Coup of September 11, 1973. Bombing of La Moneda (presidential palace) Coup of September 11, 1973. Bombing of La Moneda (presidential palace). Photo: Biblioteca del Congreso Nacional de Chile / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0 CL

Fifty years since the socialist government of Salvador Allende was overthrown by a bloody military coup, Chris Bambery analyses the events and their lessons for socialists

The other 9/11, 11 September 1973, saw a military coup which did not just overthrow the elected Chilean government of Salvador Allende but unleashed savage repression, which left 30,000 workers dead and countless others tortured, maimed, without work and hungry. This was one of the aims of the coup, to fragment and dismember one of the most insurgent working classes on the continent.

Writing of the savagery, Mike Gonzalez described it thus: 

‘Thousands were raped, subjected to inhuman torture, starved, abused, murdered. In the following 12 months 30,000 people were killed. They were the best and most courageous leaders of their class, systematically picked off with sophisticated foreign intelligence help. And they were not just killed—they were torn apart, to warn and terrify the next generation. The rest were dealt with arbitrarily, to terrorize the population and give graphic notice that the new regime would give no quarter. That was the significance of the maimed bodies that floated every morning along Santiago’s River Mapocho.’[1]

Allende led the Popular Unity alliance whose two biggest components were the Socialist Party and the Communist Party, but included smaller parties ranging from liberals to those which regarded themselves as revolutionaries.

Allende was a longstanding reformist parliamentarian, but when needed he could come out with Marxist rhetoric, and the left wing of his Socialist Party regarded itself as Marxist. He was a friend of Cuba’s Fidel Castro. But he was completely committed to working through legal, parliamentary channels.

The Popular Unity programme

Popular Unity entered the elections of 1970 on a programme promising economic growth, based on raising the level of consumption, through increasing wages; land reform; and a programme of nationalisation. The primary target was the US-controlled copper mines, which produced Chile’s key export, but it was also aimed at the oligarchy; the 2% of the population whose wealth was based on their dominance over the land, but extended into finance, industry and the media.

Yet compensation was offered on generous terms. Just 150 out of 3,500 firms were to be taken into state ownership – and this number would later be reduced. Some 60% of the country’s industry would remain in private hands.

Popular Unity polled the largest number of votes in the elections of September 1970 (36.2%), but it did not receive an absolute majority. The main party of the Chilean ruling class, the Christian Democrats, had split, with a right winger standing and receiving 34.9% and a liberal one standing too, receiving 27.8%. The latter was supposedly more open to working with the left.

Allende, therefore, had to negotiate with him to gain a majority in Congress. The result was a watering down of the platform upon which Popular Unity had been elected. He signed a ‘Statute of Guarantees’, promising not to interfere with the church, the education system, the media and the armed forces; in other words the Chilean state.

Allende made it clear he would play by the rules. As he would discover, the Chilean elite, the military and their US allies would happily ignore those rules to extract bloody revenge. From the outset, Washington suspended aid and demanded repayment of loans it had previously granted.

But because the right was divided, during the first eighteen months of his government, Allende saw his support rise. In the April 1971 local elections, he got more than 50% of the vote. The copper mines were nationalised, the country saw the greatest ever measure of land reform, wages and the economy grew.

Yet the economic improvements came because the global economy was still in the final years of the great boom which had followed World War II, and Keynesian measures, such as those Allende was pursuing, still had purchase.

However, the divisions within the parliamentary right meant right-wing opposition to Allende radicalised.

‘… the Chilean bourgeoisie quit biding its time and organized a major protest to coincide with the month-long visit of Fidel Castro at the end of 1971. In the infamous March of the Empty Pots in December, bourgeois and middle-class women, many of whom dragged their maids along to carry and bang on kitchen pots and pans, filled the streets.

But behind the protests over consumer shortages lay another and more far-reaching purpose: to mobilize the middle classes, to warn the bourgeoisie on an international scale of the battles to come, and to express bourgeois scepticism as to the UPs [Popular Unity’s] ability to contain the working class.’[2]

Workers’ mobilisation and right plotting

What scared the Chilean elite was not so much Allende’s reform programme but the fact that the election of a left-wing government had given confidence to the working class, who now began to take matters into their own hands, striking, occupying and forming cordónes: coordinating committees linking together workers in different factories and workplaces.  

