The Overthrow of Allende and the Politics of Chile, 1964-1976
In 1970 Salvadore Allende was the first Marxist to be democratically elected president of a Latin American country. Depending on their ideological predispositions, observers looked forward to Chile’s future hopefully or fearfully. In 1973 Allende’s government was overthrown, producing another ideologically determined chorus of praise and criticism. For people of all ideological persuasions it would be instructive to learn how and why Allende came to power, as well as how and why he was replaced and by what. Unfortunately, our ability to evaluate these events has been limited by partial and ideologically biased accounts. We have needed a thorough examination of the available evidence and a sorting out of the causes and consequences, rather than an attempt to find evidence to support an ideologically predetermined interpretation of events. It is this sort of evaluation that Paul E. Sigmund has attempted to supply.
Sigmund is well suited for this task. He is a Professor of Politics at Princeton University who has studied the ideologies of developing nations in general, political thought in Latin America in particular, and Chilean politics as well. He also had a firsthand opportunity to come to understand Chile when he taught at two Chilean universities in Santiago in 1967. He went there again in 1970 to observe the 1970 elections. Nor were these fairly lengthy stays his only direct exposures to the Chilean context. He had first visited Chile in 1963 and has been able to make repeated visits over a decade. While his original academic background was in political philosophy, he has published much empirically oriented work and is currently doing research on the problem of nationalization in Latin America.
Nevertheless, The Overthrow of Allende and the Politics of Chile is not the book Sigmund started out to write. When the book was begun, Allende was still in power, and Sigmund’s focus was on a comparison between Allende’s Marxist-inspired reforms and the Christian Democratic reforms of his predecessor, Eduardo Frei. Allende was not the first Chilean president to challenge the traditional organization of the Chilean society and economy. President Frei had pursued what he called a “Revolution in Liberty” no less far-reaching in its implications than Salvador Allende’s proposed pathway to “socialism in democracy, pluralism, and liberty.” The September 1973 coup, which led to the death of both Allende and Chilean democracy, suggested a change in Sigmund’s focus to the proximate and remote causes of the coup. The shift in focus midway through the project sometimes shows itself in an imperfectly integrated analysis. The less focused second half of the title, “the Politics of Chile, 1964-1976,” may be a more accurate indication of the overall nature of the contents. Fortunately, it is all at least tangentially relevant to understanding “The Overthrow of Allende,” and the intrinsic interest of the various questions considered makes the flawed coherence a forgivable limitation.
Although Sigmund does not try to force the facts into an ideologically predetermined mold, his analysis does reflect a clear and strongly held point of view. Too often the possession of a point of view is confused with bias. In Sigmund’s case, his point of view, a strong preference for democratic institutions and incremental change, does not interfere with a careful and judicious examination of the evidence. As a result, Sigmund provides little comfort for those who would like to maintain their comfortable prejudices undisturbed by inconvenient but well-documented evidence. Those who would like to attribute CIA involvement in Chile to a perceived need to respond to Allende’s excesses will find little comfort in the fact that the CIA provided over half the money spent by the Christian Democrats on Frei’s 1964 presidential campaign. On the other hand, adherents of the devil theory of politics will be disappointed to find that Sigmund convincingly shows that neither the CIA nor other American sources of interference in Chile can be credited with direct responsibility for the 1973 coup.
Nonetheless, Sigmund’s conclusions need not be accepted as definitive on every matter upon which he comments. It is a measure of his conscientious scholarship that he provides a detailed basis for alternative interpretations of the meaning of the data examined. In spite of all the improvements in conditions under Christian Democratic rule from 1964 to 1970 which the author details, for example, the Christian Democratic candidate for President in 1970, Radomiro Tomic, was defeated by the Unidad Popular coalition of left-wing parties, including the Communists and Socialists, who were backing the candidacy of Salvador Allende. In fact, a right-wing candidate, Jorge Alessandri, also outpolled Tomic. In his discussion of this election, Sigmund seems to attribute the outcome to the perennially dissatisfied Chilean voter’s failure to appreciate the considerable improvement since 1964. The author’s detailed account of the Frei period in power, however, suggests that responsibility for the failure more properly belongs on the shoulders of the more radical Christian Democrats; the followers of Tomic, the rebelde sector, and the terceristas. Almost at the start of Frei’s presidency the rebelde sector barely failed to gain control of the Christian Democratic Party. They remained sharply critical of Frei’s policies throughout his presidency, and a number of their most prominent figures left the party in 1970 to form the MAPU (Movement for Unitary Popular Action), which joined Unidad Popular and supported Allende’s presidential bid. The terceristas did...
(The entire section is 2350 words.)