Chilean coup of 1973

This article is about the successful coup in September 1973 that brought Army Commander-in-Chief Augusto Pinochet to power. For the failed coup attempt in June of the same year, see tanquetazo.

The Chilean coup d'état of September 11, 1973 was a watershed event in the history of Chile and the Cold War. Historians and partisans alike have wrangled over its implications ever since.

In Chile's 1970 presidential election, in accordance with the constitution, Congress resolved the 3-way split — between Salvador Allende (with 36.3% of the vote), conservative (and former president) Jorge Alessandri Rodríguez (35.8%), and the Christian Democrat Radomiro Tomic (27.9%) — by voting to approve Allende's narrow plurality. Various sectors of Chilean society still opposed his presidency, as did the United States, which placed diplomatic and economic pressure on the government. On September 11, 1973 the Chilean military overthrew Allende, who died during the coup. A junta led by Augusto Pinochet assumed power.


Opposing views of the coup

Over the years, both the perpetrators of the coup themselves and their supporters have justified the coup by arguing that it was essential for preserving democracy and prosperity in Chile. They claim that Salvador Allende wanted to establish a Cuban-style dictatorship, which in their view would have destroyed human rights as well as economic prosperity, and therefore they insist that the forcible removal of the elected president was a necessary and justified course of action.

Those opposed to the coup characterize the notion of preserving democracy by instituting a dictatorship as ridiculous and hypocritical. They further argue that Allende won the presidency in a free and fair election. As Chile had been a democracy since 1932, the coup represented an unprecedented and inexcusable outrage against democracy, critics have argued.

Among the evidence against the coup being an attempt to safeguard democracy and prosperity in Chile are the several thousand documented cases of torture as well as "disappearances". Among the more famous cases are Charles Horman, a US citizen who was disappeared, tortured and killed during the coup itself and Chilean songwriter Víctor Jara, murdered while held prisoner in the National Stadium immediately after the coup.

Critics argue that the coup failed in any goal of preserving prosperity for any except a small elite. In the Pinochet years, unemployment rose, real wages fell, the divide between rich and poor grew, decreasing the economic prosperity of the average Chilean. (See Chile under Pinochet)

Situation before the coup

When Allende came to power in 1970, Chilean society was already racked by economic difficulties. Problems such as slow growth, inflation, unequal income distribution and the concentration of economic power remained stubborn and intractable. The majority of the Chilean population were at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum and had grown weary of perennial problems that were affecting the country.

Allende becomes president

Main article: 1970 Chilean presidential election

There are generally two views of the voting in 1970. Those who opposed Salvador Allende point out that he received only a plurality of 36.3% of the vote. Those who supported him point instead to the fact that leftist forces clearly won a majority: in addition to Allende, running with the Unidad Popular (UP or Popular Unity) coalition, Christian Democrat Radomiro Tomic won 27.9% with a very similar platform to Allende's. Conservative former president Jorge Alessandri received slightly under 35.8% of the vote.

   Candidate   Votes %
Allende 1,066,372  36.29% 
 Alessandri  1,050,863 35.76%
Tomic 821,350 27.95%
Total    2,943,561    Source: PDBA (

According to the constitution, Congress had to decide between the two candidates who had received the most votes. The precedent set on the three previous occasions this situation had arisen since 1932 was for Congress simply to choose the candidate with the largest number of votes; indeed, former president Alessandri had been elected in 1958 with 31.6% of the popular vote.

In this case, however, there was an active campaign against Allende's confirmation by Congress, and his presidency was ratified only after he signed a "Statute of Constitutional Guarantees".

It has been argued than given that less than the majority of the voters voted for him, Allende did not have a clear "mandate" to embark in the wide reforms put forward on his program. But the legality of the election itself is not in dispute.

The Allende years

Main article Chile under Allende.

In office, Allende pursued a policy he called La vía chilena al socialismo ("The Chilean Way to Socialism"). This included nationalization of certain large-scale industries (notably copper), reform of the health care system, a continuation of his predecessor Eduardo Frei Montalva's reforms of the educational system, a program of free milk for children, and an attempt at agrarian reform. [1] ( The previous government of Eduardo Frei has already partly nationalised copper by acquiring a 51 percent share in foreign owned mines. Allende expropriated the remaining percentage without compensating the U.S. companies that owned the mines.

