In a plebiscite held in 1988, the majority of citizens rejected the continuity of the Pinochet regime and free elections were convened. In 1989 the Coalition of Parties for Democracy, a center-left coalition, elected Patricio Aylwin as president of Chile. It received the support of the majority of the citizen in the next three elections until President Michelle Bachelet Jeria, the first Chilean woman to hold the most important position in the country.
The new democratic government took power in the country in March 1990. Patricio Aylwin had won with the support of the Coalition of Parties for Democracy (Concertación).
The new administration inherited the military regime’s economic policy, gave a new boost to exports, and increased commercial exchanges by lowering tariffs. Growth continued at 7% annually, while the country recovered its democratic institutions, freedom of expression and the press, and respect for individual rights. The Aylwin administration formed the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate human rights violations under the Pinochet dictatorship.
In March 1991 the Commission published a report that registered a total of 2,279 Chilean men and women who were executed or made to disappear. Subsequent work by the Reparation and Justice Commission increased the number of victims of the dictatorship to 3,197.
In 1994 Patricio Aylwin was succeeded by Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, also a Christian Democrat and the son of Eduardo Frei Montalva, who was president in the ‘60s. Support for the Coalition of Parties for Democracy increased and Frei Ruiz-Tagle was elected with 58% of the vote. The new government intensified trade liberalization, signed 12 free trade agreements, and incorporated Chile into the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum, APEC. GDP grew at rates of 7.8%, though the Asian crisis put the brakes on economic expansion. Domestically, the government pushed the criminal procedures reform in the justice system and launched an effective public works concessions program, which has allowed infrastructure, highways, and airports to be modernized.
Augusto Pinochet was arrested in London on 16 October 1998 on a warrant from Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón, for the execution of Spanish citizens during the dictatorship. His arrest lasted for over a year, until British Foreign Minister Jack Straw decided to release him on humanitarian grounds. The former general returned to Chile and faced diverse charges of human rights violations and illicit enrichment until his death in 2006.
In March 2000 the third government of the Coalition of Parties for Democracy began. Ricardo Lagos Escobar defeated the right wing candidate Joaquin Lavin at the polls. During his term the criminal procedures reform was implemented and family law was modified, as up until then it discriminated between legitimate and illegitimate children. In addition, a civil marriage law was approved that allows divorce.
Once the consequences of the 1998 international economic crisis had been overcome, the country returned to its growth levels and signed free trade agreements with the United States, the European Unions, China, and South Korea. On a social level, an unemployment insurance system was created, the health system was reformed, and a social housing construction plan was begun. Poverty levels dropped significantly, reaching 13.7% in 2006.
In international policy, Chile was part of the UN Security Council and expressed its opposition to the US proposal to invade Iraq.
The fourth Concertación administration began in 2006, when Michelle Bachelet Jeria was elected, the daughter of a Chilean Air Force general who died in prison after the 1973 coup d’etat. The president has three children, is a doctor, and was health and also defense minister. Her government has emphasized social protection and assistance initiatives and a few examples of that emphasis are free health care in the public health system for people over 60, the expansion of preschool education, and pension reform. Investments have been made to reform the education system and to build hospitals, social housing, and sports facilities.
A new public transport system with new buses, automatic payment, and satellite tracking with connection to the metro system is being implemented. The economic situation remains stable; the revenue generated from high copper prices is allowing the country to face the world economic crisis and to support the most vulnerable people.
The international media highlight the strengths of the country’s economy and that the Chilean model correctly combines social policies with economic growth and fiscal discipline.