Thursday, March 05, 2009

How to Overthrow a Government (II): Chile in 1973

When compared to its more unstable neighbors, Chile prided itself on its rich democratic tradition. Since declaring independence in 1818, Chile had seen some political turbulence, but not with the frequency of dictatorships, monarchies, and overthrows witnessed in places like Argentina, Bolivia, and Brazil. Indeed, since 1932, Chile had not seen its democratic processes interrupted. This rich tradition and national pride has made the overthrow of democratically and constitutionally-elected Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973, and the establishment of Augusto Pinochet's seventeen-year dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, that much harder to swallow. By the time Chileans realized that there would be no quick return to democracy like many of them had imagined when Allende was overthrown, Pinochet's repressive apparatus would be in place, greatly quashing any resistance to his rule.

Since 1932, Chile had operated on a system in which the population voted for one of any number of candidates, and the Chilean Congress would then ratify the winner of the plurality. This latter step was generally little more than a formality, no matter how low the plurality. Thus, when Jorge Alessandri, a center-right candidate, defeated Salvador Allende in his first presidential run in 1958, Alessandri only garnered 31% of the vote (versus Allende's 28.9%), and was ratified by Congress.

After his 6-year term was up, the center-left Christian Democrat coalition, led by Eduardo Frei, won the presidency, defeating Allende and Julio Durán, the center-right coalition's candidate. While a member of the center in Chile's political spectrum, Frei's six-year term witnessed an increasing progressiveness. During his administration, Frei initiating limited land reform, promoted neighborhood associations, and pushed for social justice, even going so far as to grant the Rapa Nui of Easter Island full citizenship for the first time since Chile had acquired the island in 1888.

By the time the 1970 elections rolled around, the atmosphere was increasingly polarized. While Frei had endeared himself to many on the left, they also felt that his reforms were not enough, while many on the right who were initially open to his administration were incresingly fearful of Chile's leftward shift, fearing a turn to "communism" or becoming "another Cuba." Nor were Chileans alone in this. President Richard Nixon, together with National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, authorized spending millions of dollars for the other candidates in an effort to prevent Allende's victory. Unfortunately for Nixon, when the votes were tallied, Allende won the plurality with 36.3% of the vote over previous president Jorge Alessandri (35.7%) and Christian Democrat Radomiro Tomic (27.8%). Many thought the congressional approval would once again be a mere formality. However, Allende's opponents quickly mobilized in an effort to prevent his approval, thereby throwing his presidency in doubt, and even the CIA launched a major propaganda campaign in an effort to sway the outcome. Only after Allende signed a statute guaranteeing he would defend Chile's constitution did Congress approve Allende's election 153-35.

Nixon and Kissinger were appalled at the approval of Allende's election, fearing Chile was about to become another Cuba in the Western Hemisphere. In an effort to destabilize the situation, Nixon cut nearly all U.S. funding to Chile in an effort to undermine stability. They also took far more covert measures to try to remove Allende. Kissinger and the CIA were constantly trying to find military leaders who would perform a coup against Allende upon Allende's victory. Unfortunately for them, the chief of the Army, Gen. Rene Schneider, supported the Constitution, and would not support a coup against the constitutionally and democratically elected Allende. However, an anti-communist general, Roberto Viaux, who had also attempted a coup against Frei in 1969, tried to kidnap Schneider in October 1970 in an effort to prevent Allende's inauguration. Viaux botched the attempt, though, and Schneider ended up dead, resulting in the Chilean military and people supporting Allende heading into the inauguration. While no documentary evidence has demonstrated that the U.S. was involved in this attempt, it had previously had contacts with Viaux. Due to the botched kidnapping, though, the U.S. lay low, being forced to wait.

Being finally approved, Allende was inaugurated on 3 November, 1970. Aware that he had only 6 years to implement his reforms, Allende began setting about trying to show the world how to establish a "peaceful path to socialism." Allende nationalized the copper industry in Chile (something also begun under Frei, when Chile became a 51% holder of the El Teniente copper mine, one of the largetst in the country), as well as nationalizing health care. He also established several wage increases that benefitted Chile's workers in his first two years, as well as launching more comprehensive land reform and educational reform. In his first year, his economic plan actually led to a reduction of Chile's inflation, and it witnessed remarkable growth.

