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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

Chile is a country of extremes. If you stand in the world’s driest desert, the Atacama, you can see snow-capped mountains in one direction and ocean waves breaking in the other. You can’t do this anywhere else in the world. Chile is a long, narrow country lying between the Andes to its east and the Pacific to the west. The nation performs better than other Latin American countries in many aspects, such as output per capita, quality of life, low corruption and poverty, and freedom of the press. There are many other interesting facts about Chile.

Geography and climate

Stretching for 2,700 miles, Chile is the world’s longest country north-south. The Atacama Desert in the north has great mineral wealth. It is the world’s driest desert as mountains on both sides block moisture. There has been no significant rain in over 400 years in this area, with some weather stations having never received rain. Often the only precipitation is fog. The southern part of the country has thick forests, volcanoes, and lakes, as well as good grazing land. Chile has many climate types, ranging from desert in the north, through tropical, temperate, alpine, and polar at the southern tip.

History

The territory of what is now Chile was settled 10,000 years ago by the Mapuche people, who later fought off many attacks by the Incas. The Spaniards gradually conquered the country in the 16th and 17th centuries. It became an autonomous republic in 1810 and an independent republic in 1818, although the colonial social structure remained. Chile fought Peru and Bolivia in the 1879-83 War of the Pacific, gaining a large area of Bolivia, causing that country to become landlocked. A military coup in 1924 was followed by ten governments in eight years. Worse came in 1973 when Augusto Pinochet overthrew Salvadore Allende, resulting in a period of widespread murder and torture.

People

Chile’s population of 16 million people is made up of various European and indigenous groups as well as a large proportion with mixed ancestry. The actual makeup of the population varies between reports. One study found that 30 per cent are European, 65 per cent are mestizo, or mixed race but mainly white ancestry, and most of the remainder are indigenous. Other reports state variously that whites make up 53 per cent and more than 60 per cent of the population. More than two-thirds of residents are Roman Catholic. Chilean Spanish differs from that in other South American countries as final syllables are dropped, as are ‘s’ sounds, and certain consonants are soft.

Economy

Chile has the highest gross domestic product per capita of all South American countries, at US$14,900 in 2008. However, it has high income inequality, second to Brazil among Latin American nations. Its pension system was the first to be run by the private sector and works much the same as superannuation in western countries. Chile has 57 bilateral and regional trade agreements, which is thought to be more than any other country. It exports 40 per cent of its output, with agricultural and mining commodities making up three-quarters of its exports. A third of government revenue comes from copper.

Government and politics

The country’s first woman president was elected in January 2006 for a four year term. Under the Constitution, she cannot run for a second term. Elections are labor intensive, with one ballot box per voting table covering no more than 200 names on the registry. Each table is manned by five people whose names must be among the 200 and they count the votes manually after close. Counting is witnessed by a representative from each party. Chile reformed its criminal justice system in 2005, moving from an inquisitorial process to an adversarial system.

Transport and communication

There are 357 airports in Chile, ranking it eighteenth in the world. It has extensive rail and road networks, although more than three-quarters of its roads are unpaved. Tourists beware: there aren’t many buses between Chile and Argentina, and buses to places like Ecuador and Venezuela can take over a week. Chile has the most advanced telecommunication systems in South America, using microwave radio relay facilities. The nation has close to one mobile phone per person.

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