September 11 will mark 45 years since the military coup deposing the elected Popular Unity government of Chile. With the electoral victory on September 4, 1970 and under the leadership of presidential candidate, Salvador Allende, the Chilean left proclaimed the first steps on a peaceful transition to socialism. Millions of progressive and socialist-minded people worldwide followed the Chilean developments with intense interest only to witness their hopes dashed and tens of thousands of Chileans brutalized or murdered by the junta lead by Augusto Pinochet.
In the aftermath of the violent coup and the destruction of Chile’s constitutional system, hundreds of thousands worldwide marched and organized in solidarity with Chilean democrats, socialists, and Communists. At the same time, a rigorous examination of the three-year experiment took place, dissecting the objective and subjective factors leading to and allowing the coup. Articles, books, forums, and witnesses argued passionately the possibility of peaceful transition, of a parliamentary road, the role of intermediate strata, the absence or necessity of stages of struggle, the role of reformism, of compromise, of dependency, of foreign intervention, of the socialist countries, of economic priorities, and of many other aspects of the Chilean struggle.
Today, the questions raised in the 1970s– a time of great promise for socialism– remain relevant, urgent, and vigorously debated. With the passage of time, they stand out as essential to interpreting our world, theoretically and practically. Every process for change, from the Italian elections, the Portuguese revolution, and African liberation movements of the 1970s to the most recent events in Syria and Nicaragua, prompts most of the same questions that were raised by the Chilean counter-revolution.
The Role of the US
The one point of agreement shared by Communists, socialists, democrats and even the left wing of Christian Democracy was that US influence occupied an essential place in the undermining of the Popular Unity government and its programs and prospects. We know even better today of the active, intense interventions of the CIA and US corporations like Anaconda, Kennecott, and ITT in strangling the Chilean economy. From the first election, the US government at the highest levels devised a plan and began actions to derail the Chilean left.
Credits and loans were denied. The global price of copper (70-80% of Chilean exports) was manipulated downward to deny Chile’s government essential revenue for the country’s social programs (salaries rose between 35% and 66% in 1971) and industrial development.
Without hard currency outside loans or revenue from trade, hyperinflation eventually plagued Chile, reaching 163% in 1973.
“The US credit and trade squeeze was designed for a political purpose…: to promote the political demise of a democratic socialist government. Economic pressures led to economic dislocations (scarcities), which generated the social basis (discontent among the middle class) that created the political context for a military coup.” (The United States and Chile: Imperialism and the Overthrow of the Allende Government, James Petras and Morris Morley)
Funding middle class truck-owners’ “strikes” through the CIA and AIFLD further fueled middle class alienation (the middle strata in Chile was quite large– one study claimed that the 45% of the population beneath the top 5% shared 53% of national income).
Of course the Chilean military maintained strong and dependent contact with its US counterpart, a fact that guaranteed that the US would be a partner in the coup.
The CIA paid bribes to Chilean legislators, funneled money to leading newspapers to influence popular opinion, and encouraged and financed acts of terror.
Writing in 1970 and anticipating the impact of economic warfare on three Latin American independent and progressive processes– Peru, Chile, and Bolivia– Italian Communist, Renato Sandri, astutely observed:
The strategy of the imperialist siege of the three countries seems to be a combination of an insidious pressure from the outside, primarily on the economic level, with internal resistance by the unseated oligarchies, [and] the reactionary sectors of the armed forces… The besiegement of these countries, in which the contradiction between the desperate needs of the largest masses and the possibilities of meeting them soon is so acute, has a clear objective: to force them into economic bankruptcy, to bring the governments to their knees in isolation from their own peoples… (Critica Marxista, 1970, number 6)
For those most sincerely in solidarity with the Chilean people, condemnation of both US intervention and the Pinochet regime became the immediate priority. For those dedicated to returning governance to the people of Chile, resisting the machinations of the US ruling class and its allies overshadowed settling the political differences following in the wake of the coup.
For a broad base of US leftists and democrats, Chile solidarity served as the template for internationalism, solidarity, and anti-imperialism. At its core was the idea that US activists must first and foremost resist the meddling of the more powerful country in the affairs of a weaker country; solidarity required a universal respect for another country’s absolute right to determine its own fate regardless of what we may think of its internal affairs.
A Lesson Learned?
For reasons that are not easily discerned, the US left has compromised the principles that united the many factions in the Chile Solidarity movement. Despite deep political divides, solidarity work in the past stood firmly on the foundation of respect for other countries’ right of self-determination. Another lesson learned– though less widely accepted– was to avoid the conceit of judging other people’s paths, especially by the conventional standards of affluent, privileged US citizens.
But that resolve was to erode after the Pinochet coup. By the end of the decade, most of the US left failed to respond to the US intervention in Afghanistan which fell on the side of the anti-secularist, millenarian, ultra-conservative counter-revolutionaries. No doubt, anti-Communism played a role, but it is worth noting that liberal values supposedly deeply embedded in the US left were quietly retired before the onslaught of the Jihadis.
