Today marks the thirty-second anniversary of the day the Chilean armed forces went to war against their own country’s democratic government, toppling the constitutional socialist government of Salvador Allende and ushering in seventeen years of one of Latin America’s most repressive dictatorships.
While Chile has recovered its democracy over the past sixteen years–probably stronger than ever–the coup of September 11, 1973, will always be remembered as an event that quashed the rights and liberties of a Chilean society that had long been one of the most open in Latin America.
This event, more than any other in my youth, is what pushed me into a career in political science, although I was probably not aware of that until many years later.
Today’s anniversary is a reminder that democracy can never be taken for granted. Allende himself had stated that Chile’s democracy was so solid that there was no risk of a break in the constitutional order as he and his allies in government and the labor movement went about implementing their “Chilean road to socialism.” As Allende said in his first speech as President before the congress (where he had long served as a senator):
It is not simply a formal commitment but an explicit recognition that the principles of legality and institutional order are inseparable from a socialist regime despite the difficulties involved in the transitional period.
Whether it was ever possible to thread that needle between democracy and socialism is, to say the least, debateable. But September 11, 1973, was probably the last day that any revolutionary socialist anywhere in the world believed it was possible. Afterwards, socialists either ceased being revolutionary (like today’s socialist president of Chile, Ricardo Lagos) or ceased being democratic (for instance the leftist parties of El Salvador who had been denied their own electoral victory in 1972). September 11, 1973, was thus genuinely a day that changed history.
The Chilean experience after 1970 is a dramatic example of the impact of institutional rules in democracy. Allende received a plurality of the popular vote in 1970, but it was only 36%. He was duly confirmed by Congress as President per the requirements of the 1925 constitution. However, had Chile required a popular runoff–as its current constitution and most new constitutions in Latin America now require–most likely he would never have been president, and Chile’s democracy would have survived. On the other hand, had he become president but had the 1971 national election been a congressional election instead of a municipal election, Allende’s alliance most likely would have won a majority of seats. That would have meant there would not have been the narrow center-right majority in congress that blocked most of Allende’s program and later declared his government unconstitutional for its use of decree-law provisions that were in fact on the Chilean statute books.
The link in the first line above is to a BBC story remembering the event. It includes a brief and fascinating audio clip of a BBC broadcast from Santiago regarding resistance to the military three days after the coup.