President Salvador Allende of Chile, the world’s first democratically-elected Marxist head of state, died in a CIA-backed coup led by General Augusto Pinochet, on this day in history in 1973.
President Allende was elected in 1970 as the head of the Popular Unity government with 36 percent of the vote. He didn’t hold a majority in Congress and as his authority eroded, opposition to Allende grew.
As president, Allende nationalised US copper firms, banks, and other large industries, and accelerated land distribution. However, his attempts to restructure Chile’s economy led to soaring inflation and food shortages. Angry about the nationalised industries and lack of goods, truck drivers and shopkeepers began to strike.
At the same time, Chile’s colossal neighbour to the north, the United States, began exerting pressure on Chile’s socialist government in an attempt to depose the Marxist regime.
Cognisant of the opposition he faced, President Allende brought senior army officers into his government in an attempt to head off a revolt.
He was too late. On Tuesday, 11 September 1973, Chilean Army Commander-in-Chief General Pinochet launched a military coup d’etat against Allende’s government after Allende rejected demands to resign. Air Force planes bombed the presidential palace and tanks opened fire. Troops blasted buildings around the palace, and helicopters machine-gunned top floors of surrounding buildings to take out Allende’s snipers. Martial law was declared throughout the country, a curfew was imposed, and the military banned Chileans from carrying guns. According to some reports, Allende, then 64, committed suicide rather than surrender.
Pinochet appointed himself Chile’s new president and assembled a Cabinet almost entirely of military associates. The general established a military dictatorship that ruled Chile until 1990. With the help of hundreds of CIA advisers, Pinochet privatised the social welfare system and destroyed the Chilean trade union movement. His reign was marked by severe human rights violations, including brutal repression, torture, and the murder or disappearance of some 3,000 people during his 17 years as president. Investigators also discovered he had stolen about US$27 million, held in secret offshore bank accounts. Pinochet died in Santiago in December 2006. He was 91.
Caption: Augusto Pinochet following the coup that overthrew the democratically-elected Salvador Allende.