The other 9/11

Tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of the ‘other’ 9/11:  the coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Chilean Salvador Allende ushering in a period of intense repression.

There are too many people in the USA who know little or nothing about these events nor about the role of the USA in helping to orchestrate the coup.

Marta Harnecker circulated this morning a piece that she had written in 2003 about the period in which Allende was president and the coup that overthrew him.  As with Marta’s works generally, this is a must read.  Marta is Chilean and lived the experience of the Unidad Popular government and the coup that crushed the hopes of so many…at least for a while.

 Understanding the past to make the future:

 Reflections on Allende´s government

Marta Harnecker
June 5
 (Historical Materialism: Research in Critical Marxist Theory,
Vol.11, No.3, Autumn 2003)


1. Thirty years after the September 11th that Latin America will always remember, we need to ask ourselves what lessons we can learn from the Chilean experience.[1]

2. In September 1970 something occurred which deeply moved the Left in general, and the Latin American Left in particular: the electoral victory of Salvador Allende in Chile. It was the first time in the history of the Western world that a Marxist candidate had gained the Presidency through the ballot box.

3. In facing this victory, the opposition forces had the following alternative: they could either respect the simple majority (Allende had only 36 per cent of the votes), as traditionally  had been done in Chile, or they could impede, by any means necessary, the Marxist candidate from assuming government.  The most conservative forces in Chile tried to put this last option into practice. They initially tried to get Congress to elect their own candidate (and runner up with a second relative majority) Jorge Alessandri, into the Presidency. [2] In pursuing this objective they resorted to various tactics: a run on banks, the expatriation of US dollars, a campaign of fear, abandonment of companies and so on.

4. For their part, the ‘Freísta’[3] sector  – the more conservative sector of the centrist Christian Democracy (Democracia Cristiana, DC) – was  also very tempted to follow this road. However, they understood with great lucidity that the collapse of this tradition would bring the country to chaos and civil war, and so the majority of the party chose to respect the winner. To have voted for Alessandri in Congress would have sent a message to over a third of the Chilean population that the democratic and  electoral roads were closed to them and that they should think instead of violence and the route of insurrection. But this support for Popular Unity (UP[4]) was not for free; its price was that the Allende government accept the Statute of Constitutional Guarantees, through which the government promised not to touch the armed forces, the educational system and the media.

5. While this agreement was reached, a sector of the ultra‑right dedicated its energies to plotting against Allende’s victory, bringing together diverse political sectors of the opposition , elements of the armed forces and of the outgoing government. Spurred on by the attempted murder of the pro-constitutional commander of the Army, General René Schneider, the victorious UPcoalition focused part of its national campaign on gaining the support of the armed forces on the basis of its constitutional character.

The UP Offensive

7. Despite this opposition, Allende assumed office with the support of the Christian Democratic Party on November 4, 1970,  thus inaugurating a new period in the history of the country. The government immediately moved onto the offensive.

8. In order to carry out the structural transformations outlined in its electoral program, the new government drew on some important legal instruments available to the State: the Law of Land Reform approved during the Frei government, despite its limitations allowed the new government to advance quickly in the expropriation of big latifundios.

9. Using a an existing Decree (passed in August 1932 under the short-lived Socialist Republic) to avoid probable mutilation of their programme by the parliamentary opposition[5],  the minority UP government  took the initial steps toward the socialisation of property: on December 2, the expropriation of the first company, the Bellavista textile factory, was announced. The Lanera Austral factory followed on 27 January as did  FIAP‑Tomé and Fabrilana on 11 March 1971.

10. After the unanimous approval by Congress of a Constitutional reform allowing the nationalization of copper and other basic natural resources, the big foreign companies were also expropriated without compensation.

11. On other fronts, the attempt at restructuring the judicial system in order to establish neighbourhood tribunals produced the first great reaction of the Right. The UP decided to back away from this initiative and it was put aside forever.

