Allende, Salvador 1908-1973
Salvador Allende Gossens was the democratically elected socialist president of Chile from 1970 until his death during a military coup d’état on September 11, 1973. Allende was born in Valparaíso on June 26, 1908, to an upper middle-class family. He trained at the University of Chile as a medical doctor, but he became involved in politics as a student and spent most of his adult life in politics. He was elected to the lower house of congress in 1937, served as minister of health from 1939 to 1942, and was elected to the senate in 1945. He ran for president in 1952, 1958, and 1964, and finally won in 1970 as the leader of a coalition of leftist parties, called Popular Unity.
As president, Allende sought to lead the country through a peaceful electoral transition to socialism, an endeavor known as the via chilena, or Chilean path. Popular Unity’s ambitious platform called for state control of much of the economy. The Chilean path was premised on nationalizing key industries such as copper. In addition, Allende accelerated the agrarian reform program initiated by the prior Christian Democratic government, promoted the creation of public-private firms, and vowed not to interfere in the affairs of small businesses, which were numerous in Chile. Allende also promised to improve the access of poor Chileans to education and health care.
The failure of Allende’s via chilena has inspired fierce debate among scholars. Many critics emphasize that Allende was a minority president who won only a plurality of the vote in 1970. However, minority presidents were common in Chile, with only Eduardo Frei Montalva (1911-1982) of the Christian Democratic Party winning a clear majority in the modern era (55% of the vote in 1964). In addition, the platform of the Christian Democrats in 1970 was similar to that of Popular Unity. Julio Faúndez suggests that a clear case can be made that “in 1970 more than two-thirds of the electorate voted in favor of radical reform” (1988, p. 180).
Some scholars argue that Allende’s policy mistakes led to the coup. For example, Paul Sigmund (1977) questions the legality of Popular Unity’s nationalization policies and emphasizes Allende’s tactical error of failing to form a coalition government with the Christian Democratic Party, which would have ensured an electoral majority. Other scholars, such as James Petras and Morris Morley (1975), emphasize the role of the opposition (including the U.S. government) in thwarting Allende’s policy objectives.
While scholars disagree over what ultimately caused the 1973 coup, there is a virtual consensus that the U.S. government and several large U.S.–based American businesses were determined to prevent Allende from being elected and once in office sought to destabilize his government. Allende had nearly won the presidency in 1958 as the leader of a leftist coalition. Faúndez (1988) notes that Allende’s near victory led to an unprecedented degree of U.S. intervention in Chilean politics. From 1958 to 1970, the U.S. government financially supported the electoral campaigns of Christian Democratic Party candidates. The United States also helped establish conservative think tanks and helped produce and disseminate popular media criticizing a hypothetical Allende administration. In fact, Faúndez notes that from 1958 to 1970, the opposition to Allende (Christian Democrats, conservatives, and the U.S. government) worked hand-in-hand to prevent an Allende victory.
In spite of these efforts, the opposition was divided in 1970 and Popular Unity won. Once Allende was elected, Henry Kissinger, President Richard Nixon’s (1913-1994) secretary of state, famously quipped, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people” (Faúndez 1988, p. 182). U.S. government documents included in the Senate report Covert Action in Chile, 1963-1973 (1975) clearly show that Nixon and Kissinger, working with the Central Intelligence Agency, actively sought to prevent Allende’s confirmation as president by the Chilean Congress in 1970 and worked to destabilize the Allende government until its demise in 1973. That said, critics of Allende and some analysts who supported the via chilena (e.g., Roxborough et al. 1977) have argued that even if the U.S. government had played no role in ousting Allende, the Popular Unity government would have failed due to its own mistakes and the fierceness and unity of the opposition.
At the end of an intense battle against military forces, Allende asked those who fought alongside him to evacuate La Moneda, the presidential palace. Rather than face capture, or likely execution at the hands of the military, Allende committed suicide. In the days leading up to the coup, Allende swore to his supporters that he would die defending his presidency and, more importantly, democracy in Chile. The military government that overthrew Allende ruled Chile from 1973 until 1989, when the dictator Augusto Pinochet stepped down after a popular referendum. During and after the coup, thousands died and thousands more were tortured.
Why was the U.S. government so intent on preventing an Allende victory? On one hand, the zero-sum game of politics during the cold war dictated that success by leftists anywhere was a threat to the United States. Thus, the via chilena had to be undermined to maintain the status quo between the United States and the Soviet Union. However, a more plausible explanation might lie in the fact that Allende and other Latin American leftists posed a threat to the hegemonic development model for Latin America and the third world, which favored large multinational firms. Allende and other leftist leaders emphasized that the region needed development models that benefited their countries and the poor. Key to this endeavor was limiting the repatriation of exorbitant profits by U.S.–based companies. The U.S. government was determined to protect the interests of U.S.–based companies and also to undermine a new socialist government in the hemisphere.
