Chilean Military Overthrows Allende

The Chilean armed forces, led by Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, overthrew the leftist Popular Unity government, headed by a democratically elected Marxist president, Salvador Allende, who died during the violent coup. Pinochet’s dictatorship was marked by widespread human rights abuses.

Summary of Event

The Chilean presidential election of 1970 plunged the country into a political crisis that culminated three years later in a brutal military coup and imposition of a ruthless dictatorship that lasted until 1989. In the election of 1970, Salvador Allende, the Marxist leader of the Socialist-Communist Popular United (UP) coalition, won a plurality, but not a majority, of the popular vote. He had lost closely contested presidential elections in 1958 and 1964. According to the constitution, in cases when no candidate received a majority of votes, the Chilean Congress decided the victor. It adhered to the country’s political tradition by confirming Allende as president. Revolutions and coups;Chile
[kw]Chilean Military Overthrows Allende (Sept. 11, 1973)
[kw]Military Overthrows Allende, Chilean (Sept. 11, 1973)
[kw]Overthrows Allende, Chilean Military (Sept. 11, 1973)
[kw]Allende, Chilean Military Overthrows (Sept. 11, 1973)
Revolutions and coups;Chile
[g]South America;Sept. 11, 1973: Chilean Military Overthrows Allende[01260]
[g]Chile;Sept. 11, 1973: Chilean Military Overthrows Allende[01260]
[c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;Sept. 11, 1973: Chilean Military Overthrows Allende[01260]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Sept. 11, 1973: Chilean Military Overthrows Allende[01260]
Allende, Salvador
Pinochet Ugarte, Augusto
Prats, Carlos
Frei Montalva, Eduardo
Letelier, Orlando
Alessandri, Jorge

Allende entered office to rule over a polarized nation. Jorge Alessandri, the Conservative candidate, had received almost 35 percent of the vote, compared with Allende’s 36 percent, and the opposition dominated the National Congress. Although ineligible for reelection, outgoing Christian Democratic (CD) president Eduardo Frei Montalva retained wide support, and the CD candidate, Radomiro Tomic, Tomic, Radomiro had won 28 percent of the vote. The electorate was thus roughly split into thirds, with both the UP and CD calling for radical change in Chile. The situation called for conciliation, a traditional Chilean political virtue. This time, the politicians rejected compromise. More revolutionary in rhetoric than in action, Allende tried to use the political process rather than brute force to establish socialism. He planned to redistribute land to peasants who owned no property, nationalize foreign companies and Chile’s financial system, replace the Congress with a popular assembly, and convert the educational system to socialist schools. In foreign affairs, he steered a procommunist course, visiting Moscow, sending his foreign minister to China, and hosting a monthlong visit by Fidel Castro.

At the level of the individual Chilean citizen, Allende’s presidency provoked feelings of high hope and intense animosity. Both industrial and agricultural laborers believed that Allende would rapidly break the power of the traditional Chilean economic elite, and they were impatient with the president’s insistence on legal niceties. Throughout Chile, and especially in the poverty-stricken south, peasants began to occupy farmlands, refusing to wait for legal title. Such seizures increased when it became obvious that the government would not use its security forces against the peasants. Workers also took over textile factories, largely owned by Middle Eastern immigrants. In the arid north, miners reveled over the nationalization of the copper mines. To both the workers and the new socialist managers, nationalization seemed to be an end in itself. State ownership meant social justice in the mines and on the farms. Workers initially benefited from higher wages imposed by the government. Output, however, began to slip because workers lacked incentives to increase production. At the El Teniente copper mine, for example, absenteeism on Mondays soon climbed to more than 30 percent of the workforce.

Allende’s support remained strong among such laborers, but his appeal within the middle class soon dissipated. Landholders who managed to retain their property faced higher government-mandated labor costs on one hand and price controls on the foodstuffs they produced on the other. With profits declining, many cut food production, some with the intent of undermining Allende. When the government financed its expenditures by printing huge quantities of currency, inflation soared, and prices outstripped the initial increases in salaries and wages. Middle-class homemakers took to the streets of Santiago, banging pots and pans to protest shortages of basic commodities, but they were ridiculed by working-class Allende supporters who had known scarcity for years.

Augusto Pinochet Ugarte.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

As opposition to Allende’s programs and government multiplied from within and outside the country, violence and chaos engulfed the populace. The extreme left accused Allende of moderation and reformism. By 1973, the radical left was resorting to terrorism, illegal seizures of land and businesses, and illicit strikes. It also began to organize militias as a counterweight to the armed forces. The Chilean right, opponents of Allende’s Marxist vision for the nation, criticized the government through the media and organized thugs into Fatherland and Liberty gangs to attack and kill leftist targets. Much of the political center waited to see if the president could deliver his promised changes. By 1973, however, the economy was in shambles, with government spending up by one-third from the previous year, inflation running in triple digits, real wages down to one-quarter of what they had been in 1970, and shortages of food and consumer items provoking popular demonstrations against the government.

