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Thursday, 24th April 2014

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Remembering Allende and Popular Unity

This year is the centenary of the birth of the Chilean socialist hero Salvador Allende, and also the 35th anniversary of the military coup which overthrew his Popular Unity government. As current events in Venezuela and elsewhere in Latin America show, the thousands who were murdered in that coup did not die in vain. The course of their struggle provides valuable, though painful, lessons for revolutionary movements today and in the future.

Around the world, and especially in Chile and Latin America, the 25th anniversary of the Chilean coup d'etat and Salvador Allende's centenary have been commemorated. Above all, Allende's heroic option to choose death rather than surrender to the vile generals who overthrew him, has been remembered.

Allende left a tangible legacy, including Codelco, the state copper mining company, still the world's largest copper producer and a huge contributor to the state budget.

Its future has been weakened, however, by the fact that the dictatorship gave new deposits to transnational companies. The other huge effect was on agriculture – the agrarian reform swept away the old semi-feudal latifundios.

Subsequent restructuring (small farmers left with no technical or financial support) has led to the present thriving capitalist export-based agriculture.

Allende's other legacy is the memory of his political struggle, and the mass media in Chile consistently try to bury this. This burial also extends to most of his former collaborators, now 'renewed' and concerned with making minor reforms to a neoliberal economic and social model.

Political processes now in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador especially, show how relevant is Allende's political legacy. In varied conditions, with many differences, there are again attempts to gain full economic independence and open the road to socialism.

So what was Allende's strategy? Briefly, it was to use elections to win political power within the existing state structure and then, working closely with the organisations of the people, especially the trade unions, to work towards a revolutionary transformation of the whole society.

This would include, as fundamental, changes in the constitution to create an advanced democracy, the end of foreign ownership or control of any important industry, and a combination of state and workers' direct control in the main enterprises.

A radical agrarian reform would end the power of the landed 'aristocracy', and bring workers on the land into full economic and democratic participation. Along with democratisation of education, people's access to culture and progressive mass media, the transformation of society could be achieved, including the state apparatus of ministries, the judiciary and the armed forces.

The UP (Popular Unity) identified three main enemies that had to be defeated to open the way to socialism: Foreign Imperialism, the Chilean Oligarchy, and the Big Landowners. These, of course, would attempt to overthrow this process. Allende's hope was that these attempts could be defeated by the strength of the working people, with their allies, who would oppose political violence to end a democratic process.

The strategy, then, depended on the maintenance of a favourable balance of forces, including within the middle strata, at almost all times; thus isolating fascist forces, and ensuring their defeat when desperation would lead them to launch a coup or other adventure.

This strategy was largely shared by the strong Communist Party in Chile - with some tactical differences. Documents of the CPC reveal that they argued with Allende to take stronger measures to repress economic sabotage and the fascistic opposition as it became more openly 'golpista', in favour of a military coup.

However, important sections of Popular Unity did not recognise the importance of keeping the support, or at least neutrality, of the middle strata. Dizzy with success (to borrow a phrase), they thought the time was ripe for a jump to full workers' control of almost all industries and even relatively small farms. Along with this went an underestimation of the need for economic stability, and the battle for production.
Economic problems were the key element, I believe, in the failure of Allende's strategy. Nixon and Kissinger, from the White House, successfully 'made the Chilean economy scream', particularly with the financing of strikes, especially in transport, on a huge scale. Despite great efforts by the popular movement, there were widespread shortages of many goods.

Where I lived, a town in a mainly rural area, for example, we had a JAP, a Supplies and Price Council, organised by the progressives in the neighbourhood. This ensured that a local shopkeeper received and distributed to every family a ration of sugar, rice, cooking oil and other basics, at normal controlled prices. A local butcher had meat one day a week. However, it was impossible for many months to buy toothpaste, toilet paper, detergent, and other goods except on the black market. Other things such as cigarettes were in short supply. In the capital Santiago, people had to queue for a long time to get bread as the economic crisis worsened.

The political effects of this were enormous, and not fully reflected in the election results. Allende was elected in September 1970 with a vote of 36% and was confirmed by the Congress (parliament) partly because there was a significant left wing of the Christian Democrat Party (PDC), at that time. The Popular Unity parties won 51% of the votes in March 1971, in municipal elections. In March 1973 this fell to
44% - enough to thwart a constitutional coup by the Congress but revealing the desertion of most of the middle strata, many of whom were now joining the opposition.

