History of Chile


From 1932 to 1973, Chile was the only country in Latin America to sustain electoral democracy at a time when major Marxist parties led the workers. Its stable multiparty political system bore more resemblance to West European than to Latin American models. Chileans took great pride in their representative democracy, and many looked with contempt on their more tumultuous neighbors.

Out of the turmoil of the depression, new political forces arose that shifted the political spectrum to the left. The Conservatives and the Liberals grew closer together as the combined forces on the right, now more fearful of socialism than of their traditional enemies in the anticlerical camp. The Radicals replaced the Liberals as the swing party in the center, now that they were outflanked on the left by the growing PCCh and the Socialist Party. A small group of Catholics known as the Falange broke away from the Conservative Party in 1938 to form a new party, the National Falange (Falange Nacional). It offered a non-Marxist, centrist vision of dramatic reform, a vision that would take wing in the 1950s under the name of Christian Democracy.

Alessandri's Second Presidency, 1932-38

Under the steady hand of the veteran Alessandri, reelected in December 1932 with 55 percent of the vote, Chile rapidly reinstated its interrupted democracy and revived its shattered economy. Although still a centrist reformer at heart, Alessandri now became the paladin of the right because the new socialist left had outflanked him. He put into practice both the 1925 constitution and the 1931 labor code; reshuffled military commands; supported a 50,000-member civilian paramilitary force, the Republican Militia (Milicia Republicana) during 1932-36 to keep the armed forces in the barracks and to threaten leftists; and cut unemployment by promoting industry and public works.

In accordance with long-standing Chilean foreign policy principles, Alessandri sought to avoid entanglement in European conflicts. He cultivated good relations with both Britain and Germany, while remaining friendly with the United States. He declared neutrality in the Spanish Civil War, as the Chilean government had done during World War I.

The Socialists, Communists, and Radicals denounced Alessandri for insufficient economic nationalism and inadequate attention to the needs of working people. Heeding the new policy of the Comintern, adopted in 1935, the Chilean Communists backed away from proletarian revolution, which they had advocated obediently from 1928 to 1934. Now they promoted broad, reformist electoral coalitions in the name of antifascism. With slight deviations and emendations, the PCCh sustained this accommodative approach from 1935 until 1980.

Prodded by the Communists, the Radicals and Socialists aligned in 1936 with the Confederation of Chilean Workers (Confederación de Trabajadores de Chile--CTCh), a by-product of union growth and solidarity, to forge the Popular Front. The Popular Front was given impetus by Alessandri's crushing of a railroad strike that year. The coalition also included the old Democrat Party, which was gradually supplanted by the Socialist Party until the former disappeared in the early 1940s. Similar to multiparty alliances in Europe and to populist coalitions in Latin America, the Popular Front galvanized the middle and working classes on behalf of democracy, social welfare, and industrialization. Its redistributive, populist slogan was "Bread, Roof, and Overcoat," coined by the 1932 Socialist Republic.

The Popular Front barely beat Alessandri's would-be rightist successor in the presidential contest of 1938 with 50.3 percent of the vote. One key to the Popular Front's victory was its nomination of a mild-mannered Radical, Pedro Aguirre Cerda, rather than the inflammatory Socialist, Marmaduke Grove. The other key was a bizarre sequence of events in which a group of Chilean fascists (members of the National Socialist Movement), backing Ibáñez's independent bid for the presidency, staged an unsuccessful putsch on the eve of the election. The slaughter of the putschists by forces of the Alessandri government prompted the fascists to throw their votes to the Popular Front. Although not numerous, those ballots put the Popular Front over the top.

The incongruous alignment of Nazis behind the antifascist Popular Front showed how far Chilean politicians would go to subordinate ideology to electoral considerations. Thus, a coalition that included Socialists and Communists captured the presidency quite early in twentieth-century Chile. Future president Salvador Allende served briefly as minister of health in this period.

Running under the slogan "To Govern Is to Educate," Aguirre Cerda (president, 1938-41) won an electoral majority in 1938. However, less than 5 percent of the national population actually voted for him. Until the rapid expansion of the electorate in the 1950s, less than 10 percent of the national population voted for presidential candidates. Only literate males over the age of twenty-one could vote in most elections until the 1950s; of those eligible to vote, approximately 50 percent usually registered, and the vast majority of those registered cast ballots. Women were allowed to exercise the franchise in installments, first for municipal elections in 1935, then for congressional contests in 1951, and finally for presidential races in 1952.

