When Salvador Allende Told Us Happiness Is a Human Right

When Salvador Allende Told Us Happiness Is a Human Right

When Salvador Allende Told Us Happiness Is a Human Right

Now, for the first time, an adviser recalls a remarkable 1971 conversation with Chile’s socialist leader.


On September 11, 1973, a military coup in Chile—assisted by the CIA under orders from President Richard Nixon and his national-security adviser, Henry Kissinger—violently overthrew the socialist government of President Salvador Allende, ended his life, and brought to power the murderous dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

Shortly after Allende took office, he gave a long interview to the radical French intellectual Régis Debray, who questioned Allende about the Chilean road to socialism, which seemed to contradict the prevailing view that socialism could only be achieved through armed struggle and revolution, not electoral politics. An extended version of that interview appeared in Debray’s book Conversations With Allende, still available from Verso Books.

But there was more to the story, according to Luis Sepúlveda, who was an eyewitness to the interview. In the following excerpt, Sepúlveda—who later became a celebrated novelist and theater producer—reveals for the first time a portion of the interview not found in Debray’s book. It includes an argument that may seem surprising coming from a self-declared Marxist like Allende, though less so when one recalls that Allende was also a medical doctor. Apparently, he attempted to convince the more doctrinaire Debray that happiness is a human right, and that the lack of food, health care, or fair working conditions are all obstacles to achieving it. The goal of progressive movements and governments, Allende continued, should be to overcome such obstacles to happiness for all human beings, everywhere.

To speak today of happiness, of the future, is not easy because to arrive at the definition of happiness requires first specifying what the obstacles to realizing it are. The first time I began to think of this idea of happiness, of the possibility of being happy not only as an individual but as part of a community, of a happy society, was in my country, Chile, in 1971. That year I had the immense honor of serving as an assistant to Comrade President Salvador Allende, as part of his security detail. And I remember that one day in January of 1971 a French journalist and philosopher named Régis Debray, who had been with Che in the guerrilla war in Bolivia and whom Allende himself had helped to save from prison, presented himself at the presidential palace. He had come to conduct an interview with President Allende for Le Nouvel Observateur. Allende decided that some of his comrades could be present, which was his way of saying, “This dialogue will be historic, pay attention to what gets said.”

The conversation went badly because Debray was a man of striking intellectual arrogance, convinced of his own ideas about Marxist theory. Allende was also an intellectual in his own way, but one of great humility who never made a show of his intelligence. In the course of the interview, Debray advanced a series of criticisms of the Chilean model. His criticisms were based on the fact that Chile’s revolutionary process did not match the classical vision of how to make a revolution; it didn’t follow a presumed A-B-C order for bringing about social change. For example, Allende respected political pluralism and strictly respected freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Allende let Debray expound all of his criticisms and answered all of his questions. Finally he said, “Now I’d like to ask you a question.” The question was: “Do you know what the life expectancy of a German is? Or a Frenchman? And what the life expectancy of a Scandinavian is, of a Swede or a Dane? And do you know, by contrast, what the life expectancy of a Chilean is?” De-bray didn’t know. Allende told him: “In today’s era, the French and Germans have a life expectancy of 68 years, the Scandinavians of 70 years. We Chileans have a life expectancy of 52 years. We are making this revolution to be able to live 68 or 70 years like the French, like the Germans, like the Scandinavians. The goal is to live longer, but also to live in the natural state of human beings, which is called happiness.”

That evening, after Debray had left, Allende asked the comrades of his security detail (and I was there), “What do you think, guys? How’d that interview go?” We told him: “Well, your answers were all correct. He [Debray] may not have understood them, but it doesn’t matter, your remarks were superb.” Allende said, “Maybe it was a mistake to talk about a right to happiness, to identify happiness as the natural state of human beings, of the human race.” Then he began to tell us about his idea of happiness. He told us about a part of our history that I believe was unknown to most of the comrades.

He told us that in 1932, Chile had played a role in a small revolution that one doesn’t read about in history books, as if it had been erased. This little revolution lasted only 12 days. It was carried out in the name of the Socialist Republic of Chile and organized by an Air Force officer, a socialist by the name of Marmaduke Grove. In those 12 days, Grove formulated a theory that the only true goal for Chile, this country located at the ends of the earth, is to become a happy country. That revolution offered a powerful lesson in identifying the things that get in the way of human happiness. Of course, after 12 days, the forces of the right arose and overthrew the revolutionary government; the Socialist Republic of Chile was ended. (You can still find in some antique shops the coins that were minted then, which bear the words “Socialist Republic of Chile.”)

Allende wanted us to consider another subject as well, saying that it was necessary not only to theorize a model of production but also to identify all of the factors that keep human beings from achieving happiness. He offered another example. In that era in Chile, the left was united around the figure of Allende in a coalition of political parties that formed the so-called Popular Unity [Unidad Popular] coalition. Allende described how, in 1934, in a part of Spain named Asturias (where, curiously enough, I live today), different forms of leftist thinking managed for the first time to agree to work together: communists, socialists, and anarchists. They made the workers’ revolution of 1934 that brought together coal miners, fishermen, dockworkers, teachers. Article I of the founding document for this Socialist Republic of Asturias said, “The natural purpose of man is happiness.”

The leftists set about identifying obstacles that got in the way of the workers of Asturias achieving happiness, and in the process they arrived at profoundly relevant conclusions—so much so that the Spanish government, which was a republican government, decided that the basic idea of happiness was very dangerous. This occasion gave Francisco Franco, the man who would go on to become the dictator of Spain for nearly 40 years, his first experience as a butcher of his own people. For Franco was one of the generals called upon to bloodily repress the socialist revolution in Asturias in 1934. But from that time forward, the principle remained alive in the people, in a form almost unconscious and hidden, that happiness is a right, and that it is essential to identify the things that stand between us and the realization of that right.

Our conversation with Allende continued and eventually touched upon some facts from 1962. Franco confided to his cousin and military secretary, Francisco Franco Salgado-Araujo, that Spain’s coal miners’ days were numbered, because Europe wanted to give preference to coalfields in Germany and in Poland, which offered ample supply at lower cost. The miners in Asturias called a strike. It was the first big strike after the installation of the Franco government. They demanded better working conditions, job security, fair wages—rights. Of course, the police opposed them.

Franco’s plan was to defeat them by waiting them out and reducing them to hunger. One day, the people carrying out this strike under terrible conditions received news that on the other side of the world, in the south of Chile in a village called Lota, coal miners were carrying out a strike under even more terrible conditions. They too were being attacked by the police and the army. The response of the miners of Asturias was to share the little that they had and send to the miners in another part of the world, in Chile, a ship containing food, medicine, and other items necessary to sustaining a strike. For their strike was aimed at the same goal as that of the miners in Asturias: a better life that delivered a minimum level of happiness.

I will never forget that conversation with Allende, because I believe that happiness is the ultimate natural purpose of the human species. I don’t know if I will live long enough for this belief to come true in daily practice. But I am convinced that the effort to identify all that stands between us and the supreme right of happiness is the most important political work one can do. And to help us, it would be useful to think about the Four Freedoms declared by President Franklin Roosevelt as irreducible needs of humanity: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Happiness, I believe, is inseparably connected with freedom.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy