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A Special Supplement: Chile: Year One

Indeed, in some respects the government’s hands are more tied than before, by the Constitutional Amendment of January, 1971, which is the price it paid the Christian Democrats for being allowed to take office. This episode is clearly described in the most useful book on the antecedents of the Allende victory, Eduardo Labarca Goddard’s Al Chile Rojo.3 The existing powers admittedly include the possibility of asking for a plebiscite to override Congressional opposition, but the slim plurality of the Allende government—even though the municipal elections of 1971 show it to have been transformed into the slimmest of majorities—makes this a somewhat unpredictable device.

Such a situation happens to suit the gifts of Salvador Allende, who is, among other things, a brilliant and sophisticated politician of the orthodox kind, entirely at home with all the strategies and tactics of the possible in party caucus and Congress. Moreover, he has the immense and quite justified self-confidence of the man who has made it against all probability and prediction—nobody believed he could win and his own party at one point tried to drop him as a candidate. For such a man it is nothing to come to office with both hands tied behind his back—one by the opposition which controls Congress and the judiciary, the other by the elaborate formulas of his own mutually suspicious and divergent coalition. Much can be done within the limits of existing powers.

Constitutionality and legality provide Chilean presidents with a remarkable amount of scope, including some 17,000 valid laws among which legal ingenuity can discover much that is useful. Thus the UP has relied extensively on a decree, never repealed, of the two-week-long “Socialist Republic” of 1932, a brief left-wing interlude during the worst part of the Great Depression led by the remarkably named Col. Marmaduke Grove.4 This statute permits the government to take over any factory or industry that “fails to supply the people” with its goods and services. The decree has been used to nationalize large sectors of industry where necessary, after the workers have occupied the relevant factories thus ensuring that they could not “supply the people.” Even without legal authority, “the resources of civilization are not exhausted” (as the British premier Gladstone is reported to have said when finding means of putting the Irish leader Parnell in jail).

Most of the banking system not already under public control has been nationalized by the simple device, apparently unexpected by the opposition, of the government’s buying up a majority of shares at market prices and then running the banks as their new proprietor. (This device has aroused an entirely irrational fury among businessmen, who consider tactics they use themselves as somehow unfair when practiced by a socialist government.) In one way or another the UP has therefore pushed ahead rapidly with its program without as yet having to rely on the good will of the opposition.

Such rapid progress would of course have been impossible but for the policy of the Christian Democrats in 1964-70. It is an error to suppose that the UP found itself faced with either “feudalism” or a simple economy of competitive private enterprise, or that any progressive government in any country, and especially an underdeveloped one, is likely today to do so. Chile was already a country theoretically dominated by its public sector, which provided some 70 percent of all investment, employed a large proportion of the population directly, and was engaged upon fairly drastic interference with domestic and foreign private property.

The road to any kind of economic development in Latin America leads through radical social reforms, a growing importance of government in the economy, and some control over foreign capital, which do not in themselves imply socialism. Thus the UP did not need to pass an agrarian reform law, but could merely accelerate the rather hesitant progress of the existing law. The UP possesses not merely a supply of general powers, but has at its disposal many specific laws and institutions which can be adapted to suit its purpose. It can establish and maintain a good rhythm of action, avoiding—at least for the crucial first year or so—the jaws of the opposition which controls Congress and the courts.

The second political handicap of the UP is intimately connected with the first. In addition to insufficient support it has inadequate reserves of political loyalty. Numerically it may now count on about half the voters, a distinct improvement on September, 1970, but still slim backing for the crises of revolutionary constitutional politics. It has one solid core of supporters: the industrial and urban proletariat, especially the miners, and the organized and now unified labor unions.5 Here alone—in spite of the existence of a few moderate and business-unionist groups that raise economic rather than political problems, as among the copper miners—can Allende call upon those reserves of long-term commitment that carry parties and governments across the bad patches of their careers. The classical proletariat of this type is larger and better organized in Chile than in most other Latin American countries, large enough indeed to provide a base for government; but it is a minority of the population.