As had been the case with other Chilean electoral victories by left-wing candidates, tense days passed between the counting of the ballots and the ratification of the results by Congress. Opponents of the left schemed to prevent the takeover by their nemeses or to extract concessions before accepting defeat. Aguirre Cerda assured rightists of his moderate intentions, and the Alessandri government presided over his peaceful inauguration. The military quashed a single coup attempt in 1939.

Popular Front Rule, 1938-41

Led by the centrist Radical Party, the administration of the Popular Front assimilated the Socialists and Communists into the established bargaining system, making potentially revolutionary forces into relatively moderate participants in legal institutions. Although the official Popular Front ended in 1941, that bargaining system, with Marxist parties usually backing reformist Radical presidents, lasted until 1952.

Aguirre Cerda, like all Chilean presidents in the 1930s and 1940s, essentially pursued a model of state capitalism in which government collaborated with private enterprise in the construction of a mixed economy. The Popular Front promoted simultaneous importsubstitution industrialization and welfare measures for the urban middle and working classes. As in the rest of Latin America, the Great Depression and then the onset of World War II accelerated domestic production of manufactured consumer items, widened the role of the state, and augmented dependence on the United States. All these trends dissuaded Marxists from demanding bold redistributive measures at the expense of domestic and foreign capitalists.

Aiming to catch up with the more affluent West, Chile's Popular Front mobilized the labor movement behind national industrial development more than working-class social advances. Although workers received few material benefits from the Popular Front, the number of legal unions more than quadrupled from the early 1930s to the early 1940s. Still, unions represented only about 10 percent of the work force.

Prior to his illness and death in November 1941, President Aguirre Cerda labored to hold his coalition together, to overcome the implacable opposition of the right-wing parties, and to fulfill his promises of industrialization and urban social reform. The Socialists and Communists quarreled incessantly, especially over the PCCh's support of the 1939 German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact between Hitler and Stalin. Early in 1941, the Socialist Party withdrew from the Popular Front coalition because of its animosity toward the PCCh, its rival claimant to worker loyalty and Marxist inspiration. Because the Conservatives and Liberals blocked nearly all legislation in Congress, little social reform was accomplished, except for improvements in housing and education. To appease rightwingers , the president clamped down on rural unionization.

From the 1920s into the 1960s, this modus vivendi between urban reformers and rural conservatives held fast. Progressives carried out reforms in the cities for the middle and working classes, while denying peasants union rights. Thus were preserved the availability of low-cost foodstuffs for urban consumers, control of the countryside for latifundistas (large landowners), and domination of the rural vote by right-wing politicians. From time to time, Marxist organizers threatened to mobilize the rural work force, and time and again they were restrained by their centrist political allies, who needed to reassure the economic and political right-wingers. When peasants protested this exploitation, they were repressed by landowners or government troops.

The greatest achievement of the Popular Front was the creation in 1939 of the state Production Development Corporation (Corporación de Fomento de la Producción--Corfo) to supply credit to new enterprises, especially in manufacturing. Partly with loans from the United States Export-Import Bank, Corfo contributed greatly to import-substitution industrialization, mainly for consumer items. The economically active population working in industry grew from 15 percent in 1930 to 20 percent in 1952, where it hovered for two decades. From the end of the 1930s to the start of the 1950s, Corfo supplied almost one-fourth of total domestic investments.

Juan Antonio Ríos's Presidency, 1942-46

A Radical even more conservative than Aguirre Cerda, Juan Antonio Ríos Morales (president, 1942-46), won the 1942 presidential election with 56 percent of the vote. Although the formal Popular Front had been terminated, the Socialists and Communists still gave their votes to Ríos to avoid a return of Ibáñez as the candidate of the Conservatives and Liberals. Under the stringencies of wartime, the new president further soft-pedaled social reform and emphasized industrial growth, under the slogan, "To Govern Is to Produce." Although he made some improvements in housing and health care, Ríos concentrated on promoting urban enterprises.

Ríos continued his predecessor's policy of neutrality in World War II. Although sympathetic to the Allies, many Chileans worried about the vulnerability of their Pacific Coast. Because of a desire for closer economic and security ties with the United States, Ríos finally bowed to pressure from Socialists, Communists, and other staunch antifascists, severing relations with the Axis in January 1943.

Even after breaking relations, Chile was never satisfied with the amount of aid and Lend-Lease military equipment it received from the United States. The United States, in turn, was equally discontent with languid Chilean action against Axis agents and firms. Nevertheless, Chile subsidized the Allied cause by accepting an artificially low price for its copper exports to the United States while paying increasingly higher prices for its imports. The war boosted Chile's mineral exports and foreign-exchange accumulation. At the same time, United States trade, credits, and advisers facilitated state support for new enterprises, including steel, oil, and fishing.

