Salvador Allende and the Pinochet coup d'état (1973)

Salvador Allende and the Pinochet coup d'état (1973)

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On September 11, 1973, the Chilean government of Salvador Allende was the target of a military coup d'etat led by General Augusto Pinochet. The crisis that had been brewing for months Entrenched in the presidential palace of La Moneda, Allende helplessly witnessed the takeover of the country by a military junta. At 2 p.m., the man who had represented the hope of the left of an entire continent, killed himself shortly before the coup plotters seized him. For Chile it was the start of a fierce dictatorship that would last for nearly 15 years, under the rule of Pinochet. Symbol of the wave of anticommunist authoritarianism experienced by South America during the 1970s, the coup d'etat of September 11, 1973 combines domestic issues of Chile with international issues of the Cold War.

Salvador Allende and Popular Unity

Born in 1908, Salvador Allende comes from a bourgeois family with liberal values. A doctor by training, his great passion remains political life, which he joined as a student leader in the early 1930s. One of the founding members of the Socialist Party of Chile in 1935, he remains attached to this structure on which his influence will become little by little determining. Deputy, then Minister of Health in 1938 (at the age of 30!), He became Secretary General of the Chilean Socialist Party in 1944. A man of reputed integrity, of great intellectual finesse, Allende represents the respectable and moderate face of the Chilean left. Although interested in more radical experiences like the Cuban revolution, he advocates a peaceful and democratic transition to socialism, deeply original at a time and on a continent marked by the myth of "armed struggle". Having become popular in the mid-1960s, he quickly had to face the hostility of the conservative right and its US backers who saw him as a potential agent of Moscow.

During the 1960s, Chile, whose economy was marked by strong inflationary trends, underwent profound modernization. If the Christian democracy has been in power since 1964 and leads progressive reforms (in particular the beginning of agrarian reform, the modernization of the education system, the constitution of public enterprises in strategic areas), it cannot prevent the rise in power from the left and its emblematic representative: Salvador Allende.

In view of the presidential elections of 1970, Salvador Allende succeeded not without difficulty in uniting the left and the center-left around his candidacy, within the framework of the Popular Unity (Unita Popular). This gathering of parties, from communists to the Christian left, enjoys the support of the unions and proposes a vigorous reform program. In addition to the fight against inflation, Popular Unity plans to revive land reform, nationalize banks and especially the copper industry, a strategic sector with strong US participation. Faced with Allende, the right approaches the elections divided between Christian Democrats and conservative. Conservative candidate Alessandri is counting on the support of the military (many of which are anti-communist) and the United States.

Allende president, between hope and threats

The September 1970 election, marked by a very strong polarization of opinion, led to a narrow result: 36.6% for Allende, 35.3% for Alessandri and 28.1% for the Christian Democrat Tomic. In the absence of an absolute majority, the Chilean constitution provided for Congress to choose the new president. During the weeks that followed, a tough parliamentary fight ensued, a fight in which the United States (via the CIA) would use all its weight to ensure that Allende was not elected. Thus, Washington is implementing a plan to push the Chilean army to rebel. This attempt fails under dramatic circumstances (the army commander-in-chief, a loyalist, will be the victim). Either way, a secret deal made between Tomic and Allende allows him to become president in the Congress vote on October 24.

Salvador Allende quickly implemented the Popular Unity program. The showdown with the right begins on the ground of the nationalization of the copper industries. In the summer of 1971, the measure was finally put in place, with the Chilean state becoming the owner of the copper mines in compensation for compensation for the companies that had exploited them until then. Washington's response was immediate: on the advice of Henry Kissinger, President Nixon organized a boycott of international loans to the Chilean government. If at first the policy of Allende's government seemed to be successful (inflation is falling, purchasing power is increasing, growth is vigorous), 1972 sees the emergence of worrying difficulties.

On the one hand, the reforms undertaken and the external pressures (mainly from the United States) are leading to a renewed polarization of Chilean society. Land reform (sometimes accompanied by confiscation of land) is causing some farmers to violently oppose the government. Tension is also high in the streets, skillfully maintained by the opposition. Allende must also face the radicals of Popular Unity who demand an acceleration of the transition to socialism, even if it means going into armed confrontation with the right.

On the other hand, to this is added from mid-72, a slowdown in growth and then a recession. Deprived of the support of economic elites and international funding sources, Chile faces a downward spiral of debt and inflation. The population, seeing their living conditions deteriorate sharply, regularly protests in the street. Popular turmoil is compounded by Allende's difficulties in governing, due to strong parliamentary opposition and resignations from the chain of ministers. The right, this time grouped within the CODE (Democratic Confederation of Chile) even tries to obtain the impeachment of the president, which it narrowly misses. Finally, the army hitherto mastered by General Prats, Minister of Defense and loyalist, decides to act in an open manner.