Chilean presidents were allowed a maximum of six years, which may explain Allende's haste to restructure the economy. Not only did he have a significant restructuring program organised, it had to be a success if a successor to Allende was going to be elected.

The government's efforts to pursue these reforms led to strong opposition by landowners, some middle-class sectors, the rightist National Party, the Roman Catholic Church (which was displeased with the direction of the educational reforms [2] (, and eventually the Christian Democrats.

The land reforms that Allende highlighted as one of the central policies of his government had already begun under his predecessor Eduardo Frei Montalva, who had expropriated between one-fifth and one-quarter of all properties liable to takeover [Collier & Sater, 1996]. The Allende government's intention was to seize all holdings of more than eighty basic irrigated hectares [Faundez, 1988]. Allende also intended to improve the socio-economic welfare of Chile's poorest citizens. A key element was to provide employment, either in the new nationalised enterprises or on public works projects.

In the first year of Allende's term, the short-term economic results of Minister of the Economy Pedro Vuskovic's expansive monetary policy were unambiguously favorable: 12% industrial growth and an 8.6% increase in GDP, accompanied by major declines in inflation (down from 34.9% to 22.1%) and unemployment (down to 3.8%). However, these results were not sustained and in 1972 the Chilean escudo had runaway inflation of 140%. The combination of inflation and government-mandated price-fixing led to the rise of black markets in rice, beans, sugar, and flour, and a "disappearance" of such basic commodities from supermarket shelves. [3] (

Towards the end of 1971, Fidel Castro toured Chile extensively during a four-week visit. [4] ( This gave credence to the belief of those on the right that "The Chilean Way to Socialism" was an effort to put Chile on the same path as Cuba.

October 1972 saw the first of what were to be a wave of confrontational strikes by some of the historically well-off sectors of Chilean society. A strike by owners of trucks was joined by small businesmen, some (mostly professional) unions, and some student groups. Other than the inevitable damage to the economy, the chief effect of the 24-day strike was to bring the head of the army, general Carlos Prats, into the government as Interior Minister. [5] (

In addition to the earlier-discussed provision of employment, Allende also raised wages on a number of occasions throughout 1970 and 1971. These rises in wages were negated by continuing increases in prices for food. Although price rises had also been high under Frei (27% a year between 1967 and 1970), a basic basket of consumer goods rose by 120% from 190 to 421 escudos in one month alone, August 1972. In the period 1970-72, while Allende was in government, exports fell 24% and imports rose 26%, with imports of food rising an estimated 149% [figures are from Nove, 1986, pp4-12, tables 1.1 & 1.7]. Although nominal wages were rising, there was not a commensurate increase in the standard of living for the Chilean population.

The falls in exports were mostly due to a fall in the price of copper. Chile was at the mercy of international fluctuations in the value of its single most important export. As with almost half of developing countries, more than 50 per cent of Chile's export receipts were from a single primary commodity [Hoogvelt, 1997]. Adverse fluctuation in the international price of copper negatively affected the Chilean economy throughout 1971-2. The price of copper fell from a peak of $66 per ton in 1970 to only $48-9 in 1971 and 1972 [Nove, 1986]. This fall in the value of copper would combine with a lack of economic aid to bring about the economic conditions that led to events later in 1973.

Despite declining economic indicators, Allende's Popular Unity coalition actually slightly increased its vote to 43 percent in the parliamentary elections early in 1973. However, by this point what had started as an informal alliance with the Christian Democrats [6] ( was anything but: the Christian Democrats now leagued with the right-wing National Party to oppose Allende's government, the two parties calling themselves the Confederación Democrática (CODE). The conflict between the executive and legislature paralyzed initiatives from either side. [7] (

On June 29, 1973, a tank regiment under the command of Colonel Roberto Souper surrounded the presidential palace (La Moneda) in a violent but unsuccessful coup attempt. [8] ( That failed coup was followed by a further strike at the end of July, joined this time by the copper miners of El Teniente as well. On August 9, General Prats was made Minister of Defense, but this decision proved so unpopular with the military that on August 22 he was forced to resign not only this position but his role as Commander-in-Chief of the Army; he was replaced in the latter role by Pinochet. [9] (