12. During the same period, however, the UP government’s economic strategy was broadly achieved.  There was a considerable redistribution of income; government economic policy yielded rising production whilst unemployment – which had  previously reached alarming levels – fell significantly. In the area of finance the government advanced less: there, the resistance of bank employees controlled by the DC hindered the creation of a unified bank system.

13. The government also pushed forward an international political offensive restoring relationships with Cuba and beginning the relationships for the first time with China, North Korea, North Vietnam, East Germany and other communist states. The new government gained the respect and sympathy of international opinion at a moment when the European Left was looking for a democratic road to socialism. If the Cuban Revolution fortified the position of those who advocated armed revolutionary struggle, the triumph of Allende vindicated those who defended the peaceful path.

14. The experience was short-lived, however, as Allende lasted little more than three years.  Following his election, many people lost sight of the fact that it was the government, but not power itself, that had been won by Allende.  The legislative and judicial powers were still under the control of the opposition, as well as the fundamental pillar of the bourgeois State – the armed forces – which remained intact, and were protected by the so-called Statute of Constitutional Guarantees.

15.The government’s offensive found a fractionalized opposition, weakened politically by its electoral defeat in September and its frustrated coup attempt in October. They had two options: to try to overthrow the UP government once again or to grind it down gradually so as to win the presidential elections in 1976.

16. While the Right debated different strategies, the popularity of the government in this period increased considerably as a result of its successful economic policies. The elections of April 1971 demonstrated this: in only five months, the UP increased  its share of the vote from 36 to 49 per cent. In retrospect this was, without a doubt, the most favorable moment to have approved a referendum authorising the creation of a Constituent Assembly mandated to elaborate a new Constitution. In order to advance along the legal, peaceful road to socialism, it was essential for the UP to change the rules of the institutional game. In the event, UP chose not to take the risk.

17. During these years, the country lived in a climate of revolution and profound transformation. Many Chileans were full of hope and felt themselves to be masters of their own destiny.  It was a dangerous example not only to the powerful in Chile but to the rest of the world as well.  For them, this new paradigm had to be defeated.

18. The Right, keeping in mind the possibility of a military coup, made its strategic objective to thwart, by all possible means, the coalition of political and social forces that would give Allende a parliamentary majority and would allow him to transform society through the legislative process. The principal political force among the opposition were the Christian Democrats, who had their fundamental social support among the middle class, certain sectors of the working class, and the urban poor. The murder of Pérez  Zujovic[6] at the hands of former UP militants in June 1971, however, would prove to be a gift for the Right, as it allowed the ‘Freísta’ sector of the DC to recover the leadership of the party.

The Contradictions of State Power

19. On balance, we can say of this early period that, despite the considerable advances carried out by the government, the popular sectors appear as mere spectators and supporters of the transformative process. The Committees of Popular Unity, which had experienced an extraordinary development during the pre-electoral period, mainly disappeared after the victory. The parties devoted all their cadres to the new government tasks, abandoning to a significant extent their work in the popular movements.

20.  Apart from the mobilisations to support the government, the only important mobilisations during this period were those carried out the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria  (MIR, Revolutionary Left Movement)[7] among the Mapuche natives in the territories of Cautín and Valdivia, to recover lands expropriated from them in the past.

21. The popular government’s publicly-announced decision not to use repression against workers stimulated further similar actions. As the latter negatively affected  small and medium peasants, they broke with the agrarian strategy of the UP which initially sought to attack only the big latifundistas. The ultra-right magnified these actions and took advantage of them in launching its campaign of delegitimisation against the government and mobilising important sectors of the rural  and urban middle classes against the government by presenting it as the enemy of private property.

22. On the other hand, the first serious divergences arose inside the UP when the first important initiative involving popular participation – the creation of the Communal Peasant Councils – was activated in December 1970.

