The Cold War ravaged countries not prone to insurgency or dictatorship. Chile is the best example of all because no other Latin American country could match Chile’s record of constitutional government.
For years, Chile’s democracy had negotiated major ideological differences. The Chilean Communist Party was one of the oldest and strongest in the Western Hemisphere. It had participated in electoral coalitions with various other left-leaning parties since the 1930s. It was the kind of Communist Party that frustrated Che Guevara because it didn’t advocate armed revolution.
In the Chilean presidential election of 1958, a socialist-communist coalition got almost 1/3 of the vote. Their candidate was Salvador Allende, a medical doctor and a Marxist. He was committed to Chilean constitutional traditions and didn’t advocate armed revolution.
In 1964, Allende ran for president again and did even better than in 1958, despite the fact that his chief opponent was bankrolled by the CIA. Alarmed by Allende’s popularity, the US State Department made Chile a model of their Alliance for Progress aid program. Nevertheless, Allende won the 1970 presidential election. A coalition called Popular Unity was formed, dedicated to a constitutional Chilean “road to socialism.” Their goal was social transformation: nationalization of Chilean copper, coal, and steel, along with banks, and — of course — land reform. However, it soon became clear that they didn’t have the electoral strength to accomplish these goals.
Allende had won the 3-way election with 36% of the vote. The two more conservative losers had garnered 63% of the vote between them. They were now more or less united in opposition to the Popular Unity government. Moreover, they found a powerful ally in the CIA which pumped money into the opposition.
The CIA was determined that Allende be overthrown by a coup, and the US State Department used all its leverage to cut off international credit to Allende’s government. Popular Unity imposed price freezes and wage increases to raise living standards of the Chilean poor, but inflation soared into the triple digits. Prosperous and moderately prosperous Chileans fought Popular Unity’s initiatives. Meanwhile, the government retained the strong backing of urban workers, many of whom thought Popular Unity was moving too slowly.
Workers moved directly to take over factories that the government had been slow to nationalize. But Allende insisted on working within constitutional restraints. His expropriation of the copper industry had been widely popular, and in the 1971 midterm elections, Popular Unity garnered more votes than ever.
In September 1973, Chilean army tanks rolled into the streets. Allende refused safe passage out of the country, went to his office, and died under attack by his own armed forces.
The Chilean coup turned out to be the bloodiest coup in the history of Latin America. Thousands of supporters of Popular Unity were herded into the Santiago soccer stadium. As in Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay, many of these were subject to torture and murder. Bodies were transported to mass graves.
The military government closed the legislature and governed by decree for 17 years. Except for the Carter administration, it had the firm support of the US State Department. (You may recall that Carter emphasized human rights as a criterion of US policy.) Juntas all over Latin America were relieved when Ronald Reagan, a confirmed Cold Warrior, took office in 1980.
The Chilean dictatorship was basically a bureaucratic-authoritarian regime, except that the leader of the 1973 coup, General Augusto Pinochet, had a leading role unparalleled in Brazil or Argentina. Chile had become the epitome of the Latin American trend toward military dictatorship.
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