A Government We Called Our Own

Fifty years on from the coup in Chile, Oscar Mendoza reflects on the lasting legacy of Allende’s government.

As the 50th anniversary of the military coup led by General Pinochet nears, I can’t help thinking back to that grey drizzly day when my youthful dreams came crashing down and my life – and that of my homeland – changed forever.

The democratically elected government of Salvador Allende had created great expectations and hope for the possibility of making meaningful changes via the ballot box. A progressive political movement had, over almost half a century of organising, and after three previous failed attempts, narrowly managed to secure victory in the presidential election of 4 September 1970.

While the joy experienced by most working people was boundless, the reaction from the rich and powerful, who had expected former right wing President Jorge Alessandri to win, was universally hostile. Now we know that even before Allende was confirmed by the Chilean Congress on October 24th, the US administration under Richard Nixon, with Henry Kissinger in the State Department, was conspiring with Chileans opposed to Allende to prevent him from taking up his post.1

The buzz and excitement among ordinary Chileans, the workers and the young in particular, was such that we warmly embraced our comrade President and our Popular Unity government, comforted in the knowledge that we could count on widespread international solidarity and support from across the globe. The hopes of the international left rested on Allende and his government’s 40 measures.

The development of an industrial state sector, agrarian reform, nationalisation of large-scale copper mining, the distribution of a pint of milk to every child, and holiday camps for working families were among the most popular measures taken and they cemented widespread support for Allende and his government’s reforms. The free milk distribution, focused on infants and mothers but targeting all children under 15, reached over three million beneficiaries, reduced malnutrition drastically and served as an example for other Latin American countries. The holiday camps provided the first ever opportunity for tens of thousands of urban working families to enjoy a break at the seaside and the photos and footage from that time show the sheer joy experienced by those who benefited.

The dream of Allende’s Chile was shared not only by those of us within the country that were carried away in a wave of optimism for a better future. Across the world, progressive forces, be it political parties, trades unions, students’ associations, or feminist groups, were attracted to the possibilities that the Popular Unity government seemed to offer for radical change in democracy. 

From my personal perspective, due to my best friend being one of Allende’s private secretary’s sons, I was a privileged witness to our comrade President’s intimate circle of friends, advisers and his security detail. I spent many weekends in his company from mid-1971 onwards, playing table tennis with him for example, and watching movies sitting a few feet away from him. I was in awe of the historical leader of the Chilean left and tried hard to keep my place, however Allende was always warm and engaging, and he would smile at my friend and I every time he saw us and would spend a brief time talking to us. These precious memories have remained with me since.

Following a successful first year in government, Allende faced a deteriorating economic situation, a tightening financial squeeze, a negative trade balance, rising inflation, a fall in reserves and a growing barrage of external and internal opposition. The country became highly polarised and political dialogue and compromise evaporated. Things took a decisive turn for the worse with the ‘Tancazo’, the tank regiment putsch of 29 June 1973, which with hindsight can be seen as a dress rehearsal for the 11 September coup. Although admittedly we all expected the military to intervene, opposition politicians openly called for a coup, and what transpired still came as a major shock due to the ferocity of the coup and the brutal repression unleashed by it. By the end of that dark day in Chile’s history, the presidential palace would be burnt out, Allende would be dead, and dozens of his close advisers, ministers, political leaders and his personal security detail members would be detained, many brutally tortured and murdered in the following days. Leading Popular Unity figures, members of Congress, trades unionists, student leaders and many others were ordered to surrender to the military. A national curfew was imposed and the armed forces and the police patrolled the streets and carried out checks everywhere. 

As I sit at my desk writing this piece half a century later, here in my adopted homeland of Scotland, my mind is a whirlwind of memories. Of the halcyon days under Allende and those friends and comrades who shared them with me, as well as of the terrible days of the military dictatorship that were to last until the restoration of democracy in 1990.