The right-wing had taken control within the PDC and allied with the traditional right-wing National Party. The middle strata, of course, included the NCOs and junior officers in the armed forces. The class position of senior officers is debatable but, well into Allende's government, there was no majority for a coup, and several generals were loyal to the government and democracy until the end. I do not know the numbers, but many members of the armed forces were arrested, tortured or killed, or merely 'retired'. Carlos Prats, the Army Commander-in-Chief who resigned a month before the coup due to pressure from his generals, was later killed by a car bomb in 1974 in Buenos Aires, as Pinochet feared his possible rivalry.

I would repeat that the problems of supplies, and also runaway inflation, in 1973, were the crucial factors that led to loss of political support for Popular Unity, especially in the middle strata. This created an unfavourable balance of forces, increasing right-wing violence, sometimes replied to with left-wing violence, and a climate of chaos in the country. There was a spiral which led to the military coup.

In this unfavourable balance of forces, the only hope for survival of the revolutionary forces was to avoid a confrontation, in fact taking a step backwards to survive and advance again at a later date. This was resisted both by the right-wing leadership of the PDC and by important sectors of Popular Unity; the majority of the leaders of Allende's own Socialist Party (the largest in members and electoral support), and the smaller MAPU and Christian Left, together with the 'Revolutionary Left Movement', MIR, objectively acted to accelerate the confrontation, believing that it could not be avoided.

This ultra-left opposition to Allende's strategy tried to create 'Popular Power' as an alternative to the government, thus further alienating and frightening the middle strata. By the time of the coup, the result was a foregone conclusion. The democratic sectors of the armed forces had been isolated. The middle strata and much of the working class had either gone over to the opposition or were passive. That said, few people supported the brutality of the coup but once the 'gorillas' had power it was too late to say you wanted another kind of solution to the crisis.

The question remains – was the defeat of Popular Unity and Allende inevitable? Evidence we now have of the enormous resources wielded by the CIA and the Chilean Oligarchy, plus the weight of tradition, may suggest so.

However, as I have tried to show, everything depended, at all times, on the balance of political forces. Nothing was inevitable there. For almost three years the process of radical reforms continued although it is clear that the White House wanted to destroy Popular Unity even before Allende's inauguration.

More economic help from abroad, a Socialist Party leadership closer to Allende's vision, less sectarianism and a more successful engagement with the progressive sections of the CDP, could all have helped reduce the depth of the crisis. Allende's first Economics Minister did not help, with his policies of largesse and printing money with no concern about inflation. Greater unity and coordination of the working people, to combat economic sabotage including the black market, was necessary.

So in the end the pro-fascist forces were able to win a majority in the armed forces and crush the democratic forces – a political defeat, above all. Many lessons can be learnt from the Popular Unity experience; above all the need for a realistic strategy and unity around that strategy. In processes that depend on the use of traditional democratic mechanisms, keeping most of the people well supplied with food at least is essential. Keeping the middle strata happy is vital. When I saw pictures of empty supermarket shelves in Venezuela some time back, I shuddered.

The policies of revolutionary governments towards the armed forces is a particular issue, of course. Firstly, I would suggest that they need to be looked after in material terms – stuffing their mouths with money is worthwhile to minimise opposition. Gently incorporating them in national development projects should also be important, together with efforts to win political influence in the armed forces by revolutionary forces.

The extent to which progressive forces can themselves be armed or have military training will vary greatly from country to country, depending on the traditions and the particular political situation. In Chile from 1970 to 1973, open attempts to do this would probably have triggered a military coup almost immediately, as the cultural and political conditions for it never existed.

Another lesson would be to take advantage of favourable political conditions to rapidly implement measures to improve democracy and reduce the possibilities of sabotage. Here, Venezuela is a good example, with a Constituent Assembly that changed the constitution and a failed coup that led to a 'cleaning' of the armed forces. In Chile's case, few would argue that conditions for something similar ever existed.

Despite the almost total censorship of socialist ideas by the mass media in Chile, Allende's memory lives and is reproduced. An unpublicised event drew 7,000 mainly young people to the Moneda Palace in June, to celebrate his life. Gladys Marin, as a young communist leader, was an active supporter of Allende, and later a leader in the fight against Pinochet's dictatorship. The biggest crowd in post-dictatorship Chile, around a million people, came to her funeral in March 2005.


This article is also published in The Socialist Correspondent.