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Thirty years after the coup that toppled a left-wing government
Chile's tragedy

September 12, 2003 | Page 8

BRIDGET BRODERICK and TOM LEWIS tell the story of the "other September 11."

THIS WEEK marks 30 years since Gen. Augusto Pinochet--backed to the hilt by the U.S.--led a military coup to overthrow Chile's democratically elected left-wing government. Some 30,000 people lost their lives in the coup of September 11, 1973, and the long decades of dictatorship that followed.

Among the dead was President Salvador Allende. Known around the world as Chile's "Marxist" president, Allende had been elected in 1970 on promises of radical economic and social reform that in time would attain socialist goals.

He was the head of a six-party coalition called Popular Unity (UP) that included Chile's Socialist and Communist Parties. Over the next two years, Allende and his government carried out a relatively moderate program of land redistribution and nationalizations in the country's main industries.

These policies--but even more so, the actions of Chilean workers and peasants, who took matters into their own hands by seizing land and factories--led to increasing conflicts with the country's capitalists, military officers and right wingers. In October 1972, Chile's employers organized a "bosses' strike," hoping to strangle the economy, force Allende to resign and put the popular struggle on the defensive.

But workers took action to stop the right, in many places taking control of production and distribution themselves--through the "cordones," a system of workers' councils. A few months later, parliamentary elections that the right had hoped would put them back in power gave Popular Unity an even bigger majority.

Finally, Chile's generals--with direct aid from the Nixon administration in Washington--played their final card. In the weeks that followed the coup, thousands of unionists, socialists, students and left-wing activists were raped, tortured, starved and murdered.

Pinochet's coup is a clear example of the lengths that the rulers of our society will go in order to protect their rule. Chile's capitalists--and the U.S. imperialists who stood behind them--were willing to dispense with democracy and plunge the country into a nightmare when their power and profits were threatened.

Today, recently released documents from the CIA's Chile Declassification Project reveal the extent of U.S. involvement in the atrocities. The Nixon administration stopped at nothing in its campaign to undermine Allende--and then to help the Chilean military in toppling him.

But it is important to remember that Chilean socialism was not the inevitable victim of reaction and imperialism. The reasons for the defeat remain a source of debate today, with many on the left--both in Latin America and the U.S.--concluding that Chilean workers "went too far" in their actions to bring about a better world.

In an issue of the left-wing journal NACLA Report on the Americas devoted to the anniversary, Philip Oxhorn writes: "Allende's legacy today...entails an important element of political pragmatism for the left as it seeks to honor the most productive aspects of Allende's legacy, while avoiding some of its pitfalls." Oxhorn concludes with praise for Brazil's new President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva--the one-time working class radical whose government has turned on its left-wing supporters--for committing himself to "responsible" fiscal policies.

This is the wrong lesson to learn from the tragedy of Chile 1973. The truth is not that Allende and Chile's workers went too far--but that they did not go far enough.

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BEHIND ALLENDE'S election victory in 1970 was the growing militancy of Chile's workers and peasants. During the late 1960s, the preceding conservative government broke its promise of land reform, and peasants responded with a wave of land occupations.

In the cities, the growing masses of the urban poor built squatters' towns and began to organize for housing rights. Students demanded education reform--their movement culminated in a huge march on Santiago from every corner of the country. Meanwhile, workers gained new confidence in their own actions, as the number of strikes doubled in 1970 alone.

The Popular Unity government was propelled into power by the momentum of these struggles. But the coalition was a mix of different organizations--ranging from middle-class reformers to labor organizations, radical peasants and revolutionaries who looked to armed struggle. Heading this coalition was Allende. He's rightly remembered as a champion of important reforms, like nationalizing parts of the industrial economy.

But Allende was far from a revolutionary. Throughout his time in office, Allende tried to win over Chile's ruling class to his government--even when this came at the expense of the working class. In return for being allowed to take office, for example, Allende signed a secret "Statute of Guarantees," declaring that he would leave intact all the institutions that the country's rulers relied on--the armed forces, the courts, the police, the education system and the media.

Within months, tensions began to build up in the Popular Unity coalition. Allende, for example, demanded that workers and peasants return factories and land that they had seized to "rightful property owners"--while the court system decided on their grievances. He allowed the police to attack, arrest and disarm workers who had defended the UP government against the bosses' strikes.

Prior to the 1973 coup, Allende had even invited Pinochet into the government--another concession made in the hopes of winning over Chile's rulers. Allende demanded that workers respect the constitution--but the Chilean ruling class certainly didn't. Fascist thugs organized openly and attacked workers and peasants without fear of punishment. The privately run media urged the overthrow of the government.

When the UP coalition won another electoral victory in March 1973, the right wing and Nixon's administration discarded all pretence. The Pentagon organized joint maneuvers with Chile's military, and the CIA had standing orders to carry out covert action to topple the government.

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THERE WAS an alternative to Allende's policies of moderation and compromise--mobilizing the power of Chile's workers and peasants. Over the course of 1972, some of the strikes, land seizures and factory occupations threw up a new form of popular organization--the "cordones."

Representatives to these workers' councils were elected at the grassroots and were recallable at any time. The cordones proved highly effective in coordinating the struggle in workplaces and linking up factory workers with community organizations, shanty dwellers, students and rural laborers--and also in taking charge of social tasks as the crisis developed.

So when Chile's rulers launched a "strike" in October 1972--with the country's trucking company bosses locking up their vehicles, storeowners closing down supermarkets and doctors, lawyers and other professionals shutting their doors--workers took action. Under the leadership of the cordones, they commandeered trucks and vans and organized food distribution themselves. In the factories, workers' committees were organized to maintain production.

"The bosses aren't going to tell us what to do," said a worker at a packaging plant in Santiago. "We opened the stores, took out the raw materials and just kept on producing--production didn't stop here for a single moment. You can see people working with real joy. I think we've realized in these last few days that what we are is something more than just a plate of beans."

Thus, in the course of struggle, Chilean workers and peasants created a far more democratic form of decision-making than the institutions of existing society--a political body that could decide the course of society based on the needs and wishes of the majority. Yet Allende and his partners at the head of the government chose to defend the existing order.

The Popular Unity coalition denounced the cordones as counterrevolutionary--for going "too far" in competing with established authority. Even as workers weathered the bosses' strikes, Allende declared a state of emergency and invited the military to join the government.

Revolutionary socialist organizations in Chile were critical of Allende's actions, of course. But they were never able to provide a clear alternative--to build a mass party committed to smashing the old state machine and exercising workers' power through the democracy of the cordones.

By the time of the Pinochet coup, the masses of Chilean workers--the crucial force that had defeated other efforts of the right to topple the Allende government--were confused and demoralized. They knew that Popular Unity was betraying their hopes, but they couldn't see an alternative.

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PINOCHET PROVED--at the cost of tens of thousands of lives--that the rulers of capitalism will never give up their power peacefully and are ready to throw out "democracy" when it threatens their interests.

But the tragedy of Chile shows something else as well--that the belief of Allende and others that they could bring socialism by winning gradual reforms and taking over the existing state was not a recipe for social change, but for adapting to the existing society. Those who put their hopes in this gradual approach aren't choosing a peaceful and less violent way of achieving socialism--but are choosing a different goal altogether.

Chile's workers showed they had the power to match the bosses. They created the cordones, which had the potential to build a more genuinely democratic society than anything that exists in today's capitalist world.

But the only way to fully realize that power is through a revolution that dismantles the power of the ruling class. And a revolution requires political organization--a party of workers than can argue for an alternative way forward and win others to that side. Those are the true lessons of Chile 1973.

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