Chile and the “Third World”: It’s Tricky

I have been uploading photos to my social media pages daily while on an epic journey through South America.  You know; the drill we all perform on vacation if we are active social media consumers – posting humorous or artistic photos, signs lost in translation, landscapes, architecture, and food – basically giving our followers a glimpse of life in a foreign land through our camera lens. One day I uploaded some photos and a video of funiculars in Valparaiso, Chile.  These are the numerous, somewhat rickety boxcar-like elevators which escalate people up steep mountainsides throughout the scenic and cultural port city.  Valparaiso has been a UNESCO world heritage site since 2003.

To my surprise, an acquaintance commented on my post thanking me for sharing the beauty of this “Third World” country.  This comment came recently after the USA’s president’s alleged judgment statement about “shithole” countries.  As I read my friend’s comment, I was not sure if he was being a smartass inferring that Chile qualifies to fall under that umbrella moniker, or if he simply believed this cultured, developed, wine-producing, Latin-Euro land was actually a Third World country.  Was it? His comment prompted me to consider this harsh label and research the true definition of the First World vs. Third World.  

During the cold war, those countries who signed on with NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) in 1949 were considered the first “First World” countries. Basically, it consisted of most of the western European nations, USA and Canada – those governments who were against the ideology of Communism. These were the developed, capitalist, industrial countries with common political interests.

The Communist-Socialists countries of Russia, old Eastern-bloc Europe, and China were considered the Second World countries.   At that time, all other countries in Asia, Latin America, and Africa were clumped into the Third World country club.


A stroll down the modern city streets of Dubai, UAE or Buenos Aires, Argentina or Cape Town, South Africa might have you scratching your head regarding their “Third World” labeling.  But can cosmopolitan cities raise a raking of the entire COUNTRY to First World status? And what about the Second World?  What happened to that?

Obviously, the political landscape has changed. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the “Second World” seems to have fallen out of our vocabulary, leaving only First and Third World countries (although I have heard people use the term “Second World” now to define developing countries which are somewhere between first and third – I like that).

The First World no longer consists solely of the original NATO countries. The definition has instead shifted to any country with minimal political risk and a well-functioning democracy, a capitalist economy, economic stability and high standard of living.  Certainly, countries like Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and the region of Hong Kong have been added to the list. I would even go so far as to say UAE, Argentina, Paraguay, Chile. Wait, Chile? More on that later.

Remember too, there are compounds where the rich live within the Third World. In this case, the surroundings may very well look like the First World for a few blocks or quite possibly several kilometers. Many countries have enclaves of wealth like India, Brazil, South Africa, Bolivia, Peru, Panama, China, Malaysia and Thailand to name a few. Regardless, the existence of a high standard of living for that fortunate tiny percentage of the population does not elevate the entire country out of its Third World status.

Therefore, it gets tricky for Chile. By old-time traditional definition, Chile is a Third World country.  Although, from what I have personally seen and researched, Chile undoubtedly qualifies as a First World country. For example, it is the only Latin American country on the USA’s Visa Waiver program – which means Chilean citizens can travel to the USA without a visa. The standard of living has risen high enough where the country can no longer qualify for World Bank or IMF aid. Chile has excellent paved roads and highways and some of the most earthquake-resistant, buildings in the world – giving it high marks for infrastructure. They rank 30th in GDP, putting them ahead of other countries considered “First World”.

But still, you ask, “What is developed?”. I use something much simpler than GDP formulas and infrastructure awards.  I ask two questions.  Can you flush toilet paper down the commode in most places (not just the big cities)? Can you drink the water from the tap without getting ill? If you answer yes to both, it is “First World”.  Lesson over.  I am rewriting the map.

15 thoughts on “Chile and the “Third World”: It’s Tricky”

    1. Thanks for reading, Deborah. I actually learned a lot by researching this. Happy travels in whatever world you choose to see!

  1. Really interesting for someone who has purchased a home in Costa Rica (expat retjrement home eventually). We often get similar questions about the infrastructure, healthcare and other facilities and amenities. Well done!

    1. Hi Rick,

      Thanks for reading and commenting. Yes, these questions come up about Costa Rica for me also. Which I would give a second world – nearly first world designation, living there myself. They have further to go than Chile, for example, on the infrastructure/roads. But very high marks for healthcare, stability and running on natural power. Cheers to your retirement!

      1. I recommend two books by John Perkins: “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man”, and “The Secret History of the American Empire.” Informative, eyeopening, horrific.
        Sheds light on the World Bank and IMF, and how those programs are used to enslave developing nations with debt. You will gain insight as to why many Latins have disdain or hatred towards The US.

