Media reports on the demise of General Augusto Pinochet invariably recalled his coup d'état on September 11, 1973 against the government of Chilean President Salvador Allende. His military dictatorship lasted until 1990.
Chilean and world opinion remain divided over the coup. One thing is clear: the Chilean constitution offered no solution to the country’s extremely grave constitutional crisis of 1973, which was in the context of a massive economic and political breakdown.
President Allende came to power with 36.61 per cent of the vote, ahead of the other two candidates. He embarked on a “crash” program to socialise the Chilean economy, involving the nationalisation of industry and the seizure of larger farms. When the courts ruled some of these invalid, Allende ignored them and directed the police not to act.
In 1971, Cuban dictator Fidel Castro spent a month in Chile, campaigning for President Allende and later arming his supporters. This reinforced fears among conservatives that Chile would follow the Cuban model.
President Allende always denied this, insisting that he would achieve socialism democratically. In the meantime, the Chilean economy fell into a crisis with high unemployment, hyperinflation over 500 per cent, declining exports caused by a fall in mineral prices and increasing imports. A wave of strikes by truck-owners, small businessmen, and some mainly professional unions inflicted even more damage.
Nevertheless, Allende's Popular Unity coalition marginally increased its vote to 43.2 percent in the congressional elections in March 1973. But the tacit understanding between Allende's coalition and the Christian Democrats had collapsed, resulting in stalemate between the Congress and the President.
There was an unsuccessful coup by a tank regiment on June 29, 1973, followed by a general strike at the end of July, joined this time by copper miners.
Then the Supreme Court unanimously denounced the government’s refusal to permit the police to enforce the decisions of the courts against it. A forced resignation of the Army Commander-in Chief (who was also Minister of Defence) ominously led to the appointment of General Pincochet to head the army. The president perceived Pinochet to be non-political.
Then the Chamber of Deputies passed a resolution entitled "Declaration of the Breakdown of Chile’s Democracy", calling on the army to put an immediate end to what they alleged were breaches of the Constitution. The alleged breaches included: ruling by decree, and evading the need for legislation; ignoring court decisions; illegally blocking attempts by Chileans to emigrate; taking over parts of the media and intimidating other media; illegally sieizing over 1,500 farms; and allowing its armed supporters to assemble while blocking demonstrations by its opponents.
They summarised their allegations by saying Allende wanted to seize “absolute power with the obvious purpose of subjecting all citizens to the strictest political and economic control by the state”. Allende’s aim, they said, was to establish “a totalitarian system”.
Many of the charges came down to disregarding the separation of powers and arrogating the prerogatives of both the legislature and judiciary within the executive.
Allende denied the charges, saying that they had never had “a more democratic government”. The opposition did not have the numbers to impeach Allende: the constitution offered no way out of the impasse.
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