General Augusto Pinochet in 1986

On 11 September 1973, General Augusto Pinochet led a bloody coup to overthrow Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity (UP) government in Chile, killing ­thousands of people in the process. The United States-backed coup began with air force jets bombing the presidential palace. Allende ordered his allies to surrender but he stayed behind in the palace and, rather than surrender, killed himself.

After the takeover, tens of ­thousands of those who the right herded thousands of those it considered political enemies into the Estadio Nacional Julio Martínez Pradanos—the ­country’s main football stadium. There the military interrogated, tortured and sometimes executed its opponents. Leila Pérez was just a teenager when she was taken to the stadium and used to help Pinochet’s security services ­perfect their torture methods.

Years later she said, “I went in the stadium as a 16-year-old and left as a 60-year-old. When they were torturing me, I went into my own world— it was as if I was looking down on myself— like it wasn’t happening to me. It was brutal.”

The new regime arrested or ­“disappeared” thousands of left wing activists, teachers, lawyers, trade unionists and students. Pinochet unleashed a rule of terror and cruelty designed to intimidate opponents and smash socialists. His reign lasted 17 years and ­ushered in harsh neoliberal polices, a form of capitalism for the challenges facing the bosses in the 1970s.

Pinochet was never brought to ­justice for his crimes and was ­protected by the political establishment in Chile and the ruling classes of Britain and the US. Two recently declassified ­documents showed the US and president Richard Nixon knew exactly what kind of horror was about to unfold in 1973.

In the president’s briefing on 11 September 1973—the morning of the coup, Nixon’s daily ­briefing from the US secret state told him that Chilean military officers were “determined to restore political and ­economic order.” Allende believed in helping the poor and wanted to change Chile. He was therefore a threat to the right.

But his real crime in their eyes was that he could not be relied on to break the power of insurgent ­workers. He might oppose the far left and independent workers’ initiatives in words, but the right wanted batons, machine guns torture chambers and prison camps.

Allende rose on workers’ ­radicalisation. In 1970 he won election to president after a 36 percent vote for UP—an alliance of his own Socialist Party, the Communist Party and other smaller left wing parties. Workers’ struggle was on the rise and ordinary people were tired of political parties which made lofty promises—and then broke them.

In 1970 workers launched 5,295 strikes and pressured Allende for change. They wanted the UP and Allende to nationalise banks, key mining corporations and the large landed estates owned by the rich. And for a year, things were going well for Allende. His ­government nationalised 90 factories and made inroads into 1,000 estates.

Unemployment fell, manual ­workers saw a 38 percent pay rise and white collar workers a 120 percent increase. But a sterner test was to come. The generals, the bloated agricultural rich, the general and the state apparatus saw that Allende’s government was encouraging the poor and workers to organise themselves.

By 1971 the right was back on the offensive with thousands of middle class people protesting over shortages. In 1972 lorry owners organised a bosses’ strike, with the aim to shut down the country and cause economic chaos. But workers organised to distribute goods anyway and threw back the bosses.

These years were once again to become a high point of class struggle with everyone from transport ­workers to miners organising big strikes and peasants organising land occupations. Workers set up ““Cordones Industriales”—coordinating ­committees linking together the fightback in ­different factories and workplaces.

Mario Nain, a young activist in Chile at the time, wrote later in Socialist Worker, “The Cordones laid the foundations of a workers’ democracy. But the movement engulfed all the oppressed. In the countryside, peasant ­committees began to seize land. In the cities, rebellious youths painted the walls to announce the dawn of a new world, or the approach of the reaction—usually in the form of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

“This movement touched the most oppressed in our society, the Indigenous Mapuches Indians. The Mapuches, who suffered ­centuries of subjugation and racism, began to demand their socio-cultural rights as a distinctive people within Chilean society. During the lorry drivers’ action, I attended an important meeting in the shanty town where I grew up.

“We ­organised a general assembly in my neighbourhood and formed a ­committee to expropriate the food from the supermarkets. We also formed a committee of self‑defence and a committee for ­education and health. Workers seized lorries, broke into supermarkets closed by the bosses, and threw out factory owners who tried to stop production.”

This was the power that could beat the US, the bosses and the generals. But instead of helping to develop workers’ struggle Allende tried to appease the right. He had made a deal in 1970 with the right to elevate him to the presidency. He signed the “Statute of Guarantees” agreement that said the UP would not interfere with the state, including the army and the church.

