Chile - Twenty-five years after

Nov/Dec 1998

General Pinochet was placed under arrest on the 20 October while undergoing medical treatment in a London clinic. 25 years after his bloody coup in Chile, on 11 September 1973, his responsibility in the deaths of tens of thousands of opponents and the torture experienced by many more, in the period immediately following the coup, is well-established. Yet his arrest was not initiated by the British government, nor any of the other Western governments who claim the high moral ground over human rights issues in countries like Iraq or the former Yugoslavia. If it had not been for the efforts of a controversial Spanish judge, there would have been no international warrants, extradition attempts or anything else, to date.

The British government immediately tried to distance itself from the legal procedure against Pinochet - out of respect for a former head of state and concern for British trade with Chile, no doubt. After all, only a year ago, Pinochet was welcomed by Labour ministers in London to sign an arms deals with British Aerospace and Royal Ordnance. Just as in 1975, another Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, proved willing to provide Pinochet's navy with ships even before the bloodbath was over.

That Pinochet deserves to be treated as a criminal is obvious. But, at the time of writing, the odds are still that some diplomatic trick will be found to whisk him out of a situation which is proving embarrassing for too many politicians.

In any case, even if Pinochet does end up in the dock, no sentence will ever be harsh enough to avenge the tens of thousands who were slaughtered by his regime.

On the other hand, this incident can at least be a reminder of the events of September 1973. The defeat of the Chilean working class then, carried political lessons which could prove vital in the future battles of the working class there and elsewhere. Today, in Britain, these lessons have become blurred by the passage of time. But it would be a misconception for today's generation to see the 1973 events in Chile as just another of the military coups which have been so common in South American history.

The powerful Chilean working class movement, which was crushed by Pinochet's military coup, may have fallen under the bullets of the army. But it was the failure of its own leaders to prepare for the inevitable confrontation with this army, that placed them, unarmed, in the line of fire. The Chilean working class was defeated by the illusions in bourgeois legality that its leaders had spread and sustained within its ranks, and, when it came to the crunch, by the refusal of its leadership to fight the forces of the bourgeoisie.

The present saga around the fate of an ageing former dictator should therefore at least be an opportunity to revive the experience of 1973, and ensure that its lessons are carried over to be used in the future battles of our class.

Popular Unity comes to power

Chile is a large country, with an area over three times that of Britain, and is very rich in natural resources. It has a relatively small population, however, of around 14m, only one fourth of the size of Britain's. The backbone of Chile's economy has been mining - first mainly nitrates, which British companies exploited in the 19th century, and then, in this century, copper, dominated by the USA. While these conditions were able to support the growth of a sizeable middle class, they also spawned a large and strongly organised working class. By the time of World War I, a large Communist Party was already emerging, in the textile mills of the capital, Santiago, the nitrate mining camps of the north and the coal mines of the south. This party soon became the biggest and best organised communist party in South America.

Like in all South American countries, the military acted as political arbiter in Chile, but unlike in many of them, it usually did so from the background. In fact, up to 1973, 150 years of Chile's existence had been under "civilian rule". After two brief military dictatorships in the twenties and early thirties, the army disappeared from direct governmental office, while the country was ruled by various coalitions, between 1936-52, consisting of both right and left parties, including at times the Communist and Socialist Parties.

By the sixties, with an economic crisis on their hands, reflected by increasing indebtedness, an growing section of the middle-classes sought a way out by limiting the looting of the country by foreign multinationals. There was nothing particularly radical in such policies which placed the national bourgeoisie in conflict with imperialist interests. Similar policies had been pursued in various shapes or forms in other South American countries, sometimes by right-wing politicians.

Such was the policy of Eduardo Frei and his Christian Democrats, a middle-class "centre" party, which came into office in 1964 and began the nationalisation process - the so-called "Chileanisation" of the economy. At the time, Frei spoke about a "Third Way" between "marxism" and capitalism, based on "progressive" Catholicism. He initiated agrarian reform, expropriating large tracts of farmland to form peasant co- operatives. Under Frei's government, the state bought a share of the US copper companies - though at a very high cost to Chile's finances.

The so-called "Chileanisation" of copper did indeed allow some recovery of the economy for the next two years, but by 1967, high levels of inflation had returned. Land reform, which the government began to implement in 1964, was extremely unpopular with the landowners and business elite. There was growing unrest amongst workers whose living standards had been falling and among the rural poor for whom land reform was too slow.

