September 11, 1973 | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, September 15, 2010 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, September 15, 2010

September 11, 1973

Salvador Allende

Darkness descended on Chile and the world beyond its frontiers on September 11, 1973 when its military commandeered the state and put an end to its democracy. It was a coup d'etat which had been waiting to happen since the election of the Marxist Salvador Allende Gossens as Chile's president in September 1970.
For months and weeks prior to the election, US President Richard Nixon and his national security advisor Henry Kissinger (later to be secretary of state) had made it clear that Allende's election as president of Chile was to be prevented at all costs. At a time when the Cold War was yet a potent reality in geopolitics, Washington was unwilling to see, after Cuba, yet another socialist experiment in the Americas.
But then Allende won the election, which prompted a new, desperate move by Washington. This time the message was blunt: Allende, elected with slightly more than 36% of the vote, must not be confirmed by Chile's Congress. Days went by as Chile's lawmakers debated the issue. In the event, Allende was confirmed in office as president, the first socialist elected to that high position.
In the three years that followed, President Allende's government was thwarted at every turn by Nixon, Kissinger, the Central Intelligence Agency and Chilean right-wing groups keen on bringing down the socialist administration. The omens as to what might and could happen in Chile were the right to be pushed from power appeared as early as October 1970, more than a month after Allende was elected the country's leader.
Groups financed by the CIA -- and these elements were led by General Roberto Viaux and General Camilo Valenzuela -- murdered the commander-in-chief of the army, General Rene Schneider, on October 24, 1970. President Allende swiftly replaced the murdered general with General Carlos Prats, who also took charge as minister for defence.
In the less than three years in which Prats served as minister and army chief, Chile was subjected to intense pressure by its right-wing, by the CIA and especially by the Nixon administration. As the country rapidly went into a state of destabilisation, thanks to a series of strikes initiated by 23,000 truckers refusing to work in 1972, calls emerged for General Prats to take over through an overthrow of the Allende government. Prats, loyal to the constitution, refused.
The chaos into which Chile rapidly descended following Allende's rise to power had little to do with the government's ineptitude or the president's inability to administer. It had everything to do with those who perceived in the Allende dispensation a grave threat to the future of capitalist enterprise in the western hemisphere.
Like all good politicians who knew what the future ought to be, President Allende reassured Chileans that the resources of Chile were theirs to be had and enjoyed. To that end, he nationalised the copper industry and then went into a nationalisation of banks and big industry. The socialist philosophy holds that power belongs to the people.
Allende was determined to prove that the philosophy could indeed be transformed into a ground reality. His government went for land reforms, setting off the programme through a major redistribution of land among Chile's poor and disadvantaged. Welfare schemes that citizens are politically and morally entitled to began to be launched within weeks of Allende's assumption of high office in Santiago.
The difficulty for Nixon and Kissinger and for the right-wing Chileans in their pay in Santiago was Salvador Allende's exalted status as the elected president of his country. Moreover, in legislative elections held in March 1973, the president's supporters increased their share of the national vote despite the buffeting the government was going through.
But these difficulties did little to deflect the Nixon White House away from Chile. In August 1973, the wives of generals in the army organised a rowdy demonstration against General Prats before his residence, an unprecedented move obviously backed by larger forces of disruption. It would later emerge that the CIA spent as much as $8 million in the dirty job of destabilising and eventually forcing the collapse of Allende's government.
Carlos Prats threw in the towel on August 24, 1973. He was replaced as army chief by General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, a soldier Allende thought was loyal to the constitution. The new minister of defence was Orlando Letelier. Eighteen days later, the army, navy, air force and the carabineros launched the coup that would, through bloodshed, remove President Allende from office and place the entirety of Chile into medieval darkness for seventeen years.
On September 11, the navy took control of Valparaiso. Soon, air force jets began strafing the La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago. Initially hopeful that the coup could be put out, Allende telephoned the chiefs of the army, navy and air force. No one answered. The president then went on radio and television to inform the country that a coup d'etat was underway but that he was not about to abandon his role as the constitutionally elected leader of Chile. Within minutes of the broadcast, the pounding of La Moneda by the air force increased. Allende was offered safe passage out of the country by the coup leaders. The president dismissed the offer.
By 2.30 in the afternoon, it was all over. President Salvador Allende died in La Moneda, either at the hands of soldiers storming the presidential residence or through committing suicide. Chile passed into deep gloom.
Postscript: The coup of September 11, 1973 would leave 130,000 Chileans subjected to detention and torture at the hands of the Pinochet dictatorship. At least 2,700 people would disappear or be murdered between 1973 and 1990.
One of the earliest victims of the military would be the popular singer Victor Jara. Twelve days after the coup, an ailing Pablo Neruda, Nobel laureate, friend of Salvador Allende, former ambassador to France, would see his life coming to an end. Within days of the coup, soldiers would storm his home looking for seditious material. A sad Neruda would tell them, in extreme courage: "Look around. There's only one thing of danger for you here -- poetry."
Carlos Prats, in exile in Argentina, was to be blown to bits by Pinochet's goons in 1974. Orlando Letelier, in exile in Washington, would become a casualty at the hands of the dictator's agents in 1976.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is Editor, Current Affairs, The Daily Star.
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