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The True Verdict on Allende | The Nation

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The True Verdict on Allende

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Nixon and Kissinger fiddle and Chile burns.

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On September 4, I watched more than 800,000 Chileans parade past the Presidential palace, enthusiastically cheering President Salvador Allende. One week later President Allende was dead, the palace lay a burned-out shambles, the streets of Santiago echoed to the boots of soldiers and the rattling of machine guns. Chilean reforms and democracy fell victims to the middle class's frantic desire to regain power, at any price. The world little understood the magnitude of the tragedy and scant news reports obscured rather than clarified the situation in what was once South America's most democratic nation.

In rationalizing the violent demise of Chilean democracy, most commentators seem content to point out that Allende was, after all, a President elected by a minority. At best those observations evince an ignorance of Chilean political history. True, Allende entered office in November 1970 with 37 percent of the popular vote, but Congress overwhelmingly elected him to the Preidency. He was the constitutional President, selected through a rigorously democratic process in which there was no charge of corruption, no hint of irregularities. For comparison, in the United States in 1972, when the President was elected by 35 percent of the eligible voters, both Mr. Nixon and the press hailed the election as a personal mandate and a landslide victory.

Because of the plurality of parties in the former Chilean democracy, governments commonly received less than a popular majority. Jorge Alessandri, candidate of the Right, was installed in the Presidency in 1958 for a six-year term with only 32 percent of the vote, but no cry rang from the international news media that Chile had a minority President. In short, what has been intimated as exceptional in the Allende election was really more the rule in Chilean politics.

Between 1970 and 1973, the Unidad Popular (Popular Unity)—the coalition of parties backing Allende—actually increased its vote, a growing popularity which in itself casts some doubt on the widely spread tales of economic disaster wrought by the government. In the last significant election, a fierce electoral battle for Congress in March 1973, the Unidad Popular increased its share of the vote to 44 percent. The rest of the vote was split among the several other parties, which at that time functioned freely and openly in the Chilean tradition. The 800,000 who greeted the President on September 4 constituted nearly one-tenth of the national population, the largest political rally ever held in Chile. To appreciate the size of the demonstration, one must realize that to enjoy a similar success in Washington, Mr. Nixon would have to mass more than 21 million cheering fans. Evidence seems to indicate that, as his administration progressed, President Allende enjoyed greater approval. Indeed, the highly visible proof of that mounting support on September 4 may have contributed to the decision of the military and political leaders of the Right to act at once to depose him.

The explanations for the support of Allende's government by the less privileged classes, which constitute a clear majority in Chile as they do throughout Latin America, are not difficult to find. Allende and his Unidad Popular favored them. The new government sought to restructure society in order to distribute the national wealth more equally, a prospect as welcome to the neglected urban labor classes and peasants as it was repugnant to the comfortable middle and upper classes.

In an apparent campaign to discredit the thrust of the new government, the news media have emphasized the failures of the Allende government. They were many. Any society changing from capitalism to socialism will be under stress, and Chile certainly was. Yet the Popular Unity government achieved some remarkable successes, and to neglect them is to blur any attempt to understand the undeniable popularity of Allende among many sectors of Chilean society.

Regardless of their political views, all Chileans welcomed Allende's nationalization of the foreign-owned copper industry, Chile's most important industry, since copper provided three-quarters of the value of national exports. The Christian Democratic government of Eduardo Frei had during the late 1960s set in motion the machinery for nationalization of the industry; Allende simply completed in July 1971 what had already been begun, and both houses of the opposition-dominated Congress unanimously approved his action. Chile paid no indemnity; quite the contrary, the government sought payments from the former foreign owners, claiming they had made illegal profits in the past. According to the figures of the government economists, U.S. copper companies "had parlayed an original investment of $30 million into $4.5 billion in profits." Needless to add, Chile's boldness angered Washington and the international business community.

Public opinion was more divided over the nationalization of banking and credit, but still the act elicited favorable comments from many sectors beyond the Popular Unity. Allende also moved to nationalize key industries, and that profoundly disturbed the middle and upper classes. During his first year of office, he nationalized 91 basic industries, using as authorization laws dating back to 1932. The workers cheered. In some cases when they felt the government moved too slowly they simply took over the industries themselves.

Despite the mounting inflation, the working class saw its buying power increase markedly under the Allende government. Their children drank milk daily for the first time; their consumption of meat increased; consumer items such as bicycles, radios, television sets and stoves, long thought a luxury, became commonplace in working-class homes. The government turned shanties and shacks into decent housing by emphasizing construction and giving preference to building for the poor. While a crisis mounted in middle-class housing, the less privileged were living better than ever before. Labor pledged its support to Allende and the Popular Unity and in return enjoyed material and psychological benefits.

