September 11 marks the 20th anniversary of the overthrow of Socialist president Salvador Allende by the Chilean military. The bloody military coup which brought Augusto Pinochet to power ended with the assassination of Allende and began a wave of repression in which thousands were forced to flee the country and thousands more were disappeared, tortured and murdered.
The election of Salvador Allende in 1970 inspired people around the globe to think that fundamental social change could be achieved and that capitalism could be transformed through parliamentary means. This illusion was shattered by the 1973 coup.
The Chilean economy developed industrially around the turn of the century, when large copper deposits began to be mined. But foreign ownership of natural resources resulted in little wealth being distributed among the population and most ending up in US banks. In the early 1900s, half of the population suffered from chronic malnutrition.
The early industrialisation of the Chilean economy compared to other South American nations resulted in the formation of mass trade unions at the turn of the century. Their organisational strength was reflected in the support which the Socialist and Communist parties received in elections and when protests were organised. This electoral support averaged 25-30% up until the 1973 coup.
The support for the left resulted in numerous electoral alliances, many times encouraged by the Chilean Communist party (CCP). The CCP's perspective was an extension of Soviet foreign policy, which encouraged "peaceful coexistence". It was summed up by Luis Corvalan, the CCP's general secretary, in 1970: "As for Chile ... a peaceful way is the most likely way for the development of revolution".
The CCP, together with the Socialist Party, had reached the conclusion that socialism could be achieved through capitalist legality. This perspective did not take into account the role of the capitalist state and its political character or the role of international capital.
The led by Salvador Allende under the banner of the Unidad Popular (Popular Unity) was formed in a period of economic decline in the late 1960s but was filled with an optimism that real change could finally be achieved. The alliance consisted of the Communist Party, Socialist Party, Radical Party and a number of smaller left groups. The program aimed at achieving political and economic independence for Chile through the nationalisation of industry and a reform of electoral laws.
These policies inspired a large section of the population, sparking enormous mobilisations in support of the UP's campaign. A number of songs were written at the time which reflected the mood of the people, including "The people united will never be defeated" and "Venceremos", both by Quilapayun.
The late '60s and early '70s was a period of social unrest and political radicalisation throughout most of the world. The political situation was much the same in Chile. The mood among the people was that fundamental social change could be achieved.
Though previous governments in the '60s had implemented a process of "Chilenisation", through the nationalisation of some industry, it was badly managed and did not lift the living standards of the poor, as governments had promised.
The mobilisations demonstrating support for the UP soon began to worry the United States. Victory for the Popular Unity would hit them not only economically but also politically by breaking the isolation of Cuba, which was inspiring the people of Latin America and the world to realise that real change could be achieved outside capitalism.
President Richard Nixon summarised the US position clearly when he said, "We can not stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people".
The conservative election campaign was primarily based on anti-communism. The conservative propaganda declared that Allende's victory would result in the "end of democracy". They proclaimed that the Russians would invade and steal people's children and that a Cuban satellite state would be set up.
The United States heavily funded the conservatives' campaign. To counter the offensive, the Popular Unity set up 15,000 local committees throughout the country to present its policies. These committees organised speaking tours and the election campaign in the local area.
Allende won 36.3% of the vote, conservative candidates Jorge Alessandri winning 35% and Rodomiro Tomic 27.8%, leaving no clear victor. According to the Constitution, the Congress, which was dominated by the conservatives, would decide the winner. After much uncertainty, it followed the convention of supporting the winner of the highest vote and elected Allende on October 24.
Soon after taking office, Allende declared that the new government would begin the "peaceful transition to socialism". Within the first year, foreign holdings in copper, nitrate, iron and coal were nationalised, as well as many banks and textile mills.
The new government released a number of political prisoners, opposed the US intervention in Vietnam, stepped up relations with East Germany, China and the USSR and increased trade with Cuba. The popularity of the government jumped from 36% to 49% within that same year.
Allende's government had only executive power. The Congress was still controlled by the conservative and centre parties. Allende pointed out, "The people have formed their government but have not yet taken the whole of political power". Another problem for Allende was that the Supreme Court, which was answerable to neither the president nor the Congress, was controlled by the conservatives.
The policies of Allende resulted in US economic aid being cut. Chile lost $US100 million in foreign exchange in the first year of the Popular Unity government. Credits from the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank were also cancelled. Interestingly, military aid and joint military exercises were not affected.
One of the major players in the coup preparations, together with the Central Intelligence Agency was the multinational ITT. At the time of Allende's victory it controlled the entire telephone network and owned all the factories producing communication equipment in the country, plus a number of other investments. The nationalisation process affected 80% of its investment in Chile.
Domestic and foreign big business set out to sabotage the Chilean economy. The plan was to strangle the economy, spread panic among the population, encourage unrest and disturbances and infiltrate the armed forces.
Industry sabotaged production and hoarded large quantities of food and consumer goods. The latifundistas (big land owners) drove some 300,00 cattle over the border to Argentina.
Newspapers and television stations controlled by the conservatives escalated their propaganda with headlines such as "The Communist Party is preparing a coup", "The Communists terrorise small shopkeepers", "Allende's final decision: no land for the peasants" and "Marxist leaders granted licence to assassinate all undesirables".
Though the Allende government faced enormous obstacles, to overcome it was still able to implement a number of reforms:
- Wages of lower paid workers increased by 66%.
- Free milk was distributed to almost 4 million children of school and preschool age.
- Unemployment was halved in the first year.
- 3300 large land holdings were expropriated.
But the right continued causing shortages. This situation was aggravated with a shopkeepers' strike in August 1972 and a truck drivers' strike in October of the same year. Political polarisation increased, leaving the Popular Unity government few options in terms of implementing its program of a "peaceful road to socialism".
1973 began with rumours that the military was preparing a coup. In retaliation, a large number of factories were taken over by workers under their own initiative, consolidating popular power. Support for Popular Unity was still high, reaching 44% in municipal elections in March.
These results increased the panic in the right wing and the US State Department. But divisions were still apparent in the armed forces, which led to a failed coup in June. Soon after, not realising Pinochet's political orientation, Allende promoted him to chief of the armed forces. This gave Pinochet opportunity to appoint personnel loyal to him and his aims, which were revealed on September 11.
The lesson that the left can learn from these events is that social classes that have had their day will not surrender their position voluntarily. This is the central aspect which Allende did not understand, which led to enormous confusion among the people and left them to the mercy of the military.