Chile 1973: The other ‘9/11’ – The bloody coup against the Popular Unity government

Chile 1973 - Never Again! Cartoon by Alan Hardman

The terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001 was not the first ‘9/11’. In Chile on 11 September 1973, a bloody coup, led by General Pinochet and backed by the US administration, overthrew the democratically elected left government of President Salvador Allende.

In its aftermath, thousands of trade unionists and socialists were slaughtered and thousands more imprisoned, tortured and exiled.

The coup was planned and executed not from the tribal territories of Afghanistan or Pakistan but in the headquarters of the CIA and the White House, in collusion with the ruling elite in Chile and its armed forces.

This 9/11 should be commemorated, and its lessons studied, by socialists and workers everywhere.

The consequences of what followed still shape the lives of the mass of Chilean people and to an extent, the international working class and all those exploited by capitalism.

Under the iron heel of Chile’s military dictatorship, a laboratory economic experiment was conducted.

The neoliberal policies of privatisation, open markets, deregulation and private pension schemes were all first tested out in Chile following the coup.

They were then applied by Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and other capitalist leaders internationally.

The coup followed the election of Salvador Allende to the Chilean presidency on 4 September 1970, as head of the Popular Unity (UP) coalition.

This was led by the Socialist Party (PSC) and the Communist Party (PCC), together with other left parties and some radical liberal capitalist parties.

The election victory shook the ruling elite. It opened a revolutionary process that inspired the working class internationally and terrified the ruling classes throughout Latin America, the US and Europe.

Following Allende’s election, the US Ambassador cabled Washington: “Chile voted calmly to have a Marxist-Leninist state, the first country in the world to make this choice freely and knowingly.”

The PSC in that period was a completely different party to that which exists today. Formed in the early 1930s, it was born in opposition to the Stalinised Communist Party, and was far to the left of the PCC.

It included in its constitution adherence to Marx and Lenin and called for the establishment of a Socialist Federation of Latin America.

Allende, although endorsing Marxism in many speeches, was not the left candidate for the PSC but was the party’s ‘compromise’ candidate for the presidency elections.

The UP victory followed a series of social upheavals which rocked Chile during the 1960s. The middle class was split with a section becoming increasingly radicalised.

This affected the centre-right capitalist party, the Christian Democrats (DC). A section eventually split and formed the Christian Left (IU) and the MAPU, which ended up in the UP and even on its ‘left-wing’.

UP reforms

Within weeks of forming the government, the UP introduced important reforms. Free school meals, higher wages and land reform began to be implemented.

The powerful copper mines, largely owned by US multinationals, were eventually nationalised, along with important sectors of the banking industry.

Plans were announced for the nationalisation of nearly 100 companies. By the time of the 1973 coup, over 40% of the economy was publicly owned.

From the beginning, the Chilean right wing and the military, together with US imperialism, began to plot the overthrow of the UP government.

Initially, they hoped that a policy of de-stabilisation and economic sabotage would be sufficient to undermine the new government and trigger its downfall.

US President Nixon’s orders were “to make the economy scream”. A trade embargo against Chile was established.

These forces of reaction financed armed terrorist attacks by the fascistic ‘Patria y Liberdad’, and a bosses’ lock-out was led by truck owners.

Allende won the election with 36.3% of the popular vote. The capitalist parties in the Congress allowed him to take the presidency, on a minority vote, because he fatally agreed to a constitutional pact that meant he was not to touch or interfere with the armed forces. This was to prove disastrous.

The ruling class hoped they could undermine Allende’s support and rally their supporters. At first, they attempted to do this ‘constitutionally’.

They used the Congress and Senate to block and disrupt the government. Eventually, they hoped to impeach Allende, for which they needed a two-thirds majority, but which they failed to obtain.

The undemocratic nature of the parliamentary system meant that the UP did not have a majority in either Congress or Senate.

However, electoral support for the UP not only consolidated but increased. Every attempt to undermine the government radicalised the working class, pushed the revolutionary process forward and increased electoral support for the government.

During the 1971 mayoral elections, UP candidates took over 51% of the vote. Even at the Congressional elections, in March 1973, the pro-capitalist parties hoped to win 66% of the vote and two-thirds of the seats, which would have been enough to impeach Allende.

