There are dates that mark indelible milestones in the history of Our America. Today, September 4th, is one of those days. Like January 1, 1959, the triumph of the Cuban Revolution; or April 13, 2002, when the Venezuelan people took to the streets and reinstalled Hugo Chávez, a prisoner of the coup plotters, in the Miraflores Palace; or October 17, 1945, when the Argentine popular masses achieved the liberation of Colonel Perón and began to write a new page in their national history.
Today’s page, the object of this writing, falls into that select category of epic events in Latin America. In 1970 Salvador Allende won the Chilean presidential elections, obtaining the first minority and defeating the right-wing candidate, Jorge Alessandri, and relegating Radomiro Tomic, of the Christian Democrats, to third place.
The 1970 election was the fourth presidential election in which Allende competed: in 1952 he had made his first foray, winning just over 5 percent of the vote, far behind the winner, Carlos Ibáñez del Campo, who won with almost 47 percent of the vote. He was not discouraged and in 1958 as FRAP’s candidate, the Popular Action Front, an alliance of the socialist and communist parties, received 29 percent of the votes and came close to snatching victory from Jorge Alessandri, who received 32 percent of the vote.
At that moment, all the alarm bells began to ring at the State Department, as evidenced by the growing traffic of memos and telegrams related to Allende and the future of Chile that saturated the communication channels between Santiago and Washington. The triumph of the Cuban Revolution projected the FRAP as an unexpected threat not only to Chile but to the region because Salvador Allende appeared before the eyes of top Washington officials – the White House, the State Department and the CIA – as a “leftist extremist” no different from Fidel Castro and as harmful to U.S. interests as was the Cuban.
As the date of the crucial 1964 presidential election approached, U.S. involvement in Chile’s politics increased exponentially. Previous reports from several missions that visited that country agreed that there was a disturbing ambivalence in public opinion: a certain admiration for the “American way of life” and recognition of the role played by US companies based in Chile.
But at the same time they noted, beneath this apparent sympathy, a latent hostility that, coupled with the marked popularity enjoyed by Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution, could set the South American country on a revolutionary path that Washington was not willing to tolerate. That is why support for the Christian Democrat candidacy was brazen, torrential and multifaceted. Not only in financial terms (to support Eduardo Frei’s campaign) but also in diplomatic, cultural and communicational terms, appealing to the worst tricks of propaganda to stigmatize Allende and the FRAP and to extol the future Christian Democrat government as a hopeful “Freedom Revolution”, as opposed to the much hated (by Washington, of course) Cuban revolutionary process.
A memorandum sent by Gordon Chase to McGeorge Bundy, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s National Security Advisor, dated March 19, 1964, reveals the uneasiness in Washington about the upcoming Chilean presidential election. Chase stated that four possible scenarios were open at that time:
a) a defeat of Allende
b) a victory for the FRAP candidate but without achieving an absolute majority, which would allow maneuvering in the Plenary Congress to elect Frei
c) Allende could be overthrown by a military coup, but this would have to happen before he assumed government because afterwards it would be much more difficult
d) Allende’s victory. In the face of this unfortunate contingency, Chase wrote, “we would be in trouble because he would nationalize the copper mines and turn to the Soviet bloc for “economic aid” and concluded that “we must do everything possible to get the people to support Frei”. In fact, this is what the United States did and the long-awaited victory of Frei (56 percent of the vote) over Allende became a reality, which, despite the “campaign of terror” of which he was the victim, garnered 39 percent of the vote.
The victory of Christian democracy was greeted in Washington with great relief and as a definitive blow not only against Allende and his comrades but as the ratification of the continental isolation of the Cuban Revolution. But the much-praised “Freedom Revolution” ended in a resounding failure and left the La Moneda Palace with no more than thirty militants and popular demonstrators who were shot by the security forces. Economic failure, political frustration, regression in the cultural battle to the point that the candidate of the continuity of the government, Radomiro Tomic, had to jump into the electoral arena with the slogan of a “non-capitalist way to development” to counteract the growing adhesion that the socialist proposals of the Popular Unity exercised over the Chilean electorate and to capture part of those who could turn out in favor of the Popular Unity in the contest of September 4th.
