Fri Jul 12, 2024
July 12, 2024

49 years of the coup in Chile: Some lessons to prevent history from repeating itself!

The 49th anniversary of the 1973 civil-military coup reactivates a pending debate on the most complex period of our recent history.

By Paz Ibarra / MIT – CHILE

It has two faces. One, the rich experience of organisation of the Chilean workers’, popular and peasant movement accumulated in the previous decades and which made Allende’s victory possible in the period 1970-1973. Two, the defeat imposed by the bourgeoisie that used the Armed Forces to stage the coup d’état and began to reverse the path taken by a whole generation of highly politicised workers ready to change the country.

It is not easy to draw historical lessons without a deep analysis of the main actors’ actions and omissions. From then on, the Communist Party and the Socialist Party (which today are once again part of a government) have devoted themselves to sanctifying Allende’s image. They have tried to hide the fact that the Popular Unity’s (UP) leadership, and not exclusively the right wing and the Nixon government, wrecked the dream of millions of workers.

At that time, the illiterate population in Chile reached almost 7 million people; more than half a million houses were lacking. Malnutrition affected more than 19% of the children of working families. Meanwhile, the state allowed two companies, Braden Copper and Anaconda Copper Mining (Rockefeller and Rothschild families) to mine copper almost unchecked since 1905. In total, they had accumulated 4 billion dollars in profits. Allende was elected because his programme proposed the nationalisation of large-scale copper mining, i.e. precisely of those two plundering companies, thus breaking Chile’s economic dependence on American imperialism. On the other hand, the recovery of natural resources would provide the basis for the technological and industrial development of the country.

General Augusto Pinochet poses with Chilean President Salvador Allende on 23 August 1973 in Santiago, shortly after Allende appointed him head of the army and just three weeks before the coup d’état that overthrew Allende. AFP / EL PAÍS

Was a peaceful road to socialism possible?

The need for a coup d’état was anticipated by a sector of businessmen who conspired to increase the polarisation in the country even before Allende’s inauguration, with the complicity and funding of the CIA (investment in Frei’s candidacy in 1964; meetings between Agustín Edwards and Kissinger in Washington).

The UP’s programme was more than ambitious. It was impossible to achieve its demands in a peaceful capitalistic way. Allende proposed this dangerous experiment: to implement a state- planned economy at the service of the large exploited and impoverished majority; and to do so, to expropriate the strategic companies by means of bourgeois-democratic mechanisms (elections, Parliament, courts of justice and preserving the structure of the Armed Forces, whose senior officers maintained close ties with big business and the US military). This false idea contradicted all the workers’ struggles, from the mancomunales, Recabarren, the saltpetre and coal strikes to the Federación Obrera de Magallanes, Clotario Blest and the CUT in 1953, etc. Allende wanted businessmen and bankers to allow themselves to be stripped of their source of privileges by legal means. That is why the world looked astonished at the Chilean road to socialism which would only manage to take a few steps during the thousand days of the UP government.

Soon, the workers saw that their government limited itself to dispatching bills, while they advanced an extraordinary organisation beyond labour issues. While, on the one hand, Allende called for “putting their shoulder to the wheel” to increase production, and, on the other, pleaded for the support of the Christian Democrats (DC) in Parliament, the unions gave way to the Cordones Industriales, a real embryos of workers’ power. There they decided on production and priority distribution to the population, took over more factories for the public sector, and organised committees to control prices and ensure supplies in the face of the black market promoted by the bosses. Opposite to that, the government appointed UP officials as political interveners to run the nationalised companies, instead of promoting real workers’ control.

In this explosive situation, the Communist Party was the right leg of the UP, promoting class collaboration, i.e. the alliance with a supposedly progressive sector of businessmen. It had to stop any threat to institutionality and maintain the peaceful coexistence with capitalism, dictated by the Stalinist bureaucracy of the USSR to the Communist Parties around the world. The CP of Chile tied up the CUT [1] through its main leader. The Minister of Labour, Mireya Baltra, ordered the evictions of the occupied factories which were not in the government’s nationalisation programme, accusing their workers of “playing into the hands of the right-wing.” On September 11, the day of the coup, Baltra was confronted by the Vicuña Mackenna Industrial Cordon workers, ready for self-defence: “No small talk, comrade, where are the guns?” They did not intend to defend La Moneda [2], but their factories and towns.

Against all revolutionary feeling, Allende insisted on respecting democracy, trusting that the supposedly constitutionalist generals of the army (including Pinochet) would respect his presidential mandate until the last day. It should be recalled that during August 1973, a group of sailors exposed to parliamentarians from many Popular Unity parties a series of seditious meetings held by high-ranking officers who were preparing a coup to overthrow the president. Even so, the warnings were not heeded and led to the arrest of 83 sailors loyal to the government, who were tortured by other members of the navy. Meanwhile, Allende sought the support of the DC bench in Parliament, and yielding to their pressure, ordered the disarmament of the few workers and popular sectors that had realised by that time that self-defence was more than necessary and that they could not trust the military.

