September 10, 2023
Fifty Years of Coup against Allende

R Arun Kumar

FIFTY years ago, on September 11, 1973, the US succeeded in orchestrating a coup against the democratically elected Salvador Allende’s government in Chile. The Pinochet dictatorship foisted on the people assassinated thousands of communists, socialists, workers, artists and all those who were found to be actively supporting Allende. This violent terror was accompanied by the implementation of neoliberal policies, guided by the ‘Chicago boys’. The coup benefited imperialism in two ways – one, eliminating communist threat and all progressive opposition and two, by opening up the Chilean economy for unhindered exploitation and thus laying the model for further implementation in the rest of the developing world. Resolute struggles against the dictatorship and neoliberal policies had resulted in the present progressive government assuming responsibilities in Chile. The current government undoubtedly rests on the foundation laid down by Salvador Allende.

Salvador Allende was a popular communist leader who was contesting presidential elections in Chile since the 1950s. In spite of his defeats in the hands of ruling class representatives, he continued to win substantial support from the working class and other poor people in Chile. The basis of steady electoral gains witnessed in Allende’s contests lay in the Chilean working class movement.

Starting from the late nineteenth century, Chile had a very strong labour movement. It was based in the mining industry in the north and textile and coal mining in the south. Both the Communist Party and the Socialist Party in Chile were built on the basis of their consistent support and participation in working class struggles. It is because of such struggles that the working class gained substantial political rights in the 1930s. Building on these gains, the working class began expanding their influence and organisation. In order to advance the interests of the working class, Allende was proposed as a presidential candidate in the 1950s. Though he lost, the 1960s saw a massive increase in popular support for Allende. Together with the working class, many other sections of the society too joined struggles, particularly the peasants. The rural regions in Chile which did not gain much from the achievements of the earlier working class struggles now joined forces. Together with them, the shantytown movement and student movement demanding a reform in the universities too happened during this period. All these class and social struggles shook the Chilean society and contributed to the victory of Allende in 1970.

Allende contested the presidential elections held on September 4, 1970 as candidate of the Popular Unity Front. He was elected with 36.4 per cent of votes, as against 34.9 per cent secured by his opponent. Though he did not win a majority of the votes, he was declared elected as the president after the Congress over-ruled the legal challenges of his opponent. It is with this narrow mandate Allende embarked on changing the society within the constraints of bourgeois democracy.

Allende had come to power promising to redistribute wealth, end foreign control, monopoly control over the economy, deepen democracy by enabling worker participation in factories. The first year Allende was in power, his government was successful in initiating its policies and the opposition was not particularly vocal. The government started first with the nationalisation of banks by buying a controlling share of the banks at a relatively high price in order to coax shareholders into selling. The second major achievement was the nationalisation of copper, which was approved unanimously by the parliament. The government created Social Property Areas, to ‘requisition or expropriate’ private holdings for social use, starting with the textile companies. It encouraged peoples’ participation at the municipal level through ‘communal commands’. These allowed people at the grassroots level and the working class to have a say in how their lives were run. Similarly, cordones industriales, were created in industries that had been nationalised. In the thousand days the government was in power, people were encouraged to participate in government decisions.

Allende also addressed the concerns of the peasantry that were severely exploited. Immediately after a week of his swearing-in, he visited Araucanía, a rural region and personally witnessed the huge concentration of land and what land deprivation is doing to the peasants. Immediately he undertook land reforms and within a year, more than half a million hectares of land was distributed to the landless. Similarly, the question of housing was also sought to be addressed in a mission mode.

At the cultural level, the government created, ‘Quimantú’ a publishing house that brought out thousands of books. Many of the already existing books were made available to all the people. New books were printed to develop critical thinking. A large number of people started reading, discussing and learning. Another initiative was the starting of the National Unified School (ENU) to guarantee access for low-income students and offer greater chances for those sections that are unable to obtain university-level education.

Under Allende’s regime, the poorest 50 per cent of the population saw its share of national income increase from 16.1 per cent to 17.6 per cent and that of the ‘middle classes’ from 53.9 per cent to 57.7 per cent. On the other hand, the richest 5 per cent saw their national income share drop from 30 per cent to 24.7 per cent.

Naturally, all these measures angered the ruling classes, which viewed them as an attack on their hegemonic control over the State. Starting 1972, they launched a movement of blocking out the economy, ensuring an artificial scarcity of essential commodities and wreaking the economy from within. This was termed as the ‘Boss’s Lockout’. This was part of their strategy to bring the Chilean economy to a standstill. In addition, the US influenced the World Bank and ensured that all loans and credits to Chile were refused. The daily Guardian noted in 1973, that “the net new advances which were frozen as a result of the US pressure, included sums totaling £30 millions”. In this manner the US tried to strangulate Allende’s regime right from the start.

In spite of all these efforts, popular support to Allende remained high. One of the classic images circulated of the Allende rule was long queues for essential commodities in front of the supermarkets. In one of those lines, a worker held a large poster: “Under this government, I have to wait in a line, but I support this government because it’s mine”. This was possible because people were made aware of the ruling classes and imperialist sabotage.

