Immediately After the 1973 Chilean Coup, US Socialists Supported Those Fighting for Freedom
In August, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and several congressional leaders visited Brazil, Colombia, and Chile to meet with leftist activists and elected officials — a goodwill trip that the Wall Street Journal dubbed “AOC’s Socialist Sympathy Tour.” In Chile, Ocasio-Cortez and her colleagues insisted that the US government declassify more documents related to Washington’s support for the coup that overthrew socialist president Salvador Allende in 1973.
Bowing to pressure, the State Department released several of President Richard Nixon’s daily briefings concerning the Chilean military’s movement against the democratically elected government. As the memos show, Nixon knew at the time of the coup that Allende was open to a “political solution” (likely holding a plebiscite) and hoped to “fend off a showdown,” which he never got the chance to do. The revelations confirmed that the United States went into the putsch with its eyes wide open and still backed a coup that wiped out Chilean democracy.
AOC and the delegation’s successful push for declassification is the latest action in nearly five decades of US democratic socialist solidarity with Chileans, stretching back to the Democratic Socialists of America’s two predecessor organizations: the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) and the New American Movement (NAM). While not the primary US movers of what became known as Chile Solidarity — the global social movement supporting democratic rights in the Southern Cone country — DSOC and NAM, in their publications and organizing, played a real role in opposing Chile’s military dictatorship.
US Democratic Socialists’ Immediate Reactions to the Coup
When the 1973 coup erupted — bringing General Augusto Pinochet to power and ending Chile’s democratic road to socialism — NAM and DSOC were still a decade away from uniting to form DSA. The two groups were ideologically distinct in many respects. DSOC, an “Old Left” social democratic organization chaired by well-known intellectual and organizer Michael Harrington, originated as a split from the Socialist Party of America at its 1972 convention. DSOC supported progressive elements of the labor movement and Democratic Party and sought to build relations with social democratic parties across the globe. NAM, founded in 1971, was a revolutionary democratic socialist formation made up of former members of Students for Democratic Society and the Communist Party USA. It bore the mark of the New Left, with an emphasis on feminist politics and skepticism of “reformism.”
The political differences between DSOC and NAM were apparent in their initial responses to the overthrow of Allende’s Popular Unity government — a coalition of several left parties, including Allende’s Socialist Party, the Chilean Communist Party, and the Radical Party. (The revolutionary group MIR, though not a part of the coalition, was also a critical supporter of Allende’s government.) In their respective publications, the Democratic Left (DSOC) and Moving On (NAM), the two groups expressed solidarity with the Chilean people while taking different lessons from the events.
DSOC was the first to address the coup, with the article “How the US Helped Overthrow Allende” leading the October 1973 newsletter and an article by Harrington appearing later in the issue. Harrington’s article began unequivocally: “The United States actively helped to destroy democracy in Chile. That, as will be seen, is not speculation. It is a fact which can be documented from the public record.” After offering a caveat that may seem ridiculous given what we know today about the involvement of US covert forces — “This does not mean that CIA agents were responsible for the coup, or that they played a major role in it. That may, or may not, be the case” — the DSOC chair continued:
There are criticisms which can be made of Allende’s tactics and particularly the role of the ultra-Lefts from the Altamirano wing of the Socialist Party and from the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR). This is not the time to detail them. This is the time to understand America’s despicable role in destroying a democratic movement which, whatever its faults, was the hope of the Chilean people.
The rest of Harrington’s piece chronicled how the Nixon administration and global capital undermined and ultimately smothered democracy in Chile because it stood in the way of profits. Harrington noted that these attacks escalated as a direct response to UP’s soaring vote share, which rose to nearly 50 percent in multiparty municipal elections in 1973 compared to the roughly third of the vote that Allende received for president in 1970.
In a call to action, the DSOC newsletter included a petition entitled “Protest the Chilean Junta” signed by Harrington, Lawrence Birns of the New School, and congressman Donald Fraser. The Democratic Left added, “This petition was drafted in minimal terms so it could be widely circulated, not only among those who were sympathetic to the Allende government, but to all who are outraged by what is happening in Chile in terms of basic democratic liberties.” The note was a harbinger of DSOC’s strategy to incorporate a wide range of progressives and even moderates into the fold of Chile Solidarity.