In this context, the programme of Salvador Allende's Popular Unity (a coalition including the Socialist and Communist Parties together with three smaller centre-left parties), was just a continuation of Frei's policy. It was only the fact that this coalition relied on the votes of the poorest classes and the presence of the Communist party in its ranks, which made the UP so unacceptable to the US leaders and multinationals, as well as a whole section of the Chilean bourgeoisie.

In the 1970 general election, Allende's coalition won 35% of the vote, which gave it a majority as the rest of the votes were split almost evenly between the Christian Democrats and the right- wing.

The first reforms and their limits

But Allende himself only became president thanks to the support of the Christian Democrats in the Senate, in exchange for his written pledge to "respect the rules of democracy", that is, the institution of the state. For instance, Allende undertook to keep the old right-wing functionaries on, regardless of the fact that they systematically sabotaged his policies.

The UP government was in a contradictory situation. On the one hand it faced the expectations of the working class and rural poor who expected it to improve their lot and bring to an end some of the worst injustices. On the other hand, it was coming to power to tackle an economic crisis within the framework of the bourgeois institutions, which were designed precisely for the purpose of suppressing the poor masses. And yet its agenda was, first and foremost, to secure the cooperation of these institutions.

The UP coalition could appear in front of the working class as very radical. The opening sentence of their programme stated, for instance: "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."

It certainly did sound as if the UP wanted to embark on the "peaceful road to socialism", even if "national capitalism" would have been a more accurate description of their policy. As soon as it got into power, the UP accelerated the pace of the rural reforms begun by Frei and undertook the nationalisation of those foreign companies which had a decisive role in the Chilean economy.

Of course the workers - and particularly the union activists - took the UP's programme at face value, and where companies did not yield to their idea of workers' control, they took them over via strikes and occupations and imposed de facto nationalisation, thereby often forcing Allende's hand.

Social reforms included the very popular free half litre of milk a day for every child. 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. Prices were frozen. More than 200,000 jobs were created.

There was a sense of euphoria. "We gave our all to the UP", explained a young Communist Party volunteer who was involved in creating experimental kindergarten programmes, "we were the generation that thought we had a world in our hands; we were building a new country." In March 1971, the UP increased its share of the vote in the municipal elections, obtaining for the first time a majority of the total vote - 50.9%.

By July 1971, the US-owned copper mines were fully nationalised, completing the process that Frei had begun. The UP denied the two US copper companies compensation in return, but they agreed to take over their debts to the tune of $735m. Other US and foreign holdings which were nationalised received more generous compensation, as did local Chilean capitalists, of course.

By the end of 1971, the UP government had control of almost all of Chile's mineral resources. 150 industrial plants had been taken over by the state, including 12 of the twenty largest firms. The state now also controlled 90% of banking and finance, 80% of all exports and 55% of imports. In all of the nationalised companies and in the service sector the government introduced a system of worker participation in management, as a means to increase productivity. And in fact, domestic production in 1971 increased 8.5% compared with the last years of Frei's regime.

Various measures taken by the UP were aimed at wooing the middle classes - reduced interest rates, lower taxes for shopkeepers and the exemption of engineers and technicians from the wage ceiling in the public sector. But many of the UP's social reforms caused dismay among the middle classes. As a result, the Christian Democrats were not prepared to defend the UP's policy in front of their middle class electorate and from June 1971 moved into an alliance with the right-wing National Party.

By December 1971, the right-wing felt strong enough to call its middle class "troops" onto the streets. Initially only a few tens of thousands of women from the wealthy districts turned up, under the protection of the fascist gangs of "Patria y Libertad". But the middle classes were quick to detect the weaknesses of the UP government sensing how responsive it was to their pressure - the more they demanded, the more they would get. From then onwards, it became increasingly easy for the right- wing to transform their discontent into outright militant hostility to the government.

So even in this first "euphoric" year, the new government began to come up against political obstacles. Then, at the beginning of 1972, the price of copper, which comprised 80% of Chile's export revenue, fell. At the same time, the US officially ceased aid to Chile and boycotted their requests for credit. The government was unable to find adequate sources of international credit and loans elsewhere. But just as it had been over-generous towards the former owners of nationalised industries, it 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 even trying to challenge their right to do so. Bank workers, for instance, were never called to exercise any control on customers' assets. Instead, Allende's government confined itself stubbornly to bourgeois legality.

