The U.S.-backed overthrow of Salvador Allende and the bloody consequences
September 11, 2009, marks the 36th anniversary of the brutal overthrow of Salvador Allende, the democratically elected socialist president of Chile. Allende was overthrown in a military coup, led by General Augusto Pinochet, that had the full backing of the United States government.
Salvador Allende was born on July 26, 1908, in Valparaíso, Chile. His petty bourgeois (middle class), radical-liberal family had a history of involvement in social struggles. His grandfather was a founder of the reformist Radical Party and the first public school in Chile (at a time when the Catholic Church controlled education). His father and uncles also belonged to the Radical Party.
Besides the influences of his family, Allende was also influenced by an anarchist shoemaker named Juan Demarchi. He became even more conscious while attending medical school, during which time he lived in very poor conditions with a group of students who often read and discussed books by revolutionaries like Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky.
During his time at college, he became an outspoken leader of the Chilean Student Federation, and participated in a number of protests against U.S.-backed dictator Carlos Ibáñez. This activity resulted in numerous arrests for the young Salvador.
After graduating from college in 1932, Allende had a difficult time finding work as a doctor because of his reputation as a radical. He finally found a job preforming autopsies on the corpses of the poor. Seeing so many dead as a result of curable diseases, simply because they could not afford treatment, further affected Allende.
Allende married Hortensia Bussi, who was herself related to Marmaduque Grove, a military general who lead a 1932 coup that resulted in the formation of the short lived “Socialist Republic of Chile” (June 4 – 16, 1932). Grove was also a founder of the Socialist Party of Chile, which was formed in 1933. Allende was one of its first members.
In 1937, Allende was elected to the Chilean National Congress. Soon after taking office, he introduced a number of bills on public healthcare, welfare and the rights of women.
He served as Minister of Health in the “Popular Unity” government (made up of the Socialist Party, Communist Party, Radical Party, Social Democratic Party and the Popular Unitary Action Movement) in both 1939 and 1941.
While serving in this position, he released a book entitled “The Chilean Socio-Medical Reality.” This book explained how certain health issues (infant and maternal mortality, tuberculosis, infectious diseases, etc.) prevalent among the working class were caused by their poor living conditions, and argued for serious steps to be taken to rectify the problem. Instead of a strictly medical approach, he proposed social changes (redistribution of housing and land, income redistribution, improving workers’ wages and workplace safety, etc.) that could get to the root of the problem.
In 1942, Allende became the leader of the Socialist Party and was elected to the Chilean Senate. Not long after, he introduced legislation that would create a national health care service. After its approval, Chile became the first country in the Americas to make health care available to all of its citizens (something most of the countries in the Western Hemisphere still haven’t done).
He remained in the Senate (reelected several times), while running for president in 1952, 1958 and 1964. After his three unsuccessful bids for the presidency, he joked that his head stone would read “Here lies the next president of Chile.”
But Allende was gaining popularity. In each election, he gained more votes than he had in the last. The imperialist U.S. government was becoming worried. In 1959, a year after almost winning the presidential election in Chile, Allende traveled to Cuba, where Fidel Castro, Ernesto “Che” Guevara and others had recently lead a revolution that ousted U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. While there, he befriended Fidel and Raul Castro, and received a copy of Che’s book “Guerrilla Warfare” which contained an inscription that read: “To Salvador Allende, who is trying to obtain the same result by other means, Affectionately, Che.”
Allende, a socialist, friend of the Cuban Revolution, and supporter of communist guerrilla movements across Latin
America as well as Che Guevara, who was murdered while leading a guerrilla war in Bolivia in 1967, looked like he may become the next president of Chile.
If that happened, the U.S. government feared, several of the capitalist exploiters it represented, such as the owners of the ITT, Anacoda and Kennecott corporations – who were heavily invested in the country – might have their factories nationalized. On top of this, the election of Allende would interfere with the U.S. government’s attempts to isolate Cuba, and turn back its revolution.
Furthermore, if the events lead to a socialist revolution in which the local capitalist rulers and imperialist lackeys were overthrown by the working class, it would open the doorway to similar events throughout Latin America.
