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When Chile chose a Marxist leader

Summary:
On November 3rd, 1970, Salvador Allende was inaugurated as President of Chile. A Marxist activist at university, Allende ran with the support of the Communist and Socialist parties, with the Christian Democrats split into two factions. In a three-way race, Allende gained 36.3 percent of the vote. Because no candidate had reached 50 percent, the decision was left to Congress, who would normally choose the one with the highest popular vote. This time, however, there was suspicion of his intentions, and Congress only confirmed him after he had agreed to 10 constitutional amendments to limit any abuse of power.Allende immediately began his socialist programme, but keeping initially to the constitutional limits, and respecting democratic institutions, the rule of law and civil liberties. He

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On November 3rd, 1970, Salvador Allende was inaugurated as President of Chile. A Marxist activist at university, Allende ran with the support of the Communist and Socialist parties, with the Christian Democrats split into two factions. In a three-way race, Allende gained 36.3 percent of the vote. Because no candidate had reached 50 percent, the decision was left to Congress, who would normally choose the one with the highest popular vote. This time, however, there was suspicion of his intentions, and Congress only confirmed him after he had agreed to 10 constitutional amendments to limit any abuse of power.

Allende immediately began his socialist programme, but keeping initially to the constitutional limits, and respecting democratic institutions, the rule of law and civil liberties. He seized without compensation the US copper companies that operated in Chile. This angered the United States, and undermined any confidence in Chile that foreign investors might have had.

Under Allende's rule the government nationalized significant industries in the mining and manufacturing sectors, and took over large agricultural estates to turn them into peasant co-operatives. Land grabs continued throughout his rule, many by unauthorized gangs of his supporters. The government put huge wage increases into effect, while passing laws to freeze prices. The government's purchase of basic industries from private hands had created a fiscal deficit which Allende met in the time-honoured way of printing extra money with nothing to back it.

Although Allende remains a hero to the Left, who have rewritten history to hail him as a success, as they did earlier with Stalin and later with Chavez and Maduro, the facts are that after two years of his rule, production had stagnated, exports had gone down, private investment had nose-dived, and financial reserves were exhausted. The economy was bowed under by rising inflation and shortages, especially of food. There was a wave of strikes and civil protest. Although he had established friendly relations with China and Cuba, credit from the US and Western Europe had stopped. Allende-supporting street thugs alienated the middle classes by expropriating their farms and attacking their businesses. There was concern that Chile has heading toward become a typical Communist state with a barely functioning economy and deceasing respect for civil liberties and democratic institutions.

This all came to an end in September 1973 when Allende was overthrown in a military coup staged by General Augusto Pinochet, claiming he was acting to save the country from ruin. Allende killed himself in the Presidential palace, using the AK47 that Fidel Castro had given him. Although there were allegations that he had been murdered, an independent autopsy on his exhumed body in 2011 confirmed that it had been suicide.

Pinochet's rule was controversial. Under his term of over 15 years, Chile prospered and became the richest country in Latin America. The ailing state industries were privatized, the currency stabilized, and a private pension savings scheme was established to give most Chileans a good retirement pension from a fund that was their personal property. Since the pension funds bought the shares in the privatized state industries on behalf of their members, within a few years most of Chile was owned by most of its people, making it the least unequal country in the continent.

But economic success came at the price of political repression. Estimates suggest that perhaps 3,000 opponents of the government were illegally killed over those 15 years. This figure is well below the deaths that took place under the Argentinian junta, or under other Latin American dictatorships over a similar period, but it drew widespread condemnation. Pinochet held a referendum in 1990 to decide whether he should have more years in power. It was an honest referendum; we know that because he lost it and withdrew from office, restoring democracy.

Salvador Allende enjoyed popular support, as do many who dole out free goodies without the means to fund them. There is an almost universal tendency for people to want free stuff that somehow others will pay for. It always ruins the economy, but people continue to fall for it. It is one of the drawbacks of democracy that it encourages such behaviour.

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