Workers' banners support Salvador Allende in Chile - photo credit: public domain

50 years since the bloody coup d’etat in Chile


“Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers! These are my last words, and I am certain that my sacrifice will not be in vain, I am certain that, at the very least, it will be a moral lesson that will punish felony, cowardice and treason.”

Salvador Allende

By Adrian Weir

The 50th anniversary of the military coup d’etat that installed General Augusto Pinochet as head of state in Chile on 11 September 1973 is an anniversary of both continuity and change in Latin American and Caribbean politics.

Continuity in that in the post war period US imperialism, initially with Britain playing second fiddle, has orchestrated or participated in coup d’etat or armed intervention in many if not most of the countries in the region, for example:

  • 1953 Guyana – British troops deployed, Cheddi Jagan dismissed as PM
  • 1954 Guatemala – CIA funded military coup
  • 1961 Bay of Pigs – attempted invasion of Cuba by CIA funded counter-revolutionaries
  • 1964 Brazil – US supported military coup
  • 1965 Dominican Republic – military expelled elected president, US troops deployed.

Actions that have of course continued after 1973 with US troops deployed in Grenada in 1983, the Contra war in Nicaragua during the 1980s, coup in Honduras in 2009 and Bolivia in 2019, attempted coup in Venezuela in 2002 and Ecuador in 2010 and the more recent development of lawfare against Dilma Rousseff and Lula da Silva in Brazil, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Fernando Lugo in Paraguay and Pedro Castillo in Peru.

What marked the 1973 coup in Chile as different, a change from the usual, was that for the first time a university department was used to give economic direction to the golpistas.

1973 was perhaps the first time the wider world become aware of the economic theories being promoted by Professor Milton Freidman in the Economics Department at Chicago University. What we now know as monetarism or neo-liberalism, involving the privatisation of state assets and massive cuts in public spending were murderously enforced by the military government advised by Freidman’s graduates, known as the Chicago Boys.

Opposition from the political left and the unions would result in activists simply being “disappeared.” In fact, leftists were being murdered from the first days of the coup; hundreds were rounded up and held in the Estadio Nacional football stadium, tortured and killed there. The unbelievable official death toll is just 41 murders but the true figure must be much higher. The most famous of those killed in the stadium was the leftist Chilean folk singer, Victor Jara, murdered after his fingers were broken so he could never again play his guitar.

If the 1973 coup was a bloody counter revolution what had preceded it? The answer is of course one on the most broadly based left wing governments in office in Latin America, the Popular Unity (Unidad Popular) government of Salvador Allende. UP was an alliance of the Socialist Party, Communist Party, Radical Left Party, Social Democratic Party and other left of centre groupings that won the presidency of Chile in 1970.

UP had a most radical programme of 40 measures including the expansion of democracy, a single chamber parliament and simultaneous elections at local, regional and national level. Workers and social organisations to be given a role in power; equal pay for women and men, a living wage and medical care for all. Housing, education and a literacy programme. Equal legal status for women. Most importantly, to fund the social programmes would be the nationalisation of copper and other mineral reserves and the banking system. There was to be a revision or cancellation of all treaties signed with the United States.

Not surprisingly such a programme didn’t sit well with the national bourgeoisie, transnational corporations and the American Government. President Nixon authorised the CIA to pursue what was known as Track II, to identify officers willing to lead a military coup. In 1972 is was discovered that there was a plot to undermine the government involving transnational telecoms giant ITT, the CIA, US business interests and domestic anti-UP groupings. Also in 1972 the owner-drivers in the road haulage sector struck supported by business leaders and funded by the CIA. Chile was rapidly being destabilised by CIA money.

In late 1972 Cuba’s Fidel Castro visited for a trip scheduled for 10 days but extended to three weeks. Castro and Allende toured the country together and addressed very many well attended rallies of UP supporters across Chile. Castro could clearly see the destabilisation taking place and in private warned the UP that it must take steps to prepare for the violence that was soon to be unleashed against it.

The coup was launched at 6:00 am on 11 September when the navy mutinied and took the city of Valparaiso followed by an army, air force and police assault on the Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago. Allende himself participated in the defence firing his personal AK47 gifted to him by Fidel Castro. When all was lost he killed himself. Across the country the left although numerically strong was swept aside by the violence.

The violence was truly terrible with left activists and trade unionists being rounded up; tortured and killed. Thousands simply “disappeared.” Politicians living abroad who may have become opposition figure heads were assassinated. The children of leftists who “disappeared” were given to childless couples in the military and police.

