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Allende's Chile, 1972

By John Foran, Department of Sociology, University of California, Santa Barbara

How long does a man live, after all?
Does he live a thousand days, or one only?
For a week, or for several centuries?
How long does a man spend dying?
What does it mean to say "for ever"?
-- Pablo Neruda

This case puts participants in the place of Salvador Allende, Chile's president, in 1972. Allende was the first democratically-elected socialist ruler in world history. He presided over a polarized society, a complex coalition, and a situation in which the United States was pledged to reverse his project of constructing a Chilean path to socialism. The case visits the site of a meeting Allende held with his coalition partners in Lo Curro, in 1972, in which various proposals were put forward for dealing with these problems and sustaining the project of social transformation. Students are asked to argue for the various positions, and to attempt to find some kind of solution to the several problems faced by Allende that would be both workable and acceptable to the partners in the coalition. The case raises the question of could a coup have been avoided, and more generally, could history have turned out differently?


Salvador Gossens Allende is often called the first democratically elected socialist president in world history. The period of his rule in Chile between 1970 and 1973 witnessed an attempt to construct a "Chilean path toward socialism" with great creativity and popular enthusiasm. It also encountered serious opposition from vested interests in society, the army, and the United States government abroad. This dramatic experiment in democratic social transformation reached a crisis point in its second year, 1972. To deal with the problems that were arising, Allende convened a high-level meeting of his coalition partners at Lo Curro in the gloom of the Chilean winter, June 1972. The problems they faced, the stakes, and the options were particularly complex and challenging.

Historical Background

Chile is a narrow country some 1,000 miles long that runs down the western spine of the Andes mountains from the northern deserts that border on Bolivia, through the rich central valley that contains the capital city of Santiago linked to the chief port of Valparaiso, to the cold southern tip of Latin America. Its economy has historically been based on mining, primarily nitrates in the late nineteenth century, and copper in the twentieth. Its social and political structures since independence in 1821 were dominated by the agricultural and mining elites, who had historically competed for national power through the vehicle of the conservative National Party (Partido Nacional, or PN). Around and after World War 1, socialist and communist parties also emerged, vying for the allegiance of the northern miners and the urban working class. Social structure was grossly unequal, with peasants in particular living in semi-feudal conditions on the large estates of the central valley.

In the period leading up to and after World War 1, American companies invested heavily in Chilean copper, which became the main export of the country. U.S. investments reached $1 billion by 1930, mostly in copper, and the U.S. displaced Britain as the main foreign power in the country. There were a series of political experiments in this period as well. A military coup in 1924/25 brought a few reforms but with it came a dictator named Carlos Ibanez del Campo, interrupting for a time Chile's comparatively long history of democratic rule, by Latin American standards (or indeed by any standards). The world-wide depression led to more coups in 1931 and 1932 (a pattern also seen in Argentina, Brazil, and Central America). After that, there was a long period of four decades of uninterrupted civilian democratic rule. Between 1938 and 1952 there was a government consisting of mostly centrist parties (in particular the Radical Party) with left-wing support in a coalition called the Popular Front. These governments presided over a certain amount of industrialization led by the populist state.1 Their social base lay in the growth of the Chilean middle class, which supported the Radical or National parties, and the working class, which provided support for what were by then Latin America's most numerous and well-organized Socialist and Communist parties.

Beginning in 1958, Chileans elected three successive one-term governments, each with a very different development strategy. In 1958, the conservative candidate Jorge Alessandri came to power by narrowly defeating the socialist leader Salvador Allende. Alessandri followed a classic free market style of capitalist development, reducing the government's role in the economy and inviting foreign companies to invest in Chile. Inflation was contained by keeping wages low. This strategy ran into problems however -- there were few productive investments made by the private sector and eventually inflation broke out again when the government devalued the currency. A new party, the Christian Democrats (Partido Democrata Cristiana, or PDC), made gains in local elections in 1963. The Christian Democrats' support came from the middle classes -- white-collar workers, skilled workers, professionals, managers. It also got votes from women and slum dwellers and had some support in the countryside because it promised a land reform.

