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.

6 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.

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