Resurrecting Allende

September 25, 2007

“This radio station will be silenced and my quiet voice will no longer reach you. But it does not matter; you will continue to hear it. I will always be with you, remembered as a man of dignity who was loyal to his nation.”

—President Salvador Allende’s last address from the presidential palace, just before his death in the military coup, September 11, 1973.

On June 26, 2000, in Santiago’s Plaza de la Constitución, Chile’s center-left Concertación government unveiled an official monument to Salvador Allende, the socialist president who was overthrown in the bloody coup of September 11, 1973. “Allende returns today symbolically to this place, a testimony to his heroism in the midst of the tragedy of ‘73,” President Ricardo Lagos, a one-time Allende disciple, told European and Latin American guests and the several thousand Chileans who had gathered for the commemoration. As Lagos and Allende’s widow Hortensia Bussi de Allende unveiled the statue, a loudspeaker, set up unofficially in an office window above the crowd, began to play “Venceremos,” the hymn of Allende’s Popular Unity (UP) government. To the surprise of the official event organizers, a thousand Chileans raised their voices in revolutionary song.

Intended to be a proud, somber event, the commemoration was, in fact, filled with tension and dissent. The heads of the Chilean Communist Party, one of the principal members of Allende’s Popular Unity coalition, had not been invited to join the dignitaries on the podium. Many of the Party’s members and sympathizers, separated by a metal fence from the official invitees, booed the speakers.[1] Their anger was fed by the Concertación’s efforts to win the release of General Pinochet after his arrest in London, an effort that many leftist critics believe fits the pattern of the government’s betrayals on issues of social justice. Indeed, the President’s speech was virtually drowned out as the dissidents hurled eggs, tomatoes and coins, shouting, “Lagos, traidor, defiende al dictador.” (“Lagos, you traitor, defending the dictator.”)

It is, perhaps, not surprising that a ceremony to bestow permanent honor upon one of Chile’s most famous politicians and presidents would suffer from divisive polarization. Indeed, the story of the monument is the story of how Chile continues, 30 years later, to struggle with the pain and controversy of Allende’s government and the coup that led to his death. Building statues of historical figures is commonly used to convey national unity and stability—to transform what are often conflict-ridden historical memories into concrete, authoritative symbols of a proud past. Clearly, a handful of Chilean officials had hoped such would be the case with the Allende monument. But from the moment the project was launched until the present, the monument has evoked a virulent public reaction from Pinochet supporters and only low-key support from many of the historic allies of Allende who now hold office. If the Chilean right had had its way, the late president would have been denied his place of honor in Chile’s historical memory. That the statue was built at all represents a small, symbolic step for Chile in recognizing and accepting his enduring legacy in Chilean political life.

The process of erecting a statue in Allende’s memory—from official approval through design and construction—took the better part of a decade. It began with a protracted, fitful journey through Chile’s Congress, followed by discord over the actual design of the monument, and then a heady debate in the press over where the statue should actually stand. Traditional enemies of Allende dominated the congressional debates, denouncing him as the worst leader in Chilean history and hardly worthy of commemoration; traditional allies largely remained silent, trying not to call attention to their own records and relationships to the late president. Those on the commission for the monument design, including Allende sympathizers, selected a rightist sculptor but rejected his proposal for a statue boldly identifying Allende with the Chilean pueblo. Leading politicians and historians led a loud campaign against locating the statue in the Plaza de la Constitución, in front of La Moneda, the presidential palace. Throughout the monument’s political and physical evolution, its future was always in jeopardy.