23. One group conceived these councils as rural organizations at a national level that would contain a multiplicity of existing rural organizations (trades unions, cooperatives and asentados – organizations of peasants who had repossessed their land). Others saw some problems in this way of organizing the councils. They argued that it excluded the organisations of small, independent proprietors and other sectors in the country still not formally organized, and gave supremacy in these councils to the DC, as this party controlled two of the three peasant union federations and the federation of asentados whilst the Left, especially the Communist Party, controlled only one union federation.

24. Yet another group, agreeing with the MIR, insisted in the formation of the Communal Councils by the grassroots, which would allow, in principle, the incorporation of the whole peasantry – including the non-organized sectors- and to break the dominance of DC in the rural organizations. The problems of last this position were twofold:  first, the difficulty in having a truly democratic grassroots election without political manipulation by the parties and, second -and most seriously- the division of the peasantry, as in reality the non-UP sectors were excluded from the Communal Councils.

25. After several months of discussion the leadership of the UP reached an agreement, but, despite this, the character of each council came to depend on the orientation that each party gave them, thus resulting in the further division among the proletarian peasantry. In addition, the loss of support of an important sector of small and medium landowners prevented the UP from gaining the massive support of the peasantry. Thus, despite the notable advances in agrarian reform, the main ally of the working class was not won over to the extent that had been anticipated.

26. This period of offense among revolutionary forces also lay bare the limits of the Chilean bourgeois State and its legality. Excessive centralism prevented initiatives and decision-making at the local level. Without economic resources, local initiatives remained dreams. The majority of the cadres of the bureaucratic apparatus and other organisms of the State were not involved in the day-today changes and the government controlled only the higher echelons of the State.

27. Under the existing Constitution, the Contraloría (the highest judicial entity of the State) had the power to determine what was constitutional and what was not. It rejected the idea of creating centers of power outside the State structure, thereby denying the possibility of legalizing the Peasant Communal Councils. It only approved a project which reduced their role to a mere advisory role to the State’s agricultural organisms. The same happened later on with the legalization of the Councils of Supply and Prices (Juntas de Abastecimientos y Precios[8])  created to fight against the black market and inflation.

28. Political ‘quotas’ proved to be an additional problem. Each party within the UP demanded a certain number of positions in the public administration for its own members so that each ministry, each organism of the State, was expected to reproduce the representation of all the parties in the UP. This idea, which was intended to produce an integrated leadership within each organism, in reality produced the opposite. As there was no unified leadership of the political process, each party made its own policy. The inefficiency of the bourgeois State was accentuated by the absence of a common approach in each ministry and within each administrative organism.

29. Furthermore, in order to fulfill their quotas, each party named candidates who often did not have the requisite competence, and so opportunists of all stripes were able to rise within the ranks of the State. As a result of parties jockeying for positions, many experienced, efficient but independent individuals were excluded from positions of influence.

30. The lack of power and resources at the local level made de-centralised policy initiatives and decision-making all but impossible, and so mass mobilizations were limited to pressuring the central organisms of the State, thereby accentuating a historical tendency of the Chilean people to expect all solutions to come from above.

31. In addition, the incorrect methods of leadership of the UP militants, formed in centralised organizations, reduced their ability to implement concrete tasks incorporating the people at local and grassroots level.

32. Another aspect that we must consider is that the political strategy of the UP in relation to the popular sectors was centered fundamentally on the proletariat of the big industrial centers, mining and agriculture. Due to their high levels of organisation and previous social conquests, these sectors were in large measure privileged with regard to the rest of the labour force working in small industries, small agricultural farms, as well as in relation to the immense sector of small self-employed workers, the truly marginal sectors of both town and country. This privileging of the organized, urban, industrial proletariat was evident in the great concern among the UP for the improvement of union organization, without a similar concern for the organisation of the poor. On the one hand, the UP promoted production committees in the big industries, but on the other they did not implement supervisory committees in the medium and small industries. The redistributivepolicy based on wages did not reach the non-salaried sectors of the urban population. In this regard, it should be recognised that the DC had a much more intelligent policy in this area, worrying in particular about the organisation of the ‘marginalised sectors’.

