What Would Allende Say?

On an unseasonably warm June day in Santiago, nearly 1,500 Chileans gathered behind the presidential palace to pay homage to Salvador Allende on the centennial of his birth. The police had erected a fence-like barrier to separate the assembled politicians and dignitaries—all dressed in elegant suits and ties or stylish winter dresses with colorful shawls wrapped around their shoulders—from the public, which was composed primarily of scruffy students, aging revolutionaries, blue-collar workers, reporters, and a few stray businesspeople out on their lunch break. Every five minutes or so, a portly man wearing a hard hat raised a bullhorn to his mouth and yelled, “Comrade Salvador Allende!” Immediately the crowd answered, “Present!”

“Now!” he yelled back. “And forever!” came the response.

As the politicians greeted each other and sat down in padded folding chairs, a young man in a red hooded sweatshirt rushed the barrier and screamed, “You’re an embarrassment to all of Chile! Salvador Allende would never recognize any of you sons of bitches! He’d be over here with us, with the people! Shame on all of you!”

A policeman sprinted over and whispered a few words into the young man’s ear. The young man nodded, stepped back from the barrier, and then raised both middle fingers above his head. The crowd cheered and chanted, “Viva Chile! Viva Allende!”

With his tailor-made suits and thick black glasses, Salvador Allende did not look the part of a revolutionary. Indeed, his love of high-end clothing and fine wine would seem to belie his status as a champion of the working class. It is widely reported that at dinner parties in the Chilean presidential palace, Allende would approach nattily attired guests and say, half in jest, “That’s a nice jacket you’re wearing, but it would look even better on a president, don’t you think?” By night’s end, the guests would have dutifully contributed their jackets to Allende’s already extensive wardrobe.

But make no mistake about it: even though he was not as earthy or tousled as his contemporaries in Cuba, Allende was every bit as dedicated to revolutionary change. He simply disagreed with the means through which such change could come about. Instead of adhering to then ruling leftist practice of revolutionary change through violence and terror, Allende proposed an unprecedented democratic route to socialism, one where ballots would replace arms. It would be, in his words, “a revolution of empanadas and red wine”—socialism Chilean style.

This route took time to catch on with the voters: Allende lost three consecutive presidential elections as the candidate for the Socialist Party. But by the time the 1970 presidential election rolled around, Allende had forged a strategic alliance with disparate parties on the center and the left, including the Communist Party, and this time ran as a candidate of the newly created Popular Unity coalition. In an almost evenly divided election, Allende narrowly defeated the candidates from the Right and the Center, garnering only 36 percent of the vote. Thus, during the heart of the Cold War era and in a polarized country, Salvador Allende came to power as a minority president determined to carry through with his experiment of mixing revolutionary socialism with a pluralistic democratic system.

It was an experiment that never came to completion. The three years that Allende presided over Chile saw the nationalization of many large industries, agrarian reform, and the strengthening of unions and workers’ rights; but it also saw skyrocketing inflation, commodity scarcities, and almost weekly street demonstrations for and against the administration. Chilean society had seemingly splintered in two, and amid threats of violence, many wondered if a civil war was imminent.

On September 11, 1973, with the tacit approval of several centrist and right-wing parties, not to mention the covert support of the United States, Augusto Pinochet, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, bombarded the Chilean presidential palace. Instead of surrendering, Allende went on the radio and declared that he was going to die for his ideals with the confidence that “sooner or later, the great avenues will again be opened, through which free men will pass to construct a better society.” Shortly thereafter, he shot himself with a gun given to him as a present by Fidel Castro.

Next to the corpse were Allende’s trademark black glasses, the frames split and the lenses shattered. During his life, these deceptively benign glasses had masked a resolute and audacious politician; and now, thirty-five years after his death, they have come to symbolize the hope and disappointment of Allende’s political project. Posted on nearly every streetlamp around Santiago were fliers showing an image of intact black glasses against a white background with the headline, “One Hundred Years, One Thousand Dreams.” At the centennial ceremony, a life-size sculpture of a broken frame, its lens cracked and smudged gray with smoke, was situated next to the main stage, an uneasy reminder of death during a celebration of birth.

