How and why the Chilean Golpe del Estado (the Chilean coup) took place is both complicated and controversial. The convoluted makeup of Chilean politics, along with its struggling economy were certainly factors in the eventual overthrow, but they do not tell the whole story. Chile also found itself thrown onto the major stage of international politics, caught in a virtual tug-o-war between rival nations. Once the Marxist agenda of presidential candidate Salvador Allende gained serious support, the United States felt forced to intervene to protect its own interests. It was the political divisions within Chile, combined with the involvement of U.S. interests in shaping Chilean politics that created an atmosphere of political tension, and was the major catalyst for the Chilean coup of 1973.
While it is true that the shaping of Chilean politics and government began in the nineteenth century, the major factors are more modern. During the 1960s and 1970s, Chile was a nation with a strong tradition of democratic elections and practices. By the early 1960s, Chilean politics had become diverse and complex. Five major political parties had formed within Chile, each promising economic prosperity to the people: The extreme right of Chilean politics consisted of the liberals and conservatives, who merged to form the National Party, the Radical Party and the Christian Democratic Party were predominantly centrist parties, and the Socialist and Communist Parties made up the extreme left. The majority of Chilean people during the early 1960s favored the center of the political spectrum, in particular the Christian Democratic Party. In 1964 the party won the Chilean presidency with the strong leadership of Eduardo Frei. Frei promised the Chilean people sweeping reforms and economic prosperity. By the latter end of the decade, however, the party had lost momentum. Their inability to establish a coalition with the Radical Party (the party that most closely shared their views) spelled the beginning of the end for the Democratic Christian Party.
The economy also remained a problematic issue for the Chilean government. Compared to other Latin American nations, the Chilean economy was at the higher echelon, but was also on the decline. Soaring inflation rates festered the Chilean economy. In fact, From 1972-1974, Chilean inflation rates were the worst on the planet. The Democratic Christian Party had worked tirelessly to redirect the course of the economy, but met with only minimal success. As a result, the door was opened to the other political parties to seize power.
By 1970, Chilean politics were ripe for change. The political left began gaining new support for its agenda, promising a new prosperous era for the nation. At the head of the Socialist agenda was Salvador Allende. Allende had been in government for many years, and had even run for President three times before. His agenda had always lacked the support that the Democratic Christians enjoyed, and as a result, Allende was never able to achieve the presidency.
The Presidential election of 1970 gave Allende and the Socialists a golden opportunity to finally win. The political right of Chilean politics had lost support, and President Frei of the Democratic Christians was unable to run again for the presidency (the Chilean constitution allowed a person to serve as President for one term of six years). With Frei’s departure, the Democratic Christians had nobody as popular to run against Allende. The left nominated Jorge Alessandri, a former Chilean president, while the Democratic Christians nominated the unknown and unpopular Radomiro Tomic. For once it looked as though Allende had a serious chance to win the election
International reaction to the Chilean election was diverse. The United States took a strong stance opposing the Allende campaign. In his memoirs, Henry Kissinger stated that Allende’s strongest ambition was for Chile and Cuba to unite, and to “create the revolution in Latin America.” The very idea that socialist governments could spring up in Latin America was unacceptable to the United States, which had already been embroiled in problems with Cuba. To make matters worse, Allende, in the words of Kissinger, desired to “undermine U.S. position in the Western Hemisphere by violence if necessary.” Kissinger’s concerns with Salvador Allende’s intentions prove problematic, when compared with the statements of the U.S. ambassador to Chile. In January of 1970 Edward Korry, the U.S ambassador to Chile, told the Nixon Administration that the dangers Chile posed to the United States were greatly exaggerated. “I see little that will endanger U.S. real interests in the country, in the area, or in the hemisphere.” Kissinger’s attitudes toward Chilean government officials also indicate a level of arrogance. In a meeting with Gabriel Valdes, the Chilean foreign minister, Kissinger stated that, “Nothing important can come from the South…The axis of history starts in Moscow, goes to Bonn, and crosses over to Washington.” Valdes replied to Kissinger’s comments with, “Mr. Kissinger, you know nothing of the South.” Kissinger then rudely ended the conversation with, “And I don’t care.”
