Latin American politics has enjoyed a rich modern history, with a great diversity of ideology being tried and tested – and sometimes violently imposed or overthrown . Whilst this has often had devastating affects on the well-being of the continent’s population, with Cubans having suffered in no small part and Venezuelans currently impoverished under their Marxist regime, along with previously frequent coup d’etat, it has to be said that from a European standpoint it adds a little spice and fire to political discourse that is sorely lacking at home.
One of the most famous examples of the extremities of political thought amongst European diaspora in South America is Chile in the 1970’s and 80’s, a country that almost became the first example of a Marxist state brought into being democratically. As we know, this never materialised thanks to the Coup d’etat of 1973 in which the Chilean military removed the government and installed a military junta that held power in the country. They reverted to democracy in 1989, but the intervening years provide us with a rich assortment of historical material that “liberal democracy” fails to offer.
There are many disputes as to what exactly happened in Chile in 1973, not least because the circumstance was not exactly ideal for journalists and international observers. But there are some things considered absolute axioms; the military coup was unlawful and those who proceeded to hold power in Chile oppressed civil society. Any historian aiming for a degree of respectability will of course ensure that their works on the period contain these two themes, yet when challenged properly these assertions simply don’t stand up to a serious level of scrutiny.
Yes, there was repression of political activity in Chile under the military regime. That is undeniable, as is the fact that the coup disposed a democratically elected president, but after a brief investigation one can see that, as with many things in life, the situation was not so black and white. What happened is undeniable, but the motivations for the actions of the plotters and the extent to which their actions harmed Chilean society is certainly up for debate. Moreover, the activities of the Allende government must also be re-evaluated; yes, in the end his Marxist tendencies ran out of control, but his first year in office was by any objective standards a remarkable success.
It’s these years of President Allende’s government that I explore in this first part of a two-part series on the Chilean coup d’etat, to coincide with the 44th anniversary of those events. In conjunction, I will discus the events that led to Allende’s removal from office, looking at both the internal and external factors that had bearing.
1970-73: Salvador Allende’s Socialist Government
On 4th September 1970, socialist and Freemason Salvador Allende won the Chilean Presidential Election with 36.2% of the popular vote. He did so as the head of an uneasy coalition (named Popular Unity) of leftist parties, including the Socialist Party, the Communist Party and the Radical (far-left) Party, amongst others. His victory sent shockwaves through the corridors of the major world powers, as this was the first time a group with revolutionary Marxist elements within its ranks had won power democratically during the Cold War. The Americans were naturally outraged as this marked a battle lost in their quest to defeat Communism worldwide, whilst the Soviet Union quietly – but undoubtedly – rejoiced at this major victory for Marxist doctrine outside of Eastern Europe.
The Soviets could hardly feign surprise however, considering the KGB had covertly pumped 6-figure sums into Allende’s campaign in order to install a friendly regime in the western hemisphere. What is a widely forgotten or misrepresented fact is that this was not Allende’s only affiliation with the Soviets; he had in fact been passing and receiving information to and from the KGB since the 1950’s and, according to Chilean academic Axel Kaiser, had for all intents and purposes been a KGB agent in South America. He also had ties to revolutionary Communist factions from Cuba, Bolivia and Brazil, which aided him to power but ultimately cemented his downfall.
In the interests of fairness it must also be noted that the Americans, under the cover of CIA covert operations, had put a great amount of time, effort and money into an attempt to prevent Allende’s election. President Nixon himself had authorised expenditure totalling over $10,000,000 in anti-Allende activities in Chile, which included Project Camelot, a covert CIA operation began in 1965 to investigate the political leanings of Chileans in academia, civil services professions and elsewhere. Furthermore, the Pentagon hosted a group of Chilean military men in 1969 to discuss the possibilities of a coup d’etat should Marxism take power in the country.
Thus it can be said that, with undue foreign influence on both sides of the argument, Allende’s victory was probably fair. Nevertheless, he could never have claimed to have a popular mandate given Chile’s old “first past the post ” system, in which Congress decided between the two candidates with the most votes after the first and only round despite the “winning” candidate rarely reaching even 40% of the vote. In practise this was a formality, as Congress has an unspoken rule of always electing the candidate with the most votes. Yet Allende’s election was not such a formality. Due to his radical program, Congress forced him to take an oath to act within the constitution before agreeing to vote him into office. This was down to reservations on the part of the Christian Democrats, whose support Allende depended on to become President of the Republic.