But it was, after all, Allende’s martyred suicide, along with his alluring and somewhat unstable blend of idealism and pragmatism, revolution and democracy, that has rendered him a near mystical figure, one that can represent many different things to many different people, thus sparking inevitable battles over who the “real Allende” was, what he represented, what sort of legacy he left behind, and which political parties have remained true to his supposed ideals. These battles, of course, may never be resolved.

Guillermo Teillier, the stern-looking and balding president of the Chilean Communist Party, was called on to give the opening speech of the centennial ceremony. “Friends and comrades,” he bellowed into the microphone, “I want to say to all of you here today that the Communist Party was and continues to be loyal to Salvador Allende!”

The crowd burst into applause while Teillier paused to savor the moment. He proceeded by thanking the Allende family, and then, in an apparent reference to the Socialist Party, he asserted that “the Communist Party would never install in Chile a system that was contrary to Salvador Allende’s wishes. Salvador Allende was a democrat. But I want to emphasize that while Salvador Allende had democratic principles, he also had a socialist ideology. And the Communist Party has forgotten neither of these two ideals!”

Teillier’s speech was applauded politely by the dignitaries and cheered raucously by the public. In contrast, when Camilo Escalona, the president of the Chilean Socialist Party, was called to the podium, the crowd greeted him with a smattering of boos and chants of “Traitor!” Two young men with dollar signs etched onto their foreheads with blue marker circulated among the audience with signs that read: “The Socialists Of Today Are The Millionaires Of Tomorrow” and “The Government Has Fucked Us! There’s No Salvador!”

Escalona started his speech in a low and serious voice, but as the jeers grew he was forced to scream into the microphone. The louder his voice became, the more the crowd taunted him with boos, whistles, and curses. “Allende was the greatest of all Socialists and he remains in our hearts!” he shrieked, his voice cracking under the strain. “Only yesterday, Socialists were tortured because they defended the memory of Allende! Only yesterday, Socialists were fired from their jobs because they defended the legacy of Allende! But today, with our proud history and with inspiration from Allende, we have reconstructed what was destroyed by the dictatorship, our great democracy!”

Half of the crowd yelled “Bravo!” while the other half hurled profanities at Escalona, calling him everything from a mafia boss to a puppet of imperialism. Several protesters turned their back to the stage, while others waved their hands and chanted “Goodbye!” An intense young woman with long black hair and rings on each of her fingers cupped her hands to her mouth and screamed, “You don’t represent the people! We can’t even afford bread and you eat like a fucking king! Have you seen the price of bread? Of course you haven’t! You just have your servants go out and buy it for you, don’t you?”

“I can’t believe how expensive bread is,” a nearby elderly woman said.

“It’s ridiculous,” another chimed in.

“The people have no bread and all you do is give speeches!” the young woman continued. “For shame! I hope that you’re disappeared some day so that you learn your lesson!”

Around her, the crowd fell into an uneasy silence. Some of the older people gasped, while a few high school students let out tentative snickers.

“No, no, no,” said a broad-shouldered man, wagging his finger. “Not like that, not like that.”

The following day, during a celebration for Salvador Allende at the headquarters for the Unitary Federation of Workers (or CUT), one of the most influential labor confederations during Allende’s presidency, a retired postal worker named Jaime told me: “Following the coup, I was dragged from my home and taken to the National Stadium, like so many revolutionaries. And I was tortured there. I certainly was.” He paused and glanced at the other surviving revolutionaries, who were munching on fried sopaipillas and sipping steamed red wine. “They didn’t kill me. I don’t know why. But when I was released, I couldn’t work for almost twenty years. I wasn’t banned. It’s just . . . Well, I’ve been told it was post-traumatic stress syndrome. Who knows?”

