We were sitting in the living room of his house in one of Santiago’s elegant neighborhoods, surrounded by his collection of pre-Columbian art and other gifts from grateful admirers or foreign hosts. It was mid-1972, the turning point of his Chilean revolution, and it had been a bad week, in which his best chance for a constitutional compromise with the centrist Christian Democrats had slipped away even when it seemed in his grasp. Allende was being attacked from both sides—from the Right for being too revolutionary and from the Left for not being sufficiently revolutionary.
I looked at his face, which was beginning to show signs of age, and asked him: “You are 64 years old. You have done everything that a Chilean leader can do in a political career—you have been deputy, minister, senator and now president. You have had four heart attacks and given the stress you are under you are a candidate for a fifth, which as a doctor you must know. You are being attacked by the Right, but also by the Left, including your own Socialist party, which you helped found. Why go on? People say you are ambitious….”
Allende interrupted me: “I do not have any economic or social ambitions,” he replied. If he was ambitious, it was because he had a historic ambition. A century before, Marx had said that in countries with strong democratic institutions, it might be possible to reach socialism without a violent revolution. Since then, others had tried this road, but all had failed, “because the realities of their countries had not allowed it.” His ambition was to be the first leader in history to reach socialism “without violence…because there are millions of people in the world who want socialism, but without having to pay the terrible price of civil war.” “If that is being ambitious,” he stressed, “then I am ambitious, but it is not an ordinary or vulgar ambition. It is a historic ambition.”
Navigating a democratic road to socialism was an ambition that had informed Allende’s political career for two decades before our conversation, although only in 1970 was he in a position to try to realize it. It was an opportunity that began in triumph, with his election as the first Marxist to be chosen head of state in democratic balloting, but it would end in defeat and tragedy in the violent military coup of that other September 11, 1973, with Allende himself, the symbol of peaceful revolution, dying gun in hand amid the ruins of his bombed-out presidential palace.
The image of Salvador Allende Gossens, the elected Socialist president of Chile, gun in hand, defending to the death both his socialist road and his country’s democracy is an iconic one, found on posters adorning walls on several continents after his death. It is also a misleading one, which has allowed Allende’s final desperate recourse to armed struggle to obscure a political life devoted to pioneering a peaceful road to a democratic socialism. But all images of Salvador Allende are contested terrain.
More than thirty years after his death in the violent military coup of 9/11/1973 that put an end to his “democratic road to socialism,” Salvador Allende remains a controversial figure. Since his death, he has served as a symbol of political martyrdom to the Left and as the face of the Communist threat to the Right. In this battle for the memory of a traumatic era in the history of Chile, the historical Allende, the pragmatic political leader, has been lost in the struggle between hagiography and demonology.
This essay is a step toward restoring the historical Allende, a remarkable political leader—but one with flaws and limitations—committed to a vision of socialism with democracy to which he dedicated his political career and for which he gave his life.
The facts of Salvador Allende’s life are well known, although their political implications have been unevenly explored. Allende was born in 1908 in Valparaíso, Chile’s biggest port, where twenty-five years later he would participate in the founding of the Socialist party. He was the son of Salvador Allende Castro, a government lawyer from a progressive political family of Spanish origin, colonial roots and patriotic participation in Chile’s struggle for independence, and Laura Gossens Uribe, daughter of a Belgian immigrant businessman. He was the fifth of six children, only four of whom would live to adulthood. It was a middle-class family that was more illustrious than prosperous, and the future president moved with his father from post to post. His childhood was spent in the provincial towns of Tacna and Iquique in the north of Chile and Valdivia in the south; his teenage and adolescent years in Valparaíso. His childhood and adolescence helped Allende realize what many politicians failed to understand in his centralized country: that Chile was more than just its capital Santiago. As an adult, he would represent all of these regions in the Chilean Congress and would be elected president as the candidate of the provinces, while losing in Santiago.
In a recent “psycho-biography,” Chilean historian Diana Veneros stressed the importance of Allende’s paternal grandfather, Ramón Allende Padín, as a role model and inspiration for the young Salvador, despite his never having known his grandfather, who died at the age of forty-four, after a brief but distinguished career. Like the future president, Ramón Allende was a medical doctor, social reformer and political activist who chose public service over private practice. As a doctor, he organized the medical corps of the Chilean army during the War of the Pacific against Peru and Bolivia; as a social reformer he founded the first secular school in Chile and became Grand Master of the Masons, a major force for secularizing reform in nineteenth century Chile. Lastly, as a political activist Ramón Allende Padín was a leading member of the reform-minded Radical party, for which he was elected deputy and senator.
Significantly, Salvador Allende Gossens would become not a lawyer like his father but a medical doctor like his grandfather, as well as a social reformer concerned with addressing the economic and social causes of ill health. Moreover, Allende too would become a Grand Master of the Masons, a political club where 20th-century Chilean leaders of many parties forged compromises and made deals. He would also become a deputy and senator, although for the more leftist Socialist party. Still, Allende’s family links with the Radical party would make him the ideal leader of a Center-Left coalition that would include both parties, a coalition that would elect him president of Chile in 1970.
Not all of the influences that shaped the young Salvador Allende Gossens were reformist family influences. As a teenager in Valparaiso, he stressed to me, Allende became friendly with an anarchist shoemaker, Juan Demarchi, who lent him books about anarchism and socialism, discussed politics with him and shaped Allende’s ideological formation in a more leftist mold than his family’s Radical tradition. Demarchi became Allende’s political godfather, whose influence helped explain why Allende did not follow his family tradition and become a Radical. Such diverse influences also help explain why Allende’s Socialist party remained open to many dissident leftist currents—anarchist, Trotskyist, Guevarist—and why Allende himself would make his career as the advocate of a “big tent” Socialist party, in sharp contrast to the stress on ideological orthodoxy of Chile’s Communist party.
As a medical student in Valparaíso, Salvador Allende continued his political education and launched his political career. He organized a Marxist study group and became a student leader—president of the Centro de Alumnos de Medicina and student representative on the university council. Making a name as a student leader was a traditional way for a young man from a political family to start his own political career.
Although Allende’s combination of medicine and politics clearly reflected his grandfather’s career, his study of medicine also influenced his politics. Medicine is a pragmatic healing profession, concrete in its diagnoses and its cures. It is an applied, not a theoretical science. The same would be true for Allende in politics: although he is known for his innovative strategy of a democratic road to socialism, Allende was not an original Marxist thinker, nor did he claim to be. Rather what Allende understood himself to be doing was applying Marx’s notion that in advanced democracies socialism might be reached without armed revolution, and adapting it to Chilean conditions. Allende was at bottom a pragmatic political leader inspired by Marxist ideals.
This medical pragmatism was also reflected in Allende’s policy priorities as president. Even while he was engaged in the structural changes that might transform Chile into a socialist economy, Allende continued to press the more immediate goals of improved nutrition, assuring a liter of milk a day to every Chilean child, and better medical care, doubling the number of consultations at the national health service and using “medical trains” to bring medical care to underserved provincial localities.