But in this fourth attempt, the results smiled on Allende, who, in spite of the phenomenal campaign of slander and defamation launched against him, managed to prevail, although very narrowly, over the right-wing candidate Jorge Alessandri: 36.2 percent of the votes against 34.9 for his contender. Everything was now in the hands of the Full Congress, because since an absolute majority was not achieved, it had to be issued by choosing between the two candidates who obtained the largest number of votes.
The alternatives handled by Washington were those that Chase had conceived for the previous election, and with Allende’s triumph there were now only two cards left on the table: the preventive military coup, hence the assassination of the constitutionalist General René Schneider, or manipulating the legislators of the Full Congress (appealing to persuasion and, in case it did not yield good results, bribery and extortion) so that they would break tradition and designate Alessandri as president.
Both plans failed and on November 4, 1970 the Popular Unity candidate assumed the presidency of the republic. He was thus consecrated as the first Marxist president elected in the framework of bourgeois democracy and the first to try to advance the construction of socialism through a peaceful way, a project that was violently sabotaged and destroyed by imperialism and its local pawns.
In spite of these enormous obstacles, Allende’s unfinished government opened a path that later, thirty years later, others would begin to follow. It was a government under siege even before it entered La Moneda, having to face a brutal attack by “the embassy” and its infamous local allies: the whole of the right wing, the old and the new (Christian Democracy), the business corporations, the big companies and their media, the church hierarchy and a sector of the middle classes, defenseless victims in the face of a media terrorism that had no precedent in Latin America. In spite of this, he was able to make significant progress in strengthening state intervention and economic planning.
He managed to nationalize copper through a law approved almost without opposition in Congress, putting an end to the phenomenal plundering practiced by U.S. companies with the consent of previous governments. For example, with an initial investment of some $30 million after 42 years, Anaconda and Kennecott sent abroad profits of more than $4 billion. A scandal! He also put coal, saltpetre and iron under state control, recovering the strategic steel plant of Huachipato; he accelerated the agrarian reform by granting land to some 200,000 peasants on almost 4,500 plots and nationalized almost the entire financial system, private banking and insurance, acquiring the majority of the shares of its main components on advantageous conditions for his country.
He also nationalized the corrupt International Telegraph and Telephone (IT&T), which held a monopoly on communications and which, before the election of Allende, had organized and financed, together with the CIA, a terrorist campaign to thwart the inauguration of the socialist president. These policies led to the creation of an “area of social ownership” in which the main companies that conditioned the economic and social development of Chile (such as foreign trade, the production and distribution of electric energy; rail, air and sea transport; communications; the production, refining and distribution of oil and its derivatives; the steel industry, cement, petrochemicals and heavy chemicals, cellulose and paper) came to be controlled or at least strongly regulated by the state.
All these impressive achievements went hand in hand with a food program, where the distribution of half a liter of milk for children was a highlight. Promoting health and education at all levels, democratizing access to university and launching, through a state publishing house, Quimantú, an ambitious cultural program that resulted, among other things, in the publication of millions of books that were distributed free or at nominal prices.
With his work of government and heroic sacrifice Allende bequeathed to the peoples of Our America an extraordinary legacy, without which it is impossible to understand the path that the people of these latitudes would begin to travel at the end of the last century and that would culminate in the defeat of the main geopolitical and strategic project of the United States for the region, the FTAA, in Mar del Plata in 2005. Allende was, therefore, the great precursor of the progressive and leftist cycle that shook Latin America at the beginning of this century.
He was also an unwavering anti-imperialist and an unconditional friend of Fidel, Che and the Cuban Revolution when such a thing was tantamount to political suicide and turned him into cannon fodder for the U.S.-directed media hitmen. But Allende, a man of exemplary personal and political integrity, overcame such adverse conditions and opened up that gap that would lead to those “great avenues” through which the free men and women of Our America would march, paying with his life for his loyalty to the great ideals of socialism, democracy and anti-imperialism. Today, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of that victory, it deserves to be remembered with the gratitude owed to the founding fathers of the Great Homeland and to those who inaugurated the new stage leading to the Second and Definitive Independence of our peoples.