In order to prevent a victory by Allende and the left in the 1964 presidential elections, Chilean businessmen supported the Christian Democrats. The United States also poured $20 million into the campaign in favor of the Christian Democrats, and their candidate, Eduardo Frei, won the election with fifty-six percent of the vote to Allende's thirty-nine percent.

Frei's development strategy had a vague content but a progressive tinge. It was based on a vision called "communitarianism" in which the state promoted social welfare without getting involved in class struggles. He said: "We do not propose for the country either a socialist road or a capitalist road, but one that emerges from our national reality and our national being, in which the state predominates as the administrator of the common good."2 The Christian Democrats called for land reform (but never implemented it) and for the state to own fifty-one percent of the copper sector -- a policy known as the "Chileanization" of copper -- which did not effectively dispossess the American companies, who continued to make large profits in Chile. For two years the economy did fairly well, but inflation returned in 1967 along with slower growth and high unemployment. Landowners and the business elite became alarmed at the prospect of land reform. Unions were angered by the decline in living standards and repression of strikes. The Christian Democrats themselves divided into left and right wings. In May 1969 the party split, with the left wing forming the Unitary Popular Action Movement (MAPU), and seeking an alliance with parties on the left.

The 1970 elections for president were a three-way contest between the conservative National Party, which ran former president Jorge Alessandri; the left, which formed a coalition called Popular Unity (Unidad Popular, or UP) of communists, socialists, the Radical Party, MAPU, and two smaller parties, with Salvador Allende of the Socialist Party as their candidate; and the Christian Democrats, who ran Radomiro Tomic from the remaining left wing of the party. U.S. interests -- the CIA and the multinationals -- put less money into the campaign than they had in 1964, assuming Alessandri would win, but the results were:
Allende (UP) 1,075,616 36.6 percent
Alessandri (PN) 1,036,278 35.3 percent
Tomic (PDC) 824,849 28.1 percent
Thus it was that the world's first freely elected socialist president came to power in Chile.

Allende's First Two Years: The Plan for a Chilean Path to Socialism

The development strategy of the UP alliance was clearly expressed in the opening sentence of its economic program:

The central objective of the united popular forces is to replace the current economic structure, ending the power of the national and foreign monopoly capitalists and large landowners, in order to initiate the construction of socialism.3

such a transition to socialism would require major structural changes, notably the nationalization of the industrial sector (to be called the Area of Social Production), and the implementation of an effective agrarian reform. Other goals included providing better health, housing, and social security, and ending discrimination against women.

The core of the policy was to raise wages at the expense of profits, thereby squeezing the private sector, much of which was to be taken over by the state and run at a lower rate of profit. By the end of 1971, 150 industrial plants were under state control, including twelve of the twenty largest firms. Unemployment declined as the economy expanded, inflation was kept under control, and workers' incomes rose by fifty percent, a huge increase. As a result, the UP increased its share of the vote in the April 1971 municipal elections.

In July 1971 the U.S.-owned copper mines were nationalized, and after a calculation of the companies' "excess profits" from 1955 to 1970, it was determined that Chile owed the two big American companies Anaconda and Kennecott Copper nothing for the mines. (The way this was done was by comparing copper profits in Chile with the companies' profits elsewhere in the world. It was calculated that twelve percent was the world-wide profit rate for these companies, and that they had made $774 million above this in Chile from 1955 to 1970: "This deduction exceeded the book value of the companies' properties"). Nationalization however caused an escalation of ongoing U.S. plans to destabilize the Chilean economy, which were coordinated for the Nixon administration by Henry Kissinger, who in a famous quote said: "I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people." In other words, the U.S. would decide what was best for Chile, and if that meant replacing a democratically-elected Marxist with a military government, that was perfectly acceptable to Kissinger and Nixon (not to mention the copper companies and ITT -- International Telephone and Telegraphs -- which had also been expropriated in Chile). So, the U.S. cut off loans to Chile and blocked World Bank and other sources of money (the U.S. ambassador to Chile remarked: "Not a nut or a bolt will reach Chile.... We will do all in our power to condemn Chileans to utmost poverty").

