History of Chile

The 1970 Elections Part III – The Salvador Allende Years

The 1970 presidential election was historic, with Salvador Allende becoming the first democratically elected socialist leader in the world. Yet his government’s attempt to implement socialism was hindered by fierce opposition and economic troubles. After three years under pressure, a US-backed military coup ended Chile’s democracy for more than 17 years.

After three unsuccessful presidential bids, Salvador Allende reached his goal and was sworn in on Nov. 3, 1970. 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.

The polarized geopolitical climate pushed tensions to a deadly level. The US funded paramilitary groups like Patria y Libertad (Fatherland & Liberty) to destabilize the country, and Marxist revolutionary groups that disagreed with a peaceful transition to socialism aimed to violently break traditional social structures they claimed were hurting the working class.

Read part I of this series here:

Eduardo Frei: the highest profile murder from Pinochet´s dictatorship

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. 

Read part II of this series here:

Carlos Altamirano: The Last Chilean Revolutionary

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.”

Edited by Claudio Moraga

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