In the United States, Richard M. Nixon’s Nixon, Richard M. presidential administration watched apprehensively what it perceived as the latest Soviet challenge in the Cold War, Cold War worrying over the ramifications should Allende succeed in turning Chile into a communist state. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Central Intelligence Agency;Chile (CIA) had financially supported Allende’s opponents in the 1970 election, tried to bribe Chilean congressmen to prevent Allende from becoming president, and encouraged the Chilean military to overthrow the regime, all without success and with considerable damage to the image of the United States. When Allende nationalized American copper interests and other economic holdings, the United States retaliated by delaying or stopping loans, although international agencies and European governments still made financing available. Some American companies with interests in Chile, such as International Telephone and Telegraph, International Telephone and Telegraph actively tried to subvert the Allende government.

Chile devolved into turmoil, with the citizenry’s civil and human rights under siege from left and right extremists. Allende could not implement his program because his opponents controlled the Congress. Strikes from the left and the right crippled the economy. Most serious was a nationwide truckers’ strike in October, 1972, that gained wide support. Congressional opponents impeached four of Allende’s ministers. Frei announced open Christian Democratic opposition to Allende’s policies. To quell the mounting insurrection, Allende appointed as minister of the interior General Carlos Prats, who helped guarantee honest congressional elections in March, 1973. Allende hoped to win a majority, which would enable him to push ahead, and his opponents aimed to garner a two-thirds majority, which would enable them to impeach the president. Allende’s Popular Unity coalition slightly increased its congressional representation in the election but failed to achieve the desired majority.

Meanwhile, empty store shelves and the fear that the government might confiscate their properties and businesses turned the middle class against Allende. The threat of expropriation implicit in Allende’s Marxism left Chileans insecure in their property rights and devastated the economy. Convinced that there was no peaceful road to socialism—that it could be established only by force—the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR) stepped up its campaign of violence. In June, 1973, elements of a tank regiment attacked the presidential palace but failed to overthrow the government.

Trying to ensure order on August 9, 1973, Allende named to his cabinet the commanders of all three branches of the armed forces plus the head of the national police. Amid widespread strikes, again including the truckers, and new waves of violence and terrorism by the right and the left, the opposition in the Congress called on the traditionally nonpolitical military to intervene to guarantee civil order. Military wives demonstrated against General Prats, whom they perceived as too sympathetic to Popular Unity aims. Prats and the other military members of the cabinet resigned.

This opened the way for conservative elements in the military to move against Allende. A four-man junta, dominated by army commander General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, gave Allende an ultimatum to resign. The president refused, and the coup began on September 11. Rather than taking refuge with the leftist militia, Allende went to La Moneda, the presidential palace. Allende died during a bomber and tank attack, allegedly from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He had previously threatened to commit suicide rather than submit to a coup d’état.


Overthrow of the Allende government did not solve the Chilean crisis. Pinochet and the armed forces imposed a political calm on the nation through a brutal dictatorship worse than anything the nation had experienced. Vowing to eliminate the Marxist threat to Chile, the military arrested thousands of Allende supporters and suspected subversives, many of whom were murdered. One of the junta’s first acts was to broadcast a list of sixty-eight prominent Socialist and Communist leaders who were ordered to turn themselves in at the Defense Ministry. Hundreds of party members were arrested. More than one thousand people died when armed industrial workers tried to resist the coup. Security forces turned the Santiago soccer stadium into a temporary prison and execution chamber, and makeshift detention centers sprang up around the country. Of those not immediately executed, many leading pro-Allende politicians were incarcerated in a frigid concentration camp on Dawson Island, near the Antarctic.

Some prisoners received summary trials, but many were simply murdered. Security forces took famed guitarist and folksinger Victor Jara Jara, Victor to the Santiago stadium, broke both of his hands, and later killed him, dumping his corpse at a morgue for his wife to identify. A few prisoners were taken aloft in helicopters and dropped to their deaths. Many were killed while allegedly attempting to escape their captors.

As many as five thousand people were murdered, tortured, or “disappeared” at the hands of the junta. These included communists, politicians opposed to the dictatorship, and especially union leaders. Countless others suffered lesser violations of their rights, with the dictatorship jailing suspects without trial, outlawing Marxist political parties, censoring the news media, forcing into exile thousands who feared for their lives, and looting suspects’ homes. Even critics of the regime living outside the country were at risk. Among those killed in 1974 were General Prats and his wife, who were in exile in Argentina. In Washington, D.C., on September 21, 1976, a Pinochet hit squad blew up the car of Orlando Letelier, foreign minister under Allende. Letelier and an American associate died.