The U.S. government, through its various agencies, went into full gear to prevent the election of Salvador Allende in the 1970 elections.
Through, and with the cooperation of ITT and other channels, the CIA illegally funded the election campaign of right-wing capitalist Jorge Alessandri, the incumbent who Allende was running against. (This was nothing new. In 1964 they had done the same thing, funneling large sums of money to Allende’s then-opponent.)
The CIA launched a program called “FUBELT,” aimed at preventing Allende from becoming elected, or failing that, bring his time in office to a rapid conclusion.
In a document dated September 17, 1970 (now available in the U.S. National Security Archives) describing the results of a meeting between CIA chief Richard Helms and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, instructions for CIA operatives were laid out. “President Nixon had decided that an Allende regime in Chile was not acceptable to the United States.. The President asked the Agency to prevent Allende from coming to power or to unseat him. The President authorized ten million dollars for this purpose, if needed.”
Despite all of this, the Chilean voters elected Allende in a three-way race (a liberal candidate from the Christian Democratic Party was also running). A section of the opposition to Allende argued for a run off election since Allende got less than 50 percent of the votes, even though there was no mention of the need for such in the constitution. In response, the National Congress took up the question.
In the meantime, the capitalist media went to work trying to whip up opposition to Allende’s soon-to-be presidency. The cover of TIME magazine’s October 19, 1970 issue (published only days before Allende’s election was to be made official) read “Marxist Threat In The Americas – Chile’s Salvador Allende.”
Still, not everyone was fooled. One reader, in a letter to the editor published in the next issue, wrote: “Sir: Intrigued by your marvelous cold war headline, MARXIST THREAT IN THE AMERICAS, I read on to see who is being threatened. Apparently it’s some U.S. copper firms, the telephone company, and assorted juntas. Somehow, I’m not alarmed. I am, however, irritated by your persistent assumption that any form of Marxism enjoying any form of success in any part of the world is, ipso facto, a threat. This kind of thinking gave us Viet Nam. And it ignores the obvious: non-Marxist politicians have generally failed to meet the needs of the masses. I suggest we let our humanity transcend our cold war reflexes and hope that the people of Latin America are finding some kind of solution to their problems. We haven’t been much help.”
The CIA’s work continued as well. Another secret CIA document dated October 16, 1970 read in part, “It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup. It would be much preferable to have this transpire prior to 24 October [the date Allende's election would be ratified] but efforts in this regard will continue vigorously beyond this date.”
Chile’s workers and farmers were outraged by the delay and the idea that the man they had elected may not take office. Allende himself warned “Santiago (Chile’s capital) will be painted red with blood if I am not ratified as President.”
Finally, and in spite of all the maneuvering on the part of the imperialists and their representatives and agents, the National Congress was forced by popular pressure to declare Salvador Allende President of Chile on October 24, 1970.
Imperialist aggression in full effect
Allende took office on November 3. Twelve days earlier, General René Schneider, Commander in Chief of Chile’s army, was killed while resisting a kidnaping attempt by another group of soldiers under the leadership of Roberto Viaux. The kidnaping attempt was a part of a plan promoted by the CIA to carry out a coup before Allende could take office. Schneider had to be removed because he was fully opposed any violation of the constitution, such as a coup; but he wasn’t supposed to be killed. Schneider’s murder drew popular outrage, and forced the Viaux clique to abandon their plans.
With plans for a coup temporarily defeated, and the workers and farmers emboldened, Allende went to work. Diplomatic relations were immediately established with Cuba (in spite a U.S.-pushed Organization of American States convention forbidding countries in the Western Hemisphere from doing so) and the USSR, the People’s Republic of China was recognized (for the first time by any country in South America), and a number of social programs were established.
The first steps were taken on the “Chilean road to socialism.”
Foreign owned banks, copper and coal mines, and steel and iron mills were nationalized.
In the nationalized industries and public works projects which were launched, employment was made available for the poor and unemployed. As a result, the unemployment rate was cut in half.
The healthcare and education systems were put taken over by the government and opened to the public.