It was as a medical student, Allende stressed to me, that he became particularly conscious of the problems of Chile’s poor—and of Chile’s problem of widespread poverty. “The medical students, with their awareness of malnutrition and disease, were the most advanced politically,” he recalled. But, also important was his exposure to “the tragedy of poverty.” As a student without much money, he “lived in poor neighborhoods as a boarder and came to know at close quarters the misery, lack of housing, lack of medical care, and lack of education of the Chilean people.” He became interested in the socio-economic causes of ill health, part of what Chileans called “the social question.” Addressing them would become Allende’s first political program, uniting his medical education with his socialist political formation and transforming his first cabinet position into a political launching pad. Even the title of his first cabinet post—Minister of Health, Housing and Social Security—underscored the links between public health and living conditions and income. Allende would use the position to establish his credentials as an idealistic doctor, as a pragmatic reformer and as a political leader. Part of his subsequent appeal as a political candidate was his image of a doctor in politics, curing society’s ills.
It was a small step for Allende to go from social medicine to socialist politics. “My studies taught me that socialism was the only solution to these problems and that Chile had to find its own road.” He finished medical school in 1932, just in time to fight for the 12-day Socialist Republic led by his cousin Col. Marmaduke Grove, the commander of the Chilean air force. It was the depths of the Great Depression, which hit Chile harder than any other nation, reducing the country’s vital export income by four-fifths between 1928 and 1932. Amid high unemployment and disillusionment with the capitalist economy that had brought Chile to this profound crisis, “socialism” came into fashion, although the understanding of what it meant varied from Left to Right and most Chileans seemed to understand socialism as a welfare state and envision a Socialist Republic as “an affectionate mother who would take care of administrating the common good for the benefit of all her children, without odious distinctions, without privileges for anyone, with a spirit of justice previously unknown among us, and with truly miraculous results.” These expectations were fanned further by Grove’s millenarian rhetoric, which also alarmed Chile’s elites and divided his revolution’s initial supporters, most of whom began to plot against his Socialist Republic, with the support of a majority of the Chilean armed forces.
Allende had done his obligatory military service and was a reserve army officer.
But until the last day of his life, June 1932 was the only time that he would take up a gun for a political cause. When such efforts failed to save the Socialist Republic and Grove fell from power, Allende was jailed. He was released only to attend his father’s funeral. It was there, at age 24, that Salvador Allende Gossens “vowed to dedicate my life to the social struggle.”
The following year, Allende became one of the founders of the Socialist party and co-author of a book on “The Structure of National Health.” This dual career of medicine and politics continued during the years that followed. In 1935, Allende became editor of the Revista Médica and the Boletín Médico de Chile, but was sent into internal exile by the ruling conservative government for his political activities. From 1949-1963, he presided over the Colegio Médico, while serving as a senator and twice running for president of Chile.
1936 saw the formation in Chile—as in France and Spain—of the Popular Front, a Center-Left coalition that united the Radicals, Socialists and Communists, along with smaller reformist and populist parties. It was an event that would shape the rest of Salvador Allende’s political life. He became its chief for Valparaíso province, which elected him deputy in 1937, the same year he was chosen as the second in command of the Socialist party. When Radical Pedro Aguirre Cerda won an underdog campaign for president in 1938 as the standard-bearer for the Popular Front, Allende was his campaign head for Valparaíso, Chile’s third-largest urban area, forming a political friendship that would reap rapid rewards for Allende, identified as a rising political star. In 1939, Aguirre Cerda named the 31-year-old doctor Minister of Health, Housing and Social Security, a rare Socialist in his largely Radical cabinet. Allende proved to be a dynamic, innovative and able minister. He introduced workman’s compensation and organized the first national housing exhibit on the main avenue of downtown Santiago to dramatize the desperate housing conditions of poor Chileans. His performance as Minister of Health was lauded by the Asociación Médica and he was awarded a prize for his book on social conditions and ill health in Chile. Allende’s first experience of government was highly successful.
It was also the defining experience of his political career. As Allende himself stressed to me, it was his experience of the Popular Front government that persuaded him that “in Chile it was possible to construct socialism within the existing political institutions.” For Allende, the Chilean Popular Front was the most successful of the popular fronts formed to combat fascism in the mid-1930s. Despite its limitations, Allende argued, the Chilean Popular Front was “a big step” forward, which “signified the middle class in government and the displacement of the oligarchy,” as well as “the organization of the workers” in their first national labor confederation officially recognized by the government. Aguirre Cerda, who had risen from modest circumstances to become president with a warm populist style and human concern that won the affection of the masses, to whom he responded with “loyalty,” was also a personal political model for Allende. The Popular Front taught Allende “the importance of an alliance between the workers and the middle class,” a vision of class coalition that underlay his strategy for socialism under the Popular Unity. The major limitation of the Popular Front, Allende stressed, was that it “was dominated by the bourgeois Radical party,” instead of by “the proletarian [Socialist and Communist] parties.” He would devote the rest of his political life to reconstructing that Center-Left coalition and class alliance as one in which the Left and the workers would dominate. The Popular Unity and his “Workers’ Government” were the culmination of that process.
Nor was Allende alone in this influence. For the “generation of ’38” in Chile, whether they were leftists or centrists, the Popular Front was a formative experience whose model of politics remained a reference point many years after its disintegration.
As a result, the years 1936-1973—from the formation of the Popular Front to the overthrow of the Popular Unity government and the imposition of military dicatorship—comprise an era in Chilean politics shaped by the Popular Front experience, with the Popular Unity and the Allende government as its linear descendants.
The Popular Front disintegrated during the 1940s amid open feuding between the Communists and Socialists and Aguirre Cerda was succeeded by two Radical presidents, one elected with Socialist votes, the second with Communist support. Allende left the cabinet in 1942 to become head of a Socialist party that was itself deeply divided, and to deal with the declining power of the fractured Chilean Left. In 1945, he was elected to the Senate for the south of Chile, just in time for the Cold War debates over the exclusion of the Communist party, which had supported Gabriel González Videla for president, only to see him turn virulently anti-Communist under U.S. pressure. His “Law for the Defense of Democracy” banned the Communist party and subjected its leaders to prosecution and internal exile. Allende voted against the “Ley Maldita” [“Damned Law”] in 1947 and when his Socialist party split, he went with the more leftist faction, the Popular Socialists. But Allende’s political principles were revealed by two acts of solidarity that he undertook in 1948: the first was to visit the Moscow-line orthodox Communist leaders imprisoned in the desert concentration camp of Pisagua; the second was to express his solidarity with the dissident Yugoslav Communist leader Tito in his conflict with Stalin and the Soviet Union, affirming that “each people is free to choose its own road to socialism.” This nationalistic ecumenical principle and his support for an inclusive democracy that did not exclude any political party or ideological perspective would inform Allende’s politics for the rest of his life.
The years that followed marked a great divide in Allende’s political career.
Before 1952, he was a reformer in a humanist tradition that owed more to the French revolution than to the Russian, a doctor outraged at the curable socio-economic causes of ill health, a populist politician denouncing the immorality of social injustice, but who was prepared to settle for the amelioration of capitalism’s worst injustices from the comfortable position of the halls of Chile’s Congress. From 1952 on, Allende became a Socialist presidential candidate inspired by Marxist visions of a transformed world, running with Communist support on a platform that included the nationalization of Chile’s giant U.S.-owned copper mines and whose ultimate goal was a revolutionary one—a democratic road to socialism.
