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50 Years Ago, Salvador Allende Became President of Chile

The 1970 elections were a turning point in Chilean history. The centrists’ failure led to a divisive election, with the conservatives and socialists facing each other. Even 50 years on, the repercussions of the election keep haunting Chile. Chile Today looks back at a historic election, for Chile and Latin-America.

Cold War era tensions marred the 1970 elections. The incumbent administration of Eduardo Frei, elected in 1964, balanced capitalism and socialism, following a more social-democratic model. These efforts, however, alienated both the left and right leaning members of the centrist coalition, making way for the rise of Salvador Allende.

The political crisis was worsened by the military’s dependence on US funding and arms deals and skyrocketing inflation. This led to pressure from both business and sectors of the military – officially still outside politics – to resolve political deadlock. In that scenario, three major coalitions competed in the primaries, each proposing solutions to navigate the Cold War era.

Eduardo Frei’s Government

President Eduardo Frei Montalva was elected in 1964 with 56% of the votes, beating Salvador Allende who got 39%, and the candidate from the Radical Party, Julio Durán. Frei owed his victory to a centrist-right wing alliance to block socialism in the country, securing the presidency for the newly created Christian Democratic Party (PDC).

Frei’s administration was entirely staffed by members of his party and in the 1965 parliamentary elections, PDC won a majority in both houses of congress. This allowed Frei to pursue his “Revolución en Libertad” (Revolution in Liberty) program, focused on economic development, higher and technical education, social justice, political participation and popular sovereignty.

With the plan, Frei wanted to ease economic anxiety and inequalities to render socialism less attractive for the middle and lower classes. In foreign affairs the government also aimed for neutrality. The president reestablished diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union but also toured the US and West Europe.

Internally, however, a centrist position wasn’t viable. The right, aligned with local and foreign capital, accused the government of pandering to the communists, while the left claimed the plan would still not allow for proper wealth distribution. Public opinion, however, turned against Frei because of an overhaul of the agrarian sector.

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The Agrarian Reform

The agricultural sector was in deep crisis. Since the 1930s, governments had focused on industrializing urban sectors at the expense of rural localities. Outdated technology and archaic working conditions in the rural areas then triggered massive migration to the cities, leading to falling food production and even reliance on food imports.

Many presidents proposed expropriating unused lands and giving it to farmers that wanted to work it. Although Washington and the Catholic Church supported such measures, only Frei’s administration put them into practice. In 1967, the president signed the expropriation law, also allowing farmers to unionize. The slogan of the time was “la tierra para el que la trabaja”  – the land for those who work it.

By the end of his term, 1,400 farms were seized and over 100,000 farmers were organized in 400 unions. As power shifted from agri-capital to agri-labor, tensions arose. Unions, whose members often worked under slave-like conditions before the reform, fought back and sought to take over farms. As result, especially urban society perceived the situation as spiraling out of control while the right grew disenchanted with the PDC.

Coalition Primaries for the 1970 Elections

But by the time the coalition primaries took place in 1969, the party had also lost key left-wing allies. Izquierda Cristiana de Chile (Christian Left of Chile) and Movimiento de Acción Popular Unitaria (Popular Unitary Action Movement) left the coalition claiming the PDC was neglecting the working class.

Both joined the Unidad Popular (Popular Unity) coalition, whose members included the Socialist Party and the Communist Party. After a tense primary, Salvador Allende won in no small part with the help of Pablo Neruda, who led the Communist Party but had no presidential aspirations.

On the other side was former president Jorge Alessandri who ran as an independent with the support of the National Party and the Democratic Radicals, the latter of which split from the Radical Party because it supported Allende. 

Among the general uncertainty, the Christian Democrats chose Radomiro Tomic as presidential candidate. Although unsure at first if the left-leaning Tomic would continue his legacy, Frei supported the candidate for pragmatic reasons – to prevent an Allende presidency. Yet Tomic’s candidacy scared the party’s more conservative members, which became increasingly isolated.

By early 1970, all coalitions had their candidates ready and Radomiro Tomic, Salvador Allende, and Jorge Alessandri prepared for a tough campaign.

