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Socialist Review, October 1994

Pat Riordan


Death knell of democracy


From Socialist Review, No. 179, October 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Soldiers in a Narrow Land: The Pinochet Regime in Chile
Mary Helen Spooner
University of California Press £23.50

One of the arguments that has faced socialists over the years is the idea that a parliamentary transformation of society is possible: socialism can be brought about peacefully by voting.

This is far more than an academic debate. At certain times in history this theory has been tested and then the question has been, literally, a matter of life or death. Nowhere is this more true than in Chile.

This is a book about what happened to that experiment. Salvador Allende’s left wing government of Popular Unity took office in 1970. After a series of plots it was finally overthrown by a military coup in 1973.

It was common on the European left to argue that the coup was inspired and financed by the CIA. But this argument conveniently lets the left and Allende’s government off the hook. As this book makes clear, the coup was a Chilean affair, and Pinochet, the nominal coup leader, was put in charge of the army by the government. The military’s chief backers weren’t the CIA but Chile’s own ruling class.

The coup destroyed the idea that the military was the ‘neutral’ force the government imagined it to be.

Allende’s government had desperately tried to be all things to all people and therefore satisfied nobody. Price controls and union legislation horrified the bosses and the process of reforms had been far too piecemeal to satisfy the workers.

The country was polarised with the government in the middle. When the coup came, the government gave the workers no lead. There was no call to arms, yet the other side was well prepared and the military took power in a sea of blood. The working class quarters were bombed by army planes while the rich districts celebrated with champagne.

Spooner gives many instances on how the regime penetrated and controlled all levels of society and corrupted relations between people. Homes and offices were bugged, a chance remark could be dangerous, thousands of socialists and trade unionists were tortured or put to death. Life under Pinochet’s junta was one of arbitrary terror. As Spooner says, the only Chileans safe were ‘diplomats and businessmen.’

The strength of the book is that it attempts to give an outline of the dynamics at work in society during the years of the dictatorship. The economy was run following the guidelines from the International Monetary Fund – austerity measures, wage cuts and unemployment.

However by the 1980s the regime was lurching from one economic crisis to another. The free market capitalism the junta had followed so carefully had brought chaos to the country, leading to a programme of interventionism. This meant the government inherited massive foreign debt and the capitalists began to withdraw support. At the bottom of society the hardships suffered by ordinary working people was forcing the trade unions out into the open after years of terror. By the end of the 1980s the regime had fallen apart.

However, there are problems with the book. It says practically nothing about the Chilean left nor does it offer much about Allende’s regime. There is little overall analysis in the book. But what it does provide is a wealth of material, including many eyewitness accounts, of the military regime – from the coup plotting, through its years of murder and dictatorship, to its final disintegration.

The Pinochet regime meant years of misery for Chilean workers. How that regime took power should be a lesson hard won, not only for the Chilean left, but for every worker and socialist who wants to change society. The military coup was a tragedy paid for in the blood of thousands of workers. The belief in the peaceful transformation of society was the death knell for those workers.

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