NAM’s initial reaction to the coup came in the November 1973 issue of Moving On. The magazine provided a timeline demonstrating US involvement in the coup and ferocious opposition to Allende. While it overestimated the people killed by the coup (fifteen thousand to the more-agreed-upon three thousand), the organ accurately noted that thousands of dissidents were in danger. Unlike Harrington, NAM’s analysis was more critical of using elections to build socialism:
Much of the left acted as though it would be possible to gain socialism in Chile primarily through the electoral process. Other aspects of the movement were often subordinated to electoral work. It would seem that the Chilean experience speaks clearly against a perspective that sees elections as a primary route to power. This is not to say that the Chilean left should have abstained from elections; no major left group advanced such a position (including the MIR). But there were real differences on the importance of elections, and on the relations between elections and building a movement that could take power.
Showing its roots in the New Left, NAM also called attention to the feminization of anti-Allende opposition, which co-opted progressive language to undermine the socialist government:
Another element in the anti-government strategy of the right involved demonstrations of housewives against UP policies and alleged food shortages. These demonstrations employed quasi-feminist slogans. Many observers have said that these demonstrations were primarily of bourgeois women. Even if this is true, were there policies that might have been pursued by the UP that would have made it unlikely for these demonstrations to occur?
A few years later, Moving On dedicated a cover article to the situation of women in Chile.
Last, again displaying its ideological colors, Moving On used its postcoup issue to focus on the implications for global revolutionary movements. The publication asked: “How could UP better have defended itself? How could it have applied the successful experience of the Cuban and Vietnamese, and the relatively unsuccessful experiences with guerrilla warfare in Latin America in the 1960s, to the situation in Chile?”
Chile Solidarity in the United States
While these articles appeared weeks after the coup, the response to the crisis in Chile was immediate in the United States and abroad. According to Mike Dover, now a Cleveland DSA activist, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a quickly convened Chilean Support Coalition held a mass rally on campus. Following some “guerilla theater” that included Dover, three hundred people marched to the downtown office of US representative Marvin Esch. Fifty people staged a sit-in until Esch agreed to meet with them a week later, when he announced it would be premature to recognize the junta.
This action was one of countless protests organized in Western and communist countries in defense of Popular Unity and against US imperialism. The protests soon developed into a global movement (Chile Solidarity) that sought to pressure the military junta and support dissidents and leftists, many in exile for exercising democratic rights.
In the United States, the solidarity movement tended to reflect the long-standing divide between the Old Left and the New Left. The National Coordinating Committee in Solidarity with Chile (aka the National Chile Center, formed in 1974) had strong participation from CPUSA members and their allies from the anti–Vietnam War movement; Nonintervention in Chile (NiCH), with much New Left involvement, was closer to the MIR. DSOC never formed a mass formation like the CPUSA did because, according to Radical Party activist Alejandro Duhalde, a refugee in the US who worked in DSOC (and is my father), Harrington said the socialist group simply lacked the resources.
Often, DSOC and NAM members acted through their own networks and other collectives to aid the Chilean cause. A local example was the chapter activism of Austin, Texas, NAM and its center, Bread and Roses, which hosted Chile Solidarity activities. This included providing space for a group called the Austin Committee for Human Rights in Chile. Alice Embree (today an Austin DSA member) helped start the committee, which took a broader focus on human rights under the advice of Orlando Letelier, the foremost Chilean exile in the US until his 1976 assassination alongside his colleague Ronni Moffitt in Washington, DC. Letelier advised them to create a group that went beyond a left-wing base to those invested in defending democracy.
A few weeks after Letelier and Moffitt’s murder by car bomb, former CIA director William Colby came to speak at the University of Texas at Austin. The NAM chapter and the Austin Committee for Human Rights in Chile collaborated on a direct action at his event. “Some of us took a banner onto the stage before Colby could speak,” Embree recounted, “and began to sing ‘Solidarity Forever’ before Colby as we were removed from the stage; others demanded a moment of silence for Letelier and Moffitt.” (They were arrested for the demonstration, but eventually the charges were dropped.)
