By Jayantha Somasundaram

When Dr Salvador Allende was elected President of Chile in 1970 at the head of a coalition that included the Socialist and Communist Parties, and with a mandate to nationalise foreign capital, carry out land reform and implement sweeping welfare measures, his government was targeted by Washington and opposed by Chile’s business interests.

Once Allende took office in October 1970 the Chilean Establishment made their move, there was a run on the banks. Wealthy Chileans were taking their money and moving to Argentina. While Washington blocked loans to Chile the CIA financed the opposition, which organised strikes. Anaconda Copper was pressing for an embargo on Chile, according to Le Monde “in particular on spare parts indispensable for the functioning of North American mechanical equipment used in Chilean copper fields.” (17 March 1972).

Chile’s ruling classes, with the backing of Washington, sabotaged, undermined and crippled the economy, such that within two years inflation had hit record heights, essentials were in short supply and in October 1972 there began a ‘bosses strike’ which saw factories closed and transport of goods crippled.

As Allende said “we are being attacked both from without and within.” And confronting his Unidad Popular (UP) or Popular Unity Government was the question: how should the Government respond to, and overcome, the growing threat from the right? The Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria or MIR (Revolutionary Left Movement) which supported the UP but was not part of it, took a left position.

They wanted the UP to mobilise the workers in order to confront the right, overcome it, and move Chile towards socialism. MIR was already organising the peasants to take over farms and workers to take over factories. The Communist Party took a rightist position insisting that ‘things can be accomplished within the bounds of legality.’ Allende’s Socialist Party held the middle ground. The lack of a unified response to the political and economic crisis that was developing crippled the UP.

“President Allende,” said the New York Times in its editorial “has moved to resolve a severe crisis within his Popular Unity coalition in Chile by rejecting the radical counsel of his own Socialist Party and adopting a more conciliatory approach urged by the Communists.”(20 June 1972).

President Allende responded by inducting three senior military officers into his Cabinet. Army Commander General Carlos Parts as Minister of the Interior, Air Force General Claudio Sepulveda as Minister of Mining and Rear Admiral Ismail Huerta as Minister of Public Works and Transport.

Meanwhile right-wing paramilitary groups stepped up their efforts across Chile. In the face of spiralling inflation the Government imposed price controls. But shopkeepers resisted these controls and closed their establishments which the Government in turn tried to keep open by force. This led to violence, street protests and arrests breaking out on 21st August 1972.


Le Monde reported that “towards midnight groups of young people belonging to the extreme right Patria y Libertad (Fatherland and Liberty) came onto the streets of the capital, armed with clubs and iron bars and tried to block traffic. Shortly afterwards groups of women and girls from the residential areas gathered at corners beating rhythmically on pots and pans to protest against rising prices and the lack of consumer goods” (23 August). La Presa Brazil said that “groups of demonstrators built barricades in streets and lit bonfires to block traffic. Frenzied individuals tried to burn trolley buses in the middle of the street.” (23 August).

The extreme right had taken their battle to the streets and on the 25th the Minister of the Interior Jaime Suarez threatened to outlaw the Patria y Libertad and the Comando Rolando Matus of the National Party. The struggle for Chile had slipped from the parliamentary arena to the streets of Santiago.

One of the critical events in the unfolding Chilean Crisis was the nationwide truck owners’ strike which began on 10th October 1972. It resulted in shortages of essentials like fuel and flour and compelled the Government to declare martial law in those parts of the country where 70 per cent of the population lived. The protest was against the unwillingness of the Government to agree to higher cargo rates and the truck owners’ opposition to the establishment of a state trucking company in Chile’s south.

The truck owners campaign was “from the very beginning marked by highway barricades…and it has had spectacular effects: no more gas and therefore no more shipping of goods in a country where the railroad network is not very developed and where the highway, which stretches over 3,000km from north to south plays an economic role of the first order.

The scarcity of basic food products – milk, sugar, rice etc – has suddenly increased, and lines have appeared in front of bakeries as well as gas stations. The tactic being followed by the opposition is to spread this strike to the point where the entire country will be paralysed and the helplessness of the government demonstrated,” said Le Monde (18 October).

The strike spread. Two days later the small businessmen’s, retailers’, builders’, and large farmers’ associations came out in sympathy with the truck owners. “The current anti-Allende campaign was launched at the same time that the American-owned Kennecott Copper Company was opening up an offensive against sales of Chilean copper internationally,” wrote David Thorstad in Intercontinental Press (30 October)

By 1973 Chile was at breaking point. In the months that followed, with parliamentary elections due in March 1973, the escalating economic crisis developed into political polarisation. The UP won 43 percent of the votes while the opposition CODE (Confederacion Democratica) won 55 percent. “As a rule of thumb, political observers here said before the elections, anything less than 60 per cent would be considered a disappointing performance by the opposition,” wrote Everett Martin from Santiago for the Wall Street Journal (6 March)

“On the one hand, there is an insolent and very powerful bourgeoisie engaged in a full-scale political offensive in its desire to regain control of all power,” explained Intercontinental Press (26 March). “This bourgeoisie rather than being satisfied by the conciliatory attitude of the UP, demands more and more and prepares its leading cadres for dealing the final blow to the UP…facing it is a workers movement that has not suffered any defeat as a class, that is strong and determined…A situation of dual power prevails in Chilean society.”

