“¡Viva Chile! ¡Viva el pueblo! ¡Vivan los trabajadores!” As his speech neared its end, Chilean President Salvador Allende cemented his legacy as a martyr for the people of his country. “Long live Chile! Long live the country! Long live the workers!”1 Within hours, he would be dead, and his country would be ruled by a right-wing military junta. The following is a highly condensed retelling of the 1973 coup d’état.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the ongoing Cold War entered a new phase in which the United States and Soviet Union each tried to exert influence on nations outside of their existing blocs, particularly in Southeast Asia and Africa. Another proxy battleground was Latin America, with military and economic intervention taking place on a grand scale in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Peru, and Uruguay between 1964 and 1976.2 U.S. participation in these incidents paved the way for Operation Condor, a campaign of repression and terror involving intelligence operations and the assassination of political opponents headed by right-wing governments in South America and funded by the U.S. Operation Condor will be the topic of a future post on this site.
The 1970 Presidential election in Chile featured three main candidates: Salvador Allende, a socialist of the Popular Front alliance; Jorge Alessandri, a former president and independent of the right-wing National Party alliance; and Radomiro Tomic, of the centrist Christian Democratic Party. The CIA spent large sums of money on anti-Allende advertisements, while the KGB attempted to bolster Allende’s chances.3 The results of the election were fiercely contested and no candidate won an outright majority, meaning that the Chilean legislature would be tasked with selecting the next President from between Allende and Alessandri, who had finished first and second, respectively. Three events convinced the legislature to confirm the retired physician Allende. First, Alessandri announced that if he was selected he would resign so that the previous President, Eduardo Frei, could retain the office—incumbents were not allowed to seek reelection, so this would have skirted the laws governing the Chilean government.4 Second, René Schneider, the commander-in-chief of Chile’s army, was badly wounded during a kidnapping attempt just days before the legislature convened to select the next President. Schneider was a strict constitutionalist who had objected to plans to overthrow Allende should the latter be elected, and his kidnapping had been sanctioned by the CIA.5 This botched kidnapping (Schneider would die of his wounds the day after Allende was confirmed) turned public opinion in Allende’s favor. Third, Allende agreed to sign a “Statute of Constitutional Guarantees,” in which he promised not to weaken or violate the Chilean Constitution. This guarantee in hand, Chile’s legislature appointed South America’s first democratically elected Marxist President.6
The first year of this government went smoothly, with Allende building a fairly broad coalition and passing some reforms, but without the mandate to produce transformational policies. By the end of 1972, though, Allende faced strikes and growing inflation due to unrest and diplomatic, economic, and covert pressure prompted by the United States.7 Still, Allende’s Popular Front alliance of political parties collected more than 43% of the vote in March 1973’s congressional elections. The continued growth and popularity of the socialist parties pushed away the Christian Democrats, who had partnered with Allende since the beginning of his term.8 By the middle of 1973 the executive branch could no longer effectively enforce laws and Allende feared assassination.
On June 29, 1973, Lieutenant Colonel Roberto Souper attempted to oust Allende with his tank regiment. The coup attempt failed after Allende called on the public and new commander-in-chief General Carlos Prats to quash the rebellion.9 Although Prats acquitted himself well in stopping the coup, he soon lost support from much of the army and the public for refusing to participate in further coup attempts On August 22, the legislature charged the Allende government with violating numerous sections of the Constitution. While Allende refuted the allegations, he was forced to reshuffle his cabinet, including removing Prats from his position, and those opposing his presidency grew bolder. General Augusto Pinochet succeeded Prats as Defense Minister and Army Commander on August 24, 1973.10 He would command the forces of another coup, to be launched just weeks later.
Starting at 7:00 a.m. on September 11, the Chilean military began its takeover of the country, cutting communications and taking over television stations in addition to taking prisoners of Allende’s political allies. By 8:30 that morning, Allende and a few advisors had retreated to the interior of the presidential mansion, where—despite evidence that the entire military establishment was involved in the coup—Allende refused to resign from his position. He also refused suggestions from his advisors to escape and return later at the head of a counter-coup, insisting on maintaining peaceful revolution rather than armed socialism. Soon after 9:00, Allende addressed his nation for the last time.11 Military forces stormed the presidential palace soon after, with Allende’s body being discovered after several hours of occupation. The military claimed that Allende committed suicide to avoid being detained and likely tortured by military forces, but a top-secret account discovered in 2010 suggests that the President was killed and then staged so that his death looked like a suicide.12
The consequences of the coup were disastrous for the people of Chile. The ruling junta, headed by the directors of the military branches as well as the national police, was dominated for years by Pinochet. The new government restricted political freedoms, and ended elections, which would remain forbidden for 15 years.13 Many Chileans who resisted the junta moved to other countries, but thousands could not leave their country and suffered kidnapping, torture, rape, and execution. The Rettig Report, a document from the period after new elections were held, contested that 2,279 people who disappeared during the military dictatorship were killed for political reasons or as a result of political violence, while 31,947 suffered torture.14 This link has graphic descriptions of the tortures and punishments everyday Chileans faced.
The role of the United States in the 1973 coup is still hotly debated. The CIA was involved in ongoing efforts to destabilize Allende’s government, and it clearly supported Pinochet’s rule after the overthrow of Allende. The U.S. government had even created its own plans for a coup, although it was unable to implement those plans before the Chilean military acted.15 Pinochet ushered Chile towards a leadership role in Operation Condor and pursued closer ties with American businessmen and economists. Other observers content that Australia played a role in the coup, as well, but this assertion has its own doubters.16
Regardless of the level of involvement the U.S. or Australia had in the Chilean coup, the incident devastated the South American country for decades. Today, September 11 is commemorated in Chile with moments of silence, although those of right-wing leanings tend to celebrate the anniversary of the coup.17 The 50th anniversary of the attack on Allende will be in 2023, and it will be worth watching to see how the nation responds to the occasion.
- Hal Brands, Latin America’s Cold War (2010).
- Vasili Mitrokhin and Christopher Andrew, The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World (2005), 69-88.
- Peter A. Goldberg, “The Politics of the Allende Overthrow in Chile,” Political Science Quarterly Vol. 90, No. 1, 98.