A detailed account of the Allende presidency and its violent end, as Chile’s military carried out Washington’s bidding
“I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.”
U.S. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, just before Salvador Allende was elected president of Chile, to a White House committee which decided which other countries’ internal affairs should be manipulated.
“Our country is a force for good without precedent.”
Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, to the U.S. Army War College, 1997.
“If we have to use force, it is because we are America! We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future.”
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Allbright, 1998.
In pursuit of its national security, the U.S. no longer need be guided by “notions of international law and norms” or “institutions like United Nations” because it is “on the right side of history.”
Prospective U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, 2000.
(Items 2-4 above are cited in David Cromwell, Why are We the Good Guys? Alresford: Zero Books, 2012, pp 83-4.)”
It is always other people who pay the price for this hubris, which seems yet to be overtaken by its nemesis despite the deaths, perhaps amounting to tens of millions, it has caused. To crusaders possessed by such messianic fervour, the untidy indeterminacy of ordinary people’s lives and of countries’ dealings with one another, and the capacity of peoples and states to coexist and more, however untidily and indeterminately, is unbearable. For the messianic, the world must be as they fantasise it to be, and anyone who embodies anything else must be removed or exterminated. Salvador Allende, elected President of Chile in 1970, was no communist, but a moderate social democrat; Henry Kissinger and his president, Richard Nixon, were terrified not that he was in office but that his mixed economy would work. It had already worked astoundingly well in western Europe, but that is one region of the world which Kissinger, who himself ordered the illegal saturation bombing of Laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam War, seems not to have considered destroying.
Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, senior lecturer in law at Birkbeck College in the University of London, has written a detailed account of the Allende presidency and its violent end as the Chilean military did what Washington wanted, and did it to oblige major United States corporations who feared having to share even part of their profits with millions of poor Latin Americans on whose backs they made those profits. At least some of Allende’s hopes have been realised in the last sixteen years, especially since Hugo Chávez, a harder-line socialist than Allende, was elected and then repeatedly reelected by the Venezuelan public, starting an era of resolutely social-democratic voting across Latin America.
That continues; in Venezuela, foreign oil corporations pay 16 per cent of their profits to the country, in contrast to the one per cent they used to pay. Chávez told them they could pay or leave. The money, despite corruption and violence, goes into public healthcare, schools, and universities, and so far the efforts of the Venezuelan elites to mobilise against this have failed to rouse the masses. Latin America is the one continent where elected leaders ignore the International Monetary Fund.Terrible period
Guardiola-Rivera, faced with the task of chronicling a terrible period, starts with one which lies further back but is no less terrible. It was not the Spanish crown but British and American banks which became the dominant powers in Chile, and British families who settled there – like the Edwards family – came to be among the most powerful, funding extractive industries, especially in nitrates and copper, for colossal profits in the northern Anglosphere; their expansion was predicated on the explicit and racist assumption that those they colonised in Latin America had no history or civilisation and were in effect subhuman. King Leopold II of Belgium, one of the most brutal colonists of all in Africa, enthusiastically supported their project, which inevitably involved genocide, in this case the slaughter of most of the Mapuche people in southern Chile.
By the early 20th century, however, resistance was emerging, and the young Salvador Allende, born in 1908, learnt much from Juan Demarchi, a cobbler and one of the many artisan-scholars and worker-poets in the Chile of the time. Allende became a political activist while studying medicine; he shared his fellow-travellers’ concerns about the spread of Fascism in Europe and the United States (where its adherents included Henry Ford), and was a minister by 1938. By 1945 he was a senator, and in the next decade proceeded to create the Chilean national health service, the first such in the Americas.
Elected President – in a close triangular contest - in 1970, having lost in 1964 in a process heavily rigged by the CIA, Allende proceeded to act on a broad range of social-democratic commitments, in particular implementing a doctrine of geoeconomic sovereignty against, for example, foreign corporations, who mined Chilean copper for the voracious U.S. armaments industry throughout the Cold War.
Geoeconomic sovereignty by itself may not have been decisive in his overthrow (even if it was one reason for the failed U.S.-backed coup against Chávez in 2002), and the author brilliantly demonstrates the enormous ideological threat Allende, Fidel Castro, and Ernesto “Che” Guevara posed to the United States. None of them was a slavish follower of the Soviet Union; Castro and Guevara had been disillusioned by the Cuban missile crisis, by the extent and nature of Soviet domestic failures, and by the USSR’s decision to participate in an arms race with the U.S., a race which could only — and did — bankrupt it and also meant that monies which could have gone to domestic and global causes went into armaments. In contrast, the three Latin left leaders thought very hard about political economy. Castro cited Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson before he cited Lenin; Guevara, a doctor, read Freud before he read Marx, and gave up his own idea of leadership for a far more open idea of the state; Allende considered democracy essential for a broadly equal society.
Drawing partly on the work of Raúl Prebisch, the three seriously considered an international economic system independent of the existing convertible currencies and founded on a new international sensibility in which a decent life for all would be central; this would include reparations for imperial and colonial exploitation. They also thought very hard about technology and politics; in a 1962 analysis, Guevara said, “Electronics has become a fundamental political problem.”
Furthermore, Castro and Guevara offered to normalise relations with the United States in 1963. They were, of course, ignored; after the Second World War, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Vice-President Henry Wallace, who openly attacked U.S. domestic apartheid, had been marginalised by the bitterly anti-communist President Harry S. Truman, and within a few years McCarthyism was rampant. It is no surprise that Nixon and Kissinger — and the corporates — were frightened of Allende’s potential impact. The Chilean industrialist Agustín Edwards Eastman was among those in Washington who plotted the coup, and on September 11, 1973 the Chilean air force attacked La Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago, with British-made Hawker Hunter aircraft; Allende took his own life. Thousands died in mass killings by the Chilean forces, and the new dictator Augusto Pinochet declared himself immune from prosecution. The coup had adoring support from the Chilean elites, and the author notes that rich upper-class women were among the country’s worst bigots.
Guardiola-Rivera adds to remarkable political detail by drawing on his own immense knowledge of literature, poetry, music, and film to show that Allende’s incipient vía chilena — the Chilean Way — amounted not only to a political battle against an enormously brutal society but to also to an existential challenge from below, directed at the crushingly controlling and violently destructive forces of global capitalism. Mighty figures were involved: Pablo Neruda, himself a presidential contender, Delia del Carril, Blanca Luz Brum, Federico García Lorca, Carmen Lazo, and Victoria Ocampo all played crucial parts in the struggle for a decent life for ordinary Chileans; others feature too, like Ariel Dorfman, Beatriz Allende, and the Gaitáns, Jorge Eliécer and Gloria. They were highly intelligent and very passionate people, and their political commitments were as intense as their many sexual liaisons. This is no ordinary political biography.