33. Lastly, in spite of insisting on the importance of incorporating the masses to the transformative process, in its documents the UP did not formulate concrete tasks aimed at encouraging greater numbers to become part of the process, thereby enlarging the government’s support base.  Instead, these tasks were carried out within the respective party structures.

The Ultra-Right Counteroffensive

34. As we saw earlier,  Pérez’s Zújovic’s murder energised the effort of the ultra-conservatives sectors tin unifying the opposition. Their strategy revolved around six basic objectives.

35. First, to divide the Ruling UP coalition. This was done by attempting to exploit supposed divisions between ‘Marxist’ parties and ‘Democratic’ ones.  By using an old anticommunist trick, the ultra-right attempted to isolate Marxists from the rest of the UP coalition by accusing them of trying to ‘take over the whole government’, and of ‘unyielding sectarian loyalty to Moscow’.

36. Second, maintaining  control over the mass media at all cost.  At the time the opposition controlled 70 per cent of the written press and 115 of the 150 radio stations existing in the country, including the most powerful.

37. The third objective involved the defense of private property.  The Right used every legal mechanism and pressure tactic within reach to prevent the transition to from private to social property: the clearest example of this was the Constitutional Reform project presented by the DC in order to prevent the nationalisation of many businesses.

38. Fourth, the ultra-Right sought the creation of an anti-Popular Unity consciousness within the Armed forces.  To do this, they exploited every opportunity to present the country as being ‘in chaos’, ‘under anarchy’, or ‘ungovernable’ and ‘in a power vacuum’.  And without a doubt, the central goal of this aspect of their campaign was the denunciation of the existence of other armed groups outside the army.[9]

39. Fifth, the ultra-conservatives agitated the middle class to act against the government by supporting the supervisors who boycotted copper mine production; mobilising their professional colleagues; using the universities as target groups for their strategies.

40. But the last and fundamental goal – that which would later allow them to achieve others – was to provoke the economic failure of the Allende government.  Almost immediately after Allende’s electoral victory they began to implement their counter-measures: capital flight, the illegal import of US dollars, the paralysis of certain industries, a freeze on raw material imports and industrial parts, and so on. The dominant classes not only blocked the government’s every attempt to modify the unfair tax system through their parliamentary majority, but, at the same time, they denied the budget resources to carry forward the new social agenda: including milk distribution, health care plans, housing, and other public works.  Thus, they blocked the UP’s effort to improve workers’ standard of living and, at the same time, spread fear among foreign investors and domestic businesses, leading to a stagnation of productivity.

41. This plan had the full support of multinational corporations and the Nixon administration, which besieged the Allende government by reducing credits, preventing the renegotiation of foreign debt, and by placing an embargo on goods from nationalised companies, whilst spreading the image abroad that Chile was a bankrupt country, thereby strangling it economically. The government, not wanting to compromise the negotiating capacity of the workers, had no other alternative but to increase the amount of money in circulation, knowing that this would result in steep inflation.  At the same time, the US government embargo prevented them from importing enough food to keep up with the purchasing power of the population.  Food shortages steadily worsened. In addition to these factors, the opposition’s efforts caused the economic situation to deteriorate further through speculation, hording and the growth of the black market. In tandem with this, the opposition-controlled media unleashed a systematic campaign to show that the country lacked basic necessities and placed this at the center of their attacks.

42. Thus, as the Allende government moved forward , a truly counter-revolutionary situation was fermenting internally.  The first symptoms were already evident when Fidel Castro visited Chile in November 1971.  More and more social sectors of the right and their allies participated in demonstrations, protests, transport strikes, copper strikes, demonstrations against the military. As the oppositional forces continued to execute their strategy, the forces of the UP coalition could not agree on how to react to this counteroffensive.

43. In response to this spiraling deterioration of the political and socio-economic climate, Allende decided to address the situation by calling for a popular referendum.  The presidential address was scheduled for 11 am on the 11th of September, 1973.  Gunfire would silence the heroic Chilean leader at that time instead.