The magnitude and brutality of the corporate rage unleashed especially against the most organised sectors of the working class, villagers and students, is unmatched by the many massacres suffered during the republican history of the country. It was an extermination of the workers’ movement and its new organisations: Cordones Industriales, Trade Unions, Communitary Commitees, Peasants Commitees, Mutual-help housing construction teams, people’s supply committees, etc. It was the regression to zero of the Social Property Area and of the Unified National Education programme.

Workers’ strikes during the Allende government.

There is a historical example of Mapuche peasants and workers in the mountainous area of Valdivia. Their self-organisation to develop forestry activities led to the formation of the Panguipulli Forestry and Timber Complex, which provoked exemplary repression.

The military junta concentrated the executive and legislative powers, and thus annulled the Agrarian Reform. The restitution of land to the large landowners deepened the dispossession of the Mapuche people and facilitated the concentration of hundreds of thousands of hectares in the hands of the Matte and Angelini families, which led to the emergence of private forestry companies.

The counter-reforms were driven by the business class that sought the reduction of state economic intervention in order to expand the private business niche. In fact, the Chicago Boys, the group of Chilean economists cheered by Milton Friedman who installed neo-liberalism during the dictatorship, were already being formed in 1955, in the midst of the Cold War, as part of the imperialist plan to stop the advance of communist ideas in Latin America. The dictator Pinochet only facilitated the implementation of this plan. With no trade union resistance and with power in their hands, the military junta signed the laws drafted by the bourgeoisie to plunder the country and dispossess the workers.

Pinochet was also generous with fiscal resources. He financed the bailout of banks in the 1981-82 economic crisis; He granted millions in subsidies to the private sector to “encourage investment”, such as Decree Law 701, which contributed 75% to pine and eucalyptus plantations and was maintained for almost 3 decades. Once again, the Matte and Angelini families made a mint out of state money to expand their businesses. The forestry industry was driven by CORFO (Corporación de Fomento) which was directed by… Julio Ponce Lerou, the former son-in-law of Pinochet and today a lithium magnate.

During the first years of economic liberalisation, Chile’s foreign debt increased from 3.5 to more than 17 billion dollars while GDP fell by 14.3%. The working class began to bear the brunt of the recession: between 1973 and 1982, unemployment rose to 23.7%. Many factories went bankrupt: the entire textile and clothing sector, footwear, and household appliances. The bankruptcy of emblematic textile factories such as Bellavista Tomé, Paños Oveja Tomé, or those that were the object of millionaire swindles such as Loza Penco, plunged entire regions such as Biobío into unemployment and poverty.

On 15 September 1973, the Supreme Court of Justice awarded the Presidential Sash to General Augusto Pinochet.

Genocide and agreed impunity

The transition to democracy cost the maintenance of neoliberal capitalism and absolute impunity for Pinochet and all the generals who were former members of the military junta. This “justice as far as possible” promoted by Aylwin reassured the right wing and the coup-majority of the DC, which he himself had led. The victims of crimes against humanity (i.e. against the civilian population, committed in a planned manner by agents of the state) were more than 38,000 people during the 17-year dictatorship: political prisoners, exiles, executed, exonerated, slited-throats, burned, tortured and disappeared detainees. The data are in the reports of the Rettig Commission (Aylwin government), the Valech I Commission (Lagos government) and the Valech II Report (Piñera government). The investigations sought only the recognition of the victims in order to establish economic compensation for survivors or relatives. No government ordered the military justice system or the intelligence bodies (DINA, CNI, DICOMCAR, DINE) to hand over information on the crimes. There is no public register of the total number of people charged with those crimes. Most of them are serving sentences in Punta Peuco Prison or Cordillera Prison, built especially for them. Of all the prisoners, 95 are former generals and retired high-ranking officers, who also receive millionaire pensions, between 800,000 and 3 million pesos. Worse still, Ricardo Lagos established a ban on declassifying details of the Valech I Report for a period of 50 years, not even for judicial reasons, with the excuse of protecting the integrity of the victims who dared to testify.

Impunity also benefits direct collaborators of the dictatorship: former ministers, court judges, and business families (Edwards, Kast, Yarur, etc.). Many of the dictatorship “apprentices” (Allamand, Espina, Longueira, Chadwick) still play important roles in the right-wing parties UDI and Renovación Nacional.

La Moneda Palace’s officers are forced to kneel against a wall on a pavement after being detained by troops during the 1973 coup d’état. AP / EL PAÍS

The lessons the left has been unwilling to learn

The parties with which workers and peasants had historically identified themselves were literally dismantled. The case of the MIR [3] is perhaps the most dramatic because it was almost completely annihilated. It cannot be said that they were wrong to raise the banners of the exploited. But it can be said that their policy of accompanying Allende in his “peaceful road”, without anticipating measures against the enraged business response, was absolutely wrong. The consequence was suffered by the working class, that was advancing in its revolutionary consciousness. This is the most important lesson for the Chilean left.

