by Rachel Steinberg, with contributions by Carmen Aguirre
After a narrow coalition vote, Chilean Salvador Allende became the Western Hemisphere’s first democratically-elected Marxist president. The year was 1970, and the newly-elected Allende government aimed to reshape the social, economic and political direction of the country. In order to facilitate this shift, the Allende government pursued the nationalization of private industry, reforms to agrarian and land policy, the establishment of trade relations with other communist countries and the redistribution of wealth across the country. An official statement from the Allende government outlined its central goals and objectives:
“The central objective of the united popular forces is to replace the current economic structure, ending the power of the national and foreign monopoly capitalists and large landowners, in order to initiate the construction of socialism.”
Not everyone, however, backed Allende’s vision for the country. In particular, his plan to nationalize Chilean copper firms, at the time owned by American companies, added tension to an already-strained relationship between Chile and then-U.S President Nixon, who feared similar action from other South American countries. In 1973, Nixon backed a military coup masterminded by Henry Kissinger and led by General Augusto Pinochet. Allende and his government fought until his death.
Pinochet’s right-wing dictatorship dissolved Congress and resolved to obliterate Marxism in Chile. It did so through the banning of unions and political parties, implementing a neo-liberal economy, reversing the nationalization of industry, attracting foreign investment with relaxed regulations, leading to a decline in workers’ rights. Pinochet’s regime also sought to dismantle and fractionize the left, first capturing leaders of the Unidad Popular, Allende’s coalition, followed by both known and suspected socialists. All were detained, tortured or ‘disappeared’; others were blacklisted or exiled. It is estimated that some 3000 people were murdered and another 30,000 tortured–these are only the reported cases. Between the years 1973 and 1980, Chile was ruled under a military regime. In 1980, a constitution was drafted proclaiming Pinochet Chile’s constitutional president, with a national plebiscite called for 1988.Between 1973-1978 it is estimated that somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000 left Chile. Some argue that the number is even higher. Ten to fifteen percent of those fleeing poverty and human rights abuses landed in North America, primarily in Canada. The Canadian government, fearing hostility from both Pinochet’s regime as well as the United States, was initially reluctant to accept the thousands of Chilean refugees. Today, there are an estimated 30,000 Chileans living in Canada.
In 1988, Pinochet lost the national plebiscite, entering the country into civilian election, handing the victory to a coalition of 17 parties led by the Chilean Democrat Patricio Aylwin. Though he had lost the presidency, Pinochet still served as Commander-in-Chief of the Chilean army until his retirement in 1998, when he was sworn in as Senator For Life.In 1998, while in the UK, Pinochet was arrested on murder charges, only to be declared unfit for extradition by British Home Secretary Jack Straw. Further attempts to make Pinochet stand charges for human rights abuses fail with authorities citing the former dictator’s ill health. Pinochet retired in 2002; he died four years later.
After 20 years of left-wing rule, US-educated Sebastian Pinera was elected in 2010. The following year, a Chilean commission published the results of a several years-long commission investigating human rights abuses during the Pinochet regime. Following the report, an additional 9800 victims of abuses were recognized, bringing the offically recognized total to 40,018. Again, these are only the reported cases.
“Pinochet ‘unfit to face trial'” via the BBC.
Chile Timeline via the BBC
“Sebastian Pinera” via Britannica
“Forging Our Legacy” via Citizenship and Immigration Canada