The country's history is as extensive as its coastline is long. The northern region of Chile formed part of the Inca empire, and the more southerly regions were originally occupied by other indigenous groups.
Spanish explorers, conquerors and settlers arrived in the mid 1530s and began a struggle with the native residents that lasted more than 300 years. When the last Arauca Indians on Chiloe Island surrendered, the Spanish hold on the land was complete. By that point, however, European settlers had already made substantial moves toward independence from Spain (led by a hero with the unlikely name of Bernardo OHiggins).
Though Chile's political history since then has been erratic, the country has enjoyed constitutional rule and a republican form of government throughout much of its history.
The War of the Pacific, fought more than a century ago against Peru and Bolivia, gave Chile an important territory: the mineral-rich Atacama Desert. The next major rift in the nations history occurred in 1970 when economic difficulties and political unrest followed the election of South Americas first Marxist president, Salvador Allende.
The tensions culminated in 1973 when the military junta headed by Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte took over the country.
For the next 15 years, Pinochet ruled the country with the proverbial iron fist. Critics of his regime were quickly silenced (and often disappeared altogether) as the general isolated Chile from most of the world.
Chiles democratic tradition was revived after Pinochet decisively lost a 1988 plebiscite (he had wanted a confirmation of his presidential powers until 1997). A presidential election brought a civilian, Patricio Aylwin, into power, and since then democracy has continued.
For the past 15 years, Pinochet has managed to evade trial for the alleged 3,000 murders committed as President, granting amnesty to his regime and leaving a constitution making prosecution for his crimes extremely difficult. In more recent years, Pinochet has claimed that he is unfit for trial due to old age and mental illness.
In 2000 Chiles Supreme Court freed Pinochet from his immunity, allowing for possible prosecution of crimes committed at home and abroad (mostly against Spanish citizens). And after an impressive interview on Miami television last year, the Chilean Supreme court has finally declared Pinochet fit for trial.