Blood in the Streets of Santiago: Forty Years Since the Coup in Chile

By Richard Pithouse · 9 Sep 2013

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Picture: Former President of Chile, Salvador Allende, courtesy Browse Biography.
Picture: Former President of Chile, Salvador Allende, courtesy Browse Biography.

Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean poet, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971 for “a poetry that with the action of an elemental force brings alive a continent's destiny and dreams". In his acceptance speech in Stockholm he cited Arthur Rimbaud, the wild teenage poetic genius of the Paris Commune of 1871: "In the dawn, armed with a burning patience, we shall enter the splendid Cities." Neruda declared that “my duties as a poet involve friendship not only with the rose and with symmetry, with exalted love and endless longing”, but also a “taking sides” with the “organized masses of the people” in struggle against the “the condemnation of centuries” and for “justice and dignity”.

Neruda was not just speaking as a poet. In 1970 he had been appointed as the ambassador to France when Salvador Allende led a coalition of left parties to victory in a bitterly contested election in Chile. As a teenager Allende had formed a close friendship with an anarchist shoemaker, Juan Demarchi, and their discussions, and shared reading, opened his political horizons. For the rest of his life Allende’s politics remained more democratic, more pragmatic and more generous in the face of organisational and ideological diversity, than was, and still is, more usually the case on the left. But this was not only a matter of ideas. His work as a doctor rooted his politics in a concrete understanding of the day to day lives of ordinary Chileans.

Neruda, who had first been the Communist Party’s candidate for the Presidency, had campaigned for Allende’s attempt to rally the left under a single banner insisting that “our people must be elevated to the life of human dignity that they deserve”. To the horror of Chilean elites, Catholic intellectuals, American business and political interests Allende won the election. His victory speech promised a “second independence – economic independence” and he symbolically opened the doors of the Presidential Palace, La Moneda, to the people.

Allende was and remained committed to a democratic and non-violent path to a more just society. But from the beginning it was clear that he faced forces that didn’t share these scruples. Before he was even sworn into office the American ambassador in Santiago reported to Henry Kissinger, a powerful figure in Richard Nixon’s administration, that: "Once Allende comes to power we shall do all within our power to condemn Chile and the Chileans to utmost deprivation and poverty."

In office Allende, at first moving cautiously, began to make small but significant reforms. Wages were increased, children provided with milk, houses built, effective literacy programmes put in places, libraries developed in trade union offices and shanty towns, literary classics published and distributed and child care facilities and public laundries set up. Then the mines and banks were nationalised. Allende’s share of the vote escalated dramatically in the April 1971 municipal elections.

But demands for change were also escalating outside of the electoral arena and representative politics. There were rural and urban land occupations and then, in the same month as the municipal elections, workers seized control of a textile mill. Allende was rattled and insisted that “The masses cannot go beyond their leaders, because the leaders have an obligation to direct the process and not to leave it to be directed by the masses.” In the end, unwilling to repress the occupation of the mill, he let it stand. In the next two years there were more than 500 factory occupations. They, and the self-governing neighbourhoods in the shanty towns, became centres of increasingly confident popular power. Some commentators called this, in a phrase that carries a certain resonance in contemporary South Africa, “a radical third force”.

The backlash from elites in Chile and the US began to gather real intensity. At the same time Allende’s government, and popular struggles in Chile, won increasing international support. Stevedores in Rotterdam and Marseille refused to unload any copper in protest at an attempt by American corporate power to boycott Chilean copper.

In late 1972 Neruda returned to Chile from Paris. In November he was honoured at the National Stadium and declared that “This land has passed from the hands of the glutted to the hands of the hungry.” But by the end of that year it was clear that the democratic road to a more equal society was being blocked by the alliance of Chilean and American elites. Allende refused to arm the peasants, workers and shack dwellers who had been driving social change from below and from outside of the state. In December he refused an offer of Soviet protection in exchange for Chile becoming a client state of the Soviet Union on the Cuban model. When the coup that put an end to this experiment in democratic socialism came on 11 September 1973 it came with the tanks and jets of the Chilean army under the command of Augusto Pinochet and the full backing of the US state.

Allende gave his final speech, a defiant speech, over the radio. Then there was military music and, in Santiago, the sound of the air force attacking both the shack settlements in the hills and the Moneda Palace. The next morning Allende’s body, wrapped in a Bolivian poncho, was carried out of the smoking ruins of the Presidential Palace which, Neruda noted, had “for centuries been the centre of the city’s civil life”. People started to disappear. Forty thousand were taken to the National Stadium where some were tortured and murdered. Homes were raided and books seized and burnt. When the soldiers come to desecrate Neruda’s home he famously declared that “there's only one thing of danger for you here—poetry”. They burnt his books in his garden. He died twelve days after Allende in circumstances that remain highly contested.

Thousands of people came out for Neruda’s funeral. Workers on the job stood to attention. A line from one of Neruda’s poem’s about the Spanish Civil War was taken up by the swirling crowd – “Come and see the blood in the streets”. It became the last open demonstration in support of the deposed government. Elections and trade unions were suppressed, books, music and curricula were censored, the country was thrown open to American corporations and economic policy making shifted from the parliament in Santiago to the University of Chicago.