Many members of Allende’s Popular Unity coalition suffered similar fates during Pinochet’s seventeen-year dictatorship. Roughly 3,000 Chileans were killed by state violence, many of whom were permanently “disappeared”—whisked away clandestinely and never to be seen again, their remains dumped in the Pacific Ocean or incinerated in clay ovens. Thousands more were tortured or forcibly exiled.

Moreover, just as Allende had transformed Chile into a laboratory for revolutionary democracy, Pinochet set up a laboratory of his own, aided by American neoclassical economists, experimenting with radical free-market economic reforms. He privatized many state-run industries, outlawed trade unions, and drastically reduced the social welfare role of the state. This new neoliberal program was, in many ways, the exact opposite of Salvador Allende’s democratic route to socialism.

In 1980, Pinochet drafted a new Constitution that extended his presidency until 1988, during which time he would call a plebiscite to determine whether his regime would continue in power for eight more years. The year before the plebiscite, which permitted only a Si or No vote on Pinochet as the sole candidate, political parties from the left and center rallied together and ultimately defeated the regime at the ballot box. With Pinochet agreeing to step down, declaring that he had sufficiently “saved” the nation from Marxism, many of these centrist and leftist parties, including the Socialist Party but not the Communist Party, united to form the Concertación coalition, which would win all four subsequent post-dictatorial presidential elections.

While the Concertación has promised sweeping changes, they’ve had their hands tied by many of the undemocratic measures of Pinochet’s Constitution. Twenty percent of the Senate consisted of unelected, Pinochet-appointed representatives, while the judiciary was stuffed with appointees from the Pinochet administration. And until his 1998 arrest in London for international human rights violations, Pinochet himself remained an influential political player, first as the head of the Chilean Army and then as a self-appointed “senator for life.” Moreover, the binomial electoral system more or less guaranteed that the two largest coalitions—the Concertación and the right-wing Alianza—would split each district’s two elective seats, thus thwarting the Communist Party and other leftist groups from gaining legislative representation. This system ensured that Chile’s reestablished democracy would be characterized by endless compromise, limited citizen participation, and closed-door negotiations between party elites.

Pinochet has been dead for over a year. His apologists have dwindled, his legacy has been tarnished. Allende’s stature, however, has risen over the years, with each successive Concertación government making a point to pay homage to him. But it is not Allende’s legacy that defines contemporary Chile. It is Pinochet’s. His 1980 Constitution, even with recent reformations, continues to neuter the Left and give undue legislative weight to the Right; his neoliberal economic model is considered practically irreversible. His fingerprints remain all over the country.

Allende, then, may have won the symbolic battle, his image, to many, having become synonymous with social justice and economic equality. But it is the disgraced and disowned Pinochet who is winning the war.

On the night of Allende’s centennial, there was a private event at the art museum in the basement of the presidential palace, where Michelle Bachelet, a Socialist and the first female president in Chile’s history, was slated to inaugurate an exhibition dedicated to Salvador Allende. Senators, artists, reporters, and ambassadors filed into a large auditorium that nonetheless filled quickly. With no chairs, the crowd stood uncomfortably shoulder-to-shoulder, unable to move about the space.

The event was scheduled to begin at 7:30, but the president didn’t arrive until 8:15. As she waved to the cheering crowd, a spokesperson stepped to the microphone and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, the President will now take a private tour of the art galleries. Please be patient.”

Miguel, my Chilean roommate, became visibly irritated. “This is so typical of Bachelet,” he muttered. “She means well, but she still hasn’t learned to read the mood of a crowd.” He shook his head. “They could at least serve some food.”

Bachelet’s ascendance to the presidency brought about renewed hope for many Chileans who had become weary of the Concertación’s elite-driven governing style. During past elections, a significant number of Chileans under 30 have abstained from voting, expressing their frustration by simply not participating. But Bachelet promised to be different from the average politician. In addition to being a female in the male-dominated political sphere, she was also a separated single mother and religiously agnostic, features that cut against Chile’s traditionally conservative social values. Even more striking was her political past. An active Socialist during Allende’s administration, Bachelet was briefly imprisoned and tortured during the military dictatorship before being exiled first to Australia and then to East Germany. Her father was not so fortunate: he died during a torture session in a Santiago prison.

