Allende's involvement in Chilean political life spanned a period of nearly forty years. As a member of the Socialist Party, he was a senator, deputy and cabinet minister. He unsuccessfully ran for the presidency in the 1952, 1958, and 1964 elections, until his election in 1970.
Allende attended high school at the Liceo Eduardo de la Barra in Valparaíso. As a teenager, his main intellectual and political influence came from the shoe-maker Juan De Marchi, an Italian-born anarchist. Allende then graduated with a medical degree in 1926 at the University of Chile..
He co-founded the section of the Socialist Party of Chile (founded in 1933 with Marmaduque Grove and others) in Valparaíso and became its chairman. He married Hortensia Bussi with whom he had three daughters. In 1933, he published his doctoral thesis Higiene Mental y Delincuencia in which he criticized Cesare Lombroso's proposals
In 1938, Allende was in charge of the electoral campaign of the Popular Front headed by Pedro Aguirre Cerda. The Popular Front's slogan was then "Bread, a Roof and Work!". After its electoral victory, he became Minister of Health in the Reformist Popular Front government which was dominated by the Bourgeoisie and the Radicals. Entering the government, he relinquished his parliamentary seat for Valparaíso won in 1937. Around that time, he wrote La Realidad Médico Social de Chile (The social and medical reality of Chile). After the Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany, Allende and other members of the Parliament sent a telegram to Adolf Hitler denouncing the persecution of Jews. Following Aguirre's death in 1941, he was again elected deputy while the Popular Front was being re-named Democratic Alliance.
In 1945, Allende became senator for the Valdivia, Llanquihue, Chiloé, Aisén and Magallanes provinces; then for Tarapacá and Antofagasta in 1953; for Aconcagua and Valparaíso in 1961; and once more for Chiloé, Aisén and Magallanes in 1969. He became president of the Chilean Senate in 1966.
His three unsuccessful bids for the presidency (in the 1952, 1958 and 1964 elections) prompted Allende to joke that his epitaph would be "Here lies the next President of Chile." In 1952, as candidate for the Frente de Acción Popular (Popular Action Front, FRAP), he obtained only 5.4% of the votes, partly due to a division within socialist ranks over support for Carlos Ibáñez and the prohibition of communism. In 1958, again as the FRAP candidate, Allende obtained 28.5% of the vote. This time, his defeat was attributed to votes lost to the populist Antonio Zamorano. In 1964, once more as the FRAP candidate, he lost again, polling 38.6% of the votes against 55.6% for Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei. As it became clear that the election would be a race between Allende and Frei, the political right which initially had backed Radical Julio Durán settled for Frei as "the lesser evil".
Allende's socialistic ideology and friendship with Cuban president Fidel Castro made him deeply unpopular within the administrations of successive U.S. presidents, from John F. Kennedy to Richard Nixon; they believed there was a danger of Chile becoming a communist state and joining the Soviet Union's sphere of influence. Allende publicly condemned the Soviet invasion of Hungary (1956) and of Czechoslovakia (1968) while he later made Chile the first Government in continental America to recognize the People's Republic of China (1971).
Various U.S. corporations (including ITT, Anaconda and Kennecott) owned property and mineral rights in Chile. The Nixon administration feared that these companies might be nationalized by a socialistic government, and was openly hostile to Allende. During Nixon's presidency, U.S. officials attempted to prevent Allende's election by financing political parties aligned with opposition candidate Jorge Alessandri and supporting strikes in the mining and transportation sectors.
On March 15, 1953, during a ceremony paying tribute to the then recently deceased Joseph Stalin on Teatro Baquedano, on Santiago, Allende stated: "Stalin was for the Russian people a flag of the revolution, of creating execution, of human sentiment enhanced by paternity; symbol of edifying peace and heroism without boundaries; worshipped by his people, he astonished the world correcting his own mistakes in a human effort and worthy of superation. But above all this aspects, almost hierathics, of his personality, there is his huge faith in Marx and Lenin's doctrine, his irrevocable marxist conduct. Everything he did was on the people's service, with Lenin's image in the eyes and with the fire of marxism in the heart. [...] Stalin has died, there is an unspoken protest in the consciences and sorrow in the souls. Men of the Soviet Union, we the socialists share your mourning, which has universal commotion. Your consolation: knowing that there are men that do not die. Stalin is one of them."
Later he would state: "The Communist Party is the party of the working class, the Communist Party is the Party of the Soviet Union, the first socialist state in the world, and whoever wants to create a socialist government without the communists is not a marxist; and I am a marxist."
During his presidencial term, Allende's proximity to the Communist Party led him to take the more moderate positions held by the communists, in opposition to the radical views of the socialists. However, this situation tended to revert toward the end of his mandate.
