The coup that crushed democracy in Chile

September 11, 2013

Forty years ago on September 11, Chile's military, backed by the U.S., carried out a coup against the government of socialist Salvador Allende. Lance Selfa tells the story.

FOR A generation of socialists and working-class fighters radicalized in the late 1960s, the "battle of Chile" was one of the defining moments of their political lives.

The 1970 election of the socialist Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende posed in sharp relief the questions that all socialist parties have faced since the mass of the working class won the right to vote in the 19th century: Can the working class and the poor--who, after all, are the vast majority of the population--vote socialism into power? And will big business simply surrender its dominance over society in the face of a democratic vote?

Chile would have seemed to be a good test case for the proposition that socialism could come through the ballot box. At the time, it stood out in Latin America as one country that had kept parliamentary rule for most of the 20th century. Radical parties that regularly stood for elections maintained strong support among the country's working class.

The most prominent of these, the Socialist Party, was formed in 1933. It brought together a number of smaller parties and currents in the workers' movement. At its founding, it declared itself committed to Marxism and for the founding of a socialist confederation of Latin America.

Chile's presidential palace under attack during the 1973 coup
Chile's presidential palace under attack during the 1973 coup

In practice, however, the party was committed, in the day to day, to passing reforms through the Chilean congress. For the Socialist Party, nationalization of economy's "commanding heights," plus government provision of health, education and social services, represented what it called "the Chilean Way to Socialism."

In 1958, the Front for Popular Action (FRAP), a coalition of the Socialists, Communists and other left-wing parties, united behind the candidacy of long-time Socialist Party leader Salvador Allende, narrowly lost the presidential election to the country's moderate conservative party, the Christian Democrats. In 1964, FRAP lost more decisively to the Christian Democratic candidate Eduardo Frei.

In the following six years, Frei's administration carried out a broad range of reforms, including nationalizations of key companies and land reform. The hope was that these modest changes would tamp down the expectations of rural and urban workers.

Instead, they unleashed a torrent of struggle. Peasants fed up with the slow progress of the government's agrarian reform law launched land occupations around the country. A strike wave also built momentum towards the end of Frei's term. In 1967, a national strike called by the CUT, the country's central labor federation, defeated the government's attempt to include no-strike language in all labor contracts.

THE 1970 presidential election took place in the midst of an upsurge of worker militancy. Allende led the left-wing coalition Popular Unity (UP) to victory, with a plurality of votes in a three-way race between Alessandri, the candidate of the traditional right, and Tomic, the Christian Democrat, whose reformist program echoed Allende's. Because no candidate received an outright majority, the Chilean constitution required congress to pick the president.

Allende, who had received 36 percent of the popular vote, received the backing of the Christian Democrats in congress to be selected president. But the price for Christian Democratic support was steep. Allende signed a "Statement of Guarantees" pledging that UP would not seek to alter the existing state. In the Statement, Allende committed his administration to, among other points:

1. The continuation of the existing political system together with constitutional guarantees of individual freedom.

2. The existing legal system should remain.

3. The armed forces and police should continue to guarantee democracy.

In other words, Allende was pledging to push change only as far as the Chilean ruling class and the existing institutions of the state would allow it to go.

In November 1970--two months after the election--the Chilean congress approved Allende as the legal and constitutional president of the country. For millions of Chilean workers, the UP government embodied their aspirations for a better life. The majority of worker militants saw UP as "their" government. Much of the international left looked to Chile in the same way.

Not surprisingly, forces hostile to socialism and social change looked at Chile with alarm. U.S. Ambassador to Chile Edward Korry, in a confidential State Department cable, wrote in September 1970:

Chile voted calmly to have a Marxist-Leninist state, the first nation in the world to make this choice freely and knowingly...It is a sad fact that Chile has taken the path to communism with only little over a third (36 pct) of the nation approving this choice, but it is an immutable fact. It will have the most profound effect on Latin America and beyond. We have suffered a grievous defeat. The consequences will be domestic and international.

Declassified documents available at the National Security Archive at George Washington University confirmed that the U.S. had first tried to prevent Allende's election. Then it collaborated with right-wing forces responsible for the October 1970 assassination of Gen. Schneider, a top officer who opposed the Chilean military's meddling in politics. When these measures couldn't prevent Allende's ascension to Moneda Palace, the U.S. government dug in for the long haul.

U.S. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger famously said that the U.S. couldn't allow a government to go communist "due to the irresponsibility of its people." He worked with his boss, President Richard Nixon, to sabotage the Allende government. Even before Allende officially assumed the presidency, CIA Deputy Director for Plans Thomas Karamessines conveyed Kissinger's order to the CIA's station chief in Santiago: "It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup." At the same time, Karamessines cautioned that the "American hand" should be concealed.

The U.S. soon found no shortage of domestic allies in its crusade against Allende's government. At first, the Chilean ruling class turned to the courts and friendly politicians for help in hemming in Allende's government. But soon, it was backing mass mobilizations of the middle and upper classes. Over the next two years, it would build the ranks of Patria y Libertad (Fatherland and Freedom), a fascist movement that would serve as shock troops against the government.

AS THE UP initiated a Keynesian "reflation" policy, expanding jobs, boosting wages and increasing government services, the economy briefly rallied, and unemployment dropped. But by the end of 1971, the economy had soured, and inflation and shortages persisted. A U.S.-backed plan to "make the economy scream" and cut off Chile's access to world credit and export markets had its desired effect.