The Military Coup

44. The military coup was made possible by the success of a right-wing counteroffensive.  While the right-wing forces grew in strength, and contradictions among the forces of the Left sharpened, an important part of the middle class- which had initially supported Allende- distanced themselves from his project, creating a fertile political and social terrain for the military coup.

45. I agree with Jorge Arrate, the Chilean socialist leader, that Allende’s project was far too heterodox for the orthodox character of the Left at the time[10], whose ideas did not correspond to the new challenges that the country faced. When Allende spoke about the democratic transition to socialism, sectors of the Left painted on the walls: ‘Long live the dictatorship of the proletariat!’  When Allende spoke about winning over sectors of the bourgeoisie for his project, a significant portion of the Left identified the entire bourgeoisie as the enemy, basing everything on dependency theory, which sustained that national capitalist development was no longer possible.  When the socialist President fought for unity, the most powerful parties – the socialists and communists – made their differences public. While Allende sought to consolidate economic achievements through the strategic nationalisation of certain industries, aware of the limits of his own power; other sectors of the Left wanted to extend the nationalization even to small businesses, demanding that Allende assume a more radical stance, as if all power were in his hands.

46. On the other hand, the leadership of Popular Unity Coalition and President Allende himself understood quite well  that the Chilean process could not succeed without the support of the armed forces. Accordingly they made a big effort to win them over to the popular cause. However, they trusted excessively in the constitutionalist loyalties of the Chilean armed forces and failed to work sufficiently for the creation of their own loyal force.

47. Yet there is something else that was only understood later on, namely that this type of ‘peaceful’ transition from capitalism to socialism – using the resources and the possibilities of power within a system of democratic representation –  needs another conception of socialism. It was necessary to rethink what kind of socialism we wanted to build, a socialism better adapted to the Chilean reality.  This was what Allende seemed to understand intuitively when he used the folk metaphor of ‘socialism with red wine and Chilean empanadas’, indicating the need for a socialist society that was democratic and rooted in popular national traditions.[11]

[1]. In writing this article I have combined information about Allende´s experience from my book Making Possible the Impossible:  The Left in the Threshold of the 21th Century  (forthcoming from Zed Books) and a text prepared for a book about the film The Battle of Chile by Patricio Guzmán  (1975)  and subsequently published partially as La lucha de un pueblo sin armas: los tres años de gobierno popular in  the Chilean journal Encuentro XXI (1995) 1: 3, pp.  169-175; 1: 4, pp.  131-140; 2: 5, pp.  160-177.

[2]. In Chile a candidate can be elected without the absolute majority of the votes, as long as he is ratified by Parliament.  Though the tradition has always been to ratify the candidate with the relative majority, would that tradition be rejected with the election of Allende?

[3]. After the former Christian Democratic President Eduardo Frei.

[4].  Coalition formed by the  Socialist Party, the Communist Party, the Radical Party, the MAPU and the Christian Left. (These two last ones were part of the Christian Democracy).

[5]. Hugo Zemelman y Patricio León, ‘El comportamiento de la burguesía chilena en el primer año del gobierno de la Unidad Popular’, Revista de Sociología, 1, August 1972, p.4.

[6] Former Minister of the Interior in Frei’s Christian Democratic government and highly influential member of  the Christian Democratic party.

[7].An extra‑parliamentary politico‑military organization inspired by the Cuban Revolution, which was outside the Popular Unity coalition.

[8]. Groups of people that organized themselves to control prices.

[9] . This made any attempt to arm the people to defend the popular government much harder.

[10]. Arrate,  Jorge, La fuerza democrática de la idea socialista, Santiago de Chile, Ediciones Del Ornitorrinco, p. 175.

[11]. Tomás Moulián, La Unidad Popular y el Futuro, Encuentro XXI, 1: 3, Santiago de Chile, 1995, p.25.


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