Biography of Salvador Allende, Chilean President, Latin American Hero

Allende was the first casualty of the Pinochet dictatorship

Chilean worker with Salvador Allende poster
A Chilean worker shows a poster depicting late Chilean President Salvador Allende as he takes part in the May Day parade organized by the Chilean Union Workers (CUT) in Santiago, on May 1, 2014.

Martin Bernetti / Getty Images

Salvador Allende was Chile's first socialist president who embarked on an agenda of improving the living conditions of poor people and peasants. While popular with Chileans, Allende's social programs were undermined by both national conservative forces and the Nixon administration. Allende was overthrown and died in a military coup on September 11, 1973, after which time one of Latin America's most notorious dictators, Augusto Pinochet, came to power and ruled Chile for 17 years.

Fast Facts: Salvador Allende

  • Full Name: Salvador Guillermo Allende Gossens
  • Known For: President of Chile who was killed in a 1973 coup
  • Born: June 26, 1908 in Santiago, Chile
  • Died: September 11, 1973 in Santiago, Chile
  • Parents: Salvador Allende Castro, Laura Gossens Uribe
  • Spouse: Hortensia Bussi Soto
  • Children: Carmen Paz, Beatriz, Isabel
  • Education: Medical degree from the University of Chile, 1933
  • Famous Quote: "I’m not a messiah, and don’t want to be... I want to be seen as a political option, a bridge toward socialism."

Early Life

Salvador Allende Gossens was born on June 26, 1908 in the Chilean capital, Santiago, to an upper-middle class family. His father, Salvador Allende Castro, was a lawyer, while his mother, Laura Gossens Uribe, was a homemaker and devout Catholic. His family moved around the country often during Allende's childhood, ultimately settling in Valparaíso, where he completed high school. His family did not hold leftist views, though they were liberal, and Allende claimed to have been influenced politically by an Italian anarchist who was his neighbor in Valparaíso.

At the age of 17, Allende chose to join the military before attending university, in part because he felt politics might be in his future. Nonetheless, the military's rigid structure didn't appeal to him, and he entered the University of Chile in 1926. It was at university that he began to read Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky, and to become involved in student-led political mobilizations.

According to Steven Volk, author of an Allende biography, "His medical training informed his life-long commitment to improving the health of the poor, and his dedication to socialism grew out of the practical experiences that unfolded in the clinics serving impoverished neighborhoods in Santiago." In 1927, Allende became president of the highly political association of medical students. He also became involved in a socialist student group, where he came to be known as a powerful orator. His political activities resulted in a brief suspension from the university and jailing, but he was readmitted in 1932 and completed his thesis in 1933.

Political Career

In 1933, Allende helped launch the Chilean Socialist Party, which differed from the Communist Party in significant ways: it didn't follow Lenin's rigid doctrine of "dictatorship of the proletariat" and it distanced itself from Moscow. It was mainly interested in advocating for workers' and peasants' interests and in state ownership of the means of production.

Allende opened a private medical practice known as "Social Aid," and first ran for elected office in Valparaíso in 1937. At the age of 28, he won a seat in the Chamber of Deputies. In 1939, he met a teacher named Hortensia Bussi and the two married in 1940. They had three daughters—Carmen Paz, Beatriz, and Isabel.

Hortensia Bussi
Wife of Chilean President Salvador Allende, Hortensia Bussi Soto de Allende, giving an anti-American speech in Mexico, October 7th 1973.  Keystone / Getty Images

In 1945, Allende won a seat in the Chilean Senate, where he remained until he became president in 1970. He became chairman of the Senate’s Health Committee and led the consolidation of Chile’s health programs. He was elected vice president of the Senate in 1954 and president in 1966. Throughout his time in the Senate, he was a strong defender of the different Marxist factions, and spoke out against the Chilean president in 1948 when, under pressure from the Truman administration and at the height of McCarthyism, he banned the Communist Party.

Allende ran for the presidency four times, beginning in 1951, when he was a candidate with the newly formed People's Front. His agenda included a nationalization of industries, an expansion of social welfare programs, and a progressive income tax. He received only 6% of the vote, but he gained visibility as someone who could unite communists and socialists.

The Communist and Socialist parties united to form the Popular Action Front in 1958 and supported Allende for president; he lost by a narrow margin of just 33,000 votes. In 1964, the group again nominated Allende. By this time, the Cuban Revolution had triumphed and Allende was a vocal supporter. Volk states, "In both 1964 and 1970, conservatives bludgeoned him for his steadfast support of the revolution, seeking to stir fears among voters that Allende’s Chile would become a communist gulag replete with firing squads, Soviet tanks, and children ripped from their parents’ arms to be raised in communist re-education camps." Nonetheless, Allende was committed to bringing Chile to socialism via its own path and was, in fact, critiqued by radicals for his refusal to advocate for armed insurrection.

