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Chile 1970—why the hope was broken

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50 years ago Salvador Allende was elected Chile’s president. A US-backed coup overthrew him three years later. But, writes Sophie Squire, there were deeper problems than the US and the military that helped turn hope into horror
Issue 2720
Workers in Chile formed their own democratic bodies the “Cordones”
Workers in Chile formed their own democratic bodies the “Cordones”

Fifty years ago this month socialist Salvador Allende won the Chilean presidential election amid a wave of workers’ struggle.

But within three years a US-backed coup brought to power General Augusto Pinochet, who drowned those hopes in blood.

The story of Allende’s overthrow is a reminder of how imperialism and ­capital will oppose attempts to ­fundamentally challenge their interests. It’s also an important lesson in how the ­failure to break the power of the bosses and their state spells disaster for those who want to change society.

Chile’s presidential ­election in September 1970 pitted socialist Allende against right wing banker Jorge Alessandri. The other candidate, Radomiro Tomic of the ruling Christian Democrats, promised small reforms to appease workers and peasants’ demands for change.

Allende stood for Popular Unity (PU), an alliance of his Socialist Party, the Communist Party and smaller left wing parties.


The PU’s programme ­promised a radical break with the past. It said the banks and corporations would be “expropriated”—taken into public ownership without a penny of compensation for the bosses. So too would the large ­landowning estates.

The Christian Democrats had been in office for six years ­before 1970.

In 1964 president Eduardo Nicanor Frei Montalva had promised a “revolution in liberty”. Hoping to develop Chilean capitalism, he promised land reforms and other changes to lift people out of poverty—and to end economic reliance on the US.

But even such moderate ­policies proved too much for the rich. The National Party and the landowners’ SNA ­lobbying group—which would back Jorge Alessandri—­organised to stop them.

And for all of Montalva’s ­rhetoric, very little changed for ordinary people. Unemployment remained high, the economy stagnated, and Chile depended on US money to survive.

So the working class and the poor took matters into their own hands with a wave of strikes and land seizures. By 1970 there were 5,295 strikes that involved hundreds of ­thousands of workers.

It was in this context of ­this radicalisation that ­workers looked to Allende to bring change.

So the working class and the poor took matters into their own hands with a wave of strikes and land seizures. By 1970 there were 5,295 strikes that involved hundreds of ­thousands of workers

Allende came first with 37 percent of the vote, Alessandri a close second with 35 percent. To reflect the growing anger against the government, the Christian Democrats had chosen “left candidate” Tomic who got 28 percent.

Because Allende didn’t win outright, Chilean MPs had to confirm his election in a ­parliamentary vote.

So a compromise was made. To become president, Allende needed the Christian Democrats’ votes and signed the “Statute of Guarantees”. He agreed that a PU government would not interfere with any institution of state power, including the army and the church. This decision would ultimately prove fatal. Allende would take office, but the arms of the state that wanted to stop his radical reforms could ­continue to do as they pleased.

Allende’s government made good on some of its promises. Ninety factories were ­nationalised and over 1,000 estates were broken up. Unemployment fell.

And manual workers received a 38 percent wage increase and white collar ­workers received a 120 percent rise.

The US worked to ­undermine Allende from the beginning. Subsequently released documents from CIA spooks said, “It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup.”

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Security chief Henry Kissinger said, “I don’t see why we have to let a country go Marxist just because its people are irresponsible.”

But Allende’s problems went deeper than the US and military. A crucial issue was Allende’s “reformism”, the idea that socialism can be brought about by using parliament and the state.

The trouble is, as Allende found out, the state is not neutral. It’s a capitalist state and its different elements—the generals, the police, the spies, the unelected bureaucracies—worked to overthrow him.

So while Allende had some support in parliament, real power in capitalism lies ­outside with the military and the bosses—and the state that would fight for their interests.

But there is a force that can break that power. Because ­capitalists depend on ­workers’ to make profits, those workers have the power to shut down the system.


Chile’s workers were ready to fight. But Allende’s vision for change put him on a collision course with the movement. He envisaged a system where a socialist government, backed up by ­workers’ actions, would implement change from above.

This is very different to the revolutionary vision of ­socialism, which owes more to workers taking power and running society themselves, rather than Allende’s concepts of state ownership.

While radical reformism can look towards both parliament and the streets, the main focus is parliament.

By the end of 1971, a record number of land occupations and strikes sprung up across the country.

Workers began to come together to form “Cordones”. These were groups of ­workers from different workplaces who came together to organise against the bosses and make sure production continued in the face of bosses’ economic sabotage.

But instead of supporting the workers, the PU tried to sedate this movement.

Allende begged the workers to show restraint and warned the revolutionary left that they must “end their illegal seizures of land and property”.

In a radio interview, he said “People must remain calm for I have complete confidence that loyal forces will normalise the situation.”


The middle classes, such as small business owners and top professionals, lacked the wealth and power of bosses and ­landowners. But they feared that workers’ power would threaten their privileges.

The Communist Party argued that, to stop them swinging to the right, the government had to take a hard line against workers.

In May of 1972, ­socialists and workers protested against a right wing demonstration in the city of Concepcion. Vladimir Chavez, a Communist MP and member of the party’s ­leadership, ­authorised the police to violently break up the protests.

When copper miners—Chile’s main industry—struck to demand better wages, Allende called them “traitors” and ­“fascists”. And when they went to the capital Santiago to protest, they were met with riot police.

The middle classes ­continued to step up their protests in response to the workers’ ­movement. They said that if the government didn’t move to repress workers then it should be replaced.

Because of bosses’ sabotage, economic hardship hit, prices went up and the PU lost some support to the right.

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Instead of looking to the ­workers’ movement, Allende looked to the state to stabilise the situation and consolidate his government. He even brought two leading generals into his cabinet.

But, as Socialist Worker warned in 1971, “The same army that has been used to shoot down strikers would not sit by and let the ruling class be voted out of existence.”

On 11 September 1973, ­general Pinochet and the military launched a coup to ­overthrow Allende.

With the full backing of the US—and fighter jets purchased from Britain—the military bombed the presidential palace. Allende died in the siege.

In the horror that followed over 30,000 people were murdered, thousands more were brutalised, imprisoned and tortured. Pinochet’s ­dictatorship stretched all the way until 1990.


The coup sent shockwaves through the socialist movement.

Some socialists concluded that Allende had gone too far too fast. Chile, they argued, showed that socialists and the workers’ ­movement had to look to alliances with the middle classes. But that would meanpostponing forever the fight for real change. Others sharply criticised Allende’s ­concessions, but said a bolder ­reformism that looked more to the ­workers’ movement could have succeeded.

But it’s not just a matter of moving the dial a bit more towards extra-parliamentary action. The British Labour Party, Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain and Bernie Sanders in the US have different stresses.

But they have all failed when faced with the power of the bosses, the state and their own political organisations.

Real power to challenge ­capitalism lies on the streets and, crucially, workplaces. And the point of that workers’ power isn’t to bolster a left electoral project, but to take power from the bosses and run society ­without them altogether.

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