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Economía y Sociedad № 112


The end of Allende

(Editorial by The Economist, September 15, 1973)

The temporary death of democracy in Chile will be regrettable, but the blame lies clearly with Dr. Allende and those of his followers who persistently overrode the constitution.


President Allende did not become a martyr, even if it is true that he took his own life on Tuesday. The bombing and storming of his presidential palace and the seizure of power by the commanders of Chile's armed forces put a bitter end to the first freely-elected marxist government in the west.

And the fighting may have barely begun. With most of Chile's links with the outside world still severed, it was difficult to take the full measure of the apparently continuing violence. But if a bloody civil war does ensue, or if the generals who have now seized power decide not to hold new elections, there must be no confusion about where the responsibility for Chile's tragedy lies. It lies with Dr. Allende and those in the marxist parties who pursued a strategy for the seizure of total power to the point at which the opposition despaired of being able to restrain them by constitutional means.


What happened in Santiago is not an everyday Latin American coup. The armed forces had tolerated Dr. Allende for nearly three years. In that time, he managed to plunge the country into the worst social and economic crisis in its modern history. The confiscation of private farms and factories caused an alarming slump in production, and the losses in state-run industries were officially admitted to have exceeded $1 billion last year. Inflation rose to 350 per cent over the past twelve months. Small businessmen were bankrupted; civil servants and skilled workers saw their salaries whittled away by inflation; housewives had to queue endlessly for basic foods, when they were available at all. The mounting desperation caused the major strike movement that the truck-drivers started six weeks ago.

But the Allende government did more than wreck the economy. It violated both the letter and the spirit of the constitution. The way it rode roughshod over congress and the courts eroded faith in the country's democratic institutions.

A resolution passed by the opposition majority in congress last month declared that “the government is not merely responsible for isolated violations of the law and the constitution; it has made them into a permanent system of conduct.”

The feeling that parliament had been made irrelevant was increased by violence in the streets (almost on a Belfast scale) and by the way the government tolerated the growth of armed groups on the far left that were openly preparing for civil war.

The armed forces moved only when it had long been clear that there was a popular mandate for military intervention. They had to move in the end because all constitutional means had failed to restrain a government that was behaving unconstitutionally.

The trigger for the coup was provided by the efforts of left-wing extremists to promote subversion within the armed forces. Two leaders of Dr. Allende's Popular Unity coalition, Sir Carlos Altamirano, the former Socialist party secretary-general, and Sir Oscar Garreton of the Movement of United Popular Action, were named by the navy as the “intellectual authors” of plans for mutiny among the sailors at Valparaiso.

The Valparaiso naval commanders were the first to move this week. But the rapid success of the coup and the participation in it of all the armed forces (including the paramilitary carabineros) suggest that the plans for it had been carefully laid. It remains to be seen whether the armed forces are now solid in their opposition to the ousted government. The disappearance of two commanders, Admiral Raul Montero and General Sepulveda, the carabineros' chief, who were replaced by their anti-marxist subordinates on the day of the coup, shows that not all senior officers were in favor of it.

The real danger of bloodshed will come if the armed forces split, or if there are serious mutinies among the lower ranks. That could produce a messy civil war. Strong resistance can be expected from the workers' committees and paramilitary brigades that the Socialist party and the movement of the Revolutionary Left are running in Santiago and from guerilla groups in the south. But if they fail to get significant military backing, they can probably be contained.

Whatever government emerges from the coup cannot expect an easy time. There will also be a temptation now for those who have suffered from the Allende government to settle their accounts with the defeated side. Few people believe that Chile can now return to its old way of doing things.

The work of reconstruction will involve considerable sacrifice, just as it did in Brazil when Senhor Roberto Campos was responsible for economic planning in the years after the 1964 coup. This does not mean that Chile will become another Brazil; for one thing, it's probably a less violent place even now, and for another its generals have a rather different conception of the role from the soldiers behind Senhor Campos.

They accept that it is too late to reverse many of the changes brought about by Dr. Allende; in trying to rebuild the private sector, for instance, they will lay more stress on coaxing back foreign investors and on creating new industries than on handing back what was taken away.

General Pinochet and his fellow officers are no one's pawns. Their coup was home-grown, and attempts to make out that the Americans were involved are absurd to those who know how wary they have been in their recent dealings with Chile.

The military-technocratic government that is apparently emerging will try to knit together the social fabric that the Allende government tore apart.

It will mean the temporary death of democracy in Chile, and that is to be deplored. But it must not be forgotten who made it inevitable.

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