On September 4, 1970, Salvador Allende won election as president of Chile, a moment of victory for the idea of a democratic socialist revolution, one that right-wing nations such as the United States would never let succeed. Yet it was also a revolution from below, not only one led by a beloved president but one where everyday workers made militant demands that moved events forward rapidly.
Born in 1908, Allende was a socialist from the time he was a young man. In 1933, he helped found the Socialist Party of Chile. In 1938, after the election of the Popular Front candidate Pedro Aguirre Cerda, Allende became Minister of Health, which made sense as he was also a doctor. While a minister, which lasted until Aguirre Cerda’s 1941 death, he successfully pushed for new laws on workplace safety, pensions for the families of workers killed on the job, free lunch programs in schools, and better maternity care. In the 1950s, as a legislator, he introduced the bill that created the Chilean national health care system, which guaranteed universal care.
Allende really wanted to be president of Chile. Everyone knew this. That included the CIA, who was determined to not let it happen. Instead, it funneled support to other socialist candidates, primarily the more moderate Eduardo Frei. This wasn’t the only issue. The left was also divided between different parties. So Allende got about 5% of the vote in 1952, 28% in 1958, and 39% in 1964. It was the latter election when the CIA went all in for Frei, who wasn’t so bad, but was no Allende. Although many in Allende’s Socialist Party thought he had become too bourgeoisie to be the candidate, he was so popular with the people that they had no other realistic option.
In 1970 though, Allende pulled out the election in a tight race between two other candidates, one with similar positions to him. The right thought it would win, but failed after the right nominated an old president who was seen to be the perfect candidate until he started campaigning and proved to be old and bumbling. Basically, he had won on his Popular Unity ticket through a combination of populism, socialism, and nationalism, which created an alliance between left-wing workers, farmers, and intellectuals, with an appeal to the middle classes that the election of a Marxists wouldn’t really hurt them, only the rich. He had to create a coalition to take office, but managed that in November. And that only happened after CIA attempts to get him evicted from office failed, even though Richard Nixon told CIA director Richard Helms that “he wanted something done and he didn’t much care how.”
Inés Castro, a leftist weaver in a mill did not identify per se as a socialist, but rather as an allendista. Allende himself bragged, correctly, “It was the people who chose me. My own party was against me.” Another weaver, Alma Gallegos, a Communist Party member, recalled upon his election, “It was like a carnival. It was something we had never expected. It was a joy that couldn’t fit inside one, to see the all the compañeros embracing each other–whether they were poor or hungry or well dressed. And we shouted out right there in the street: “Long live the Popular Unity! Love live Compañero Allende!”
With the support of most of the workers, Allende quickly moved forward on his agenda to create a socialist society through democratic means. Big industries such as copper, the classic exploiter of the Chilean working class, were nationalized. Anti-poverty programs, ranging from free milk for children to land redistribution, were implemented. Social security was increased, literacy programs created, electricity rate hikes suspended, and bread prices fixed. Middle-class taxes were lowered to keep building that coalition. All this led to inflation, long a problem in the country, rapidly falling in the first year, while average real wages rose 22 percent by the end of 1971. Social spending vastly increased, with programs for women and children created and expanded.
Workers succeeded in forming unions in previously union-free industries such as the textile mills. By April 1971, two separate unions existed in the giant Amador Yarur plant where none has existed before 1970. The workers movement was part of Allende’s coalition of course and many of them loved him. But they were not passive. They had their own demands and that included pushing Allende to the left and engaging in militant organizing to do so. Workers at Yarur really wanted to nationalize the factory. Yarur himself had to cave on a lot of issues to avoid provoking a larger strike. They weren’t the only people agitating for more radical change. Homeless urban workers and recent migrants began seizing suburban land for themselves. Farm workers revolted against landowners.
This level of aggression by workers was not what Allende as his fellow Popular Unity leaders had counted on. They were for phased revolution. Workers were for immediate revolution. An April 1971 election for aldermen around the nation led to an overwhelming victory for Popular Unity, giving these demands more political heft. All of this also sped up the revolutionary movement in the government, as political leaders responded to workers, not the other way around. And it was the Yarur mills that this really took off, in part because of the strong workers’ movement there and in part because the company had such a reputation for rapacious greed. But even here, it was the workers themselves who made it happen, moving toward a huge strike on April 25, 1971 which forced Allende to act against his will. Allende felt this was overturning the apple cart of the proper way to run a revolution. But after three days, Allende saw no choice but to acquiesce to the radical workers and give them the mill.
I want to save the details of the fall of Allende thanks to the CIA coup and opposition from the military for a different post, but suffice it to say that they all hated him. He wasn’t popular with more conservative unions either and the AFL-CIO, more accurately called during these years the AFL-CIA, sought to support any effort to overthrow him. That happened in 1973, with Allende killing himself just before capture by the military, the ascendance of Augusto Pinochet, the mass murders and torturing of labor activists, the institution of right-wing economic programs from the University of Chicago-trained economists, and 17 years of dictatorship. All for electing a socialist who wanted to create a more equal and just society.
I relied on Peter Winn, Weavers of Revolution: The Yarur Workers and Chile’s Road to Socialism to write this post.
This is the 328th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.