President Allende promulgated and enforced an ambitious land reform. Chile, like almost every Latin American nation, imported a high percentage of its food (it always had), not because the country could not produce its own food but rather because landowners held land for speculation rather than production. Fertile land lay fallow while expensive food imports ate into the hard-currency foreign-exchange reserves which could have been spent more profitably on capital machinery. During the 1964-70 period, the Christian Democrats had promised a land reform, but they dawdled and delayed, compromising with the inefficient landowning class. In his first year of office, Allende distributed more land, 5.5 million acres, than his Christian Democratic predecessor had in six years. The landless rural proletariat appreciated Allende's actions, which were in strong contrast to the grandiose promises of former governments.

Opponents of the Popular Unity government, as well as the foreign press, have emphasized Chile's economic difficulties during the Allende years. Their views neglect two considerations, and that prevents a fair assessment of the period. First, Chile has always had economic problems. The economy depended for decades on the sale of copper abroad, and since foreigners both set the price of copper and owned the mines, Chile has had great difficulty in feeding itself. Approximately one-third of Chile's imports consisted of foodstuffs, at least in the period since World War II. As late as the 1960s, sociologists classified 60 percent of the families as impoverished. The infant mortality rate in Chile was triple that of the United States. In short, Allende inherited serious economic problems. Second, the economic achievements of the Popular Unity government generally were ignored or received less attention than the failures.

A fuller range of statistics and other interpretations must be taken into account in order to reach a balanced understanding of Chile's experiment with socialism. Last August, the government's statistical office released figures showing that many important industries (a few examples would be condensed milk, cement, poultry products, phonograph records and pork products) were producing more than at any previous time. Addressing the nation on September 4, President Allende pointed with pride to the facts that in a year farmers had doubled the number of acres under cultivation, that copper production in the Chuquicamata mine (by far the largest and most important in the nation) had broken all production records in the month of August, and that the international price of copper was rising swiftly.

Surely in an economy dominated by copper production the output and price of that one product assumes a disproportionate importance. Chile has no control over the price and must depend on the whims of the international market. Low prices in 1971-72 dealt a cruel blow to the nation's economy, but the rising prices in 1973 were a welcome relief to economic planners. On the other hand, Chile of course does control its production and that rose during the Allende years. Chile Economic News (March 15) calculated copper output as 571.3 thousands of metric tons in 1970 and 593.0 in 1972, a rise despite the strikes of managerial and white-collar personnel at the mines. Even so harsh a critic of the Allende government as William Buckley, Jr. recognized a significant rise in copper production in 1971. The economic successes of the Allende government do not negate the difficulties, stresses and reverses which also accompanied those transition years when Chile attempted to move from capitalism to socialism. The successes are mentioned here because they tend to be neglected, and no final judgment of Allende can be made without considering them.

A rather backhanded acknowledgment that the Popular Unity government achieved some increased production came from no other source than Admiral Jose Toribio Merino, member of the military junta which overthrew Allende: "Chile is bankrupt and destroyed and not because it hasn't been producing. It's bankrupt because its production was plundered and stolen by thieves." In that conclusion the admiral hardly provides a scientific explanation of the new system of distribution of goods instituted by the Allende government, but at least he does not rely on the oft-repeated and questionable charge that all production fell during the Allende years.

Instead of complaining of dwindling production, the middle and upper classes might have come closer to reality if they had complained of distribution, for the goods were no longer flowing uninterruptedly into the homes of the privileged. They were having to share the fruits of production with the lower classes. They never became accustomed to that new distribution and whined incessantly of the hardships that Chile (read, the middle and upper classes) suffered. The international press repeated their complaints, seldom bothering to verify them. Meanwhile, greater numbers of Chileans at the bottom of the economic scale enjoyed the benefits of the new distribution system, but their voices of gratitude never reached the foreign press media.

More than economics can explain the strong support Allende received. He opened the doors of government to the participation of the less advantaged groups. They identified with their President and for the first time felt themselves part of the governing process.

Allende initiated a vigorously independent foreign policy, one often at odds with Latin America's patron, the United States. As one of his first acts in office, he established diplomatic relations with Cuba. Castro paid an extended visit to Chile in late 1971. Quite naturally, Chile's friendship with other Socialist nations warmed. That foreign policy struck a new note of independence for Chile, one pleasing to the nationalists.

