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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Chile: Political and Economic Conditions and U.S. Relations

Peter J. Meyer
Analyst in Latin American Affairs

Following a violent coup against democratically elected Marxist President Salvador Allende in 1973, Chile experienced 17 years of military rule under General Augusto Pinochet before reestablishing democratic rule in 1990. A center-left coalition of parties known as the Concertación has governed Chile over the two decades since the end of the dictatorship. In addition to addressing human rights violations from the Pinochet era, the coalition has enacted a number of constitutional changes designed to strengthen civilian democracy. Chile has made significant economic progress under the Concertación's free market economic policies and moderate social programs, which have produced notable economic growth and considerable reductions in poverty.

Current President Michele Bachelet enjoys widespread popular support despite having faced a number of challenges since taking office in 2006. Throughout her term, Bachelet has been confronted by student demonstrations against the education system, increased militancy by indigenous groups, and opposition in the legislature. The global financial crisis is President Bachelet's latest challenge, though the government's timely decision to save recent fiscal surpluses has allowed Chile to pursue counter-cyclical policies and minimize the effects of the economic downturn. 

On January 17, 2010, Sebastián Piñera of the center-right Alianza coalition was elected president in a second-round runoff vote, defeating former President Eduardo Frei (1994-2000) of the Concertación. Piñera's election was the first for the Chilean right since 1958, and will bring an end to 20 years of Concertación governance. Throughout his campaign, Piñera pledged to largely maintain Chile's social safety net while implementing policies designed to boost the country's economic growth. He will need to work with the Concertación to enact his policy agenda, however, as his coalition will not enjoy absolute majorities in either house of Congress. Piñera is scheduled to take office on March 11, 2010. 

Chile has enjoyed close relations with the United States since its transition back to democracy. Both countries have emphasized similar priorities in the region, designed to strengthen democracy, improve human rights, and advance free trade. Chile and the United States have also maintained strong commercial ties, which have become more extensive since a bilateral free trade agreement between them entered into force in 2004. Additionally, U.S. officials have expressed appreciation for Chile's leadership and moderating influence in a region increasingly characterized by political unrest and anti-American populism. 

This report provides a brief historical background of Chile, examines recent political and economic developments, and addresses issues in U.S.-Chilean relations. 

Date of Report: February 18, 2010
Number of Pages: 19
Order Number: R40126
Price: $29.95

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