Allende, Cuba, and world socialism, 1970–73
By John Riddell. This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the U.S.-inspired rightist coup in Chile that overthrew the leftist government of Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973. The coup was a historic disaster for working people in Latin America and globally. Socialists worldwide saw it coming. How did they attempt to counter this danger?
In my review of Volume 2 of Barry Sheppard’s history of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party, I wrote that in the years after the coup, the party “found SWP [pre-coup]policies to be wrong and the Cubans to be right on major world issues: among them, the Allende government in Chile.” This, I said, had important practical implications: “Inevitably, the SWP’s opposition to the [Salvadore Allende’s] UP government hindered efforts to defend it against the impending U.S.-sponsored coup.”
Barry Sheppard’s reply to me contests my views, stating that “the SWP’s position of not giving political support to the UP government in no way hindered its opposition to the coup.”
This is not simply a historical debate. In the past decade, progressive governments have been elected in a number of Latin American countries, and several have faced U.S.-inspired coups, some successful. The Chilean experience of the 1970s, and the contrasting responses to the Allende regime of the Cuban leadership and the SWP, have important lessons for those who want to advance the cause of socialism in the twenty-first century.
Let us first consider Cuba’s policy towards the Allende government, and then examine how the Socialist Workers Party responded, both before and after the coup.
The Unidad Popular government under attack
As presidential candidate of the Unidad Popular (UP–People’s Unity), Allende led the September 1970 voting with 37% and was then named president by parliament. The UP included the Communist and Socialist parties and some smaller middle-class formations. Allende’s election reflected a mass working-class radicalization, whose impetus led to enactment by the UP government of some significant reforms.
But the Allende government was hemmed in by dependency on a hostile parliamentary majority, governmental apparatus, and army. It was held back by the conservatism of forces within the UP, including, notably, the Communist Party. It was further undermined by U.S. sanctions and subversion. On September 11, 1973, a right-wing military coup led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet overturned the government. The coup regime claimed the lives of more than 3,200 Chileans, including President Allende, imprisoned at least 80,000, and forced 200,000 into exile.(1)
Washington was deeply complicit in Pinochet’s coup. Even before Allende’s inauguration (October 24, 1970), the CIA relayed the following instructions from “high USG [U.S. government] level” to its Chile office:
“It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup. It would be much preferable to have this transpire prior to 24 October but efforts in this regard will continue vigorously beyond this date. We are to continue to generate maximum pressure toward this end utilizing every appropriate resource. It is imperative that these actions be implemented clandestinely and securely so that the USG and American hand be well hidden….”
As the SWP later commented, “for three years the [Richard] Nixon regime and the U.S. ruling class worked to strangle and undermine the Unidad Popular government,” in a virtual economic war against Chile. Meanwhile, U.S. military trainers whipped up the Chilean officers into an anti-Communist frenzy. When the generals were ready to strike, Washington was informed in advance and took a high-level decision not to inform the Allende government of the impending coup.(2)
Washington’s crusade against Chile’s government came as no surprise to socialists worldwide, who had witnessed more than half a dozen U.S. military and CIA interventions against left-wing regimes in Latin America over the previous dozen years. Cuba had been the prime target of this crusade; Chile was its only ally in the hemisphere. How did Cuba respond to the U.S. attacks?
The Cuban response
Cuba viewed Allende’s election as a gain for Chile against U.S. domination. The authoritative Cuban newspaper Granma carried a banner headline, “Anti-Imperialist Victory in Chile.”
Cuba’s approach to the new government was summarized in 1982 by the U.S. SWP:
Cuba responded to the events in Chile in the following ways:
- By solidarizing with Chile as a country that was charting a foreign policy independent of Yankee imperialism and taking its natural resources out of the hands of the imperialists.
- By defending the Popular Unity government in the face of a concerted drive by imperialism and Chilean reaction to overthrow it.
- By attempting to bolster the positions of those in Chile who were trying to mobilize the masses to defeat the right-wing forces and to make a revolution, and to influence the broadest possible layers in the UP and Chilean labour movement along these lines….
