From Allende to Lula: Assessing the Legacy

September 25, 2007

As Chileans and progressives around the world mark the 30th anniversary of the violent military coup that overthrew Chile’s socialist president Salvador Allende, Latin America is arguably in the midst of a new resurgence of the left. After three failed presidential bids, Brazil’s first elected leftist president, Luís Inácio Lula da Silva, assumed office this year. Both Venezuela and Ecuador have elected presidents who claim a similar progressive pedigree, and Chile itself is governed by a member of Allende’s own Socialist Party, Ricardo Lagos. Argentina’s newly elected president, Néstor Kirchner, comes from the progressive wing of the Peronist Party and his victory owes a great deal to the massive public repudiation of the neoliberal economic policies of the last, more conservative, Peronist president, Carlos Saúl Menem. Not since the 1960s and early 1970s have there been so many leftist governments in Latin America. It would seem only natural to ask what Allende’s legacy might mean for this growing “leftist renaissance.”

One should not forget, of course, that the earlier period of leftist resurgence was rapidly followed by an unprecedented backlash that resulted in the most violent authoritarian regimes in the region’s modern history. While the world has changed in fundamental ways since then, simple intellectual curiosity about Allende’s legacy today also entails an important element of political pragmatism for the left as it seeks to honor the most productive aspects of Allende’s legacy, while avoiding some of its pitfalls. In this sense, not all leftist governments are the same, and Allende’s legacy provides an important gauge for understanding crucial differences among Latin American governments that might aspire to the wearing of his weighty historical mantel.

The task of assessing Allende’s legacy 30 years after his death is complicated. The turbulence of the subsequent three decades, in Chile, Latin America and the world, means that drawing any links between Allende’s experience as head of the 1970-73 Popular Unity (UP) coalition government and the left today, necessarily involves disentangling a number of historical processes that have only an indirect bearing on Allende’s own experiences. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War (Cuba aside), the debt crisis and the dismantling of the developmentalist state, and the consequences of the unprecedented levels of political violence that wracked most of the region during much of this 30-year period, all imply that any direct link may be more apparent than real. These events that have so altered the socio-political and economic landscapes of Latin America also mean that the nature of Allende’s legacy may be appreciated differently than it was at the time of his death in 1973.

We should therefore avoid romanticizing both Allende and the period during which he dominated Chilean politics. Allende was in many ways a tragic historical figure whose suicide under siege in the La Moneda presidential palace made him a martyr for the left, both in Chile and in a world caught up in the ideological polarization and polemics of the Cold War. While the fact that he gave his life in defense of democratic governance is one of the most enduring aspects of his legacy, it is equally important to avoid projecting its exaggerated or distorted influence on subsequent history.[1]

Similarly, it is important to recognize that while Chile was one of the most democratic countries in Latin America up until 1973, it was far from an ideal political democracy. Large segments of the population remained politically excluded until women (1948) and illiterates (1970) were given the right to vote, and the growth of a complex, autonomous civil society was severely circumscribed by the dominance of political parties and a highly centralized state. Chile had also suffered more than a decade of economic stagnation and decline. In many ways, Allende accepted the fundamental challenge of making political democracy in Chile more inclusive and just, a challenge that is not all that different from the one facing elected left presidents today. Given the magnitude of the changes since Allende governed, interpreting his legacy to a large extent involves speculating about how he might respond to this challenge today.

The challenges facing the left in power are not fundamentally different from the challenges of the 1970s. Now, as in Allende’s day, the left must come to grips with questions of political democracy and coalition politics, and with the very complex problem of egalitarian economic development. Allende’s legacy provides an important axis around which to distinguish the ways these challenges are met by the various political currents often associated with the left in Latin America today.

