“…I’m certain that the seed we have sown in the dignified conscience of thousands and thousands of Chileans will not be shrivelled forever. They have the strength, they may overcome us, but social processes cannot be stopped neither by crime or by force. History is ours, and it’s made by the people.” - Salvador Allende, 11th September 1973.
On 11th September 1973 at 9.10am, as military planes overflew the Chilean presidential palace of La Moneda and the tanks outside relentlessly pounded the building, President Salvador Allende grabbed a phone and pronounced his last ever public speech, broadcast live to the people of Chile by Radio Magallanes. In it, he bid farewelled and thanked his supporters, to whom he left a message of hope in the face of impending doom.
Allende then walked to where his closest and most loyal collaborators were, wearing a helmet and holding an AK-47 rifle engraved with the words: “To Salvador Allende, from your comrade-in-arms, Fidel Castro.” He asked them once again to abandon the building, which was minutes away from being bombarded. This time, they realised they had no choice, and marched down the stairs from the second floor to the front of the building, where they surrendered to the military.
Allende stayed behind. He walked into the emblematic Independence Room, whose balconies were often used by presidents to address the crowds outside. This time, however, the leader had already spoken his last words. He sat on an armchair, propped the rifle between his legs, and shot himself in the jaw.
That fateful day 40 years ago marked the end of Salvador Allende’s life and the beginning of the most brutal chapter in Chilean history. But his sense of social justice and his unwavering commitment to the values he held dear lived on as a beacon of light in the country’s darkest hours, and continues to illuminate the path for many today.
A Working Class Hero
Born in Valparaíso in 1908, Allende, a trained doctor, first came in close contact with the poor whilst working at a hospital.
He cut his teeth politically as a student activist, and reached the vice-presidency of the Federation of Students of the University of Chile (FECh) in 1930. In 1933, he became co-founder of the Socialist Party of Chile in Valparaíso.
Allende was a heterodox Marxist and a staunch anti-imperialist. In a continent deeply marked by the Cuban Revolution of 1959, he sought to build a ‘Chilean path to socialism’, based on a strict respect of the democratic institutions -arguably a harder task than organising an armed uprising. He was keenly aware of the need to analyse and understand his country’s own reality, rather than copying the strategies that worked elsewhere. “I think Marxism is not a recipe for revolutions;” he said, “it’s a method to interpret history. I believe that Marxists must apply [Marx's] concepts to the interpretation of their own doctrines, to reality, and according to the reality of their country.”
Despite fierce debates within the left, and within his own party, Allende believed in the possibility and the need to move towards socialism in a democratic way, winning elections and changing the system from within. This way, he said in a letter to the Socialist Youth in 1971, “will be more difficult, but the social cost -and this is deeply important to us- is and will be much lower.”
Having run for president four times and served as senator for 25 years, he undertook gruelling campaigns in which he traversed the whole country, knocking on doors and getting to know people in the remotest areas of Chile.
He amassed a massive and enthusiastic following during years of endless campaigning. However, despite such popular support, when he was finally elected president in 1970, it was after an extremely tight electoral victory, which left him in a weak position from the very beginning.
With 36.2% of the total, Allende beat conservative candidate Jorge Alessandri by a mere 40,000 votes. As no party had obtained an absolute majority of the vote, it was up to Congress to elect the president between the first two candidates. Despite mounting pressure, the Christian Democrats (who had obtained 27.8% of the vote) supported Allende, after making him sign a ‘Statute of Constitutional Guarantees’, in which he committed to abiding by the constitution during his mandate.
The electoral campaign, as well as the election itself and the Congressional confirmation of the president, was marked by a ruthless media campaign against Allende, waged by the CIA. US President Richard Nixon was furious at Allende’s victory, and in a bid to keep him from taking office, poured millions of dollars into a propaganda campaign against him -a method that had proven successful in the 1964 election.
US efforts against Allende did not end there. Throughout his presidency and up to the coup, the CIA played a key role in sabotaging the democratic government, due to fears of the spread of “communism” and a decline in their own influence in the continent.
The last straw seems to have been the nationalisation of the copper mining industry in 1971, to the detriment of US companies Kennecott and Anaconda. Upon finding out about this, Nixon told his Security Advisor Henry Kissinger: “I have decided we’re going to give Allende the hook.” He was explicit in his instructions: “All’s fair on Chile. Kick ‘em in the ass. Ok?” “Right,” responded Kissinger.
Presidency and Political Crisis
The failure of the Chilean establishment, and of the US, to keep Allende from taking office only fuelled their panic, and the need to stop the transformations he began to carry out (in the words of Nixon: “by any means necessary”) became an obsession.
