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Allende's shadow in today's Chile

Sep 12,2023 - Last updated at Sep 12,2023

By Jorge G. Castañeda and Carlos Ominami 

MEXICO CITY — Commemorating a coup d’état can be difficult, especially in Latin America, where coups, and the military caudillos that often follow, have been commonplace. The September 11, 1973, putsch that overthrew the democratically elected Chilean president Salvador Allende could be considered one of many. But this tragedy has some unique characteristics, captured in the stream of books, documentaries, and commentaries, some with new revelations, marking the coup’s 50th anniversary and assessing Allende’s presidency, which ended in his untimely death.

Allende promised democratic socialism: a peaceful revolution flavoured “with empanadas and red wine”, as he put it, underscoring the unique national character of his political project. A socialist system achieved through free elections, rather than being imposed on society by force, represented a historical novelty and people as far away as Italy and France watched with great interest. To this day, many Chileans remember Allende’s government for its sincere efforts to empower the disenfranchised.

The brutality with which General Augusto Pinochet eviscerated this experiment is also singular. Despite the proliferation of coups in Latin America, never before had a presidential palace been bombed, nor a president’s body pulled from the wreckage. Moreover, it was an institutional coup, not a typical military putsch motivated more by personal ambition than ideology; the entire armed forces and the police supported Pinochet’s regime.

That reflected many factors. For starters, even before he took office, Allende was the target of virulent attacks by US president Richard Nixon’s administration, as engineered by then-national security adviser Henry Kissinger and implemented by the Central Intelligence Agency. Both the Church Committee report, prepared by the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in 1975-1976, and the meticulous research carried out by Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive, have documented these interventions in detail.

But it was also clear that an explicitly socialist political project was going to encounter fierce resistance and that strong leadership was needed to neutralise conservative attacks. Allende’s Popular Unity alliance, however, failed to back up laudable intentions with consistent action.

For example, the government’s policy of pump-priming the economy through increased consumption was unsustainable. In the absence of greater investment, such an approach inevitably created a passing boom that ended in shortages, a widespread black market, and hyperinflation.

Allende’s coalition also largely disengaged from international affairs, which at the time were defined by the Cold War. Beyond espousing anticolonial rhetoric, his government pursued close ties with Cuba, illustrated by Fidel Castro’s 23-day visit in 1971; attempted to establish a privileged relationship with the Soviet Union, to no avail; and clashed with the United States, which adamantly opposed the expropriation of American corporations with little to no compensation.

But Allende’s major failure was an inability, in the face of intense foreign and domestic pressure, to shore up enough social and political support for his project. He had the opportunity to build a broad coalition: in the 1970 presidential election, Allende and Radomiro Tomic, the Christian Democratic candidate, ran on similar platforms, with both proposing deep structural reforms. Allende spoke of the “Chilean road to socialism”, Tomic of the “non-capitalist road to development”. Together they obtained 64.7 per cent of the vote.

Despite seemingly similar ideas for ensuring the “social and political unity of the people”, as Tomic put it, the Christian Democrats aligned with the right-wing National Party, forming a potent opposition bloc. Allende was never able to square the circle of carrying out a democratic and peaceful revolution with only 37 per ent of the vote.

Absent a strong alliance of the center and the left, democratic efforts to reshape the structures of power are doomed to fail. Enrico Berlinguer, the former secretary general of the Italian Communist Party (the largest in the West), recognised this fact and, in the same year as Allende’s ouster, proposed a “historic compromise” with the Christian Democrats and other Italian political parties.

The main lesson of Chile’s failed road to socialism is more relevant than ever, as President Gabriel Boric appears to be assuming Allende’s mantle. Before entering the presidential palace in March 2022, Boric broke protocol to bow before a statue of Allende. He has also promised to reopen “the great avenues” to “a better society”, as Allende predicted others would do in his famous final broadcast to the country. A “new Chilean way” may be emerging, capable of resolving social tensions under democratic rule and satisfying the widespread desire for institutional change.

But Boric’s 18 months in office have not been easy. Shortly after his inauguration, voters resoundingly rejected the first draft of a new constitution, written by a convention comprised mainly of independent and left-leaning members. The draft’s excessive focus on progressive priorities such as environmental protection and indigenous rights proved too radical for most Chileans. A second constitutional referendum will be held in December, on a new text drafted by a convention with a large far-right majority, although the outcome remains uncertain. Moreover, an increasingly hostile Congress has failed to pass Boric’s tax, social-security, and health-care reforms.

Despite winning 55.9 per cent of the vote, Boric has struggled to translate his electoral majority into a legislative majority. He now faces the same challenge that confronted Allende 50 years ago: how to transform society through democratic means without a broad political coalition. Boric must learn from Allende’s experiment and forge strong alliances, and he must do it quickly, as polls show growing nostalgia for Pinochet’s dictatorship, reflected in the popularity of the far right, led by José Antonio Kast. Unless that happens, a government that was seeking everything could, once again, be left with nothing.


Jorge G. Castañeda, a former foreign minister of Mexico, is a professor at New York University and the author of “America Through Foreign Eyes” (Oxford University Press, 2020). Carlos Ominami was minister of economy in Chile’s first post-dictatorship democratic government. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.

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