Salvador Allende
Salvador Allende; drawing by David Levine

Santiago, Chile

The Chilean election in March for all 150 members of the lower house and twenty-five of the fifty members of the Senate was preceded by even more threats, insults, and prophecies of triumph and doom than are usual here, and that is saying a lot. The highly partisan and uninhibited press, whether supporting the government or the opposition, was filled with political news and propaganda; campaign songs pushed ballads and soap operas off the radio, walls glistened with newly painted slogans. The end of Marxism and Allende, the victory of the masses, the reconstruction of the nation were all claimed as possible—and necessary. The rhetoric came close to reality, for if the electoral coalition of Eduardo Frei’s Christian Democrats and the right-wing Nationalists (in addition to three much smaller parties) had been able to win a two-thirds majority in the Congress, they might have rolled back the program of the Popular Unity government and perhaps even impeached President Allende. Even the Left Revolutionary Movement (MIR) broke its longstanding rule against participating in the bourgeois electoral game and backed some candidates of the Socialist party.

The election took place on a Sunday, as they always do in Chile. From midnight Friday, the armed forces are traditionally in charge, but this time they paid more than their usual attention to detail. All public meetings and political activity were prohibited—you couldn’t wear a campaign button. After the weeks of noise and activity the quiet was spooky. In Concepción, the third city of the nation and traditional seat of labor and revolutionary movements, an army helicopter flew over the central streets. A jeep with a heavy caliber machine gun patrolled the same area. The older noncommissioned carabineros walked in pairs, carrying automatic rifles, watched by their taller and more elegant officers. The young army recruits, more awkward with their automatic weapons, were standing by the dozens inside and outside all polling places, helping people to find their booths, checking to see that no one carried political propaganda, aiding the elderly and the crippled up and down the steps.

For the public, voting is solemn, almost religious. No running down to vote at the neighborhood firehouse or school after work or between chores. It is Sunday, the day of national decision, there are real political parties, a great deal is at stake. People dress up. Voting is obligatory. The lame and the blind are up and about, and the latter use special braille ballots. Eighteen to twenty-one-year-olds and illiterates are voting for the first time. Since men and women vote separately, you find groups of children clustering around some of the polling places waiting for their mothers.

In spite of all the firepower—or perhaps because of it—the only casualty in Concepción was a nineteen-year-old recruit named Nelson Alvarado who was accidentally shot in the ear by his buddy when they were climbing into a jeep after a long day of poll guarding. By the time he got to the local hospital, he was dead. By nightfall, as the first returns began to come in, both sides issued victory statements. A few rallies were permitted, and there were a few small clashes between supporters of the government and those of the opposition. Chile had had its moment of collective triumph. Those who said—and hoped—that there wouldn’t be an election had been proven wrong. The alliance of Nationalists and Christian Democrats, trying to win two-thirds control of Congress, had failed. The Popular Unity’s total vote of almost 44 percent was better than even the most optimistic had predicted; it was an unprecedented midterm gain for a Chilean government, and it won them two additional seats in the Senate and six in the lower house.

So the election that could have been a disaster for the government was a triumph of sorts. But it is one of the many paradoxes—some would say weaknesses—of the Chilean electoral system that while it provides a way of riding out certain crises and reaffirming the right to office, it normally doesn’t solve larger problems. The issue of political power—who really governs—remains. The president and the Popular Unity will still be outvoted in the Congress. The divisions among the political parties in the government coalition, particularly between the Communists and the Socialists, are if anything sharper than ever.

With so much production, distribution, and transport in private hands and the associations of professionals and semiprofessionals so strong, the country remains vulnerable to the kind of coordinated antigovernment stop-pages that caused so much damage in October and brought the military into the Cabinet as guarantors of order and institutions. Inflation—163 percent in 1972—continues unchecked as do shortages, bottlenecks in production and distribution, and the critical lack of foreign exchange. Allende’s policies of full employment, redistributing income, nationalizing basic industries, and agrarian reform have all met with opposition and sabotage, running from the non-cooperation of technicians to attempted subversion by ITT. In short, the contradictions inherent in trying to make the transition to socialism without full political power and while using the existing institutions of the liberal state—including much of the market—have if anything deepened.


But if the recent elections solved none of these problems, they did at least help to clarify them, especially the key question of support for the government. Allende was elected in the fall of 1970 with only 36 percent of the popular vote. In view of the nonsense that most Americans read about Chile, it is well to keep a few basic truths in mind:

First, although “times are tough” in Chile, not everyone experiences these tough times in the same way. It all depends on where on sits. Members of the upper and upper-middle classes, used to walking into any store and buying what they wanted, find the shortages, the lines, and the general disruption of the marketplace insupportable (even though many continue to live very well indeed by dealing in the black market which flourishes throughout the country).

Merchants, both large and small, and many of the self-employed (which is to say much of the quite large lower-middle class) are caught in an Alice-in-Wonderland tangle of high costs, low official selling prices (if they sell legally), bottlenecks in supply, and scarcity of goods—such as tires for taxis—that they need for their work. True believers in free enterprise, they view the government—with some justification—as having screwed up the practice of their “profession,” although that profession may be running their mom-and-pop store or their 1952 Chevy taxi. Many peasants, especially those who have title to their own land or who operate mini-capitalist agricultural enterprises, are also squeezed by inflation, wildly fluctuating prices, problems of supply and distribution. Under current conditions they find it an act of economic suicide to sell their chickens other than through the black market, or—in some cases—even to raise any chickens at all. Many have long-standing conservative political affiliations or were first brought into politics by the Christian Democrats. Nothing that the government has done by way of agrarian reform pleases them.

