Since 1932, Chile had been electing governments without the political chaos and military coups of the previous decade. It was in 1932 that constitutional government had been restored. A political party with middle-class roots, the Radicals, became a dominating force in politics and coalition governments. Chile had been gaining a reputation for politically stability greater than its neighbors. Rather than a parliamentary system, it had a chief of state, or president – elected for a six-year term – who was also the head of government, and it had a bicameral legislative body. Also, of course, it had a judiciary, and it had numerous political parties that were able to function freely.
Through the 1950s, Chile's cities were growing, and its rural landed elite was losing more of its influence. In 1962 a rural reform law was passed that was contrary to the interests of owners of Chile's agricultural haciendas. The United States was encouraging reforms in Chile as part of the Alliance for Progress. Chile's conservatives spoke against the Alliance for Progress and were angry with the United States. A conservative Chilean senator spoke of the Alliance for Progress as containing a threat to the basic values of the Western and Christian world.
In 1964, a reformist political party called the Christian Democrats came to power. The new president, Eduardo Frei, a devout Catholic, promised radical reforms. His slogan was "Revolution in Liberty." Chile's Christian Democratic Party – largely Catholic – was the first liberal religious party in Latin America. The Catholic Church in Chile, which had supported rural conservatism, had become reformist and was encouraged in this by the Second Ecumenical Council.
Frei had been challenged by a Marxist candidate Salvador Allende Gossens, who had the support of Chile's communist party, said to be 100,000 strong. . Agents from the United States had gone to Chile with money to influence the election, and Frei had narrowly defeated Allende. According to Stephen Kinzer in his book Overthrow, the CIA had "covertly spent $3 million to ensure that Frei would defeat Allende." note29
Frei sponsored an urban home building program and the buying of fertile land from the wealthy for distribution at low interest rates. And Frei hoped to advance industrialization by attracting foreign investment. Foreign investors already owned much of Chile's copper industry – copper remaining Chile's primary export. Under Frei, multinational corporations increased their participation in Chile in such industries as electronics, pharmaceuticals and automobile assembly. Around forty of the top one hundred companies in Chile were controlled by foreign interests. But Chileans were mass producing their own cars, television sets and washing machines rather than having to buy these from abroad.
The political Left in Chile was ideologically hostile to foreign corporations. And Chile had strong labor unions which were exerting pressure to increase wages. The rising cost of labor was contributing to inflation – a rise in prices – which brought more demand for higher wages and more inflation. And during the last half of the 1960s, Chile's young people were being radicalized. Chilean youths were listening to rock and roll, letting their hair grow long, and they were protesting against the war in Vietnam.
Presidents in Chile were prohibited from running for second terms. In the presidential elections of 1970, Allende ran again. The Communist party had its own candidate, Pablo Neruda – a poet who was to win the Nobel Prize in literature the following year. Neruda withdrew at the last minute and supported Allende. Two Christian Democrats joined the race. One was Jorge Alessandri, who had been president from 1958 to 1964. (He was the son of another former president, Arturo Alessandri). The other Christian Democrat, to the left of Alessandri, was Radomiro Tomic. Again money to influence the elections came from US agents. Allende won the election, but with only 36.2 percent of the vote.
The Left had won a majority of the votes, but 36.3 percent was not much of a mandate for Allende. The question remained whether he had enough support for radical social change. During his campaign, Allende had promised to build a republic for the working class, and he denounced capitalism for having created social and economic inequities. In his inauguration speech, Allende spoke of work and sacrifice needed for the construction of socialism. Some joyous Allende supporters were equating Allende's victory with revolution. A few on the Left were expecting a counter-revolution against Allende, similar to the Kornilov affair in Russia in 1917, and this they believed would rally the forces on the Left and be the forerunner of all out revolution.
It was the custom in Chile for the congress to certify the winner as president although he won with less than a majority of the vote. But President Nixon was determined to prevent this. On September 15, eleven days after the elections, at a meeting in the oval office, President Nixon said that he wanted to prevent Allende from taking office. This could be accomplished only by Chile's armed forces. Henry Kissinger, then Nixon's national security advisor, was there, and Christopher Hitchens, in his book The Trial of Henry Kissinger, claimed that Kissinger took Nixon's comment seriously.. note30 The head of the Central Intelligence Agency, Richard Helms, was also present at the thirteen-minute meeting, and he too is said to have taken Nixon's statement seriously.