The first challenge is the relation between economic transformation and political democracy. When Allende won the Chilean presidency by promising a so-called “peaceful road to socialism,” he captured the attention of the world. While many were hopeful, those who were already distrustful of formal demo-cratic institutions thought his experiment in demo-cratic socialism promised to demonstrate the futility of political democracy in Latin America. For the far right, it showed the dangers that political liberalization created by providing spaces for the nation’s enemies to infiltrate the political system from within, turning centrist and even conservative democratic forces into the unwary agents of Communist revolution. The purges within the Chilean armed forces that preceded and continued after the 1973 coup are only the most dramatic example of this violent and destructive logic behind the military coups of the era. Many on the extreme left, on the other hand, viewed political democracy as a bourgeois trap. For those who advocated armed defense of the revolution, Allende’s ultimate failure reflected the limits of political democracy for creating more just societies, leaving armed insurrectionary struggle as the only viable alternative.

Allende and his closest followers—though not necessarily the majority within his own increasingly radicalized Socialist Party—saw political demo-cracy as both a means toward the achievement of a socialist society and as something of great value in and of itself. Allende was a democrat by conviction, not out of convenience. As the elected leader of the country, he paid the highest price imaginable for insisting that only the Chilean people who actually put him in office and legitimated his authority could remove him from office by respecting democratic constitutional norms.

Rather than confirm either extreme, the aftermath of the 1973 coup demonstrated—albeit with hindsight for many and still not uniformly for all segments of Chilean society—that Allende’s convictions were well placed. The violence in all its forms (physical, economic and social) that the coup unleashed did more than just target the left and the democratic “traitors” who opened the door to subversion. It was the poor and marginalized—those championed by the left—who inevitably suffered the most. While the return to democracy has helped reverse many of these costs through the dramatic curtailment of political violence and substantial reductions in poverty, the social debt created by 17 years of dictatorship is still being repaid.

The wisdom of Allende’s democratic convictions is further evidenced in the popularity of leftist leaders today whose own democratic convictions are beyond doubt. Both Lula in Brazil and Lagos in Chile publicly challenged authoritarian regimes when it was still risky to do so. Their persistent public efforts beginning in the late 1970s to first restore and then improve democratic governance in their respective countries is in no small part the key to their political success, just as it was for Allende in a very different period. Critics of the so-called “electoral regimes” that leaders like Lula and Lagos helped to construct frequently ignore this essential legacy of Allende; many fail to recognize that political democracy must form the core of any progressive project if it is to truly address the long term interests of the dispossessed in Latin American societies. The fate of the Chilean Communist Party is most telling in this regard. Ironically, the major left party that was closest to Allende’s belief in the importance of political democracy in the early 1970s has moved furthest away from that legacy today. As a direct consequence, its diminished electoral and social base has contributed to its growing political marginalization.[2]

As in 1970, the left today must define appropriate political strategies for coming to and exercising power. This is especially urgent around the need for coalitions that respect the left’s historical ideological and normative positions. Although Allende was never able to capture a majority of votes, his electoral strategy offers important lessons that are, to a greater or lesser extent, reflected in the success of both Lagos in Chile and Lula in Brazil. First, the UP emphasized the importance of party structures and other forms of popular sector organization to mobilize support. Allende’s support, beyond his personal charisma, was the result of and mediated by party and related organizations that were able to mobilize their memberships. This was crucial even if the autonomy of many civil society organizations associated with his coalition government was often subordinated to narrower partisan interests.

In this way, Allende stood in stark contrast to traditional populist leaders such as Juan Perón in Argentina, Getúlio Vargas in Brazil and Lázaro Cárdenas in Mexico who similarly proclaimed goals of social transformation and inclusion. This distinction, as well as the UP’s electoral success and the extreme counterreaction to it, owed much to the strongly ideological and normative program Allende came to represent, even if its precise goals and priorities suffered from a lack of consensus within the coalition. Unlike populist leaders in Latin America, Allende avoided the ambiguous and amorphous ideological appeals that only served to mask the elitist, self-interested nature of the populist coalition. Allende had a definitive project for Chile that transcended narrow, particularistic interests, even if its precise contours and the steps that needed to be taken to achieve it were not well defined. In this way, he attempted to lay out an alternative to the reformist “revolution in liberty” of his predecessor, Eduardo Frei, and the economic orthodoxy of the right. As part of this project for the nation, Allende could credibly seek to reach out to Chile’s middle classes, even though he largely failed in the ideologically charged context of the time.

