiated by President Eduardo Frei and the Christian Democrats. When the Socialist Salvador Allende set out to nationalize industries and redistribute land and wealth, the labor movement was divided in their response among communists, socialists, and Christian Democrats.

Pinochet's "Plan Laboral" and the Campaign for the "No"

After General Pinochet overthrew Allende in a coup, he set out to fully re-orient Chile’s economy away from state-directed policies towards a radical free market economy that would rid the country of its social welfare system and destroy collective organization. Among the first actions of the Pinochet dictatorship was to repress the independent labor movement. Under his regime, most union activity was illegal and unions linked to leftist political parties were outlawed. The 1979 Plan Laboral reintroduced collective bargaining but restricted it to the company, enterprise, or individual contract level and excluded federations or bargaining by trade or nationally. In many cases, the regime attempted to organize official pro-regime unions. But even with the law’s restrictions, workers undertook to re-organize independent unions and to try to prevent the “corporatization” of the labor movement. An attempt to organize national strikes in 1983 by opposition unions resulted in harsh repression. In response to Pinochet’s repressive labor policies, America’s labor federation, the AFL-CIO, petitioned the US government to suspend Chile’s preferential trade treatment under US law, which it did in 1988.

A new consensus emerged within the Chilean labor movement away from ideological division. After several failed attempts to form a unified trade union movement, labor leaders created the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT) federation. The CUT, together with other democratically oriented professional organizations like the Association of Teachers, played a significant role in pushing opposition political parties to form the Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia and participate jointly in the 1988 Campaign for the "No" vote that forced Pinochet from power (see above). The broadly based civic campaign renewed and reinvigorated Chile's civil society and continues to inspire citizen participation in the country today, as seen in the recent student protest movement.

Freedom of Association in Chile’s Second Golden Age of Democracy

While the Concertatión was an alliance of center-right and center-left parties, its initial leaders came from the center-right and generally continued Pinochet’s free market policies and limited the participation of CUT in setting policies. A labor reform bill adopted in 1990 expanded only slightly the rights of workers to bargain collectively at the enterprise level. A second labor reform bill introduced in 1995 stalled for six years in the conservative Senate but when finally passed it allowed some greater success for Chile’s unions. As in other developed countries, union membership rates are not as high as in earlier periods of industrialization, but since the 2001 reform bill passed union density increased from 13.1 percent of the workforce in 2001 to 15.8 percent in 2011 (more than 600,000 members). It is one of the few cases of increased unionization among industrialized countries in the last decade. Chilean labor law, however, continues to be based on the original 1979 Plan Laboral and retains restrictions on organizing and the right to strike as well as a controversial "needs of the company" clause, which allows dismissal of workers for economic downsizing, a provision frequently abused to fire union members or strike participants.

Chile has been a member of the ILO since its founding in 1919, but initially it only adopted two of the original core conventions. After the return of democracy in 1990, there was an effort to strengthen Chile’s adherence to international human rights conventions. By 2000, Chile had ratified all of the organization's eight core conventions, including Nos. 87 on freedom of association, No. and 98 on collective bargaining and the right to strike, No. 105 prohibiting forced labor, and No. 138 prohibiting child labor. In April 2011, Chile adopted Convention No. 187 on Occupational Safety and Health in the wake of the mining disaster that trapped 33 miners for 69 days and prompted changes in Chile’s mining practices. recent years, the most vibrant exercise of freedom of association, assembly and speech in Chile has been shown by students.

Current Issues

In recent years, the most vibrant exercise of freedom of association, assembly and speech in Chile has been shown by students. In 2006, students organized national protests to demand greater investment and key reforms in the education system. Michelle Bachelet, in her first term as president, responded to the sustained protests by increasing education spending and agreeing to greater student participation in education policy. In 2011, the student protest movement resumed when the conservative government of Sebastián Piñera enacted tuition increases for public universities. The increases threatened to price many students out of higher education — again highlighting the inequity of Chile’s education system.

A country that boasts some of the best education institutions in Latin America remains highly limited in its opportunities. Only 45 percent of student-age Chileans graduate from secondary school and many graduates cannot attend the mostly private university system. Over two years, the Confederation of Chilean Student Federations (ConFech) organized mass demonstrations, sometimes in the face of police force. In the largest one, in April 2012, 100,000 young people marched under the slogan “equal education for all.” The students’ demands included increases in state support for higher education, an opening up of the university system to the poor through tuition subsidies, and student representation in university structures. After some delay, the government of Sebastián Piñera responded to the demands by increasing education funding by $5 billion, but resisted efforts to enact universal public education at the secondary and higher education levels. He was highly criticized for the use of police force and arrests in quelling some of the initial student protests.

In this setting, the main left and right political coalitions held primaries for the first time to select presidential candidates for the 2013 elections. In a precedent for Chile (and for the Americas) the two leaders selected to run for the presidency were both women. Socialist Party leader Michelle Bachelet was the candidate of the New Majority coalition (which included most of the members of Concertación) and Evelyn Matthei, the candidate of the renamed center-right Alliance for Change. They faced off in a second-round election in December 2013 and Bachelet won with a resounding 62 percent of the vote. In the earlier November parliamentary elections, the New Majority also won a decisive victory, gaining a large majority of seats in the Chamber of Deputies and a smaller majority in the Senate. As a result of the 2013 elections, Chile has now experienced a second peaceful transfer of power in the period following the Pinochet dictatorship.

In her campaign, Michelle Bachelet pledged to address Chile’s growing social inequities (the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranks Chile worst among its 34 members among developed nations in income inequality). She ran on a platform of raising corporate taxes to raise revenue for a plan of free universal public education and expanded opportunities for higher education. She also pledged to change the labor law entirely and to restore fully rights to organize unions and bargain collectively. Bachelet introduced the measures to Chile’s congress. The tax reform plan that increased corporate taxes and ended corporate tax exemptions quickly passed, as did some of her education program. Major student and labor demonstrations were organized in 2014 and 2015 supporting greater investment in education and passage of the new labor law, but both issues have stalled, along with Bachelet’s push to adopt a new constitution that would fully replace the current version (the amended 1980 constitution). The economy’s slowdown due to the halving of commodity prices (most notably copper, still Chile’s main export) has weakened the momentum for social and labor legislation, tax increases on business, and political reform. In addition, Bachelet’s popularity has declined precipitously to just 20 percent in the wake of several corruption scandals in her administration, one involving her son and daughter-in-law.