By the end of 1971, the UP government had already used up all its foreign reserves. Its deficit had tripled to $315m. Expenditure was financed by printing currency, thereby fuelling inflation - which was to reach 340% by the summer of 1973.

The soaring inflation not only impoverished the working class, who could afford to buy nothing, but also played an important role in alienating the lower middle class. Because of its failure to infringe on the ownership rights of the bourgeoisie, the UP eventually pushed the lower middle-class into the arms of the fa-right.

The illusion of a "democratic" army

Relative to the country's small population, the Chilean army of 50,000, was the biggest in Latin America. From the end of World War II onwards, the US had undertaken to train the Chilean officers corps. 7,000 of them passed through American military schools in Panama and other bases in the region. But the officers, who mostly came from rich families, did not need the US to teach them how to be "anti- communist". 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 of Pisagua, where 400 were interned under a certain Captain Pinochet.

Right from the word go, the UP leadership knew that the threat of a military coup was hanging permanently over their heads. Grandiose statements were made, claiming 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 soldiers for the predictable confrontation, so that they would know what to do when it came to the crunch.

On the contrary, Allende proceeded to create illusions in the military, by wooing them and giving them a stake and a say in the UP regime. Allende even prided himself in the fact that he had brought the military back into Chilean politics and into the heart of government.

Allende never refused the generals' demands when it came to the military budget. Nor did his government dare to interfere with the "internal affairs" of the army hierarchy. It neither tried to marginalise the most open opponents of the UP nor even to bring to court all those responsible for the many terrorist attacks and attempted coups carried out by sections of the army during the UP's tenure in government. The UP always retained a fundamental respect for the bourgeois state and its army.

During the first two years of the UP regime, the military was given an important role to play in state corporations. Senior officers on both the active and retired lists were appointed to the boards of some 40 state enterprises and research institutions. These included the Nuclear Energy commission and the management of the mines.

In fact the UP's short term in office was a long series of gestures towards the army - both designed to "demonstrate" its loyalty to the state institutions and to cajole some of the generals into supporting its government.

This policy went very far, very early on. 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. For the UP, this was a way of showing to the army and the rich classes that the UP was not to be dictated to by far-left agitation. For a short while, the chief of staff of the Santiago garrison was thus entrusted with the task of protecting the UP government. As it happened, his name was general Augusto Pinochet.

Time and again, Allende's government was to call in the army in similar circumstances, to restore public order against the right- wing sometimes, but also later on in the context of a working class mobilisation. Each time, the army gained more credibility among larger layers of the petty bourgeoisie and middle-classes, as a possible last resort against the on-going economic disorder.

But each time also, the image that Allende wanted to give of the army - that of a "democratic" arbiter - gained more credibility among layers of the population which supported the UP. And those who did not fall for such nonsense were eventually left to their own devices, without leadership when it came to the crunch.

The crisis unfolds

In May 1972, when inflation was soaring and food shortages became critical, workers mobilised in order to obtain their means of survival themselves. Peasants joined them in strikes, occupations and demonstrations. They seized property, reaffirming their aspiration for workers' control and the need to expropriate the bourgeoisie.

Allende's response was to try to stop the developing wave of militancy. In June, he announced that he was halting all reforms, in the light of the economic crisis, in order to achieve a rapprochement with the Christian Democrats. While Frei refused all negotiations, the government demonstrated its willingness to comply with the interests of the bourgeoisie. Workers were ordered to return all property that had been seized, to cease all factory occupations forthwith and to go back to work. Of course Allende guaranteed that no-one would suffer victimisation as a result, but his guarantee was not too credible, since he had asked the armed police to oversee the "restoration of order" and this they did with considerable gusto, resulting in so far unprecedented violence.

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

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

Workers re-occupied the factories and restarted production against the bosses' strike. Everywhere workers took over the organisation of food supply, setting up their own rationing system. Public services kept operating thanks to voluntary labour, particularly hospitals. Self-defence militia were set up to protect working class districts against the far-right gangs and the police. And in order to carry out all these tasks, committees of all sorts sprang up everywhere, formed by delegates of local factories and peasant councils. Likewise in rural villages, where committee members were elected and recallable by the villagers. This time the labouring classes had gone much further than the CUT and the UP had wanted them to go. They were beginning to feel their strength and their mobilisation was beginning to weaken the bosses' strike itself.