Allende’s embrace of Communist support was itself significant. He had never been close to the Communists and his Socialist party was virulently anti-Communist, distinguishing its nationalism from the Communist party’s pro-Soviet internationalism.
But Allende’s experience of the decline of leftist influence in Chile during the 1940s as a result of Communist-Socialist divisions and feuds had led him to conclude that “the success of the popular movement in Chile depended on the unity of the parties of the working class, despite the differences and rivalries among them.” Leftist unity would become Allende’s political first principle, one that made him the only democratic leader in the West willing to ally with the Communists during the height of the Cold War.
In 1952, however, running for president with Communist support as the candidate of the Frente del Pueblo (People’s Front) entailed breaking with his own Socialist party faction, which supported the aging former rightist dictator, Carlos Ibáñez, who had reinvented himself as a populist. Ibáñez won easily and Allende received only 5 percent of the vote (scarcely more than another first-time presidential candidate with a future, Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei), but Allende was satisfied with a campaign that enhanced his visibility and placed socialism on the national political agenda.
The following year he was reelected to the Senate, this time from the northern district of Tarapacá and Antofogasta with its important mines and Communist votes.
In 1954, Allende was elected Vice-President of the Senate, a sign of his national standing and of the growing success of his strategy of leftist unity and coalition building. In the interim, the Popular Socialists had learned that Ibáñez’s radical campaign promises were just that—campaign promises—and that anti-party populists were no more reliable coalition partners for the Left than Radical party politicians. By 1957, Allende was able to preside over the reunification of the Socialist party—and its alliance with the newly legalized Communist party in the Frente de Acción Popular (FRAP) in time for the 1958 presidential elections.
Despite some resistance within his own fractious party, Allende won the nomination to run for president on a program that called for agrarian reform, the nationalization of all foreign-owned mines, the creation of a public sector, the redistribution of wealth, and a foreign policy independent of U.S. influence. “More Democracy!” “More economic development!” “More Welfare!” and “More National Independence!” were its slogans. 1958 would be Allende’s best campaign, in which he would consolidate his position as the standard-bearer of the Left and as the candidate of “the people,” adding a strong personalist support of independent allendistas to the Communist and Socialist votes. Campaigning strongly throughout Chile, from Arica to Magallanes (including a “Victory Train” through the south a month before the election), Allende was convinced that he would win. Yet, when the ballots were counted, he trailed the rightist Jorge Alessandri by 33,449 votes—the margin of victory provided by the late entry of an ostensibly “leftist” priest, whose sources of funding and motives for running were murky. Allende believed that he had been robbed of victory, but he rejected proposals to “mobilize the masses” and urged his supporters to accept the official results. Ironically, in 1970, when Allende defeated Alessandri by a similar vote margin, his “democratic” opponents and their U.S. backers would refuse to accept the results and would plot to prevent his inauguration by congressional or military coup.
Despite his defeat, 1958 was a watershed in Allende’s political career. It marked his emergence as a credible presidential candidate running on a platform of democratic socialism that suddenly seemed possible. It cemented his hold on the mass base of the Left, a relationship of mutual “loyalty”—a notion that Allende himself stressed—which mixed populism with socialism. 1958 was at the same time a divide in Chilean politics. It was the first election in which electoral reforms that assured a secret ballot in rural areas created competition for the peasant vote—and made agrarian reform a major issue. It was also the election in which Eduardo Frei, like Allende, emerged as a credible national candidate, in which his Christian Democrats replaced the Radicals as the party of the middle class Center, and in which the tripartite division of Chilean votes into “the three thirds”—Left, Right and Center—became apparent. Lastly, it was the first election in which the female vote—granted in 1949—was decisive. Had Allende won the same percentage of the votes of women as he did of men, he would have won the 1958 election. This was the beginning of a persistent gender gap, one in which women regularly voted more conservatively then men. Had Allende won in 1958, he might have been a successful radical reformer, introducing a radical social democracy that could have won majority support and been consolidated in the context of much more revolutionary developments elsewhere in the hemisphere.
In the larger hemispheric context, 1958 was the end of an era, in which Chilean politics revolved more around personalities than policies. The following year, the Cuban revolution would transform politics throughout the region, upping the leftist ante, polarizing politics along ideological lines and involving the United States in covert interventions in the politics of democratic countries like Chile to prevent “another Cuba”—or an Allende victory.
In most of Latin America, the political spectrum shifted sharply to the Left during the 1960s, with the alternatives now posed as “reform or revolution.” Faced with the threat of socialist revolution, the United States opted for Alliance for Progress reforms, and found in Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei a perfect standard-bearer in the country considered most likely to choose socialism democratically. In March 1964 (six months before the presidential election), the surprise victory in a congressional by-election of a Socialist doctor in what had been a safely rightist rural district led the Right to abandon its own presidential candidate and throw its support to Frei as well. The FRAP once again nominated Salvador Allende—fresh from election as senator for Valparaíso in a model grassroots campaign—for his third presidential run. Allende would increase his share of the vote by a third —to 39 percent—yet lose decisively to his Christian Democratic rival, who won a majority of the vote, a rarity in Chile’s multi-party system.
The support of the Right was a large part of Frei’s absolute majority, along with his party’s clean image and his own charisma and U.S. style campaign, whose promise of a “revolution in liberty” was an implicit attack on Allende’s commitment to democracy, despite his long congressional career, as Frei’s U.S. media advisers were well aware. The clandestine support of the United States was another important part of the story. Declassified U.S. files and official reports have documented a U.S. covert intervention in Chile going back at least to 1964 to prevent Allende’s election, and other sources have pushed that date back to the beginning of the 1960s. In 1964, Washington may have financed more than half of Frei’s campaign, while the CIA ran what became known as the “campaign of terror” to discredit Allende. Its most notorious aspect was a media and poster campaign insinuating that if Allende was elected Chile would become Communist, its children would be sent to Cuba, and his opponents would disappear. The climate of fear and confrontation that this campaign generated created a lasting political polarization that would culminate in the 1973 coup.
Allende was devastated by the character of the campaign as well as by his defeat in an election he thought he would win, but he did not give up his hopes of becoming president or his dream of a democratic road to socialism. In the congressional elections of 1965, the Christian Democrats won a majority in the Chamber of Deputies and began to talk openly of becoming a “hegemonic” party that would bar the Left from power like the Italian Christian Democrats. But the Christian Democrat bid to transform Chile’s multi-party system threatened the Radical party as well, whose long domination of Chile’s vital political center was in danger of disappearing, taking the Radicals with it. Allende saw in this conjuncture the opportunity to realize his long-term strategy of reuniting the Center-Left Popular Front coalition of his youth. In 1966, a deal with the Radicals elected him president of the Senate, the most prestigious post in Chile outside of the government, and the beginnings of a political courtship that would lead to the formation of the Popular Unity in 1969—an alliance of Socialists, Communists, Radicals and Christian leftists—and to Allende’s election as president in 1970.
