Bitter lessons of coup in Chile

Wednesday, September 13, 1995

By Jorge Jorquera

Days after the bombing of the presidential house, La Moneda, on September 11, 1973, we still waited for parents and family to return. Tens of thousands of workers had remained in their factories to defend the Salvador Allende government. We spent every night burning documents and burying what weapons we had left. The dream that millions of Chilean people buried during those nights was of the socialist future they thought they had begun to build three years earlier with the election of the Unidad Popular. The UP was formed in 1969, consisting of Allende's Socialist Party, the Communist Party, Radical Party, Social Democrats, Independent Popular Action, Movement of Popular Unitary Action (MAPU) and the Christian Left.

The UP promised radical social reform. Popular support for it grew rapidly; 15,000 election committees were formed for the 1970 elections. The US responded with massive funds for the right-wing parties. US President Nixon saw the writing on the wall: "We cannot stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people".

The UP won the presidency with 36.3% to the National Party's 35%, a narrow but not unusual margin in Chilean elections. Even before Allende was sworn in, a leading constitutionalist, General Schneider, was murdered by the right, sending clear signals that the bourgeoisie would preserve its rule by any means necessary.

Allende in government

Allende and the CP believed that a gradual transition to socialism was a strategic possibility. In fact, the UP reforms only opened a revolutionary process — pitting the working class against the capitalists, pushing the middle classes to take sides and obliging both left and right to pose strategies to resolve the crisis fundamentally.

Within the first year of government, the UP nationalised copper, nitrate, iron and coal, as well as many banks and textile mills. The UP opposed US intervention in Vietnam, stepped up relations with Soviet bloc countries and increased trade with Cuba. Other reforms included the expropriation of 3300 large land holdings, increasing the wages of lower paid workers by 66%, introducing a litre a day of free milk for 4 million children and halving unemployment.

UP popularity increased in the polls to 49%. However, tensions increased between the working class and its leadership in the UP. Workers began to sense their ability to run society, while the UP remained hamstrung by its reliance on parliamentary means.

The Christian Democrat opposition took advantage of the UP's hesitancy. While the UP was expanding the state sector of the economy, it played down the participation and mobilisation of working people, because of its concern with keeping the Christian Democrats on side (whom they saw as direct political representatives of the middle classes).

Subsequently the Christian Democrats were able to propagandise against what they called bureaucratic state ownership. In the 1971 peak trade union (CUT) elections, the Christian Democrats got one third of the votes. The majority of the UP leadership interpreted the results as a sign that the UP needed to court the Christian Democrats even more.

A growing number of militants drew a different lesson. This was evident in the 1972 workers' revolt in the Cerillo Maipu suburbs of Santiago, where 250 enterprises employing 46,000 workers made it the densest industrial concentration in the country. During the demonstrations, the Comando de Trabajadores was set up. The program of the Cerillo Maipu Comando highlighted the increasing class consciousness of a growing number of workers:

"To support the government ... in so far as they support the struggles and mobilisation of the working people ... To set up workers' control over production through delegates subject to recall ... To set up peasants' control through delegate councils, subject to recall by the base ... To create a State Construction Enterprise, under the control of a delegate council of tenants and workers ... To install a people's assembly to replace the bourgeois government ..."

By September 1972 word was already public about the right-wing "September Plan" — using foreign help and the army to overthrow the government. The Christian Democrats were making an openly subversive alliance with the extreme right, euphemistically christened the Democratic Confederation. The social base of this alliance included women from the upper classes, spoiled upper class youth and Patria y Libertad, a neo-fascist paramilitary group.

Bourgeois strike

On October 9, 1972, truck owner-drivers in the south went on strike. On October 10 a Patria y Libertad demonstration in Santiago declared it time to act. On October 11 the National Confederation of Road Hauliers declared an indefinite national strike. On October 13 shopkeepers also declared a national strike.

These sectors were reacting to increasing inflation and economic strife, and were attracted to the growing decisiveness of the reactionaries as opposed to the timidness of the government.

On October 14 all the right-wing parties issued a joint declaration supporting the strikers. Other sympathy strikes followed — the Federation of Santiago School Students, bus owners in Valparaiso and Santiago and some bank employees.

But the bourgeois strike soon met a response — a mass mobilisation of the working class, which took it upon itself to maintain production. One after another, the industrial enterprises began moving towards real workers' control.

The Christian Democrats subsequently began to retreat from the September Plan. They realised that the strength of the working class could be overcome only by military force.

As the Christian Democrats retreated, the UP leaders interpreted this as a new opportunity to win their backing. The CP started to play up the constitutionalists in the army. On November 2, 1972, the UP announced the entry into the cabinet of three generals, along with both national secretaries of the CUT. The CP paper's headline read, "A cabinet against subversion".

But by bringing the generals into cabinet and calling on the army and police to maintain social order, the UP leadership (the CP and the right wings of the Socialist Party and MAPU) contained the impetus of the mobilised working people.

During the October crisis the left of the UP and the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR) conducted campaigns for "power to the people". These alliances continued beyond October. Sections of the left were coming to the understanding that a revolutionary rupture with the bourgeois state would be necessary; the working class would have to be organised and prepared for the decisive battles.

In December 1972, MAPU elected a new general secretary, who claimed MAPU had become a Marxist party. Its congress sketched out a new political line: "The Chilean revolution has an uninterrupted socialist character; democratic tasks and socialist tasks are increasingly bound up with each other, and become at the same time the principal tasks ..."

On the other hand, the UP leadership responded with the Millas Plan. Orlando Millas, the CP minister of the economy, prepared a submission questioning the status of 123 industrial enterprises, most of which had been taken over by their workers during October. The UP was suspected of preparing to give these factories back to their bosses.

Opposed by the Socialist Party, MIR, MAPU, Christian Left and even many CP militants, the government had to back down on the Millas Plan. Under growing mass pressure, the UP went to the March 1973 provincial elections with a more radical program. As a result, the UP got an unexpectedly high vote of 44%.

As the intentions of the bourgeoisie became increasingly open, the cordones industriales and the comandos comunales (squatters, peasants and workers' community defence organisations) initiated plans for a meeting of all cordones and comandos in Santiago province. The president of the Cordon Cerillos expressed the sentiment growing among the politically advanced sections of the working class:

"The cordones are nuclei of popular power and must be developed because the government is locked into the framework of bourgeois institutions, which prevent it from thoroughly confronting the bourgeoisie."

The coup

On June 29 came the first attempted coup. It involved only 150 soldiers and was obviously only a trial run.

By this stage, however, the army was in full preparation for the decisive coup. Using the arms control law passed by the right-dominated Congress in October 1972, the army had already begun mass raids for guns in workplaces and homes.

On September 11, in the early morning hours, the navy seized the port of Valparaiso. At noon the campus of the State Technical University (a centre of left students) was attacked by jet fighters, then by troops using mortars and machine guns. Within an hour, 700 students were dead.

Factories were attacked systematically, but many workers managed to defend their factories for hours. An Italian newspaper described the savage onslaught by the army on one of the major plants in the industrial suburbs of Santiago: "Although it was attacked by heavy artillery and bombed from the air, the workers held out for five days. When the troops finally entered the shops, bodies were lying all over the floor. Then there was a hand to hand struggle inside, a last desperate attempt to hold the factory."

All socialist centres and offices were immediately attacked. Troops machine-gunned the entire staff of the MIR paper Punto Final in their offices. In all some 25,000 people were killed in the first few days.

Many things are different today, but the tragic lessons of the Chilean coup — the failure of the gradualist parliamentary strategy — remain.