The Cubans and Castro identified themselves with the UP government and its anti-imperialist measures. At the same time, however, Castro’s political line for Chile, and his projection of what the workers needed to do to carry the struggle forward, was in opposition to the line of the UP leadership. This was shown clearly in the speeches he gave while he was in Chile.(3)
During his tour of Chile from November 10 to December 4, 1971, Castro sought to respect the autonomy of the Chilean process and to avoid any appearance of giving instructions. He took into account that his visit was being attacked by right-wing forces as an intrusion into Chilean politics. Nonetheless, his viewpoint was clear.
Castro said that the UP victory “was like a door slightly ajar … a breach, an opening” in a revolutionary process. The right-wing and the CIA are aware of the danger posed by this process and would use violence against it, including through destruction of Chile’s democratic institutions. He criticized the Chilean left for “the weakness of ideological battle, the weakness of mass struggle, the weaknesses displayed in the face of the enemy.” The challenge regarding Chile’s revolutionary process, he said, was “to turn it into what we call a revolution.”
One month before the coup, Castro wrote Allende, calling on him to mobilize the Chilean working class, which had never failed to lend “firm support … in difficult moments,” against the coup danger. The working class “can block those who are organizing a coup, maintain the support of the fence-sitters, impose its conditions, and decide the fate of Chile once and for all.”
Cuba’s advice was not heeded. The coup triumphed with very little organized resistance.
Let us now turn to the discussion between Barry Sheppard and myself about the response in the United States. Our exchange concerns events long past and the record of a group that has lost its relevance, but the issues at stake are at the heart of current socialist controversy.
Solidarity in the U.S.
Barry Sheppard and I are in broad agreement with the SWP’s course during the 1960–1980 period. Our disagreement grows out of the fact that the SWP had two different approaches during these years to the Allende experience.
Before the coup, the SWP viewed the Chilean drama mainly as an internal struggle between contending social classes in Chile. Sheppard’s book presents this view. After the coup, however, the SWP gave much greater weight to the anti-imperialist aspect of the struggle, a central aspect of the Cubans’ analysis. This second approach was most clearly expressed in Elizabeth Stone’s introduction to the collection of Castro’s speeches in Chile published by the SWP in 1982. My review of Sheppard’s book identified with this later approach.
Sheppard’s chapter on Chile mentions the SWP’s 1982 collection of Castro speeches, but discounts their importance.(4) He notes that Stone’s introduction to the book did not claim that the SWP’s previous position had been wrong. This is correct; indeed, Stone reiterated the SWP’s longstanding assertion that the UP was a “popular front.” SWP leader Peter Camejo explained in 1971 that this term refers to an alliance whose “program insures that the working class is kept corralled within limits acceptable to the bourgeoisie, or a section of the bourgeoisie.”(5) Camejo identifies here a very real problem with the Chilean UP. There are problems in the way the SWP applied “popular front” analysis to Chile, particularly with regard to anti-imperialism, but I will leave discussion of this question to another occasion.
Two urgent questions
The main problem with the SWP’s position during the Allende government became clear to me only when I read Sheppard’s response to my review. Praising the SWP’s record in opposing the oncoming coup, Sheppard writes, “the SWP and [Fourth International] hammered away week after week in the months leading up to the coup, warning of its danger and proposing concrete steps to thwart it, including arming the workers.”
This statement is accurate, and the SWP’s warnings (like Castro’s) needed to be voiced. But this passage poses two urgent questions:
- Did the SWP understand that socialists in the United States needed to actively oppose their own government’s involvement in the drive toward a coup in Chile?
- Did the SWP recognize that opponents of the coup in Chile, both inside and outside the ruling UP, needed to form a united front against the right wing?
Both these issues relate to the basic premise of the Cuban position – that the struggle in Chile was in part directed against imperialist domination. This premise signified that socialists in the U.S. were players in the Chilean drama, whose responsibility involved more than criticism of the UP.
Opposing Washington’s subversion in Chile
Certainly SWP members were anti-imperialist to the marrow of their bones and were well informed about the U.S. record of instigating military coups in one Latin American country after another. SWP members must have sounded a warning against U.S. policy on Chile in hundreds of discussions. Yet there are only weak hints of such a stand in the written record. This issue is not discussed in Sheppard’s book or in his comment on my review. Veterans of those years whom I have consulted do not recall any major initiative on this question.
