Chile, 9/11/73: Lessons of a Catastrophe

by Joe Auciello


For anyone with the will to remember and the heart to care, the date September 11 has long meant tragedy. On that day in 1973, decades before the twin towers were destroyed in New York City, a military coup in Santiago, Chile, supported by the United States, destroyed the Popular Unity government of President Salvador Allende. The victims of the twin towers collapse were matched in number by the executions and murders committed by the Chilean armed forces. In the weeks that followed, thousands more were killed. Journalist and eyewitness Robinson Rojas Sandford cites “…more than 15,000 dead, more than 30,000 prisoners, more than 100,000 brutally tortured” in addition to less physical but nonetheless severe political reprisals. (See Sandford’s book The Murder of Allende, p. viii).

The coup, led by General Pinochet, and the subsequent slaughter of thousands of militants and trade unionists, beheaded the socialist movement. Virtually the entire left was drowned in blood.  Three decades later, the working class of course remains a social force that has the power to remake society; the possibility of socialist transformation still remains in Chile, but for that to ever happen, the true lessons of September 11, 1973, must be absorbed.

The Nation magazine, a liberal weekly, commemorated the thirtieth anniversary of this bloody assault on Chilean socialism by publishing three articles in its September 29 issue. The essays were written by novelist Ariel Dorfman, social researcher Peter Kornbluh, and journalist Marc Cooper. Each presented a different assessment about the Chilean experience, but none of these authors provided the kind of balance sheet that would help a new generation comprehend the catastrophe of September 11.

Certainly it is necessary to understand the lessons of Chile. The murder of thousands demands no less. That so many lives could be lost in vain would only compound the tragedy and disgrace the memory of the dead. Unfortunately, the writers for the Nation, despite their eyewitness accounts, archival research, and best intentions, cannot adequately explain why the Chilean workers and peasants were unable to overturn capitalism and create the socialist society for which they had been fighting.

Ariel Dorfman, for instance, presents an abstract or existential dilemma, as if the failure of the movement led by Allende in Chile was the failure of the human condition. Dorfman believes he has found the “one central message that needs attention if we are to avoid similar disasters in the future: Many otherwise normal, decent human beings in my land allowed their liberty…to be stolen in the name of security.”

The fault, though, is not in the stars or in the human weaknesses of average, everyday people. The fault is with the political decisions made by the Popular Unity government, which did not know how to win either liberty or security for the “normal, decent human beings” in Chile.

Allende’s Popular Unity government came into office after winning a plurality in the 1970 elections. By 1972 the ruling class and the right-wing parties went on the offensive against Allende’s government. Sabotage, factory lockouts, assassinations, and terrorism culminated in an unsuccessful assault on the presidential palace in June of 1973. But that attempted coup failed miserably. The workers responded with factory occupations and mobilizations. Here was an opportunity to deepen the revolution by calling together the workers, peasants, and left organizations. Allende instead turned to his right flank and attempted to compromise and collaborate with the right-wing parties as well as the military, who in the main were congratulated for their loyalty.

In short, because of its strategy of conciliation and reform, the Popular Unity government was unwilling to defend itself. How, then, could it inspire a majority of the population to rally to its defense? Little wonder that so many people, in Ariel Dorfman’s words, “allowed their liberty…to be stolen in the name of security.”

One lesson of the Chilean catastrophe is that the Popular Unity government needed to mobilize and arm the workers and peasants to crush the counterrevolutionary groups, to make a determined fight to defend their interests. This strategy would have strengthened the will of the masses who supported Allende, would have won over many of the indecisive and undecided, would have divided the rank-and-file soldier from the officers in the army, and would have demoralized the Chilean capitalists and their supporters in the United States government.

Instead of aiding the revolt of the dispossessed and exploited, Allende tried to stifle and contain them for fear of provoking the bosses and landlords. That was his strategy all along. In a speech on December 21, 1970, for instance, Allende criticized the occupation of the rural estates. “What I brought was the responsible word of a governor of the people, telling the workers of the land…that while I recognized the justice of their claim and their anxiety to own land, I begged them not to take part in any further takeovers of farms…It is not we who have used the authority of the government to transgress the law. Whenever an estate has been occupied we have gone immediately and tried to reason with the farm workers.”

This policy, Allende claimed, “was a responsible attitude on our part.” No. It was instead part of the recipe for disaster, a politically irresponsible attitude of trust in the “progressive” Chilean capitalists and the “democratic” Chilean generals who in a few short years would slaughter thousands in the name of private property and profit.

Peter Kornbluh has written an informative article about the U.S. role in preparing for and supporting the murderous coup. Based on declassified government documents, Kornbluh reveals that the U.S. government feared Allende’s example could spread not only to other countries in Latin America, but also to Italy, where a Popular Unity type of government seemed a real possibility.

Kornbluh’s conclusion, however, is far less useful. For him, the lesson of September 11, 1973, is that U.S. foreign policy should embrace “the values, morality and real national interests of the American public.” What this means exactly is not clear; even less clear is how such a momentous change will take place. But there is no doubt that every American president in the past century and a half, Republican or Democrat, has claimed to be acting in the national interests of the American people when pursuing the aims of Big Business and empire abroad.

Ever since the United States became a world power it has installed and supported dictators, like Pinochet in Chile, who committed crimes against their own people. The real test of a dictator was not his concern for the poor and the weak but his catering to the rich and the powerful, specifically the business needs of U.S. corporations. The freedom the U.S. government defends, the freedom for which it sends young men and women to kill and be killed, including today in Iraq, is the freedom to make corporate superprofits.

Marc Cooper’s essay tries to establish Allende’s “positive contributions to history, his bold attempts to redefine the very concepts of revolution, socialism and democracy.” Especially significant for Cooper was Allende’s “insistence on the use of democratic means to achieve power and radically reconstruct society.” Cooper, in fact, praises Lula, the current moderate socialist president of Brazil, as being in the Allende tradition.

This approach, “a third way,” as Cooper puts it, is ostensibly superior to the timid European socialist parties and to the Stalinist tyrannies, including the “ossified and dictatorial Cuban state.”  Certainly it is true that a Tony Blair, known in Britain as “Bush’s poodle,” will not break with capitalism. The Stalinist governments, which never truly represented the interests of their people, are no inspiration for revolution today, either. Cooper is wrong, though, to lump Castro with Stalin.

Fidel Castro led an authentic revolution in Cuba that established a workers state. The Castro leadership initiated land reform, nationalized imperialist property and major industry, and instituted a monopoly of foreign trade. The revolutionary government led by Castro’s July 26 Movement created a planned economy for the benefit of workers and peasants. When these measures brought them into conflict with the Cuban capitalists, the Cuban revolutionaries continued and deepened the revolution by adopting more radical and popular measures.

For all its flaws, especially its limitations on workers’ democracy, the Cuban revolution continues to present a real alternative to the tyranny of poverty and class oppression prevalent throughout Latin America. And there is no doubt that Cuba, rather than Chile, provides a better model for the survival of a revolution.

To remember and understand the tragedy in Chile is to recognize the fatal weaknesses of Salvador Allende’s government. The Popular Unity regime hoped “to change the capitalist system, while respecting legality, institutionality, and political freedom.” The Popular Unity leaders promised to “keep our activities in the economic, political, and social spheres within certain limits,” and hoped that their enemies would tamely follow the same rules. It was a catastrophic error. The September 11 coup showed that capitalism will destroy democracy and take an untold number of human lives in order to maintain its control. That terrible crime will one day be avenged when a socialist revolution redeems the blood of its martyrs.