Right from the beginning of the working class mobilisation Allende had declared another state of emergency and called in the army to restore order. It was at that point that the UP allowed the adoption of an infamous law giving the army the power to raid any premises to search for weapons on the basis of a mere denunciation - this law was going to provide the military with a pretext to terrorise left activists and UP supporters in the run-up to the coup the following year.

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

And yet, even at that point, the mobilisation of the working class remained unyielding. Attempts by the courts or the government to get workers to leave the factories they occupied, failed. The attempt by the military to take control of the supply of food, with the government's agreement, failed too, and many of the committees set up during the October strike carried on operating regardless.

Officially, the role of the army in government had been, according to one of its leaders, to restore social peace and clear the way for the election due the following March. No doubt the generals, and certainly the right-wing parties, must have thought that this election would be the final nail in the UP's coffin, given the general chaos in the country and the deepening economic crisis. Yet, the UP polled 43% of the votes, with the opposition parties getting 55%. This was a larger majority for the UP than in 1970.

The right-wing was rather taken aback at this result, expecting Allende to have lost support. Now that they had no hope of ousting him electorally in the short term, they changed their tactics. Since it was now a question of forcing the government out, they set about transforming the middle class discontent into a hostile force, mobilising the far-right gangs and organising outright sabotage.

As to the generals, it was probably at that point as well that a number of them came to the conclusion that the army alone could "save" the country from its current social chaos, without the help of the politicians. Having been called in so many times to help out an impotent government, they had a fairly good idea of the relationship of forces. In particular they knew that, despite the enormous popularity of the UP parties, they had nothing to fear from them. They knew in particular, that these parties would never take the risk of seriously mobilising the population against the army - that is by arming it.

Indeed the main slogan of all these parties was "No to civil war". This slogan amounted to running away from the task of providing an answer to the development of the class struggle. It amounted to endorsing Allende's criminal complacency towards the military and leaving those activists who wanted to prepare for the threatening confrontation with no perspective. It also amounted to endorsing Allende's fundamental loyalty for the bourgeoisie.

The tragedy of the Chilean working class movement was that even its most radical components - in particular the Movement of the Revolutionary Left, the MIR, which had acquired a very significant following over the previous months - failed to break once and for all with Allende's reformism in order to offer a resolutely revolutionary class perspective to the mobilised masses.

In any case the way was now open for the army to take over. It was only a question of time.

The coup

From the time of the election onwards, the speed of events increased.

In May, the Christian Democrat union among white collar mineworkers organised a strike against the government. In June there were two attempted coups. One was discovered early enough to stop it. The other failed when part of the army remained loyal to the government. This time, however, the CUT called a general strike. Hundreds of factories were occupied in the capital. Local committees were coordinated around the capital to organise the workers' resistance and, for the first time, the CUT played an active role in these committees. But, after twelve days, the CUT gave in to Allende's pressure and, once again, called off the strike.

This did not stop the strike totally, by far, let alone the wave of mobilisation. But it did create, possibly for the first time, a sense of betrayal among a significant number of activists.

On 29th July the right-wing resumed its offensive, with a second truckers' strike, over shortages of parts and discrimination in favour of state-run firms and inflation of tariffs. This was combined with a wave of right-wing terrorism. Armed gangs organised by the far-right or the military went on the rampage. They killed known worker militants and left activists, bombed buses, gas stations, electricity pylons and trains.

At the same time, the generals were busy getting rid of any organised opposition within the army. In particular a network of navy ratings who supported the UP was dismantled and a hundred of them were tortured by their officers - the government did not dare to make the slightest protest and 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 by joining a new military cabinet. Soon the only general hostile to the impending coup within the government resigned. He was replaced on 24 August by Pinochet. By that time the army was already occupying entire regions in the rural areas, killing left activists and establishing its rule.

On 4 September, 700,000 demonstrators marched in Santiago in support of Allende's government. But this could hardly impress the military. The march was large, but unarmed, without a policy that might have presented any danger for the well-organised machinery of the army.

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." And the letter asked Allende to take their leadership. Allende never replied.

On 9 September, faced with the gathering storm clouds, Allende announced a referendum. Two days later, the derisory legalistic weapons of the UP coalition no longer had any meaning. In the early morning of the 11th, the navy initiated the coup at 6.30 am. At 8am, Allende spoke on the radio asking workers to remain calm and go to work normally. At 2pm the presidential palace in which ministers had taken refuge was occupied by the army and Allende was dead, allegedly having committed suicide.