An authoritative 12,000-word article by Peter Camejo and Les Evans in the February 1972 issue of the SWP’s International Socialist Review makes only two brief comments on the U.S. role in Chile. First, it records without comment the fact that “high U.S. officials” were saying that Allende “would not last much longer.” Second, it makes the unfortunate claim that the widespread fear of the Allende regime in U.S. corporate circles “seems highly exaggerated.”
The article by Camejo and Evans goes to some lengths to evade the anti-imperialist significance of Allende government actions. One move that particularly infuriated U.S. corporate and government circles, for example, was Allende’s expropriation of U.S. holdings in Chile’s rich copper mines without compensation. Camejo and Evans should have called for socialists in the U.S. to rally behind Chile’s right to expropriate holdings of the imperialist pirates. Instead, they blast Allende for failing to also repudiate debts to the U.S. copper giants incurred by the previous Chilean government (pp. 31-32). This suggestion from distant observers had no relationship to the actual U.S.-Chilean quarrel over the copper mines.
The SWP’s more comprehensive 1974 collection on the Allende government, Disaster in Chile, contains two pre-coup references to U.S. governmental subversion in Chile:
- Peter Camejo concluded a 1971 pamphlet on Chile with this paragraph: “In the immediate future, it is the duty of the American left, regardless of the nature of the Chilean government, to mobilize the American people against any steps taken by the United States against the people of Chile. It is our duty to defend the Chilean people’s right to self-determination.” Camejo did not state whether Washington was actually taking any such “steps” or whether any action was called for. (Disaster in Chile, p. 61)
- In 1972, David Thorstad of the SWP reported on initial revelations by journalist Jack Anderson of the CIA’s coup plots against Allende. “On March 12, Allende warned, ‘We are being attacked both from without and from within.’ The Anderson revelations certainly add weight to such a warning and showed the extreme measures the imperialists are willing to undertake in order to defend their interests.” (Disaster in Chile, p. 98)
Such statements carry little weight in the SWP’s extensive literature on Chile, and, most importantly, they are not accompanied by any call to action. Absent in SWP analysis during the Allende years is the concept that the struggle in Chile involved, in part, defense of national sovereignty against U.S. domination.
Disaster in Chile also contains five articles written after the coup, and their approach is quite different. Gerry Foley wrote during the month of the coup that “whatever the direct role of American government agencies in the actual coup, U.S. imperialism was responsible in the last analysis for bringing down the Allende government.” He cited the U.S. economic sanctions that blocked access, for example, to spare parts for trucks, and U.S. refusal to sell wheat during a shortage just before the coup (p. 224).
Sheppard’s book notes the SWP’s vigorous participation in demonstrations rallying protest against Pinochet’s terror rampage and its role in building USLA – the U.S. Committee in Defense of Latin American Political Prisoners (p. 29–30, 55). These excellent initiatives marked a step toward the Cuban approach to the Chilean experience.
Should revolutionaries have defended Allende?
It would seem implicit in the SWP’s theoretical heritage and general approach that it would call on Chilean workers to side with the Allende government against the right wing. To my surprise, this concept does not appear in the SWP statements on Chile during 1970–73. They call for support to the Allende regime’s progressive measures and for opposition to a coup, but do not advocate defense of the government.
SWP members were very familiar with this approach, including from a celebrated historical precedent: the united front forged by the Bolshevik Party in Russia in 1917 to defend the reformist Kerensky regime against an attempted military coup by Gen. Lavr Kornilov – an example repeatedly cited by Trotsky in urging a united front in Germany against the rise of fascism.
During 1970–73, the SWP repeatedly criticized Castro for supporting Allende, in one case criticizing him for expressing “confidence … in the Popular Unity movement.” Missing, however, is an explanation that criticisms of Allende’s political course should be combined with defense of the regime against the coup danger. Thus Evans and Camejo, after citing Castro’s urgent call for mobilization against the right, claim his statement is “false in one essential respect: Castro urges support to precisely those who prevent the mobilization of the masses while he complains about the lack of mass mobilizations.” Perhaps Evans and Camejo meant that Castro should have “defended” the regime, rather than “supported” it. But nowhere do they or the SWP speak of “defense.” A reader could well conclude that the SWP rejected defense of the government against a coup.
