A small earthquake in Chile, 1970-73

It has been 50 years since Chile became synonymous with brutal military oppression and the systematic murder of trade unionists and activists, and yet it still resonates with the left worldwide. Mike Gonzalez writes about the coup and the lessons it offers for the struggle for socialism.

Street art featuring Salvador Allende in Mapocho, Chile. Credit: Rodrigo Fernández, Wikimedia Commons

The irony is that until the Pinochet coup of 11 September 1973, Chile, the long country on the very edge of South America, was little known in the wider world. The Daily Telegraph journalist Robert Moss, who wrote speeches for Thatcher, was asked for an example of a boring newspaper headline. He replied with ‘A small earthquake in Chile’. Yet, Chile did come to fill the headlines worldwide.

Three years earlier, in November 1970, a different headline appeared in the right wing press. ‘Marxist elected to the presidency of Chile’. Salvador Allende, a doctor and a member of the Socialist Party, won the presidential elections with 36 percent of the popular vote, giving him the edge over the other two candidates: Alessandri, for the right wing National Party and Radimiro Tomic, for the Christian Democrats. As he had in several previous elections, Allende represented a coalition, Popular Unity (UP), that included the Socialist and Communist Parties, both of which had a mass base in the country.

Allende’s political manifesto, called ‘The Chilean Road to Socialism’, was a programme for social reform and included the nationalisation of Chile’s copper deposits, the source of over 90 percent of its export earnings. Until the mid-1960s, Chile’s copper was owned by two US multinationals, Kennecott and Anaconda. It was transferred to the Chilean private sector under the Christian Democrat government of Eduardo Frei (1964-70), but the multinationals were vastly overcompensated, leaving little benefit for the Chilean state. Allende promised that its earnings would go to the public sector.

Allende’s election campaign drew active and enthusiastic support from Chile’s working class and poor population. It was taking place in an atmosphere of growing activism, in part in reaction to the failed promises of the Christian Democrat government. UP promised reform of the education system and the health sector, a general improvement in wages and the fulfilment of the promised land reform. The end of the 1960s was marked in Chile by mass mobilisations and working class protest. A student movement swept the country demanding access to education for the majority who were denied access to it; small farmers and indigenous communities occupied the lands belonging to Chile’s landowning class – just 2 percent of the population controlled the majority of the land – demanding the redistribution that the Christian Democrats had promised but never carried through. Industry expanded, mainly with foreign investment, and 1970 registered the highest number of strike days in the country’s history. And as the rural poor migrated to the cities in search of work, the lack of housing created a crisis as migrants occupied urban sites where they built shanty towns  (poblaciones). Allende’s support came from this new and rising militancy, and the expectations of the activists.

The Chilean Road

The left in the 1960s was dominated by a belief in the possibility of change through armed struggle, modelled on the Cuban Revolution of 1959 which had challenged US imperialism. A series of guerrilla movements arose in Latin America, but the murder of Che Guevara in Bolivia in 1967 brought that strategy into question. Allende’s election was taken to mean that there was an alternative, a parliamentary road to socialism. Chile, then, was a new testing ground for the politics of reform.

Allende had been elected to the presidency with 36 percent of the public vote, but the Congress was still controlled by the Christian Democrats, who were at best reformists. The judiciary and the military remained under the control of the right, and UP saw politics through the prism of elections, though some members of the coalition were far to its left. As a popular song of the time by the group Inti-Illimani put it

This time it’s not just about electing a president

But of creating a new and different Chile (un Chile bien diferente)

For many of its supporters, however, this was the beginning of a revolution. The first year of the UP government saw the growth of active movements to accelerate change. The government’s attitude was ambivalent, calling on the population to keep within the law and to wait for change to come. It was only much later that the significance of

Allende’s caution emerged. Before assuming the presidency, Allende had negotiated a secret ‘Statute of Guarantees’ with the Christian Democrats in which he agreed not to interfere with the judiciary, the military, the church or the mass media – all of which were dominated by the right. He spoke as a Marxist, but his politics were social democratic; a vision of a welfare state that would not challenge the prevailing system or the existing state. This left the right with control of the state, and they began immediately to sabotage Allende’s plans. But for the leaders of UP, including communists and socialists, the issue was how to achieve an electoral majority by winning the votes of the middle classes.