It seemed, then, that if any politician could shake up the Concertación—and reconnect the Socialist Party to its grassroots base—it was Bachelet. In her introductory speech as president, Bachelet channeled the spirit of Allende by proclaiming that her administration represented “a step toward a new form of understanding and doing politics—a more inclusive, participatory, open and transparent politics. A politics for and with the citizens.”

She has, however, been unable to carry through with this promise. In May 2006, tens of thousands of high school students flooded the streets of Santiago to demand reformations to a Pinochet-era educational system that worked against lower-class families who couldn’t afford to send their children to private schools. Bachelet was sluggish in her response, and after several days, protesters and bystanders alike had sensed that her government wasn’t sufficiently attuned to the public mood. This sensation was reinforced months later by the botched implementation of Transantiago, a new transportation system that resulted in longer commutes, crowded buses, and widespread dissatisfaction.

Since then, the hope that greeted Bachelet’s inauguration has been largely replaced by disillusionment. As her popularity plunged, Bachelet dropped her calls for a more participatory form of politics, and the Concertación relaxed back into its elite-driven governing style. The protests, meanwhile, have continued—in July 2008, for example, a 14-year-old student defiantly dumped a pitcher of ice water on the Minister of Education—and perhaps nowhere were they as pointed as during the centennial ceremonies for Allende.

During these ceremonies, several members of the Concertación took great pains to emphasize their coalition’s continuity with Allende’s administration. “If he were alive today, Salvador Allende would be a militant socialist and the [Socialist] party’s principal figure,” Escalona remarked. Teillier, the Communist Party president, disagreed: “If he were alive today, Salvador Allende wouldn’t find anything at all to like about contemporary Chile.” Numerous posters echoed Teillier’s sentiment by listing aspects of the Concertación that Allende would supposedly reject: “Salvador Allende Would Say No To Exclusionary Education!” and “Socialist-Capitalist: What Would Allende Say?” A university student held up a drawing that showed Allende rapping a downcast Bachelet over the head with a ruler. Above all, the protesters were asserting that the Concertación has squandered the privilege of laying claim to Allende’s legacy.

As such, these ceremonies were less about traditional struggles between pro-Allende and pro-Pinochet sectors, and more about new struggles between leftist forces in Chile. In the twenty years since the Concertación has been in power, the Left in Latin America as a whole has undergone major changes. Revolutionary presidents such as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia have resurrected Allende’s strategy of achieving socialism through democratic means. They rode to power largely by galvanizing the impoverished masses that had become frustrated with neoliberalism’s failure to improve their lives. Chile, however, has resisted this trend, sticking with its more moderate centrist policies.

But perhaps these new struggles over Allende portend changes in the coming years. With Bachelet’s inability to amend the Concertación’s elitist practices, many Chileans remain disenchanted with the state of their political system. Any combination of rising inflation, an economic slowdown, unfulfilled social demands, or an electoral victory for the Right could lead to the increased mobilization of popular forces, the splintering of the Concertación, and the regeneration of leftist groups. Already leftist groups are preparing themselves for this possibility by attempting to wrest away from the Concertación one of Chile’s most persistently relevant and resonant symbols: that of Salvador Allende.

At the end of the centennial ceremony for Allende, two high school students strolled past the crowd still gathered outside the presidential palace.

“What’s going on here?” one of them asked, looking at the signs and images of the slain president.

“It looks like they’re doing something for Salvador Allende.”

“It’s probably the anniversary of his death.”


“I know. They do something like this every year.”

“I mean, he’s dead already, people. Get over it!”

They gazed at the crowd not with curiosity or disgust, but seemingly with pity, shaking their heads at the people who had lathered up such strong emotions for an individual who had presided over their country two full generations before they’d been born.

“Let’s go get something to eat,” one of them finally said.

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