Despite Kissinger’s comments that the Southern hemisphere was irrelevant in world affairs, the Nixon Administration clearly took note of what was transpiring in Chile. Allende’s promises to nationalize the Chilean copper mines and other assets unnerved White House officials. American businesses within Chile (particularly in the copper industry) quickly developed a sense of fear that if Allende were to win, they would lose all they had worked for.
It was under these circumstances that the Nixon Administration decided to act. President Nixon authorized the CIA to provide any needed support to oppose Allende. This entailed monetary aid given to Allende’s opponents. The aid given to Allende’s opponents was in response to the alleged aid given to Allende from Cuba. The CIA had reported that Cuba had pumped $350,000 into the Allende campaign, and that Fidel Castro himself was helping to lead the charge to get Allende elected. For the United States, it seemed as though Chile was the stage for a much greater, and on-going fight with Communism.
Despite the efforts of the CIA and other U.S. officials, Salvador Allende was democratically elected the president of Chile on September 4, 1970. The official election results gave Allende 36% of the vote, while Alessandri gained 34% and Tomic 27%. Regardless of the fact that Allende had won in a constitutionally and democratically sound election, the Nixon Administration still saw his elections as, “a challenge to our national interest.” The mere thought that a second Cuba could be on the horizon caused U.S. officials to find another solution to the Chilean crisis. As Henry Kissinger stated, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.”
It was under these circumstances that the Nixon Administration and the CIA corroborated with Chilean officials to seek an alternative to Allende. Initially, it was hoped that a loophole in the Chilean Constitution would provide the answer. According to the Chilean Constitution, any president elected without a majority (51%) had to be elected in the Chilean Congress. Tradition had always obligated the Congress to affirm the winner of the popular vote, but under these circumstances, the U.S. hoped to change precedence. The plan called for the Chilean Congress to elect the runner up (Alessandri) to the Presidency. Alessandri would then step down, and another election (one in which former president Eduardo Frei would be eligible for) would be held. The United States banked on the hope that Frei’s popularity, coupled with U.S. backing, would carry him past Allende in the new elections. President Nixon justified the U.S. response by pointing out the fact that Allende had only been elected by 1/3 of the popular vote. Nixon also stated that the U.S. had every right to conduct secret operations in other nations to protect U.S. interests, since the Soviets were doing the same thing. Despite the intentions of the United States, Soviets, and Cubans, the fact remains that nobody seemed to care that the Chilean people had voted democratically.
It is strange even today to think that the United State, a nation that presumably devotes all its efforts to defend democracy and liberty for all, would go to such great lengths to suppress that very process in Chile. In his memoirs, President Nixon explained this by stating the following:
We live in a far from ideal world. As long as Communists supply external funds to support political parties, factions or individuals in other countries, I believe the U.S. can and should do the same and do it secretly so that it can be effective. Under Communists standards, of morality, governments are meant to be subverted and elections influenced. To me it would have been the height of immorality to allow the Soviets, the Cubans, and other Communist nations to interfere with impunity in free elections while America stayed its hand.Clearly, Nixon felt justified in impeding a democratic election simply because a rival was involved. This serves as a perfect example of the complexity of U.S. foreign affairs during the Cold War.
Despite the best efforts of U.S. officials to persuade the Chilean Congress not to vote for Allende, the Chilean Congress followed precedent and elected him president. Before his election, however, congress obligated Allende to agree to certain terms that would guarantee the future security of Chilean democracy. In response to his election, the Nixon Administration debated on the proper course of action. Edward Korry, the U.S. ambassador to Chile, had suggested to the White House that a coup involving the Chilean military was a possibility. This excited members of the Nixon Administration, who were still simmering over the Allende election. Korry’s plan called for the CIA to help fund several high-ranking generals in the Chilean Army to organize and overthrow President Allende. Once accomplished, the Chilean government would be able to hold new elections.