The effort to authorize the statue began in May 1991 as a piece of legislation proposed by members of Allende’s Socialist Party and the center-left Party for Democracy. The law actually called for three monuments to the fallen leader—one each in Santiago, Valparaíso and Punta Arenas. The bill listed Allende’s many public achievements, including his early political leadership as a medical student and a night school professor for workers; his participation in the 1933 founding of the Chilean Socialist Party; his election to the Chilean House at the age of 29; his championing of public health care and 1940 appointment as Minister of Health; his 1945 election as senator and his presidency of the Senate in 1966; and his four runs for the national presidency, culminating in his electoral victory of 1970. It outlined a step-by-step process for erecting a lasting historical tribute to the former president.[2]

By contrast, obtaining congressional approval for monuments to the late presidents Jorge Alessandri (1958-1964) and Eduardo Frei (1964-1970) had taken a mere three months from start to finish. Passage of the law authorizing the Allende monuments took four full years. Predictably, the approval process on the legislation gave way to a tense political struggle to define and redefine the period of Allende’s presidency. Not surprisingly, the dominant voices in both the House and Senate belonged to the Chilean right, who waged an ugly campaign of obstruction and delay. Again and again, the congressional debates struck at the core of bitter, polarized historical memories of victims and perpetrators.

On June 5, 1992, the Allende monument legislation first came up for a vote in the Chilean Congress. Members of the traditional right-wing party, National Renewal (RN), managed to block the vote by claiming that a quorum did not exist in the House. Seven members of the RN simply refused to vote, even though they had just acted on other legislation and were, in fact, present on the House floor. The RN’s refusal to participate left the House one short of the necessary 40 votes for a quorum.[3] Rightist House members stalled the legislation a second time, successfully challenging the electronic vote tabulations by charging that six affirmative votes were mistakes.

During the actual House debate, the right took to the floor to put their vitriol on the record. In a harsh floor speech, RN congressman Juan Enrique Taladriz held Allende and the UP government responsible for the calamities of the 1970s, particularly the misfortunes of those whose properties had been expropriated. “Thousands of Chilean families suffered irreparable losses as a direct or indirect consequence of the [UP] government,” Taladriz proclaimed. He opposed the statue “in order not to relive that period that is better left forgotten.”[4]

Congressman Carlos Ignacio Kuschel, who delivered a longer, more damning address, excoriated the Allende government for starting the violence that had wracked Chile, and credited the military regime with averting civil war. True democrats and patriots, he argued, were forced to suspend democracy in order to save it.

To be sure, a handful of Allende partisans did forcefully respond to these attacks. “Allende never left this world with blood on his hands!” said Socialist Congressman Hector Olivares, a former political prisoner and exile who identified himself as a “proud friend” of the late president. “Allende never disappeared citizens from this country nor ordered torture in his government!”[5] In the memory of “el compañero Allende” the late congressman Mario Palestro charged that a certain olvido—a collective forgetting—was taking place in the Chilean transition, a forgetting that would in part be countered by the monuments to Allende.[6] Palestro linked Allende to the poor, the workers, the dispossessed. By implication, the olvido to which Palestro referred included today’s poor and disenfranchised.

On July 9, 1992, the House approved the monument legislation. The vote was 40 in favor, 14 against and three abstentions. The bill then passed to the Chilean Senate, where it took another two years to be voted through. The one public Senate discussion of the Allende monument legislation in June 1994 was dominated by several right-wing senators, most of whom issued lengthy denunciations of Allende. RN senator Francisco Prat argued that Allende had attempted to lead the country down a violent path toward totalitarianism. Senator Hernán Larraín of the new-right Independent Democratic Union (UDI) declared Allende’s administration “dark, very negative, and, perhaps, one of the worst moments in our history.”[7]

Few of the progressive senators rose to challenge these arguments and champion Allende’s memory. Instead, they argued that Chile would appear “strange” in the eyes of the international community if the senators failed to approve the monuments, given the abundance of streets, plazas and monuments to Allende throughout the world. Then-senator (and current Education Minister) Sergio Bitar, a former member of Allende’s cabinet and a former prisoner and exile, focused on “tolerance,” “diversity” and “reconciliation.” Bitar insisted that the role of the Senate was not to be the judge of history.[8]

Behind the scenes, Senate proponents of the monument bill averted a nasty public struggle and potential defeat through an unsavory compromise: In exchange for UDI votes for the Allende monuments, Socialist senators agreed to support a law authorizing a monument to the late UDI Senator Jaime Guzmán, a leading civilian architect of the Pinochet regime and its 1980 constitution, who was assassinated in 1991. Accepting a political equivalency between Guzmán, an authoritarian political philosopher on the extreme right, and Salvador Allende was obviously repugnant to the Socialists. But in June 1993, the Socialist senators held their noses and voted unanimously for the Guzmán monument. In turn, a year later the UDI senators voted unanimously for the Allende monuments.

