Don’t do what Allende did

Greg Grandin

  • Allende’s Chile and the Inter-American Cold War by Tanya Harmer
    North Carolina, 375 pp, £38.95, October 2011, ISBN 978 0 8078 3495 4

The 1930s, the chronicler of American poverty Michael Harrington once said, ended in 1948, when the Cold War began to call into question the idea that democracy would lead to socialism. But by that definition, perhaps the 1930s didn’t really end until 11 September 1973, when Pinochet launched his coup against Salvador Allende, Chile’s democratically elected Marxist president, and Allende committed suicide in the national palace. What came next is part of capitalist mythology. Pinochet, advised by Milton Friedman and the Chicago Boys – Chilean economists trained at the University of Chicago – applied what Friedman at the time called ‘shock treatment’, a dramatic and immediate reduction of the money supply, followed by the privatisation of state industries and government services, the reduction of tariffs and subsidies, and the extension of cheap credit to make up for rapidly falling wages. Chileans had been told the coup was intended to contain Castroism, but Friedman targeted a different enemy: the welfare state. ‘Some forty years ago,’ Friedman told Pinochet, ‘Chile, like many another country, including my own, got off on the wrong track’ by trying to ‘do good with other people’s money’.

It wasn’t a coincidence that Friedman and his allies zeroed in on Chile. For most of the 20th century, many Latin Americans thought democracy and socialism were the same thing – the fight for the vote was indistinguishable from the fight for welfare – but it was especially the case in Chile, where communists and socialists had built a modern social democratic state. So Friedman, Hayek and the Chicago Boys knew there was more at stake there than monetary policy. Pinochet’s coup offered them a chance to establish, as Hayek put it, an untainted form of ‘democracy and liberty, clean of impurities’.

No one better represented the unclean mix of electoral and economic democracy than Allende. Born to an upper-class family in 1908, he graduated from medical school and in 1933 helped found Chile’s modern Socialist Party. He was elected to the Congress in 1937 and the following year managed the winning campaign of a Popular Front presidential candidate. Appointed minister of health in 1939, he helped increase pensions for widows, provided free lunches for schoolchildren and prenatal care for women and introduced workplace safety regulations. He supported Spain’s Republicans and used his post to grant thousands of them asylum after Franco’s victory. By 1948, Allende was in the Senate when Gabriel González Videla, a Popular Front president elected with Communist and Socialist votes, set about repressing the left and the trade unions. His friend Pablo Neruda fled the country. Allende stayed, denouncing the crackdown but working to get national healthcare enacted in 1952, 13 years after first proposing the idea.

Allende won his first Congress seat with a total of 2021 votes, barely 3 per cent of his district’s population – the franchise was then limited to literate men. Literate women didn’t get the vote until 1949. In 1957 Allende and other senators passed legislation establishing a secret ballot (for more than a hundred years, rural landowners had enjoyed what one Chilean political scientist called a ‘plural vote’: they would fill out a number of voting slips themselves, then distribute them among their peons and sharecroppers to deposit in the ballot box). Not until 1971 were all men and women over the age of 21, literate or not, allowed to vote. The literacy restrictions led left-wing socialists like Allende to push for greater public education in order, among other things, to have a better chance at the polls. In 1937, as many as 350,000 children had no school to go to. As a new senator, Allende introduced a bill to build classrooms and hire teachers to work in them. He also proposed peasant and worker literacy programmes. The goal, he said, was to turn Chile ‘into one big school’.

Allende stood for president three times, in 1952, 1958 and 1964, before winning in 1970, running each campaign like an extended consciousness-raising session. In 1952, he polled about fifty thousand votes; by 1970, leading a coalition of the Socialist and Communist Parties, social democrats and a leftist faction that had split from the Christian Democrats, he had more than a million. The alliance was called Popular Unity, echoing the earlier Popular Front, but Allende made it clear that what Chileans meant by democracy had changed since the 1930s: ‘We do not want a repetition of the Popular Front, which only sought to improve and maintain the regime and the system. We want to change the regime and system and construct a new society on a completely different social and economic foundation.’ Critics say that Allende misinterpreted his mandate: he won the presidency with little more than a third of the vote in a three-way race, and then implemented too radical a programme. But his Christian Democrat opponent, Radomiro Tomic, had run on a platform not dissimilar to Allende’s. Almost two million Chileans, more than 62 per cent of the electorate, voted to raise the minimum wage, to increase spending on education, healthcare and pensions, to distribute large haciendas to peasants and to nationalise various industries, including mining. By 1970, electoral democracy in Chile meant socialism.

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