Approximately three decades later, both Lagos and Lula were considerably more successful in winning the electoral allegiance of large segments of the middle class. In Chile, this reflects the fact that Lagos’ Concertación coalition includes many of the centrist political groups that had in the end supported the coup against Allende in 1973. Of course, the Concertación government program is arguably more ideologically moderate as a result of the inevitable compromises such a coalition requires. In the case of Brazil, Lula’s Workers’ Party (PT) has similarly been able to appeal to growing numbers of middle class voters, and it might also be accused of moderating its ideological and programmatic base to do so.[3]

Regardless of any alleged ideological moderation, both the Concertación coalition (as well as Lagos’ own Socialist Party, a member of that coalition) and the PT exhibit a strong commitment to political democracy. They are well organized, programmatic parties in the best tradition of Allende’s UP. This is especially noteworthy in the PT’s case, given the notoriously weak nature of Brazil’s party system. Moreover, both the Concertación and the PT are generally more respectful of the autonomy of civil society organizations than was the case of Allende’s UP—a definite improvement from the perspective of opening up democratic spaces for inclusion.[4] These same characteristics distinguish the Concertación and PT from more populist alternatives throughout the region, the hallmark of which is their weak organization, ideological and programmatic ambiguity, and indifference or even authoritarian resistance to democratic norms.

Finally—and fundamentally—the left has always faced the challenge of designing a viable economic policy for national development. Economic policy was one of the most grievous shortcomings of Allende’s government. While the impact of the U.S. embargo and the right’s extensive efforts to sabotage the economy—often subsidized by the U.S. government and multinationals—were important factors, there is little doubt that the government’s own inexperience, contradictory policies and lack of consensus contributed in significant ways to the economic crisis that unfolded during the last two years of Allende’s government. To a certain extent, this reflected the government’s materialist perspective on issues of redistribution: the belief that electoral support could be won, particularly from the middle classes, by progressively raising standards of living through increased social expenditures and higher public sector wages. Even though Allende was not a populist leader in a political sense, his “economic populism” contributed to rising levels of inflation and an overheated economy that further polarized the country.

The uncertainty of the left’s economic policies is not unique to the UP experience, although that experience can serve as an important lesson for the left today. Historically, this ambiguity stems from left’s anti-capitalist stance and its association with radical policies of economic redistribution. While the goal might have been clear, how it was to be achieved, particularly in a democratic context like the one in which Allende believed, where property owners had important democratic rights, was always ambiguous. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the varying, often quite substantial, levels of market reform in virtually all remaining Communist states added to this ambiguity because now even the ultimate goal has been put into doubt.

At the same time, part of the problem reflects a certain lack of intellectual endeavor and imagination, particularly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, on the part of the left. Economic policies were always among the least thought out on the left. Today, we are still searching for a viable alternative not only to neoliberalism, but also to the old statist development model whose limits contributed to the economic crises of the 1980s and subsequent neoliberal on-slaught.

In this sense, both Allende and Lula share something very important: Their elections offered the promise of a new model of democratic development and hope for a more just future.[5] Their proven commitment to democracy, a progressive ideology and the building of strong party structures with deep roots in civil society legitimated their programs as well-intentioned, and their compromises as genuine rather than opportunistic. While Allende ultimately failed to realize that promise, the poor in Latin America and the left throughout the world are hoping Lula will not. If he does succeed, that too will be part of Allende’s historical legacy.