Allende’s opponents might accuse him of political opportunism in his alliances with parties to his left and right, but what is striking is his principled leftist stance despite U.S. pressure and at considerable political risk. During the early Cold War Salvador Allende had been the only democratic Western political leader willing to ally himself with the Communists. In the more radicalized and revolutionary Latin America of the 1960s in the wake of the Cuban revolution, Allende once again stood his leftist ground in the face of U.S. pressure on Latin America to conform to its anti-Cuban revolution and counterinsurgency stance. Allende not only visited and embraced Fidel Castro—itself the kiss of death in Washington’s eyes—but also attended the Havana conference of the new hemispheric revolutionary international OLAS, the Cuba-based Organization of Latin American Solidarity. Moreover, when the survivors of Che Guevara’s ill-fated Bolivian guerrilla detachment found asylum in Chile and passage to Cuba via an around-the-world flight, Allende—now president of the Chilean Senate—personally accompanied them on the first leg of their journey to the friendlier French territory of Tahiti, while Washington fumed. Undoubtedly, these gestures shored up Allende’s revolutionary credentials within a Chilean Socialist party that declared itself Marxist-Leninist in 1967, but they also reflected his own stress on leftist unity and his own radicalization during the decade of the “heroic guerrilla,” while winning international support for his very different “peaceful revolution,” his Chilean Road to Socialism.
Allende, a leftist of a different era, but an experienced political leader, navigated the turbulent waters of international leftist politics with great skill. In 1967, he represented the Socialist party at Moscow’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Russian revolution, but the following year he condemned the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia as the violation of the sovereignty of a small nation by a great power.
He refused to take sides in the Sino-Soviet dispute and used it to insist that there were many roads to socialism and that each nation had the right to choose its own.
Increasingly, he insisted on a “Chilean road to socialism,” one consonant with his country’s pluralistic and democratic traditions.
In 1970, Chilean politics finally gave him the opportunity to attempt it. The slow pace and limited scope of Frei’s “revolution in liberty” had lost the Christian Democrats votes and radicalized their own left wing, which argued in 1969 for an “alliance of all the lefts” to overcome rightist opposition to reform. When Frei rejected this idea, the rebeldes left the Christian Democrats, formed the MAPU (Popular Action Unity Movement) and joined Allende’s Popular Unity coalition. To keep the rest of the left wing in the party, the Christian Democrats nominated its leader, Radomiro Tomic, as presidential candidate. Tomic’s leftist reputation and insistence on running on a platform almost as radical as Allende’s ensured that the Right would nominate its own candidate, former president Jorge Alessandri, creating the three-way race—unlike 1964—that Allende’s advisers considered a precondition for his election (along with the formation of a coalition as broad as the Popular Unity).
Allende’s own nomination in 1970 as candidate of his Popular Unity coalition, however, was far from a sure thing. “It was the people who chose me,” Allende stressed to me. “My own party was against me. The leaders of the Popular Unity were against me. But the people made me the candidate.” Nor was this cant or hyperbole. Both the Radicals and the MAPU expected the presidential nomination in exchange for joining the coalition. His newly Marxist-Leninist Socialist party considered Allende a bourgeois “reformist” and viewed his “popular front” strategy as anachronistic. Even Allende’s Communist allies opposed a fourth Allende run as a losing candidacy. “Allende was chosen because he was the voice of the people,” confirmed long-time Communist leader Volodia Teitelboim. “Because if one talked with a peasant or a worker in Valdivia or in Bellavista or in Magallanes,” they would insist that of course “the candidate has to be Salvador Allende. Because he was the man who was in the mind of the people…who had won himself a name among the people.”
The election campaign mirrored the nomination process. The right-wing Christian Democrats supported Alessandri, whose victory was confidently predicted by the U.S. embassy, but who looked weak and aged on television, a newly important medium. Tomic ran a leftist campaign that targeted Alessandri more than it did Allende. The party leaders of the Popular Unity went through the motions of what they were convinced would be another losing Allende campaign. Only Allende himself believed in his victory and carried out a tireless grassroots campaign throughout Chile, including areas not covered by the U.S. Embassy polls. He was aided less by the party faithful than by those who believed in him and his program for a democratic road to socialism, who formed local Popular Unity Committees (CUPs) that included independents and mobilized votes at the grassroots level. Not a charismatic figure or a compelling speaker, Allende projected an appealing dignity and family doctor concern and tapped deep veins of loyalty that went back to his support of strikes or past visits. Gradually, Alessandri began to lose strength while Allende gained force. Even a rerun of the 1964 “campaign of terror” failed to dent the enthusiasm of his supporters. In the end, the U.S. Embassy polls proved accurate in Central Chile, but Allende’s strength was in the North and South of the country. When the votes were counted on September 4, 1970, Allende had defeated Alessandri by a slightly larger margin than Alessandri’s 1958 victory. The gate to a democratic road to socialism in Chile seemed to be swinging open.
Appearances were deceiving. Whereas Allende had immediately recognized Alessandri’s victory in 1958 and discouraged his supporters from protesting it, the former president refused to return the courtesy. Instead, with strong clandestine support from the U.S. government, Alessandri became the center of a plot to deny Allende the presidency.
Because Allende had won a plurality (36%), not a majority of the vote, his triumph had to be confirmed by the Congress, which had the constitutional power to choose between the two top candidates. Pluralities were common in Chile’s multiparty system and the Congress always ratified the leading vote candidate—Alessandri had only won 28% of the vote in 1958, a smaller percentage than Allende in 1970. Yet, now the Right and the CIA hatched a conspiracy in which the Christian Democrats would vote for Alessandri, who would then resign and support Frei in a new election that would be a rerun of 1964.
In effect, it would be a constitutional coup, presaged by a speech by Frei’s finance minister that set off a financial panic.
Fortunately for Allende, the Christian Democratic party apparatus was controlled by Tomic, who immediately recognized Allende’s victory. Even Frei, complained the U.S. ambassador, refused to “put his pants on” and play his assigned role in the plot, fearful of being remembered as the man who destroyed Chile’s vaunted democracy.
Instead, he demanded a set of constitutional guarantees that he was sure Allende would not accept—such as job security for Christian Democrat civil servants—in exchange for his congressional confirmation.
Allende played his cards brilliantly, darkly hinting at civil war if his victory at the polls was overturned in the backrooms of the Congress, while keeping his supporters calm and displaying a conciliatory face toward the Christian Democrats. To their surprise, he agreed to their statute of guarantees, asking in return that they vote for his confirmation.
But the congressional plot was only Track I in a two-track covert effort by the Nixon administration to stop Allende from becoming president, despite his victory at the polls. Track II was a military plot masterminded by the CIA that involved the kidnapping of the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, General René Schneider, who was known for his commitment to following the Chilean Constitution and opposed to any plot. After leading army officers withdrew from the conspiracy, the plot was carried out by neo-fascist paramilitaries. When Schneider resisted, he was killed, the first of many who would die from rightist political violence in Chile during the years to come. In 1970, however, Schneider’s assassination horrified the nation and put an end to any remaining hope of stopping Allende’s confirmation and inauguration on November 3, 1970 as the first democratically elected Marxist president in the hemisphere, a president pledged to pursue a democratic road to a democratic socialism.