Workers, such as those at the country's largest textile plant at Yarur, began to take matters into their own hands. They occupied factories, prodding the government to nationalize them. Rural workers took over unused farmland. These militant actions pressed the government to nationalize firms and farms, touching off resistance among Chile's industrialists and small businesses. When Cuban President Fidel Castro visited Chile in December 1971, the right organized a "march of empty pots," with thousands of middle-class and bourgeois women--some bringing their maids with them--filling the streets to protest shortages.

The right wing had shown that it was willing to mobilize to undo the results of a democratic election the year before. Meanwhile, the working class, though largely supportive of UP, was also moving beyond the bounds of parliamentary politics. This left the government, committed as it was to maintaining democratic "legality," stuck in the middle.

"The flexibility of our institutional system allows us to hope that [the state] will not be a rigid barrier of contention. And just as in the case of our judicial system, it will adapt to new needs in order to generate, through constitutional means, a new system of institutions required by the superseding of capitalism," said Allende in a 1971 speech.

But as class struggle heated up on both sides of the class divide, the UP found itself torn. As the British newspaper Socialist Worker pointed out near the end of 1971:

Allende can no longer hope to satisfy the owners of industry and the working class. He will have to choose to side with one or the other. But one side is armed, the other not. And Allende shows no inclination at all to break his pledge to the middle class of a year ago not to "interfere" with the state machine. Instead he will probably use his influence, and that of the bureaucrats within Chile's working-class-based parties and trade unions, to persuade workers to put up with harsh conditions and an erosion of last year's reforms.

UP urged its supporters to accept that it embodied "poder popular" (popular power)--the people in power by virtue of the UP being in government. But militants interpreted "popular power" as a slogan to fight for socialism from below now.

IN LATE 1972, a series of class battles took the struggle to a new level. A right-wing judge in the Maipú agricultural district had blocked land reforms that were legal under UP-passed legislation. Protests against the judge landed 44 agricultural workers' leaders in jail. This prompted a mass protest march in Santiago demanding--to the agriculture minister who was a member of the Communist Party--that the leaders be released and the judge be forced to recognize the law. The government dithered.

When industrial workers in the "cordón industrial"--the industrial belt around Santiago--struck in solidarity with the Maipú workers, militants from the industrial and agricultural workforce joined to form the Cordón Cerrillos-Maipú, a coordinating center for workers' action and political organizing. The Cordón issued a statement calling for nationalization of all top firms, workers' control of production and a Popular Assembly to replace the capitalist parliament.

While it was short-lived, the Cordón posed the question of power in a way that the UP government couldn't abide. UP ministers denounced the Cordón--and a subsequent Popular Assembly of more than 3,000 militants convened in Concepción--as "irresponsible."

Noting the growing threat from the right, workers called for the UP to form popular militias to defend them against attacks by the police and Patria y Libertad. Allende dismissed those demands, too, declaring: "There will be no armed forces here other than those stipulated by the constitution--that is to say, the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. I shall eliminate any others if they appear."

Another major battle that showed the stakes in Chile was the October 1972 trucking bosses' strike. Leading trucking firms launched a lockout and boycott to paralyze the economy. It might have worked, except for mass mobilization of workers through the cordones and popular committees, which took control of the situation. With the bosses on strike, workers seized factories and distribution networks, keeping production going. In this way, they broke the bosses' strike.

In elections held only a few months later, UP increased its support in congress. But rather than capitalize on these defeats of the right to push forward, the Allende government launched a campaign for "social peace" and appointed three generals to the cabinet. To Allende, the drive for social peace meant placating forces to the government's right. At the level of the shop floor, it meant allowing the bosses to reestablish their authority while workers were asked to sacrifice for the good of the nation.

When copper miners at the El Teniente mines went on strike in spring 1973 to protect their eroding living standards, UP ministers and government supporters denounced them as "fascists" and "traitors." The copper miners, traditionally the most militant and powerful section of the working class, were abandoned by the left. This gave an opening to opportunists on the right to pose as defenders of workers.

In June 1973, Col. Robert Souper, in league with Patria y Libertad, launched a coup attempt against the government. As in the bosses' strike, the right was defeated by a mass mobilization of workers. With the state momentarily paralyzed, the Cordón Cerrillos-Maipú filled the vacuum, making social decisions in much the same manner as the workers' councils of the 1917 Russian Revolution or 1956 Hungarian Revolution had.

Souper's coup was clearly a dress rehearsal for what would come, and thousands of government supporters demanded that UP organize popular militias to confront the next coup attempt.

Yet again, the Allende government chose to swear its allegiance to the existing state. Allende brought more military officials, including Gen. Augusto Pinochet, into his cabinet. With the government's support, the military began raiding workplaces and union meeting places in a hunt for supposed weapons caches. The military used these raids to test militants' resolve to fight back when attacked. With "their" government ordering attacks against them, worker militants became increasingly demoralized.

On September 11, 1973, the Chilean military, under Pinochet's command, announced another coup--and that Air Force planes were attacking the presidential palace. Within a few hours, the military had seized control of the government, and Allende and many of his ministers were dead.

The military and secret police began rounding up thousands of militants. Many "disappeared" into army-run, CIA-supported torture centers, never to be heard from again. Various official reports, conducted years later, estimated that the junta arrested and imprisoned more than 38,000 people, and killed more than 2,200 in the repression that followed.

The tragic conclusion to the Chilean events of 1970-73 has been debated on the left ever since. Though there are many lessons to draw from that period, one key one is the conclusion Karl Marx drew in his writings on the Paris Commune of 1871--an experiment in workers' power that was drowned in blood. For Marx, the lesson was that the working class can't lay hold of the existing state apparatus and use it to carry out a socialist transformation of society.

As the example of Chile showed, the capitalist state--from its courts to its armed forces--is a chief obstacle to workers who want to change the world.

Further Reading

From the archives