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The Chilean disaster

Small Earthquake in Chile: Allende’s South America
Alistair Horne
1990 edition

This paperback edition, published 1990, seems now to have been remaindered. It is very necessary to run through the history of this book. It was first published “towards the close of 1972” (p. 344), as “Allende stumbled from crisis to crisis, walking close to illegality”. What happened after that is given in a final chapter “The Deluge … and After”, pages 345 to 384, added in 1989.

It is a little difficult to assemble all the events of the book into a context so hazy in my memory, to say nothing of remembering the situation in a number of South American countries as it was 31 years ago, with a last chapter added 14 years ago. Although the book is mainly about Chile, as the title implies, there are substantial chapters on Colombia and Bolivia, Peru is more than mentioned in passing and there is something about Ecuador. This leaves Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Venezuela unvisited and undiscussed. A feature of the 1970s, much less one of today’s, is the emphasis throughout the book on the population explosion. It is interesting to find that Horne’s only mildly exasperating companion and one of the book’s dedicatees, was Bill Buckley then-editor (I think) and certainly founder of National Review; his right-wing conservative views don’t greatly intrude. The other dedicatee is the charming, ever-helpful Nena, clever enough to become Director of Chile’s National Art Gallery just before the coup, and still be there at the end of the book (p. 346).

What is important about Chile (and here everyone seems to agree) is that it was politically the most stable and perhaps the most prosperous South American state, not without its poverty-stricken peasants (like everywhere else) and marginalised Indians (like everywhere else bar Argentina, where they’d largely been exterminated), but with a functioning democracy, regular free elections (though only those literate could vote – not a bad idea), an enlarging middle class and a free, diversified press with a relatively large circulation. Perhaps its most unusual feature, for a Latin American country, was the fact that the armed forces (of which the army had the least chic) did not interfere in politics.

Under these circumstances, what could seem more reasonable than a spot of land reform? Unfortunately, the person who took this on was Allende. Like most revolutionaries (though a fairly conventional politician originally and minister of health in 1940) he came from the middle class, a fact which still seemed to surprise his egregious friend and confidant, the nut-case intellectual Regis Debray, ex-friend of the defunct martyr Che Guevara, to whom he’d given just as bad advice. Allende’s rhetoric and nationalisation plans scared the middle classes, who left the country in droves. He intended to carry out most of his program within the country’s legal framework, which seems to have been sufficiently elastic to enable him to do so. However he, and apparently everyone else, expected this to provoke a clumsy attempted right wing coup, which he could then crush with “revolutionary violence” (p. 149). As for his democratic credentials, it is worth pointing out that he won the presidential election in a three-cornered contest with only a slender majority over the second of two other candidates to the right (36% to 35%), a situation reflected in the composition of the Legislature. Yet the impression given is that he was an improvisatory bourgeois amateur; such was David Holden’s estimate, which I must have read in Encounter in January 1974, an actor in love with a revolutionary part, rather than a serious leader who knew where he was going” (p. 357). In the 1970s, communism, let alone socialism, were far from discredited creeds, China’s Cultural Revolution was not perceived to be what it was, Soviet dissidents were isolated and samizdat-dependent and, worst of all, thanks to the subversion of the US intellectual left, the Communists could look forward to winning in Vietnam. Allende made no secret of his fondness for Communist regimes, his words and actions being more extreme than the official Chilean, Moscow-oriented Communist Party. Even more extreme were the bands of black-bereted guerrilla-activist MIR (Movimento de Izquierda Revolucionardia), one of which, led by Commandante Pepe, inevitably of middle-class origins, Horne and Nena visited (Ch. 9, pp. 192-228). They were busy ejecting well to do farmers to instal landless peasants, something I distinctly recall from an article in Encounter, possibly the one cited above. Allende had instructed the police (carabinieros) not to interfere in these activities – but nor did they if the farmers managed to get enough help to counter-eject the peasants. He was also following a policy of intervention in businesses, oddly enough using a law instituted by a previous regime, resulting in effect in creeping nationalisation. Of course, as might be expected, the economy was ruined, inflation reaching 10,000% (p. 241) and the original edition of the book ends with Horne predicting disaster.