They failed and the UP won over 44% of the vote – more than when Allende was first elected!

Role of working class

The working class consciously saw itself as the leading force in the revolution in Chile. It had built a series of powerful political and social organisations.

There was intense debate between the different organisations and parties, and also within them, about programme and strategy. The leaders were challenged and, on occasions, opposed by workers.

The election of a ‘Marxist’ president and government in Chile, and the leading role in the process of the working class, inspired the working class globally. It also opened a discussion on how to achieve socialism and the role of the state.

Every attempt at counter-revolution in Chile provoked a further radicalisation and mass mobilisation by the working class and its allies.

The bosses’ strike in 1972 led to the rapid growth of organisations in the industrial districts and the formation of the ‘cordones industriales’ (‘industrial belts’).

These were elected committees in the workplaces, which began to link up on a district and even a city-wide basis.

Delegates were elected and subject to recall. In the industrial city of Concepcion, in the south of Chile, they formed a city-wide Popular Assembly. Workers’ control was established in many workplaces throughout the country.

Food shortages and speculation caused by the embargo and sabotage of the bosses resulted in the formation of the JAPs – ‘peoples supply committees’ – which organised food distribution and tried to prevent speculation.

The cordones increasingly assumed a political role to advance and defend the revolution. One of the most radical was in the industrial district of Cerillos which, among many radical demands, called for “a Popular Assembly to replace the bourgeois parliament”.

The working class, were far to the left of the government and its leaders, both of which were dragged into taking more radical steps by the workers and youth.

In response to the armed attacks being unleashed by the fascistic Patria y liberdad, as the police and army stood by, workers’ defence squads were formed.

The revolution spread to the countryside, where farm workers and peasants occupied land and carried out a programme of agricultural reform. Over ten million acres of land were re-distributed.


The ruling class, in conjunction with US imperialism, began to rapidly develop plans for a military coup.

Yet, at every stage, the leaders of the PCC (Communist Party) and sections of the PSC (Socialist Party) acted as a brake and tried to hold back the revolutionary process, arguing that the “democratic” bourgeoisie must not be alienated and defended the “constitutionality” of the armed forces.

Despite using very left-wing revolutionary and Marxist rhetoric, the left of the Socialist Party failed to propose specific demands or initiatives to take the revolution forward and to overthrow capitalism, while plans were being laid for a reactionary military coup.

These developments led to a polarisation within the UP coalition and splits within its component parties, between the left and right.

Meanwhile, Henry Kissinger, US secretary of state in the Nixon administration, cabled the CIA chief in Santiago: “It is the firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup.”

In June 1973, sections of the military, from the tank regiments organised a rebellion against the government – the so-called ‘Tancazo’.

It was a premature putsch and was put down by the military, under orders from Allende. General Pratts, a supporter of Allende, who quelled the attempted uprising, was later murdered after the successful coup in September 1973.

The ‘Tancazo’, in June, acted as the whip of counter-revolution and provoked the working class to take further revolutionary measures.

It had the same effect as Spinola’s failed putsch, a few years later, in March 1975, during the Portuguese revolution.

In Chile, the failed June coup was followed by the announcement of a plan for massive nationalisations and by an increasing demand by the working class for arms to fight the threat of reaction.

Yet neither Allende nor the other leaders took steps to strike against the military or to mobilise and arm the workers.

Trade union rights were not given to the ranks of the army, no attempt was made to try and organise or to build support among the ranks of the armed forces, many of whom supported the revolutionary process.

The conditions existed to split the armed forces but decisive action was necessary. Yet the leaders of the UP were imprisoned by the idea, especially emphasised by the Communist Party, that a “progressive wing” existed among a section of the ruling class.

It had a policy of respecting “the constitutionality of the armed forces” and of a gradual measured step by step programme of reform that, eventually, would establish socialism.

In practice, this ‘stages theory’ allowed the ruling class time to prepare its forces to strike, when the moment was most opportune.

It resulted not in the avoidance of a civil war but in the drowning of the revolutionary movement in blood.

From the beginning, Allende left the state machine in the hands of the generals and reaction, without any challenge.

Allende adopted a policy of appeasement in a doomed attempt to reassure the military and ruling class.