In 1980, the Pinochet regime imposed a new constitution on the nation. It included a weak Congress, with many of the legislators to be chosen undemocratically by the regime. The constitution also gave the military a veto over most congressional decisions and permitted the government to suspend individual civil rights to deal with threats to national security. A clandestine offshoot of the Chilean Communist Party, the Manuel Rodríguez Patriotic Front, began a campaign of urban terrorism that the Pinochet government used to justify its claims of a totalitarian threat. To protect itself, the dictatorship declared an amnesty on all atrocities and abuses of civil rights committed prior to 1978.

Pressure against the regime mounted, with sporadic outbursts of terrorism coming from the extreme left. On September 7, 1986, guerrillas attacked Pinochet’s motorcade, killing four bodyguards, although the general escaped unscathed. Under terms of the 1980 constitution, the regime agreed to hold a plebiscite in 1989, with the people approving or rejecting a presidential candidate proposed by the government. In the referendum, 54 percent voted against Pinochet. He was then constitutionally obliged to hold an open election for a successor in 1989. That election was won by Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin Azócar, Aylwin Azócar, Patricio but Pinochet continued as commander of the army, with the power to prevent any thorough retribution against the military.

Pinochet remained the head of army until 1998, when he was appointed senator for life. However, during that same year, he was detained in England, where he went for medical treatment, when the Spanish government sought to have him extradited to Spain for trial on charges of human rights abuses. This incident triggered an international tug of war to bring Pinochet to trial in Spain, Chile, and Argentina. In 2002, Chile’s highest court ruled him mentally incompetent to stand trial; this ruling was overturned on May 28, 2004, when the court of appeals in Santiago stripped Pinochet of his dementia status, and thus his immunity from prosecution. At the time of his death, Pinochet was facing more than three hundred human rights and financial-corruption charges in Chile. Revolutions and coups;Chile

Further Reading

  • Arriagada, Genaro. Pinochet: The Politics of Power. Translated by Nancy Morris. Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1988. Concise and essential study of Chile under Pinochet analyzes the overthrow of Allende and how it destroyed the traditional professionalism of the Chilean military and denied respect for human and civil rights. Offers perceptive discussion of Pinochet’s political savvy.
  • Chavkin, Samuel. The Murder of Chile: Eyewitness Accounts of the Coup, the Terror, and the Resistance Today. New York: Everest House, 1982. Passionate account blends excerpts from interviews with pro-Allende figures to convey the drama and pathos of 1973 from a leftist perspective. Interesting, although sometimes uninformed or inaccurate about later events. Says little about the two-thirds of Chileans who did not adhere to the Popular Unity coalition.
  • Cleary, Edward L. The Struggle for Human Rights in Latin America. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1997. Chronicles the evolution of human rights movements in Latin America.
  • Cockroft, James D., ed. Salvador Allende Reader: Chile’s Voice of Democracy. New York: Ocean Press, 2000. Anthology of Allende’s interviews and speeches, predominantly those given during his three-year presidency.
  • Davis, Nathaniel. The Last Two Years of Salvador Allende. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985. Written by the U.S. ambassador to Chile when the coup occurred, this study accords Allende sympathy although faulting him for failing to check the extreme left. Attempts to exculpate Davis and the United States for the bloody overthrow of 1973.
  • Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Chile. Washington, D.C.: Organization of American States, 1985. Compares the provisions for human rights and civil liberties in the Chilean constitutions of 1925 and 1980 and analyzes how the Pinochet dictatorship abrogated them. Cites a number of individual cases to illustrate the violations.
  • Kaufman, Edy. Crisis in Allende’s Chile. New York: Praeger, 1988. By a political scientist, this is a thorough account on the Allende presidency. Without hard evidence, Kaufman speculates that the United States played a more sinister role in the coup than is generally thought and that Allende was especially naïve regarding motives of the military and the United States.
  • Kornbluh, Peter. The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability. New York: New Press, 2003. Examines recently declassified documents from the CIA, the White House, and other agencies to delve into questions regarding U.S. involvement in the 1973 coup.
  • Sigmund, Paul E. The Overthrow of Allende and the Politics of Chile, 1964-1976. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977. Serious, fair-minded history of the Allende years, accessible to the general reader. Faults Allende for choosing revolutionary ideals over political compromise and holds the U.S. government responsible for exacerbating the crisis but not for causing the coup.
  • Valenzuela, J. Samuel, and Arturo Valenzuela, eds. Military Rule in Chile: Dictatorship and Oppositions. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986. Collection of articles on Chilean society, politics, and economics under Pinochet. Informative concerning the dynamics of the dictatorship and the difficulties in organizing a strong opposition.

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