Not unlike Ibáñez in the 1920s, Ríos hoped to develop the national economy through external alignment with the "Colossus of the North." After displacing Britain as Chile's most important economic partner in the 1920s, the United States faced a period of German competition in the 1930s and then reasserted its economic dominance in the 1940s. That economic domination would last until the 1980s.

As Ríos's health deteriorated in 1945, another Radical, Alfredo Duhalde Vásquez (president, June-August 1946), took over as interim chief executive. Reacting against Ríos's conservatism and Duhalde's antilabor policies, progressive factions of the Radical Party joined with the Communists to field a left-wing Radical, Gabriel González Videla, for president in the 1946 election. González Videla also received the backing of most Socialists.

Trying to revive the reformist spirit of 1938, González Videla eked out a plurality of 40 percent against a field of rightist contenders. Once again, the candidate of the left had to walk a tightrope from election to inauguration because Congress had the right to pick either of the two front-runners when no one polled an absolute majority. González Videla ensured his congressional approval by granting landowners new legal restrictions on peasant unionization, restrictions that lasted from 1947 until 1967. He also appeased the right by including Liberals in his cabinet along with Radicals and Communists, the most exotic ministerial concoction Chileans had ever seen, again demonstrating the politician's ability to cut deals transcending ideology.

Gabriel González Videla's Presidency, 1946-52

Chile quickly became enmeshed in the cold war, as Moscow and especially Washington meddled in its affairs. That friction resulted in the splitting of the CTCh in 1946 into Communist and Socialist branches and then the outlawing of the PCCh. The Socialists were now opposed to the Communists and aligned with the (American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations, the AFL-CIO), having grown closer to United States labor interests during World War II.

Once in office, González Videla (president, 1946-52) rapidly turned against his Communist allies. He expelled them from his cabinet and then banned them completely under the 1948 Law for the Defense of Democracy. The PCCh remained illegal until 1958. He also severed relations with the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia.

Controversy still swirls around the reasons for this aboutface . According to González Videla and his sympathizers, the repression of the Communists was necessary to thwart their plots against his government, although no evidence has been found to substantiate that claim. According to the Communists and other critics of González Videla, he acted under pressure from the United States and out of a desire to forge closer economic and military bonds with the dominant superpower. Historians have established that the president wanted to appease the United States, that the United States encouraged a crackdown on Chilean Communists, and that the United States government appreciated González Videla's actions and thereafter expanded the scope of its loans, investments, and technical missions to Chile. The United States and Chile also agreed to a military assistance pact while González Videla was president. However, no conclusive evidence has come to light that the United States directly pushed him to act.

Although González Videla feared Communist intentions and respected the wishes of the United States government, he also turned against the PCCh for other reasons. He hoped to mollify right-wing critics of his government, especially landowners, to whom he guaranteed a continuing moratorium on peasant unionization. He sought to remove any ideological justification for a military coup. He also wanted to weaken the labor movement in a time of economic uncertainties, slow growth, and rising inflation, when the PCCh was promoting strikes. González Videla's banning of the Communists coincided with his movement away from social reform in favor of the promotion of industrial growth.

As the Radical years (1938-52) drew to a close, Popular Frontstyle coalition politics reached a dead end. The Radicals had swerved to the right, the Socialists had splintered and lost votes, and the Communists had been forced underground. Although the middle and upper classes had registered some gains in those fourteen years, most workers had seen their real income stagnate or decline. Often a problem in the past, inflation had become a permanent feature of the Chilean economy, fueled by the deficit spending of a government that had grown enormously under the Radical presidents. Progress had been made in industrialization, but with little benefit to the majority of the population. Promoting urban industries did not generate the growth, efficiency, employment, or independence promised by the policy's advocates. World War II had left the country more dependent than ever on the United States, which by then had become the dominant economic power in Latin America.

Populist development strategies had proved viable during the 1930s and 1940s. The protection and credit that went along with import-substitution industrialization had kept manufacturers satisfied. Although penalized and forced to accept low prices for their foods, agriculturalists welcomed expanding urban markets, low taxes, and controls over rural workers. The middle class and the armed forces had applauded state growth and moderate nationalism. The more skilled and organized urban workers had received consumer, welfare, and union benefits superior to those offered to other lower-class groups.