These efforts left many on both the left and right dissatisfied. Conservative sectors of society, fearful of things such as "nationalization" and reform, and disheartened by the economic growth under Allende in that first year, began actively mobilizing against him. They also tried to disrupt the economy, often reducing production of basic goods and foodstuffs or hoarding these items in warehouses in order to drive demand and prices up and create market instability. The U.S. also withdrew much of its funding to Chile upon Allende's election. Independently of internal factors, as well, the economy began to take a beating in 1971, as copper prices dropped globally, greatly impacting the Chilean economy. The right used these instances to try to further stoke discontentment, and even many moderates in Chile became disturbed by the leftward path Allende was taking. However, many on the left were equally dissatisfied, feeling that Allende was not moving fast enough. Many of his more radical and poorer supporters tried to force his hand by performing land and factory occupations and expropriations in large numbers. Many intellectuals argued that the only way true reform could happen would be if the entire system was overthrown and Chile started over. Entire sections of his coalition, such as the Socialist Party, were leery that Allende could really implement the revolution they desired.

Matters in Chile really began to deteriorate in 1973. That year, the mid-term elections were held, and the Popular Unity actually increased its presence, winning 43% of the seats. To the right and many in the center, this was too much, and they began taking to the streets to protest the encroaching "Communism." Sectors of the military also were beginning to take notice of the growing instability and political division of Chile, and feared that the entire country would be torn into civil war if things continued down that path. Meanwhile, the Popular Unity's supporters, encouraged by the election results, continued to rally for Allende in the streets and push for more land and factory takeovers. Allende, a cosummate politician in terms of playing the game smartly, was increasingly finding himself pushed towards a path he was hesitant to fully embrace for practial political reasons.

In the meantime, the Chilean economy in 1973 continued to worsen, as income from exports continued to decline. The economy was also finding itself wracked by the emergence of the first petroleum crisis. Inflation was rampant and only picking up steam, and bread-lines at supermarkets were getting longer and longer, leading to dissatisfaction among middle-class and workign-class housewives who were responsible for groceries and cooking. Strikes had also been breaking out since 1972, when truckers went on strike to protest against Allende, crippling the supply system in Chile. Soon, small business owners, copper workers, and other went on strike in protest of Allende, while the left launched counter-strikes for support. Additionally, the far-right paramilitary group Patria y Libertad ("Fatherland and Liberty"), with support from the CIA, had begun attempting to sabotage Chile's infrastructure in order to further weaken Allende, and the CIA continued exploring options for launching a successful coup. In August, Chile's chamber of deputies passed a resolution that openly asked the military to intervene and restore "order" to the country. In another major blow, Allende lost one of his major supporters, the constitutionalist head of the Army, Carlos Prats, who resigned when officers' wives protested in front of his home, calling him a "coward" for failing to help Chile emerge from the morass. His replacement as Commander in Chief of the Army was his second-in-command, Augusto Pinochet, a general many believed was, like Prats, loyal to Allende.

As September dawned, the prospects for Allende were increasingly diminishing. He was simply losing control of the country. Into this growing vacuum, a military junta composed of the heads of the Navy, Air Force, and Army decided to act. Navy chief Jose Toribio Merino planned the coup, and on the morning of September 11, 1973, the Navy captured the coastal port-town of Valparaiso, only 74 miles from Santiago. The national police went to the presidential palace, La Moneda, to defend Allende, who held out hope that Pinochet was still loyal to him. By mid-morning, though, it was clear that he had no military support, and that all of Chile outside of Santiago had fallen. General Gustavo Leigh, the head of the Air Force, ordered La Moneda to be bombed by aircraft. Allende refused to resign, though, and issued an address to the nation via radio. The military arrived at La Moneda and stormed the palace, with Allende dead inside in what was probably a suicide. By the end of September 11th, the military junta, led by Pinochet, was in control, with open support from a Nixon administration that was proud of the role it had played in the overthrow of a democratically and constitutionally elected president, support the new Chilean government would continue to enjoy by such dignitaries as Kissinger, Milton Friedman, and Jesse Helms.

And so, on September 11th, 1973, many Chileans went to bed satisfied with the end of Allende and pleased with the military intervention. While those Chileans slept, that new military government that had already begun rounding up, torturing, and murdering leftists and other "subversives" that it felt had put Chile in such grave danger. Augusto Pinochet shored up control of the junta, becoming the sole leader of Chile. Thus was established Chile's first military dictatorship, which would last another 17 years and would oversee the deaths of over 3000 of its own citizens in Chile, aid in the deaths of many others throughout South America, torture tens of thousands more of its own civilians, launch its own terrorist action in Washington D.C. in 1976 that left two dead, and leave millions affected by its actions.