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.

Allende’s domestic programme alone was enough to trouble Washington, but it was his foreign policy that most alarmed Kissinger, then Nixon’s national security adviser. Poor, remote, sparsely populated and oddly shaped, Chile, Kissinger once quipped, was a dagger pointed at the heart of Antarctica. With Allende’s election it was Kissinger’s effort to divide the world between two stable spheres of influence that was threatened. Chile re-established relations with Cuba and worked to free the Organisation of American States from US dominance. Allende soon became a leader of the Third World’s economic challenge to the First, through such organisations as the G-77, the Non-Aligned Movement and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. These groups made specific proposals – they wanted fixed prices on Third World commodities, a global energy bank capitalised by wealthy countries – but a general moral principle drove their demands: the West owed the rest a debt, to be repaid through the direct transfer of capital, technology and intellectual property, until the global economy was rebalanced.

The principle would be tested by Allende over the question of payment for nationalised US mining interests. Since Mexico’s takeover of Standard Oil holdings in the 1930s, Washington had accepted the right of nations to expropriate foreign property, as long as satisfactory restitution was made. But Allende’s government insisted that ‘excess profits’ – anything above 12 per cent of a company’s value – be deducted from the compensation. Chile seized the operations of the Anaconda and Kennecott mining companies and, once the sums were done, handed them overdue bills for even more money.

The standing ovation Allende received, mostly from Third World delegates, at the 1972 UN General Assembly, where he justified the concept of excess profits, was a turning point in the history of international property rights. Washington decided that its tolerance of Third World economic nationalism had gone on long enough. Chile’s nationalisations, Nixon’s Treasury secretary, John Connally, said, threatened to provoke a ‘snowballing’ of similar expropriations throughout the region, which Washington could no longer afford to deal with in a ‘piecemeal fashion’.

There was a metaphysics of Allende-hating that went beyond matters of national security and economics. ‘In the years ahead,’ Kissinger wrote in 1968, ‘the most profound challenge to American policy will be philosophical … The deepest problems of equilibrium are not physical but psychological or moral.’ And then came Allende, horn-rimmed, jowly and looking a little too well lived to be a revolutionary. An avowed Marxist who was also an avowed democrat, he was at odds with Kissinger’s bipolar world. He was neither raw nor cooked. ‘I don’t think anybody in the government understood how ideological Kissinger was about Chile,’ an aide at the National Security Council once said. ‘I don’t think anybody ever fully grasped that Henry saw Allende as being a far more serious threat than Castro. If Latin America ever became unravelled, it would never happen with a Castro. Allende was a living example of democratic social reform in Latin America. All kinds of cataclysmic events rolled around, but Chile scared him.’ Seymour Hersh, drawing on a conversation with another NSC staffer, wrote that what Kissinger feared most about Allende was not his winning the presidency but that at the end of his term ‘the political process would work and he would be voted out of office in the next election.’ Socialism, much less Marxism, could not be seen to be compatible with electoral democracy. In early September 1971, Allende wrote to Nixon, asking him to bring to an end Washington’s ‘economic and financial coercion’, perhaps hoping to appeal to the president’s Quaker conscience:

The greatest defence of the legitimate rights and aspirations of small countries such as mine lies in the moral strength of their convictions and actions … The harsh reality of our country – the hunger, the poverty and the almost complete hopelessness – has convinced our people that we are in need of profound changes. We have chosen to carry these changes out by means of democracy, pluralism and freedom; with friendship toward all peoples of the world.

But Nixon was the kind of Quaker Herman Melville warned against: ‘Quakers with a vengeance’. He couldn’t say Allende’s name without sputtering a curse. Just a few days after Allende’s election, Nixon’s CIA told its Santiago operatives to use ‘every stratagem, every ploy, however bizarre’, to provoke a coup. Time was short, Langley said, so they should ‘telescope’ history. Otherwise, the campaign would be ‘diffuse, denatured and ineffective, not leaving the indelible residue in the mind that an accumulation of arsenic does. The key is psych war within Chile. We cannot endeavour to ignite the world if Chile itself is a placid lake. The fuel for the fire must come from within Chile.’

‘Our hand doesn’t show on this one,’ Nixon said to Kissinger shortly after the coup. But over the years, leaked and declassified US documents, as well as many books, among them Peter Kornbluh’s The Pinochet File (2003), have shown Nixon and Kissinger’s fingerprints everywhere. Kissinger has his defenders, but by arguing for his acquittal on technicalities, they often make the old man look guiltier. The historian Mark Falcoff, in an essay Kissinger enlisted him to write, said that Nixon and Kissinger wanted a coup, spent considerable money to get a coup, and worked with Chileans to stage a coup, but can’t be held responsible for the coup because there’s no evidence – a note, say, from Kissinger to Pinochet with the word ‘go’ on it – linking them to the crime. ‘There is, in short, no smoking gun,’ the former State Department official William Rogers wrote in a letter to Foreign Affairs objecting to a favourable review of Kornbluh’s book.