Allende won the 1970 Chilean presidential election as leader of the Unidad Popular ("Popular Unity") coalition. On September 4, 1970, he obtained a narrow plurality of 36.2 percent to 34.9 percent over Jorge Alessandri, a former president, with 27.8 percent going to a third candidate (Radomiro Tomic) of the Christian Democratic Party (PDC), whose electoral platform was similar to Allende's. According to the Chilean Constitution of the time, if no presidential candidate obtained a majority of the popular vote, Congress would choose one of the two candidates with the highest number of votes as the winner. Tradition was for Congress to vote for the candidate with the highest popular vote, regardless of margin. Indeed, former president Jorge Alessandri had been elected in 1958 with only 31.6 percent of the popular vote, defeating Allende.
On October 22 General René Schneider, Commander in Chief of the Chilean Army, was shot resisting a kidnap attempt by a group led by General Roberto Viaux. Hospitalized, he died of his wounds three days later. This attempt followed two others on the 19th and 20th. Viaux's kidnapping plan had been supported by the CIA, although it seems that then-US Secretary for Foreign Affairs Henry Kissinger had ordered the plans postponed at the last moment. Schneider was a known defender of the "constitutionalist" doctrine that the army's role is exclusively professional, its mission being to protect the country's sovereignty and not to interfere in politics.
General Schneider's death was widely disapproved of and, for the time, ended military opposition to Allende, whom the parliament finally chose on October 24. On October 26, President Eduardo Frei named General Carlos Prats as commander in chief of the army to replace René Schneider.
Allende assumed the presidency on November 3, 1970 after signing a Statute of Constitutional Guarantees proposed by the Christian Democrats in return for their support in Congress. In an extensive interview with Regis Debray, Allende explained his reasons for agreeing to the guarantees. Some critics have interpreted Allende's responses as an admission that signing the Statute was only a tactical move on his part.
Upon assuming power, Allende began to carry out his platform of implementing socialistic programs in Chile, called La vía chilena al socialismo ("the Chilean Path to Socialism"). This included nationalization of large-scale industries (notably copper mining and banking), and government administration of the health care system, educational system, a program of free milk for children (given out arbitrarily by GAP "Group of Personal Friends of the President"), and a greatly expanded plan of land seizure and redistribution (already begun under his predecessor Eduardo Frei Montalva, who had nationalized between one-fifth and one-quarter of all properties liable to takeover). The Allende government's intention was to seize all holdings of more than eighty basic irrigated hectares. Allende also intended to improve the socio-economic welfare of Chile's poorest citizens; a key element was to provide employment, either in the new nationalised enterprises or on public work projects.
Chilean presidents were allowed a maximum term of six years, which may explain Allende's haste to restructure the economy. Not only did he have a significant restructuring program organized (the Vuskovic plan), he had to make it a success if a Socialist successor to Allende was going to be elected. In the first year of Allende's term, the short-term economic results of Minister of the Economy Pedro Vuskovic's expansive monetary policy were favorable: 12% industrial growth and an 8.6% increase in GDP, accompanied by major declines in inflation (down from 34.9% to 22.1%) and unemployment (down to 3.8%). However, these results were not sustained, and in 1972, the Chilean escudo had runaway inflation of 140%. The average Real GDP contracted between 1971 and 1973 at an annual rate of 5.6% ("negative growth"); and the government's fiscal deficit soared while foreign reserves declined [Flores, 1997]. The combination of inflation and government-mandated price-fixing, together with the "disappearance" of basic commodities from supermarket shelves, led to the rise of black markets in rice, beans, sugar, and flour. The Chilean economy also became the victim of a US campaign against the Allende government.
The Allende government announced it would default on debts owed to international creditors and foreign governments. Allende also froze all prices while raising salaries. His implementation of these policies was met with strong opposition by landowners, employers, businessmen and transporters associations, some middle-class sectors like some civil servants and professional unions, the rightist opposition, led by National Party, the Roman Catholic Church (which in 1973 was displeased with the direction of educational policy), and eventually the Christian Democrats. It also was a reason for growing tensions with foreign multinational corporations and the government of the United States.
Allende also undertook Project Cybersyn, a system of networked telex machines and computers. Cybersyn was developed by British cybernetics expert Stafford Beer. The network transmitted data from factories to the government in Santiago, allowing for economic planning in real-time.
In 1971, Chile re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba, joining Mexico and Canada in rejecting a previously-established Organization of American States convention prohibiting governments in the Western Hemisphere from establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba. Shortly afterward, Cuban president Fidel Castro made a month-long visit to Chile. The visit, in which Castro held massive rallies and gave public advice to Allende, was seen by those on the political right as proof to support their view that "The Chilean Path to Socialism" was an effort to put Chile on the same path as Cuba.
