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Chile's September 11

Remembering U.S. terror against Chile's revolution

A version of this article was first published in the September 2006 issue of Socialism and Liberation magazine.

Monada Palace bombed in Chile, Sept 11, 1973
Chile's military planes bomb the
presidential palace, La Moneda,
Santiago, Sept. 11, 1973.

With the fall of the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. government opened up its massive propaganda apparatus to justify its military adventures for imperialist domination of the Middle East. The wars against Afghanistan and Iraq were launched in the name of "national security" and against the threat of terrorism.

But even before the 2001 attacks, Sept. 11 was remembered as a tragic day for the world working class. On that day in 1973, a U.S.-backed military coup led by Augusto Pinochet deposed Chile’s socialist president, Salvador Allende, and ushered in a fascist regime that killed tens of thousands of Chileans.

Evidence that emerged after the coup pointed directly to the White House. Tapes were found of confidential conversations between then-president Richard Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, admitting to having a hand in the coup. Kissinger was even quoted as saying: "I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves."

So much for U.S. support for democracy

Between the years 1970, when Allende was elected, and 1973, when he was deposed, the eyes of millions of workers were fixed on Chile. For the first time since the 1959 Cuban revolution, a Latin American government was genuinely speaking in the name of the working class and socialism, and against U.S. imperialist domination.

The Chilean experience also posed crucial questions for revolutionaries and socialists around the world. Could socialists take power through elections? Was there a constitutional road for workers to take power in their own interests?

Chile’s working class in 1970 was suffering from extreme economic hardships. Inflation was running at 35 percent. One out of every five workers was unemployed. Half the children under 15 suffered from malnutrition.

Poverty and unemployment were not new in Chile, nor in Latin America overall. But by 1970, the winds of revolution were sweeping the world. Liberation movements were challenging imperialist domination across Asia, Africa and Latin America. Thanks to the strength of the socialist camp, socialism was seen as a real alternative for the world’s working class. Socialist Cuba was a special pole for Latin America’s workers.

Salvador Allende ran for election as the candidate of the Popular Unity (UP)—a coalition of the Communist Party, Allende’s Socialist Party and other leftist and social-democratic forces. His program, which the UP called the "Chilean road to socialism," called for nationalizing key sectors of the economy and raising salaries.

Allende’s election in 1970 was based on the hopes of Chile’s working class for real change—for social programs that addressed their needs and for a break with the foreign domination that characterized Chile’s economy and society. He won the election as the largest vote-getter in a three-way race with 36.2 percent of the popular vote.

According to the Chilean constitution, the Congress would vote on candidates in case the winner did not have a majority. The Christian Democrats, a ruling-class party that had run on a similar program to the UP, agreed to back Allende against the right-wing National Party candidate, Jorge Alessandri—provided that Allende agree to sign the Statute of Constitutional Guarantees.

The Statute of Constitutional Guarantees was a set of terms and conditions dictated by the bourgeois class to allow Allende to govern. By signing the statute, Allende agreed to leave the military and police unchanged. It prohibited decreasing the number of officers in either of these repressive institutions.

In addition, Allende agreed to ban any creation of workers’ or people’s militias.

This "contract" promised the ruling class, in essence, that despite any measure Allende might enact, there would be no possibility for the working class to overthrow the bourgeoisie. In November 1970, Allende was sworn in as president.

Gains of the UP government

Allende began to make strides for the Chilean people. One of his initiatives was to enforce social services such as one that granted half a liter of free milk for each child. In the first year of his presidency, inflation dropped to 22.1 percent. Wages increased by 60 percent, thanks to an across-the-board raise for the working class combined with a government ban on price hikes.

In addition, Chile opened trade with Cuba. Leftist political prisoners were released.

In a significant move against foreign-owned private property, Allende’s government nationalized major U.S. corporations in 1971—including the U.S.-owned telephone company, ITT, and the copper mines owned by Anaconda Copper Mining, Kennecott and Braden. Allende decreed that all copper mines would now be in the hands of the Chilean government. Private companies would receive compensation for their loss—less the amount of profits they had extracted over previous years.

For the copper companies, that meant the governemnt taking over the big capitalists’ property—and then handing them a check for $145 million.

Every step toward meeting the needs of the masses gave the working class greater confidence to push forward the class struggle against the capitalists. Workers took over factories, setting up organizing committees called "industrial cordons." The cordons were open to all interested workers, where they began planning future tactics to place the control of production into the hands of the people.

Other forms of class organizations took root throughout the industrial neighborhoods and the farmlands. People’s Supply Committees (JAPs) ensured that goods were distributed equally in the poorest neighborhoods. Community structures called "communal commandos," uniting workers and students with the peasantry, attempted to form the nucleus of an armed vanguard leadership.