Tanya Harmer, in Allende’s Chile and the Inter-American Cold War, wants to set aside arguments over who was at fault for any particular Cold War episode. Instead, she considers the broader context. In Chile’s case, this means examining the actions of revolutionary Cuba and counter-revolutionary Brazil, as well as Chileans themselves, in the events leading to Allende’s downfall. Harmer visited numerous archives in several countries and conducted interviews with many of the key players, yet no matter how far back she pulls the lens, the actions of the men in the White House still come across as damnable.

The timing of Allende’s downfall was determined by events in Chile, but the ‘little edge’ Washington gave to his opponents, as Nixon’s top diplomat in the region put it, was critical. According to Harmer, a ‘comprehensive destabilisation campaign’ was mounted before Allende’s inauguration and didn’t end until he was dead. Washington financed anti-Allende newspapers, channelled money through third parties to opposition unions, increased aid to the military, sabotaged the economy, ran ‘black operations to divide and weaken’ Allende’s Popular Unity coalition, and provided funds to the conservative National Party to create the paramilitary group Patria y Libertad, a death squad that quickly got ‘out of control’. Kissinger wasn’t ‘masterminding’ events in Chile. He didn’t need to: Harmer shows that Brazil’s rightist military regime, itself the product of a US-backed coup, took much of the initiative. Brazil’s president, General Emílio Garrastazu Médici, was personally deputised by Nixon in a December 1971 visit to Washington. ‘There were many things,’ Nixon told the general, ‘that Brazil as a South American country could do that the US could not.’ Brazil’s current president, Dilma Rousseff, spent most of the three years Allende was in office in prison, including a period of 22 days when she was tortured with electric shocks – one of the things the Brazilian military could do that in those days the US couldn’t.

Some, including Falcoff, argue that the White House hoped for an interim liberal government and couldn’t have predicted the brutality of the Pinochet regime. This is false. Harmer stresses that Washington ‘wanted authoritarian rule patterned on Brazil’s dictatorship and a war against the left as the only remedy to reverse the damage done by Allende’s presidency’. Washington was concerned that ‘Chilean military leaders were not Brazilian enough, either in terms of their readiness for repressing the left or in their ideological sense of a mission.’ They needn’t have worried. Argentina fell to its military three years after the Chilean coup, and over the next two decades, the region became synonymous with political terror.

Harmer at times argues against herself. To say, as she does, that ‘there is enough responsibility for what happened in Chile to be spread around’ merely reproduces the ‘historiography of blame’ she criticises. Besides, moving ‘beyond the blame game’, as Harmer puts it, shouldn’t mean ignoring that some nations have more power than others; that they seek to set the economic and political rules of the global order to allow them to accrue and maintain more power; and that it is one thing to defend that order and another to contest it. Harmer knows this. She nearly accuses Allende of being delusional for believing that ‘because of his democratic methods for achieving power, he would be able to reason with the United States on an equal footing.’

Harmer dispatches two myths favoured by those who blame the coup on Allende himself. The first is that his commitment to democracy was opportunistic and would soon have been abandoned. ‘One might even,’ Falcoff writes, ‘credit the Nixon administration with preventing the consolidation of Allende’s “totalitarian project”’. The second is that even if Allende wasn’t a fraud he was a fool, unleashing forces he could not control – for example, the left wing of Popular Unity, and the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria, which was further to the left of Allende’s coalition and drew inspiration from the Cuban Revolution, Cuba conceived here as a proxy for Moscow.

Harmer shows that Allende was a pacifist, a democrat and a socialist by conviction not convenience. He had an ‘unbending commitment to constitutional government’ and refused in the face of an ‘externally funded’ opposition ‘to take a different non-democratic or violent road’. He invoked history to insist that democracy and socialism were compatible, yet he knew that Chile’s experience was exceptional. During the two decades before his election, military coups had overthrown governments in 12 countries: Cuba in 1952; Guatemala and Paraguay in 1954; Argentina and Peru in 1962; Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Honduras and again Guatemala in 1963; Brazil and Bolivia in 1964; and Argentina once more in 1966. Many of these coups were encouraged and sanctioned by Washington and involved subverting exactly the kind of civil-society pluralism – of the press, political parties and unions – that Allende promoted. So he was sympathetic to the Cuban Revolution and respected Castro, especially after he survived the CIA’s Bay of Pigs exploit in 1961. And when Allende won the presidency, he relied on Cuban advisers for personal security and intelligence operations.