In the legislative elections held in March 1973, Allende’s party won with 43. 4 per cent votes, much higher than the 36 per cent he had won in the presidential elections held three years before. The workers, peasants and students rallied behind Allende in huge street demonstrations, by organising community deposit centers where food was sold at cost and by opening supermarkets closed during the business shut-down.

The workers also successfully thwarted the attempts to disrupt the economy by a truckers strike in October 1972. Thus a class struggle was being waged in Chile, with both the ruling classes and the working class mobilising on their respective sides. It was observed during that period, the walls in Santiago, the capital city carried a slogan written by the ruling class paramilitary forces: ‘Djakarta, ya viene’, meaning ‘Jakarta is coming’. This is to remind the communists and socialists of the bloodbath carried out in Indonesia by the ruling classes in 1967.

On September 11, Allende and his administration were supposed to announce a constitutional plebiscite to strengthen their hands to carry out their pro-people policies. Preempting this move, the ruling classes through their agents in the military and backed by the US, carried out the coup. They stormed the presidential palace and unleashed a reign of terror. During what the newspapers called ‘the night of terror’, some 2,00,000 people in the working class neighbourhoods outside of Santiago suffered a blackout when electricity lines were cut. The worst battles between police and demonstrators were fought in these working class neighbourhoods.

Communists, socialists and their supporters were rounded and brought to the national stadium where they were executed. Eminent songwriter Victor Jara was detained, tortured, mutilated, and executed inside Chile’s National Stadium. The US daily, Newsweek had a report from its correspondent in Santiago shortly after the coup, head lined ‘Slaughterhouse in Santiago’, where he personally visited the morgues to find thousands of bodies piled on each other. “I was able to obtain an official morgue body-count from the daughter of a member of its staff: by the fourteenth day following the coup, she said, the morgue had received and processed 2796 corpses”, he recalled.
The days following the coup continued with this brutal repression. It was only after the end of Pinochet dictatorship, an official truth commission was constituted. Its report acknowledged that 3,200 Chilean citizens were executed or murdered by the regime, 38,000 were political prisoners who survived detention and torture, and another estimated 100,000 experienced shorter detention periods and mass raids on their working-class communities.

Justifying the violence, General Augusto Pinochet triumphantly stated that “the armed forces have acted with patriotic inspiration to take a nation out of chaos, a grave chaos that Allende’s Marxist government caused”.

The role of the CIA in the coup and massacre has now come out into the open due to the declassification of certain secret files of that period. It became known that Henry Kissinger began manipulating policy toward Chile’s socialist leader, Salvador Allende, as early as 1970. He remarked “there was no reason for the United States to stand by and let Chile go communist merely due to the stupidity of its own people”. Kissinger stated: “the election of Allende as President of Chile poses for us one of the most serious challenges ever faced in this hemisphere.”

The military coup that took place in Chile in September 1973 was part of Operation Condor that involved secret collusion between Latin America’s military dictatorships, and included coordinating pressure against Chile. The Condor team had representatives from the secret police forces of Chile, Paraguay, Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina. Four US battle ships docked at Chile’s coast on September 11 and maintained permanent contact with the coup leaders. Leading up to the coup, in July and August, right-wing terrorists trained by US intelligence agencies carried out over 250 sabotage actions, exploding electric lines, targeting industry belts, and assassinating key civilians. According to US author James Cockroft, “The CIA had a large role in the strike against Salvador Allende and the Chilean people”.

A CIA document from October 1970 reads: “It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup. It is imperative that these actions be implemented clandestinely and securely so that the USG (US government) and American hand be well hidden”.

Allende bravely decided not to flee the coup, nor resign. He decided to remain in the presidential palace till his last. From the presidential palace he addressed the nation, which remains his last words. Thanking the workers of Chile, he stated: “At this definitive moment, the last moment when I can address you, I wish you to take advantage of the lesson: foreign capital, imperialism, together with the reaction, created the climate in which the armed forces broke their tradition, the tradition taught by General Schneider and reaffirmed by Commander Araya, victims of the same social sector which will today be in their homes hoping, with foreign assistance, to retake power to continue defending their profits and their privileges….Surely Radio Magallanes will be silenced, and the calm metal instrument of my voice will no longer reach you. It does not matter. You will continue hearing it. I will always be next to you. At least my memory will be that of a man of dignity who was loyal to the workers.

“Workers of my country, I have faith in Chile and its destiny. Other men will overcome this dark and bitter moment when treason seeks to prevail. Go forward knowing that, sooner rather than later, the great avenues will open again where free men will walk to build a better society.

Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers!

These are my last words, and I am certain that my sacrifice will not be in vain….”

Indeed his sacrifice is not in vain, as communists and socialists in Chile have gained strength and are now back in office, trying to realise the dreams of Allende. Of course, they are once again fighting the ruling classes who are trying their best to not forego any of the gains they have made during the dictatorship period. The struggle in Chile hence, continues.

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