The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

The Bloody Coup of 1973

Dec 5, 1998

General Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator and current "senator- for-life," was placed under arrest on October 20th, while undergoing medical treatment in a London clinic. Twenty-five years before on September 11, 1973, Pinochet led the bloody military coup which resulted in the murder and torture of tens of thousands of opponents. His responsibility for this carnage is well- established.

Pinochet’s arrest was initiated by a single, controversial Spanish judge, who is seeking Pinochet’s extradition in order to put him on trial for murdering Spanish nationals during the coup. A British lower court ruled in Pinochet’s favor, saying that he could not be prosecuted because the crimes he is accused of took place while he was acting as a head of state. But the Law Lords of Britain’s House of Lords reversed the lower court, ruling that at least part of what Pinochet did "would not be considered functional acts of a head of state." Meanwhile, Pinochet is currently at liberty in England, awaiting extradition proceedings which are expected to last a year or longer—if some other diplomatic arrangement is not made in the meantime. But neither Britain, Spain, nor the U.S. nor any of the other Western governments seem eager to facilitate Pinochet’s extradition, despite their supposed concerns about human rights in countries like Iraq or the former Yugoslavia.

Of course, it is not completely impossible that the British government could let Pinochet be extradited, and thus put on trial. But the bourgeoisie tries to protect its dictators and executioners and Pinochet served the interests of imperialism very well.

The 1973 coup that Pinochet led was not just another military takeover so common in South American history. It was not a classic coup d’etat through which, for lack of parliamentary democratic institutions, the dominating strata tries to resolve its internal problems. Nor was it merely a political fight inside the ruling strata. No, the coup of 1973 was a deadly war between the army—the instrument of bourgeois domination—and the labor movement, which ended a long period of parliamentary democracy. The regime could no longer tolerate a further development of the organized labor movement which was jeopardizing the course of capitalist exploitation in a critical period.

Pinochet’s coup was the last of a long series of political attempts to solve the social and economic crises which had overwhelmed Chilean society. It had been prepared over a very long period. The tragedy is that the working class was not prepared to impose its own solution on the crisis. Nor was it even prepared to defend itself.

The Impotence of the Parliamentary Regime

Chile was an underdeveloped country whose economy relied mainly on mining—first of nitrates, which British companies exploited in the 19th century, and then in this century, of copper, dominated by the U.S. The Chilean economy was entirely dependent on imperialism: 70 to 80% of the country’s income came from copper. It thus relied entirely on the price of copper on the world market. American companies had complete control over the production of copper. U.S. and European capital had control over a big part of the rest of industry.

The development of a national bourgeoisie in Chile was hindered by the imperialist plundering of the country and the narrow limits of the domestic market, due to the low income of the people in both the cities and the countryside, where the land was dominated by latifundia (large landholdings).

On the other hand, the Chilean working class was one of the best organized in Latin America, and it had built the biggest Communist Party on the continent.

By the 1960s, facing a worsening economic crisis and a growing international debt, a section of the middle classes was seeking both to calm popular unrest and limit the looting of the country by foreign multinationals. Eduardo Frei and his Christian Democrats, a middle class "center" party, took office in 1964 and began very cautiously to nationalize the economy—the so-called "Chileanization." At the time, Frei spoke about a "Third Way" between "Marxism" and capitalism, based on "progressive" Catholicism. He initiated agrarian reform, expropriating with compensation any landholding over 80 hectares (about 200 acres). Under Frei’s government, the state bought shares in the U.S. copper companies. But it tried placating them by paying a very high price for the shares. This ballooned the external debt, turning Chile into one of the most indebted countries in the world. The inflation that followed fostered growing unrest among workers, whose living standards fell. Discontent also rose in the countryside, among the rural poor, for whom the land reform was being carried out much too slowly.

The Popular Unity Coalition Comes to Power

To save the profits of the propertied classes, the working class movement had to be tamed: if the situation could not be brought under control, the army would be called in to reestablish order. The army was itself preparing to impose its solution to the crisis. A coup was even attempted against Frei. Although it failed, it was a warning of what was in store for the future. But in 1970, the bourgeoisie attempted to engineer one last political solution, this time embodied in the Popular Unity (U.P.) government of Salvador Allende.

