Chris Harman


US Arms for Chile’s Generals

(January 1973)

From Notes of the Month, International Socialism (1st series), No.54, January 1973, pp.11-12.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Chris Harman writes: At the beginning of November three senior officers of the armed forces joined the ‘socialist’ government of Salvador Allende in Chile. This gave a new lease of life to the government. But it also marked the effective end of Chile’s ‘experiment’ in ‘moving towards socialism’ by parliamentary means. Like all such previous attempts, Allende’s policy meant pushing through reforms beneficial to worse-off sections of the population, while leaving intact the old state machine and the power of the officer corps of the armed forces, the government bureaucracy, the judiciary and so on.

This policy ensured that when the property-owning classes began to fight back against the reforms, the hands of the popular supporters of the government were tied. Armed defence of the reforms is ruled out of order by the main government parties in case it ‘provokes’ action by the same state forces that these parties have left intact. For two years workers and peasants have been told by the government parties to avoid direct action which might break the constitution and offend the armed forces. The same constraints did not apply to the middle and upper classes. In October they launched a deliberate attempt to displace the leftist government. A ‘bosses’ strike’ by lorry owners closed down most transport operations and threatened to close industry as well. At the height of the crisis opponents of the government in the better-off districts of Santiago lit bonfires and erected barricades. Allende’s response to the threat of civil war was to continue to rest his whole policy on placating the generals. Supplies were kept moving – but by the army. Attempts at popular mobilisation to smash the power of the employers were discouraged. Finally, the crisis was ended by concessions to the lorry owners and the oppositional parties and by bringing the armed forces into the government, with a general, Carlos Prats, as minister of the Interior and number two to Allende.

Although the opposition’s activities have not overthrown the government, they have shifted the political centre of gravity to the right, and made much more difficult any subsequent reforms. Allende’s policy has necessarily led to generals becoming the arbiters of the government’s own future actions. Allende’s recent international trip provided vivid examples of this. For instance, while in New York he spoke to Gordon Murphy, head of the Cerro Corporation, whose Chilean assets have been nationalised. Murphy felt able to declare afterwards that ‘it is not difficult to carry on operating in Chile. In fact we are planning to make new investments.’ And while Allende’s trip was taking place, the US government felt able to announce that its military aid to Chile was to double.

Meanwhile in Chile itself a military court has reduced the prison sentences on a retired general, Vaux, who was involved two years ago in the assassination of the commander-in-chief friendly to Allende, Scheider, from 15 years to two years, so leading to his immediate release.

The drift of the government to the right is likely to lead to further demoralisation of its supporters and increase the power of the anti-government parties. The only way out of a vicious circle of defeats for the left breeding more defeats is through mass action in the factories and the streets. But it is precisely such activity that is ruled out of order by the proponents of the ‘Chilean road’ because it would lead very quickly to armed conflict with the forces of the state.

Last updated on 16 November 2009