A Chilean student statement on Allende’s election, written in October 1970 and included in Disaster in Chile, calls for formation of people’s committees against the right wing uniting “all those who are for the defense of the people’s victory.” Building such committees, the students say, is “anti-imperialist united front work involving a tactical alliance with the Unidad Popular.” They term this approach “a tactical united front.” Did inclusion of this article in the SWP book indicate sympathy with its united-front approach to defending the regime? That is unlikely, given that this concept is not mentioned elsewhere in SWP material during the Allende government.
Whatever the merit of the proposed “people’s committees,” the student declaration touches on a powerful and inescapable concept: no serious struggle against the rightist/imperialist coup was possible without a united-front approach to the regime and its supporters. The same policy of alliances applied to Chile solidarity work, and was carried out, following the coup, by SWP members in the USLA committee.
As the student statement made clear, a united-front approach toward defending the UP government did not imply support for the political course of the UP. United-front policy presupposed the freedom of revolutionary forces to criticize UP policy, in the context of building independent mass movements of workers and peasants and unifying revolutionary forces in an effective and cohesive organisation.
This united-front policy was at the very core of SWP strategy – as well as of the 26th of July Movement that led the Cuban revolution. It is illustrated and explained in many other chapters of Sheppard’s SWP history. It is unfortunately absent from SWP material on Chile during the Allende years also from my own memories of our work on Chile at that time.
Allende in the twenty-first century
Twenty-six years after the coup in Chile, the election of Hugo Chávez opened a period in which left or left-center governments have been elected in almost a dozen Latin American countries. Several have faced U.S.-inspired coup attempts, which succeeded in two countries (Honduras and Paraguay) and have failed in several others. Many of these governments have close relations with Cuba and also with mass movements of the type seen in Chile under Allende. The governments vary enormously in policies and character. The SWP’s dismissive analysis of the Allende government in 1970–73 would lead us astray if applied to these recent experiences.
Sheppard’s book deserves credit for recording the impact of Chile on a significant U.S. socialist tendency and for drawing our attention to the importance of Chilean workers’ struggles in the Allende years. Let us hope it stimulates further research on this topic. The fortieth anniversary of Pinochet’s murderous coup would be a good occasion to revisit the Allende experience and review the different approaches taken at the time by socialist currents worldwide.
Thanks for editorial suggestions to Ian Angus, Felipe Cournoyer, Richard Fidler, Barry Sheppard, and Suzanne Weiss.
- For information on how to obtain Barry Sheppard’s two-volume history and the full record of the debate sparked by its second volume, see SWP History: 1960-1988.
- Fidel Castro in Chile, containing the text of twelve major speeches given by by Castro during his November-December 1971 visit to Chile, published by Pathfinder Press in 1982. The book is not well represented in libraries but is still in print and on sale from Pathfinder for US$20.
Related articles on this website
- A ‘workers’ government’ as a step toward socialism
- The U.S. SWP attempts an outward turn (1976–83)
- Causes of a socialist collapse: The U.S. SWP 1976–83
- Roberto Regalado: Latin America at the crossroads
1. Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Toronto: Alfred Knopf Canada, 2007.
2. Les Evans, ed., Disaster in Chile: Allende’s Strategy and Why It Failed, New York: Pathfinder Press, 1974, pp. 229–32; Shock Doctrine, p. 88.
3. These and other quotations on Cuba’s response are taken from the introduction by Elizabeth Stone to Fred Feldman, ed., Fidel Castro in Chile, New York: Pathfinder Press, 1982, pp. 3-9.
4. Barry says the SWP published a single speech on Chile by Castro in 1981. That may be, but the collection introduced by Stone appeared a year later and included a dozen speeches. These formed a major part of a collection published by the Cuban government a decade earlier in several languages.
5. Evans, p. 46.