Augusto Pinochet and the putsch of September 11, 1973

In the summer of 1973, Prats was sharply criticized by his peers for his loyalty, as the country was plunged into a serious crisis by the strike of the truckers (whose vital role is explained by the geography of the country). Under pressure, Prats resigned from his post as Minister of Defense and Commander of the Army on 23 August 1973. Allende appointed General Augusto Pinochet to replace him. Deemed to be small-scale and relatively apolitical, two months earlier it suppressed an attempted rebellion by an armored regiment. Of Breton origin, this Catholic career soldier born in 1915, has until then kept away from the conspiracies that are being hatched in the army against Allende.

Nonetheless, he was contacted by Admiral Merino, the commander-in-chief of the navy, and the soul of conspiracies against the President. Merino, who can boast of the support of a good part of the general officer corps and of the United States (whose role in the putsch itself is still debated) plans to take action during the maneuvers that the Chilean Navy is organizing jointly with the US Navy in early September. These exercises will provide the necessary cover for the coup, in which the marines are to play a key role.

Pinochet, after initial reluctance, understands that his opposition to Merino's plan could cost him his career, if not his life. He therefore rallies to the putschists. The hitherto loyalist general will prove to be a talented conspirator. He is gaining the upper hand over his rivals in the 4-member junta slated to rule the country after the overthrow of President Allende. Pinochet insists on the need to physically eliminate the president, to whom he owes his post. On the other hand, he does not intend to return power to the parliamentary right once the putsch is successful. Augusto Pinochet now has great personal ambitions ...

The fall of Allende

On September 11, hours before dawn, marines captured the port of Valparaiso (the country's economic heartbeat) without firing a shot. A few hours later, the army joined in and imposed its authority over most of Chilean cities. In Santiago, the capital, she undertakes with the help of the aviation, to silence the radios and the television channels. Allende, isolated and ill-informed, takes refuge in La Moneda (the presidential residence) accompanied by his bodyguards. At 8:30 am he still believes part of the army to be loyal and even appeals to Pinochet whom he thinks loyal. His appeals are answered only with a request to resign. Allende refuses, arguing his constitutional duties towards the Chilean people. Anyway, this request was only a maneuver by Pinochet to suppress him afterwards. After a final radio speech addressed to the Chileans, the president resigns himself to facing the onslaught of the army, with his 42 bodyguards.

At 9 o'clock in the morning, the siege of Moneda engages with large reinforcements of armored vehicles and infantry. Held at bay by snipers from Allende's Guard, the military called in the air force to bombard the residence. Heavy fighting ensued, the president's guards eventually succumbing to their numbers. At 2 p.m., when the guns fell silent, Salvador Allende was found dead. He is believed to have committed suicide, in circumstances which are still controversial today. Legend has it that the weapon he used was a gift from Fidel Castro (an AK 47 rifle), adorned with the following inscription: "To my good friend Salvador, from Fidel, who tries by different means achieve the same goals. Certainly too good to be true, the anecdote is nonetheless symbolic of Allende's failure to escape violence.

Pinochet's dictatorship

In the days following the coup, Augusto Pinochet made sure to bring the country in line, while ensuring his personal power. After having dissolved all the representative institutions (the congress, the communes), but also the parties and the unions, he organized repression within the framework of the state of emergency. More than 100,000 people will be arrested, more than 3,000 will be executed or simply disappear. Although officially condemning this state violence, the United States supports the new regime which becomes one of its best supports in the fight against "communism" in South America (within the framework of "Operation Condor" ).

Having become head of state in 1974, Augusto Pinochet did not leave power until 1990, after a slow democratic transition that began in October 1988. Remained influential in his country (and even popular within a section of public opinion) , Life Senator Pinochet was arrested in London in 1998, following an international arrest warrant issued by the Spanish judge Garzon. It is the start of long legal battles, which will not be resolved due to the health of the former dictator. Augusto Pinochet died on December 3, 2006 of pulmonary edema, without ever having regretted his actions ...


- Chile, September 11, 1973, democracy assassinated, by Eduardo Castillo. Feathered Serpent, 2003.

- Salvador Allende: The intimate investigation, by Thomas Huchon. Eyrolles, 2010.

- Salvador Allende: The other September 11 by Antoine Blanca. 2003.

- Pinochet: A model dictator of Jean-Christophe Rampal. Hachette, 2003.

Video: Clashes erupt during 45th anniversary of military coup in Chile


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