The support of the other three decisive sectors of the population is either conditional, unreliable, or absent. The countryside (about 30 percent of the people) remains predominantly anti-Allendist, in spite of substantial gains by the left in recent years, especially among rural proletarians. The political effect of rapid agrarian reform will almost certainly be to deepen the divisions within this sector. However, the government could probably get along without it.

The rather large middle strata, consisting mostly of white-collar workers, many in public employment—perhaps 12 percent of the Chileans work in government—would accept a socialist government as much as any other. They have no overwhelming commitment to a society of private enterprise, though probably some strong anti-communist prejudices exist among them, and no sense of identity with those who are poorer. On the other hand they have to be convinced that socialist power will last, or at least that it will recur as often as nonsocialist governments. They are not yet convinced of this.

The major body of unmobilized support for the left consists of those miscellaneous and unclassifiable laboring poor who are being generated in ever growing numbers by a process of economic growth and social change that fails to provide enough corresponding employment. Politico-social jargon tends to define them as “semi-proletarians” (sometimes even as “Lumpenproletarians”), or by referring to the shantytowns and do-it-yourself settlements in which so many of them live (pobladores), or just negatively as “the marginal population.” They are not marginal but central to Latin American society, even in Chile. This stratum puzzles the traditional left, since it is plainly not being absorbed by any spontaneous historic process into a classical “proletariat”: it is not organizable by the familiar methods of, e.g., labor unions or held together by some ideology of class consciousness like Marxism.

Unions are of marginal importance to such people, because their conditions of work do not make them easy to organize, and hence they do not belong to the aristocracy of relatively well-paid, unionized, and militantly radical proletarians such as the miners (that 4 to 5 percent of the working population whose role in Chilean left politics is so disproportionately important, as Petras has shown). Their own embryonically political populism, radical but—except in local community organization—not democratic, has in the past been most easily mobilized into a mass movement by demagogic presidents or ex-presidents, preferably military. It is a mistake to think of their politics as purely operational, but there is no doubt that a leader with patronage and the ability to deliver roads and water for shantytowns or welfare payments for their inhabitants, speedily and with some éclat, attracts them more than one who can’t.

But whatever the difficulty of mobilizing them by means of the traditional labor and socialist movement, these people are a natural constituency of the left, because they are poor and they work.6 What is more, now that the peasantry is a rapidly shrinking force, they are increasingly the decisive sector of the Latin American masses. The Christian Democrats managed to make some appeal to them. To judge by the municipal elections of 1971, the UP has not yet converted them en masse.


What has the Allende government achieved so far? What has it been trying to do? It has been and is acutely aware of the narrow limits of time. Consequently the government concentrates practically all its thinking on that period of between six months and three years within which, according to various assessments, its fate will be decided.7 There is not yet much concrete thinking beyond this point, which is a pity.

In the first place, short-range policy is based on the agreed program of the six parties of the UP, an elaborate platform negotiated with great difficulty before the election but now binding. Nobody knows what would emerge from the next stage of argument, and sensible politicians try to postpone it. Admittedly two of the six parties in the UP are now negligible, while the Radicals, down to 8 percent of the vote, are reduced and in disarray. But the left-wing ex-Christian Democrat element in the coalition is by no means insignificant, in spite of the electoral weakness of its representatives in the UP, if only because it represents many votes that must be captured. Moreover, while Allende probably sees eye to eye on major questions with the powerful CP, the core of the UP and by far its most effective and rational component, divergences among various sectors of his Socialist Party and between them and the Communists are substantial.

In the second place, the government knows perfectly well that the unusually favorable political situation within Chile and internationally, which allowed it to come to office and has largely paralyzed its opponents in the US ever since, will probably not last long. So far the armies have maneuvered for position. Sooner or later the government will come to confrontation and battle, though not necessarily in the naïve form anticipated by ultra-left apocalyptics—e.g., a military coup against mass resistance, or a foreign armed invasion.8 The short run is within range of prediction; even the medium run is not.