For some months now, the government had been afraid to call upon the national police known as the carabineros, for fear of their lack of loyalty. In August 1973, a constitutional crisis was clearly in the offing: the Supreme Court publicly complained about the government's inability to enforce the law of the land and on August 22 the Chamber of Deputies (with the Christian Democrats now firmly uniting with the National Party) accused Allende's government of unconstitutional acts and called on the military ministers to assure the constitutional order. [10] (

In early September 1973, Allende floated the idea of resolving the crisis with a plebiscite.

The Chamber of Deputies calls on the military

As mentioned above, on August 22, 1973 the Christian Democrats and the National Party members of the Chamber of Deputies called on the military to "put an immediate end" to what they described as "breach[es of] the Constitution... with the goal of redirecting government activity toward the path of Law and ensuring the constitutional order of our Nation and the essential underpinnings of democratic coexistence among Chileans."

Although this document was invoked to justify the September 11 coup, it is clear that the agenda of the coup was something other than restoration of the constitutional order.

The document [11] ( accused the Allende government of seeking " conquer absolute power with the obvious purpose of subjecting all citizens to the strictest political and economic control by the state... [with] the goal of establishing a totalitarian system," and claimed that it had made "violations of the Constitution" into "a permanent system of conduct." Many of the charges came down to disregarding the separation of powers and arrogating the prerogatives of both the legislature and judiciary within the executive.

Among other particulars, the regime was accused of:

  • ruling by decree, thus thwarting the normal system of adopting legislation.
  • refusing to enforce judicial decisions against its own partisans and "not carrying out sentences and judicial resolutions that contravene its objectives."
  • ignoring the decrees of the independent General Comptroller’s Office.
  • various offenses related to the media, including usurping control of the National Television Network and "applying ... economic pressure against those media organizations that are not unconditional supporters of the government..."
  • allowing its supporters to assemble even when armed, while preventing legal assembly by its opponents.
  • "...supporting more than 1,500 illegal 'takings' of farms..."
  • illegal repression of the El Teniente strike.
  • illegally limiting emigration.

Last, but certainly not least, it was accused of a "breakdown of the Rule of Law by means of the creation and development of government-protected armed groups which... are headed towards a confrontation with the Armed Forces." Allende's efforts to re-organize the military and police (which he clearly had reason to fear in their then-current forms) were characterized as "notorious attempts to use the Armed and Police Forces for partisan ends, destroy their institutional hierarchy, and politically infiltrate their ranks."

Allende responds

Two days later (August 24, 1973), Allende responded [12] (, [13] (, characterizing Congress's declaration as "destined to damage the country's prestige abroad and create internal confusion," and predicting that "It will facilitate the seditious intention of certain sectors." He pointed out that the declaration (passed 81-47 in the Chamber of Deputies) had not obtained the two-thirds Senate majority constitutionally required to convict the president of abuse of power: essentially, they were "invoking the intervention of the Armed Forces and of Order against a democratically elected government" and "subordinat[ing] political representation of national sovereignty to the armed institutions, which neither can nor ought to assume either politicial functions or the representation of the popular will."

Allende argued that he had followed constitutional means in bringing members of the military into the cabinet "at the service of civic peace and national security, defending republican institutions against insurrection and terrorism." In contrast, he said that Congress was promoting a coup or a civil war, using a declaration "full of affirmations that had already been refuted beforehand" and which, in substance and process (handing it directly to the various ministers rather than delivering to the president) violated a dozen articles of the then-current constitution. Further, he argued that the legislature was trying to usurp the executive role.

"Chilean democracy," he wrote, "is a conquest by all of the people. It is neither the work nor the gift of the exploiting classes, and it will be defended by those who, with sacrifices accumulated over generations, have imposed it... With a tranquil conscience... I sustain that never before has Chile had a more democratic government than that over which I have the honor to preside... I solemnly reiterate my decision to develop democracy and a state of law to their ultimate consequences... Parliament has made itself a bastion against the transformations... and has done everything it can to perturb the functioning of the finances and of the institutions, sterilizing all creative initiatives."