Between January and December 1971, the number of strikes reached 1,758, and there had been 1,278 land invasions. Workers wanted more than state ownership. They wanted a say in how their workplaces were run, and this the bourgeoisie could not tolerate.  

In early 1972, a US reporter, Jack Anderson, revealed that a US multinational, ITT, International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation, ‘had told the White House in 1970 it would be prepared to “assist financially in sums up to seven figures”’ to block the impending inauguration of Allende as President. Moreover, ITT was involved in efforts to provoke the Chilean military into a coup, and to cut off all international financial aid to Chile. ITT had also funded Chile’s right-wing press.

In 1970, the Richard Nixon administration in Washington was not ready to back a coup. Internally there was not sufficient support, the working class was too strong, while the White House’s attention was on Vietnam. But the Americans were out to destabilise Chile: the CIA poured $8 million into efforts to ‘destabilise’ the Allende government and to bribe Chilean congressmen to vote against Allende.

In the autumn of 1972, lorry-owners organised a strike – a bosses’ strike. The plan was to bring the country to a halt, create economic chaos and force Allende to resign or abandon his reforms. Workers responded by organising general assemblies in working-class neighbourhoods, forming committees to expropriate food from the supermarkets, to organise self-defence and to run education and health services.

The bosses’ strike failed because of this, but the country was polarising. Allende responded with appeals for calm and for workers to increase production to help the economy. When in the spring of 1973, copper miners, one of the best organised sections of Chilean workers, went on strike, Allende denounced them for being too highly paid already.

The right wing now talked openly of the need for the military to intervene. Sections of the working class influenced by the far left began to arm. Allende responded by stating:

‘There will be no armed forces here other than those stipulated by the constitution … I shall eliminate any others if they appear.’[3]

The first coup attempt

On two occasions, Allende reorganised his government, giving senior positions to generals, in order to show his willingness to work with the military. The first occasion followed a coup attempt on 29 June 1973:

‘When Colonel Robert Souper declared a coup and rolled his tanks onto the streets of Santiago, leading officers within the armed forces viewed Souper as acting prematurely and withheld their support. But none of the opposition parties, including the Christian Democrats, decried the coup attempt. It was a clear signal of a more ominous military threat. 

The working class once again sprang into action to thwart the coup attempt. 

The workers’ reaction was once again magnificent. Hundreds of factories and offices were occupied around Santiago. On 30 June a giant demonstration surged onto the streets. In the provincial cities, hitherto slower to mobilize than the capital, cordones and communal commands suddenly mushroomed. Cordón Cerrillos began taking decisions as a workers’ council … Suddenly everything was possible. The enemy was vacillating, confused.’[4]

In the immediate aftermath of this, the radical left, the MIR (Revolutionary Left Movement) and the left of the Socialist Party called for the armed defence of the government, but they also continued to declare their loyalty to the Popular Unity leadership. Yet this was the moment to break from Popular Unity and to operate independently, arguing for unifying and centralising the cordónes, arming the working class, and repudiating Allende’s compromises with the bourgeoisie.

The head of the military, General Prats, had stayed loyal to Allende and personally ordered troops off the streets. His colleagues were more interested in the response of the working class, what arms they had taken up, and what defensive positions they had occupied. All of which information would be of great use in the future.

In August 1973, right-wing terrorists exploded bombs outside the homes and under the cars of Cuban Embassy officials and a power plant was sabotaged. Shopkeepers went on strike. A cabinet crisis developed as the New York Times reported:

‘President Allende acknowledged his need of military assistance on August 9 when he appointed the commanders in chief of the three branches of the armed forces and the head of the national police to his Cabinet of National Security.  

The latest Cabinet crisis began Friday when President Allende’s firmest supporter among the military, Gen. Carlos Prats Gonzalez, was forced to resign from his posts of Minister of Defense and army commander in chief.

Most high‐ranking army officers are said to have reproached General Prats for his “unconditional” support of President Allende and to have pursued his resignation. General Prats said he had resigned “to save the unity of the army” and “not to serve as pretext for a coup d’etat.”  

President Allende immediately named a new army commander in chief, Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte.’

Prats, in exile in Argentina, would be assassinated following the coup. Pinochet ordered his killing.