The Austin-based Chile Solidarity group continued to meet until the 1988 plebiscite that legally ended the Pinochet regime. Embree would join the core in the mid-2010s that revived the Austin DSA chapter.
Unlike NAM, DSOC’s support was less about direct action and more about using its networks (especially those of Harrington). In 1978, DSOC organized a tour for exiled Radical Party leaders such as Anselmo Sule, then living in Mexico, to speak to chapters. The speaker series even caught the eye of the US State Department. In a since-leaked cable, the US government expressed concern that “failure of the US and other governments to encourage the Radical Party will tend to drive it leftward and into the arms of the Chilean Community Party.”
While Chile’s cause remained important to DSA, DSOC’s first staffer, Jack Clark, observed that by the 1980s Chile began to take a backseat in the organization to campaigns on apartheid in South Africa, nuclear freeze, and Central American solidarity. At the 1983 DSA convention, a year after the DSOC-NAM merger, the resolution on Latin American policy dedicated significant space to supporting the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and the Salvadoran Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, with only one line about ending military and diplomatic support to Pinochet’s Chile.
Still, DSAers continued to back Chile Solidarity in other ways. Harrington drew on his personal networks to buoy Chile democracy efforts, often using the strategy of appealing to left-liberals and moderates as in the 1973 petition DSOC circulated. In this final draft of a 1987 letter seeking support for Sule and other Radical Party leaders to safely return to Chile, Harrington secured the signatures of not only DSA member Ron Dellums, a California congressman, but also liberal Democrat Barney Frank and moderate Democrat Stephen Solarz.
The Future of US Solidarity With Chile
Chile remains an important part of DSA’s international work nearly three decades after the end of the dictatorship. Since leaving the Socialist International in 2017, DSA has built relationships with newer socialist parties, such as Chilean president Gabriel Boric’s Convergencia Social. Other actions include a 2021 delegation to the second round of the presidential election that sent Boric to office, exchanges between US and Chilean Starbucks workers, and conversations with grassroots union and political activists. This weekend, DSA was represented by newly elected National Political Committee member Luisa Martinez in Chile for a fiftieth anniversary commemoration, joining other guests from around the world.
Martinez, who was born in Chile, reflected that the demonization of Allende in the United States, including by liberals, later happened with other democratically elected figures, such as Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Lula da Silva of Brazil. She emphasized the necessity of building global solidarity to push against this vilification, which makes it
so important to hold events like the International Summit for Democracy and Human Rights: 50 Years of Allende. In the eyes of people from the United States, Chile is a victim, and I wonder if it’s much more than that even among the Left. But the resistance that Chileans showed under the dictatorship, against US power, is also what it means to be Chilean and to be Latin American and to be from the Third World. That resistance was and continues to be inspired by the ideas of President Allende and Unidad Popular.
Another Chilean, Christian Araos, is now a cochair of national DSA’s Americas Subcommittee. He reflected on the lessons that US leftists can take today about the threats to democracy everywhere:
The coup needs to be commemorated because we have a political responsibility to highlight how modern democracy can be murdered in the name of anti-socialism. For both the US and Chilean right, what happened fifty years ago is a point of pride — not shame — because of anti-socialism. The US and its allied interests in Chile, South America, and in the transnational business community did not care for the results of free and fair elections.
He added, “Ultimately, a lesson to be learned for DSA is seeing what happens when we have a singular figure capable of winning a presidential election, but a dearth of reliable and selfless administrators who are ultimately the ones responsible for determining that figure’s administrative success.”
US socialists should learn from the past, including the mistakes and setbacks, in building a better world. We should also take pride, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Chilean coup, that we played a small role in supporting our southern neighbors in their time of need and continue to foster a relationship of unity and respect.
David Duhalde is a longtime Democratic Socialists of America member and the former political director of Our Revolution.
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