As a result of the drop in aid and economic sanctions, Chilean industry ran into problems getting spare parts, technology, and new machinery. Meanwhile inflation returned because workers and peasants now had more money to spend, driving up prices, while shortages of goods were occurring. Agriculture declined as the land reform disrupted production, and landowners took land out of production. Politically, it should be pointed out that Allende did not control the entire state machinery -- he did not have a majority in Congress, he did not control the judiciary, he did not have the loyalty of the entire civil service nor of much of the army high command, which had been trained in the United States. The upper classes owned most of the mass media, and used it against him (the CIA also gave money to conservative newspapers and radios to do a vicious smear campaign playing on fears of communism).

The Lo Curro Conference: Proposals for Further Change

Faced with these difficulties the UP convened a high-level strategy conference in June 1972 to try to elaborate a strategy capable of maintaining the momentum of the revolutionary process. At this meeting, a significant difference of opinion emerged. The Communist Party, Allende's wing of the Socialist Party, and the Radical Party wanted to slow things down and try to rebuild an alliance with the progressive wing of the Christian Democrats and thereby regain the support of the middle classes. Against this view, most of the Socialist Party, the MAPU, and a smaller, further left group called the MIR (Movimiento de la Izquierda Revolucionaria, or Movement of the Revolutionary Left) called for more activism and mobilization of the working class (since the MIR was not formally part of the UP coalition, it was not directly represented at Lo Curro).

The first group wanted to slow down the pace of nationalizations, especially the spontaneous ones that were going on in some factories; maintain payments on the foreign debt to appease the United States; and call for a "battle of production" appealing to workers to hold down wage increases in order to reduce inflation and shortages. Politically, this meant rebuilding an alliance with the progressive wing of the Christian Democrats, to bring the middle classes back into support for the process of change, and to win a more solid electoral majority. Once this political base was consolidated, it was argued, the transformation of Chilean society could proceed on a more solid footing.

The second group wanted to encourage worker and peasant seizures of factories and land (called "tomas' -- meaning "to take"); to suspend payments on the foreign debt to retaliate against the blockade; and to implement rationing of basic goods to fight speculation and combat the shortages. Politically, this meant mobilizing the working class and peasantry for even more radical (but still largely constitutional and legal) changes. By building a deeper base among the working classes of Chile, both electoral gains and the political will for radical changes could be preserved.

Two other options also hung over the deliberations:
-- the MIR's proposal for sharp class confrontation and eventual armed struggle against the right and the repressive forces of the army and police. According to this logic, the whole process was in grave danger because the right-wing opposition would not play by the rules of the constitutional game. Therefore, the left should prepare for a direct seizure of power, and above all, take away the army's ability to end the revolution with a coup.
-- an (as yet) undefined combination of points of one or more of the above, that would address the pressing short-term problems, creating a space to deepen the process of change without running such a great risk of reversal by the army, the United States, and the right.
Salvador Allende, hoping to find a way forward out of the myriad of problems confronting his fragile coalition, and realizing the huge human stakes in the outcome of these deliberations, turned to the assembled groups, and put the question:
"What should we do, companeras and companeros?"

Part "B": The Coup

What Happened, 1972-73

Although the formal outcome of the meeting at Lo Curro was the adoption of Allende's positions, in practice, both strategies were carried forward at the same time -- the government tried to build bridges to the Christian Democrats and the middle classes, while grass roots activists carried out land seizures and factory occupations.

Each group tried to carry out its own program for social transformation, and throughout 1972 class conflict grew.4 In October and November, truck drivers, retail merchants, and professionals went on strike, a so-called "bosses' strike" against the government. The government responded by having trade unions and neighborhood groups take over the distribution of goods. The strike ended in a stalemate, with more factory occupations and worker support for the government, but more shortages of goods and loss of middle class support. Allende had to bring certain military figures into his cabinet to shore up the authority of the government.