In November 1971, Fidel Castro visited Chile to congratulate Allende on his victory. It was a real irony that the person most associated with the politics of armed struggle was celebrating an electoral victory. It could be taken as a change of direction from the Cuban leadership, even though there were no free elections in Cuba itself. But Castro’s presence enraged the right, and they took to the streets in the famous March of the Empty Pots. The bourgeoisie marched through the streets waving empty pots, which they would rarely have used, since many had cooks and maids.¹ Ostensibly, it was a protest about shortages of goods, shortages which had been deliberately created by hoarding and hiding food and essential products.  In working class areas, local committees (JAPs) took over the distribution of essential goods). From now on, the right wing assault would be relentless and conducted with the active support of Nixon and Kissinger in Washington.

The first year brought a general wage rise of 38 percent for manual workers and 120 percent for white collar workers. Unemployment fell below 10 percent, 90 factories (out of 3,500) were nationalised, though the original plan was to take over 150, and 1,400 estates, 30 percent of Chile’s cultivable land, were taken into state ownership. Inflation fell and GDP rose by 8 percent. In local elections in April 1971 the UP vote rose by 14 percent. At the same time, the level of class struggle was intensifying despite Allende’s hesitation. In May 1971 he denounced land occupations and some strikes as the work of ‘ultra left agitators’. It was a sign of the tension at the heart of the UP coalition, as the actions of workers, peasant farmers and the urban poor threatened the unspoken agreement with the right and the middle classes, who saw in this militancy the spectre of revolution. The press, mainly owned by the right, fuelled that impression. Two of Allende’s key ministers were forced to resign, and Channel 9 TV was taken over by an avowed fascist, Father Hasbun; but when the channel’s workers occupied the studios, Allende sent in the police to break their strike. As he saw it,

The challenge to us is to accomplish everything in legal terms… History has broken with past patterns; our revolutionary path is the pluralist path… It is neither an easy nor a short term task to build socialism. It is a long and difficult task in which the working class must participate with discipline, organisation and political responsibility, avoiding, above all, anarchistic decisions and irresponsible, impulsive acts.²

He also sent in the army against the Lo Hermida shanty town, which the Communist Party claimed was a haven for ‘ultra left agitators’.

The growing mobilisations of both right and left produced a fierce debate inside UP, but Allende’s authority and the politics of collaboration set out in the 1970 statute still prevailed. The climax came in October 1972 when the lorry owners led by a fascist organisation called Fatherland and Freedom locked their lorries in fenced off areas and declared a strike against the government. In a country so dependent on road transport, this threatened to paralyse the economy. The strike was joined by other sectors, including lawyers and doctors. The response of UP supporters was to drive the trucks and maintain distribution and production in the factories. They forged new forms of organisation, called the cordones, which took control of the factories, worked with farmers to ensure food supplies and with neighbourhood groups to protect working class areas. It was the moment when the defence of the Chilean Road fell to the mass movement and the question of power was posed. The lorry owners strike failed because of mass action, while the government made desperate efforts to reassure the middle class that it could keep the grassroots mobilisations under control. There is a key scene in The Battle of Chile documentary where an official of the Chilean Trade Union Congress, tries and fails to persuade a group of workers to obey the law and return the factories ‘to their original owners’.

