A History of Chile, 1808-1994

A History of Chile, 1808-1994 – Review

Ivan Jaksic

A History of Chile, 1808-1994. By Simon Collier and William F. Sater. (New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Pp. xix, 427. $18.95.)

The authors of this volume, both seasoned historians of Chile, have set out to provide a comprehensive synthesis of Chilean history from independence to the end of the first civilian government in 1994, after the period of authoritarian rule from 1973 to 1990. Some readers will probably go directly to the last few chapters to determine the authors’ stand on the main issues that still dominate contemporary Chilean politics, such as the causes for the breakdown of democracy in 1973, the assessment of General Augusto Pinochet’s authoritarian government, the nature of the Patricio Aylwin administration (1990-1994), and the prospects for the consolidation of democracy. Hopefully, as this reviewer recommends, most readers will follow the authors’ account of modern Chilean history from beginning to end.

An introductory chapter describes the colonial period, establishing that Chile’s distance from the Spanish Crown, peculiar geography, and concentration of population in the main agricultural area of the country provided for an early protonational profile. In subsequent chapters, commencing with the independence period from 1810 to 1817, the authors pursue both continuities and breaks in a history that covers constitutional experimentation in the 1820s; the establishment of a centralist and presidentialist political system in 1833; the challenges to executive prerogatives culminating in the revolution of 1891; the failures of the “parliamentary” period through 1920; and the emergence of the “social question” with its attendant configuration of a tripartite political party system (with multiple parties within coalitions) until the breakdown of democracy in 1973. This historical account constitutes the bulk of the text (326 pages), and it is indispensable for understanding subsequent events. The historical account is both chronological and thematic: important information about economic performance and political change is provided throughout the book, tracing the various junctures in which Chile both liberalized and arrested rapid change. The general tendency in Chilean history, it would appear, has been toward a liberalization of its obviously conservative beginnings, though full democracy has eluded the country to this day.

The authors provide a judicious account of the Allende period (1970-1973), closely examining the initial successes, but ultimate failure, of a state-led economic model, and emphasizing the political divisions of the Allende coalition, which led to the demise of the socialist experiment. The authors do not ignore the blatant and damaging pressures exerted by the U.S. government and various American companies. They conclude, however, that “sad as it is to say this, the real `destabilization’ of Chile was the work of Chileans” (355). Their review of the military period is equally balanced, emphasizing its dismal human rights record, but pointing to the profound economic changes that in the end transformed the nation and defined the economic agenda of the new civilian government. The combined leadership of President Patricio Aylwin and his able finance minister, Alejandro Foxley, appropriately emphasized “growth with equity,” to soften the harder edges of the free-market model.

The book provides a cogent and readable account of political and economic developments since the nineteenth century, emphasizing the significance of rural areas for both the economy and the political system. This would be more than enough for a single volume covering such a long period, but the book manages to do much more. It adds rich, valuable, and sometimes humorous information about Chilean culture and society in ways that reveal intimate knowledge of, and empathy with, the travails of Chileans throughout their history. The authors’ command of the cultural cliches, linguistic peculiarities, and daily customs of a cross-section of society is truly impressive. Chileans will recognize themselves (the reviewer is one) even under less-than-flattering light, while non-Chileans will get a sense of what makes the country unique.

The bibliography may seem rather limited for some readers, but the authors explain that they only provide easily accessible sources mainly in English. This is, after all, a general history, and the literature on Chile, especially in Spanish, is enormous. This reviewer had the opportunity to use the entire book in an undergraduate course, and highly recommends it for both teaching at that level and as a useful introduction to Chile’s history.

Ivan Jaksic

University of Notre Dame

COPYRIGHT 1999 Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc.

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