The Allende Years and the Pinochet Coup, 1969–1973

Relations between the United States and Chile deteriorated in the 1960s due to U.S. concerns regarding the Chilean Left and the rise of Chilean nationalization of certain industries, especially copper. The Alliance for Progress, signed in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy, was designed to prevent the spread of socialism throughout the hemisphere. The Alliance allowed for monetary investment in Latin American countries that would help bolster infrastructure, education, and champion democratic governments, and Chile was one of the primary recipients of aid. The prospect of the nationalization of two of the leading Chilean copper companies, Anaconda and Kennicott—both owned by corporations based in the United States—along with the growth of socialist sentiment throughout the hemisphere led the United States to overtly and covertly send aid and assistance to the Chilean Government, as well as to political parties such as the Christian Democratic Party (PDC).

A crowd of marchers show their support for Allende. (U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

In September 1964, PDC candidate Eduardo Frei was elected President of Chile, beating out third-time candidate Salvador Allende from the Front for Popular Action (Frente de Acción Popular or FRAP) party. Frei’s campaign received funds from the U.S. Government to help ensure his election. His administration focused on improving housing, agrarian reform, and increasing access to education. Frei also negotiated an agreement with the Anaconda copper company on the nationalization of copper mines. There were many critics of the Anaconda agreement, even within Frei’s PDC, and nationalization became an important issue in the 1970 presidential election.

The three candidates for the presidency in the 1970 elections were Radomiro Tomic for the PDC, former president Jorge Alessandri representing the National Party (PN), and Salvador Allende, candidate of the Popular Unity (Unidad Popular or UP) party, a leftist coalition which had replaced FRAP. The U.S. Government used covert funds in Chile during this election period, not for any one candidate’s use but to prevent Allende’s election. U.S. support had some impact on the election, but Allende still received over one third of the popular vote. Alessandri also garnered over one third of the vote, trailing Allende by only one percentage point. A run-off election in the Chilean Congress was scheduled for October 24, 1970.

Neither the Richard Nixon administration, nor the current Chilean Government, nor U.S. companies with businesses in Chile (Anaconda, International Telephone & Telegraph, Kennicott) wished to see an Allende presidency, fearing his Communist sympathies. The 40 Committee, the U.S. National Security Council committee that reviewed proposals for covert actions, held numerous meetings leading up to the October run-off elections. The debate over whether and how to engage in covert actions in order to prevent an Allende victory was vigorous. At the same time, the Chilean military leadership had splintered into two distinct camps regarding the viability of a military coup: those who were willing to stage a military coup, represented by two factions under General Roberto Viaux and General Camilo Valenzuela, and those (personified by General René Schneider) who believed that any attempt by the military to influence the election was unconstitutional. After two failed attempts by Valenzuela’s supporters to kidnap Schneider, a third attempt was made by Viaux on October 22. The kidnapping attempt went horribly wrong and Schneider was shot. He died several days later. There were no further attempts by the Chilean military to influence the upcoming run-off election.

On October 24 the Chilean Congress voted to elect Allende president by a large margin, and on November 3 he was officially sworn in as President of Chile. After Allende’s inauguration, Nixon stated that U.S. relations with Chile would continue, but would be cooler than during previous administrations. The administration feared that Allende would create a Communist government in Chile. U.S. policymakers also took steps to severely limit further credits or aid to Chile.

On December 21, 1970, Allende proposed an amendment to the Chilean constitution that would authorize the expropriation of the mining companies. The Chilean Congress passed the nationalization amendment on July 11, 1971, and it became law five days later. This plan was unique in Latin America because of a clause that Allende had introduced that cited “excessive profit-taking.” This maintained that foreign-owned mining companies made exponentially more in Chile than other similar companies. While expropriation of U.S. assets was usually based upon a percentage of market value, in this case U.S. companies received little or no money at all for the nationalized mines. At the same time, Chile also gained control of the Chilean telephone company, of which ITT owned a majority. Relations between the two countries soured as the battles over the nationalization continued throughout the entirety of the Allende administration.

Allende wanted to reform health care, agriculture, and education, and was invested in further nationalization of businesses. He increased the percentage of farms and businesses that were nationalized. Wages increased throughout the administration, and for the first few months, inflation was held at bay. On the surface, the reforms appeared to be successful. It became clear, however, that the successes were not balancing out the problems. Rising wages produced a boom in consumerism, and Chile had to rely on imports to meet demand. The price of copper dropped, which severely affected the country’s balance of payments. In addition, the Chilean Government was running out of foreign sources of aid.

These issues led to a series of demonstrations and strikes from 1971 to 1973. On June 29, 1973, in the midst of widespread protests and strikes, Lieutenant Colonel Roberto Souper led a failed coup attempt against Allende. In a radio address Allende called for the people to support his administration and help defeat the unlawful coup, and called in General Carlos Prats to deal with the rebel forces. Prats, like Schneider, believed that the military should remain apolitical, and the coup was aborted by late morning. Although Prats was key in stopping the coup, by August he lost the support of much of the army. Prats was succeeded as Defense Minister and Army Commander by General Augusto Pinochet on August 24, 1973.

Between June and September 1973, more protests and strikes crippled Chile. On August 22, the Chamber of Deputies charged the Allende government with breaching numerous sections of the Constitution. Allende refuted the allegations, stating that his actions were constitutional. By this time, it was clear that dissent in the military was rampant and that a coup would be successful if supported fully by the military.

On the morning of September 11, 1973, the military launched another coup against the Allende government. At 9:10 a.m., Allende made his final broadcast from the presidential palace, announcing that he would not resign the presidency and rallying his supporters with the cry, “Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers!” After the address, Allende purportedly joined in defending the palace, which was under heavy attack. Once it became clear that the military would take the palace, Allende told the defenders to surrender. Allende died during the final events of the coup: his death is now widely regarded a suicide.

On September 13, Pinochet was named President of Chile, whereupon he dismantled Congress and outlawed many Chilean leftist political parties. The takeover of the government ended a 46-year history of democratic rule in Chile. In June 1975, Pinochet announced that there would be no future elections in the country. Although the U.S. Government was initially pleased by the coup, concerns mounted about the new regime’s reported violations of human rights.

Debate continues on whether the United States provided direct support for Pinochet’s coup. The United States had a long history of engaging in covert actions in Chile; it had provided funds in support of electoral candidates, run anti-Allende propaganda campaigns, and had discussed the merits of supporting a military coup in 1970. A Senate committee was convened in 1975 to investigate U.S. covert involvement in Chile during the 1960s and 1970s. The report found that the United States had carried out covert actions in Chile during these years and had even considered a proposal for Track II, a covert action meant to organize a military coup to prevent Allende coming to power. However, it concluded that there was little evidence to link the U.S. Government to covert support of Pinochet’s coup.