Unfortunately for U.S. officials, the plan to overthrow Allende via a military coup was shot down. Korry reported to the White House that most Chilean generals were unwilling to conspire or accept bribes from the United States, and that most generals simply wanted to “adjust” to Allende’s agenda. Rene Schneider, Commanding General of the Army, was a particular problem to the plan. Schneider had promised earlier that any effort of the Congress to disallow Allende the presidency would meet with his disapproval. Schneider also made his stance clear that he strongly supported the Chilean election process, and would not allow anything to interfere with the will of the people. Just a few days after making such comments, General Schneider was killed in an attempted kidnapping. Chilean officials immediately blamed the U.S. and CIA for the assassination, claiming it was backed by U.S. funds. Even though Nixon and Kissinger denied involvement, CIA records indicated that the U.S. did indeed provide weapons and funding. Despite the many efforts of the U.S. to oust Allende, it looked as though he was there to stay.
The reality that Allende was going to maintain his power was almost too much for the White House to bear. Henry Kissinger had even claimed that Allende’s rise to power, “posed for us one of the most serious challenges ever faced in this hemisphere.” Kissinger had made it clear to President Nixon that Allende’s victory caused unimaginable “political and psychological losses to the U.S.” Under these circumstances, the Nixon Administration took a hard stance against the Allende government. The U.S. government maintained close contact with Chilean military officials that were against Allende, and adopted strong economic strategies meant to choke the already struggling Chilean economy. American businessmen were warned to stay away, due to the unstable government, and Chile was quickly subjected to economic isolation.
At first Allende’s government gave a glimmer of hope to the Chilean people. During his first year in power the Chilean economy experienced unprecedented growth. Salary readjustment laws put more money in the pockets of Chilean citizens, gross national product surged 8.3%, industrial production soared 12.1%, unemployment fell 8.3%, and inflation dropped dramatically. Much of the sudden economic prosperity can be credited to Allende’s nationalization of the Chilean copper industry.
Chile’s economic prosperity did not last for long. After 1972, inflation began to rise and unemployment returned to previous levels. Allende’s inability to maintain the economic prosperity of 1972 was mostly due to American economic boycotts and a dramatic drop in the price of copper worldwide. The White House received constant information on the Chilean situation and was elated at the fact that Allende’s world seemed to be crumbling. Quickly, the United States moved to capitalize on Chile’s economic misfortune. The CIA dumped more than $6 million dollars to aid Allende’s opponents in the Chilean government, particularly in the military. The U.S. also hoped that the new Chilean Congress would move to impeach Allende based on his recent failures. Though impeachment efforts proved futile, U.S. officials were pleased to learn that many Chilean military officials were considering a coup. The Chilean economy had been pushed to the brink, massive protests had irrupted in the streets, and Allende seemed more like a deer in the headlights than the brave leader Chileans had hoped for.
The end came quickly for Allende. On September 11, 1973, Chilean military forces under the direction of Agusto Pinochet took control of the capital. Allende, who was hunkered down in the Presidential headquarters (La Moneda) gave his final farewell to the nation. Shortly thereafter, Allende found dead. Allegedly, Allende had shot himself with the very rifle given to him by his Cuban hero Fidel Castro. The Nixon Administration responded to the coup by claiming it had no involvement. Henry Kissinger commented that United States, “does not support revolutions as a means of settling disputes.” White House officials gave support for the Pinochet coup, calling the General “mild-mannered, businesslike, hard working, honest and dedicated.” Even when reports that Pinochet had ordered the deaths of thousands of Chilean people, Henry Kissinger claimed that Pinochet was simply dealing with “lingering terrorism.” Instead of being called a ruthless usurper of power, Pinochet was hailed as a patriot, called to protect his mother country. Whether they admit it or not, the Nixon Administration had participated (in one form or another) in the successful overthrow of a democratically elected government, and saw that government replaced with a military dictatorship.
The story of the Chilean coup of 1973 is deeply controversial and complicated. There is no doubt that much of this story is still yet to be unraveled. As time has passed, Chilean people (and people around the world) have divided opinions of Allende, U.S. involvement in Chile, and Pinochet. Some see Allende as a villain, while Pinochet is seen as a liberator. Others see Allende as a martyr and the United States as an evil empire, pushing its agenda on weaker nations. Regardless of personal feelings, the Chilean coup of 1973 serves as a perfect example of the complex world of U.S. foreign policy. The complex world of Chilean politics, the emergence of Allende and his agenda, and the involvement of the United States to protect its interests all molded together to create the coup of 1973. One can only hope that current and future leaders will learn from past events like Chile. Perhaps then we will think twice before getting involved in other nation’s affairs to protect our “interests.”