The fall of Allende
IN the early hours of 11 September 1973, Chile's military led by the army chief, General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, overthrew the democratically elected government of President Salvador Allende Gossens. In the three years preceding the coup, the government, the first socialist administration elected to office through popular support, had run into a series of problems that left Allende and his team reeling. And the fault for the chaos lay not with Allende but with those who had actively conspired to keep him from being elected. Allende had been elected to office with just 36.2 per cent of the vote. The day was 4 September 1970.
It was, as Ariel Dorfman was to note later, a moment of baptism for Allende as Chile's leader. And yet the Nixon administration had not given up its goal of undermining the new Chilean government. The CIA went into the job of organising people against Allende, through recruiting agents in Santiago, and pumping in money to elements ready and willing to destabilise the administration. Alongside that went propaganda against the Allende government's 'attempts' to turn democratic Chile into a fortress of Marxism. President Allende warded off all such attempts bravely, through drawing attention to the US-led campaign against the people of Chile and through employing all diplomatic means to explain to the outside world that democracy under the Marxists was safe in his country. He sent the young and articulate Orlando Letelier to Washington as ambassador in the hope that Letelier would be able to explain to Americans the causes behind the nationalisation programme that had been launched in Santiago. To Paris, as ambassador, went the eminent poet Pablo Neruda.
None of the moves made by Allende helped. Increased funding by the CIA only reinforced Allende's enemies. Steps were also taken to influence the Chilean military into moving against the government. Trade unions were drawn into the anti-Allende camp and truck drivers brought transport movement to a halt all across the country. As all of this went on, the wives of Chile's military officers took the unprecedented step of confronting the army chief, General Carlos Prats, and berating him over his 'failure' to take action to 'save' the nation. Prats resigned on 22 August 1973. He was replaced the next day by General Augusto Pinochet, considered an Allende loyalist. Ironically, no sooner had Pinochet taken control of the army than he went into the business of planning the coup against Allende.
The first moves toward the coup were taken at 4 a.m. on 11 September. In Santiago, at 6.20, President Allende was awakened with news that a coup led by his new army chief was in progress. Within the following hour, the military sent a message to Allende offering to let him leave the country. The president spurned the offer. The air force systematically strafed the palace and hit its targets with precision. By 9 a.m. Santiago passed into the hands of the army. A half hour later, President Allende made what would turn out to be his final broadcast to the nation. He pledged to fight on to uphold constitutional government in Chile. Sometime later, he appeared on the balcony of La Moneda, an AK-47 in his hands and a helmet on his head. Moments later, he went back in. It was the last the world would see of Salvador Allende. By early afternoon, he was dead. After an autopsy that really was not, Allende's body was buried in his ancestral village. However, no stone or any other sign marked his grave. The coup leaders wanted no trace to be left of the dead president. Allende was sixty five when his life came to an end.
In the days following the coup, terror took over Chile. Thousands of people were rounded up by the soldiers and detained in the local stadium. Many of them were murdered. Officially, the number for those who died from the excesses of the military regime was 3,192. Many more simply disappeared. Hundreds of Chileans, many of them prominent citizens, went into exile in neighbouring countries and in Europe. Carlos Prats left the country and moved on to Argentina. Orlando Letelier, the former envoy who was Allende's last defence minister, had been seized on the morning of the coup and tortured over the next twelve months before being freed and allowed to leave Chile. He would eventually make his way to the United States. The poet Pablo Neruda, ailing at the time of the coup, would be dishonoured by soldiers ransacking his home. Within days of the coup, he would die. The popular singer Victor Jara, a vocal supporter of the Allende government, was picked up by the army and murdered in the very Santiago stadium where he had once roused his fans to ecstasy with his music.
Salvador Allende's widow would make her way out of Chile. The dead president's cousin, the writer Isabel Allende too would leave the country and settle abroad. Agents of the Chilean intelligence organisation DINA murdered General Carlos Prats and his wife through blowing up their car in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on 30 September 1974. Two years later, on 21 September 1976, Orlando Letelier, busy marshalling support for Chilean democrats in the United States, was blown up in Washington by DINA agents acting with assistance from their American friends.
The Pinochet dictatorship kept tight control over Chile till 1990, when General Pinochet left office, albeit after ensuring immunity for himself and his men over the 1973 coup and subsequent measures taken by his regime. In his later years, Pinochet became a target of human rights groups around the world and at one point was arrested in London upon a warrant issued by a Spanish court. Eventually allowed to go back home by the British government, he saw a resurgent Chilean democracy strip him of his immunity and charge him with human rights violations during his years as dictator. He died, aged 91, in December 2006.
The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.