In March 1973, the Communist economics minister Orlando Millas proposed the return of some of the nationalised factories. Meanwhile, Allende was in discussion with the judiciary about how to control ‘the violence of left and right’ a slogan that would be repeated by the right and the leaders of UP in the days before the coup. The hoarding of goods continued and owners starved industry of investments, deepening the economic crisis, while dramatic price rises reduced the value of wages by 50 percent. The US froze all external finance and only supported military agreements with Chile. The Communist Party held firmly to negotiating with the right, while the Socialist Party was divided between the leadership, including Allende, which still insisted on seeking compromise with the right, and internal left currents who argued that the initiative should pass to the organs of struggle, like the cordones and the rural comunas. Local elections in March again increased the UP majority to 43 percent. As tensions grew, Allende turned to the military, inviting three generals into his cabinet. He placed great hope in General Carlos Prats, a socialist and a constitutionalist; both the Communist and Socialist parties praised the dedication of the military to the constitution and openly attacked the left. The magazine Chile Hoy, edited by a prominent Communist, published articles calling openly for a coup against Allende; some arguing for a ‘soft coup’, bringing the government down by economic means, others for a ‘hard’ coup, a military assault. But there were no voices from the UP itself giving their support to the resistance from below.

On 29 June, a tank regiment occupied the streets of Santiago, announcing that they were in rebellion. They eventually returned to barracks, but there were no sanctions. It was clear that it was a dress rehearsal. In the weeks that followed, supporters of the government in the rank and file of the navy and the air force publicly denounced the preparations being made for a coup. They were ignored and in many cases detained and tortured. General Prats resigned from the cabinet and recommended that Augusto Pinochet, who had already led attacks on strikes, be put in charge of public order. The lorry owners mobilised again, this time announcing an indefinite strike against the government, while the organisations fighting the right were denounced, particularly by the Communist Party, as ‘anarchist parallel organisations’. The military coup was obviously imminent. Yet UP made no preparations for it but instead called on the organs of the state, the military, the judges, the police to ensure public order. In the end, the priority was the defence of bourgeois democracy.

The die was cast.

The price to be paid

On the morning of 11 September 1973, four generals appeared on television to announce the coup. The presidential palace was bombed and Allende killed. Shortly thereafter, the Caravan of Death began its search for militant leaders and activists, men and women, murdering some and torturing others in camps and centres around the country, like Chacabuco camp in the Atacama Desert. Over 3,000 people were killed and over 20,000 tortured and imprisoned.

The question that arose in the debates that followed was why was the coup so savage and brutal? If the Allende government was revolutionary, why was there no attempt to organise resistance or preparations made for a coup that had been openly discussed for a year?

The violence of the Pinochet regime was horrific, but it was not mindless. It was the violence of a ruling class, a bourgeoisie, that has witnessed the potential power of workers, working class resistance at its most creative. It could rely on the support of imperialism and the ruling classes of the region, who in many subsequent cases, like Uruguay and Argentina, would repeat the experiment. Allende was a well-intentioned social democrat, but he was no threat to the bourgeois state. His strategy was based on collaboration with the middle classes within the limits of the existing state. But a working class beginning to discover its own power was a deep threat to the Chilean bourgeoisie and to imperialism’s control of the region. The object of the coup was to root out the memory of that resistance and terrorise those who survived for a generation. Behind that lay another, longer term strategy for which Chile was the experimental laboratory: Neoliberalism began in Chile, where the ideas of Milton Friedman, its leading ideologue, were put into effect. Neoliberalism was a system in which capitalism could act freely across a global market, and all obstacles to the free movement of capital would be ruthlessly destroyed. In Chile, it became obvious that those obstacles were an organised working class capable of fighting capitalism and public control of society’s resources and their use for the general benefit.

In the years that followed, this strategy would be imposed across the region and beyond. They were not coined or carried out by psychopaths but by political thinkers acting on behalf of the global capitalist system and defending it coldly and rationally against those who had briefly seen the possibilities of a different world in their brief journey along the Chilean Road.

A footnote: At its 1973 congress, the Italian Communist Party debated the lessons of Chile. Their conclusion, presented by its general secretary Enrico Berlinguer, was that the strategy for the future should be ‘a historic compromise’ between Communists and Christian Democrats. It was as if Chile had never happened.


¹: Two films give a sense of the times, Patricio Guzmán´s The Battle of Chile, Part One (1973) and Andres Wood’s Machuca (2004).

²: Allende, S. (1973) Chile’s Road to Socialism. Penguin. p139.

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