  2. So much can change at the blink of an eye! I was born in Chile to Hungarian parents in 1948. In 1966, under threat of a win of a communist presidential candidate and my strong desire, I moved to the USA to study.Thirty five years later, in 2001, I returned to Chile for the first time and was in awe of the positive changes, advances in all aspects of life. Since then I have been back four additional times, the last in March of 2018, to celebrate my 70th birthday.
    Yest in the last two years, it seems that the country has fallen apart. I sympathize with protest related to social inequalities, political corruption, mistreatment of indigenous peoples and immigrants. I do not support violence anywhere, for any reason (unless it is directed at DJT).
    So, has Chilebfallen back into being a third world country due to the lack of safety, or is it a developing country. I certainly would not consider the USA a first world country at the moment, unless leading the world in COVID19 cases and deaths makes it so! But I have been stranded in Vietnam, “a third world country” by many definitions, for eight months now. (Stranded is a relative word, since I could gave gone home, if I really wanted to.) Yet, in a small territory, with 95 million people jammed into urban areas, there are a total of under 1100 cases of infection by the virus and only 35 deaths. Life is 95% normal, there are no shortages, no protests, no riots, no starving! Everything is open. Citizens and visitors alike are compliant. The border has been closed since March with minimal exceptions. The infrastructure is lacking. There is corruption in the government. But people feel safe. I, a first world citizen, feel safer here than in the USA. Maybe the definitions of what makes a world first, developing or third needs to be re-evaluated!

    1. Hola Veronica,

      Thank you, gracias, for your reading my blog and for your thoughtful reply. Wow, what a great history and worldview you have! I feel your comments are spot on regarding the current pandemic. My first instinct was to say, wait, no way in less than 3 years that the cosmopolitan country of Chile has slipped into “third world” territory. But then I remember the USA pre-45th administration, pre-COVID. And clearly, negative changes can happen in the blink of an eye. These tragic times have exposed fissures in the strongest of countries.

      I have have been to Vietnam and it sounds like an excellent place to be “stranded” during a pandemic! I have an expat friend in Hanoi who reports details much as you have. It will be interesting to see who in the world ultimately handled it well and who didn’t. It is a frustrating time for all. Stay safe and keep healthy.

      Thanks for the follow and for taking time to share your thoughts!

  3. Actually you can’t flush toilet paper down the commode in many places outside large cities, and even in many older properties in Santiago, although you can in most homes in the capital. And although the tap water is perfectly safe to drink in most of the country, there are questions about the safety of drinking water in the far north of Chile. In general, safety has deteriorated considerably since 2019, and gun crime is on the rise, along with carjackings and muggings.

    1. Tony, thank you for stopping by my blog and taking the time to comment. Working off my own experiences from several years ago, clearly, there are things of which I am not aware. I do appreciate the update. Even though the news of what is happening is not necessarily positive.

  4. Sad to say, once great Chile is coming down, fast…and the future looks bleak…at least Argentina is beginning to dig itself out, and in Chile we are going head on to more problems, in part, due to an inefective and corrupt government. They along with some previous governments have destroyed and erosioned independent institutions, replaced by party hacks and friends of politicians. Public education, long being erosioned by the evil of politics even at the school level, was finished off with the last Bachelet government by ending outright government subsidies to semi-public and private schools…also no grades nor marks are required, making this a joke. The only schools that remain untouched by this are the private schools, making the gap wider in terms of quality education. The ‘ new ‘ generation, those that voted this corrupt government, are unable of critical thinking, and just parrot and rehash cheap political slogans, without understanding nor caring of the issues nor of the results. This is why the future is bleak as these are now the new generation that votes and ‘ works ‘….Chile was once a fantastic country, now in decadence.

    1. Cris, thank you for visiting my blog. Obviously this was written a number of years ago. It is sad and disappointing to hear of the downward spiral of such a wonderful country and people. It hurts my heart. I hope it can be turned around by the next generation.

  5. As a Chilean living in the United States, I find some of the comments here to be more in alignment with
    politics than with reality. It is not unusual for Chileans of the right to blame leftist governments for the
    deterioration of conditions in Chile. What they mean by this is that the poor now have more rights.
    The class divide which runs deep in Chilean society is becoming blurred. The real “pitucos” and the
    wannabe take “offense” at this.
    There is deterioration, no doubt. However, the reason for this is the large wave of immigrants
    entering Chile. Throughout history, large waves of immigration have brought about
    chaos, unless it is regulated, which should then be expected. While it is true that most immigrants are looking for economic opportunities, it is also true that the “welcoming” country is looking for cheap labor not necessarily skilled labor. This is particularly true of countries that are more “advanced”, that are expanding economically and whose own work force expects more. Crime becomes an issue when opportunists take advantage due to the anonymity in the chaos and large crowds to get away with more. They are the ones that are trafficking humans and bringing illicit drugs and prostitution, which has increased manyfold in Chile the last 3-4 years, not the leftist government.

    1. Isabel, Thank you so much for reading my blog and sharing your thoughts on this topic. It is very meaningful coming from a Chilean. I loved visiting your country. I hope the deterioration will right itself. Whatever the cause. Gracias!

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