My own experience of the coup was determined by the fact that my sister’s husband belonged to the Socialist Party’s security team or ‘aparato militar’ and that by chance I had stayed overnight in their flat in the city centre. On hearing that the coup was underway, I didn’t hesitate to join him and as a result I ended up taking part in and observing at close quarters the resistance to the coup in Santiago South. Politburo members, including the leader of the ‘aparato’, Arnoldo Camú, met at the CORMU stadium and decided to form an armed column with the objective of aiding Allende at the presidential palace and extracting him from it. The plan couldn’t be implemented because during a meeting with leaders of the Communist Party and the MIR (Movement of the Revolutionary Left) at the INDUMET factory, a large contingent of police NCOs in armoured vehicles attacked the building, which started a deafening exchange of automatic fire.2

Having managed to break the siege, with columns going to neighbouring factories SUMAR (textiles) and MADECO/MADEMSA (copper and white line goods) and to the large working class area of La Legua, firefights continued until late in the day when it was confirmed that Allende was dead. We then retreated to blocks of flats across the main avenue and spent 24 interminable hours waiting for the repression which didn’t materialise because the air force troops sent spent a long time searching La Legua, detaining people, killing some, and by the time they reached the main avenue on the evening of Wednesday 12th, it was time for them to return to barracks. Counting our blessings, we loaded a pick-up truck with all the weapons and ammunition, which two comrades drove away, and the next morning we made our way on foot away from the area.

Two weeks later, and after learning that my best friend had been executed following his arrest outside the presidential palace on the day of the coup, I was detained in my hometown of Curicó. I was held in the local barracks, then taken to Santiago to the Ministry of Defense, then to the Tacna barracks, the national football stadium, and finally the Penitentiary of Santiago. In May 1975, I was expelled and travelled to Scotland as a political refugee.

What’s the meaning of the 50th anniversary for me? Firstly, we must vindicate the figure of Allende and the achievements of his government. Never before or since have ordinary Chileans enjoyed a government they could call their own, representing their interests and working to deliver benefits for the majority of our people. We must, especially when confronting deniers and those who want to rewrite history, emphasise the democratic, pluralist and peaceful nature of the Popular Unity government. There’s no justification for the military coup.

Secondly, we must commemorate the sacrifice, the pain, the horror experienced by tens of thousands of Chileans who were detained, tortured, killed, disappeared and exiled for supporting Allende and resisting the dictatorship. Honour and glory! And extend a warm embrace to their relatives and friends and their half a century long struggle for truth and justice. We are with you.

Thirdly, we must celebrate the countless demonstrations of international solidarity that sustained my people through the dark days of dictatorship. Scotland played a leading role in this and those of us who made our home here are forever grateful. Asylum is a right.

Finally, it’s absolutely vital to draw parallels between the Allende government and its efforts to improve people’s lives – in health, education, housing, income distribution, access to culture, and so many other ways – and the programme of the current government of Gabriel Boric and of progressive movements everywhere. The struggle for social justice and greater equality, to which Allende dedicated his life, is as necessary today as it was in the 1970s. 

In the face of hostile unyielding opposition by the rich and powerful, employers’ groups, private service providers and the right wing parties, and in the midst of a worldwide cost of living crisis, Boric is also trying to improve public services, increase wages, reform pensions and protect the environment. The means to achieve these objectives, tax reform to shift the burden from working people to the mega rich and to give the state the resources required, are today’s battleground.

Allende promised us that he would always be with us. Fifty years on, he certainly is. He also told us that others would open up the broad avenues through which free people would walk towards building a better future. Like him, I also have faith in Chile and its people. We shall overcome/Venceremos!

1 The best and most comprehensive account of US intervention in the overthrow of Allende can be found in Peter Kornbluth’s The Pinochet File, published by The New Press in 2003.

2 Full details of the resistance to the coup  in Santiago South can be found in the documentary film: Arnoldo Camú y los combatientes Allendistas (2017), directed by Sergio Arévalo Macías and produced by Sergio Arévalo Macías and Camú’s widow Celsa Parrau Tejos (Spanish language).

Oscar Mendoza is a Chilean former political prisoner who came to Scotland in 1975 as a refugee. He is a social scientist specialising in international development.

The image features Oscar climbing the stairs to the Swissair flight, 19th May 1975.