Cold War politics surely account for the disinterest of the predominantly white left organizations in the US government’s substantial support for the wrong sides in the liberation of the last remaining colonies in Africa. “Specialized” organizations and a fairly broad section of the Black community were moved to condemn US engagement.
Anti-Reaganism and a determined core of Latin American solidarity activists restored some of the vigor of the Chile Solidarity era with an insistent defense of the Sandinistas against the onslaught of the US-sponsored Contras. It helped that the cause proved useful in the Democratic Party’s fight against Reagan and his cohorts.
The dismantling of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was a non-event for most of the US left and a troubling turning point in US left solidarity. As the US and its NATO allies encouraged, financed, and actually interceded in the orgy of nationalism, with roots in World War II fascism and anti-fascism, there were no demonstrations, marches, or actions in the US. Few voices, notably excepting Diana Johnstone, Michael Parenti, and scant others, challenged the newly minted doctrine of “humanitarian intervention” concocted by the Democratic administration.
When the Jihadis bit the hand that fed them in the twenty-first century, the US struck hard at Afghanistan. Given the popular image of the US as an innocent “victim,” it was not surprising that little opposition arose to the invasion.
But then emboldened by that lack of opposition, the US brazenly invaded Iraq in 2003. For this naked aggression, the broad left mobilized, agitated, and demonstrated, particularly after the claimed justification collapsed. Once again, hatred for a Republican president fueled the mass expression, along with pacifistic anti-war convictions devoid of deeper solidarity sentiments (muted by vulgar charges of “islamo-fascism”).
Obama’s wars brought a further decline of left internationalism in the US. Partly because of the ascendance of a Democratic president unjustifiably deified by much of the left, murderous actions in the US’s longest war, in a once-stable Libya and Syria, and through remote drones, were shamefully ignored by much of the left. The deliberate destabilization of countries like Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine, the meddling in Iran’s elections, and the coup in Honduras were largely met with left indifference.
The turn-of-century anti-imperialist renaissance in Latin America created excitement and support from a broad segment of the US left. Developments in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, and Venezuela, ranging from liberal nationalism to proclaimed socialist-orientation (and real socialism in Cuba!), inspired many to celebrate a crack in the US global hegemony.
But as hardships piled up and US economic warfare increased against these upstarts, many in the US abandoned them, surrendering to North American-media charges of corruption, incompetence, and human rights violations. The shallowness of US left solidarity is on full display.
After the charismatic Hugo Chavez died in Venezuela and after the US economic sanctions tightened (in a way only too much like Chile during Popular Unity), many on the US left fled the Venezuelan cause like rats from a sinking ship.
Still others turned on the leadership, voicing intense criticisms of the Venezuelan government’s chosen path at the moment of greatest duress. Nothing gives meaning to great-power chauvinism like the second-guessing of a privileged US leftist.
But the reaction of the US left to the recent events in Nicaragua exceeds the shabby sell-out of Venezuela. Despite the fact that the Sandinista government won an overwhelming victory in elections last year, we are to believe that they are now disowned by a majority of the citizens. We are to believe that confidence in the government is so fragile that it justifies burning cars and buildings, constructing homemade mortars, and organizing violent attacks, actions that would turn US liberals and some on the left running to demand police intervention should this happen in their own country.
The carping and criticizing of the Sandinista government– a matter best left to Nicaraguans– overshadows the well-documented intervention of US agencies in Nicaraguan affairs. The media’s overwhelmingly negative and one-sided campaign against the Sandinistas should be transparent to anyone who has faced the US media’s persistent negative characterization of anything remotely left wing. Yet many US leftists ponder the “complexity” of the conflict. Many hesitate to defend not only the government, but Nicaraguans’ right to determine their own future, their own fate, free of US influence. Maybe the bully has good intentions?
One would think that a left worthy of the name would gladly err on the side of any regime that found itself in the gun sights of the US government, its security agencies, and the corporate media. When, since World War II, has that formula NOT been a fairly reliable guide to taking an anti-imperialist stand?
The Chile Solidarity moment is a dim memory. In the past, solidarity movements– the Spanish Republic, the Vietnamese Liberation Front– were springboards for the US left. Unfortunately, the same is not true in the wake of Chile Solidarity.
Social Democrats or Democratic Socialists or Democratic Democrats seem only interested in democracy in the US; they show little regard for the global democracy of self-determination and national independence. When it comes to the fate of peoples in far-off lands victimized by an arrogant US foreign policy, they are too often diffident.
Those ignorant of the nobler episodes of US solidarity with the victims of US imperialism are not to blame. But those leaders on the left who are beholden to foundations, think tanks, non-profits, and other organs of dependency have tarnished that legacy. They cannot hide behind the fig leaf of class-defined “human rights” forever.
Thankfully, there are still some who remain dedicated to principled solidarity work, there are many diligent enemies of the bullies of the world, steadfast in accepting the heavy burden of fighting their own country’s bid for global dominance. Anti-imperialism does live!
We celebrate their work on the anniversary of the tragic end to the Chilean people’s reach for control over their lives.