In 1973 class polarization deepened. Despite inflation and rightwing sabotage of the economy, the UP increased its share of the vote in the March 1973 congressional elections from thirty-six percent to forty-four percent (analysis of the vote shows increased blue-collar support, and decreased white-collar and middle class voters for the UP). This outcome meant that the UP's enemies could not get the two-thirds vote needed to impeach Allende and remove him legally. The rightwing opposition therefore hardened its tactics. In May the copper miners -- at least those organized by the Christian Democrats and the white collar sector of the work force -- went on strike against the government, a somewhat incongruous situation of workers opposing a socialist government. On June 19, 1973 there was an attempted military coup with assistance from fascist, or extreme right-wing civilians, which failed when part of the army remained loyal to the government (Chile had a rather long, if not uninterrupted, history of rule by civilians, and this culture influenced the army too to some degree). On July 29 came the second truckers' strike, combined with much right-wing terrorism against people and trucks, buses, gas stations, pipelines, and trains.

Finally, on September 11, 1973 came the brutal military coup that overthrew the government. Allende died fighting in the presidential palace. His final words, broadcast to the nation, were:

Probably Radio Magallanes will be silenced and the calm metal of my voice will not reach you. It does not matter.... I have faith in Chile and in her destiny. Others will surmount this gray, bitter moment in which treason seeks to impose itself. You must go on, knowing that sooner rather than later the grand avenues will open along which free people will pass to build a better society.5

The army was the main maker of the coup, and certainly the U.S. gave ample encouragement, material aid, logistical support, and swift diplomatic recognition to the junta. Inside Chile there was support from fascist and anti-communist groups, large landowners, industrialists, and owners of the mass media. But all of these groups together would not have had much of a social base despite their material resources. A key social base for the coup, then, was Chile's middle classes, who were economically hard hit by inflation and shortages, and politically close to the Christian Democratic Party, the centrist party that ultimately supported the right over the left. Groups like professionals, small shop owners, the truck drivers, and others, who all had their own associations much like workers have labor unions, provided an atmosphere of public support for the military coup. Recall too that Chile's population was being bombarded by anti-communist messages in the media, which under Allende was perfectly free to say whatever it wanted.

The workers, unarmed and unprepared for a civil war could not resist the coup, which brought General Augusto Pinochet to power. The junta -- the new military leadership -- killed some 30,000 supporters of the UP in its first few months in power, most of them arrested, tortured, and then disappeared.6 Some fifteen years later, after countless demonstrations and suffering, Chileans would restore their democracy through a decisive repudiation of Pinochet at the polls. Chile today is refinding itself in a free political system, but the Allende years represent a lost option for a transformation of society that still awaits its moment.

Teaching Notes


Rearrange your locations so the MIR [K-O] role players are on the left; the Socialists [P-Z] in the middle of the room; and the Communists [A-J] on the right. Turn to your neighbor and take five minutes to discuss the perspective of your party, and your suggestions on what should be done. [write names and locations on the board]

Openers/The setting

Let's set the scene for this discussion a little bit. What are some of the characteristics of Chile in 1970, on the eve of Salvador Allende's election? Tell me something you think is important for understanding the nature of the country.


OK, Socialist Party leader Salvador Allende wins the 1970 elections and becomes president of Chile. [JF: explain how he won on a split vote, US overconfidence, etc.]

What are the goals and methods of the "Chilean path toward socialism"? What is the Popular Unity, or UP coalition, trying to achieve?

What is the economic situation in Chile between 1970 and 1972? What changes have occurred, and what are the consequences of these?

The Role Play

Lo Curro

So, the situation in mid-1972 is fairly critical, and Allende decides to take stock with his coalition partners, calling them to a conference in a place called Lo Curro. To get at some of the flavor of the debates, let's role play the discussions at this meeting.

So, on the left, here, we have the MIR -- the Revolutionary Movement of the Left.
In the center, we have the Socialist Party.

And (ironically), on the right, we have a small portion of Allende's Socialist Party (including Allende himself), and the Communist Party.

I'm Salvador Allende, and I want your advice on what to do. Let me hear first from some of my colleagues in the Communist Party: What should we do, and why?

Now to the Socialist Party: What should we do, and why?