Allende and his Popular Unity alliance had been elected on a radical socialist platform, which included the nationalisation of key industries such as the nation’s important copper mining, as well as banking and administration of the health and education sectors. This began what was known as La vía chilena al socialismo (The Chilean Path to Socialism), and the administration implemented many facets of this policy quickly in the knowledge that a President has just 6 years in office under the Chilean constitution. The government fixed the price of bread, gave free milk to schoolchildren, began a mass residential building program, increased the threshold at which citizens were liable to pay income tax and sent a 55,000-strong task force to the south of the country to improve literacy rates, amongst other populist measures.
Furthermore, over 300,000 small business owners benefited from an extension of capital tax exemption, whilst many middle-class Chileans benefited financially from the various tax reductions and exemptions that Allende’s administration put into place. The results of these policies were, remarkably, very promising in the government’s first year. Between 1970-71, the rate of inflation fell from 36.1% to 22.1%, purchasing power in real terms increased by 28%, the minimum wage increased by 41% for blue collar workers and 10% for white collar workers.
However, this success was to be short-lived. One of the more controversial policies amongst Allende’s program was land reform, which had begun under his predecessor Eduardo Frei. The continuation and expansion of this policy sought to overhaul the country’s traditional system whereby a large proportion of the country’s farmland was owned by a relatively small number of wealthy people. Under Allende, the state proposed to confiscated all property with land over 80 hectares, a policy which was rapidly undertaken in its entirety. The result was that total breakup of “Latifundia” (large agricultural estates) so that not a single farming property was left over this size. This confiscation was often done illegally, as the state either didn’t compensate the landowners fairly or didn’t confiscate them at all. Moreover, the state’s hand in the farming sector saw efficiency and production nose-dive, causing the country’s reliance on food imports to increase by over 149%, whilst exports fell considerably.
An even greater problem was the fall in the global price of copper. Copper mining had been an erstwhile cornerstone of the Chilean economy which the country greatly depended upon, so much so that Allende’s government sought to nationalise the entire industry. This was a logical move, given that the profits from copper exports would have easily funded much of the administration’s extensive socialist spending program. The big problem was that the Americans owned 51% of the majority of Chilean copper mines. Allende’s government, foolishly underestimating the wrath of American economic warfare, expropriated these shares with little or no compensation. To what extent the Americans had a hand in manipulating the global copper price as a result of this is unknown, but given President Nixon’s recorded anger on the matter, it’s highly likely.
The economic affects as a result of state farming’s poor efficiency as well as crippling sanctions from America and other NATO affiliated trading partners were disastrous by any measure. In 1972 alone, losses on state-run industry amounted to over $1,000,000,000 by the government’s own admission. In the last year of the Allende administration, inflation rose to over 350%, on top of the 120% rise in the price of basic consumer goods in the month of August (1972) beforehand. The economic situation of the middle-class nosedived sharply and, although wage-price fixes protected the poorest to a degree, Chile soon began to run out of basic produce and essential medical supplies, resulting in a slump in living standards for all.
September 1973: Coup d’etat
The main catalyst for the coup d’etat of 1973 is still a matter for debate. Many commentators assert that the coup was a CIA-instigated plot that was driven by ideological hatred of Marxism, and the fear that Allende was leading Chile towards a Communist dictatorship along similar lines to Castro’s Cuba. This is not without foundation, given the amount of money the CIA and Nixon’s administration pumped into ideological combat in the country.
However, there is no smoke without fire and it wasn’t just the Americans being hysterically paranoid about Communism. The Chilean Congress – in which the Christian Democrats/National Party alliance had a majority – also became increasingly concerned that Allende’s government was leading Chile down the path to a Marxist dictatorship. However, this was not down to the government’s economic policy or any real ideological differences. Indeed, the Christian Democrats had campaigned on a very similar economically socialist platform in the 1970 Presidential election campaign. But there were certain underhand activities conducted by the Allende regime that offered more than a suspicion that the country was heading down a dangerous path.
