‘History cannot be stopped by either repression or crime.’
Salvador Allende, 11 September 1973
On 11 September 1973 troops moved into position in the major cities of Chile, occupying telecommunications, water and electricity plants, securing road and rail junctions and surrounding the presidential palace in Santiago, La Moneda, trapping inside the nation’s president, Salvador Allende.
Allende had been voted into the office of president in September 1970, his left-wing coalition Popular Unity (UP) having secured 36.6 per cent in the popular ballot. The UP was composed and dominated by the Socialist Party and the Communist Party, along with smaller left-wing organisations and the centrist Radical Party. It was elected on a broad progressive programme that advocated widespread agrarian reform, increased provision to health and education for the poor in the cities and the countryside, and the nationalisation of the key sector of the economy, the copper industry, controlled by US companies. These reforms would be accompanied by the gradual introduction of worker and community representatives in the decision-making process in the workplace and in state institutions. This top-down ‘revolution’ was dubbed the Chilean road to socialism. Despite the seemingly narrow victory for Allende himself, this programme was very similar to the one advocated by the Christian Democratic Party (PDC), although not carried out in practice while it was in government. Embarking on the election campaign with similar policies, the PDC candidate received 27.8 per cent of the vote. These suggested reforms then, had a far wider base in society than the vote for Allende at first suggests. The bill to nationalise the copper industry, advocated by Allende for the past thirty years, had become such a widely accepted idea that it was passed unanimously in Congress and signed into law on 22 November 1970. Not everything would go so smoothly.
Allende’s reforms threatened the vested interests not only of the Chilean elite, but also of the United States. The US had since the early nineteenth century pursued a policy of domination in what it called ‘its own backyard’, i.e. Latin America, as advocated in the Monroe Doctrine, exploiting the continent’s resources for its own benefit through clientelist relations with often corrupt governments. The Cold War exacerbated these tendencies, prompting major investment in finance for right-wing media and political parties, and overt and covert military training to stop the spread of what it called ‘communism’ in Latin America. Any mildly reformist government in the region posed a threat to the US domination of the continent’s resources, and so could be tarred with the communist brush and overthrown as with Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954. The success of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 inspired thousands of Latin Americans, and intensified US concern with the region. Thus the CIA spent between $800,000 and $1,000,000 trying to stop the election of the UP in 1970. When this alone failed to have the desired effect, a new strategy was required.
President Nixon famously instructed his people to ‘make the economy scream’, and ordered the CIA to begin preparing for what was called ‘Track II’ – a military coup. Right-wing terrorist groups funded by the CIA carried out bomb attacks, kidnappings and assassinations, assigning blame to left-wing paramilitary groups in order to create a climate of fear. Despite this, the UP increased its vote in the municipal elections of April 1971 to over 50 per cent. Violence intensified between left groups and the fascistic ‘Land and Liberty’ group, and street demonstrations involving the wealthy became common. In October 1972, a national transport strike organised and supported by business, the PDC and largely funded by the CIA inflicted large damage on the economy. Allende rallied hundreds of thousands of people to voluntarily transport goods, consolidating his own base, but the failure of the strike also intensified the calls for a coup among the right. In many ways Allende was too wedded to the idea of freedom of speech, and naive regarding the role of the military. In March 1972, documents were released demonstrating efforts by US multinational ITT to undermine the UP government, supported by the CIA and right-wing groups in Chile. Throughout that year, sections of the media openly called for a coup, but Allende failed to sanction them. Furthermore, Allende had an unwavering belief in the constitutionalism of the Chilean military, and failed to significantly reform it during his time in office. During the transport strike, he even appointed three military men to cabinet. Despite an unsuccessful coup attempt by the 2nd Armoured Regiment on 29 July 1973, defeated by officers loyal to the government, Allende failed to act. This lack of action would in the end undermine him.
In the weeks following, more and more officers loyal to the government were replaced in their positions by supporters of a coup. On 11 September 1973, upon the orders of General Pinochet, they struck.