Petras, James, and Morris Morley. 1975. The United States and Chile: Imperialism and the Overthrow of the Allende Government. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Sigmund, Paul. 1977. The Overthrow of Allende and the Politics of Chile, 1964-1976. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.
U.S. Senate, Select Intelligence Committee. 1975. Covert Action in Chile, 1963-1973: Staff Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, United States Senate. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Robert Sean Mackin
Born July 26, 1908
Died September 11, 1973
S alvador Allende made history by being the first democratically elected socialist head of state in the Western Hemisphere. Socialism is an economic and political system in which the government owns most means of production and profits are shared with everyone. Trained as a doctor, Allende devoted most of his life to improving the lives of working-class Chileans. He wanted to create a true republic of the working class, in which democracy ruled—a country dedicated to their health, welfare, and development. He wanted to show that a peaceful road to socialism existed.
Allende's unique background allowed him to play a crucial role in the creation of the Popular Unity Coalition that brought him to power. He was able to unify traditional and revolutionary political parties to create a group to govern Chile. But in doing so, he touched off a frenzy of concern in the Western world. The United States and other Western countries worried that Chile's socialism provided an opportunity for communist countries, especially the Soviet Union, to gain a foothold in the Americas. Communism is a governmental system in which a single political party, the Communist Party, controls nearly all aspects of society. In a communist economy, private ownership of businesses and property is prohibited so that the goods produced and the wealth accumulated can be shared equally by all.
Salvador Allende Gossens was born on July 26, 1908, into an upper-middle-class family in Valparaíso, Chile. His father, Salvador Allende Castro, was a lawyer. His mother, Laura Gossens, was a teacher and stressed a freethinking family atmosphere. Allende's family had a long tradition of service to the country. At sixteen years of age, following his education in Chile's public schools, Salvador Allende volunteered for military service. He went on to earn an officer's rank in the army reserves.
His family also had a long tradition of participation in radicalism, in which extreme change in politics is advocated. His father and uncle were part of the reformist efforts (mass changes) of the Radical Party in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Allende was exposed to radical ideas and concepts early in life. When his father died, Salvador Allende declared that he would dedicate his life to the social struggle, or concerns related to such issues as health and employment, of the people of Chile.
After his discharge from the military, Allende went on to study medicine at the University of Chile. He was a good student and held several leadership positions while in school. He was president of the student medical center, vice chairman of the student federation, and a delegate to the university council. He married Hortensia Bussy and had three daughters.
Allende's education was not restricted to medicine. He began reading the works of political philosopher Karl Marx (1818–1883) and writings by former Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924). Allende became convinced that a socialist revolution would solve Chile's social and economic problems. He did not, however, agree with the rigidity of the Soviet Union's communist policies. While in school, Allende helped found the Chilean Socialist Party as a socialist alternative to the Communist Party's support for the Soviet Union.
Allende's education was interrupted by frequent suspensions from school and at least two arrests, all of which stemmed from his political activities. Allende was protesting the dictatorship of General Carlos Ibáñez del Campo (1877–1960). Allende was awarded a doctorate in medicine in 1937, but because of his political activism and his outspokenness, he found that potential employers were wary of offering him high-level medical positions. He ended up in a series of lower-level jobs.
Though Allende's medical career never really blossomed, his political career began to take off. He served as secretary general of the Socialist Party of Chile in 1933. In 1937, he was elected to Chile's Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Chile's congress. While in congress, Allende introduced many bills addressing issues of public health, social welfare, and women's rights. He developed a reputation as a champion of the poor.
Allende served as Chile's minister of health from 1939 to 1943, during which time he focused on the social causes of poor health. Allende knew that individual decisions always affected personal health, but he believed that social factors, such as poverty, access to health care, and the living conditions of each person, also played a role. He tried to address these factors through changes in health insurance and industrial safety laws. While he was minister of health, he published a book, The Medical-Social Reality in Chile.
In 1945, Allende was elected to Chile's Senate, the upper house of Chile's congress. Allende served three eight-year terms in the Senate, which included stints as vice president and then president of the Senate. He also unsuccessfully ran for president of Chile a number of times. He was suspended from the Socialist Party for a while in 1952 because of his support for the Communist Party of Chile, which was outlawed at that time. In 1956, he served as the first president of the Popular Revolutionary Action Front (FRAP), a communistsocialist coalition, or group. In 1970, Allende was finally successful in his bid for the presidency and became the first popularly elected socialist head of state in the Americas.