On April 19, 1995, the anniversary of the founding of the Chilean Socialist Party, the Allende Foundation—a private group consisting principally of members of the extended Allende family—sponsored a public fundraising drive on Santiago street corners to raise the money for the monument. Before the cameras, prominent Chilean politicians, including then-president Eduardo Frei, Jr., wrote large checks. That day, the state-sponsored newspaper La Nación claimed that the statue would symbolize a calm, mature, united nation that, “having learned something from the pain,” was moving toward an “authentic reconciliation.”[9]

But the public collection and the images of the Socialist Party’s satisfaction with the effort on behalf of an Allende monument triggered an outpouring of rightist letters and articles in the press that ranged from mild disdain to outright disgust. Objections to the placement of the statue became central to the criticism. Statues of two former presidents, Jorge Alessandri and Eduardo Frei, had already been approved for the Plaza de la Constitución; the Allende Foundation recommended that Allende, too, belonged in the Plaza. The government’s Council on National Monuments concurred.

But many opponents of the statue claimed there would be no room in the Plaza for Allende. The Alessandri and Frei placements had already been established. Once their sculptures were finished, the two would face one another on the two side streets of the Plaza to La Moneda’s right and left. Diego Portales, a founder of the Chilean republic, had long commanded a spot in the center of the third street bordering the Plaza, where he faces La Moneda from the far side of the square. Those three statues would form a neat triangle.

Many traditionalists claimed that the addition of the Alessandri and Frei statues had already created two statues too many in what was known as “la Plaza de Portales,” and that the plan to erect an Allende monument in the Plaza was just an over-the-top idea.[10] In an editorial, the newspaper La Segunda noted that Santiago was an “enormous city,” and that given the controversies, other sites should be chosen: “In nations like France or the United one would conceive of placing various minor statues together with those of Louis XIV or Lincoln.”[11] Many worried the Plaza would be converted from the Plaza of Portales to the Plaza of the Three Thirds, a reference to the generalized historic claim that the Chilean electorate had always roughly aligned one-third to the right (symbolized by Alessandri), one-third to the center (symbolized by Frei) and one-third to the left (to be symbolized by Allende’s statue).

In July 1995, newspapers announced that the Public Works Ministry, headed by then-Minister Ricardo Lagos, would propose that the Allende monument be placed in the center of the Plaza.[12] That proposal was quickly squelched. In September, the Allende Foundation and Santiago’s municipal leadership decided that the best way to fit Allende would be to uproot Portales from the far side of the Plaza and move him to the Plaza’s center instead. Allende would then take Portales’ original place. While Allende’s daughter Isabel argued that this would in fact make Portales the central figure of the Plaza, many historians and traditionalists found the idea of moving Portales offensive to his memory. Portales was a personal favorite of Pinochet, who saw him as the nineteenth century hero who stabilized Chile’s course in an authoritarian manner.

Chilean sculptor Arturo Hevia came up with the solution: Like Jorge Alessandri, Salvador Allende could stand on Calle Morandé, though much closer to La Moneda. The only technical difficulty was that an obelisk standing where Allende would be was actually an air vent for La Moneda offices underneath the Plaza. Hevia designed Allende’s monument to incorporate air vents hidden by engraved plaques.

