Orlando Letelier’s essay on the Chicago Boys and their role in the brutal neoliberal transformation of Chile has withstood the test of time. A few weeks before his assassination, Letelier was able to capture in detail the misery to which the Chilean disciples of Milton Friedman had visited on his country and accurately spelled out what they still had in store for it. The irony, he noted, is that Friedman and the Chicago Boys might have been driven by free-market doctrine, but the end result of their policies was to further the monopolization of the economy by the Chilean capitalist class.
Another ironic fact that Letelier pointed to was that among the victims of these doctrinaire policies was the Chilean middle class, which had been played a key role in the overthrow of Salvador Allende.
The roles of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Chilean elites, the Chicago Boys, and the Chilean military in the coup that overthrew Allende and the neoliberal transformation of Chile under Pinochet have been well-documented and widely studied. There have, however, been few studies of the role of the middle class, which served as the mass base of the counterrevolution. Yet this angry middle-class mob was one of the central features of the Chilean political scene leading up to the coup.
When I arrived in Chile in 1972, people on the left were constantly being mobilized for marches and rallies in the center of Santiago, and increasingly, the reason for this was to counter the demonstrations mounted by the right. My friends brought me to these demonstrations, where there were an increasing number of skirmishes with right-wing counter-demonstrators.
I noticed a certain defensiveness among participants in these events, and a reluctance to be caught out alone in leaving them, for fear of being harassed, or worse, by right-wing groups. The revolution, it dawned on me, was on the defensive, and the right was beginning to take command of the streets. Twice I was nearly beaten up because I made the mistake of observing right-wing demonstrations with El Siglo, the Communist Party newspaper, tucked prominently under my arm. Stopped by Christian Democratic youth activists, I said that I was a Princeton University graduate student doing research on Chilean politics, which I was. They sneered at me and told me that I was one of Allende’s “thugs” imported from Cuba. On one occasion, the miraculous arrival of a Mexican friend saved me from a beating. On the other occasion, my fleet feet did the job.
I looked into the faces of the predominantly white right-wing crowds, many of them blond-haired, and imagined the same enraged faces at the fascist and Nazi demonstrations that took control of the streets in Italy and Germany. These were people who looked with disdain at what they called the rotos, or “broken ones,” that filled the left-wing demonstrations, people who were darker, many of them clearly of indigenous extraction.
Over the next few months, I interviewed both people on the right and people on the left on the rise of the counterrevolution. Some respondents on the right saw Allende and the Unidad Popular (UP) as a “minority government” out to impose themselves on the majority through “questionable” constitutional measures. Others saw the “constitutional road to socialism” as simply a cover for a plot to impose a “Stalinist dictatorship.” Still others saw the appeal to the middle class as “pure demagoguery” meant to lull the middle class into complacency as the left set about to “destroy democracy.” Most of the right-wingers I interviewed were Christian Democrats, who saw former Christian Democrats who had joined the UP and even such true-blue Christian Democrats as Radomiro Tomic, Allende’s rival in the 1970 elections, as “people who had been fooled by the Communists.” Practically all had become entrenched in their position of great suspicion, disdain, or hostility to the left.