He went on to argue that the parliamentarians used the expression "Estado de Derecho" ("state of law", but also "state of rightness") to refer to "a situation which presupposes economic and social injustice... which our people have rejected." Strong economic and political means, he said, would be needed to get the country out of its current crisis, and Congress was obstructing these means; having already "paralyzed" the state, they were now seeking to "destroy" it.

He concluded by calling upon "the workers, all democrats and patriots" to join him in defense of the constitution and of the "revolutionary process."

Military coup of 1973

Pinochet and Allende in 1973
Pinochet and Allende in 1973

General Pinochet came to power in a military coup d'état on September 11, 1973, in which rebels bombed the Presidential Palace with British-made Hawker Hunter fighter jets. During this coup, Allende died. After being debated by several years, the official version, that he committed suicide with a machine gun (generally presumed to be the machine gun given to him by Fidel Castro), and an autopsy labelled his death as suicide, has been widely accepted, even by members of his own party and family. This general acceptance is based on statements given by two doctors from the La Moneda Palace infirmary: Patricio Guijón, who made a statement at the time, and José Quiroga who confirmed it many years later. (Some sources misattribute these statements to "Allende's personal doctor"; that would be Enrique Paris Roa, who does not appear to have made such a statement.) However some still insist he was murdered by Pinochet's military forces while defending the palace. [14] (, [15] (, [16] (, [17] (, [18] (, [19] (, [Gonzalez 1988]

Initially there were four leaders of the junta: in addition to Pinochet from the Army, there were Gustavo Leigh Guzmán of the Air Force, José Toribio Merino Castro of the Navy, and César Mendoza Durán of the National Police (Carabineros de Chile). Coup leaders soon decided against a rotating presidency and named Pinochet permanent head of the junta.

Missing image
Allende's last photograph alive

Pinochet moved to solidify his control against any opposition. On September 13, the junta dissolved the Congress. The National Stadium was temporarily converted into an immense prison. Approximately 130,000 individuals were arrested in a three-year period, with the number of dead and "disappeared" reaching into the thousands within the first few months. Most of the people targeted had been supporters of Allende; the September 13 decree also outlawed the parties that had been part of Popular Unity, and all political activity was declared "in recess".

In the book in which he recounts the coup (El Día decisivo), Pinochet affirms that he was the leading plotter of the coup and used his position as Commander of the Army to coordinate a far-reaching scheme that was coordinated with the other branches of the military. In recent years, however, high military officials from the time have said that Pinochet only reluctantly got involved in the coup a few days before it was scheduled to occur.

Once the Junta was in power, Pinochet soon consolidated his control, first retaining sole chairmanship of the Junta (originally agreed to be rotated among all members), and he was proclaimed the President of the Republic.

U.S. role in 1973 coup

Pinochet (sitting) as Chairman of the Junta following the coup (1973)
Pinochet (sitting) as Chairman of the Junta following the coup (1973)

See main article U.S. intervention in Chile.

While U.S. government hostility to the Allende regime is unquestioned, the U.S. role in the coup itself remains a controversial matter. Documents declassified during the Clinton administration show that the United States government and the CIA had sought the overthrow of Allende in 1970, immediately after he took office ("Project FUBELT"; U.S. efforts to prevent Allende taking office in 1970 are discussed in 1970 Chilean presidential election), but claims of their direct involvement in the actual coup are neither proven nor contradicted by publicly available documentary evidence; many potentially relevant documents still remain classified. Regarding Pinochet's rise to power, the CIA undertook a comprehensive analysis of its records and individual memoirs as well as conducting interviews with former agents, and concluded in a report issued in 2000 that the CIA "did not assist Pinochet to assume the Presidency." [20] (

The CIA was notified by contacts of the impending Pinochet coup two days in advance, but contends it "played no direct role in" the coup. After Pinochet assumed power, U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger told President Richard Nixon that the U.S. "didn't do it" (referring to the coup itself) but had "created the conditions as great as possible." [21] (

Immediately after the Allende government came into office, the U.S. sought to place economic pressure on Chile. U.S. National Security Council documents, later ordered released by U.S. President Bill Clinton [22] (, include decision memorandum no. 93, dated November 9, 1970, written by Kissinger and addressed to the heads of diplomatic, defense and intelligence departments. This document stated that pressure should be placed on the Allende government to prevent its consolidation and limit its ability to implement policies contrary to U.S. and hemispheric interests, such as Allende's total nationalization of several foreign corporations and the copper industry. Specifically, Nixon directed that no new bilateral economic aid commitments be undertaken with the government of Chile [Kissinger, 1970].