In Chile, there were numerous political parties. To elect a president, various parties often had to cooperate with one another and agree to vote for one person. A candidate needed at least a plurality (most votes) to make the runoff election in which to seek a majority. By the late 1960s, Allende was considered past his prime as a politician. However, he was also recognized as the only person who could bring together the groups necessary to win the election. Allende was able to unite the Socialist Party with the Radical Party, the Communist Party, the Christian Democrats, and other reform parties in Chile to craft a coalition—called the Popular Unity Coalition—that was able to garner enough support to win the election.
Allende won plurality (36 percent), but since he did not receive a majority of votes, he had to participate in a runoff in a second election to gain a majority. In the runoff, Allende won. However, the 36 percent in the initial balloting represented only a tiny percentage of Chile's total population. Since the number of votes Allende received represented less than half the voters, the Chilean congress had to confirm his victory in the runoff election. Confirmation was not guaranteed, and much negotiation took place.
Finally, the Chilean congress agreed to confirm Allende as president in exchange for his support of some changes to Chile's constitution. The changes reflected the concerns of many Chileans that Allende's socialist affiliations would lead to a deterioration in the people's rights, similar to that seen in the Soviet Union. Allende instituted major changes in the economic system, such as wage increases for low-paid workers while freezing prices of goods. He also nationalized companies, such as copper mines, owned by U.S. citizens without compensating for losses; pushed for collective farms; and nationalized many local businesses. Allende supported the constitutional amendments guaranteeing freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and other basic freedoms. He became president in 1970.
Cold War fears
Allende had run for president on a platform, or political program, of moderate reform. He advocated agricultural reform, which usually meant the redistribution of land from large landowners to people with no land. He also supported labor reform, social welfare programs, and liberal economic programs. One of his more controversial proposals involved Chile's copper mines. These were very important to Chile's economy. Copper mining and production made up a huge part of Chile's exports each year—about 75 percent. But companies based in the United States controlled the copper mines. Allende and many other Chileans believed that the copper mines should be controlled by Chile. Allende proceeded to nationalize ownership of the copper mines.
The United States did not want Allende to be Chile's president. U.S. president Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994; served 1969–74; see entry) was strongly anticommunist and did not believe that Chile should have a socialist government. When Allende was elected, Nixon did not send him the customary greeting of congratulations. Nixon feared that Chile would be only the first of the South American governments to fall to communism, that Chile would pave the way for others. Allende added to Nixon's fears when he resumed diplomatic ties with communist Cuba within ten days of taking office.
Immediately following Allende's election, many of the wealthier people in Chile sent their money out of the country. They were afraid that Allende would take their money and give it to poor people. In addition, about fifteen thousand people left Chile. Trying to calm his nation's fears, Allende said that 98 percent of Chileans had nothing to fear from his government, but many people worried that they were part of the 2 percent that would be affected.
Rumors spread of a violent response to Allende's election. Some people were pushing the military to take control of Chile and overthrow Allende. The move to overthrow Allende was coming from reactionary people in Chile. Reactionary opinions involve a former, and sometimes outdated, political policy. Allende said that his supporters would answer force with force.
Allende tried to alleviate U.S. fears of a communist government in the Americas by promising that Chile would never permit its military bases to be used against the United States. The United States was not convinced and began pressuring other countries to reduce or eliminate trade with Chile, thereby seriously hurting its economy. However, because conservative Chileans were affiliated with the military, the United States continued to send money and equipment to the Chilean military.
In the early 1970s, the world was in the midst of a recession, or reduced economic activity. Chile was no exception. Inflation, or increasing consumer prices, was high, and jobs were scarce. There were shortages of the basic items required for living, and food was rationed. The Chilean people became more and more frantic about the economic situation.
Allende tried to respond, but the U.S. economic blockade made it difficult. In addition, he instituted some programs that frightened the Chilean people. For example, he started a neighborhood surveillance program and applied pressure on opposition newspapers to quiet the voices critical of his programs. For many Chileans, Allende's programs seemed too much like the confining programs of the Soviet Union. Allende lost even more support by appearing to be soft on crime, which continued to escalate.
In 1972 and 1973, general strikes, or work stoppages, crippled the Chilean economy. Workers and shopkeepers were upset with the inflation and lack of goods, and they protested by refusing to work. The economy began to collapse. The country was falling apart, but the military, fortified by U.S. contributions, was strong.
