Nixon and Kissinger fiddle and Chile burns.
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.