The other 9/11, over in Chile

Over in Chile, they remember another anniversary — of the 1973 overthrow of President Allende.

Back in 1970, Salvador Allende was elected in a very controversial three-way race that ended up in the Chilean supreme court.  The vote results were:

Salvador Allende, socialist 1,075,616

Jorge Alessandri, independent 1,036,278

Radomiro Tomic, Christian Democrat 824,849

Allende won a plurality, or 36%.  It was challenged and ultimately upheld in the courts.  In retrospect, a runoff would have been better, and Alessandri would have probably won.  It did not happen that way, and Allende, whose socialist party was actually to the left of the Chilean communist party, made a massive turn to the left.

By the summer of 1973, Chile was in turmoil.  Shortages abounded, political prisons were filled, workers were on strike, and Fidel Castro literally came down to give orders.  President Allende had lost control of the situation.  I recall a business colleague of my father who returned from a trip to Santiago horrified with the situation.  He saw the panic in the streets, frustration, and called it a perfect storm for a coup.

Allende embarked on what he called a "Chilean path to socialism," but he totally misread public opinion.  Chile did not vote for a bona fide communist revolution, and President Allende was totally out of line.  By the way, I see a connection to the current Biden presidency, or how the left totally misunderstood the election.  In Chile, that election result was comparable to the bitter fight between Trump and Biden but in no way a statement that the nation wanted a leftist transformation.

In early September, the Chilean legislature and the Chilean high court had ordered General Augusto Pinochet to take over.  That was what the left calls the "coup," although there are those in Chile who said it was not a coup, given that Pinochet did not act on his own.  He formed a military government and from there learned that it was not easy to turn around a country devastated by decades of extended socialism, culminating in the full-blown communism of Allende.  He implemented market reforms, through his "Chicago Boys" free-market economists, the first time such reforms had been tried — privatization, free trade, private savings accounts for pensions (truly revolutionary) — which was a radical shift.  At times, the reforms were painful, and the adjustment was hard on the Chilean people.  Pinochet backtracked at least once, but in the end, he went with the market reforms because they worked better than all other approaches. 

Is Chile better off today?  I say "yes," but I respect those Chileans who lost loved ones during a difficult period.  That included victims of the Marxists, of course, but also people on the left.  According to reports, as many as 40,000 people were killed or tortured or disappeared at the hands of the regime — the vast majority in guerrilla combat with the Chilean army in the first three years, yet there were many innocents, and that's a black eye for the Pinochet years. 

Finally, Pinochet left power after losing big in a plebiscite in 1988, a notable thing, given that actual dictators do not give up power.  Chile began its return to democracy the next year, and here we are.

At the end of the day, Pinochet's legacy is a prosperous and non-communist Chile, as Paul Weyrich wrote when Pinochet died in 2006.

Pinochet saved Chile from turning into Cuba or Venezuela, and most locals are very happy about that.  At the same time, Chile's left has flourished lately, and let's hope the new generation does not destroy the amazing progress of the last decades.

PS: You can listen to my show (Canto Talk).

Image: Yutaka Seki via PXHereCC BY 2.0.

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