These allocations postponed any showdown over limited resources, thus enabling right and left to compromise. Political institutionalization and accommodation prevailed, partly because the unorganized urban poor and especially the rural poor suffered, in effect, from marginality. Starting in the 1950s, however, social demands outpaced slow economic growth, and the political arena became increasingly crowded and heated. In addition, accelerated mobilization, polarization, and radicalization by ideologically competing parties placed more and more stress on the "compromise state" to reconcile incompatible demands and projects.

By 1952 Chileans were alienated by multiparty politics that produced reformist governments, which would veer to the right once in office. Chileans were tired of politiquería (petty politics, political chicanery, and pork-barrel politics). Citizens were also dismayed by slow growth and spiraling inflation. They showed their displeasure by turning to two symbols of the past, the 1920s dictator Ibáñez and the son of former president Alessandri.

In an effort to "sweep the rascals out," the voters elected the politically unaffiliated Ibáñez back to the presidency in 1952. Brandishing his broom as a symbol, the "General of Victory" ran against all the major parties and their clientelistic system of government. He made his strongest attacks on the Radicals, accusing them of mismanagement of the economy and subservience to the United States.

Along with the short-lived Agrarian Labor Party (1945-58), a few Communists backed Ibáñez in hopes of relegalizing the PCCh; a few Socialists also supported him in hopes of spawning a workers' movement similar to Peronism in Argentina. Other leftists, however, endorsed the first token presidential campaign of Salvador Allende in order to stake out an independent Marxist strategy for future runs at the presidency. Allende received only 5 percent of the vote, while Ibáñez won with a plurality of 47 percent. As it always did when no candidate captured an absolute majority, Congress ratified the top vote-getter as president.

Ibáñez's Second Presidency, 1952-58

Like the Radicals before him, Ibáñez entered office as a reformer governing with a center-left coalition and ended his term as a conservative surrounded by rightists. Along the way, he discarded his promises of economic nationalism and social justice. Also like the Radicals, he left festering problems for subsequent administrations.

Early in his administration, Ibáñez tried to live up to his billing as a nationalistic reformer. He rewarded those who had voted for him in the countryside by setting a minimum wage for rural laborers, although real wages for farm workers continued to fall throughout the decade. He also postured as a Latin American spokesman, hailing Juan Domingo Perón when the Argentine leader visited Chile.

After two years of expansionary fiscal policies in league with reformers and a few leftists, Ibáñez converted to a conservative program to stem inflation and to improve relations with the United States copper companies. As the effort to move import-substitution industrialization beyond the stage of replacing foreign consumer goods bogged down, the economy became mired in stagflation. The rates of industrialization, investment, and growth all slowed. Monetarist policies proposed by a team of United States experts, known as the Klein-Saks Mission, failed to bring inflation under control. Price increases averaged 38 percent per year during the 1950s.

Persistent inflation stoked a debate among economists over causes and cures. Emphasizing deep-rooted causes and long-term solutions, advocates of structuralism blamed chronic inflation primarily on foreign trade dependency, insufficient local production (especially in agriculture), and political struggles over government spoils among entrenched vested interests. Their opponents, avocates of monetarism, attributed rising prices principally to classic financial causes such as currency expansion and deficit spending. Like the Klein-Saks Mission, the monetarists recommended austerity measures to curb inflation. The structuralists denounced such belt-tightening as recessionary, inimical to growth, and socially regressive. The monetarists replied that economic development would be delayed and distorted until expansionary monetary and financial policies were corrected.

Adopting a monetarist approach, in 1955 Ibáñez made concessions to the United States copper companies, chiefly Anaconda and Kennecott, in an effort to elicit more investment. These measure reduced the firms' taxes and raised their profits but failed to attract much capital. Discontent with this experience underlay subsequent campaigns to nationalize the mines.

Ibáñez also enacted reforms to increase the integrity of the electoral system. Under the new plan, the secret ballot system was improved in 1958, and stiff fines for fraud were established. These reforms reduced the sway of landowners and facilitated the growth of the Christian Democrat and Marxist political movements among peasants.

Ibáñez's middle- and working-class support flowed over to the Christian Democrats and the Marxists. The Christian Democratic Party (Partido Demócrata Cristiano--PDC) was founded in 1957 with the merger of three conservative elements: the National Falange, founded in 1938; the Social Christian Conservative Party; and the remnants of the Agrarian Labor Party that had backed Ibáñez. The Christian Democrats espoused reformist Catholic doctrines that promised a society based on communitarianism. The new party appealed strongly to the middle class, women, peasants, and ruralurban migrants. Its displacement of the Radicals as the preeminent centrist party meant that a pragmatic organization was replaced by an ideological group less amenable to coalition and compromise. At the same time that the center was hardening its position, the right and the left were also becoming more dogmatic and sectarian.

