The Fiftieth Anniversary of Chile’s Coup Touches a Sore Nerve


Source: The San Diego Union Tribune.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell’s all-powerful ruling party lives by the slogan, “He who controls the past controls the future.” While today’s democratic Chile is far from Orwell’s totalitarian dystopia, it is seeing a political struggle over the meaning of its recent past, as September 11 will mark fifty years since the leftist government of President Salvador Allende was overthrown by the country’s armed forces, ushering in seventeen years of military rule under General Augusto Pinochet before the return to civilian rule in 1990. 

Processing Memories

How Chile will mark this anniversary has become a front-burner political issue in a country where memories of the coup can still provoke intense reactions. With Gabriel Boric’s election, Chile is now governed by an unabashedly leftist president for the first time since Allende, and the management of the commemoration of this anniversary is proving to be one among many headaches he is facing.

While for many Chileans of the generation which has grown up under democratic rule, the Allende government, the coup, and the Pinochet years are a subject of at best distant memory or of stories told by their parents, for others, they still excite strong emotions. On the right, the human rights violations of the Pinochet era are (often reluctantly) recognized. At the same time, the chaos and ideological extremism of Allende’s presidency are stressed, as is the modernization of the economy on free market lines and the gradual reduction of poverty which took place during the years of military rule.

On the left, of course, there is little room for recognizing any achievements of the military years and ample desire to remember the deaths, tortures, and exiles that occurred. By contrast, Allende is remembered as the paladin of Chile’s dispossessed who chose suicide rather than surrender when the presidential palace was attacked, and whose promise in his final broadcast that one day Chileans would again walk down “the broad avenues through which the free man passes to build a better society” is viewed as prophetic.

Comments Provoke a Reaction

The remarkable sensitivity which the discussion of Allende’s presidency excites was demonstrated by the political furor which arose from remarks made recently by Patricio Fernández, whom Boric had named as coordinator for the Chilean government’s commemoration of the events marking the fiftieth anniversary of the coup. A man of the left and founder of a semi-satirical weekly publication focused on politics and culture, he had the difficult task of developing ways to recognize the traumatic nature of the coup without turning it into a partisan exercise.

However, he stepped on a political landmine in a radio interview when he was asked how a minimum of common ground for the commemoration could be found given that there is a “a not small percentage of the population that says [the coup] was necessary.” Fernández responded, saying that while “historians and political scientists will be able to debate why and how it came to that, we can try to agree that the events after the coup are unacceptable.”

This response was sharply criticized by human rights groups and political figures from the parties forming Boric’s coalition in Congress, particularly from the Communist Party. Emblematic was a letter to Boric’s chief of staff from a group of human rights organizations which asserted that Fernández had “evaded condemning the seditious coup d’état… that put an end to democratic institutions in our country.”

Fernández had his defenders, who challenged this as a simplistic reading of the events leading up to the coup and a refusal to engage in self-criticism. Indeed, they argued that it was an effort on the part of the Communist Party to “cancel” alternative interpretations of history. However, ultimately Fernández found his position untenable and resigned. 

Boric, who is close to Fernández personally, expressed appreciation for his work, but in the middle of other troubles, notably an unfolding scandal over no-bid contracts given to non-governmental organizations which were close to one of the parties in his coalition, he did not seek to reverse Fernández’s decision.

A Critical Book Sparks Controversy

Ironically, there is reason to believe that Boric himself shares Fernández’s view that there is more to be said about Allende’s fall than a simple effort to overthrow democracy. He has praised a controversial recent book by Chilean political scientist Daniel Mansuy entitled Salvador Allende: La izquierda chilena y la Unidad Popular (Salvador Allende: The Chilean Left and Popular Unity), for which he too has received criticism from within his own ranks.

Mansuy tracks the deep contradictions which characterized Allende’s period in office.  He notes that Allende insisted that he was leading a uniquely democratic “Chilean way to socialism,”  but his end point clearly was not mere social democracy but something closer to what had been installed following Cuba’s revolution, which was then only eleven years old and an object of fascination within the Latin American left. 

He recounts how Allende quickly lost the support of Chile’s middle class and with it the political center, arguing that his refusal to disavow his more radical supporters, who engaged in occupations of factories and farms, together with his administration’s use of legal loopholes to undertake massive nationalizations, paved the way for his downfall well before the military acted.

Boric and Allende: Similarities and Differences

Why is it that fifty years on, the debate over the Allende era remains so intense that it cost Fernández his position? While most of those who were politically active on the left during that time are gone from the political scene, in many cases, their children—who were engaged in the struggle against the Pinochet regime—are now figures of importance in the parties which make up the governing coalition. To them, anything less than a wholehearted embrace of Allende’s legacy is unacceptable.

There are also parallels between Boric’s presidency and Allende’s that make the analysis of the latter a subject of more than historical interest. Like Allende, Boric somewhat unexpectedly came to power when he led the ticket for a group of “new left” formations together with the same Communist Party which had lent its support to Allende. 

Plus, although the context is different in many ways, Boric, like Allende, went from a short political honeymoon to a period of deep public disillusionment. His situation was worsened by a failed effort to rewrite Chile’s constitution, something which Allende contemplated but never actually attempted. The proposed constitution, which entailed much greater state control of the economy, together with strong environmental and indigenous rights provisions, was a blueprint for the permanent transformations for which the leftist coalition hoped and indeed tracked much of Boric’s campaign platform.

Like Allende, Boric has had to face a Congress in which he lacks a majority, preventing him from moving much of his political program. Where Allende refused to abandon his transformational ambitions, however, Boric has reached out to Chile’s center-left, bringing members into his cabinet and his congressional coalition. His near-term political agenda has been reduced to seeking a revenue-enhancing tax reform, as well as pension and health reforms which would entail a significantly greater state role in these sectors. And success for these efforts is by no means assured.

Unsurprisingly, this has led to restlessness in Chile’s political ranks. The Communists have stayed loyal to Boric, but have stressed the importance of the more comprehensive program on which he ran, as opposed to his stripped-down current agenda. Meanwhile, the “new left” parties have watched unhappily as their seats in the cabinet have been reduced in favor of figures from the center-leftist parties which they had opposed in the last election. 

In fairness to all, no one among Boric’s supporters is talking about armed struggle as an alternative to democratic politics, a major difference from the left in the Allende era.  With that said, however, Boric came to power in the aftermath of the “social explosion” of 2019, a multi-month series of protests marked by violence, which showed Chile’s social fabric to be more fragile than previously thought.

Boric, it appears, is prepared to do what Allende would not, and accept the reality that he lacks the political space to take the country very far in the direction in which he had hoped. Thus far, he has been able to keep his coalition together. In this context, though, the acrimony within Chile’s left over Salvador Allende’s heritage looks less like a purely historical debate and more like a surrogate for one, not yet joined, about the future of Gabriel Boric’s government.

Richard M. Sanders is a Global Fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a Senior Fellow of the Center for the National Interest. Formerly a member of the Senior Foreign Service of the U.S. Department of State, he served at embassies throughout Latin America and in Washington.


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