October 1972 saw the first of what were to be a wave of confrontational strikes. The strikes were led first by truckers, and later by small businessmen, some (mostly professional) unions, and some student groups. Other than the inevitable damage to the economy, the chief effect of the 24-day strike was to induce Allende to bring the head of the army, general Carlos Prats, into the government as Interior Minister. Allende also instructed the government to begin requisitioning trucks in order to keep the nation from coming to a halt. Government supporters also helped to mobilize trucks and buses but violence served as a deterrent to full mobilization, even with police protection for the strike breakers. Allende's actions were eventually declared unlawful by the Chilean appeals court and the government was ordered to return trucks to their owners.
Throughout this presidency racial tensions between the poor descendants of indigenous people and slaves who supported Allende’s reforms and the white settler elite increased.
In addition to the earlier-discussed provision of employment, Allende also raised wages on a number of occasions throughout 1970 and 1971; these wage hikes were negated by in-tandem inflation of Chile's fiat currency. Although price rises had also been high under Frei (27% a year between 1967 and 1970), a basic basket of consumer goods rose by 120% from 190 to 421 escudos in one month alone, August 1972. In the period 1970-72, while Allende was in government, exports fell 24% and imports rose 26%, with imports of food rising an estimated 149%. Although nominal wages were rising, there was not a commensurate increase in the standard of living.
Export income fell due to a decline in the price of copper on international markets; copper being the single most important export (more than half of Chile's export receipts were from this sole commodity). Adverse fluctuation in the international price of copper negatively affected the economy throughout 1971-2: The price of copper fell from a peak of $66 per ton in 1970 to only $48-9 in 1971 and 1972.
Throughout his presidency, Allende remained at odds with the Chilean Congress, which was dominated by the Christian Democratic Party. The Christian Democrats (who had campaigned on a socialist platform in the 1970 elections, but drifted away from those positions during Allende's presidency, eventually forming a coalition with the National Party), continued to accuse Allende of leading Chile toward a Cuban-style dictatorship, and sought to overturn many of his more radical policies. Allende and his opponents in Congress repeatedly accused each other of undermining the Chilean Constitution and acting undemocratically.
Allende's increasingly bold socialist policies (partly in response to pressure from some of the more radical members within his coalition), combined with his close contacts with Cuba, heightened fears in Washington. The Nixon administration began exerting economic pressure on Chile via multilateral organizations, and continued to back Allende's opponents in the Chilean Congress. Almost immediately after his election, Nixon directed CIA and U.S. State Department officials to "put pressure" on the Allende government.
There were rumors of a possible coup since at least 1972; in 1973, partly due to Allende's economic policies, partly as a result of the rapidly declining price of copper (Chile's main export), but especially because of lock-outs and sabotage by factory owners, the economy took a major downturn. By September, high inflation (508% for the entire year) and shortages had plunged the country into near-chaos.
Despite declining economic indicators, Allende's Popular Unity coalition actually increased its vote to 43% in the parliamentary elections early in 1973. However, by this point, what had started as an informal alliance with the Christian Democrats was anything but; the Christian Democrats now joined with the right-wing National Party to oppose Allende's government, the two parties calling themselves the Confederación Democrática (CODE). The conflict between the executive and legislature paralyzed initiatives from either side.
On June 29, 1973, a tank regiment under the command of Colonel Roberto Souper surrounded the presidential palace (La Moneda) in an unsuccessful coup attempt known as the Tanquetazo. On August 9, General Carlos Prats was made Minister of Defense, but this decision proved so unpopular with the military that, on August 22, he was forced to resign not only this position but his role as Commander-in-Chief of the Army; he was replaced in the latter role by General Augusto Pinochet.
In August 1973, a constitutional crisis was clearly in the offing: the Supreme Court publicly complained about the government's inability to enforce the law of the land and, on August 22, the Chamber of Deputies (with the Christian Democrats now firmly uniting with the National Party) Declaration of the Breakdown of Chile’s Democracy Allende's government of unconstitutional acts and called on the military ministers to assure the constitutional order. Among other things, Allende was accused of disregarding the courts, attempting to restrict freedom of speech, and supporting unauthorized seizures of farms and private industry for the purpose of establishing state control of the economy. The Chamber of Deputies also attacked Allende for seeking to "establish a totalitarian system absolutely opposed to the representative system of government established by the Constitution.