Free milk, which many could not afford previously, was provided to each child to prevent malnutrition.
Large estates were broken up and redistributed to those without land.
Prices on essential products were frozen, while at the same time workers were given raises.
Taxes were reformed so that the poorest of the poor wouldn’t have to shoulder the burden.
Hundreds of thousands of retirees had their pensions raised.
A state of the art networked of telex machines and computers was installed that allowed factories to communicate with each other in real time, thus facilitating planned production.
Workers and farmers were mobilized. Landless farmers began to occupy land, and industrial workers began to take over their workplaces. Industrial output increased by 14 percent.
In 1971, Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro was invited to Chile. He spent several weeks there, holding a number of public rallies, which drew huge crowds, and giving the socialist members of Chile’s government advice.
In response to the events in Chile, the U.S. imperialists began a campaign of economic warfare, just as they had (and continue to do) with Cuba. President Richard Nixon demanded that his foot soldiers “make the [Chilean] economy scream.” In line with this, U.S. Ambassador to Chile, Edward M. Korry, proclaimed, “Not a nut or bolt shall reach Chile under Allende. … we shall do all within our power to condemn Chile and all Chileans to utmost deprivation and poverty.”
What about the “democracy” that the U.S. government has always claimed to uphold? Henry Kissinger made their position on that clear, saying “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.”
This should come of no surprise. The same thing happened in Viet Nam. When the U.S. government realized that communist leader Ho Chi Minh was sure to win upcoming elections in that country, they canceled them! In the same vein, they sponsored a coup against democratically elected Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez just a few years ago (though a mass mobilization prevented its success).
Besides cutting off trade, credit and aid to Chile, the U.S. government sponsored publications, television and radio broadcasts that slandered Allende and worked to destabilize the country. Among other things, they claimed Allende and the Popular Unity government were puppets of the USSR (just as they had done with Cuba), even though this was clearly not the case. Although Allende maintained friendly relations with the Soviet Union, he didn’t take orders from its leadership. This was made obvious during his time as a Senator, during which he openly denounced its invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia.
Of course, like democracy, the U.S. government is only concerned with the truth when it serves the interests of the capitalist ruling class.
Things were far from perfect under Allende, though the imperialists had as much to do with that as anything.
The imperialists and local capitalists had begun withdrawing their investments from the country as soon as Allende was elected. This only increased as it became clear that the oppressed and exploited were on the move.
The moves by the U.S. government and its agents to “make the economy scream” began to take their toll. Aid from the U.S., which had amounted to $1 billion (US) during the six-year presidency of Alessandri alone, disappeared after Allende took office.
Trade was limited or refused by the U.S. and its puppets, causing exports to fall by 24 percent. At the same time, a
slight drop in agricultural output (which was expected for a short period while land was redistributed) made it necessary to increase imports by 26 percent.
Shortages and inflation led to the creation of a black market, leading to even more problems.
On top of all this, the price of copper, Chile’s main export, which was set internationally, fell from $66 (U.S.) per ton in 1970 to $48 in 1972. This meant a major loss of funds for the country.
Often with direct U.S. assistance, and always with its backing, the capitalists and their agents in Chile launched a serious of “strikes” and lockouts. Through intimidation, blackmail and deception, they were able to get teachers and other workers to walk off the job, bringing the economy to a halt. Elements of the petty bourgeoisie, like private physicians (who were angry about the Socialist government’s programs of public health, which meant less money for them), truck owners, and store owners followed suit.
Through all this, Allende’s popularity continued to grow. In the March 1973 elections, the Popular Unity coalition gained more votes that it had when Allende came into office.
Still, the economic crisis facing the country, and the failure of the Popular Unity government to arm the country’s workers and farmers, led to conditions favorable to the imperialists and their allies.
On June 29, 1973, another coup attempt, known as el Tanquetazo (the tank putsch), was launched. Under the leadership of leading members of a right-wing fascist group called “Fatherland and Liberty,” a force made up of several tanks and dozens of soldiers made its way toward La Moneda (the presidential residence), with the aim of overthrowing Allende and installing a military dictatorship.