Salvador Allende with Fidel Castro
Cuban premier Fidel Castro (left) with Chilean president Salvador Allende (1908 - 1973), circa 1972.  Romano Cagnoni / Getty Images

In the 1964 election, Allende lost to the centrist Christian Democratic Party, which had received funding from the CIA. Finally, on September 4, 1970, despite the CIA's support for his opponent, Allende won a narrow victory to become president. The CIA funded a right-wing conspiracy to delegitimize Allende's victory, but it failed.

Allende Presidency

Allende's first year in office was spent implementing his progressive political and economic agenda. By 1971 he had nationalized the copper industry and began to focus on other industrial expropriations in order to redistribute land to peasants. He expanded social welfare programs and improved access to health care, education, and housing. For a short time, his plans paid off: production increased and unemployment fell.

Salvador Allende, 1971
Salvador Allende posing for a portrait on June 10, 1971 in Santiago, Chile.  Santi Visalli / Getty Images

Nonetheless, Allende still faced opposition. Congress was primarily filled with opponents until March 1973 and often blocked his agenda. In December 1971, a group of conservative women organized a "March of the Pots and Pans" to protest food shortages. In fact, the reports of food shortages were manipulated by right-wing media and exacerbated by some store owners taking items off their shelves to sell on the black market. Allende also faced pressure from the left, as younger, more militant leftists felt he wasn't moving quickly enough on expropriations and other workers' issues.

Furthermore, the Nixon administration set its sights on ousting Allende from the beginning of his presidency. Washington employed various tactics, including economic warfare, covert intervention into Chilean politics, increased cooperation with the Chilean military, financial support for the opposition, and pressure on international lending agencies to cut Chile off economically. While Allende found allies in the Soviet bloc, neither the Soviet Union nor the German Democratic Republic sent financial assistance, and countries like Cuba weren't able to offer much more than rhetorical support.

The Coup and Allende's Death

Allende's naive attitude toward the Chilean military was one of his fatal errors, in addition to underestimating how deeply the CIA had infiltrated its ranks. In June 1973, an attempted coup was suppressed. However, Allende was no longer in control of the fragmented political situation and faced protests from all sides. In August, Congress accused him of unconstitutional acts and called on the military to intervene. The commander-in-chief of the army soon resigned, and Allende replaced him with the next in rank, Augusto Pinochet. The CIA had known about Pinochet's opposition to Allende since 1971, but Allende never questioned his loyalty until the morning of September 11.

That morning, the Navy mutinied in Valparaíso. Allende took to the radio to assure Chileans that the majority of the forces would remain loyal. An iconic photo was taken, showing Allende in front of the presidential palace in a combat helmet and gripping a Soviet gun given to him by Fidel Castro.

Salvador Allende the day of the coup
Salvador Allende photographed the day of the coup which overthrew him. Serge Plantureux / Getty Images

Allende soon learned that Pinochet had joined the conspiracy and that it was a widespread insurrection. However, he refused the military's demand to resign. An hour later, he gave his last radio address, indicating that this was the last time Chileans would hear his voice: "Workers of my nation... I have faith in Chile and its destiny... You must know that, sooner rather than later, the great avenues (grandes alamedas) will reopen and on them dignified men will again walk as they try to construct a better society. Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers!".

Allende helped defend against the air force attacks, firing from the window of the palace. However, he soon understood that resistance was futile and forced everyone to evacuate. Before anyone could notice, he slipped back to the second floor of the palace and shot himself in the head with a rifle. For years, doubts were raised about whether Allende truly died by suicide, as was maintained by the sole witness. However, an independent autopsy conducted in 2011 confirmed his story. The military initially gave him a secret burial, but in 1990 his remains were transferred to the General Cemetery in Santiago; tens of thousands of Chileans lined the route.

Legacy

Following the coup, Pinochet dissolved Congress, suspended the constitution, and began ruthlessly targeting leftists with torture, kidnapping, and assassinations. He was aided by hundreds of CIA personnel, and ultimately was responsible for the deaths of roughly three thousand Chileans. Thousands more fled into exile, bringing with them stories of Allende and contributing to his lionization across the world. Among these exiles were Allende's second cousin, acclaimed novelist Isabel Allende, who fled to Venezuela in 1975.

Salvador Allende is still remembered as a symbol of Latin American self-determination and the fight for social justice. Roads, plazas, health centers, and libraries have been named after him in Chile and around the world. A statue in his honor is located just a few yards from the presidential palace in Santiago. In 2008, the centennial of Allende's birth, Chileans declared him the most important figure in the nation's history.

Statue of Salvador Allende
Santiago de Chile, Plaza de la Ciudadanía, statue of Salvador Allende.  Herve Hughes / Getty Images

Allende's younger daughters, Beatriz and Isabel, followed in their father’s footsteps. Beatriz became a surgeon and ultimately one of her father's closest advisors while he was president. While she never returned to Chile after fleeing to Cuba after the coup (she died by suicide in 1977), Isabel returned in 1989 and embarked on a career in politics. In 2014, she was elected the first female president of the Chilean Senate and president of the Chilean Socialist Party. She briefly considered a presidential run in 2016.

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