Relegalized by Ibáñez in 1958, the PCCh formed an enduring electoral alliance with the Socialists known as the Popular Action Front (Frente de Acción Popular--FRAP). The Marxist parties embraced more militant projects for the construction of socialism and disdained alliances behind centrist parties. They replaced Popular Front politics with "workers front" politics. The PCCh and the Socialist Party became more exclusive and radical in their ideological commitments and in their dedication to the proletariat. Of the two parties, the Socialist Party posed as more revolutionary, especially after the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

As they had in the 1930s, the Marxist parties experienced success in the 1950s in tandem with a unified national trade union movement. Dismayed by runaway inflation, the major labor unions replaced the fractionalized CTCh with the United Federation of Chilean Workers (Central Única de Trabajadores de Chile--CUTCh) in 1953. The Communists and Socialists, with their enduring strength in older unions in mining, construction, and manufacturing, took command of the new confederation.

As the 1958 election approached, the electorate divided into three camps well-defined by their predominant class and ideology. The right represented mainly Conservatives and Liberals, the upper class, rural dwellers, the defenders of capitalism, and the status quo. In the center, the Christian Democrats and Radicals spoke largely for the middle class and the proponents of moderate social reforms to avoid socialism. On the left, the Socialists and Communists championed the working class, advocating a peaceful transition to socialism. Rural-urban migrants and women had gained social and political importance. The percentage of the population registered to vote in presidential contests had risen from about 11 percent in the 1940s to 17.5 percent in 1952 and then to 21 percent in 1958. In the 1958 election, the right--Conservatives and Liberals--hoped to return to power for the first time since 1938. Their standard-bearer was Jorge Alessandri Rodríguez, an engineering professor and the son of Chile's most recent rightist president. He posed as an independent who was above party politics, offering technocratic solutions to the nation's problems. In the center, the Radicals, with candidate Luis Bossay Leyva, and the Christian Democrats, who nominated Eduardo Frei Montalva, vied for moderate votes. On the left, the reunited Socialists and Communists backed Salvador Allende.

In a preview of the 1970 election, the 1958 vote split three ways: 31 percent for Alessandri, 29 percent for Allende, and 40 percent for the rest, including a strong third-place showing by Frei with 21 percent. If it had not been for the 3 percent of the votes snared by a populist defrocked priest, the 15 percent won by the Radicals, and the low percentage (22 percent) of women casting ballots for Allende, the Marxists could easily have captured the presidency in 1958, several months before the Cuban Revolution. As it was, they and the Christian Democrats were highly encouraged to build their electoral forces toward another face-off in 1964. An especially noteworthy shift was the transfer of many peasant votes from the right to the columns of Christian Democrat and Marxist politicians promising agrarian reform.

Jorge Alessandri's Rightist Term, 1958-64

Once again, Congress approved the front-runner as president. Alessandri promised to restrain government intervention in the economy and to promote the private sector, although he did not envision reliance on the market to the extent that later would occur under Pinochet. With a slender mandate, the opposition in control of the legislature, and a modest program, the president accomplished little of great note.

Alessandri did, however, maintain political and economic stability. He temporarily dampened inflation, mainly by placing a ceiling on wages. This measure sparked mounting labor protests in the early 1960s. The economy grew and unemployment shrank. He also passed mild land-reform legislation, which would be implemented mostly by his successors. His action was partly the result of prodding by the United States government, which backed agrarian reform under the auspices of the Alliance for Progress in hopes of blunting the appeal of the Cuban Revolution. At the same time, Alessandri tried to attract foreign investment, although he had no intention of throwing open the economy, as would be done under Pinochet. By the end of Alessandri's term, the country was burdened with a rising foreign debt.

In the 1964 presidential contest, the right abandoned its standard-bearers and gave its support to Frei in order to avert an Allende victory in the face of rising electoral support for the leftists. The center-right alliance defeated the left, 56 percent to 39 percent. The reformist Frei enjoyed strong United States support, both during and after the campaign. He also had the backing of the Roman Catholic Church and European Christian Democrats. Frei ran particularly well among women, the middle class, peasants, and residents of the shantytowns (callampas or poblaciones). Allende was most popular with men and bluecollar workers.

Although Frei and Allende were foes on the campaign trail, they agreed on major national issues that needed to be addressed: greater Chilean control over the United States-owned copper mines, agrarian reform, better housing for the residents of the sprawling shantytowns, more equitable income distribution, expanded educational opportunities, and a more independent foreign policy. They both criticized capitalism as a cause of underdevelopment and of the poverty that afflicted the majority of Chile's population. To distinguish his more moderate program from Allende's Marxism, Frei promised a "Revolution in Liberty."