And what is the MIR's position?

Does anyone want to respond to the others' arguments?

OK, you've heard the debates of the leaderships of the revolutionary parties. Let me put it to you all now, letting you step outside the roles: What would you advise Salvador Allende to do, and why? What I'm really asking is, can you come up with a way to sustain the "Chilean path toward socialism"? Taking into account all the ideas you've heard, what do you think it would it involve?

Can a coup be avoided? If so, how? If not, why not?

[After a while] I'm going to put it to a vote, now, with three choices, of which you must pick just one. The choices are: 1) slow down the pace of change to work for a broad coalition with the Christian Democrats, 2) speed up the transformation of society by relying on further radical mobilization of the lower classes, 3) arm the workers and confront the army and the elite. How many people think Allende should 1) work for the coalition with the Christian Democrats? 2) speed up the transformation of society? 3) arm the workers?

B Case [distribute and summarize]
JF to explain: Which path was followed? What was the result? What role did the United States play in it?


What have you learned from this exercise? [quick answers -- "bullets"]

[Debriefing/Evaluations Here]

JF: I believe there are options in history...
Opt: How do you feel about it? Write down your one or two words on a piece of paper for me.

Student Handout

On Thursday, February 5, we will do our second case discussion, "Allende's Chile, 1972." Here's how to prepare for the meeting:

Please re-read the first entry in the course reader on "The Case Method of Learning" and reflect on our two previous case discussions. Then read the case text in the reader, "Allende's Chile, 1972."

Here's some background on the case:
Salvador Allende was elected president of Chile in 1970, the first socialist to ever come to power through elections. Essentially your job is to put yourself in his shoes and those of his political allies in June 1972 to see how you would advise him to proceed in the situation he faced. So to prepare, focus on the information in the case, and think about the following questions:

What are the goals and methods of the "Chilean path toward socialism"?

Who are the major political players in Chile in 1972? What does each want?

What is the economic situation in Chile between 1970 and 1972? What changes have occurred, and what are the consequences of these?

What decisions does Salvador Allende have to make? What would you advise him to do, and why?

Is there a way to sustain the "Chilean path toward socialism"? What would it involve? Can a coup be avoided? If so, how? If not, why not?

Role Play Assignments

At some point in the case discussion, we will engage in a fairly extended role play of the Lo Curro meeting of the UP between the Socialists and Communists of the Popular Unity coalition, adding in the MIR (Revolutionary Movement of the Left) in a historical anachronism.
To do this, we will divide the group into the three parties to the debate:

If your last name begins with P-Z you will play the Socialist Party (= the "second group" on p. 7)

If your last name begins with K-O you will play the MIR (Revolutionary Movement of the Left) (= the "MIR" on p. 7)

If your last name begins with A-J you will play the Communist Party position (= the "first group" on p. 7)

In the classroom "debate" or dialogue among the groups (remember you're all on the same side in the great scheme of things and should be looking also for points of common ground), you should try to "go beyond" the text of p. 7 to make original but plausible arguments within the framework of what you know about the group you're representing. These arguments and points should focus on what Allende and the UP coalition should do (and why) with respect to a wide range of issues: the economy, the political situation (the army, the Christian Democrats, the right/elite), the United States, etc.


1This was an "import-substitution" type of industrialization, meaning that Chile began to produce simple manufactured goods and process foods that it had till then imported.[back to text]
2 From Frei's annual message to Congress, May 21, 1968, quoted in Barbara Stallings, Class Conflict and Economic Development in Chile, 1958-1973 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1979), 65. [back to text]
3 From the UP program, quoted by Stallings, Class Conflict and Economic Development in Chile , 126. [back to text]
4 This was very apparent from a survey of the Chilean press of the Allende period that I undertook at the Biblioteca Nacional in Santiago in 1991.[back to text]
5 Allende's speech is found in Laurence Birns, editor, The End of Chilean Democracy (New York: Seabury Press, 1974). I have changed the translation slightly. [back to text]
6 To get some of the atmosphere of this, see the film "Missing," with Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek.[back to text]

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