1970 – Allende and Chile’s example

The election of Salvador Allende and his Popular Unity government in 1970 is significant in Latin America’s post-war history because it marked a peaceful democratic transition to socialism. It is also why it was short-lived, fiercely resisted by Chilean elites backed by the US who were fearful of the example it could set for the continent.

In his short-time in office, Allende’s government nationalised more than 90 industries, embarked on  ambitious land reform, improved health care, housing and sanitation, raised the minimum wage, and organised anti-illiteracy campaigns. School enrollments surged and malnutrition rates fell by 20 per cent in malnutrition rates amongst the very young. On an international stage, Chile also marked out a new diplomatic path, advocating for a New International Economic Order.

The response by Chilean elites, backed by the CIA, was a campaign of economic sabotage – and then finally a coup on 11 September 1973 led by General Pinochet. In the aftermath of the fascist coup, more than 3000 Chileans were killed and tens of thousands fled the country. One of them was former foreign minister Orlando Letelier who would become director of Transnational Institute.

The Popular Unity government was by no means a perfect revolution (if such a thing existed!) – the coalition was divided politically, and made plenty of strategic mistakes. However the fact it increased the percentage of votes to 44% in 1973 months prior to the coup suggested it maintained significant popular support. Perhaps most importantly, though, the legacy of the Chilean coup was the emergence of a powerful human rights movement across the world that spent the subsequent decades fighting against impunity, successfully exposing the role of the US in supporting dictatorships and inspiring a new wave of protests against neoliberal capitalism in Latin America in the 2000s.

In his last speech before ending his life, Salvador Allende said: “I’m certain that the seed we have sown in the dignified conscience of thousands and thousands of Chileans will not be shriveled forever. They have the strength, they may overcome us, but social processes cannot be stopped neither by crime or by force. History is ours, and it’s made by the people.”