The bloody cost of the UP's policy

The real bloodshed came after the coup itself. This time the army generals intended to destroy the organisations which had provided the basis on which the working class mobilisation of the previous years had developed. In fact, they intended to destroy the possibility of such a mobilisation recurring for at least a generation. This meant the systematic murder not just of the organisers and activists, but also of rank-and-file supporters who had been active in the waves of occupations and the various committees, and of anyone, worker, peasant or intellectual, who could transmit this experience or even its memory to others.

This is why the repression which took place in Chile was similar in many respects to the repression which followed Hitler's seizure of power in Germany in 1933. In both cases, the aims were identical - the eradication of working class consciousness and organisation - as well as the context - that of a period in which the bourgeoisie had experienced what it could mean to be on the verge of a social revolution, without being able to do anything about it through using the instruments of bourgeois legality.

When the coup took place, thousands of workers were expecting it. In the industrial suburbs the defence committees had their plans ready to organise the defence 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 UP 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.

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 just 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. Every social layer was affected, including prominent academics, doctors and lawyers, who were shipped to concentration camps, like the notorious Dawson Island, where many remained imprisoned for years.

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 the huge Diaspora - Chileans who had to escape into political exile and find refuge in other countries around the world. The harshest treatment was reserved for those who had no international contacts and no place to hide from official vengeance - workers and peasants who were rounded up and shot. Mass graves were discovered in 1990 with bodies which had their hands bound, and bullet holes in their heads.

The screw was immediately turned tightly on the working class. 300,000 workers - one in ten Chilean workers - were sacked 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 15-20%.

In most respects, Pinochet's coup relegated Chile to the status of many other third-world dictatorships. And yet, despite the repression, working class organisations sprang up again in Chile, long before the very limited liberalisation which occurred after Pinochet was replaced by an "elected" government, in 1989. If anything, this proves the vitality of the working class and its ideas and the fact that, in the long-run, the bourgeoisie is impotent in eradicating the idea of social change, no matter how repressive its regime may be.

It has often been argued, on the left, that the Chilean working class had been victim of an imperialist plot, in which the CIA had played the major role. That the CIA did play a role, and also the US state itself, is unquestionable. What else can be expected from the world's main imperialist power than for it to do whatever it can to prevent the working class from putting its regional domination into question? Whether the role played by the American state in the defeat of the Chilean working class was decisive, however, is another question.

For instance, it was not the CIA which prevented Allende from requisitioning the wealth of the Chilean bourgeoisie when the economy was sliding dangerously down, causing galloping inflation. Nor was it the CIA which forced Allende to waste the limited resources of his government to buy the shares of nationalised industries. And yet it was the rapid deterioration of the economic situation which pushed entire layers of the petty- bourgeoisie into the arms of the far-right, thereby giving the army the confidence to stage its coup.

It has also often been argued, this time on the right, that it was "socialism" that failed in Chile. But in fact, it was reformism and the respect that reformism implies for the institutions of bourgeois democracy, which failed in Chile. Allende's regime showed - once again, after many such demonstrations in history - that the state of the bourgeoisie cannot change its character any more than its army can defend interests other than those of the propertied classes. Those who advocated the so-called "peaceful road to socialism", were in fact choosing not to change anything to the existing social order. But once this social order was put into question, in practice, by the increasingly conscious mobilisation of the working class, their "pacifism" was in effect a way of siding with the bourgeoisie against the labouring classes. Advocating "pacifism" in this context was in effect advocating suicide for the working class. As the then leader of the Socialist Party, Carlos Altamirano, wrote later: "The development and implementation of an armed strategy in the midst of the revolutionary process was very difficult to carry out (..) But as to the peaceful road in Chile, in 1970-73, it was simply impossible".

The state machinery and the army are instruments designed for the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. As long as the army is under the control of an officers' caste trained by the bourgeoisie to serve its social interests, it can only remain as a permanent threat over the heads of the labouring classes. Trying to separate the "democratic" officers from the "non- democratic" ones, in other words to create out of the bourgeois army a "democratic" army which would not take sides in society is doomed to failure - a failure which has cost their lives of a generation of Chilean activists.

Any programme, or any party which aims to defend the interests of the working class should state clearly that the dismantling of the army and police of the bourgeoisie will be the first task of the mobilised proletariat, as soon as the balance of forces allows it. Failing to state this objective clearly in front of the working class only paves the way for its disillusionment, and worse, its bloody defeat.

8 November 1998