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A deep political divide marked the 1970 elections. The Frei administration’s attempt to balance capitalism and socialism within a social Catholic framework did not yield the expected results. The right accused the government of pandering to the communists while the left claimed the administration had failed to aid the working class.

And a tense election campaign didn’t produce a clear result. No candidate received the majority needed. This outcome led to violent attacks by a fascist paramilitary group aided by the US while revolutionary left-wing groups also grew stronger.

Candidates in the 1970 Elections

Three candidates competed in the election. On the left was Salvador Allende of the Popular Union coalition (UP), in the center was Christian Democrat Radomiro Tomic, and to the right was former president Jorge Alessandri, running as an independent with the support of the conservative National Party, created to stop communism.

Alessandri’s campaign centered on repelling communism, reestablishing order, and reverting the changes of the previous administrations. His slogan “Alessandri Will Return” summed up his platform of recreating the Chile of his 1958-1964 presidential term.

Salvador Allende ran with “Venceremos” (We will prevail). His campaign proposed a democratic transition to socialism. This consisted of doubling down on the previous administration’s reforms, especially the agrarian reform and nationalizing the copper industry.

Radomiro Tomic had a similar plan, but pursued Christian Humanism rather than socialism. Tomic wanted to keep Frei’s middle-of-the-road approach. So instead of completely nationalizing the copper industry, Tomic proposed the state keeps control of 51%.

Election day, Sep. 4, brought a surprise victory for Allende. Most polls forecast an Alessandri victory, with the last one before voting predicting 44%. Allende received 36%, Alessandri got 34%, and Tomic 27%, instantly conceding the race to Allende.

But each candidate remained far below the 50% needed to become president. According to the law, Congress would have to select the next president, choosing Allende or Alessandri. If voted, Alessandri promised to resign and pave the way for a new election and a clearer result. The congressional decision was scheduled for Oct. 24.

Political Activism

Allende faced fundamental issues within his own coalition. Amid the revolutionary fervor of the time, groups like Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR) opposed his peaceful transition to socialism, saying capitalist structures can only be destroyed with violence. 

Created in 1965, its ranks consisted of former anarchists and socialist youth members pursuing the overthrow of capitalism and establishing a government run by the proletariat. They were active during the agrarian reform and aided agricultural workers in taking over farms. MIR also stole from food producers and distributed the food among the poor, gaining popular approval. But overall these revolutionary groups increased political division, and many citizens worried about and opposed violent revolution.

Meanwhile, the right-wing founded the Libertad y Patria (Liberty and Fatherland) fascist paramilitary group, financed with CIA money and resources from the local oligarchy. Its purpose was to prevent an Allende presidency by engaging in a terror campaign that involved sabotage of key infrastructure. Many of these acts were then blamed on the left, discrediting not just parties and organizations but also Allende.

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Victory for Salvador Allende

While Chile wasn’t a geopolitical hotspot at the time, both the US and the USSR had an interest in the 1970 elections. Victory for Allende would boost socialist ideas and bolster the Soviet vision of society. But for the US, whose businesses had invested billions in Chile and which sought to nip socialist/communist ideas in the bud an Allende victory was unacceptable.

During the campaign, both superpowers supported the candidates financially. The USSR gave US$50,000 to Allende’s campaign and Washington US$700,000 to Alessandri. The sum was also a result of Alessandri reaching out to the White House via Agustín Edwards, the head of Chile’s most influential dynasty, who also had links to US business.

When Allende got more votes than Alessandri, the US changed course and went for a more confrontational approach though. One part of the two-track plan involved blocking Allende by supporting the Christian Democrat Party. But this plan failed because of a secret pact between Tomic and Allende.

The second track comprised fomenting civil unrest. Washington put Patria y Libertad at the heels of army head General René Schneider, the creator of the Schneider doctrine, which established that the military would respect the Constitution and stay outside politics.

