Chile achieved independence from Spain in 1818. In the 19th century Chile became one of the most important powers in Latin America. In 1861 Chile obtained a democratic government.

The liberal politician, Arturo Alessandri was the most powerful figure between the wars. He held power in 1920-24, 1925 and 1932-1938. He introduced social reforms that were opposed by the military but Chile remained a democratic country.

The Communist Party was the strongest in South America and participated in Popular Front governments under Aguirre Cedra and Gabriel Videla. However, a right-wing government established after the Second World War led to the Communist Party being proscribed.

The Christian Democratic Party was the most popular political group in the 1950s and 1960s. However, in 1970 Salvador Allende, the leader of the Chilean Socialist Party, was elected president. He therefore became the first Marxist in the world to gain power in a free democratic election. The new government faced serious economic problems. Inflation was running at 30 per cent and over 20 per cent of the male adult population were unemployed. It was estimated that half of the children under 15 suffered from malnutrition.

Allende's decide to take action to redistribute wealth and land in Chile. Wage increases of around 40 per cent were introduced. At the same time companies were not allowed to increase prices. The copper industry was nationalized. So also were the banks. Allende also restored diplomatic relations with Cuba, China and German Democratic Republic.

In June 1973, Salvador Allende appointed Augusto Pinochet as commander-in-chief of the Chilean Army. Allende was unaware that Pinochet was plotting with the CIA to remove him from power. On 11th September 1973, Pinochet led a military coup against Allende's government. Allende died in the fighting in the presidential palace in Santiago.

Pinochet immediately closed down the Chilean Parliament, suspended the constitution, banned all political and trade union activity and imposed strict controls over the media. Pinochet, who had appointed himself president, ordered a purge of the left in Chile. Over the next few years more than 3,000 supporters of the Allende regime were killed.

People in positions of authority who were suspected of holding liberal opinions were also removed from power. It is estimated that around 10 per cent of the Chilean judiciary were dismissed during this period. Pinochet was also responsible for thousands of people being tortured and large numbers were forced into exile.

Over the next few years Pinochet, with the help of 400 CIA advisers, privatized the social and welfare system and destroyed the Chilean trade union movement. Pinochet also received help from Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative government. This included Britain supplying arms to the regime and blocking attempts by the United Nations to investigate human rights abuses in Chile.

Augusto Pinochet thought he had completely removed the influence of the left and in 1980 was confident enough to introduce a new national constitution. This established a timetable for the election of a president.

In October 1988 a referendum took place to decide if Pinochet should be the only candidate in the forthcoming presidential election. Much to his surprise and dismay, this proposal was rejected, and he won only 44 per cent of the vote.

In 1989 Patricio Aylwin, a Christian Democrat, won 55 per cent of the votes to become Chile's new president. Pinochet did however remain as commander-in-chief of the army, a position he was able to use to make sure there were no prosecutions against any members of the security forces suspected of human rights abuses during his period of power.

In March 1998 Pinochet resigned as head of the Chilean army but became a senator, therefore guaranteeing him parliamentary immunity for life. However, later that year, while on a visit to London, Pinochet was arrested by the British police, following a request by judges investigating the torture and disappearance of Spanish citizens during Pinochet's period in power.

Five Law Lords ruled in December 1998 that Pinochet was not immune from prosecution. However, the ruling was set aside when it was discovered that one of the judges had links with Amnesty International. In January 1999 seven Law Lords voted 6-1 that Pinochet must face extradition to Spain but that he was also immune from prosecution for crimes committed before 1988. In January 2000, the British home secretary, Jack Straw, gave permission for Augusto Pinochet to fly home to Chile..