The bourgeoisie fights back

The Chilean bourgeoisie and its imperialist sponsors in Washington were not going to let the Chilean workers take power without a fight. Even before Allende was elected, ITT representatives were meeting with CIA officials to keep Allende from power.

After Allende made good on his promise to nationalize U.S. corporations, the U.S. government retaliated by implementing a blockade on economic aid to Chile. On an international level, Washington manipulated the price of copper by lowering the world price in 1972 to less than 23 percent of what it was a year before. In addition, the U.S. government demanded the immediate payment of billions of dollars in debt Chile owed.

In a now well-known chronicle of U.S. subversion, CIA agents worked with rightist elements in the Chilean military and political elite to foment a fascist-like movement against the Popular Unity government. Beginning in 1972, middle-class elements encouraged by the Catholic Church and the rich began to take to the streets to destabilize the people’s government.

In October 1972, truck owners staged a lockout, preventing the distribution of goods throughout Chile. Business owners, wealthy farmers and bankers orchestrated demonstrations in defense of "free enterprise," calling for Allende to step down.

Reactionaries began pressuring the government to return the factories and businesses to their owners. On June 29, 1973, the first coup attempt occurred. Tanks surrounded the presidential palace, La Moneda. But some sectors of the military stood by the constitution, and the coup was pushed back.

On Aug. 22, 1973, the Chamber of Deputies passed a resolution declaring that Allende must be taken out of power by any means necessary. The declaration stated that Allende attempted "to conquer absolute power with the obvious purpose of subjecting all citizens to the strictest political and economic control by the state … [with] the goal of establishing a totalitarian system."

Which way forward?

The working class and the bourgeoisie were both preparing for battle. Tragically, despite the revolutionary fervor sweeping the working class and peasantry, the UP leadership did not orient the workers to organize independently to defend themselves.

Allende was performing a juggling act, acting under the belief that by making sufficient concessions to the ruling class it would "respect the constitution." To the very end, he hoped that by keeping generals in the cabinet with him, the military would remain neutral.

Others warned Allende to prepare for battle. Cuban president Fidel Castro presented Allende with a Kalashnikov rifle—interpreted by many as a reminder of the need for armed organization. After the coup and Allende’s death, Castro spoke to the Cuban people at the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana on Sept. 28, 1973. "The premonition and reason that we had in presenting the president with this rifle was great," he said. "If every worker and every peasant had had in his hands a rifle similar to that one, there would not have been a fascist coup."

In Chile, the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR) consistently put forward the need to form militias to defend the revolution. The MIR—which had been formed just 10 years earlier—had substantial support in peasant and working-class neighborhoods. But they did not have enough of a base in the working class to decisively lead the struggle.

U.S. unleashed terror

On Sept. 11, 1973, the military triumphed after a bloody assault and bombardment of the presidential Moneda Palace. Allende was killed and Augusto Pinochet took power. It was an operation planned in Washington with CIA training and coordination.

The National Stadium became a virtual concentration camp where over 40,000 workers and leftists were held, with torture and summary executions killing thousands.

The parties that made up the UP were outlawed and thousands of communists, socialists, students and other working-class activists were killed. Pinochet’s dictatorship, which lasted until 1990, opened up one of the darkest chapters in Latin America’s history.

The coup was a stark reminder to the working class and all revolutionaries: taking hold of the government is not the same as conquering the state. A real revolution’s first life-and-death task is to dismantle the ruling class’ military and police and construct new armed forces based on the working class and its revolution.

The Allende government’s policy of trying to pacify the bourgeoisie—instead of preparing the working class for battle—also serves as a warning to those political forces that seek to make concessions to the ruling class.

The Chilean working class had not learned those lessons in time in 1973. But they have taken root around the continent. In Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez is currently mobilizing people’s militias while deepening solidarity with Cuba and strengthening ties with Bolivia’s Evo Morales.

The impact of the coup lasted well beyond Sept. 11. Thousands of Chilean workers and leftists were assassinated. Other political leaders associated with Allende were targeted for assassination. On Sept. 21, 1976, Allende’s foreign minister and defense minister Orlando Letelier was killed by a car bomb in Washington, D.C., along with U.S. activist Ronnie Moffit. Letelier had also been Chile’s ambassador to the United States under Allende.

The U.S. ruling class wants Sept. 11 to stand as a reminder of the "terrorist threats" used to justify endless wars of aggression. But Sept. 11, 1973, is rather a reminder to U.S. workers of the terror that Washington and Wall Street will employ in defense of profits for their tiny elite—as they did against Chile’s working class.

It is a reminder of the need for revolution.

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