Early in the morning hours the coup plotters began firing on La Moneda and the Ministry of Defense. Several workers were killed during the attack.
Allende gave a radio broadcast in which he promised to defend the constitution to the end, while calling on workers to occupy the factories “and be ready in case it is necessary to fight alongside the soldiers of Chile.”
General Carlos Prats, along with others in the military, drew up a plan to counter the advance. Within an hour, they began to move in.
When his group reached the area around La Moneda, Prats made a bold decision. Instead of waging all out warfare, he, along with two others, simply marched up to the tanks outside and commanded those in them to come down and surrender. This process continued to work until one tank operator shouted “I will not surrender General,” while pointing the tank’s barrel at Prats and his group. While the two went back and forth, Major Osvaldo Zabala snuck up behind the tank operator and pointed a rifle at his head, forcing him to give up. More units began to arrive on the scene, including one under the command of Augusto Pinochet himself, future leader of yet another coup. The soldiers that had taken part in the plan to overthrow Allende ran away as fast as they could.
During these events, a large crowd had come to La Moneda to show their support for Allende. He delivered a speech to them, in which he explained what was going on, and asked them to remain calm and continuing to trust in the government.
The coup was smashed, but the threat of another still loomed.
At this time, Allende made a fatal error. He brought leading members of the armed forces into his Cabinet, hoping to win their support.
Soon after, a strange incident involving a traffic incident and protests by military officers pressured General Prats, who was then Interior minister and as Commander in Chief of the Army, to resign. In his place, he recommended Augusto Pinochet, then a General Chief of Staff of the Army.
On August 22, 1973, the Christian Democratic Party – which had earlier campaigned on a “socialist” platform, only to ally with right-wing forces after Allende’s election – didn’t wait long to make a move. In control of the Chamber of
Deputies (after forming a bloc with the right-wing National Party), they were able to push through a resolution (though they lacked the two thirds majority required by the constitution to convict a president of abuse of power) which formally called for another military coup.
The resolution, entitled “Declaration of the Breakdown of Chile’s Democracy,” claimed that Allende had “the goal of establishing a totalitarian system.”
So, to “save democracy,” they called on the Military to overthrow a democratically elected president; and that’s exactly what happened.
The other 9/11
On the morning of September 11, 1973, sections of the Chilean Navy seized the port city of Valparaíso, marking the beginning of a third coup.
As soon as Allende found about the morning’s events, he rushed to La Moneda. With a handful of aides and members of the presidential guard by his side, he prepared for yet another showdown.
It wasn’t long before members of “the Carabineros,” Chile’s national police, were surrounding La Moneda. Allende got to work trying to reach some of the generals of the various branches of the armed forces; but he was unable to get in contact with any of them.
“No one is answering. I think that this time all of them are involved,” he remarked to his aides. He was right.
Soon after, President Allende broadcast a message to the people of Chile over the radio.
“Confirmed reports indicate that a sector of the Navy has rebelled and is occupying Valparaíso. Santiago is normal and [the soldiers are] in their barracks. I’m here defending the government that I represent by the will of the people. Be alert and vigilant… I wait for the soldiers of Chile to respond positively and defend the laws and the Constitution. Workers must go to their workplace and wait for new instructions,” he said.
Allende also got in touch with Rolando Calderón, Secretary General of the CUT (Central Única de Trabajadores), one of the largest unions in the country. He asked Calderón to mobilize the workers in his union to shut down the radio stations broadcasting messages in support of the coup; but this was not done.
Instead, the coup leaders acted first, seizing and shutting down all radio stations supportive, or even neutral, towards Allende.
At 8:40 AM, a radio broadcast was made announcing the coup and its supposed intentions. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, Commander in Chief of the Army; José Toribio Merino, Commander in Chief of the Navy; Gustavo Leigh, commander in Chief of the Air Force, and César Mendoza Durán, Director General of Carabineros attached their names to the broadcast, signaling their aim to set themselves up as a new ruling junta.
Soon after the broadcast was made, the Carabineros began to withdraw from their positions around La Moneda, and an offer was made to Allende by the coup plotters. There was an airplane ready to take Allende and his family out of the country and to safety; but he’d have to resign as president. He flatly refused.