By the time Allende took office, he had become, despite his grassroots support, the consummate political insider, who had been everything in Chilean politics—deputy, senator, minister, party head, Senate president—except president. He knew its institutions and personalities inside out and was famous for his ability to manipulate both. As one Christian Democratic rival put it: “Allende is the best political operator there is [la mejor muñeca que hay].” Or as Volodia Teitelboim insisted: “He is not an intellectual. He is not a scholar. Nor is he a theorist…but he is a born politician.” He would need all of his legendary political skills—and more—during his thousand-day presidency.
Although the Chilean presidency was a powerful executive, Allende’s coalition was heterogeneous and was a minority in the Congress. The courts and the bureaucracy were dominated by Chile’s elites and his political opponents, most of the media was controlled by the Right, and the loyalty of the armed forces was uncertain. For a strategy for socialism sometimes described as “the Long March through bourgeois institutions,” these were formidable constraints. To these constraints was added an economy dependent on exports, imports, capital and technology largely controlled by a hostile United States. Nor could the collaboration or even the neutrality of foreign corporations and Chilean entrepreneurs and investors be counted on along the road to socialism. Even with Allende’s election, therefore, reaching socialism by a democratic path seemed a nearly impossible task—yet that is what Allende set out to accomplish.
Like John Kennedy, Salvador Allende would have roughly one thousand days as president to make his mark, before his violent death put an end to his political career.
He began well, opening Chile’s aristocratic 18th-century presidential palace to “the people” after his inauguration, proclaiming from its balcony to a cheering crowd that “The people have arrived with me to the presidential palace” and styling himself a “Compañero Presidente.” This vision of an inclusive democracy would remain a theme of Allende’s presidency, with voting newly granted to 18-year-olds and illiterates, and grassroots democracy encouraged in places of work and residence and in the movements and organizations of civil society. Social equality was another such theme, seen in efforts to reduce income inequality, raise mass living standards and empower workers, peasants and the urban poor. Many of them had voted for Allende less for his democratic road to socialism than for his “40 Points”—populist promises of such benefits as a pint of milk for each child or free healthcare for all—and the Allende government moved rapidly to fulfill these pledges.
Allende had been elected a on a platform of building a democratic road to socialism, and he had stressed this pledge in his inaugural address. Yet, for the first two months of his presidency, Allende made few moves in this direction, assuming a stance of moderation, reassuring markets and lulling many Chilean capitalists into the belief that his government would not prove much more radical in practice than its Christian Democratic predecessor. His first target was foreign capital and U.S. imperialism, with his first step the diplomatic recognition of Cuba—breaking its isolation, outraging Washington and pleasing his own leftist base.
By late December, political and economic stability had been restored and Allende began to act with skill and rapidity to advance his socialist agenda of structural change.
On December 21, he proposed a constitutional amendment expropriating Chile’s giant U.S.-owned copper mines, confident that not even the Right would dare to vote against it.
Then, on New Year’s Eve, President Allende announced the nationalization of the country’s private banks, using the capitalist mechanism of the takeover bid and stock tenders (by the government Development Corporation) to socialize the financial system. During the following month, his government purchased controlling shares in Chile’s coal mines, largest steel mill and second largest iron mine, and seemed well on its way to fulfilling his pledge to recover Chile’s “basic riches” from foreign control and reach the “second independence—economic independence” he had promised in his victory speech.
Agrarian reform was another campaign promise, but here the Popular Unity planned to use the existing 1967 Christian Democrat law, which had not been fully implemented.
Allende had been elected by the provinces and had pledged to decentralize government.
In February, he moved his capital out of Santiago and sent his agriculture minister south to tell restive peasants and indigenous peoples that his government would accelerate the land reform, but would remain within the letter of the law. By April, Allende had sent a clear message that he intended to pursue his democratic road to socialism but to do it legally.
Constructing a democratic road to socialism meant persuading a majority of Chileans to vote for it, and elect a Congress willing to legislate socialism, a task Allende’s government hoped to accomplish during its six years in office. Allende had won election promising a “revolution with empanadas [meat pies] and red wine”—i.e. a revolution without sacrifice—yet he inherited an economic recession and a financial crisis that exacted high social costs. Ending that recession and reversing those costs were central goals of his initial economic policies. His economic team, led by Pedro Vuskovic, an independent socialist, used Keynesian pump-priming and real wage increases to boost consumer demand, and by April the recession was past, replaced by a “fiesta de consumo,” as Chileans who had never before had much discretionary income went out and bought the goods they had always wanted but could never afford. As Allende approached nation-wide municipal elections in early April, he could look back on a very successful first five months in office, based on political maneuvering which Communist Volodia Teitelboim called “the most brilliant in Chilean history.”
Chilean citizens shared this opinion of the Allende government, and it had positive consequences for the Popular Unity parties. In the municipal elections—viewed by all as a referendum on the Allende government—the Popular Unity parties won half the vote, a dramatic jump from Allende’s own 36 percent only seven months earlier, a showing that the main Popular Unity parties viewed as a mandate for accelerating their democratic road to socialism. They also viewed it as a sign that political momentum was on their side and that they might not have to wait six years to legislate socialism. If they could increase their support from 36 to 50 percent of the vote in seven months, they projected that in another year they should have a solid majority of Chileans behind them and be in a position to win a plebiscite on dissolving Chile’s opposition-controlled bicameral congress and replacing it with a newly-elected unicameral “people’s assembly” in which they would have a majority. This is why the Popular Unity rejected Radomiro Tomic’s offer of a grand coalition with the Christian Democrats following the municipal elections. They did not want to compromise a socialist transition they believed they were on the verge of securing.
Even before the municipal elections, key figures in Allende’s government, such as Economics Minister Pedro Vuskovic, were aware of the growing pressure from below for the acceleration and radicalization of the Chilean revolutionary process. What I have termed elsewhere a “revolution from below” had already begun among the urban poor, the peasants and the Mapuche Indians. Allende’s promise not to use the security forces to repress “the people” had already led to record numbers of seizures of vacant suburban lands by homeless squatters and to seizures of rural lands by peasants who had not benefited from the Christian Democratic land reform. Vuskovic was aware that similar pressures were now building among the industrial workers who formed the central mass base of the Popular Unity and who expected their factories to be nationalized as part of a promised “social property area.”
He had asked the workers for time, but in the wake of the municipal election victory, there seemed no reason to wait any longer, a view shared by major Popular Unity party and labor leaders. So they encouraged the workers at the Yarur textile mill, whose owners were suspected of economic sabotage, to take control of their factory when the internal dynamic within that enterprise led to a labor conflict that could not be resolved. The result was the “seizure” of Yarur on April 28, 1971 that would prove a turning point in the Chilean road to socialism and in Allende’s presidency.
It was a turning point that Allende had not sought and did not want to face.
For Allende, the demand of the Yarur workers for their factory to be nationalized ahead of schedule threatened his carefully balanced, phased strategy for a democratic road to socialism in which he would defeat each of its enemies in turn, beginning with foreign capital. Instead, he would be confronted by a unified opposition stretching from U.S. imperialists to Chilean capitalists and including the Chilean petite bourgeoisie, worried about the revolution from below’s threat to their property as well. Moreover, he was justifiably fearful of a revolution from below escaping his control: “If I give in to this seizure,” Allende told the Yarur worker leaders, “there is going to be another and then a second and then a third…because I let one escape…. I will just spend my time signing nationalization decrees brought to me” as a result of worker seizures. Allende remained firmly committed to his controlled revolution from above and opposed to jettisoning it for the heady effervescence of the revolution from below.
