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Salvador Allende Gossens was the democratically elected socialist president of Chile from 1970 until his death during a military coup d’état on September 11, 1973. Allende was born in Valparaíso on June 26, 1908, to an upper middle-class family. He trained at the University of Chile as a medical doctor, but he became involved in politics as a student and spent most of his adult life in politics. He was elected to the lower house of congress in 1937, served as minister of health from 1939 to 1942, and was elected to the senate in 1945. He ran for president in 1952, 1958, and 1964, and finally won in 1970 as the leader of a coalition of leftist parties, called Popular Unity.
As president, Allende sought to lead the country through a peaceful electoral transition to socialism, an endeavor known as the via chilena, or Chilean path. Popular Unity’s ambitious platform called for state control of much of the economy. The Chilean path was premised on nationalizing key industries such as copper. In addition, Allende accelerated the agrarian reform program initiated by the prior Christian Democratic government, promoted the creation of public-private firms, and vowed not to interfere in the affairs of small businesses, which were numerous in Chile. Allende also promised to improve the access of poor Chileans to education and health care.
The failure of Allende’s via chilena has inspired fierce debate among scholars. Many critics emphasize that Allende was a minority president who won only a plurality of the vote in 1970. However, minority presidents were common in Chile, with only Eduardo Frei Montalva (1911–1982) of the Christian Democratic Party winning a clear majority in the modern era (55% of the vote in 1964). In addition, the platform of the Christian Democrats in 1970 was similar to that of Popular Unity. Julio Faúndez suggests that a clear case can be made that “in 1970 more than two-thirds of the electorate voted in favor of radical reform” (1988, p. 180).
Some scholars argue that Allende’s policy mistakes led to the coup. For example, Paul Sigmund (1977) questions the legality of Popular Unity’s nationalization policies and emphasizes Allende’s tactical error of failing to form a coalition government with the Christian Democratic Party, which would have ensured an electoral majority. Other scholars, such as James Petras and Morris Morley (1975), emphasize the role of the opposition (including the U.S. government) in thwarting Allende’s policy objectives.
While scholars disagree over what ultimately caused the 1973 coup, there is a virtual consensus that the U.S. government and several large U.S.–based American businesses were determined to prevent Allende from being elected and once in office sought to destabilize his government. Allende had nearly won the presidency in 1958 as the leader of a leftist coalition. Faúndez (1988) notes that Allende’s near victory led to an unprecedented degree of U.S. intervention in Chilean politics. From 1958 to 1970, the U.S. government financially supported the electoral campaigns of Christian Democratic Party candidates. The United States also helped establish conservative think tanks and helped produce and disseminate popular media criticizing a hypothetical Allende administration. In fact, Faúndez notes that from 1958 to 1970, the opposition to Allende (Christian Democrats, conservatives, and the U.S. government) worked hand-in-hand to prevent an Allende victory.
In spite of these efforts, the opposition was divided in 1970 and Popular Unity won. Once Allende was elected, Henry Kissinger, President Richard Nixon’s (1913–1994) secretary of state, famously quipped, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people” (Faúndez 1988, p. 182). U.S. government documents included in the Senate report Covert Action in Chile, 1963–1973 (1975) clearly show that Nixon and Kissinger, working with the Central Intelligence Agency, actively sought to prevent Allende’s confirmation as president by the Chilean Congress in 1970 and worked to destabilize the Allende government until its demise in 1973. That said, critics of Allende and some analysts who supported the via chilena (e.g., Roxborough et al. 1977) have argued that even if the U.S. government had played no role in ousting Allende, the Popular Unity government would have failed due to its own mistakes and the fierceness and unity of the opposition.
At the end of an intense battle against military forces, Allende asked those who fought alongside him to evacuate La Moneda, the presidential palace. Rather than face capture, or likely execution at the hands of the military, Allende committed suicide. In the days leading up to the coup, Allende swore to his supporters that he would die defending his presidency and, more importantly, democracy in Chile. The military government that overthrew Allende ruled Chile from 1973 until 1989, when the dictator Augusto Pinochet stepped down after a popular referendum. During and after the coup, thousands died and thousands more were tortured.
Why was the U.S. government so intent on preventing an Allende victory? On one hand, the zero-sum game of politics during the cold war dictated that success by leftists anywhere was a threat to the United States. Thus, the via chilena had to be undermined to maintain the status quo between the United States and the Soviet Union. However, a more plausible explanation might lie in the fact that Allende and other Latin American leftists posed a threat to the hegemonic development model for Latin America and the third world, which favored large multinational firms. Allende and other leftist leaders emphasized that the region needed development models that benefited their countries and the poor. Key to this endeavor was limiting the repatriation of exorbitant profits by U.S.–based companies. The U.S. government was determined to protect the interests of U.S.–based companies and also to undermine a new socialist government in the hemisphere.
- Faúndez, Julio. 1988. Marxism and Democracy in Chile: From 1932 to the Fall of Allende. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Petras, James, and Morris Morley. 1975. The United States and Chile: Imperialism and the Overthrow of the Allende Government. New York: Monthly Review Press.
- Roxborough, Ian, Phil O’Brien, and Jackie Roddick. 1977. Chile: The State and Revolution. New York: Macmillan.
- Sigmund, Paul. 1977. The Overthrow of Allende and the Politics of Chile, 1964–1976. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.
- S. Senate, Select Intelligence Committee. 1975. Covert Action in Chile, 1963–1973: Staff Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, United States Senate. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
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