“I will not surrender, nor resign,” he said.
Allende then made a final radio broadcast, through the one pro-Allende station that had not yet been shut down. “This will surely be the last time I speak to you,” he said. “Magallanes Radio will be silenced, and the reassuring tone of my voice will not reach you. It doesn’t matter. You will continue hearing it. I will always be with you. At the least, your memory of me will be that of a man who was loyal to the country… The people ought to defend themselves, but not sacrifice themselves. The people ought not let themselves be subdued or persecuted, but neither should they humble themselves… I have faith in Chile and its destiny. Other people will be able to transcend this sad and bitter moment, when treason tries to force itself upon us…I’m sure that my sacrifice will not be in vain… Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers!”
While the president’s message was broadcast, a number of tanks began to approach, then attack, La Moneda.
Allende threw on an army helmet and grabbed the AK-47 rifle given to him by Fidel Castro. By his side stood just over a hundred supporters, many who were workers. They had a few small weapons, and a handful of bazookas and 30 caliber machine guns; but they were no match for the military forces descending on the building.
The soldiers fired tank and machine guns at La Moneda, shattering windows and destroying whole walls. A team in a helicopter patrolled the surrounding area, taking out workers and farmers who had acted as snipers, firing from buildings in defense of the president.
After a short while, there was a cease fire as Allende asked his supporters to lay down their weapons and surrender. Most of those by his side, including his two daughters, left the building. As the end of the evacuation drew near,
fighter jets approached. They proceeded to bomb La Moneda, blowing doors off the hinges and smashing the few windows that were still intact. Helicopters then moved in on the building, firing tear gas canisters.
This was followed by a renewal of the ground attack. As tanks fired, a group of soldiers stormed the door of La Moneda and took the first floor. When Allende learned of the events, he ordered those remaining by his side on the second floor to put down their weapons and leave. Allende proceeded to Independence Hall, where he sat down, put his rifle between his legs, and fired two shots into his brain. This was the end of the democratically elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende. It was also the beginning of a vicious reign of terror that would last close to two decades.
Pinochet’s reign of terror
Once the coup plotters were in full control, Augusto Pinochet declared himself chairman of the junta. He moved quickly to consolidate his rule.
All parties that belonged to the Popular Unity government were banned, along with all leftist and labor organizations.
On September 12, 1973, one day after the overthrow of Allende, thousands of Chileans were rounded up and taken to the Chile Stadium in Santiago. For their support of Allende they were tortured and beaten.
Victor Jara, a beloved musician, had every bone in his hands broken by Pinochet’s thugs. As he lay on the ground, his captors mockingly suggested he play them a song. In response, he sung a song supportive of the overthrown Popular Unity government. He was immediately beaten, and then killed by machine gun fire.
A similar fate was shared by at least 3,000 other Chileans over the next seventeen years. More than 30,000 were tortured by Allende’s military and secret police (known as DINA). Several thousands more were forced into exile to escape the repression.
Some of those who were able to escape were tracked down and murdered by DINA, which cooperated with the military dictatorships in Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina and the United States government through “Operation Condor,” a plan to wipe all opposition to imperialism in Latin American off the face of the earth.
Some 30,000 people were “disappeared” under the Operation, which went as far as assassinating Orlando Letelier, a former foreign minister under Salvador Allende, while he was on his way to his new job at the Institute of Policy Studies in Washington, DC, the capital of the United States.
In another particularly bloody incident in 1985, leftist professor José Manuel Parada, journalist Manuel Guerrero, and another Chilean named Santiago Nattino were beheaded by uniformed police at the behest of the military dictatorship.
Along side the repression instituted by Chile’s new military regime came unrestricted capitalism. Guided by University of Chicago trained economists, Pinochet instituted a number of “reforms” that spelled disaster for the millions of Chilean workers and farmers.
Pinochet sold nationalized industries, banks and even the pension system to the highest bidder, abolished minimum wage, abolished union rights and seriously reduced taxes on the rich.