Allende was the candidate of Popular Unity in the 1970 presidential election. U.P. was an alliance of the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, and several small center parties. Supported by the laboring masses, Allende received the most votes, but this amounted to only 35% of the votes. Since no one received an absolute majority in the election, it was up to the parliament to select the president. Allende became president, but only with the support of the Christian Democrats in parliament.

The working class and rural poor looked to the new U.P. government to improve their lot and bring an end to the worst injustices. But the bourgeoisie had other expectations. For it, the main task of the government was to make the working class pay for the crisis; that is, to get the working class to accept the necessary sacrifices so that profits would rise.

The First Reforms and their Limits

The U.P.’s program sounded very radical. The opening sentence of its program stated, for example: "The central objective of the united popular forces is to replace the current economic structure, end the power of national and foreign monopoly capitalists and large landowners, and initiate the construction of socialism."

In fact, the U.P.’s policy was simply a continuation of the policies of the previous government of Eduardo Frei.

In the countryside, the government may have accelerated the agrarian reform, but it was still carried out within the same legal framework that Frei had set up.

At the level of the banks, industry and commerce, Allende’s government nationalized the biggest foreign or Chilean companies which appeared the most decisive for controlling the economy. But Allende’s government tried to placate the owners, as Frei had done, usually buying them out at very high prices. Finally in July 1971, the parliament unanimously voted for the law nationalizing the copper mines, without direct compensation to the U.S. copper companies. This measure did not go beyond what the parliament, dominated by the right-wing and center parties, was ready to do.

By the end of 1971, the U.P. government had control of almost all of Chile’s mineral resources. One hundred and fifty industrial plants had been taken over by the state, including 12 of the 20 largest firms. The state also controlled 90% of banking and finance, 80% of all exports and 55% of imports. In order to increase productivity, the government introduced a system of worker participation in management, and increased speed-up in the nationalized companies and the service sector.

There were a few social reforms. Every child was given one-half liter of milk a day; wages were increased by 35% for white collar workers, by 70% for soldiers and state functionaries, and by 100% for blue collar workers and farm workers. More than 200,000 jobs were created. Inflation dropped from 35% to 20%.

In March 1971, the U.P. increased its share of the vote in the municipal elections to 51%, the first time it obtained a majority.

But, at the beginning of 1972, the price of copper, which comprised 80% of Chile’s export revenue, fell. The budget could no longer cover its expenses. The national debt, that had been inherited from the Frei government, grew as the state paid premium prices for most of the companies it was nationalizing. At the same time, the U.S. officially ceased aid to Chile and boycotted its requests for credit. The government was unable to find adequate sources of international credit and loans elsewhere. Having been over-generous toward the former owners of nationalized industries, the government now did not try to tap the wealth of the Chilean bourgeoisie. On the contrary, it stood by while businessmen sent their capital abroad to safe havens, without trying to challenge their right to do so.

By the end of 1971, the U.P. government had already used up all its foreign reserves. Its deficit had tripled to 315 million dollars. Expenditures were financed by printing money, thereby fueling inflation—which was to reach 340% by the summer of 1973.

The soaring inflation not only impoverished the working class, who could not afford to buy anything. It also played an important role in alienating the lower middle class. Because the U.P. did not infringe on the ownership rights of the bourgeoisie, it eventually pushed the lower middle class into the arms of the far-right.

The Illusion of a "Democratic" Army

Relative to the country’s small population (10 million people), the 50,000 strong Chilean army was the biggest in Latin America. From the end of World War II onward, the U.S. had trained the Chilean officer corps. Seven thousand of them passed through American military schools in Panama and other bases in the region. The small clique of officers had financial and personal ties with U.S. imperialism. Thus the army did not have the Chilean bourgeoisie as sole master; it was also the instrument of U.S. imperialism. As is often the case with an underdeveloped country, the Chilean bourgeoisie was too weak to control its own state apparatus.