The selection of Hevia, a self-declared rightist who publicly stated he would be happy to sculpt a monument to Pinochet as well, drew heavy criticism from the left. Nevertheless, Hevia approached the Allende project by visualizing the fallen leader as a heroic figure. Hevia also drew inspiration from a model to whom he was very close—his father. “My father was a socialist, a man very involved with the plight of the people,” Hevia recalled. “I always respected his opinions very much, and I know he felt them in his heart. He was very sensitive, not very practical, but very sensitive, and I felt that through homage to Allende I was paying homage to my father.”[13]

A special panel, headed by the well-known Chilean artist José Balmes, asked Hevia to amend his first proposal, which was a far more elaborate design and very similar to his monument to Frei, the charismatic Christian Democratic president. In the Frei monument, as the President authoritatively gestures outward, there are two Chileans—a miner and a peasant—supporting him from below. The statue celebrates Frei’s famous “Chileanization of copper” and his agrarian reform laws; the presidential figure projects an image of confidence and authority. Hevia said he had something analogous in mind for Allende. For the monument’s foundation, Hevia depicted a group of families—workers with their children—advancing through the street, waving a great Chilean flag, bolstering Allende from below. According to the sculptor, the selection panel instructed him to “take the people out and try to make it more abstract.”
In his second proposal, Hevia presented a far more amorphous foundation for the statue; this design subsequently won him the contract. “I thought a good deal about this experience,” Hevia said, “and I concluded that, well, the socialists are now so renovated that they don’t want the people near them.” The result is a monument to Allende in which the late president’s face and torso are real likenesses, while his lower body is wrapped in an inverted Chilean flag, as though he were floating virtually legless.

The Allende monument bears an unmistakable resemblance to that of President José Balmaceda, the late nineteenth century liberal leader who killed himself in the immediate aftermath of Chile’s civil war. Hevia draped Allende in the Chilean flag, much the same way as Balmaceda is depicted, giving his likeness a ghostlike quality notably lacking in the statues of Frei and Alessandri. At the same time, the likeness and placement of the statue serve to defy powerful intents to obscure Allende from the public view and relegate him to some dark memory of the past.

Like the statue itself, the ghost of Allende remains an inescapable presence in Chilean politics. Throughout his 2000 presidential campaign race, center-left candidate Ricardo Lagos struggled with that ghost, choosing to absent the late president from his campaign rhetoric. On the one hand, Lagos represented the Concertación, a coalition of centrist and center-left parties that had governed Chile in the ten years since the transition from dictatorial rule. As a Socialist, however, and as a former UP government official, Lagos’s deliberate silence regarding Allende was painfully obvious. Lagos’ challenger in the Concertación primaries, Christian Democrat Adolfo Zaldívar, explicitly evoked Allende: “The people made a mistake electing Allende.... I hope they don’t make a mistake again with Lagos.”[14] Lagos’ one response to Zaldívar was an attempt to disassociate himself from that past: “I will not be the second socialist president of Chile. I will be the third president of the Concertación.”[15]

While the Socialist Party wrestles with its relationship to Allende both internally and within the Concertación alliance, the Communist Party identifies closely with the late leader. For Chile’s Communists, who have become but a fraction of the political and cultural powerhouse they once were, Allende is an icon of towering proportions. His image appears in every Communist-organized demonstration and event.

Each September 4, the anniversary of Allende’s inauguration, and each June 26, Allende’s birthday, the Communists and Socialists hold separate commemorations at the same sites. For several years, this site was Allende’s tomb in the general cemetery. Since the unveiling of the statue, however, the site has become the monument in the Plaza. The Communists begin at 11:30 AM, and the Socialists commence at noon. Their events have sometimes overlapped as tense, painful shouting matches.

Nevertheless, while the Chilean left has struggled internally over how to project the past for future generations, progressive sectors of society have also proven capable of coming together to embrace a vibrant political and cultural history that resonates with contemporary Chilean youth. On September 4, 1998, as a final fundraiser and a tribute to Allende, the Allende Foundation sponsored an open-air concert in which nationally and internationally known performers played and sang before an audience of 65,000 in the National Stadium. Several older musicians later registered surprise that so many young people knew all the words to their old songs. Indeed, the young Chileans welcomed the graying performers with wild, enthusiastic cheers.