The result? Unemployment, which had fallen to 4.4 percent under Allende, jumped to over 30 percent, marking the highest increase ever in Latin American history.
The price of exports fell, as did real wages for workers, while poverty, homelessness, starvation and infant mortality rose dramatically.
This is the “democracy” the CIA-backed coup of 1973 brought to Chile.
In place of the democratically elected Allende, who had allowed his political opposition to participate in government, stood a military dictator who bellowed “not a leaf moves in Chile if I don’t know about it!”
Augusto Pinochet remained in power until 1990, when he stepped down after popular resistance forced him to hold a plebiscite, which he lost, in 1988. The brutal dictator remained Commander-in-Chief of the Army for another ten years and became a “Senator-for-life,” under a clause created in the constitution which was rewritten under his rule, after that.
Pinochet the butcher died of congestive heart failure and pulmonary edema in December, 2006.
Allende’s legacy & lessons for today
The events of September 11, 1973, were tragic, but not inevitable.
In order for us to move forward today, we must draw the lessons of events like these. From these lessons we must develop new strategies and tactics, to better enable us to defeat the handful of capitalist exploiters that run the world once and for all.
From the beginning of Allende’s presidency and before, when the class struggle came out into the open, confrontations between the working class and the local capitalist ruling class and foreign imperialists steadily increased.
While the Popular Unity government’s reforms most definitely benefited the working class, small farmers and women, and gave them more room to maneuver, they weren’t enough.
The Popular Unity Government’s “Chilean path to socialism” was based on a supposed “gradual transformation” of capitalism into socialism; but as Karl Marx, the “father” of communism who first discovered the laws of evolution in human history, pointed out, this is simply not possible.
Speaking of the Paris Commune, the revolutionary uprising in France in 1871 in which workers took power for the first time in history, Marx wrote, “One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that ‘the working class
cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes,”
In other words, you can’t elect socialism, a classless society in which the needs of all are met.
In order establish socialism, the working class must rise up, smash the capitalist state apparatus and take control of the tools and technology used to satisfy the wants and needs of humanity.
While supporting the gains made by workers under the Paris Commune, Marx was also critical of its errors (some of
which have since been duplicated).
For instance, Marx criticized the Communards’ refusal to respond to attacks by the capitalist rulers of France with attacks of its own: “In their reluctance to continue the civil war opened by Thiers’ [leader of the rest of France] burglarious attempt on Montmartre, the Central Committee [elected leadership body of the Paris Commune] made themselves, this time, guilty of a decisive mistake in not at once marching upon Versailles [another major city in
France where Theirs and his forces had gathered after being driven from Paris by its workers], then completely helpless, and thus putting an end to the conspiracies of Thiers and his Rurals.”
Here, Marx was saying that when workers take power, they shouldn’t, and can’t, be afraid to fight back when attacked by the capitalists seeking to restore their control.
Indeed, as a result of the gains they had made under Allende, the Chilean workers were not afraid to respond to such attacks. When the capitalists called strikes, workers organized manufacturing and transportation without them. They also took over workplaces and even formed workplace and farm councils.
But while these bodies should have been strengthened and supported as the basis for a new, workers’ state, they were not.
In fact, the workers were often disarmed in the face of attacks by leaders who told them put their faith in the government, instead of relying on their own power.
So, while the efforts of the imperialists and local capitalists played a major part, we must admit that the main cause of the defeat of the movement in Chile was its leadership’s “reluctance to continue the civil war opened by” the bourgeoisie and imperialists. This was not solely the fault of Allende, but also other socialists, communists, union leaders, etc., who promoted the non-existent electoral path to socialism.
The best way for us to remember the defeat of the Chilean movement, the overthrow of Allende, and the deaths, tortures and “disappearances” of thousands of our class brothers and sisters which occurred as a result of the U.S.-
backed coup in Chile on September 11, 1973, is to continue to fight.
Today, we must join our Chilean brothers and sisters in the fight for world revolution, to bring an end to exploitation, wage-slavery, oppression, sexism, racism and all the other ills and miseries which result from the outdated capitalist system.
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