Eduardo Frei's Christian Democracy, 1964-70

After the 1965 elections gave them a majority of deputies in Congress, the Christian Democrats enacted ambitious reforms on many fronts. However, as a single-party government, they were often loath to enter into bargains, compromises, or coalitions. Consequently, rightists and leftists often opposed their congressional initiatives, especially in the Senate.

One of the major achievements of Eduardo Frei Montalva (president, 1964-70) was the "Chileanization" of copper. The government took 51 percent ownership of the mines controlled by United States companies, principally those of Anaconda and Kennecott. Critics complained that the companies received overly generous terms, invested too little in Chile, and retained too much ownership. Nevertheless, copper production rose, and Chile received a higher return from the enterprises.

Frei believed that agrarian reform was necessary to raise the standard of living of rural workers, to boost agricultural production, to expand his party's electoral base, and to defuse revolutionary potential in the countryside. Consequently, in 1967 his government promoted the right of peasants to unionize and strike. The administration also expropriated land with the intention of dividing it between collective and family farms. However, actual redistribution of land fell far short of promises and expectations. Conflict arose in the countryside between peasants eager for land and landowners frightened of losing their rights and their property.

During the tenure of the Christian Democrats, economic growth remained sluggish and inflation stayed high. Nevertheless, Frei's government improved income distribution and access to education, as enrollments rose at all levels of schooling. Under the aegis of "Popular Promotion," the Frei government organized many squatter communities and helped them build houses. This aided the PDC in its competition with the Marxists for political support in the burgeoning callampas. At the same time, Frei enacted tax reforms that made tax collection more efficient than ever before. The Christian Democrats also pushed through constitutional changes to strengthen the presidency; these changes later would be used to advantage by Allende. The PDC also revised electoral regulations, lowering the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen and giving the franchise to people who could not read (about 10 percent of the population was illiterate).

Although friendly to United States investors and government officials, the Frei administration took an independent stance in foreign affairs--more collegial with the developing nations and less hostile to the Communist bloc nations. For instance, Frei restored diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and most of its allies. Chile also gave strong backing to multilateral organizations, including the Latin American Free Trade Association, the Andean Group, the Organization of American States, and the United Nations. Meanwhile, aid and investment from the United States multiplied. Under Frei, Chile received more aid per capita from the United States than did any other country in Latin America.

After the two governments that followed the Christian Democrats, Chileans would look back with nostalgia on the Frei administration and its accomplishments. At the time, however, it was hounded by the right for being too reformist and by the left for being too conservative. While some on the right began forming paramilitary units to defend their property, some on the left began encouraging illegal seizures of farms, housing plots, and factories. Among the masses, the Christian Democrats raised expectations higher than they intended.

As the next presidential election approached, Frei remained personally popular, but his party's strength ebbed. With no clear winner apparent, the 1970 campaign shaped up as a rerun of 1958, with the right, center, and left all fielding their own candidates. The right hoped to recapture power and brake the pace of reform with former president Jorge Alessandri as the candidate of the National Party (Partido Nacional--PN), established in 1965 by Conservatives and Liberals. In the center, the Christian Democrats promised to accelerate reform with a progressive candidate, Radomiro Tomic Romero. The left vowed to head down the road toward socialism with Salvador Allende as its nominee for the fourth time.

Under the leadership of the Socialist Party and the PCCh, the leftist coalition of 1970 called itself Popular Unity (Unidad Popular--UP). Joining the alliance were four minor parties, including the shrunken Radical Party and defectors from the Christian Democrats, most notably the United Popular Action Movement (Movimiento de Acción Popular Unitario--MAPU). The coalition was reminiscent of the Popular Front of 1936-41, except that it was led by the Marxist parties and a Marxist candidate. Further to the left, the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (Movimiento de la Izquierda Revolucionaria--MIR), a small organization headed by radicalized students, scoffed at the electoral route, called for armed struggle, and undertook direct assaults on the system, such as bank robberies.

To the surprise of most pollsters and prognosticators, Allende nosed out Alessandri 36.2 percent to 35 percent in the September 4, 1973, elections; Tomic trailed with 27.8 percent of the vote. In the cold war context of the times, the democratic election of a Marxist president sent a shock wave around the globe. The seven weeks between the counting of the ballots and the certification of the winner by Congress crackled with tension. Attempts by the United States and by right-wing groups in Chile to convince Congress to choose the runner-up Alessandri or to coax the military into staging a coup d'état failed. A botched kidnapping planned by right-wing military officers resulted in the assassination of the army commander in chief, General René Schneider Chereau, on October 22, 1970, the first major political killing in Chile since the death of Portales in 1837. That plot backfired by ensuring the armed forces' support of a constitutional assumption of power by Allende.