Long before Allende came to power, the army demonstrated that it wanted to intervene against the growing social unrest. It distrusted the politicians and more generally the democratic framework within which agitation grew and the oppressed masses organized themselves. Between 1952 and 1957, at the height of the Cold War when the Communist Party was banned, the army had hunted down communists and presided over concentration camps like that at Pisagua, where 400 were interned under a certain Captain Pinochet.

From its very beginning, the U.P. leadership knew that the threat of a military coup was hanging over its head. But the leaders of the U.P. acted responsibly toward the bourgeoisie; there was no question that the U.P. would try to dismantle what was the ultimate tool for the bourgeoisie to defend its society. Not only did the U.P. avoid confronting the army, but they did all they could to keep the workers from attacking the army. They said that the generals did not have a chance; that they would be stopped in their tracks by the might of the working class. But no steps were taken to prepare workers, let alone rank-and-file soldiers for the confrontation that must sooner or later take place.

Allende never refused the generals’ demands when it came to the military budget. Nor did his government dare interfere with the "internal affairs" of the army hierarchy. The military was given an important role in the running of the state- owned corporations. Senior officers were appointed to the boards of some 40 state enterprises and research institutions, including the mines.

As early as June 1971, only nine months after coming to power, Allende declared a state of emergency and called in the army, following a terrorist attack carried out by a left-wing group. This was the U.P.’s way to show the army and the wealthy classes that the U.P. would not be dictated to by the far left. The chief of staff of the Santiago garrison was entrusted with the task of protecting the U.P. government. His name was General Augusto Pinochet.

Time and again, Allende’s government was to call in the army under similar circumstances, to restore public order against the right wing sometimes, but also against the working class when it mobilized. This reinforced the growing tendency of the petty bourgeoisie and middle classes to consider the army as a possible answer to the on-going economic disorder.

At the same time, this also gave the army more credibility among layers of the population which supported the U.P. The image that Allende gave was that of the army as a "democratic" arbiter.

The Crisis Unfolds

In May 1972, with inflation soaring and food shortages becoming critical, workers mobilized in order to obtain their means of survival. Peasants joined them in strikes, occupations and demonstrations.

Allende tried to stop the developing wave of militancy. In June, he announced that in light of the economic crisis, he was halting all reforms in order to achieve a rapprochement with the Christian Democrats. While Frei refused all negotiations, the U.P. government demonstrated its willingness to comply with the interests of the bourgeoisie. Workers were ordered to return all the property they had seized, to cease all factory occupations forthwith and to go back to work. Of course Allende guaranteed that no one would suffer as a result. But his guarantee was not very credible since, at the same time, he asked the armed police to oversee the "restoration of order." This they did with considerable gusto, resulting in an unprecedented level—at least up until then—of violence.

Prices were raised once again; shops were empty. The right wing launched an economic offensive against the government. They organized a strike of independent truckers, shopkeepers and professionals—the so-called bosses’ strike against the government, which began on October 10, 1972.

This right-wing offensive, however, triggered a massive counter-offensive by workers and peasants, initially called by the CUT, the Communist Party-led union confederation.

Workers re-occupied the factories and restarted production. Everywhere workers organized food distribution, setting up their own rationing system. Thanks to voluntary labor, public services, particularly hospitals, kept operating. Self-defense militia were set up to protect working class districts from far-right gangs and the police. In order to carry out all these tasks, committees of all sorts sprang up everywhere, formed by delegates of local factories and peasant councils. The same thing happened in rural villages, where committee members were elected by the villagers. This time the laboring classes went much further than the CUT and the U.P. wanted them to go. The masses were beginning to feel their strength, and their mobilization was beginning to weaken the bosses’ strike.

Right from the beginning of the working class mobilization, Allende had declared another state of emergency and called in the army to restore order. It was at that point that Allende refused to veto the infamous law passed by the right-wing majority of the parliament which gave the army the power to raid any premises to search for weapons on the basis of a mere denunciation. This law subsequently provided the military with a pretext to terrorize leftist activists and U.P. supporters in the period leading up to the September 1973 coup.

Just as the bosses’ strike was beginning to collapse, Allende took another step against the mobilization of the working class. On November 3, 1972, he invited the army’s three most prominent leaders to join the government. The CUT president and general secretary were offered posts at the same time. So the CUT called off the general strike.