What all of these people have in common is that they never really would have supported parties of the left under any conditions. The transition to socialism—so long as it is serious about changing relations of capitalist production and distribution—would almost inevitably anger them, for they all live from and off the marketplace. In other words, even if it had avoided acute inflation, shortages of supplies, and mismanagement, the Popular Unity government could expect no large number of votes from these groups.

On the other hand, among urban and industrial wage earners, certain government employees and technocrats, the rural poor, and the young people, the combined support for the parties of the left was the highest that it has ever been in a congressional or presidential election. How can this be when most workers—and especially their wives—have to wait in interminable lines to buy cooking oil, detergent, sugar, or cigarettes? Every month the overburdened and badly maintained system of public transportation gets more frustrating. Before the election there was even an acute shortage of wine in Santiago, a disaster in this wine-producing and wine-drinking nation.

Why don’t the working and lower-class groups desert a government with these problems, one that for the first time in Chile’s history has talked of rationing basic foodstuffs? Just to pose the question in this fashion is to suggest an answer: For people who formerly had little money to buy things, the limits on consumption imposed by short supplies are irritating but by no means decisive. Among such people one finds no middle-class rage, no exasperated and egotistical whining about how could they do this to me, no insistence on the sanctity of the marketplace. For them one set of difficulties has replaced another, and they continue to have the same patience and resignation as before.

More important, a powerful working-class tradition, a militancy born of decades of struggle, and immense pride in what working-class people consider their government all combined to increase the numbers who voted for Allende’s Popular Unity. The government may be shit, goes one popular story, but for the first time it’s our shit. Vote for the opposition, for the reactionaries, for those who were in league with ITT, just because there are shortages and lines, because times are tough? Unthinkable.

Except for the municipal contests that will take place in 1975, no regular national elections are scheduled until Allende’s term ends in 1976. The wrangling over percentage gains and losses, over who really won and who really lost, the fantastic parade of candidates and publicity will thus not soon be repeated. Other ways to measure the government’s support will have to be used. For example it is useful to recall how Chileans reacted when the Popular Unity government was fighting for its very survival: the stoppages, strikes, and confrontations of October, 1972.


The essential elements were a strike by truck owners (many of whom also drive their own trucks), followed by shutdowns of most commercial establishments, and the eventual walkout of 75 to 80 percent of the professional, managerial, and technical personnel in the country. Operating through a powerful web of associations, or gremios, backed by all the opposition political parties, and probably financed at least in part by dollars brought in from abroad, the threat to the national economy and thus to the government could hardly have been more severe.

Yet during this month basic national services continued to operate, the factories continued to produce, and those who sought chaos and the eventual overthrow of the government were frustrated. Why? Essentially because vast numbers of people closed ranks in defense of the economy and the government. No major factory was shut down for lack of workers—in some factories absenteeism was actually below normal—buses were converted to trucks to haul food, gasoline was rationed, large numbers of citizens did voluntary work to keep supplies moving, nurses filled in for absent doctors, some bureaucrats even worked extra hours to make up for their striking colleagues.

The patchwork, voluntary, emergency arrangements could not have continued to supply national needs much longer than they did; warehouses were emptying without being refilled and crops were not getting planted for lack of seeds and fertilizer. But while it lasted, it was an impressive display of worker solidarity in the face of an attack organized and financed by the Chilean middle class (with a little help from its friends). In the factories, on the docks, in the mines, political differences were largely forgotten. Christian Democrats often worked side by side with Socialists and Communists. It was basically the workers against the bosses and the privileged, those with salaries against those who live by and off commerce or the commercial professions. It was class struggle in as pure and unadulterated a form as had ever been seen in Chile or in most of Latin America.

But can this solidarity, combativeness, and capacity of the majority of Chileans be brought into play only in a national emergency? Or, to put it briefly, will ways be found to bring mass energies and talents into the day-to-day struggle to construct a socialist society? Such questions have no clear answers. So far, however, the record of the Popular Unity government is not encouraging. Trapped in institutions from which it is not able (some would say not willing) to escape, lacking an organizational base outside the traditional parties and the labor confederation, without a clearly defined educational plan, with no effective policy for women or youth, the government is—in its own way—quite conservative. Neither the personal style of the president nor the political traditions in which he is steeped give much promise of finding nonelectoral ways to encourage mass organization and participation.

So the government waits, garrisoned in the presidential fortress, protected by its working-class legions and—in a pinch—perhaps also by the military. But when and where the next attack will come, no one knows. It is certain only that the opposition will regroup and that it hopes to ride back to power on a series of economic crises. By using strikes, confrontations, congressional maneuvering, and manipulation of the press and television, the opposition has powerful weapons with which to intensify existing difficulties and create new ones. The government can counterattack, but there is no sign at present that it can mount a coordinated political offensive or find short-run solutions to the problems it faces. It is thus a strange drama, neither a classic revolution nor a conventional reformist charade. Unprecedented in Latin America, perhaps in the world, it is all the more intense now that the next act will not be played in the voting booth.

This Issue

May 17, 1973