On Oct. 22 the group intercepted Schneider on his way to work and killed him with guns traceable to the CIA. Schneider’s death shocked the country. A state of emergency and curfew were enforced but did not help calm the waters. Two days later Congress voted on the next president. Thanks to the Allende-Tomic pact, Salvador Allende emerged as the winner with 153 votes against Alessandri’s 35, and was sworn in on Nov. 3.

This made him the first democratically elected socialist president in history. At the beginning of his presidency, Allende was faced with numerous challenges like rising inflation and domestic political and Cold War tensions.

Early Success of Salvador Allende

After Allende was sworn in, he began the most ambitious social, economic and political reforms in Chile’s history. To transition the country to socialism, Allende tapped into a law created during the Chilean Socialist Republic which allowed the government to expropriate any industry deemed critical. With that prerogative and stock purchases, the government took control of roughly 80% of the local industries.

Allende also continued the previous administration’s agrarian reform but on a much larger scale, with the government expropriating over 4,000 farms. During that time, the administration began a social program, providing milk daily for every child, and it created the Quimantú publishing house to ensure universal access to books.

During his first year, Allende could implement many reforms due to the alliance with the Christian Democrat Party (PDC). As the reforms kicked in, the inflation and economic instability that had plagued the previous administration were coming to an end.

His most daunting task, completed in mid-1971, related to the nationalization of the copper industry. Both chambers of congress approved the measure unanimously. That same day, Allende gave a speech in Rancagua, but did not credit former president Eduardo Frei for having started the nationalization, angering the PDC and putting the alliance in jeopardy. 

Losing Support

On Jun. 8, 1971, Edmundo Pérez Zujovic, PDC member and interior minister under Eduardo Frei, was assassinated by the People’s Organized Vanguard, a left-wing revolutionary group which sought vengeance for Zujovic’s involvement in the massacre of Puerto Montt. His death further deteriorated the already tense relationship between Allende and the PDC.

Many revolutionary groups rejected Allende’s democratic way to socialism. But one of the most radical, the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR), also agreed to a truce during the Allende government and focused on social aspects. Still, Allende could not control the various groups and was deemed a failure after Zujovic’s assassination.

Allende’s loss of support from the PDC meant he would face an uphill battle in Congress. That was compounded by foreign intervention. The US spent millions on anti-Allende propaganda and aside from funding Patria y Libertad’s destabilization campaign – which was blamed on left-wing groups – it also helped the local business association to pay the truckers’ union for going on strike, causing a shortage of basic needs. These measures undermined the rule of law and the ensuing insecurity would justify military intervention.

By the end of 1972, Allende had lost political support, and the economy was almost collapsing, with numerous pot-banging protests taking place around the country. For the US, this went according to plan as Nixon instructed his aides to “make the economy scream.”

Congressional Elections

In 1973, the PDC and the opposition created the Confederation for Democracy with the sole purpose of winning enough votes to remove Allende. Yet, the alliance failed that objective and Allende won even more votes than in the previous election.

Faced with electoral failure, the opposition grew so desperate that it abandoned democracy and paved the way – jointly with the CIA, the Navy, and Patria y Libertad – for a military coup. The assassination of Allende’s personal assistant, captain Arturo Araya Peeters on July 27, was part of a coup rehearsal. On July 29, in an event known as the Tanquetazo, colonel Roberto Souper led a tank detachment to presidential palace La Moneda but was stopped by general Carlos Prats and his second in command, Augusto Pinochet, before he could instigate a real coup.

Still, the Tanquetazo enabled the coup plotters to assess the government’s response and test the theory that armed citizens would prevent a military takeover.

In August, Allende appointed Carlos Prats as defense minister. But the move triggered opposition from civilians and the armed forces. Prats had to resign, leaving Augusto Pinochet in charge. By September, Chile was isolated; US maneuvering greatly amplified the economic turmoil, and the USSR had abandoned Allende.

With no more options left, Salvador Allende wanted to hold a referendum on the continuity of his presidency. On the 50th anniversary of the coup, former socialist Senator Ricardo Núñez told news outlet Cooperativa, “I know that Allende said a phrase in a meeting on Monday or Sunday, the 9 or 10 [of September]…If I lose I’ll leave.”

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