At 6 a.m. naval forces took the port city of Valparaiso, and cut communications with Santiago. At 8 a.m. the military moved in the capital. The coup was relatively quick and bloody. Allende, however, holed up in La Moneda with a group of defenders, refused to surrender. At 9.15 a.m., Allende gave his last speech to the nation:
This will surely be my last opportunity to address you. The Air Force has bombed the towers of Radio Portales and Radio Corporación. My words contain not bitterness, just disappointment. They should stand as a moral castigation of those who have been traitors to their oaths: Chilean soldiers, titular commanders-in-chief, Admiral Merino, who has designated himself commander of the Navy, and even more señor Mendoza, the cringing general who only yesterday manifested his fidelity and loyalty to the Government, and who also has named himself Director General of the Carabineros. In the face of these deeds it only falls to me to say to the workers: I shall not resign!
Standing at a historic point, I will repay with my life the loyalty of the people. And I say to you that I am certain that the seed we have planted in the worthy conscience of thousands and thousands of Chileans, cannot be reaped at one stroke. They have the power, they can make us their vassals, but they cannot stop the social processes, neither by crime nor by force. History is ours, and it is made by the people.
Workers of my country: I want to thank you for the loyalty you have always had, the confidence you placed in a man who was only the interpreter of great yearnings for justice, who pledged his word to respect the Constitution and the law, and who did so. In this final moment, the last in which I will be able to address myself to you, I want you to take advantage of the lesson: foreign capital and imperialism, united with reaction, created the climate for the Armed Forces to break their tradition, which they were taught by general Schneider and which was reaffirmed by commander Araya, victims of the same social sector that today will be be expecting, with an alien hand, to reconquer the power to continue defending their profits and their privileges.
I address myself to you, above all to the modest woman of our land, to the campesina who believed in us, the mother who knew of our concern for the children. I address myself to the professionals of the nation, to the patriotic professionals who continued working against the sedition overseen by their professional academies, classist academies that also defended the advantages of a capitalist society.
I address myself to the youth, to those who sang and who brought their happiness and their spirit to the fight. I address myself to the man of Chile, to the worker, to the campesino, to the intellectual, to those who will be persecuted, because in our country fascism has now been present for several hours; in the terrorist assassinations, blowing up the bridges, cutting the railways, destroying the oil and gas pipelines, in the face of the silence of those who had the obligation to behave.
They too were committed. History will judge them.
Radio Magallanes will surely be silenced and the calm metal of my voice will no longer reach you. That is not important. You will continue to hear me. I will always be with you. At least my memory will be that of a man of dignity who was loyal to the nation.
The people should defend themselves, but not sacrifice themselves. The people should not allow themselves be subdued or persecuted, but neither should they humble themselves.
Workers of my country, I have faith in Chile and its destiny. Other men will go beyond this grey and bitter moment when treason tries to impose itself upon us. Continue to know that, much sooner than later, we will reopen the great promenades down which free men pass, to construct 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, I am certain that, at the least, I will be a moral lesson to castigate felony, cowardice, and treason.
Following his speech, Allende released anyone not in state service. Meanwhile, he and a few others, remained to defend the building. As fighter jets bombed La Moneda, and helicopters fired tear gas through the flames, Allende and his cohort fired from the windows at the attackers. When the ammunition was spent, he ordered the surrender of the remaining defenders to spare their lives while he closed the door behind him, and refusing to surrender, committed suicide.
In the massacre that followed, thousands were rounded up, tortured and executed, most famously in the National Stadium in Santiago, as graphically depicted in the 1982 film Missing. Amongst these was the popular Chilean folk singer Victor Jara. Thousands more simply ‘disappeared’, a practice to become common in Latin America over the next two decades. Hundreds of thousands more were forced into exile, including the playwright Ariel Dorfman and the film-maker Patricio Guzman, director of The Battle of Chile which documents the three years of the UP government and the Pinochet coup, and the 2004 documentary Salvador Allende.
Pinochet’s junta, with the assistance of US advisors including the ‘Chicago Boys’, would become an experimental ground for what would be termed ‘neo-liberalism’. Privatisations of areas including health and education would become the norm, lauded by Reagan and Thatcher. Despite the transition to democracy in 1990, the effect of the coup and dictatorship is still strongly felt in Chile.
Forty years on, Allende and the UP continue to inspire. A statue of Allende now keeps watch over La Moneda, and the efforts of the UP have been emulated to an extent by a new wave of left-leaning governments throughout the continent. Forty years on, it is important that we remember not only the coup, but the efforts of millions in Chile and throughout Latin America to change society for the benefit of the majority, and that we learn from their experiences. In this way, the disappeared will not have vanished.