With the possibility of Allende being denied certification diminishing, Nixon moved to another option. There were military men who could be persuaded to lead such a coup against Allende, but standing in the way was the head of Chile's military: General René Schneider, who was opposed to military interference in politics. According to Stephen Kinzer, in Overthrow, CIA agents passed money to a retired rightist general, Roberto Viaux, who had failed in a coup attempt against President Frei. On October 23, Schneider was assassinated by conspirators allied with Viaux.
As Kissinger describes it in his book Years of Upheaval, the US effort to prevent Allende was "belated and confused" and "called off." note31 Allende took office as President of Chile on November 3. And, Kissinger writes, "There was no American involvement in coup plotting afterward."
Allende inherited economic recession, inflation and unemployment that was 8.4 percent of the work force. He moved to put more wealth in the hands of common people by raising wages, freezing prices and creating public works. He initiated a program that gave free milk to children. Common people and small businesses were offered tax relief, and pensions were raised for the elderly. Big business was targeted. Allende nationalized the copper industry, without compensating its owners. He nationalized other foreign-owned businesses and some Chilean-owned businesses considered monopolies. State run businesses took control of what became 60 percent of Chile's Gross National Product. Workers in business that remained privately owned clamored for nationalization of their industry, hoping for the better pay and working conditions they believed were accruing to public-sector employees. Some industrial workers in privately owned companies took over their factories.
After Allende's first year in office, unemployment fell to 4.8 percent. But the copper industry suffered. Allende pleaded for restraint from labor, but workers remained determined to advance their earnings. In 1971 and 1972 miners went on strike eighty-five times. With the decline in world copper prices and copper as Chile's major export, earnings from exports s
Worker discipline and productivity in other industries fell. Government owned industries were suffering from political appointments rather than appointments based on expertise. Bad weather and social turmoil was diminishing food production. Allende was pursuing more agrarian reform, and impatient peasants, encouraged by the call for equality and for revolutionary change, were seizing land illegally.
Allende's attempt to control inflation by freezing prices did not work. The money supply had doubled, and more money chasing few goods contributed to more inflation. The continual rise in prices was hurting people. Investment in Chile from abroad had dried up. There were withdrawals from bank deposits and people sending their money out of the country. Hostility toward Allende increased among those who disliked the higher prices and those opposed to his revolution. They hardly needed influence from the US Central Intelligence Agency, but the CIA was there, sponsoring anti-Allende propaganda in Chile's media and supporting anti-Allende politicians.
People opposed to Allende marched in the streets. Denunciations abounded. A threat to massacre Communists was declared. Incidents of violence by the Right and by the Left increased. Armed anti-leftists vigilante defense groups appeared in middle-class suburbs. Landowners were defending themselves violently against attempted seizures of their land. The toleration needed for democracy to work was disappearing.
Chile's independent truckers disliked talk of socialized trucking. On 26 July 1973, truckers began another of their strikes, and they crippled commerce. Allende was not moving to appease centrists. In August, Congress moved against him, declaring that Allende's government was in fundamental violation of Chile's constitution. There was to be no waiting for the discontent to remove Allende democratically. Chile's judiciary asked the military to step in and put an end to infringements on the nation's constitution and laws. The military responded, believing that they were saving Chile. The military stormed the presidential palace, and Allende died with his machine gun in his hands as the government palace was under attack. (Allende's remains was exhumed in 2011 and examined by international experts who concluded that he had committed suicide.)
Here is a CIA comment that appears in the CIA Factbook in 2009:
Although CIA did not instigate the coup that ended Allende’s government on 11 September 1973, it was aware of coup-plotting by the military, had ongoing intelligence collection relationships with some plotters, and—because CIA did not discourage the takeover and had sought to instigate a coup in 1970—probably appeared to condone it. There was no way that anyone, including CIA, could have known that Allende would refuse the putchists’ offer of safe passage out of the country and that instead—with La Monedam Palace under bombardment from tanks and airplanes and in flames—would take his own life.
Henry Kissinger has been described as saying, "I don't see why we have to let a country go Marxist just because its people are irresponsible." note32 Kissinger was to describe the coup against Allende as indigenous, and he would deny his or the Nixon administration's involvement in it.
In 1975, a Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, headed by Senator Frank Church of Idaho, a Democrat, hostile toward interventions in foreign countries, investigated the coup against Allende and came to no conclusion about US complicity in the coup.
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