Beyond the question of revolutionary strategy lay an even larger issue of political leadership: “Successful revolutionary processes are directed by a firm guiding hand, consciously, deliberately—not by chance,” he told the Yarur union leaders. “The masses cannot go beyond their leaders, because the leaders had an obligation to direct the process and not to leave it to be directed by the masses.” When the worker leaders tried to reply, he cut them off with an imperious: “I am the president, and it is I who give the orders here!” If that was not accepted, “if what they wanted was to have a government that would play the role of a figurehead, then he would resign his post and they could elect another president.” Allende might be a compañero president who spoke about “power for the people” and his government “the government of the workers,” but he had a traditional view of the relationship between a leader like himself and his mass base: his role was to lead and theirs was to follow and support his lead. At bottom, Allende believed in representative democracy, not direct democracy.
If, in the end, Allende gave in and agreed to the nationalization of Yarur — using executive decree powers to circumvent the opposition’s control of the Congress — it was not because he was convinced by the arguments of the worker leaders. Rather it was because he was unwilling to repress his central mass base and because the Yarur leaders had outmaneuvered him and won the support of key party and government leaders — with Vuskovic, the architect of the economic policy that had won the municipal elections, threatening to resign over the issue. At bottom, Allende was unwilling to divide the Left, whose unity was central to his strategy for political power and democratic socialism—as well as his life’s work.
At first it seemed as if both sides in this leftist debate were correct. The seizure and socialization of Yarur did detonate a wave of similar actions which Allende was unable to resist, provoking the decisive confrontation with the Chilean national bourgeoisie far earlier than planned. During the two years that followed, more than 500 enterprises would be seized by their workers, far more than his fledgling social property area could absorb or administer—and far more than the 91 enterprises on the Popular Unity list to be incorporated into the social property area (APS). This reinforced bourgeois anxieties that Allende’s assurances were unreliable because he was unable to control his base and keep his promise to limit nationalizations to the large capitalist enterprises. Yet, during the six months that followed, these direct worker actions seemed to advance the revolutionary process, sweeping resistance before it and projecting a sense that history was on the side of the Chilean revolution—and that the revolution from below was a strategy to accelerate the Chilean revolutionary process, complementing Allende’s revolution from above.
Allende himself embraced this rapid revolutionary advance on the anniversary marking his first year in office, in a speech to a packed National Stadium that focused on fulfilling the Popular Unity program: “We are here to signal that we have advanced in the creation of the social property area, the base of the economic program, the cornerstone of power for the people,” he stressed. “We control 90 percent of what were the private banks…. More than seventy strategic and monopolistic enterprises have been expropriated, intervened, requisitioned or acquired by the state. We are owners!” Allende trumpeted. “We are able to say: our copper, our coal, our iron, our nitrates, our steel; the fundamental bases of heavy industry today belong to Chile and the Chileans”—and not to foreign imperialists or Chilean capitalists. To this major advance along the road to socialism, Allende added the participation of workers and peasants in the management of their workplaces—a socialist economic democracy—an accelerated agrarian reform, a massive increase in real wages and redistribution of income, the decline in both inflation and unemployment, greatly expanded housing, health and education programs, the extension of social security and the reform of the legal system. It was probably the most impressive set of accomplishments in one year of any president in Chilean history.
That first-year anniversary would prove the high watermark of Allende’s democratic road to socialism, the last time when its triumph seemed inevitable, when its momentum seemed irreversible, when history seemed to be on its side. Even as he spoke so triumphantly, the forces were gathering that would block his road to socialism, reverse his revolution and put a premature end to his presidency, his career and his life.
Some of these forces were economic, beginning with inflation, the Chilean economic disease since 1880, and budget and balance-of-payments deficits, also familiar Chilean problems, but including as well consumer goods shortages that would become a source of social tensions and political opposition. Also central to Allende’s slowed progress on the road to a democratic socialism were social tensions that reflected the Chilean revolution’s leveling thrust and in particular the revolution from below’s assertion of a “worker power” that frightened and alienated the middle class as much as the elite. This led to the failure of Allende’s strategy of middle-class alliance as the way to win a majority for socialism, resulting in the most naked class conflict that Chile had seen in decades. Together with the Popular Unity’s bid for a leftist political hegemony that would end the “three thirds” division of the Chilean electorate—Right, Left and Center—these economic and social factors would translate into a loss of leftist political momentum to a new Center-Right opposition alliance, and a growing political polarization in which the Popular Unity was the largest force but still without a majority for socialism.
Increasingly, Allende confronted an obstructionist and counterrevolutionary Center-Right opposition that sought to block his road to socialism and prepare the ground for his ouster by a congressional or military coup that would reverse his revolution’s “changes” and reimpose “order.” These uncompromising opponents included Chile’s displaced economic elites, who would use the defense of private property as the banner with which to attract the anxious middle class and use them as the foot soldiers of the counterrevolution, lending both numbers and legitimacy to their elitist cause. The elites’ hoarding, black market and media disinformation campaign helped create the consumer shortages, runaway inflation, bank runs and currency collapse that undermined Chile’s economic stability. They were assisted by the United States (and the corporations, international banks and agencies that it controlled or influenced), who created an “invisible” credit blockade of Chile, part of an extensive U.S. “covert war” whose goal was Allende’s overthrow and his revolution’s demise. If part of the Popular Unity’s problems were self-made or the result of structural constraints, others were created or exacerbated by Chilean and foreign enemies of its democratic road to socialism.
As a consequence, if Allende’s first year in office was one of rapid revolutionary advance, his final two years as president would be years of growing adversity, in which his democratic revolutionary road was increasingly blocked and replaced by a struggle for survival. Confronted by adversity, Allende was a “fighter” who would continue to struggle for the democracy and socialism that he believed in until the day he died. In this struggle, he was capable of changing advisers and looking for new ideas, particularly in areas that were not his strengths, such as economics, the Achilles Heel of his presidency.
Allende was also willing to reconsider failed policies and tactics and the strategies and models behind them, and to compromise with his opponents as part of a deal. But he was unwilling to surrender his vision of a nonviolent, democratic road to socialism or the unity of the Left as its necessary precondition.
Unfortunately, the growing constraints and the loss of political momentum brought out the latent divisions within the Popular Unity and Allende’s government that had been papered over during the period of revolutionary advance. Tensions between the Socialist and Communist parties were not new in Chile, although a division between them in which the Communists were to the right of the Socialists was. During 1972, the Popular Unity divided into left and right wings, led respectively by the Socialists and the Communists.
Although there were issues of political power involved, the central conflict was over revolutionary strategy. Should the Popular Unity government try to rescue its original vision of a democratic road to socialism by adopting orthodox economic policies to stabilize the economy and negotiating a compromise with the Christian Democrats that would legalize most of the past nationalizations and avert a constitutional crisis, but limit further advances; or, should the “Workers’ Government” jettison Allende’s vision of an alliance with the middle class and a deal with the Christian Democrats, reject “bourgeois economics,” opt for a Leninist alliance of workers and peasants and put itself at the head of the revolution from below and use it to force a revolutionary breakthrough? In the discourse of the day, it was a dispute between avanzar consolidando [advance by consolidating] and consolidar avanzando [consolidate by advancing].