Between 1964 and 1970 (under Frei), over USD $1 billion in economic assistance flowed in; during the Allende's tenure (1970-73) disbursements were non-existent or negligible [Petras & Morley, 1974]. The reduction in aid combined with the fall in the value of copper from a 1970 high of $66 to a low of $48 per ton, which undermined Allende's proposed restructuring of the Chilean economy. As the program was dependent on government spending, this caused a decline in the socioeconomic circumstances of Chile's poorest citizens.

U.S. officials ordered measures up to and including support for a potential coup to prevent Allende from taking office, although there are conflicting views as to whether the U.S. later pulled back from this position. That the U.S. planned a potential coup in Chile is evident in a secret cable from Thomas Karamessines, the CIA Deputy Director of Plans, to the Santiago CIA station, dated October 16, 1970, after the election but before Allende's inauguration. "It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup ... it is imperative that these actions be implemented clandestinely and securely so that the USG [United States Government] and American hand be well hidden" [Karamessines, 1970].

Once it became clear that Allende had won a plurality of the votes in 1970, the CIA proposed two plans. Track I was designed to persuade the Chilean Congress, through outgoing Christian Democratic President Eduardo Frei, to confirm conservative runner-up Jorge Alessandri as president. Alessandri would resign shortly after, rendering Frei eligible to run against Allende in new elections. However, Track I was dropped, because Frei, despite being firmly anti-Allende, was also adamantly opposed to going against Chile's longstanding democratic traditions.

The CIA had also drawn up a second plan, Track II, in case Track I failed. The agency would find generals willing to prevent Allende from assuming the presidency and provide them with support for a coup. Presumably, a provisional military junta could then call new elections in which Allende could be defeated.

The agency came into contact with General Roberto Viaux, who was planning a coup with loyal military officers. An important part of Viaux's plan was to kidnap Chilean Army Chief of Staff General René Schneider, who, as a constitutionalist, was opposed to the idea of a coup from a historically apolitical military. The CIA maintained contact with Viaux, but eventually decided against supporting his plot, instead looking for other generals willing to take part in a coup. About the Viaux situation, Kissinger said to Nixon on October 15, 1970, "This looks hopeless. I turned it off. Nothing would be worse than an abortive coup."

However, on October 22, Viaux went ahead with his plan, which was badly botched. Gen. Schneider drew a handgun to protect himself from his attackers, who in turn drew their guns and shot him in four vital areas; he was pronounced dead in Santiago's military hospital. The event provoked national outrage. As far as American involvement, the Church Committee, which investigated U.S. involvement in Chile during this period, determined that the weapons used in the debacle "were, in all probability, not those supplied by the CIA to the conspirators."

There is no evidence that the U.S. directly backed Pinochet's successful coup in 1973, but the Nixon administration was undoubtedly pleased with the outcome; Nixon had spoken with disappointment about the failed coup earlier that year. Had Allende managed to complete his six-year term, the CIA would likely have simply provided funds and propaganda support to a non-Marxist opponent, as it had done in 1964 and 1970.

The U.S. did provide material support to the military regime after the coup, although it criticized them in public. A document released by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 2000 titled "CIA Activities in Chile" revealed that the CIA actively supported the military junta after the overthrow of Allende and that it made many of Pinochet's officers into paid contacts of the CIA or U.S. military, even though some were known to be involved in human rights abuses [23] ( The CIA's publicly announced policies on paid informants have since been modified to exclude those involved in such abuses, but at the time they were evaluated on a case-by-case basis and measured with the value of the information they provided.