11 September 1973

On the morning of 11 September, the Moneda Palace was bombed by the air force, and tanks began shelling it. Salvador Allende was killed. At just after 9 in the morning, he made his final broadcast. In it he told listeners:

‘Workers of my country. I want to thank you for the loyalty you have always shown me, the faith you have shown in one man who was merely the interpreter of your search for justice, who gave his word to respect the Constitution and the law, and who kept his word.’[5]

The majority of the Socialist Party and the Communist Party had long heeded that word and now began to pay a terrible price for it.

The butchery that followed was appalling. Prisoners were herded into Chile’s national stadium where they were tortured and killed, among them one of Chile’s finest musicians, Victor Jara. Soldiers broke his right hand so he could never play again, before finishing him off.

Shortly after the coup, a reporter for Newsweek managed to enter Santiago City Morgue, using press credentials issued by the Junta. He found some 200 naked corpses, crushed together on the floor:  

‘Most had been shot at close range under the chin. Some had been machinegunned in the body. Their chests had been slit open and sewn together grotesquely in what presumably had been a pro forma autopsy. They were all young and, judging from the roughness of their hands, all from the working class. A couple of them were girls, distinguishable among the massed bodies only by the curves of their breasts. Most of their heads had been crushed. I remained for perhaps two minutes at most, then left.’[6]

The more militant workers, together with the MIR (probably 10,000 strong) responded to the coup by taking over the factories and their neighbourhoods, but there was no co-ordination and few weapons. The military could pick them off one by one. 

To have had any chance of resisting the coup required also having a political strategy where the cordónes needed to have been built into a national organisation with a presence in every town, city and shanty town and among the rural proletariat. As well as organising workers militias and procuring arms, it also required agitation among the military rank and file. Above all it meant breaking with Popular Unity.

In Washington, the Nixon administration, the CIA and the military were jubilant. Three weeks after Pinochet’s successful military coup, a U.S. Department of Defense memorandum dated 1 October, 1973, referred to this 11 September as ‘our D-Day’ and stated that ‘Chile’s coup de ‘etat [sic] was close to perfect.’

Under General Pinochet and the Junta, Chile became the proving ground for the first neoliberal experiment. Faced with 600% inflation, the Junta accepted the ‘remedy’ of Milton Friedman, who flew to Santiago, to demand a ‘shock treatment’ that would restabilise prices at the cost of increasing unemployment. The resulting recession brought mass unemployment, hunger and suffering to add to the daily reality of repression. 

The Tory journalist Peregrine Worsthorne was a guest of Pinochet a year after the coup. Afterwards he wrote in The Times, then still regarded as the mouthpiece of the British elite, that: ‘If a British equivalent of the Allende government ever came to power, I hope and pray our armed forces would intervene to prevent such a calamity as efficiently as the armed forces did in Chile.’

Fast forward and here is Daniel Finkelstein writing in The Times about Jeremy Corbyn, then leader of the Labour Party, under the headline, ‘Jeremy Corbyn’s obsession with Chile explains everything about him,’ arguing: ‘The Labour leader blames America for coup against Chile’s socialist government and fears history could repeat itself.’

Corbyn had visited Santiago as a teenager and had married a Chilean exile. Perhaps he had reason to be ‘obsessed’ about what happened on 11 September 1973, and the lessons it might teach us.

He might also recall that The Times said this on 13 September 1973: 

‘… whether or not the armed forces were right to do what they have done, the circumstances were such that a reasonable military man could in good faith have thought it his constitutional duty to intervene.’

This article is the first in a two-part series. Read Part Two here.

[1] Mike González, ‘Chile 1972-73: The Workers United,’ in Revolutionary Rehearsals, ed. Colin Barker (London: Bookmarks, 1987), p.81.

[2] Mike González, ‘A People’s Tragedy’, Socialist Review, No.222 (September 1998), p.19.

[3] Kyle Steenland, ‘The Coup in Chile’, Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 1, No. 2, Chile: Blood on the Peaceful Road (Summer, 1974), pp.9-29.

[4] David Beecham, ‘Chile: The End of the Parliamentary Road to Socialism’, Socialist Review 57, September 1983.

[5] Grace Livingstone, America’s Backyard: The United States and Latin America from the Monroe Doctrine to the War on Terror (Zed Books 2009), p.76.

[6] Ralph Miliband, ‘The Coup in Chile,’ Socialist Register 1973 (Merlin Press), p.464.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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