He made Pinochet a cabinet minister and even Chief-of-Staff, following the forced resignation of General Pratts by pro-coup conspirators.

Moreover, when sections of the rank and file tried to come to the aid of the revolution and oppose a coup, Allende scandalously supported the pro-coup reactionary hierarchy.

In August, in the naval port of Valpariso, 100 sailors were arrested for “dereliction of military duty”.

In fact, they had discovered plans for the coup and declared they would oppose it. In what was referred to as his darkest hour, Allende, supported the hierarchy in the navy as it arrested and tortured this group of naval ratings!

Up to one million people demonstrated in front of the balcony of the Presidential Palace, where Allende stood, two days before the Pinochet coup.

These workers, youth and students, knowing of the impending coup, demanded arms to defend the revolution. They also demanded the closure of the bourgeois parliament.

The left-leaders of the PSC and others promised arms were being stashed and would be distributed when necessary.

In reality, nothing was done to arm the working class against bloody counter-revolution.

The coup

Two days later, the plotters struck, as the Chilean and US navies conducted joint exercises off the Chilean coast.

On the day of the coup, the trade union federation, the CUT, called on workers to go to the factories and await instructions.

In Chile in September 1973, a mass armed protest and clear appeal for the soldiers to join the revolution was the only prospect at this late stage to save the revolution and defeat the coup.

Instead, as the coup unfolded, workers were left isolated in their factories, waiting to be picked off by armed detachments of the army.

Once in power, the military unleashed a bloody era of repression and slaughter. It was a ruthless clinical operation which targeted the most politically conscious and active workers and youth. The military regime lasted until 1990.

Unfortunately, the leaders of the Socialist Party and the Communist Party did not learn from the lessons of this bloody defeat.

With the collapse of the former Stalinist regimes and planned economies, they abandoned any defence of socialist ideas and formed yet more alliances with what they regard as ‘progressive’ sections of the Chilean ruling class.

Since the end of the military rule and ‘transition’, the PSC has been in an alliance with the Christian Democracy and ruled in the governing coalition, Concertacion.

In government, the PSC continued with the policies of privatisation and neoliberalism.

The Communist Party has tried to act as a ‘left’ adviser to the Concertacion coalition, hanging onto its coat tails, desperate to try and secure a few parliamentary seats, as a reward.

Chilean model

The Chilean economy has been held up as a model throughout Latin America and globally. However, despite growth, based on a high and rising price of copper, Chile has also become one of the most unequal societies in Latin America. This has resulted in an increasingly explosive social situation.

At the same time, successive Concertacion governments have only acted to defend the interests of the rich, resulting in growing political alienation from all the political institutions bequeathed by the dictatorship.

In the absence of any alternative, dissatisfaction with the Concertacion resulted in the victory of the right-wing coalition in 2010 headed by the billionaire, Sabastian Pinera. His elder brother was a minister under Pinochet.

The Pinera presidential election victory acted as a whip of counter revolution and unleashed all of the frustration and alienation which has been accumulating for the last 20 years.

A new generation has exploded into struggle, marking the end of the so-called ‘stability’ boasted of by the Chilean ruling class since the end of the military dictatorship.

Mass student protests demanding a free and decent education system have rocked Chilean society since 2011.

Pinera, according to opinion polls, was the least popular Chilean leader since Augusto Pinochet.

Copper workers called a one-day strike with the support of the students. Significantly, this strike was called on 11 July 2011 – the same day Allende nationalised the copper industry.

The students looked towards the workers and organised rallies and protests in support of the copper workers.

Yet the union leadership dissuaded workers from attending such rallies. Nonetheless, the CUT union federation was compelled to call a two-day general strike on 24 and 25 August.

However, this opportunity was squandered by the leadership of the CUT, who have acted as an appendage of the Concertacion.

An organised force, a new political party, which can channel the determination of the new generation to fight for a change and has learnt the lessons of the previous struggles, is posed objectively in the struggle and in the crisis which is developing.

New class battles loom in Chile. Remembering the first 9/11 and drawing the lessons from this bloody defeat, can assist the new generation to prepare for class struggles to be fought and also prepare the way to overthrow the capitalist system and usher in a genuine democratic socialist alternative.

(This article was first published in 2013)

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September 2019