It had become apparent that Salvador Allende sympathised with and was beholden to the extremist factions to the left of his “Popular Unity” coalition. This was especially worrying given their ties to Communists from the Castro regime in Cuba, as well as Bolivia and Brazil, from whom radical left-wing terrorist factions had been receiving military training and ideological guidance. Eduardo Frei, Allende’s predecessor, claimed that the president had been importing massive amounts of weapons and other military equipment from these Latin American partners, in order to create a parallel armed forces in preparation for a civil conflict upon the instillation of a Marxist dictatorship. Not only were they storing weapons, but they had set up over half-a-dozen left-wing terrorist training camps to provide military instruction to those at the forefront of the struggle.
This too was not without foundation; it later transpired that there were scores of armed revolutionaries who were training in preparation for this anticipated civil conflict. Chilean academic Axel Kaiser claims that senior members of the Allende administration, including the president himself, were preparing for this conflict and were openly discussing the need to kill over a million Chileans to effectively remove opposition to their plan. This claim is validated by “Plan Z”, a document found in the presidential palace that contained detailed plans for the seizure of total power, including a plot to essentially decapitate the armed forces high command who they believed were the key opposition to such a takeover.
There was also the President’s subversion of seemingly noble causes to achieve his ends. One notable example is the government’s drive to reduce illiteracy in the south of the country, leading them to distribute thousands of books and magazines to the region. In typically Marxist fashion however, the government ensured that literature given to peasants and workers was as much to define their ideological positioning as it was to teach them to read and write. Millions of copies of extreme left-wing material were published and freely distributed, whilst it almost need not repeating that any text of a right-wing leaning would be kept well out of reach for the average Chilean.
Then there was the issue of the president’s private bodyguard, ambiguously dubbed “Group of Personal Friends” (GAP). This organisation was almost entirely made up of Cubans, trained revolutionaries who would be the vanguard of the revolution in Chile. The president also undermined the judiciary as an independent branch of state – as it was set out in the 1925 constitution – by way of the interior ministry refusing to enforce judgements that ruled in favour of those whose land had been illegally expropriated. Allende’s GAP is believed to have had a hand in this obstruction, as it was implicitly understood that the police and gendarmerie would face armed resistance from Allende’s ever expanding personal soldiers.
This collection of events led Congress to declare that the president was systematically falling foul of the constitution and operating outside the rule of law. A resolution passed on 22nd August 1974 (81-47), the Chamber of Deputies called on the government to cease its illegal activities and crucially, that all state apparatus act in order to achieve a return to legality. In particular, the resolution called on “the Armed and Police Forces… to put an immediate end to all situations herein”, with reference to the severe breaches of the constitution the Allende regime was engaged in. This effectively gave the authorisation by elected representatives that, should Allende refuse to return to legality or dismiss the resolution, the military was to remove him by force.
What occurred a few weeks later on 11th September 1973 is a matter of popular knowledge, so it’s largely unnecessary to repeat this information in full. At 7.00 am, the navy moved to secure the country’s largest port and shipping area, which first alerted Allende to the coup. At first, he believed it to be a small number of mutineers in the navy and it was not until General Pinochet and Air Force Commander Gustavo Leigh refused to answer his calls that he realised the events were on a much larger scale. Interestingly, Allende assumed that the Army General Pinochet had been kidnapped by conspirators, as he had counted him amongst the more politically sympathetic of the military to the president’s program.
By mid-morning, the Chilean Armed Forces had captured all but the very centre of the capital Santiago. Allende had gone to La Moneda, the presidential palace, with his elite GAP bodyguard, despite being offered a safe passage out of the country by associates of his Socialist Party. He was called upon to resign his office by the military, a request he refused. General Pinochet ordered the storming of the palace by infantry men, but they met fierce resistance from GAP fighters and snipers on the rooftops – the latter were quickly dispatched by Chilean Air Force attack helicopters. As it became apparent that Allende would go down fighting, the Air Force supported the ground attack on the presidential palace with a ferocious bombing raid, reducing it half to rubble. The president, realising imminent defeat – and contrary to reports he was killed fighting soldiers – committed suicide with an AK47 given to him as a gift by Fidel Castro. His immediate entourage were either killed in the fighting or arrested, and the military now had complete control of the country.
Stay tuned for part 2, where I will explore in more detail the immediate aftermath of the coup, the consolidation of power by General Pinochet and the “Chilean miracle” influenced by Milton Friedman and the Chicago Boys. Thanks for reading!