After extracting guarantees of adherence to democratic procedures from Allende, the Christian Democrats in Congress followed tradition and provided the votes to make the front-runner Chile's new president. Although a minority president was not unusual, one with such a drastic plan to revolutionize the nation was unique. Allende was inaugurated on November 3, 1970.

Salvador Allende's Leftist Regime, 1970-73

The Allende experiment enjoyed a triumphant first year, followed by two disastrous final years. According to the UP, Chile was being exploited by parasitic foreign and domestic capitalists. The government therefore moved quickly to socialize the economy, taking over the copper mines, other foreign firms, oligopolistic industries, banks, and large estates. By a unanimous vote of Congress in 1971, the government totally nationalized the foreign copper firms, which were mainly owned by two United States companies, Kennecott and Anaconda. The nationalization measure was one of the few bills Allende ever got through the opposition- controlled legislature, where the Christian Democrats constituted the largest single party.

Socialization of the means of production spread rapidly and widely. The government took over virtually all the great estates. It turned the lands over to the resident workers, who benefited far more than the owners of tiny plots or the numerous migrant laborers. By 1972 food production had fallen and food imports had risen. Also during 1971-72, the government dusted off emergency legislation from the 1932 Socialist Republic to allow it to expropriate industries without congressional approval. It turned many factories over to management by the workers and the state.

In his first year, Allende also employed Keynesian measures to hike salaries and wages, thus pumping up the purchasing power of the middle and working classes. This "consumer revolution" benefited 95 percent of the population in the short run because prices were held down and employment went up. Producers responded to rising demand by employing previously underused capacity.

Politically, Allende faced problems holding his Popular Unity coalition together, pacifying the more leftist elements inside and outside Popular Unity and, above all, coping with the increasingly implacable opposition. Within Popular Unity, the largest party was the Socialist Party. Although composed of multiple factions, the Socialist Party mainly pressed Allende to accelerate the transition toward socialism. The second most important element was the PCCh, which favored a more gradual, legalistic approach. Outside the Popular Unity, the most significant left-wing organization was the MIR, a tiny but provocative group that admired the Cuban Revolution and encouraged peasants and workers to take property and the revolutionary process into their own hands, much faster than Allende preferred.

The most important opposition party was the PDC. As it and the middle sectors gradually shifted to the right, they came to form an anti-Allende bloc in combination with the Natinal Party and the propertied class. Even farther to the right were minuscule, paramilitary, quasi-fascist groups like Fatherland and Liberty (Patria y Libertad), determined to sabotage Popular Unity.

The Popular Unity government tried to maintain cordial relations with the United States, even while staking out an independent position as a champion of developing nations and socialist causes. It opened diplomatic relations with Cuba, China, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), and Albania. It befriended the Soviet Union, which sent aid to the Allende administration, although far less than Cuba received or than Popular Unity had hoped for.

Meanwhile, the United States pursued a two-track policy toward Allende's Chile. At the overt level, Washington was frosty, especially after the nationalization of the copper mines; official relations were unfriendly but not openly hostile. The government of President Richard M. Nixon squeezed the Chilean economy by terminating financial assistance and blocking loans from multilateral organizations, although it increased aid to the military, a sector unenthusiastic toward the Allende government. It was widely reported that at the covert level the United States worked to destabilize Allende's Chile by funding opposition political groups and media and by encouraging a military coup d'état. Most scholars have concluded that these United States actions contributed to the downfall of Allende, although no one has established direct United States participation in the coup d'état and very few would assign the United States the primary role in the destruction of that government.

During the second and third years of the UP, demand outstripped supply, the economy shrank, deficit spending snowballed, new investments and foreign exchange became scarce, the value of copper sales dropped, shortages appeared, and inflation skyrocketed, eroding the previous gains for the working class. A thriving black market sprang up. The government responded with direct distribution systems in working-class neighborhoods. Worker participation in the management of enterprises reached unprecedented proportions. The strapped government could not keep the economy from going into free fall because it could not impose austerity measures on its supporters in the working class, get new taxes approved by Congress, or borrow enough money abroad to cover the deficit.