The last, additional chapter briefly describes what happened. In July 1973 there was a half-cancelled, half-cock rightist coup, but it produced no spontaneous workers’ response, which emboldened Pinochet, quite late in deciding to participate, to carry out a proper one in September (p. 348), when Allende seemed to be no better prepared than in July, despite a large consignment of Czech arms from Cuba, disguised as a present of mango-flavoured ice-cream. Deserted by the presidential palace police and rocketed by the air force, the most trustworthy evidence is that Allende committed suicide with the automatic rifle that Castro had given him.

Horne is not one to canonise him, as leftists in the West have and he points out that the media castigation of Pinochet’s Chile has been completely disproportionate compared with the treatment of oppression in Cambodia, Cuba, Poland or Czechoslovakia (p. 361). It is certainly dispiriting to read of the amount of bloodshed there has been elsewhere on the South American continent; “It was a long time before I was forgiven by the Chileans,” Horne remarks, “for making the unacceptable comparison with Bolivia” (p. 355). The number of deaths the Pinochet regime was responsible for he puts “somewhere substantially less than 5,000” (p. 360). Nor does he think that any intervention by the CIA made much difference and perhaps was even counterproductive. Even its foreknowledge of the coup seems to have been sketchy and its expenditure on certain items seems almost laughable (p. 354). Moscow seems to have spent a good deal more. It is true that this evidence comes from an American official investigation (which “washed its dirty linen in public, in 1975, with great thoroughness”) and I suppose anyone is free to disbelieve it. Considering that Army coups have happened constantly over the whole of Latin America without the CIA being always held to blame, it seems a little odd to suggest that Chile was the only place its help was needed. I personally would not regard it as matter for condemnation if the CIA had been responsible for Allende’s troubles from start to finish, but the evidence from everywhere else seems to suggest that it is nowhere near that efficient.

Horne revisited Chile (having stayed away during the Pinochet regime because of his revulsion from the well-publicised instances of its use of torture) during a lecture tour he was giving in South America in 1987. Entering the country from Peru, he was favourably impressed by the contrast in cleanliness, order and signs of increasing prosperity. He gives credit in a guarded way to the adoption of laissez-faire economics pioneered by the “Chicago Boys”, the intellectual offspring of Milton Friedman, some years before Mrs Thatcher took them up here. He was granted a long interview by Pinochet who gives the impression of having stayed in power, not to enrich himself, or for fear of his own future, but to ensure that Chile would not be in danger of another left-wing takeover if he left too soon.

11 comments to The Chilean disaster

  • The canonisation of the vile Allende is truly wicked given his use of violence and brutality… but then we all know that double standards are the norm amongst the Guardianistas

  • Jacob

    It is not only the canonisation of Allende. It is the demonization of Pinochet. Pinochet comitted the big sin of removing from power those, whose birthright is to rule, the anointed, the Left.

    Pinochet’s free market revolution was very remarkable, much bigger and deeper that anythig else, elsewhere, like Thatcher’s revolution, and prior to it. It deserves to be studied in depth, but I don’t know of any such study.

  • Sigivald

    It is rather amazing how angry (and how rapidly angry) a certain set of leftist gets if you suggest that perhaps Allende was not sugar-and-spice and all-things-nice, and perfect in every way.

    And of course, if you submit that Pinochet was not, in fact, quite so bad as Hitler (without going so far as to actually praise him in anything other than contrast to a Cuban-assisted Soviet-financed Communist takeover), well, I’m sure you can fill in the details…

  • Kit Taylor

    Apart from irrelevant eccentrics like Tariq Ali, I think most moderate lefties would recognise that Allende was at least a romantic fool and a weak leader.

    Obviously Pinochet wan’t as bad as Hitler, but he did preside over a horrifically anti-libertarian security service (Caravan of Death, endemic torture, supporting terrorism against his enemies in foreign countries – including the US).

    Not to mention the fact that he kept state ownership of Allende’s nationalised copper industry and funelled 10% of its earnings (not profits) into the army. Third world kleptocrat alert!

    As for “the miracle of Chile,” I’ve only ever heard the term used derisively. Notably Greg Palast devoted a damning chapter to it in The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, and there’s a perhaps less polemical thumbs down from Sherman Souther. Does anyone know of a linear, objective history of the reforms without any pro/anti-capitalist sniping? How does Chile rank against such bastions of liberalism as Hong Kong and New Zealand?

  • Jacob

    Kit Taylor:
    The horrors of the Pinochet regime, some of which you mention, were disseminated mostly by the leftist propaganda mchine. You should take them with a grain of salt.