But Cuba’s turn to one-party authoritarianism only deepened Allende’s faith in the durability of Chilean democracy. Socialism could be won, he insisted, through procedures and institutions – the ballot, the legislature, the courts and the media – that historically had been dominated by those classes most opposed to it. Castro warned him that the military wouldn’t abide by the constitution. Until at least early 1973 Allende believed otherwise. His revolution would not be confronted with the choice that had been forced on Castro: suspend democracy or perish. But by mid-1973, events were escaping Allende’s command. On 11 September he took his own life, probably with a gun Castro gave him as a gift. The left in the years after the coup developed its own critique of Allende: that, as the crisis hurtled toward its conclusion, he proved indecisive, failing to arm his supporters and train resistance militias, failing to shut down congress and failing to defend the revolution the way Castro defended his. Harmer presents these as conscious decisions, stemming from Allende’s insistence that neither one-party rule nor civil war was an acceptable alternative to defeat.

A photograph of Allende taken during his last hours shows him leaving the presidential palace, pistol in hand and helmet on head, flanked by bodyguards and looking up at the sky, watching for the bombs. The image is powerful yet deceptive, giving the impression that Allende had been at the palace when the coup started, and was beginning to organise resistance to it. But Allende wasn’t trapped in his office. He’d gone there earlier that morning, despite being advised not to, when he heard that his generals had rebelled. The Cubans were ready to arm and train a Chilean resistance and, Harmer writes, ‘to fight and die alongside Allende and Chilean left-wing forces in a prolonged struggle to defend the country’s revolutionary process’. But Allende ordered them not to put their plans into operation, and they listened: ‘The Chilean president,’ Harmer says, ‘was therefore far more in control of Cuba’s involvement in his country than previously thought.’ He also rejected the idea of retreating to the outskirts of Santiago and leading an armed resistance: in Harmer’s assessment, he committed suicide rather than give up his commitment to non-violent revolution.

Many, in Chile and elsewhere, refused to believe that Allende had killed himself. The story had to be that he was executed, like Zapata, Sandino, Guevara and others who died at the hands of traitors. Che fought to the end and had no illusions about the bourgeoisie and its democratic credentials. Allende’s legacy is more ambiguous, especially for today’s revived Latin American left, which despite its remarkable electoral success in recent decades still struggles to tame the market forces set free after the Chilean coup. In 2009 in Honduras, for instance, and last month in Paraguay, democratically elected presidents were unseated by ‘constitutional coups’. In both countries, their opponents dressed up what were classic putsches in the garb of democratic proceduralism, taking advantage of vague impeachment mechanisms to restore the status quo ante.

For Brazil’s Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), founded in 1980 by militant trade unionists including the future president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the coup in Chile reinforced the need to work with centrist parties to restore constitutional rule. Social issues weren’t completely sidelined, but attaining stability took precedence over class struggle; for the first time in Latin American history, a major left-wing party found itself fighting for political democracy as a value in itself, not as part of a broader campaign for social rights. ‘I thought a lot about what happened with Allende in Chile,’ Lula once said, referring to the polarisation that followed the 1970 election, when the Popular Unity coalition won with only a bit more than a third of the vote. That’s why he agreed to set the bar high for a PT win. During the Constituent Assembly debates leading up to the promulgation of Brazil’s 1988 post-dictatorship constitution, Lula insisted that if no one candidate received a majority in the first round of a presidential election, a run-off had to be held between the top two contenders, which would both give the winner more legitimacy and force him or her to reach out beyond the party base. Like Allende, Lula stood for president three times before winning at his fourth attempt. Unlike Allende, though, each time Lula ran and lost and ran again, he gave up a little bit more of the PT’s founding principles, so that the party went from pledging to overturn neoliberalism to promising to administer it more effectively.

In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez drew a different lesson from the defeat of the Popular Unity government. Soon after he was elected president in 1998, before coming out as a confrontationalist, indeed before he even identified himself as a socialist, Chávez began to compare himself to Allende. Wealthy Venezuelans were mobilising against even the mildest economic reforms, as their Chilean predecessors had done, taking to the streets, banging their pots and pans, attacking the government through their family-owned TV stations and newspapers, beating a path to the US embassy to complain, and taking money from Washington to fund their anti-government activities. In response, Chávez began to talk about 1973. ‘Like Allende, we are pacifists,’ he said of his supporters, including those in the military. ‘And like Allende, we are democrats. Unlike Allende, we are armed.’ The situation got worse and worse, culminating in the coup of April 2002 which, though unsuccessful, looked very like the coup against Allende. Chávez found himself trapped in the national palace speaking to Castro on the phone, telling him he was ready to die for the cause. Ever the pragmatist, Castro urged him to live to fight another day: ‘Don’t do what Allende did!’