For Allende, this internal conflict threatened to put an end to his vision of a democratic road to socialism. Not surprisingly, he sided with the Communists and against his own Socialist party, an alliance that carried the day within the governing coalition, but in such a way that the formal unity of the Left was maintained—although the Socialists continued to promote a revolution from below. By mid-1972, however, it was too late either to stabilize the Chilean economy or to make a deal with the Christian Democrats.
As the Center-Right opposition coalesced into an increasingly obstructionist alliance, whose control of the Congress prevented the Popular Unity from passing legislation that might legalize the “changes” or balance the budget, Allende relied increasingly on executive decree powers to advance the revolutionary process. These decree powers were not new (some dated from 1932) and other presidents had used them in the past, but never so extensively or for such revolutionary purposes. The result was to add a constitutional conflict to the struggle over socialism. Allende did not shrink from this, but Chile’s political institutions, including the Constitutional Tribunal, could not resolve it. Significantly, Allende’s use of these decree powers would form the heart of the accusation voted by the Chamber of Deputies on August 21, 1973 that his government had violated the constitution and committed illegal acts, a declaration that the military would use as a “democratic” legitimation of their coup three weeks later.
June of 1972 was the moment when moderates in both the Christian Democratic and Popular Unity ranks almost succeeded in averting this fatal confrontation by negotiating a deal in which the Christian Democrats would provide the congressional votes for legalizing the socialization of a reduced list of private enterprises, in return for Allende’s promise not to use executive decree powers for further advances in the future.
It was a negotiation that showed Allende at his best, wheeling and dealing for socialism, the old politics at the service of the “New Chile.”
The Socialist party opposed the deal (or any compromise that would limit future revolutionary advances), but it was in the minority in the governing coalition and Allende himself was prepared to break with his own party in order to consolidate the bulk of the advances toward socialism already made—and to avoid the growing polarization of politics that was driving the Christian Democrats into the arms of a counterrevolutionary Right. It was Eduardo Frei and the right wing of the Christian Democrats (backed by the USA) that blocked the deal when it was only four enterprises away from final resolution, a sign that they were committed not to democratic compromise but to political confrontation. This was a confrontation that the Right would soon take out of the Congress and into the streets, creating the “climate of violence” that the military would use to justify their violent coup one year later. In 1972, this rightist paramilitary violence would culminate in the “October Strike” that sealed the doom of Allende’s democratic road to socialism.
In the face of growing social tensions and political polarization, Allende continued to work for a deal with the Christian Democrats but with declining possibilities of success even for the accords of decreasing scope that he sought. The exception was the negotiations to end the “October Strike,” and it was revealing. That conflict—a strike and lockout by the bourgeoisie to paralyze the economy and to create the conditions for Allende’s ouster—could not be contained by Allende and was finally checked only by mobilizing the revolution from below, as workers ran the factories which their bosses had ordered shut down and delivered the goods that striking truck owners refused to transport. Significantly, Allende’s negotiations with the Christian Democrats succeeded only after the bourgeoisie’s counterrevolutionary insurrection ended in stalemate. They then agreed to bring the armed forces into the government to guarantee a truce through the congressional midterm elections of March 1973 (which were crucial to the Christian Democratic strategy for impeaching Allende).
The elections, however, did not give the anti-Allende forces the two-thirds majority they were hoping for. With Allende’s tenure in office now secure for another three years unless there was a military coup, the Christian Democrats ousted their moderate leadership and elected a coup team that adopted an uncompromising, confrontational stance. By June 1973, when a Santiago armored regiment led by a rightist officer mutinied and attacked the presidential palace, Allende was unable even to get the Christian Democrats to agree to a state of emergency in which he would have special executive powers to deal with the threat to Chilean democracy, so great was the mutual mistrust—and the Christian Democratic commitment to his ouster.
The same factors—along with fears that Allende could not control the revolution from below—doomed the “dialogue” between Allende and Christian Democratic president Patricio Aylwin (brokered by Cardinal Raúl Silva) a few weeks later. On the eve of the coup, Allende would postpone by one fatal day a television-radio address calling for a plebiscite to resolve the constitutional conflict, because he was waiting for a Christian Democratic endorsement of this democratic solution to their confrontation — a reply that never came, because the Christian Democrats were parties to the coup that would end not only Allende’s road to socialism and political life, but Chilean democracy as well.
By then, it was clear that Allende’s vaunted muñeca — his ability to manipulate Chilean politics — was no longer enough to control the situation or to save himself, his government, and his democratic road to socialism. Those last months also revealed that Allende’s weakness as a political leader was his overconfidence in his political skills: his failure to realize that there is a level of class conflict and political polarization that no amount of political skill can manipulate or resolve.
Arguably, another limitation was Allende’s unwillingness to surrender his original vision and change a strategy identified with him for two decades when it had failed. By the end of 1972, it had become evident that his democratic road to socialism was blocked and that his top-down strategy for constructing it through an alliance with the middle class and a “long march through bourgeois institutions” would not succeed. The October Strike and March 1973 election underscored that Allende’s nonviolent road to socialism was exhausted far short of its goal. Allende had had to unleash the revolution from below to halt the bosses’ strike, and was unable to win an electoral majority for socialism. Moreover, the economy was in shambles and the resources to repair it were not there, nor did an Allende trip to Moscow in December 1972 produce them—Allende refusing to agree to Communist party control of finances and a Cuban-style relationship with the USSR in exchange.
Within the Left, however, the revolution from below was surging from strength to strength, even as Allende’s revolution from above seemed to be running out of gas. The October confrontation was the revolution from below’s finest hour, when it stopped the counterrevolutionary offensive, mobilized workers, peasants and shantytown dwellers, and created institutions such as the cordon industrial, which united workers within an industrial belt across craft lines to defend their “territory” and advance the revolutionary process within it. The Left Socialists and their allies saw the cordones as potential Chilean “Soviets” and argued that only “a people in arms” [pueblo armado] could win the growing confrontation with the increasingly armed counterrevolution. Although by late 1972 there could be little hope that his original strategy of democratic revolution could succeed, Allende refused to abandon it in favor of the revolution from below and a more Leninist approach.
Instead, Allende brought in the armed forces to control the situation and to police an electoral truce, relying on constitutionalist General Carlos Prats’ ability to control his subordinates. Nor was Allende willing to arm the people, as the Socialists and others urged him to do. In part, this was a consequence of his bringing in the army to keep the peace. But Allende also shared General Prats’ disdain for el pueblo armado. In a famous exchange following the tancazo army rebellion of June 1973, when Socialist head Carlos Altamirano said it was time to “mobilize the masses,” Allende’s withering reply was “How many masses equals one tank?”