The MIR tried to promote socialism substituting guerrilla for workers and bypassing their experience of struggle and organisation. However, not all parties had the same policy in the UP. The CP kept the workers at bay so that Allende could negotiate with the employers inside parliament and vouch for the military as guarantors of the presidential commitment to the Constitution. This was not a mistake but a betrayal.

The discussion with these parties is still pending, and there are many other political mistakes that need to be clarified. But the common point is that they are responsible for a part of the conditions that caused the death of thousands of brave and trusting workers. It can never be proved that the aspiration for socialism was the wrong thing.

Was the tragic defeat of the UP caused by the working class? Clearly not. The 1973 coup was the counter-revolutionary response of the Chilean bourgeoisie which met with no resistance because the self-defence of the workers and the people was never advocated or even allowed by Allende.

The hardest lesson

Since 1990, the bosses have had the support of every government to increase their wealth. The privatisation of companies initiated by the dictatorship was deepened, allowing the scandalous concentration of incredible fortunes in 20 families. The plundering of foreign companies at the beginning of the 20th century continued with the mining concessions. Chile, as in colonial times, continued to depend on the export of raw materials, with no industrial or technological development of its own, with cheap labour. All this was guaranteed by the 1981 Labour Code, which created subcontracting, atomised trade unions and swept away labour rights. The dictatorship was governed by and for businessmen. It supported the development of traditional economic groups and created new ones.

In short, the same state that drowned in blood the advance of the working class during the Popular Unity (UP) period remains intact to this day – with its legislative, judicial and military apparatuses – in the hands of the economic groups that benefited from the coup and have deepened the loss of social and labour rights, increasing exploitation.

The continuity of Pinochet as commander in chief and of the economic liberalisation plan drawn up by José Piñera and Jaime Guzmán were the bargaining chip in the new democracy of the agreements, with the consent of the CP and the PS. This is how reassurance was established for the handful of businessmen and Pinochet’s friends who bought state-owned companies at a bargain price or to whom industries still in state hands were transfered: Soquimich, LAN Chile, IANSA, CAP, ENTEL, ENDESA; which increased the fortunes of economic groups and created new ones.

The families that have amassed fortunes in 30 years are also corrupt. They evade taxes, they collude, and steal from the Treasury. They control the courts, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Armed Forces, and they have increased their wealth even during pandemics. They are the Luksic, Paulmann, Piñera, Angelini, Matte, Cueto, Solari, Von Appen families. They are Ponce Lerou, Salata, Saiéh, Yarur…

The 1970-1990 period of our history shows that there is no peaceful road to socialism because the response of the bourgeoisie and imperialism will never be peaceful. Moreover, the current corruption in bourgeois democracy, the effects of the pandemic, and the environmental and economic crisis, push to greater levels of barbarism and put on the agenda the urgent need for socialism, with the nationalisation of the entire economy, workers’ and popular control of the means of production and wealth distribution and political power in the hands of the working class.

In order not to fall into the same capitulation of the UP to the bourgeois state, it is fundamental that the working class raise the question of the military rank and file, who also have working-class origins, in order to avoid new violent repression or massacre of the mass movement.

To achieve a deep social change, we must tirelessly show the need to reclaim unions and fighting organisations for the workers. If the Chilean working class coalesces to wrest political power from the owners of the country, the incredible force unleashed on 18 October 2019 would find a channel do grow. A small hint of workers’ power was demonstrated on 12 November. On that day, a partial strike in manufacture sector in conjunction with the great street mobilisation achieved what not even all the territorial assemblies and cabildos [4] would have achieved: to put a government on the ropes, forcing it to back down by conceding to something that would never have been possible, such as the 10% withdrawals of pension savings.

Finally, if the Constitutional Convention had been accompanied by workers and social organisations mobilisations similar to those of 12 November 2019, the Convention independent members would undoubtedly have been pushed, not by the ruling parties of the last 30 years, but by those of us who defend the banners of 18 October: an end to the AFP and the Labour Code, an end to the Water Code and the mining and fishing concessions, the restitution of the native peoples’ lands, the immediate release of all imprisoned Chilean and Mapuche fighters, the recovery under workers’ and communities’ control of all natural resources.

Our history of struggles and defeats shows us each time that it is only the workers who are capable of destroying the capitalist state and pushing for the social transformation we need to survive barbarism. Our class must take up this path again. Only in this way, the working people, with power in their hands, will be able to correct the course diverted by the claudication of the CP and PS and build a socialist society where there are neither exploiters nor exploited.


[1] – CUT: Central Única de los Trabajadores (United Workers’ Central).

[2] – La Moneda (Palace): the Chilean house of government.

[3] – MIR: Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (Revolutionary Leftist Movement)

[4] – Means of organisation of the youth, ordinary people and native people in the current revolutionary process.

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