In hindsight it appears that the stage was being set for the final showdown. After the election the three military representatives resigned from the cabinet. The fascist right intensified the mobilisation and preparedness of its ranks, as well as its support base. Patria y Libertad declared that “there is no political solution” for what ails Chile.

Their response was to instruct professionals in nationalised ventures to withhold information from the government, for businesses to retrench politically active workers, for ranchers to stockpile produce and for neighbours to spy on UP supporters. On a daily basis they brought secondary school students onto the streets to protest against the Government.

By May there were widespread street clashes, resulting even in deaths, between left and right groups.


On June 27th there was a suspected attempt on the life of the Army Commander General Carlos Prats. Two days later rebel troops from the 2nd Armoured Regiment under Colonel Roberto Souper besieged the Presidential Palace in an attempted rebellion. They were met with fire from Carabineros (Police) on duty and within hours the revolt had ended. This indicated that polarisation was occurring within the armed forces itself. For example in the Navy only officers were being permitted to carry arms. Sailors as well as Navy yard workers were being arrested. And on August 27th the Navy Commander Admiral Montero resigned while the officer corps insisted on the right-wing Admiral Jose Merino replacing him.

On 7th September Air Force troops approached the Sumar textile plant which had been occupied by workers, but when shooting began civilians in the neighbourhood surrounded the factory and the troops withdrew.

Finally the long-anticipated military coup d’etat began on 11th September in Valparaiso – the main port and naval base – where in the early morning hours the Chilean Navy seized the city. On the first day around 3,000 prisoners, including navy personnel were imprisoned on warships at the base. Though the Navy took the lead, the conspiracy to overthrow President Allende and his UP Government included all three forces. The military junta was headed by General Augusto Pinochet who had been appointed Army Commander a fortnight before by President Allende.

At 7:15am the Chilean Military instructed the Carabineros on duty at the Palacio de La Moneda, the Presidential Palace in Santiago, to withdraw which they did. The Chilean Military thereafter surrounded, and mounted an attack on the Palace; while from the air, Air Force Hawker fighter jets strafed their President and his defenders.

“Chile is still haunted by the coup in 1973,” said the London Economist last week (2 September 2023). “Two things turned Allende into a martyr for democracy as well as a global icon for the left. One was the brutality of the coup and its aftermath. Pinochet’s junta murdered 2,130 people and tortured at least 30,000, many cruelly, according to investigations under later democratic governments.

“The second was Allende’s defiant final speech to the nation, broadcast from La Moneda at 9.10am. It lasted less than seven minutes, his voice calm and measured even amid shouting in the background. “I will not resign,” he declared. “I will repay the loyalty of the people with my life… Always remember that much sooner than later the great avenues along which free men pass to build a better society will once again be open.”

Still echoing across Latin America are his last words: I will always be next to you.


“The images in grainy black and white are etched into history,” continues the Economist, “clouds of smoke billow from La Moneda, in the heart of Santiago …tanks patrol the surrounding streets as soldiers dragoon hundreds of civilian prisoners, hands on their heads. Salvador Allende, the elected Socialist president, in tweed jacket and tin helmet, brandishes a pistol in La Moneda.

By 2pm he would die…and the world would soon learn the name of General Augusto Pinochet, the leader of the violent coup against Allende, who would rule Chile as a dictator for the next 17 years. He was ruthless, turning his secret police into an instrument of state terror. Several rival generals died in mysterious circumstances.”

“Libraries were purged not just of Marxist authors but also of works by liberals such as J.K. Galbraith. Pinochet’s economic policy was another shock. Most Latin American armies believed in state-led industrialisation. But Pinochet was persuaded to hire the “Chicago boys”, a group of young technocrats trained at that city’s university under an exchange programme run by Chile’s Catholic University.

They were free-marketeers, disciples of Milton Friedman. They tore down tariff barriers and controls and privatised everything except the copper industry (the revenues of which went partly to the army). They made mistakes: a fixed and overvalued exchange rate and rampant insider lending by financial conglomerates crashed the economy in 1982.”

“He made history once again in 1998, when a Spanish judge issued an arrest warrant for the retired general while he was in London for medical treatment. The British government eventually sent him back to Chile, where he was charged and placed under house arrest for the disappearance and torture of political prisoners. This case was a milestone for the idea of universal jurisdiction for crimes against humanity.”

The military coup saw Neruda’s hopes for Chile destroyed. During a search of his house the poet responded “Look around – there’s only one thing of danger for you here – poetry.” He died mysteriously on 23 September.


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