And yet, even at that point, the mobilization of the working class remained unyielding. Attempts by the courts or the government to get workers to leave the occupied factories failed. When the military tried to take control of food supplies with the government’s agreement, this failed too. Many of the committees set up during the October strike continued to operate.

Officially, the role of the army in the government was, according to one of its leaders, to restore social peace and clear the way for parliamentary elections set for March. No doubt the generals, and certainly the right-wing parties, must have thought that this election would be the final nail in the U.P.’s coffin, given the general chaos in the country and the deepening economic crisis. Instead, the U.P. polled 43% of the votes; that is, much more than it had received in 1970.

It was probably at that point that a number of the generals came to the conclusion that the army must "save" the country from its current social chaos, without the help of the politicians. Allende’s inability to tame the workers was also leading the Chilean bourgeoisie and U.S. imperialism to look for a military solution.

Having been called in so many times to aid an impotent government, the military had a fairly good idea of the relationship of forces. They knew that despite the enormous popularity of the U.P. parties, their leaders would never risk a serious mobilization of the population against the army, that they would never dare arm the population.

Indeed the main slogan of all these parties was"No to civil war."The tragedy for the Chilean proletariat was that the entire spectrum of those who claimed to be their leaders, from the left to the extreme left - - the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, the Movement for the Revolutionary Left, which had gained a very significant following over the previous months—would repeat the same kind of slogans as if they could conjure away the danger. Frightened by the implacable development of the class struggle, they preferred to avert their eyes and hide behind fine sounding words, pacifism, non-violence. There are no higher crimes for those who claim to be the heads of the working class. Faced with danger, the imminence of a war to the death, they disarmed the working class. Instead of giving the workers the best chance to succeed in the battles ahead by politically, morally and materially arming the working class, they disoriented, demoralized and disarmed the workers, leading them to the slaughter.

The way was open for the army to take over. It was only a question of time.

The Coup

After the March 1973 elections, events accelerated.

In May, the Christian Democratic union of white collar workers organized a strike at the mines against the government. In June, there were two attempted coups. In response, the CUT called a general strike. Hundreds of factories were occupied in the capital. Local committees around the capital were organized to coordinate the workers’ resistance. But, after twelve days, the CUT gave in to Allende’s pressure and, once again, called off the strike.

On July 29th the right wing resumed its offensive, with a second truckers’ strike. This was combined with a wave of right-wing terrorism. Armed gangs organized by the far right or the military went on the rampage. They killed known worker militants and leftist activists; they bombed buses, gas stations, electric pylons and trains.

At the same time, the generals were busy getting rid of any organized opposition within the army. A network of naval officers and sailors who supported the U.P. was dismantled, and a hundred of them were tortured by their officers. The government did not issue the slightest protest. Allende remained loyal to the generals.

By August, Allende was again knocking on the door of the military. The generals were invited back to help restore order and join a new military cabinet. Soon the only general within the government who was hostile to the impending coup resigned. He was replaced on August 24 by Pinochet. By that time the army was already occupying entire regions in the rural areas, killing leftist activists and imposing its rule.

On September 4, 700,000 demonstrators marched in Santiago in support of Allende’s government. The march was large, but unarmed. This could hardly have impressed the military.

The following day, Allende received a letter from the committees of Santiago’s industrial suburbs, which said: "We believe that we are being led on a road which leads to fascism at a very high speed. Not only that, but we are being deprived of the means to defend ourselves." The letter asked Allende to take the leadership of an effort to organize defense. Allende never replied.

On September 9, faced with the gathering storm clouds, Allende announced a national referendum to decide whether he should continue his policy or resign, a pathetic legal maneuver. Two days later, on September 11, at 6:30 a.m., the navy initiated the coup. At 8 a.m., Allende came on the radio, asking the workers to remain calm and go to work as normal. At 2 p.m., the army occupied the presidential palace where the ministers had taken refuge, and Allende was killed. The military alleged that he committed suicide.

