CHILE: The Chile Reader

The Chile Reader may be a total tome (600 pages) but it is an absolutely ingenious way to cover a nation’s history and culture. It’s split into roughly chronological chapters made up of excerpts from primary documents – letters, political documents, fiction, poetry, and more. The earliest document is from the 1540s and the most recent from 2010. Each document has a clear explanation of context, as do the chapters – it’s a fantastic way to learn more about a place.

Since it’s all primary documents, it’s a bit light on pre-colonial Chile, but it follows from early Spanish colonization and Mapuche resistance, Chilean independence and growth through the 19th century, the development of both leftist and authoritarian politics through the 20th century, Allende’s short attempt at socialism, Pinochet’s US-backed coup and the years of the dictatorship, the peaceful referendum that ended that dictatorship, and Chile’s current political and cultural situation as a capitalist democracy with strong social justice movements challenging the country’s status quo.

The selection of primary documents is top notch, and it really exposes you to the deep political thought that’s run through Chile’s history. Excerpts from Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral, Chile’s two Nobel laureates, as well as other great pieces of fiction pepper the work. What surprised me most to learn about was how the Pinochet dictatorship ended not just peacefully, but also without a dramatic political break – Pinochet stayed on in public life for many years and left a deep political imprint on modern Chile.

There were many readings that gave me serious food for thought – not just about Chile, but about my own country as well. What caught my attention, as a Canadian, were the discussions on (over)reliance on resource extraction, relationships with Indigenous peoples as a colonial settler country, and charting a balance between economic growth and fighting inequality. While Canada has not had the same huge swings politically that Chile has dealt with, these are all issues that we struggle with here just as much as Chileans do, and it really adds important perspective to see these issues through another lens.

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