A topdown leader as well as a committed democrat, Allende preferred to rely on the ability of constitutionalist commanders such as Prats to keep the armed forces loyal. He even agreed—on Prats’ advice—to an arms law that gave the armed forces carte blanche to search for weapons anywhere at any time on such flimsy pretexts as an anonymous tip. Disloyal military officers would use these searches to accustom their conscript troops to abusing Chileans similar to themselves, to demoralize Allende supporters and to carry out a “creeping coup” that brought much of Chile under military rule even before the final seizure of power on September 11, 1973. It is not clear that arming the people would have prevented a coup and it might very well have led to an even earlier and bloodier military coup—or the civil war that Allende as a self-consciously Chilean president wanted at all costs to avoid. But it is clear in hindsight that Allende’s military policy of relying on Prats and bringing the armed forces chiefs into the cabinet was a tragic failure. Although bringing the military into the government after the October Strike and again after the tancazo stabilized the country politically in the short run, it undermined the position of Prats within his officer corps and destabilized the country in the long run. Ironically, it also began the participation of the military in government that would culminate in the 1973 coup and sixteen years of rightist military dictatorship.
At bottom, Salvador Allende was unwilling to abandon the vision of a nonviolent, democratic road to socialism to which he had dedicated his political life, no matter how strong the evidence that it could not succeed. Nor was he willing to put himself at the head of the revolution from below and adopt a more Leninist path to power—although towards the end he did begin to talk about the need to transform his warring coalition into a single “revolutionary party.” In the end, Allende was a Marxist, not a Leninist, who refused to mobilize the workers to defend him on 9/11/1973, expressing instead in his last radio broadcast his faith that history was on his side and that the future would belong to the workers.
Was Allende prophetic in his affirmation that history was on his side and on that of the workers? Arguably, he was wrong where Chile’s workers were concerned. But, in the end, he was prophetic about his own place in history, as a brief overview of history and memory in Chile since the 1973 coup makes clear.
Since his death, the image of Allende has been a controversial centerpiece in the struggle over the history and memory of the era over which he presided—a struggle about the past in the present to shape the future. Allende himself had tried to mold that image in his last radio address the morning of the coup. He was not normally a great speaker, nor was he a charismatic leader who could hold his audience. Yet, his final speech was both moving and eloquent, projecting an image of dignity and selfless sacrifice. In it he was the sober Chilean president trying to avoid massacres and civil war. He was the democrat who would not yield the legitimacy of his elected office to a military dictatorship, the republican who had always said they would only carry him out of the presidential palace feet first. Moreover, he was the popular leader who affirmed when faced with death: “I will repay with my life the loyalty of the people.” Lastly, Allende was the revolutionary who would die gun in hand resisting the military coup in the face of overwhelming odds.
From the start, the military regime set out to destroy this positive image of Allende and replace it with a negative one, using their monopoly of press and media and censorship of alternative views. Repetitive showings of the guns ostensibly found in the presidential palace and at his residence chipped away at Allende’s image as a nonviolent revolutionary and argued that he was a dishonest Communist decked out in democrat’s clothing. The “discovery” of a fabricated “Plan Z” to assassinate Allende’s civilian and military opponents portrayed him as a sinister leftist Machiavelli, although one version of Plan Z had Allende down for assassination too by his more “revolutionary” followers.
Throughout those early years, the military dictatorship tried to impose an image of Allende as visiting violence on Chile or else as allowing a “climate of violence” to flourish within the country. Within this “emblematic memory,” the coup emerges as saving Chile from Communist totalitarianism, with Allende cast either as the Chilean Kerensky or the Chilean Lenin.
Ironically, the Left also promoted the image of Allende gun in hand resisting the coup until his death, but for its own reasons and purposes. Overnight, he became a revolutionary hero and martyr. For the “revolutionary” Left, like the dominant wing of the Socialist party, Allende had redeemed his revolutionary credentials by his final resistance and sacrifice. For the Communists, who had shared his peaceful road, his resistance redeemed their inability to defend their revolution. Most of all, for the ordinary people who were suffering the brunt of the brutal post-coup repression while surviving leftist leaders went into comfortable exile, Allende’s sacrifice made him a symbol of their suffering and the redeemer of their cause who had died for them.
A decade later, when the social protests that marked the beginning of the end of the Pinochet dictatorship swept Santiago’s shantytowns, many of them were adorned with images of Salvador Allende, a visual symbol of resistance to the dictatorship. By this time, influenced both by Chile’s own experience and by the Sandinistas’ armed victory in Nicaragua, the Chilean Communist party had for the first time in its history endorsed armed struggle. Just as they had embraced Allende’s “peaceful road” while he was in office, so they now embraced his final image, gun in hand.
Ironically, as the transition back to democracy advanced in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Allende’s own Socialist party, which had once been so self-consciously “revolutionary” that it had rejected him as a “reformist,” now moved away from identification with an Allende who was too “revolutionary” for them. In the interim, the “revolutionary” Socialists of the Popular Unity era had become “renovated” Socialists in their Western European exile, social democrats who would soon embrace neoliberalism. Moreover, when the Socialists entered the Concertación governing coalition of the 1990s as the junior partner of the Christian Democrats, a tacit price of their admission was not to contest the Christian Democratic negative view of Allende and his road to socialism. As a result, during the 1990s, despite the return of democracy, little was said or done about Allende, and the Popular Unity era became the real “forbidden memory” in a Chile stricken with selective historical and political amnesia.
Not until the end of that decade did this begin to change. The arrest of Pinochet in London in 1998 on charges of crimes against humanity was one factor. Pinochet and Allende have long been on a memory seesaw: as Pinochet’s image fell, Allende’s rose. Another factor was the leftward shift in the political balance within the Concertación coalition that resulted in the weakening of the Christian Democrats and the election of Ricardo Lagos as Chile’s president in 2000: Lagos is not only the first Socialist president since Allende, but was his personal friend. Under Lagos, portraits of Allende were hung on the walls of the presidential palace for the first time and a statue of Allende was erected outside its gates. Also important were the reemergence of history and memory as major political issues and the U.S. release of 24,000 declassified documents with their revelations that the U.S. covert war against Allende was precisely because of his dual commitment to socialism and democracy.
These factors all came together in the 2003 commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the coup, whose most striking consequence was the political rehabilitation of Salvador Allende. Although the many television specials offered differing viewpoints, they all presented an Allende who was more complex and more human than the demonized image of Allende projected by the dictatorship. Moreover, although the focus was on the coup, in order to explain it most of these television specials had to go back further in time and give an account of the Allende era that often included film clips of Allende as well as interviews with his friends and collaborators. For most Chileans, a majority of whom who were born after 1973, this was the first time that they had seen and heard Allende for themselves and for many it was a revelation, as was his last radio address. In the wake of the 30th anniversary, Allende emerged as a republican martyr, whose suicide, like that of a Roman republican hero, was a selfless sacrifice for a noble political cause; but that cause was now constructed as democracy not socialism.
In his political afterlife, Allende had finally triumphed over Pinochet, but at the cost of disappearing the democratic road to socialism that had been Allende’s life’s work. What has been lost in his political rehabilitation is the “compañero president,” head of a self-styled “workers’ government,” whose mission was to combine socialism with democracy. In whitewashing Allende’s memory, Chileans have taken away his politics.
It is time to restore to Salvador Allende his historicity—his brilliance and limitations as a political leader and his dedication to both democracy and socialism, the cause to which he devoted his political life and for which he died.