The Bloody Price of the U.P.’s Policy

In a month of blood and terror, the military dictatorship completely destroyed the complex of organizations which the Chilean labor movement had built through a half- century of struggles and patient efforts.

It dissolved the great working class parties and unions, the various economic, political and cultural organizations of the workers, the mutual aid societies. It dissolved the poor peasants’ associations which, even though they were relatively new on the social and political scene, had grown considerably in recent years. It dissolved the slum dwellers’ committees, the supply committees and all the organizations through which the poorest strata of Chilean society could at least express their immediate demands.

These organizations were not dissolved simply through legal and revocable measures, but through bloodshed and ferocious and methodical repression that aimed at physically eliminating the people who had played a role in the organized working class movement. In so doing, the military terrorized the entire population.

The arrests were systematic and the lists of targets had been obviously carefully compiled. They included every known communist, socialist or even left Christian Democrat. Soon the Santiago football stadium contained 7,000 detainees. Hundreds were shot, knifed or beaten to death before they even got there, not to mention those who died under questioning. There were hardly any hearings or trials.

It is estimated that up to 30,000 people were killed in the first few years of the dictatorship. There were thousands more who disappeared, not to mention all the Chileans who had to escape into political exile and find refuge in other countries around the world.

Repression was intensified on the working class. 300,000 workers—one in ten Chilean workers—were fired from their jobs in the first twelve months of the regime. Over the first few years of Pinochet’s regime, workers’ incomes fell by 40% and unemployment rose to 15 to 20%.

The defeat of the Chilean working class was accomplished by the same fundamental mechanisms that were used against the Italian working class in 1922, the German working class in 1933 and the Spanish working class in 1939. In all these cases, the aims were identical: to eradicate the working class’s consciousness and organization, and to end a situation in which bourgeois legality could not quell a social movement that had developed to the verge of social revolution.

When the coup took place, thousands of workers were expecting it. In the industrial suburbs, the defense committees had already made plans to organize the defense of their district or factories against the army. But they had neither instructions nor weapons. They were waiting for their leaders to deliver both. This never happened. The U.P. leaders, particularly those of the Communist Party, which had the largest influence in the industrial suburbs, let the workers down at the very moment when the issue was a matter of life or death.

Half-Way Measures = Disaster

Today, it is up to the very forces which supported and helped engineer Pinochet’s coup to decide what to do with him. Maybe Pinochet will be extradited, tried and put in prison. But even this is not certain. In any case, whatever happens, Pinochet fulfilled the role the bourgeoisie needed him to play, that of executioner of the Chilean working class. He certainly will not be the last to carry out such a role. The bourgeoisie still needs executioners—and, no matter what happens to Pinochet, it will find them.

But the question in Chile was not just what Pinochet and the army did. In order for Pinochet and the army to have carried out the coup and the bloody repression afterward, the Chilean working class had to be disarmed, tied up and delivered for execution. This role was carried out not by the army, but by the leaders of the U.P., those to whom the working class looked for direction.

When society is in a crisis, when the bourgeoisie’s democratic trappings no longer serve to control the working class, the bourgeoisie is perfectly ready to get rid of them. Its democratic institutions are useful for the bourgeoisie only when they continue to let its interests be represented inside the working class. But when these same institutions begin to express working class aspirations, then the bourgeoisie is ready to throw them aside and move to a test of forces.

When the test of forces comes, reformists like Allende have no place to go. The only way out the bourgeoisie leaves for them is to perish.

But Allende wasn’t the only one who was killed in Chile. The entire working class was decapitated, and it was reformists like Allende who led them to the slaughter.

This tragic lesson was paid for by the Chilean working class in its blood. This lesson, written large in the 1973 events in Chile, is a lesson that must be learned by the working class everywhere, and not only in Chile.

Faced with the bourgeoisie in crisis, the working class must fight for its own solutions. It cannot take half-way measures: it must destroy the forces of its enemy, that is, the state apparatus, its army, prisons, police, secret police, courts.

If the Chilean working class had made its own fight, if it had put as the aim of its mobilization to destroy the forces of its enemies, the results, in the worst of cases, could not have been more costly than they were. But by fighting, the workers would at least have had the possibility of winning.