The government of the Unión Popular (UP, an alliance between the Socialists, Communists, Radicals, and others) started implementing its manifesto immediately after being elected. It sought to expand government programmes and services, achieve state control over key industries, re-distribute income in favour of the workers, and expand the agrarian reform. The overarching aim was to transform the existing, capitalist relations of class and property.
Within the first year, unemployment and inflation shrank, agricultural production and social programmes expanded, and major industries such as banking and, crucially, copper mining, were nationalised.
By 1972, however, the economic situation started to deteriorate. The difficulty in attracting investments caused an economic bottleneck, as foreign currency reserves and the balance of payments fell into deficit, inflation rose, and a parallel, illegal market developed. An international boycott led by the US meant that external sources of credit and international cooperation programmes were cut short.
In this context, people took to the streets. The right-wing opposition organised lock-outs and strikes (such as a crippling truck drivers’ strike in October 1972), economic sabotages, pot-banging demonstrations by the middle and upper classes, and terrorist actions. The media, led by conservative newspaper El Mercurio, waged a relentless campaign against the president. In Congress, where the government had a minority of seats, the centrist Christian Democrats abandoned their democratic convictions and joined the conservative opposition in blocking key legislation and attempting to oust Allende.
On the side of the government, the workers organised themselves and expressed their loyalty to Allende. However, important fractures started to appear as the political deterioration deepened and the actions such as rallies and assemblies were seen as insufficient. Some factions within the governing coalition -notably in Allende’s own Socialist Party- quickly radicalised and demanded firmer actions by the president.They concluded that the institutional way had failed and it was time to start an armed struggle.
The repeated calls by the president and some small sectors of the opposition to establish political negotiations fell on deaf ears.
As violence spiralled out of control, a legislative election was held in March 1973. There was an unrealistic hope that it would bring about an end to the political crisis, something that did not happen. The highly polarised election was won by the opposition (a coalition between the National Party and the Christian Democrats) with 54.2% of the vote against the UP’s 43.9%, and only deepened the conflict as the Christian Democrats gave up all intentions of working to solve the crisis, demanding now the resignation of Allende, whose government they declared “unconstitutional”.
As a political resolution to the conflict slipped away, the Armed Forces took it upon themselves to establish “order” in the country.
By August 1973, Allende was planning to hold a referendum for a new constitution, in a last effort to overcome the crisis. He informed some sectors of the military whom he considered loyal -including General Augusto Pinochet- of his intentions. On the same weekend Allende and his ministers were drawing up the referendum, the Armed Forces sealed their plan for a coup, which would take place in the early hours of 11th September.
The Last Day
Allende received a phone call at his home on that Tuesday morning, warning him of a Navy upraising in his hometown of Valparaíso. After hanging up, he immediately left for La Moneda, in the centre of Santiago.
He spent his last hours there, with around 40 loyal comrades and friends, and his AK-47. His daughter Isabel, who was with him that day, says he remained calm throughout, constantly organising the people. He repeatedly asked those who stayed behind in La Moneda to leave, as he did not want martyrs or unnecessary deaths.
As the snipers and tanks outside the presidential palace opened fire, the military leadership, coordinating the coup elsewhere in Santiago, communicated by radio, demanding that Allende capitulate.
“Unconditional surrender, no negotiation. Unconditional surrender!” demanded Pinochet.
They offered him a plane for him and his family to leave the country.
Allende’s response was categorical: “The president will not surrender!”.
Seeing they would be unable to negotiate with him, the generals gave him and his people until 11am to leave the building. At that time, the bombardment would commence.
Allende realised that was the end.
“The experience of the UP did not fail: it was interrupted,” says former student activist and current candidate for deputy Camila Vallejo in an article where she reclaims the figure of Salvador Allende as the guiding influence in the fight of Chilean students today.
Chile’s case has been somewhat unusual in Latin America, in that its dictatorial government achieved a significant level of approval in society (especially, without a doubt, among those that benefited from it economically). Shaking off the legacy of the Pinochet years has been difficult, and only now is the new generation starting to question the social and economic structures left behind by the military government.
Chilean youth is the driver and the hope of that incipient change, and they have in Allende an icon of the peaceful and democratic struggle for a fairer society. Allende spoke extensively to the youth -whom he described as ” the great dynamic factor of transformations”- and his words and example live in the minds of the many students that have made the streets of Santiago their battleground since 2011.
However, Allende’s historical influence extends well beyond Chile. With the idea of an armed revolution a thing of the past, those who want to change the world -or at least their part of it- have in Allende an endless source of inspiration. Not only to learn from his strengths and his unwavering convictions, but also from his weaknesses and mistakes.
Because the terror spread by Pinochet succeeded in temporarily imposing its brutal model of violence and individualism, but it did not succeed in silencing the ideas, and the example, of a true revolutionary.