On September 11, 1973, the military put into action a plan to overthrow President Allende. The military surrounded Allende's palace; inside, Allende, his daughter Beatriz, and his supporters waited. Allende's daughter was a fervent supporter of the far left, or liberal, component of the Socialist Party. Some historians have suggested that Allende's decision to nationalize businesses was partially driven by a wish not to disappoint her. Allende made one final speech affirming his belief in the Chilean people, and then died. It was never determined whether he shot himself or was killed by an assassin.
The coup was very violent. Several thousand people were killed or injured in the overthrow of Allende. Allende was buried in an unmarked grave, reportedly so that the grave site would not become a shrine. In 1990, he was reburied with honor. Allende became a hero for many liberals. With his commitment to workers' rights and the welfare of the poor, as well as his unwillingness to bow to pressure from the United States, he inspired many liberals in America. Allende's stature only grew when accusations surfaced that the United States, specifically the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), had engineered his downfall. For the political right, or conservatives, Allende continued to stand for the threat of communism.
For More Information
Alegria, Fernando. Allende. Translated by Frank Janney. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994.
Allende Gossens, Salvador. Salvador Allende Reader: Chile's Voice of Democracy. Edited by James D. Cockcroft. New York: Ocean Press, 2000.
Boorstein, Edward. Allende's Chile: An Inside View. New York: International Publishers, 1977.
Davis, Nathaniel. The Last Two Years of Salvador Allende. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985.
Kaufman, Edy. Crisis in Allende's Chile: New Perspectives. New York: Praeger, 1988.
Petras, James F., and Morris Morley. The United States and Chile: Imperialism and the Overthrow of the Allende Government. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975.
Sigmund, Paul E. The United States and Democracy in Chile. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.
Allende's Journeys in the Communist World
In 1958, Salvador Allende visited Cuba and began lifelong friendships with Fidel Castro (1926–; see entry), who became president of communist Cuba in 1959, and revolutionary Che Guevara (1928–1967). Later, as a senator in Chile, Allende visited communist North Vietnam and was hosted by North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969; see entry). Allende also visited North Korea and East Germany, two more countries that had communist governments.
Allende continued to emphasize that he did not want violent revolution in Chile, but his visits and friendships in the communist world frightened many people, both inside and outside of Chile. Chileans worried that Allende did not seem to recognize the repression and lack of civil rights that were common under communist governments. Still, Allende asserted that he believed in democratic evolution, not revolution. When Allende was elected as president of Chile, his friend Guevara sent him a note saying that Allende was seeking change through political means, while Guevara sought it through revolution.
Salvador Allende Gossens
Salvador Allende Gossens
Salvador Allende Gossens (1908-1973) was President of Chile from 1970 to 1973. He died in the Presidential Palace during the brutal military coup which installed a military dictatorship in Chile in 1973. Allende dedicated his life to the cause of socialism in Chile, serving as a congressman, senator, and government minister during his long public career.
Salvador Allende Gossens was born in Valparaíso, Chile, on July 26, 1908. Allende's family had a long tradition of political involvement in progressive and liberal causes. His father and uncles participated in the reformist efforts of the Radical Party in the 19th and early 20th centuries. His grandfather founded one of the first lay schools in Chile when the Catholic Church claimed hegemony over education. The family also had roots in Chilean freemasonry, with Allende's grandfather serving as a Most Serene Grand Master of the Masonic Order.
In an interview with French Marxist Régis Debray in 1971, Allende also credited an anarchist shoemaker, Juan Demarchi, for contributing to his early political education during his teenage years. In the shoemaker's shop, after school, Allende was introduced to revolutionary theory and the reality of artisan radicalism in early 20th-century Chile.
Following in the footsteps of his uncle Ramon Allende, who was the organizer of Chile's medical services during the country's war with Bolivia and Peru (1879-1883), Salvador Allende began his medical studies at the age of 18 and received his medical degree in 1932. His involvement in university politics as a leader of the Chilean Student Federation found him active in student protests against dictator Carlos Ibáñez (1927-1931), and Allende was arrested on more than one occasion. Allende's brother-in-law was the brother of Marmaduque Grove, leader of Chile's short-lived "Socialist Republic" of 1932. Shortly after Grove's government fell, Allende's father died and at the funeral Allende declared, "I would dedicate my life to the social struggle, and I believe that I have fulfilled that promise."
Allende married Hortensia Bussi, and the couple had three daughters—Paz, Isabel, and Beatriz. His family remained committed to his personal struggles and to his political commitments throughout his life, with Beatriz actually shouldering arms alongside her father in the presidential palace during the 1973 military coup. His wife and other family members continued active resistance to the military government both within Chile and from exile after Allende's death in 1973.