I suspect that had Allende been elected president in 2000 instead of 1970, he would be trying to do many of the same things Lagos and Lula are attempting. Their democratic conviction, principled pragmatism and commitment to building strong political organizations dedicated to constructing more equal and just societies represent, in the markedly distinct context of the early 21st century, the best of Allende’s legacy from the early 1970s. At the same time, both are attempting to learn from Allende’s mistakes by, among other things, designing fiscal policies that are based on a less clientist view of politics, and by committing themselves to respect a greater level of autonomy for the independent organizations of civil society.

Perhaps the best way to appreciate Allende’s legacy for the left is to contrast it with populism, the other principal political tendency today that promises hope for the region’s poor. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, for example, is in many ways the antithesis of Allende’s legacy for the left. In contrast to Allende’s decades of political struggle to perfect Chile’s democratic institutions, Chávez burst onto the public stage as a junior military officer who led a failed coup against one of the oldest, albeit flawed, democratic regimes in the region. His obscure and obtuse “Boliviarian” discourse is more akin to the equally malleable justicialismo used by Juan Perón in the 1940s and 1950s to create the most durable populist movement in Latin American history. Even more so than Perón, Chávez has demonstrated his disdain for organization and institutional mediation by concentrating increasing amounts of power in the office of the presidency and attempting to establish a direct relationship with his followers. The principal exceptions are the so-called “Bolivarian Circles,” which represent an atomized collection of sometimes armed community organizations loyal directly to the president, as well as the increased role of the military in Venezuelan politics.

The fact that Alberto Fujimori of Peru shared many of Chávez’s characteristics until he was forced to flee the country for exile in Japan is particularly troubling, because it underscores the true threat of populism. Despite Fujimori’s close political relationship with Peru’s poor, he implemented some of the harshest economic adjustment policies in recent decades, and was responsible for the suspension of democratic institutions and the widespread abuse of basic human rights.

In the end, Allende gave his life to expose such false hope. His profound commitment to the democratic transformation of his country is a part of his legacy that we cannot afford to ignore.

Philip Oxhorn is Associate Professor of Political Science at McGill University. He has published widely on democratization, civil society and popular sector mobilization. He is the author of Organizing Civil Society: The Popular Sectors and the Struggle for Democracy in Chile (Penn State Press, 1995).

1. For example, the fact of Allende’s suicide was not publicly recognized until only recently, after his body was exhumed for forensic analysis. This was seen as necessary for creating the kind of public image of Allende that would maintain a strong left opposition in Chile during years of fierce repression.
2 . The party’s equivocal stance toward the transition in the late 1980s, its refusal to more fully democratize internal party structures and its inability to retain the social base it had established among the popular sectors when Pinochet seemed to be consolidating his regime in the 1980s ensured that even with fairer electoral rules, the party’s future would remain in serious doubt.
3. This success vis-à-vis the middle classes and the concomitant ideological moderation of both Lagos and Lula also reflects constitutional reforms that require candidates to win a majority of votes or face a run-off between the top two candidates. In Chile at least, this reform reflects another legacy of Allende’s term in office. Allende had assumed the presidency in 1970 with a plurality of only 36.3% of the votes and the authors of Pinochet’s 1980 constitution were determined to prevent a leftist candidate from doing that again.
4. In the case of Chile, this may reflect the distancing of the left, particularly the Socialist Party, from civil society organizations more than a strong commitment to “deepening democracy.” See K. Roberts, Deepening Democracy? The Modern Left and Social Movements in Chile and Peru (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998). This is not true of the PT, whose experiments in innovative institutions such as participatory budgeting have become a model for the left (and others). See L. Avritzer, “Democratization and Changes in the Pattern of Association in Brazil,” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, No. 42, 2000, pp. 59-76.
5. Lagos also represents this promise, but in a much less dramatic way given the nature of the Concertación and the fact that the Concertación has now been in power for over 12 years.

Tags: Chile, Salvador Allende, Lula, legacy, memory, leftist politics

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