The documents produced by various U.S. agencies were provided by the US State Department in October 1999. The collection of 1,100 documents dealt with the years leading up to the military coup. One of these documents establishes that U.S. military aid was raised dramatically between the coming to power of Allende in 1970, when it amounted to USD $800,000 annually, to $10.9 million in 1972. The U.S. government supported Pinochet's government after he came to power.

The CIA also had provided funding and propaganda support to political opponents of Allende in the 1964 and 1970 Chilean presidential elections, as well as during the Allende administration.

On September 10, 2001, a suit was filed by the family of constitutionalist General René Schneider, once head of the Chilean general staff, accusing former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger of arranging Schneider's 1970 murder because he would have opposed a military coup [24] ( However, CIA documents indicate that while the CIA had discussed potential plans for his kidnapping, his killing, which was committed by a rebel military group with CIA contacts, was never intended. Furthermore, Nixon and Kissinger had decided a week before the killing that General Viaux, who was the chief plotter in the Schneider incident, was not a good bet for the coup.

The U.S. government under Richard Nixon never hid its dislike of the Allende regime, so they could hardly have been expected to render Allende active support. Whether the United States' economic policy towards Chile caused the economic crisis or merely aggravated what was already an intractable situation for Allende is unclear. It is realistic to remark that these policies did adversely affect Allende's chances of alleviating the crisis.

The coup, regardless of the degree of U.S. involvement, achieved the U.S. government objective of eradicating the threat of socialism in Chile and brought about a regime sympathetic to their own interests. In her evaluation of United States foreign policy around the time of the coup in Chile, Jeane Kirkpatrick, later U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, highlighted her country's lack of overt aggressiveness in the developing world while events were transpiring in Chile. "In the last decade especially we have practiced remarkable forbearance everywhere." [Kirkpatrick, 1979] While this is the case for overt U.S. policy, severely constrained by the movement that had grown up in opposition to the Vietnam War, nonetheless, as discussed above, at the very least United States policy regarding aid helped lead to Allende's downfall and the U.S. at some times actively supported coup planning, although possibly not that of the coup that actually occurred.

In a 2003 interview on the U.S. Black Entertainment Television network, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was asked about why the United States saw itself as the "moral superior" in the Iraq conflict, citing the Chilean coup as an example of U.S. intervention that went against the wishes of the local population. Powell responded: "With respect to your earlier comments about Chile in the 1970s and what happened with Mr. Allende, it is not a part of American history that we're proud of." Chilean newspapers hailed the news as the first time the U.S. government had conceded a role in the affair.

Articles about Allende/Pinochet coup d'état in Chile

External links


  • Simon Collier & William F. Sater (1996). A History of Chile: 1808-1994. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Julio Faundez (1988). Marxism and democracy in Chile: From 1932 to the fall of Allende, New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Ignacio González Camus, ed. (1988). El día en que murió Allende (The day that Allende Died), Chilean Institute of Humanistic Studies (ICHEH) / CESOC.
  • Anke Hoogvelt (1997). Globalisation and the postcolonial world, London: Macmillan.
  • Richard Norton-Taylor (1999). "Truth will out: Unearthing the declassified documents in America which give the lie to Lady Thatcher's outburst", The Guardian, 8 July 1999, London: Guardian Newspapers Ltd. (
  • Alec Nove (1986). Socialism, Economics and Development, London: Allen & Unwin.
  • James F. Petras & Morris H. Morley (1974). How Allende fell: A study in U.S.–Chilean relations, Nottingham: Spokesman Books.
  • Sigmund, P.E. (1986). "Development Strategies in Chile, 1964-1983: The Lessons of Failure", Chapter 6 in I.J. Kim (Ed.), Development and Cultural Change: Cross-Cultural Perspectives, New York: Paragon House Publishers, pp. 159-178.
  • Valenzuela, J.S., & Valenzuela, A. (1993). "Modernisation and Dependency: Alternative Perspectives in the Study of Latin-American Underdervelopment", in M.A. Seligson & J.T. Pass-Smith (Eds.), Development and Underdevelopment: The Political Economy of Inequality, Boulder: Lynnes Rienner, pp. cileno del 1973

ja:チリ・クーデター pl:Pucz w Chile 1973 fr:Coup d'État du 11 septembre 1973 au Chili


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