Salvador Allende Gossens (1908-1973) was President of Chile from 1970 to 1973. He died in the Presidential Palace during the brutal military coup which installed a military dictatorship in Chile in 1973. Allende dedicated his life to the cause of socialism in Chile, serving as a congressman, senator, and government minister during his long public career.
Salvador Allende Gossens was born in Valparaíso, Chile, on July 26, 1908. Allende's family had a long tradition of political involvement in progressive and liberal causes. His father and uncles participated in the reformist efforts of the Radical Party in the 19th and early 20th centuries. His grandfather founded one of the first lay schools in Chile when the Catholic Church claimed hegemony over education. The family also had roots in Chilean freemasonry, with Allende's grandfather serving as a Most Serene Grand Master of the Masonic Order.
In an interview with French Marxist Régis Debray in 1971, Allende also credited an anarchist shoemaker, Juan Demarchi, for contributing to his early political education during his teenage years. In the shoemaker's shop, after school, Allende was introduced to revolutionary theory and the reality of artisan radicalism in early 20th-century Chile.
Following in the footsteps of his uncle Ramon Allende, who was the organizer of Chile's medical services during the country's war with Bolivia and Peru (1879-1883), Salvador Allende began his medical studies at the age of 18 and received his medical degree in 1932. His involvement in university politics as a leader of the Chilean Student Federation found him active in student protests against dictator Carlos Ibáñez (1927-1931), and Allende was arrested on more than one occasion. Allende's brother-in-law was the brother of Marmaduque Grove, leader of Chile's short-lived "Socialist Republic" of 1932. Shortly after Grove's government fell, Allende's father died and at the funeral Allende declared, "I would dedicate my life to the social struggle, and I believe that I have fulfilled that promise."
Allende married Hortensia Bussi, and the couple had three daughters—Paz, Isabel, and Beatriz. His family remained committed to his personal struggles and to his political commitments throughout his life, with Beatriz actually shouldering arms alongside her father in the presidential palace during the 1973 military coup. His wife and other family members continued active resistance to the military government both within Chile and from exile after Allende's death in 1973.
Allende and Chilean Socialism
In 1933 Allende joined more well-known political leaders in founding the Chilean Socialist Party. As leader of the Socialists in Valparaíso, where he worked in public health, Allende was elected to the Chilean Congress as a deputy in 1937 and served as minister of health in a "Popular Front" government in 1939 and again in 1941, when he also assumed a major leadership post in the Socialist Party.
In 1943 Allende led a majority faction of the Socialists out of the Popular Front coalition, breaking with the old Socialist caudillo, Grove. Allende emerged as secretary general of the splintered party. As he was to do for the rest of his life, Allende declared his commitment to Marxism, socialism, democracy, and nationalism—to promote an independent and unique Chilean road to socialism.
From 1945 until his election as president of Chile, Salvador Allende served in the Chilean senate as a leading member of the Socialist Party. He served five years as vice-president of the Senate and two years as its president. In 1952, 1958, and 1964 Allende was the presidential candidate of leftist coalitions; in 1958 Allende barely lost the presidency to Jorge Alessandri. Shortly thereafter he visited Cuba in the first month of Fidel Castro's new government and enjoyed close contacts with Fidel, Raul Castro, and Che Guevara. Allende cherished a copy of Che Guevara's Guerrilla Warfare inscribed "To Salvador Allende, who is trying to obtain the same result by other means, Affectionately, Che."
In the Chilean Senate Allende consistently defended the interests of the working classes, attacked capitalism and imperialism, defended the Cuban Revolution, and vocally supported the guerrilla movements in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s. Allende strongly supported OLAS, the Cuban-based solidarity movement for Latin American revolutionaries, and glorified the memory of Che Guevara after his death in Bolivia in 1967. Though rejecting violent revolution for Chile, Allende proclaimed the necessity for revolutionary change, for socialist transformation, "through democracy, pluralism and freedom."
The Allende Presidency
In 1970 Allende was elected president of Chile as the candidate of a leftist coalition called Unidad Popular, or Popular Unity. A coalition of Socialists, Communists, Radicals, Catholic leftists, and other minor parties, this coalition represented less than 40 percent of the electorate but was victorious in a three-way election by a narrow plurality. Seeking to carry out dramatic social, economic, and political reforms, including nationalization of Chile's major natural resources, large industries, banking, and trade, the Popular Unity coalition faced stiff internal opposition and the animosity of the Nixon administration in the United States. President Allende attempted to hold together his coalition and to deal with ever more intense internal opposition along with economic sanctions, both overt and covert, applied by the United States. Allende's commitment to socialism, though more moderate than many of his allies, nevertheless generated significant polarization of Chilean society. Economic difficulties, caused both by poor economic planning and by internal and external adversaries, exacerbated political conflict within the country.
By mid-1973 the Chilean economy was experiencing high levels of inflation and serious declines in productivity as the internal opposition to the government became more militant. Finally, on September 11, 1973, the armed forces mounted a nationally coordinated coup d'etat in which large numbers of civilians were killed, wounded, and or imprisoned. President Allende refused to surrender and leave the country as the coup leaders demanded, instead fighting against the military from the presidential palace with an automatic weapon given to him by Fidel Castro. Allende died during the coup, with conflicting reports claiming he committed suicide or was murdered by the soldiers who stormed the presidential palace after it was attacked by air force planes.
In his last broadcast from the palace to the people of Chile, Allende gave inspiration to his followers for the years of military dictatorship that were to follow: "I have faith in Chile and in its destiny. Other men will overcome this dark and bitter moment, when treason stands to conquer. May you go forward in the knowledge that, sooner rather than later, the great avenues will open once again along which free citizens will march in order to build a better society."
Further Reading on Salvador Allende Gossens
Much has been written about the presidency of Salvador Allende in Chile, but there is no detailed study of his life and career in English. Allende's own writing and speeches provide a clear idea of his early commitment to improving the life of the majority of Chile's people and of his political values. Examples of Allende's speeches and interview material can be found in Salvador Allende, Chile's Road to Socialism (1973); Régis Debray, The Chilean Revolution (1971); and "An Interview with Allende" in New Chile (1973). A number of books dealing with Allende in the Chilean political system include Stefan de Vylder, Allende's Chile (1976); Paul Sigmund, The Overthrow of Allende and the Politics of Chile, 1964-1976 (1977); Paul Drake, Socialism and Populism in Chile, 1932-52 (1978); Arturo Valenzuela, The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes: Chile (1978); and Brian Loveman, Chile (1979).