Solidarity with the Chilean people was expressed by left and human rights activists around the globe. In Britain, led by the Communist Party, Chile Solidarity Campaign was launched to organise a broad based opposition to the military junta, particularly within the labour movement. It soon had 30 national trade union affiliates with leaders such as Jack Jones of the T&G and Hugh Scanlon of the AEU being prominent supporters.

This solidarity was soon given practical expression by trade unionists around Britain. On the Clyde, Tyne and at Rosyth shipyard workers boycotted work on Chilean warships. On the Mersey 600 seafarers refused to sign on for a ship bound for Chile. Dockers on the Mersey, Humber and in Newhaven refused to handle cargo bound for or from Chile. Liverpool dockers protected Ernesto Andrade, a Chilean sailor and union rep, who jumped ship on learning that he was to be handed over to the police when his vessel returned to Chile.

The most famous example of solidarity work was that of the Rolls Royce workers at East Kilbride who maintained a boycott of four aero engines belonging to the Chilean air force for four years. The workers effectively impounded the engines, kept them rusting away in the factory yard. Finally the engines were spirited away at night in an MI5 operation involving trucks painted in phoney hauliers’ livery and with false number plates.

The four union reps leading the boycott campaign were, on the return to democracy in Chile, awarded the Order of Bernardo O’Higgins, the highest Chilean award available to foreigners. They were also awarded the Unite gold medal. The story of the Rolls Royce workers’ boycott has been recorded in a feature length documentary film Nae Pasaran. At around the same time the Chilean Ambassador in London awarded twelve presidential scrolls of honour to key activists involved with solidarity work in the 1970s.

While the solidarity work was being organised across Britain the plight of Chilean refugees was becoming more pressing. In 1973 the Conservative Government of Edward Heath was quick to recognise the military junta and issued an instruction that no non-British nationals were to be given asylum in British embassies.

However, when Labour come to office in 1974 the situation change rapidly due to the work of the Minister for Overseas Development, Judith Hart MP. Working through Parliament and with Chile Solidarity Campaign she established a network of government departments, solidarity groups and trade unions to work for the resettlement of Chilean refugees. This was the first meeting, convened by Hart, of the organisation which became the Joint Working Group for Refugees from Chile (JWG). It is estimated that Britain officially resettled 3,000 refugees before the incoming Conservative government closed down the JWG in 1979.

If the work of Judith Hart in 1974 showed the positive aspects of Labour in government, the actions of Jack Straw in the “New” Labour Government 16 years later showed Labour in government at its craven worst.

In 1998, after he has ceased to head the government in Chile, General Pinochet came to London for surgery on his back. While he was in hospital a Spanish judge issued an international arrest warrant for his detention to face charges of the murder of nearly 200 Spanish citizens and conspiracy to torture; he was placed under house arrest. After surgery he was transferred to the Priory clinic in north London for a period of recuperation. Your present author recalls joining the anti-Pinochet demonstrations in Southgate outside the clinic.

Pinochet’s presence was clearly an embarrassment for the Priory, more used to having as patients celebrities with substance abuse problems than those facing charges of mass murder. Eventually he was discharged by the Priory clinicians as not needing further medical treatment and was moved under armed guard to a mansion on the Wentworth estate in Surrey where he was visited on at least one occasion by Margaret Thatcher.

For the sixteen months Pinochet was under house arrest the decision on extradition to Spain rested solely with Jack Straw, Home Secretary in the “New” Labour Government. Eventually a group of doctors was found willing to certify Pinochet as unfit to stand trial if extradited. This gave Straw the excuse he needed, in 2000 he allowed Pinochet to leave London for Chile. At London airport Pinochet was pushed across the tarmac in a wheelchair, upon arrival in Santiago miraculously, or maybe not, there was no sign of the wheelchair or infirmity. Clearly, a day of great shame for the Labour Government.

Although Pinochet has since died, the legacy of the Pinochet years still casts a long shadow over modern Chile, much of today’s constitution has its origins in the years of military dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s.

To close with the words of Allende himself, his last broadcast on 11 September 1973: “Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers! These are my last words, and I am certain that my sacrifice will not be in vain, I am certain that, at the very least, it will be a moral lesson that will punish felony, cowardice and treason.”

Workers' banners support Salvador Allende in Chile - photo credit: public domain
Workers’ banners support Salvador Allende in Chile – photo credit: public domain

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