Allende and Chilean Socialism
In 1933 Allende joined more well-known political leaders in founding the Chilean Socialist Party. As leader of the Socialists in Valparaíso, where he worked in public health, Allende was elected to the Chilean Congress as a deputy in 1937 and served as minister of health in a "Popular Front" government in 1939 and again in 1941, when he also assumed a major leadership post in the Socialist Party.
In 1943 Allende led a majority faction of the Socialists out of the Popular Front coalition, breaking with the old Socialist caudillo, Grove. Allende emerged as secretary general of the splintered party. As he was to do for the rest of his life, Allende declared his commitment to Marxism, socialism, democracy, and nationalism—to promote an independent and unique Chilean road to socialism.
From 1945 until his election as president of Chile, Salvador Allende served in the Chilean senate as a leading member of the Socialist Party. He served five years as vice-president of the Senate and two years as its president. In 1952, 1958, and 1964 Allende was the presidential candidate of leftist coalitions; in 1958 Allende barely lost the presidency to Jorge Alessandri. Shortly thereafter he visited Cuba in the first month of Fidel Castro's new government and enjoyed close contacts with Fidel, Raul Castro, and Che Guevara. Allende cherished a copy of Che Guevara's Guerrilla Warfare inscribed "To Salvador Allende, who is trying to obtain the same result by other means, Affectionately, Che."
In the Chilean Senate Allende consistently defended the interests of the working classes, attacked capitalism and imperialism, defended the Cuban Revolution, and vocally supported the guerrilla movements in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s. Allende strongly supported OLAS, the Cuban-based solidarity movement for Latin American revolutionaries, and glorified the memory of Che Guevara after his death in Bolivia in 1967. Though rejecting violent revolution for Chile, Allende proclaimed the necessity for revolutionary change, for socialist transformation, "through democracy, pluralism and freedom."
The Allende Presidency
In 1970 Allende was elected president of Chile as the candidate of a leftist coalition called Unidad Popular, or Popular Unity. A coalition of Socialists, Communists, Radicals, Catholic leftists, and other minor parties, this coalition represented less than 40 percent of the electorate but was victorious in a three-way election by a narrow plurality. Seeking to carry out dramatic social, economic, and political reforms, including nationalization of Chile's major natural resources, large industries, banking, and trade, the Popular Unity coalition faced stiff internal opposition and the animosity of the Nixon administration in the United States. President Allende attempted to hold together his coalition and to deal with ever more intense internal opposition along with economic sanctions, both overt and covert, applied by the United States. Allende's commitment to socialism, though more moderate than many of his allies, nevertheless generated significant polarization of Chilean society. Economic difficulties, caused both by poor economic planning and by internal and external adversaries, exacerbated political conflict within the country.
By mid-1973 the Chilean economy was experiencing high levels of inflation and serious declines in productivity as the internal opposition to the government became more militant. Finally, on September 11, 1973, the armed forces mounted a nationally coordinated coup d'etat in which large numbers of civilians were killed, wounded, and or imprisoned. President Allende refused to surrender and leave the country as the coup leaders demanded, instead fighting against the military from the presidential palace with an automatic weapon given to him by Fidel Castro. Allende died during the coup, with conflicting reports claiming he committed suicide or was murdered by the soldiers who stormed the presidential palace after it was attacked by air force planes.
In his last broadcast from the palace to the people of Chile, Allende gave inspiration to his followers for the years of military dictatorship that were to follow: "I have faith in Chile and in its destiny. Other men will overcome this dark and bitter moment, when treason stands to conquer. May you go forward in the knowledge that, sooner rather than later, the great avenues will open once again along which free citizens will march in order to build a better society."
Much has been written about the presidency of Salvador Allende in Chile, but there is no detailed study of his life and career in English. Allende's own writing and speeches provide a clear idea of his early commitment to improving the life of the majority of Chile's people and of his political values. Examples of Allende's speeches and interview material can be found in Salvador Allende, Chile's Road to Socialism (1973); Régis Debray, The Chilean Revolution (1971); and "An Interview with Allende" in New Chile (1973). A number of books dealing with Allende in the Chilean political system include Stefan de Vylder, Allende's Chile (1976); Paul Sigmund, The Overthrow of Allende and the Politics of Chile, 1964-1976 (1977); Paul Drake, Socialism and Populism in Chile, 1932-52 (1978); Arturo Valenzuela, The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes: Chile (1978); and Brian Loveman, Chile (1979). □
Allende Gossens, Salvador