During colonial days and for a long time after independence, Chile had a rigid society consisting of a privileged landowning aristocracy, descended from the original Spanish settlers, and a lower class of peasants and domestic servants. The Indians lived as a nation apart. The aristocrats, bound together in the National Agricultural Society, dominated the government and led comfortable and cultured lives. They escaped heavy taxation because of the high revenues the government obtained from the export duty on nitrate (Saltpeter). Most Chileans, denied the vote by property and literacy qualifications, were poorly housed and fed, and illiterate.
In the latter part of the 19th century the middle class began to increase in size; it consisted mainly of mestizos who were able to acquire some education. Eventually, as trade and industry grew, and especially after the nitrate market collapsed following World War I (1914-1918), the tight control of the landowning aristocracy was loosened. New groups, among them traders, manufacturers, professional people, and intellectuals, began to swell the ranks of the middle class and to press for social reforms. In addition, by 1920 there was an organized and impatient working class that lacked the ingrained loyalty to the landlords that had developed in the tenant farmer class. All these groups demanded the attention of the government and began to promote economic and social change.
Today Chile’s social structure can be roughly divided into three classes. In the upper class are members of the old landed aristocracy as well as a more recently wealthy group of industrialists, merchants, politicians, and military men. Although these two segments of the upper class have power and prestige in common, they are often at odds politically and economically. Both groups supported the imposition of military rule, but by the end of the 1980s many backed the restoration of democratic politics.
Chile’s lower class consists of farm laborers, crafts workers, factory workers, and miners. This is the class that backed Salvador Allende’s coalition before 1973, that suffered the most from the policies of the military regime, and that again turned to left-wing parties after the end of military rule in 1990. Sharply falling real wages—wages calculated in terms of buying power—from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s increased the size of this group. Government policy in the 1990s and early 2000s endeavored to improve the health and education of this neglected part of the population.
The middle class, largely urban, is extremely varied in incomes, occupations, and interests. It is composed of professionals, teachers and university professors, civil servants, many private employers, and some small merchants, industrialists, and investors. Many members of the middle class benefited from Chile’s rapid economic growth in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s. Politically, members of the middle class participate in all parties."Chile" © Escrito por Emmanuel BUCHOT y Encarta
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