Eduardo Galeano summed up the result of the coup that brought Pinochet to power and replaced democracy with military rule in a simple but enduring formula: “Business free as never before, people in jail as never before”. Coups followed in other countries across Latin America. As Isobel Allende – a daughter of Salvador’s cousin who became a fabulously successful novelist in exile - wrote in 1997 “soon half the continent’s population was living in terror”.

In 1983 a series of protests emerged from the shanty towns. Some raised photographs of Allende as their banner. They were savagely repressed by the military. But although Pinochet would hang on to power till 1990 these protests are now often seen as the beginning of the end of his brutal reign. The policies developed for Chile in Chicago, policies premised on the radical subordination of society to the market, would be exported to countries around the world, beginning in the global South, before they started to infect the North too. They continue to leave social and political catastrophe, catastrophe presented as hard economic rationality, in their wake.

In the last pages of his autobiography, completed sometime between the coup and his death twelve days later, Neruda wrote that “Once the thirty pieces of silver had been exchanged, everything returned to normal.” There have been moments when we could say the same. The difference for us is that those who took their pieces of silver in exchange for returning things to normal did not come from outside the struggle and they did not come in tanks. They came in the name of the struggle. They came as heroes. We all know their names. We shouldn’t be surprised that patience is burning up on our streets.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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9 Sep

'We Know their Names'

After reading the Sunday papers, we could start with Baleka Mbeta, Cheryl Carolous, Cyril Ramaphosa & Mamphele Ramphele.

They way in which the mining industry bought consent by buying off politically connected individuals is just incredible.

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10 Sep

Haffajee on Mbeta et al - Ferial Haffajee: "For the longest time, I opined we were at a tipping point of being corrupt if we didn't do something about it. Well, now we've tipped. We are well and truly corrupt."

9 Sep


"The difference for us is that those who took their pieces of silver in exchange for returning things to normal did not come from outside the struggle and they did not come in tanks. They came in the name of the struggle. They came as heroes. We all know their names. We shouldn't be surprised that patience is burning up on our streets."

South Africa already knows the story-line and how the next chapter will most probably unfold.

Impatience and frustration due to unreasonable expectations and the slow pace of the seditious NDR, botched land reform, BBBEE, Employment Equity and tenacious inequality, poverty, unemployment, hunger, disease and xenophobia create more than enough opportunities for serious conflict.

Anglo American liberals (read unscrupulous capitalists posing as liberals) whose vested interests are now anew threatened by the NDR and Employment Equity, together with those politicians corrupted by them, are destined to return in "tanks" or in the form of irritable duty bound police officers fearing for their own lives.

Another Sharpeville massacre of 21 March 1960, another Soweto uprising of 16 June 1976 and another Lonmin Massacre of 16 August 2012 will follow.

Subsequent inflammatory reporting, more commissions of inquiry and truth commissions feeding on scandal, rumour, sensation and the fears of a nation in turmoil will also fail to uncover the whole truth.

The amorphous leaders of opinions abusing news and other platforms to spread their venom that perpetuate victim-hood and unattainable expectations or preach violence and revolution will again walk free to unchecked proceed with their destructive, seditious and divisive behaviour.

I wish I knew who they are.

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MFXJ Verified user
9 Sep

Beautiful, Richard, Beautiful

We like teaching our children not to bully other kids (who by definition are weaker, more vulnerable); but the only enduring lesson I can see from 6 or 10,000 years of recent human history is that bullying is the only game in town: make sure your guns are the biggest; get to the top of the pile by whatever means you can muster; and stay there as long as possible (while accumulating as much wealth as possible); become deluded that your reign will last 1,000 years; then get overthrown either by someone with bigger guns OR a peasant revolt from below.

The religious / wisdom traditions of the world have played on the side of both the oppressor and oppressed; so I'm not sure that they can always be trusted to be consistently on the side of truth and justice (although invariably that's what their doctrines claim to stand for, probably universally). Otherwise they promote private spirituality (no harm at all there); but then the bullies just carry on having a field day while I "become one with the Universe".

Is there a way out of this sad cycle?

Fundamentally, I believe that our hearts must change to a) believe that truth and justice are supreme and worthwhile values for all humans to live by; and b) have the self-awareness and courage of this conviction to live it in our own lives. But this cannot be imposed or legislated at all.

So what are we left with?

Maybe it's just THE LAW: 1) Fighting inch-by-inch to have "good" laws and constitutions put in place to govern ourselves (laws by and large all seem to promote truth and justice as an underlying assumption); then 2) fighting even harder to implement and protect the adjudicating mechanisms.

So maybe our daily fight here in SA must just simply be about 1) and 2) above.

Because you can bet your bottom dollar (and as is plainly evident) that the bullies will be doing their best to twist, avoid, undo, and trash the law and adjudicating mechanisms in their pursuit of wealth accumulation.


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10 Sep

Yes, This Is Beautiful Writing

Thank you for publishing work like this.

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Everywoman Verified user
14 Sep

Yes, Beautiful

Spot on, as always - moving and insightful commentary.

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20 Sep

And a beautiful song on the anniversary

I know that Richard will dig this:

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