In early September 1973, Allende floated the idea of resolving the crisis with a plebiscite. His speech outlining such a solution was scheduled for September 12, but he was never able to deliver it. On September 11, 1973, the Chilean military staged a coup against Allende.
|"Workers of my country, I have faith in Chile and its destiny. Other men will overcome this dark and bitter moment when treason seeks to prevail. Keep in mind that, much sooner than later, the great avenues will again be opened through which will pass free men to construct a better society. Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers!"|
|President Salvador Allende's farewell speech, September 11, 1973.|
In his 2004 documentary Salvador Allende, Patricio Guzmán incorporates a graphic image of Allende's corpse in the position it was found after his death. According to Guzmán's documentary, Allende simply shot himself with a gun, and not a rifle.
At the time and for many years after, his supporters nearly uniformly presumed that he was killed by the forces staging the coup. In recent years, the view he committed suicide has become more accepted, particularly as different testimonies are confirming the details of the suicide in news and documentary interviews. Also, members of Allende's immediate family including his daughter, accept that it was a suicide.
According to Vasili Mitrokhin, a former KGB bureaucrat, regular Soviet contact with Allende after his election was maintained by his KGB case officer, Svyatoslav Kuznetsov, who was instructed by the centre to “exert a favourable influence on Chilean government policy”. According to Allende’s KGB file, he “was made to understand the necessity of reorganising Chile's army and intelligence services, and of setting up a relationship between Chile’s and the USSR’s intelligence services”. Allende was said to react positively.
In October 1971, on instructions from the Politburo, Allende was given $30,000 “in order to solidify the trusted relations” with him. On December 7, in a memorandum to the Politburo, the KGB proposed giving Allende another $60,000 for what was termed “his work with political party leaders, military commanders and parliamentarians.”
According to Christopher Andrew's account of the Mitrokhin archives, "In the KGB’s view, Allende's fundamental error was his unwillingness to use force against his opponents. Without establishing complete control over all the machinery of the State, his hold on power could not be secure."
After the 1970 election, the Track I operation attempted to incite Chile's outgoing president, Eduardo Frei Montalva, to persuade his party (PDC) to vote in Congress for Alessandri. Under the plan, Alessandri would resign his office immediately after assuming it and call new elections. Eduardo Frei would then be constitutionally able to run again (since the Chilean Constitution did not allow a president to hold two consecutive terms, but allowed multiple non-consecutive ones), and presumably easily defeat Allende. The Chilean Congress instead chose Allende as President, on the condition that he would sign a "Statute of Constitutional Guarantees" affirming that he would respect and obey the Chilean Constitution, and that his reforms would not undermine any element of it.
Track II was abortive, as parallel initiatives already underway within the Chilean military rendered it moot.
The United States has acknowledged having played a role in Chilean politics prior to the coup, but its degree of involvement in the coup itself is debated. The CIA was notified by its Chilean contacts of the impending coup two days in advance, but contends it "played no direct role in" the coup.
President Allende's economic policy had involved nationalizations of many key companies, notably U.S.-owned copper mines. This had been a significant reason behind the United States opposition to Allende's reformist socialist government, in addition to his establishing diplomatic relations and cooperation agreements with Cuba and the Soviet Union. Much of the internal opposition to Allende's policies came from business sector, and recently-released U.S. government documents confirm that the U.S. funded the truck drivers' strike, which had exacerbated the already chaotic economic situation prior to the coup.
The most prominent U.S. corporations in Chile prior to Allende’s presidency were the Anaconda and Kennecott Copper companies, and ITT, International Telephone and Telegraph. Both the copper corporations aimed to expand privatized copper production in the city of El Teniente, Chile, the world’s largest underground copper mine. At the end of 1968, according to Department of Commerce data, U.S. corporate holdings in Chile amounted to $964 million. Anaconda and Kennecott accounted for 28% of U.S. holdings, but ITT had by far the largest holding of any single corporation, with an investment of $200 million in Chile. In 1970, before Allende was elected, ITT owned 70% of Chitelco, the Chilean Telephone Company and funded El Mercurio, a Chilean right-wing newspaper. Documents released in 2000 by the CIA confirmed that before the elections of 1970, ITT gave $700,000 to Allende’s conservative opponent, Jorge Alessandri, with help from the CIA on how to channel the money safely. ITT president Harold Geneen also offered $1 million to the CIA to help defeat Allende in the elections.
After General Pinochet assumed power, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told U.S. President Richard Nixon that the U.S. "didn't do it," but "we helped them...created the conditions as great as possible." (referring to the coup itself). Recent documents declassified under the Clinton administration's Chile Declassification Project show that the United States government and the CIA had sought the overthrow of Allende in 1970 immediately before he took office ("Project FUBELT"), but claims of their direct involvement in the 1973 coup are not proven by publicly available documentary evidence, but many documents still remain classified.
Memorials to Allende include a statue in front of the Palacio de la Moneda and Place Salvador Allende in Villeneuve d'Ascq, France near the Auchan store.