Although the right was on the defensive in Allende's first year, it moved on the offensive and forged an alliance with the center in the next two years. In Congress this center-right coalition erected a blockade against all Popular Unity initiatives, harassed Popular Unity cabinet ministers, and denounced the administration as illegitimate and unconstitutional, thus setting the stage for a military takeover. The most acrimonious battle raged over the boundaries of Popular Unity's "social property area" (área de propriedad social), which would incorporate private holdings through government intervention, requisition, or expropriation. The Supreme Court and the comptroller general of the republic joined Congress in criticizing the executive branch for overstepping its constitutional bounds.

Allende tried to stabilize the situation by organizing a succession of cabinets, but none of them guaranteed order. His appointment of military officers to cabinet posts in 1972 and 1973 also failed to stifle the opposition. Instead, it helped politicize the armed services. Outside the government, Allende's supporters continued direct takeovers of land and businesses, further disrupting the economy and frightening the propertied class.

The two sides reached a showdown in the March 1973 congressional elections. The opposition expected the Allende coalition to suffer the typical losses of Chilean governments in midterm elections, especially with the economy in a tailspin. The National Party and PDC hoped to win two-thirds of the seats, enough to impeach Allende. They netted 55 percent of the votes, not enough of a majority to end the stalemate. Moreover, the Popular Unity's 43 percent share represented an increase over the presidential tally of 36.2 percent and gave Allende's coalition six additional congressional seats; therefore, many of his adherents were encouraged to forge ahead.

In the aftermath of the indecisive 1973 congressional elections, both sides escalated the confrontation and hurled threats of insurgency. Street demonstrations became almost daily events and increasingly violent. Right-wing groups, such as Fatherland and Liberty, and left-wing groups, such as the MIR, brandished arms and called for a cataclysmic solution. The most militant workers formed committees in their neighborhoods and workplaces to press for accelerated social change and to defend their gains. The opposition began openly knocking on the doors of the barracks in hopes that the military would provide a solution.

The regular armed forces halted an attempted coup by tank commanders in June 1973, but that incident warned the nation that the military was getting restless. Thereafter, the armed forces prepared for a massive coup by stepping up raids to search for arms among Popular Unity's supporters. Conditions worsened in June, July, and August, as middle- and upper-class business proprietors and professionals launched another wave of workplace shutdowns and lockouts, as they had in late 1972. Their 1973 protests against the government coincided with strikes by the trucking industry and by the left's erstwhile allies among the copper workers. The Nationalists, the Christian Democrats, and conservative students backed the increasingly subversive strikers. They called for Allende's resignation or military intervention. Attempts by the Catholic Church to get the PDC and Popular Unity to negotiate a compromise came to naught. Meanwhile, inflation reached an annual rate of more than 500 percent. By mid-1973 the economy and the government were paralyzed.

In August 1973, the rightist and centrist representatives in the Chamber of Deputies undermined the president's legitimacy by accusing him of systematically violating the constitution and by urging the armed forces to intervene. In early September, Allende was preparing to call for a rare national plebiscite to resolve the impasse between Popular Unity and the opposition. The military obviated that strategy by launching its attack on civilian authority on the morning of September 11. Just prior to the assault, the commanders in chief, headed by the newly appointed army commander, General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, had purged officers sympathetic to the president or the constitution.

Allende committed suicide while defending (with an assault rifle) his socialist government against the coup d'état. Although sporadic resistance to the coup erupted, the military consolidated control much more quickly than it had believed possible. Many Chileans had predicted that a coup would unleash a civil war, but instead it ushered in a long period of repression.

Debate continues over the reasons for Allende's downfall. Why did he fail to preserve democracy or achieve socialism? Critics of the left blamed Allende for going to extremes, destroying the economy, violating the constitution, and undermining the spirit if not the letter of democracy. Right-wing critics in particular accused the left of even plotting an armed takeover, a charge that was never proved. Critics also assailed the UP for being unclear about the limits of its reforms and thus frightening the middle class into the arms of the opposition. Critics of the right accused Popular Unity, in conjunction with the United States, of ruining the economy and of calling out the armed forces to protect its property and privileges. Observers in general scolded the far left for its adventurous excesses. The far left retorted that Popular Unity failed because it was too timid to arm the masses. Critics of the Christian Democrats chastised them for refusing to compromise, locking arms with the rightist opposition, and failing to defend democracy.

Many analysts would concur that there was ample blame to go around. In the view of many Chileans, groups at all points on the political spectrum helped destroy the democratic order by being too ideological and too intransigent. Many observers agree that a minority president facing adamant domestic and foreign opposition was extremely unlikely to be able to uphold democracy and create socialism at the same time. In the late 1980s, polls also showed that most Chileans did not want to try the Popular Unity experiment again, especially in light of its aftermath.

Chile History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress