“The Battle of Chile II” screened in London – lessons for today

A recent screening of Part Two of The Battle of Chile (The Coup d’État) in Bolivar Hall in London highlighted the events that led to the September 11, 1973 coup that removed Allende from power. That experience is full of lessons for today’s revolutions in Bolivia and Venezuela, and beyond.

On September 10th, 2008, The Coup d’État, the second part of Patricio Guzmán’s The Battle of Chile was screened in Bolívar Hall in London, as part of the Hands Off Venezuela Film Series organised in collaboration with the Venezuelan Embassy in the UK.

Information about the first part, scrfeened on August 20th, can be found in the previous report. The second part of the documentary is also extremely interesting and deals with the last weeks of the Allende government, from the first failed coup attempt (the Tanquetazo on June 29th) to September 11th, 1973, when Pinochet overthrew the democratic government and established the rule of the military Junta.

This part opens with the dramatic account of the July coup. That coup was defeated in quite a similar way to April 2002 in Venezuela: the population immediately reacted and took to the streets, risking their lives in defence of the Revolution; the majority of the army vacillated, did not decide which side to back and remained in the barracks; a more or less “loyal” and “constitutionalist” minority of the army easily crushed the military uprising. Nevertheless, it was quite a serious matter: more than twenty people died in the confrontation.

Politically, the coup was clearly the initiative of the Fascist group Fatherland and Freedom (Patria y Libertad) whose leaders sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy immediately after the defeat; at the same time, several mass media owned by members of the Chilean oligarchy showed warm support for the attempted putsch during the hours in which it seemed it might succeed, but tried to play down its seriousness after the event. The film shows an interesting face-to-face TV debate between a young Communist MP and a National Party MP. The Communist effectively exposes the political involvement of the National Party in the coup and quotes the enthusiastic declaration of right-wing radio stations on July 29th, followed on the 30th by allegations of the right-wing press that the coup (with all those victims!) was a hoax organised by the government! The right-wing MP in his reply fails to condemn the uprising using specious arguments and… refers to his own academic career as proof of his moral rectitude!

Most of this second part of the film is devoted to explaining the debate that unfolded among the supporters of Allende. A more moderate wing on the one hand (the Communist Party, the Radical Party, the MAPU-OC, the Christian Left and Allende himself) promoted “dialogue” with the Christian Democracy, insisting on the “constitutional path” and trying to water down the most “controversial” aspects of the revolutionary process. On the other hand a more radical wing (most of the Socialist Party, the MAPU and, outside the Popular Unity coalition, the MIR) suggested that deepening the revolution, arming the workers and strengthening the organisations of people’s power was the only way forward to prevent another coup.

In the aftermath of the coup, as an immediate retaliation, the Popular Unity proclaimed the occupation of several factories and the creation of the “industrial belts” under workers’ control. In the film, solemn workers’ meetings ratify the decision and reorganise production without the bosses, swearing oaths to defend Allende and fight against Fascism to the very end. And yet, under the pressure of the alleged need to reach a deal with the Christian Democracy, the moderate wing of the government would very soon start to propose handing some expropriated factories back to the previous owners – instead of consolidating an alternative planned economy based on workers’ control and democratic management from below, which would have been entirely possible given the level of consciousness and the admirable self-organisation of the working class.

Several congresses and rallies over the summer, also shown in the film, defined the political lines of the various left-wing parties. The debate on which path to follow did not shake only the political parties, but also the trade unions and all popular organisations and communities.

The documentary shows a trade union bureaucrat discussing with a large group of workers: among the rank and file, criticism of the “legalistic line”, preached by Allende and accepted by the trade union leadership, seems unanimous. The workers say that all important and viable factories must be permanently expropriated and used as armed strongholds for the revolution. The bureaucrat can only try to reply with vague references to the “Swiss capitalists” that own some of those factories and must not be enraged by nationalisations, in order to have Chile’s foreign debt renegotiated on more favourable conditions. The trade unionist does not seem to realise that foreign debt can also be repudiated by a revolutionary government. However, the workers from the floor clarify that they could not care less if the expropriated factories are the property “of Swiss bankers or Queen Elizabeth”. The argument between the workers and their “representative” continues, dealing with different points: the question of the level of consciousness of the masses, the question of bankrupt companies etc. It is self-evident from the footage that – whatever mistakes its leadership may have made – Chile 1973 was a true revolution, with the active involvement of the toiling masses at all levels.

In the last summer of Allende, the masses start to develop a certain frustration in the face of the ambiguities of el compañero Presidente and quite often become critical towards his decisions. Another impressive scene: in a mass rally in support of the government, the slogan of Cerrar, cerrar / el Congreso Nacional (Close, close / the Parliament) starts being chanted by the crowd; Allende replies to his supporters that he cannot shut down the Parliament and the masses react with a chorus of whistles and boos – nevertheless, he promises to organise a national plebiscite on the issue (similar to the tactics used this year by Evo Morales).

The hatred of the militant masses against Parliament was well deserved. After the Tanquetazo, everybody in Chile knew that another more serious coup was being prepared. The President needed the state of emergency to be declared in order to be legally entitled to take drastic measures against the reactionary plots in the armed forces, but Parliament, dominated by the Christian Democrats and the Nationalists, used its power of veto. In the meantime, the Chilean marines performed a series of spectacular actions in occupied factories, in poor neighbourhoods, even in a cemetery, searching for hidden weapons: pro-Allende masses could not arm themselves, yet the coup-makers were allowed to organise freely! Members of a poor community are interviewed and explain that they all support the government because its reforms for the first time gave them some dignity, and they are all in favour of arming but the government does not allow them to do so: “If they come with firearms, we cannot resist with our bare hands!” Everybody knew that they would come.

From the gradualist and constitutionalist point of view of Salvador Allende, the only solution was pursuing a compromise with the Christian Democracy and the army. A new cabinet was formed, with the inclusion of the chiefs of the armed forces; the reactionary rector of the Catholic University of Santiago was also urged by Allende to join the cabinet, but he refused and the first round of talks with the Christian Democracy did not give concrete results. The political centre was clearly playing around to exhaust Allende and erode his credibility while the US-backed conspiracy progressed.

A key loyal officer in the Navy, Arturo Araya, was killed on July 26th, in the middle of Allende’s negotiations with the Christian Democracy. The same day a campaign of acts of terrorism and sabotage started to be waged throughout the country by the CIA-trained paramilitary group Patria y Libertad. Against the background of the hypocritical facial expressions of Chilean top officers attending Araya’s military funeral, the film-makers comment that this assassination was meant to remove an obstacle in the organisation of the plot.

More chaos was needed. Once more, it was provided by the truck transporters. A massive lock-out of private transport companies threatened the national economy with complete paralysis. The government’s firm reaction   when force was finally used to break the US-inspired siege   was used by the opposition as another excuse to kick up a fuss.

In the middle of August, the Catholic Church intervened. The Revolution was going too far and it was necessary to make an attempt to stop it with a typical trick: create an unnatural alliance with some “reasonable” bourgeois forces in whose name any element of social transformation would be reverted. Even if that had worked, it would probably have delayed but not prevented the coup – there are several historical examples. However, the attempt by the Church to force an alliance between the Popular Unity and the Christian Democracy failed. Patricio Aylwin, then leader of the Christian Democrats and later “critical advisor” of Pinochet and President of Chile in 1989, listed, as the pre-conditions for an agreement, completely unreasonable demands that infuriated the Left and were eventually refused by Allende himself. Significantly, one of the main demands was the restoration of the previous ownership in the nationalised factories of the industrial belts.

August 22nd is a key date. Due to the heavy pressure coming from the military, Carlos Pratt, the Minister of Defence, resigned and was replaced by General Augusto Pinochet (considered a respectful follower of the Constitution, also because of his role in the repression of the July coup) as Commander-in-Chief of the army (Pinochet was later to assassinate him in an act of international terrorism in Buenos Aires in 1974). On the same day, the Chamber of Deputies, with the joint votes of the Christian Democrats and the Right, passed a resolution denouncing the President of the Republic for breaking the constitutional order. This was basically an appeal to the army to intervene.

One week before the final attack, a huge mass demonstration concentrated in Santiago in defence of the government, democratic rights and the Revolution. The images of that day are moving, shocking and terrifying at the same time. With the wisdom of hindsight, it is incredible that such a horror could happen in the face of such a conscious mass movement – but wonderful and massive movements can still be misled into disaster.

The images of September 11th are painful and terribly familiar: the bombers over the Moneda Palace, the last dignified radio appeal of Allende to the masses, the last picture of the President, helmet on his head and a weapon in his hand. Surrounded by the enemy, he would later commit suicide taking upon himself all the political and moral responsibility of his decisions.

The video with the first official declarations of the newly established military Junta is nauseating. The defenders of the status quo blame the “Marxist government of Salvador Allende” for “compelling” them to take the “sad” decision of “breaking the democratic tradition”. The Parliament that Allende refused to close was closed by Pinochet – without much complaint from the parties that dominated it.

As an intervention by one of the people in the debate said, the Chilean tragedy makes the politically aware viewer feel sorry but also angry. How was it possible? What would have been “the right way”, if a right way did exist? Why did the President not listen to his own supporters demanding a strong hand against Reaction?

The whole of the second part of The Battle of Chile is actually fundamentally about the debate within Popular Unity, within the trade union movement, within the organisations that supported the Revolution, about what was to be done to stop the coup and keep the Revolution alive, for the establishment of a genuinely socialist Chile.

A similar debate developed among the audience after the screening. Comrade Sara de Witt, ex-political prisoner under Pinochet, was also present and replied to some of the questions. Everybody in the hall realised that that discussion had a strong relevance for today's revolutionary processes in Latin America, especially the Venezuelan and Bolivian. The recent crisis in Bolivia and the events in Venezuela had not occurred yet, but a lot of what was said that night would unfortunately become even more relevant the day after, when, just on the anniversary of Pinochet’s putsch, the Bolivian Fascists staged a coup in the Eastern part of the country, while in Venezuela a plot to assassinate Chávez was disclosed and several top military officers were arrested. The US ambassadors in both countries have now been expelled as a protest against US interference to stop, once again, the revolutionary emancipation of Latin America.

Several interventions from the floor were about the differences and similarities between Chile 1973 and Venezuela 2002, or Chile 1973 and Bolivia 2008. Somebody stated that in the Venezuelan Revolution the conditions are better because the Bolivarian Revolution is “peaceful but armed”, as Hugo Chávez put it. Furthermore, the class composition of the Venezuelan army is much more proletarian, also among the commanding layers, than the Chilean one, because of different traditions (the rich did not bother to send their sons into the army…). The international situation is also different, because at that time international relations were dominated by the conflict between imperialism and the USSR. Somebody else replied that President Chávez has good intentions but still needs to relieve the oligarchy of all its economic power, as is also (and even more) the case in Bolivia.

Another comrade remarked that Allende was a bit of an idealist: he nationalised the mines etc., but was not prepared to organise the military measures needed to defend the conquests of the Revolution. The Chilean case set a dangerous example for the masses of the rest of Latin America and that is why imperialism decided to drown that marvellous movement in the blood of the workers, students and peasants of Chile.

Another person asked about how you can measure political support. Perhaps Allende was compelled to “slow down” the process because his consensus was limited. Sara de Witt replied that the Popular Unity was constantly increasing its support, also in the elections, ever since Allende took power in 1970. Furthermore, it is not just a question of consensus in a purely electoral sense, it is also a question of enthusiasm and the arousing of the masses, which can be obtained only when a Revolution is giving results. The experience of the organisation of people’s power – workers’ committees, anti-hoarding committees, neighbourhood organisations – was a key issue in the Chilean Revolution (and it is the subject of the third part of the documentary); the film itself showed how the transport lock-out was met by the masses with an initiative from below meant to re-organise the distribution for the needs of the population – the film also shows how the workers started to act as a police force on that occasion, an example of how the bourgeois state apparatus can be replaced by another one.

In answer to another question at the end of the meeting, Sara also explained that ordinary people were aware of US involvement in the conspiracy, but did not imagine to what extent. Nobody knew that the truckers’ strike received a $5m payment from the CIA – and in any case the right-wing press suppressed all information.

The hypocrisy of US imperialism (the main supporter of the military coup and of the subsequent regime of terror) was also underlined, in reference to the coincidence of the 35th anniversary of September 11th, 1973, the 7th anniversary of September 11th, 2001, and the 10th anniversary of the arrest of the five Cuban heroes (Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, Fernando González, and René González) in Miami, which occurred on September 12th, 1998. The meeting voted in favour of sending a message of internationalist solidarity to the Cuban Five, that you can read at Message in solidarity with the Cuban five.

In the final remarks, a HOV member said that history seems easier to understand with the wisdom of hindsight, but now we are in the middle of history and we need the same wisdom on the basis of the past experience of the workers’ movement. If the failed coup in Venezuela in 2002 had had another outcome, in Bolívar Hall there would be no film screenings and discussions about revolutions and socialism, but maybe a business meeting between Venezuelan bosses and businessmen of the City. We can have different opinions on which is the right path to follow in Venezuela and Bolivia, but we cannot be neutral or renounce thinking and discussing about it. Hands Off Venezuela sides unconditionally with the Bolivarian Revolution, so that it can become that “dangerous example” for the workers, peasants and youth of the whole world that Chile was prevented from becoming.

Last part of the documentary:

November 5th, 6:45 pm: The Battle of Chile III – Popular Power.
The location is Bolívar Hall at 54 Grafton Way, Fitzrovia.
The closest tube station is Warren Street. Entry is free.

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