There are still those who believe that Allende went “too far too fast,” making the coup in some way inevitable. This was the view of the Labour Party and the Communist Party in Britain at the time and since. Instead Allende’s real limitations rested on reformism and the belief that socialism can be brought about using parliament and the state.

Despite an attempted military coup in July of 1973, those who were part of the UP still believed the armed forces could be won over. The general secretary of the Communist Party, Luis Corvalán, said not long after the failed coup, “We continue to support absolutely the professional character of the armed institutions. Their enemies are not among the ranks of the people but in the ­reactionary camp.”

This assumption was to be a deadly one as it was the generals, the police, and the spies that all conspired to ­overthrow Allende and his government. While he had some support in ­parliament, Allende could not contend with those who held the real power in society —the bosses and the sections of the state that backed them.

And instead of calling on the force in society that could have defended his government, he tried to break workers’ struggle. He begged workers and the ­revolutionary left to show restraint and called for an “end to the illegal seizures of land and property”. In the end this tactic did not appease the bosses and the generals. Instead, it meant Allende had signed his own death warrant. 

It is important that socialists never forget the horror of what followed Pinochet’s coup, nor should we forget how our own ruling class in Britain ­supported it. Across the world, left wing ­parliamentary leaders who want to transform the system from above face the same obstacles as Allende did.

In 2021 Peru’s former president and self‑proclaimed socialist Pedro Castillo ran a campaign with the slogan, “No more poor people in a rich country.” He promised a renationalisation of some of the mining industry and to rewrite the constitution to be a “people’s constitution”.

Castillo narrowly beat a right wing candidate, Keiko Fujimori, to become president. But not two years later Castillo has been forced to flee Peru and find exile in Mexico after being ousted by right wing parties and big business. He had become isolated and ­paralysed by the limitations imposed on him by bourgeois democracy, and instead of siding with the worker’s movement, he tried to appease the right.

It’s a tale we have seen before from Syriza in Greece to Podemos in Spain. Left wingers such as Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and Bernie Sanders in the US gained widespread support from ­working people but were held back by their acceptance of the limitations of their own parties’ strategies. Socialism will not be imposed by politicians from above, however well-meaning they are. It will only come through a workers’ revolution that smashes the capitalist state.

Timeline—Chronicle of a coup foretold

1964

Christian Democratic candidate Eduardo Frei beats Salvador Allende in the elections by promising “a revolution in liberty”.

1964-9

Frei government buckles to the Chilean rich and reneges on its promises to give land to the peasants and to alleviate poverty.

A wave of strikes, protests, factory occupations and of land seizures by the poor in protest at the Frei government.

1969

There are 148 land occupations and 1,939 strikes involving over 230,000 workers. In 1970 there are 5,295 strikes involving 316,280 workers.

1970

Salvador Allende is elected president after he wins 36 percent of the vote, and heads a Popular coalition government which includes the Socialist Party and the Communist Party. The poor and oppressed celebrate throughout Chile and around the world.

In September US President Richard Nixon tells the head of the CIA he wants a coup in Chile. A month later CIA Deputy Director Thomas Karamessines conveyed an order to the CIA in Santiago—“It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup”

1971

The Allende government nationalises the copper mines. US multinationals respond by beginning an economic boycott. In April Popular Unity gets more than half the votes in local elections-an increase by 14 percent

1972 April-July

Industrial workers in the “cordon industrial”—the industrial belt around Santiago started to turn strikes into occupations and political protest.

They linked up with agricultural workers and blocked off roads and held assemblies inside and outside of factories. The Cordon issued a statement calling for workers’ control of production and a Popular Assembly to replace the parliament.

1972 October

Right wing go on the offensive. Bosses, including lorry owners, organise action to try to bring down the government.

Workers respond by seizing lorries, breaking into supermarkets closed by the bosses, and throwing out factory owners who tried to stop production. Workers set up “cordones”—coordinating committees linking together.

Allende passed a law giving the army extra powers and inviting top military officials into his government.

1973 June

Attempted coup by the right. It fails, put down by soldiers loyal to the government. Huge mobilisation of workers in response. A government minister tells them to go home. Allende urges calm and stresses his “complete confidence that loyal forces will normalise the situation”

1973 July

Second round of action by the lorry owners. Allende relies on the army rather than workers. But workers take to the streets and continue to set up cordones

1973 August

Allende welcomes all three armed forces leaders into the cabinet, including General Pinochet who one month later would organise the coup.

1973 11 September

Right wing organises successful coup, aided by Henry Kissinger and the US government gets more than half the votes in local elections—an increase by 14 percent

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