There are many who continue to scorn the Allende statue. Yet as memories are ever-evolving processes, Allende seems to be increasingly respected for dying for his beliefs. Perhaps we can attribute this, at least in some small part, to the establishment of the Allende monument in the Plaza, calling, even in a ghostlike way, for Chileans to come to terms with this fallen leader, to own up to Chile’s past and the Allende tragedy. After a decade-long struggle over a monument for Allende, perhaps Chile’s political elites have inserted Allende into a historic continuity in ways they had not anticipated—a continuity that recognizes mobilization and protest as part of a democratic tradition. As last year’s September 11 anti-Pinochet protests took place, organizers chose the Allende monument as a key site for demonstrations. Indeed, since its inauguration, the statue has served as a site for a repertoire of collective action—a place for protest, a stop on the march, a memorial where flowers and wreaths are laid, a space that Chilean youth armed with wine and guitars can claim as their own.

The monument now plays a role in the passing of Chile’s memory from one generation to the next. On an outing to La Moneda, the father of a six-year-old girl told me he found himself explaining Allende’s fate to his daughter “as if it were some kind of action thriller. I moved around firing shots and gesturing and making noises, pah, pah, pah.” His daughter, he said, was fascinated. “She asked me all kinds of questions. We walked into La Moneda and she was very impressed. After we left we were walking in silence when we suddenly ran into Allende’s statue. I showed it to her, she looked at it, and said: ‘Allende must have really been a very courageous man.’”[16]

Katherine Hite is an assistant professor of political science at Vassar College and the author of When the Romance Ended: Leaders of the Chilean Left, 1968-1998 (Columbia University Press, 2000).

1. The tension surrounding the inauguration was a stark contrast to Allende’s official reburial and funeral a decade earlier. See Alfredo Joignant Rondón, El gesto y la palabra: ritos políticos y representaciones sociales de la construcción democrática en Chile (Santiago: LOM Ediciones,1998), pp. 167-194. On the exclusivity of the monument inauguration ceremony, see Rafael Otano, “A quién pertenece Allende?” La Tercera (Santiago), July 4, 2000.
2. Diario Oficial (Santiago), July 11, 1994.
3. See El Mercurio (Santiago), June 5, 1992.
4. A classic example of the ways in which past expropriations continue to obsess the right took place during the brief congressional discussion over the Frei monument. House representatives raised concern regarding language in the law permitting the commission to consider acquiring private land for the monument site should public land prove somehow inappropriate. Congressman Horvath stated such a proposition was all too reminiscent of the painful years of Frei’s agrarian reform and should therefore be stricken from the legislation. It was. Cámara de Diputados, Sesión 3ra, October 4, 1990, p. 187.
5. Cámara de Diputados, Sesión 2da, June 2, 1992, p. 47.
6. Cámara de Diputados, Sesión 2da, June 2, 1992, pp. 41-42.
7. Senado, Sesión 5ta, June 14, 1994, p. 512.
8. Senado, Sesión 5ta, June 14, 1994, p. 502.
9. Editorial, “El monumento para Salvador Allende,” La Nación, April 19, 1995, p. 5.
10. “Historiadores rechazan ubicación de nuevos monumentos en Plaza de Portales,” La Segunda (Santiago), May 5, 1995, p. 25.
11. Editorial, “Ubicación de monumentos y Plaza de la Constitución,” La Segunda, May 8, 1995, p. 8.
12. Juan Rauld, “Monumento a Allende: Ubicación más probable es el centro de la Plaza de la Constitución,” La Segunda, July 22, 1995, p. 22.
13. Interview with Hevia, June 28, 2002, Santiago. All subsequent quotes from Hevia are taken from this interview.
14. La Segunda, May 14, 1999, cited in M. Angélica Pérez Ferrada, “Frases celebres de la campaña,” El Mercurio On-Line, Sunday, December 16, 1999.
15. El Mercurio, July 18, 1999, cited in Pérez Ferrada, “Frases celebres de la campaña.”
16. Conversation with Martín Rodriguez, Santiago, July 3, 2002.

Tags: Chile, Salvador Allende, memory, legacy, politics, statue

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