Third, but of course most urgent, the economic problems of Chile will be at their most acute during the next two years. These problems derive from two characteristics of semicolonial countries that unfortunately exist in an exaggerated form in Chile: its dependence on a single export commodity and the inefficiency of agriculture, which makes it (like other South American countries) an increasingly large importer of basic foodstuffs. Eighty percent of Chile’s foreign income depends on the price of copper. About a third of its imports (in value) consists of food, and since Chileans under the UP eat spectacularly better than before, this quantity will rise.

  1. 3

    Santiago, 1971. Labarca, a journalist on the communist El Siglo, has been criticized for his treatment of the ultra-left (see Manuel Cabieses Donoso, “Puntualizando la Historia,” Punto Final, May 25, 1971), but the book is full of valuable information about the formation of the UP, the military plots, and other matters. Broadly, a carefully elaborated pre-election pact between Allende and the (left-wing) Christian Democrat candidate was to govern their relations after the election.

    It provided that a) if the right-wing man (Alessandri) were to come in third, UP and DC would accept whichever candidate won the plurality as the winner, provided that the margin of difference exceeded 30,000 votes; b) if Alessandri won, both UP and DC would accept his victory within twenty-four hours provided his plurality was greater than 100,000; c) if Alessandri came in second, whichever candidate came in third—in the event it was Tomic of the DC—would concede victory immediately, provided the winner had a plurality of at least 5,000 votes over Alessandri. (In fact Allende’s plurality was 39,000.)

    However, the DC leadership after the election, under the influence of ex-President Frei who, incidentally, appears not to have discouraged the military plots of which he was aware, made the support of Congress for Allende conditional on the promise of a constitutional amendment that would formally guarantee “the survival of the democratic regime.” After some negotiation and modification such an amendment was subsequently passed. See Primeras Reformas Constitucionales del Presidente Allende by Professor Fernando Silva Sanchez (Valparaiso, 1971).

  2. 4

    The role of the relatively small immigrant-descended community in Chilean public life is quite out of proportion to its size. Hence the frequency of un-Spanish names in Chilean public affairs, starting with the liberator O’Higgins: Frei, Tomic, Perez Zujovic in the DC, Allende Gossens, Toha among the Socialists, Chonchol in MAPU, Teitelboim in the CP, Schneider and Viaux in the army. The absence of xenophobia is one of the many agreeable characteristics of the country.

  3. 5

    This has been established by James Petras in a series of investigations. Cf. Politics and Social Forces in Chilean Development (University of California Press, 1969), the learned articles collected together in James Petras and Maurice Zeitlin, El radicalismo político de la clase trabajadora chilena (Buenos Aires, 1969), and, in an analysis of the 1970 election, “La clase obrera chilena” in Los Libros (Buenos Aires, Jan.-Feb., 1971), pp. 11-13.

  4. 6

    Moreover, if other Latin experience is a guide, they are increasingly attracted by the slogans of the left. The largest of their mass movements at present, the ANAPO in Colombia, is being fed left-wing rhetoric in large quantities—Che Guevara, Camilo Torres, and all—by leaders who would undoubtedly have preferred to stick to demagogic generalities if they had not sensed the mood of their followers.

  5. 7

    The information on which my own interpretation is based comes from a lot of people up to and including ministers and senior officials. However, though quite a few of these talked straight and for the record, I have thought it fair not to attribute opinions, unless they are already on public record as those of my sources.

  6. 8

    At the time this article goes to press, it looks as though a confrontation with the US may be on the way, over the issue of compensation for the nationalized copper mines. Both sides are under some pressure to stand up and fight: Washington, because a lot of money is involved and a dangerous precedent set by confiscation; Santiago because it would help the Chilean balance of payments considerably not to pay out all those dollars. Also “no compensation” is a popular slogan, and the confrontation between a little people and the giant of US imperialism has distinct political advantages for the UP. On the other hand both sides also have good reasons for avoiding an open clash. Given the key role of copper both in the Chilean economy and in US-Chilean relations, some kind of crisis will be hard to avoid, but its repercussions, beyond a purely economic warfare between the two countries, are as yet impossible to predict.

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