(1908–1973) Chilean politician
Longtime politician, medical doctor, self-proclaimed Marxist, and president of Chile’s Popular Unity (Unidad Popular) government from 1970 to 1973, Salvador Allende occupies a highly controversial place in Chilean history. The country’s only democratically elected Marxist president, Allende instituted a range of reforms that sharpened the polarization of Chilean society and led to a series of economic and political crises. He was overthrown and died in office on September 11, 1973, by a coalition of military officers backed by the country’s leading economic interests, and in collusion with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). His ousting and death ushered in the period of military dictatorship led by army general Augusto Pinochet (1973–89).
Born in Valparaíso, Chile, on July 26, 1908, to a prominent leftist political family, Allende entered medical school and became active in the movement opposed to the dictatorship of General Carlos Ibáñez (1927–31). Cofounder of the Chilean Socialist Party in 1933, he won a seat in the country’s national legislature in 1937 and became minister of health in 1939. Making his first bid for the presidency in 1952, in which the former dictator Ibáñez triumphed, he finished a distant fourth. He ran again for president in 1958 and 1964 as the leader of the Communist-Socialist alliance (Frente de Acción Popular), founded in 1957, losing the elections but gaining a loyal political following that by 1964 comprised 39 percent of the electorate. Calling for socialism in Chile, sympathetic to the Communist regime of Fidel Castro in Cuba, and in the context of the cold war, Allende came to be viewed with deep suspicion by both the Chilean landowning and copper oligarchy and the U.S. government.
In the hotly contested 1970 elections, Allende and his Popular Unity coalition won with a slim plurality of 36.5 percent, defeating Conservative Jorge Alessandri (34.9 percent) and Christian Democrat Radomiro Tomic (27.8 percent). On taking office, Allende instituted a populist strategy of freezing prices and hiking wages, which boosted consumer spending and redistributed income to favor the urban and rural poor. He also followed through on his campaign pledge to pursue a “peaceful road to socialism” by nationalizing some 200 of the country’s largest firms, many U.S.-owned, including banks and insurance companies, public utilities, and the copper, coal, and steel industries.
By 1971 opposition to the reforms grew, especially among the military, large landholders, and leading industrialists. By 1972 runaway inflation compounded the political backlash, the result of higher wages, a bloated government bureaucracy, and the growth of an underground economy in response to price controls. As popular discontent mounted and the Popular Unity coalition fractured into groups divided over the pace of change, pro-Allende guerrilla groups launched an armed campaign against conservative elements. From spring 1973 a wave of strikes by copper miners, truck drivers, shopkeepers, and others compounded the regime’s mounting problems. Meanwhile, the U.S. administration of Richard Nixon and the CIA worked to undermine the regime, funding opposition groups and plotting with rightists for Allende’s overthrow. On September 11, 1973, the military assaulted the presidential palace in Santiago. By the end of the day Allende was dead—whether by his own hand or the military’s remaining a matter of dispute. Upwards of 5,000 people were killed in the coup and its aftermath, making it the bloodiest regime change in
20th-century South America. Revered by some, reviled by others, Allende and his short-lived socialist experiment, and the U.S. role in assisting the overthrow of a democratically elected president, left an enduring mark on modern Chilean and Latin American history.