    Pinochet did fight a terribly dirty war, but not against innocent bystanders. He fought agains armed, violent leftist terrorists, who were out to topple his regime by violence, in the best tradition of the communists as practiced in the 1970 ies. (Remember the Red Brigades, Cambodia, etc. ? ) The terrorists (MIRistas) bombed, shot, killed. I don’t know how many innocents were killed by mistake by Pinochet’s security forces. I don’t think too many.

    Allende wasn’t a murderous despot like Castro, but the danger of the emergence of such a despotism, possibly under another leader, was real.

  • Cyril

    The U.S is one of the evils in this world and a brave man like Salvador Allende tried to stand up to them. Henry Kissinger once said “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of it’s own people.” Hardly Allende was freely elected as a populist leader due the bad management of the country by the right wing. America had no right to make the Chilean economy scream above all replacing a freely elcted government with a tyrant that killed and disapeared 3000 people.

  • carlos drago

    I have to laugh at this website. 🙁 🙁

    You talk on and on and on about you favor freedom, you stand up for the people aainst the tyrants, then you go and defend Pinochet.

    If you want to talk about the miracle in Chile, please visit Santiago, see how nice it is and how happy the people are, then go back home look how you live, and then see if you can call it a miracle. With Pinochet the middle class was nearly disappeared (like his opponents), some became very rich, most became poorer, a smaller number remained as middle class. As well as this, Pinochet ended Chiles proud history of democratic government that gave it a moral stand above the rest of South America.

    Did you know rates of literacy and infant mortality have only just now in the last 5 years become level with Cuba, and they still have a lower rate of housing for citizens. Yes I am sure they also have many things better than Cuba, but for many Chilean people with nothing life would be better if they were in Cuba. For many it would be worse. This is why extremism is bad, Pinochet and Castro are both extremists, Castro completely ignoring chances for people to improve themselves and own anything, and Pinochet not giving a sh*t about any one not as priveliged as him.

    The fact you people hate Che Guevarra and love Pinochet makes me laugh as well. Look at Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia and find out how many people the Guevarrists have killed compared to the military. And no, they did not just kill communist terrorists, Pinochet and the Argentines said themselves they would kill any one who opposes “Western Christian ideas”, and even then they killed left wing priests.

    And yes I know Guevarrists have killed many people in Colombia and Peru, as wel as Cuba, and I hate them as much as you. Probably more, because I actually hate murder. You people just hate social welfare and will support murder to prevent it.

    Also did you know that the CIA payed Chilean magazines to report that Soviet submarines were hiding in the coast of Cuba and that the communists had hundreds of thousands of weapons given by the Russians – none of this was true.

    Oh and one last thing – God Bless Nestor Kirchner 🙂 Probably most of you do not know who he is, but as we are talking about South America I thought I would mention the man who is for the first time making capitalism acceptable to the people of Argentina, and making it work to actually bnefit ttheir lives and not foriegn corporations. Who knows, if thing keep getting beter I might just move back there (unless the Liberal Democrats win here, then it would be worth staying).

  • well….hitler was elected too….sometimes democracy enables a tyrant….so what if Allende was elected, that doesn’t make him good! If only Stalin could have run such a clean operation as Pinochet….hmm 60 million, yes 60,000,000 at least dead in the gulags and what less than 4,000 in Chile? So the wonderful Stalin was what at least 15000 times worse than Pinochet…… I have no idea why Pinochet was arrested in Britain…based on that Fidel Castro should be arrested anywhere he goes!

  • Juan

    Que raro! Chilenos comemierda…¡Qué sorpresa!

  • Mike Hawthorne

    It’s quite simple. The Armed forces swore an oath to uphold the constitutionally elected government. The Unidad Popular’s vote was rising. The officer class got their men drunk (a typical Chilean ploy since the rapacious War of the Pacific), and behaved like sadistic treacherous swine.
    When you talk about ‘farmers’ being kicked off ‘their’ land, think back a few generations. Remember how it became ‘theirs’. Millions of acres in the hands of a few, administered for the benefit of the few, gained by brutal force.
    As for the coaine-fuelled Chicago Boys, we know their red-braces from Thatcherite yuppie City spivs in London. Look where it got us.

  • As for the coaine-fuelled Chicago Boys, we know their red-braces from Thatcherite yuppie City spivs in London. Look where it got us.

    Yes, they got us out of the economic and social catastrophe that the socialists had brought us to in the 1970’s.