Allende's achievements are all the more impressive when one realizes the bitter opposition of the middle and upper classes, a combined group which composed no more than 30 percent of the population, but a potent minority, since it monopolized the professions as well as the high technical and bureaucratic jobs, and was thus in a strategic position to sabotage the efforts of the Socialist government. Allende's foes wielded their potent weapon effectively. A vocal group, they took advantage of their extensive international contacts. Their opinions always found sympathy among the international media, there being a worldwide bond among middle classes haunted by the specter of social change.

Those privileged groups called on the military to intervene in order to halt Chile's democratic march toward socialism. Presidential elections were too far away for them to wait, and anyway there was always the recurrent and very real fear they might again lose at the polls. Desperate, they goaded the military to act for them. Called into action and disregarding forty years of tradition, the military bombed its own capital, killed its own President, and shot its fellow citizens. It could not have done that in the name of democracy; it could not have done so in the name of the constitution. More likely it was carried out in the name of fear, fear of change.

The question inevitably arises as to the role, if any, of the United States in those tragic events. Washington, following standard practice, disclaims any involvement in Chile, although it never attempted to disguise its dislike of Allende. Yet a pattern of U.S. behavior has emerged, as starkly evident in Chile, 1970-73, as it was in Brazil, 1961-64. While bringing pressure to bear on the economy, the United States wooed and won the military. Financial aid to Chile stopped after Allende took office. Further, under pressure from the United States, the World Bank, the Export-Import Bank and other international financial institutions refused loans needed by the Chileans. Simultaneously, the huge multinational corporations harassed the Allende government through such tactics as bringing suits against Chile in European courts to prevent or delay the unloading and sale of Chilean exports, principally copper. Those pressures, governmental and private, severely strained the Chilean economy.

However, U.S. aid to the Chilean armed forces never abated. Military hardware and technicians continued to flow in. The top brass visited the United States and the Panama Canal Zone for training. Those junkets exposed key military leaders to ideas which had little or nothing to do with Chilean realities. The ideology of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and in the counterinsurgency and guerrilla warfare schools in the Panama Canal Zone clouded their vision of Latin American needs and desires. They learned there to understand the U.S. struggle to thwart communism much more than the need for change in their own country. In fact, through some twisted logic, change and communism become synonymous. Sadly, to the degree the officer class becomes internationally minded they also become anti-national. Therefore, while the question of CIA involvement in the bloody coup and the events leading up to it is relevant, it actually becomes secondary—the principal military leaders had already equated their nation's interests with those of the United States. It blasted the constitutional and democratic government out of office, and implanted yet one more military dictatorship in Latin America.

Gen. Augusto Pinochet who took command of the military junta fits into a familiar mold: he has been several times to the U.S. Southern Command schools in the Panama Canal Zone and has served as military attaché in Washington. The U.S. press lauded him as an intellectual (he had written a geography book), a quiet, nonpolitical general, a family man, a devout Roman Catholic. (Those with good memories will recall that this is exactly what the press said in 1964 about Gen. Humberto Castelo Branco, the military dictator who replaced Brazil's constitutional President.) But a deeper look into the biography of this religious, intellectual, nonpolitical, family general provides a clearer insight into the type of junta which toppled Chilean democracy. General Pinochet was a member of the so-called Nazi cell of the Chilean Army. He commanded the troops which fired on—and killed—striking workers in l967. He is the general who warned "The army's duty is to kill." He is directly culpable for the death of the President of Chile, Salvador Allende. He broke his sacred oath to uphold the government and constitution of Chile. Such is the man who claims to be concerned with the development of Chile and the restoration of the democracy he has just destroyed.

The military uprising in Chile on September 11 is the most significant event to occur in Latin America since Fidel Castro entered Havana in 1959. Those concerned with Latin America's perennial problems of dependency, monoculture, latifundias, underdevelopment and poverty closely watched Chile's democratic efforts to solve them. In Latin America's struggle for change, modernization and development, Allende's program offered reform as the viable alternative to revolution. The fundamental question was whether reform could bring about the necessary changes to solve Latin America's problems. By blocking the road to reform, the Chilean military, in alliance with the frightened middle and upper classes, proved that at least on this occasion it could not, and the depressing conclusion that one might draw from this sad lesson is that in Latin America change by reform is impossible. Henceforth, those who advocate reform as the means of change will find their arguments weakened, if not untenable. And to the degree that the case for reform becomes discredited, revolution emerges as Latin America's most viable road to change. Democracy, freedom and reform in Latin America suffered a staggering blow on September 11 in Chile. The repercussions will be felt throughout the next generation.

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