Contemporary Latin America

Contemporary Latin America

Contemporary Chile and Argentina


Latin America in the 21st century highlights the challenges of the post-Cold War world. Many states in Latin America were divided between the Soviet Union and the United States, that would have long term consequences for the new century.


Learning Objectives:

  • Evaluate the role of the end of the Cold War on Latin American states.
  • Analyze the differences of the role of the United States on Latin American states in the early 21st century.


Chile in the 21st Century


The Concertación has continued to dominate Chilean politics for last two decades. Frei Ruiz-Tagle was succeeded in 2000 by Socialist Ricardo Lagos, who won the presidency in an unprecedented runoff election against Joaquín Lavín of the rightist Alliance for Chile.

In January 2006 Chileans elected their first female president, Michelle Bachelet, of the Socialist Party. She was sworn in on March 11, 2006, extending the Concertación coalition governance for another four years.

Chile signed an association agreement with the European Union in 2002; signed an extensive free trade agreement with the United States in 2003; and signed an extensive free trade agreement with South Korea in 2004. With these trade agreements, Chile expected a boom in the import and export of local produce, hoping to become a regional trade-hub. Continuing the coalition’s free-trade strategy, in August 2006 President Bachelet promulgated a free trade agreement with the People’s Republic of China (signed under the previous administration of Ricardo Lagos), which was the first Chinese free-trade agreement with a Latin American nation. Similar deals with Japan and India were achieved in August 2007. In October 2006, Bachelet made a multilateral trade deal with New Zealand, Singapore and Brunei, the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership (P4), also signed under Lagos’ presidency. Regionally, she has signed bilateral free-trade agreements with Panama, Peru, and Colombia.

After 20 years, Chile went in a new direction marked by the win of center-right Sebastián Piñera in the Chilean presidential election of 2009 – 2010. On February 27, 2010, Chile was struck by an 8.8 MW earthquake—the fifth largest ever recorded at the time. More than 500 people died (most from the ensuing tsunami) and over a million people lost their homes. The earthquake was also followed by multiple aftershocks. Initial damage estimates were in the range of $15 – 30 billion US, which is about 10 to 15 percent of Chile’s real gross domestic product.

Chile achieved global recognition for the successful rescue of 33 trapped miners in 2010. On August 5, 2010 an access tunnel collapsed at the San José copper and gold mine in the Atacama Desert near Copiapó in northern Chile; this collapse trapped 33 men 2,300 feet below ground. A rescue effort organized by the Chilean government located the miners 17 days later. All 33 men were brought to the surface two months later on October 13, 2010 within 24 hours, an effort that was broadcasted on live television around the world.

Good macroeconomic indicators failed to halt the social dissatisfaction claiming for a better and fairer education, which was traced to massive protests demanding more democratic and equitable institutions and a permanent disapproval of Piñera’s administration.

Due to term limits, Sebastián Piñera did not stand for re-election in 2013, and his term expired in March 2014 resulting in Michelle Bachelet returning to office. In 2015 a series of corruption scandals became public, threatening the credibility of the political and business class.

Photo of the five most recent presidents on Chile standing side by side, waving Chilean flags.

Photo of the five most recent presidents on Chile standing side by side, waving Chilean flags.

Presidents of Chile: Five presidents of Chile since Transition to democracy (1990 – 2018), celebrating the Bicentennial of Chile.


Contemporary Era in Argentina


De la Rúa kept Menem’s economic plan despite the worsening crisis, which led to growing social discontent. A massive capital flight led to a freezing of bank accounts, generating further turmoil. The December 2001 riots forced him to resign.

To fill the void Rúa left, congress appointed Eduardo Duhalde as acting president, and he repealed the fixed exchange rate established by Menem. By the late 2002 the economic crisis began to recess, but the assassination of two protestors by the police caused political commotion, prompting Duhalde to move the next elections forward. Néstor Kirchner was elected as the new president.

Boosting the neo-Keynesian economic policies laid by Duhalde, Kirchner ended the economic crisis attaining significant fiscal and trade surpluses, with a steep GDP growth. Under his administration Argentina restructured its defaulted debt with an unprecedented discount of about 70% on most bonds, paid off debts with the International Monetary Fund, purged the military of officers with doubtful human rights records, nullified and voided the Full Stop and Due Obedience laws—as well as ruled them as unconstitutional, and resumed legal prosecution of the Juntas’ crimes. Kirchner did not run for reelection, promoting instead the candidacy of his wife: Senator Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who was elected in 2007 and reelected in 2011.


Photo of Cristina Fernández and Néstor Kirchner during the Bicentenario. She is standing on the left, holding her hand to her chest, he is standing next to her, hands folded in front of him.


Cristina Fernández and Néstor Kirchner: Cristina Fernández and Néstor Kirchner during the bicentennial of Chile. The couple has occupied the presidency of Argentina for 12 years, he from 2003 to 2007 and she from 2007 to 2015.



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