How Middle-Class Chileans Contributed to the Overthrow of Salvador Allende

Published on Foreign Policy in Focus FPIF (first in The Nation), by Walden Bello, Sept 23, 2016.

American intervention was one factor leading to the Chilean coup—but unrest on the part of middle-class Chileans was another.  

… The roles of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Chilean elites, the Chicago Boys, and the Chilean military in the coup that overthrew Allende and the neoliberal transformation of Chile under Pinochet have been well-documented and widely studied. There have, however, been few studies of the role of the middle class, which served as the mass base of the counterrevolution. Yet this angry middle-class mob was one of the central features of the Chilean political scene leading up to the coup.

When I arrived in Chile in 1972, people on the left were constantly being mobilized for marches and rallies in the center of Santiago, and increasingly, the reason for this was to counter the demonstrations mounted by the right. My friends brought me to these demonstrations, where there were an increasing number of skirmishes with right-wing counter-demonstrators.

I noticed a certain defensiveness among participants in these events, and a reluctance to be caught out alone in leaving them, for fear of being harassed, or worse, by right-wing groups. The revolution, it dawned on me, was on the defensive, and the right was beginning to take command of the streets. Twice I was nearly beaten up because I made the mistake of observing right-wing demonstrations with El Siglo, the Communist Party newspaper, tucked prominently under my arm. Stopped by Christian Democratic youth activists, I said that I was a Princeton University graduate student doing research on Chilean politics, which I was. They sneered at me and told me that I was one of Allende’s “thugs” imported from Cuba. On one occasion, the miraculous arrival of a Mexican friend saved me from a beating. On the other occasion, my fleet feet did the job.

The coup in Chile showed that the middle class is not necessarily a force for democratization in developing countries … //

… It was a phenomenon that I was again to encounter 40 years later, when I had a front row seat to middle-class mobilizations against the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra in Thailand. Yingluck was a stand-in for her brother Thaksin, who had revolutionized Thai politics by mobilizing the rural poor. Supported by the middle class and dominant section of the Thai elite, the military seized power in Thailand in 2014 and has maintained an iron grip on power since then, in spite of the pleas of middle-class political formations that had supported the coup, like the Democratic Party, for a return to civilian rule.

Seymour Martin Lipset famously posited the thesis that the middle class was a force for democratization in the developing world. After observing counterrevolutionary movements against the lower classes in Chile and Thailand, I see instead a Janus-faced class: a force for democracy when it is fighting elites defending their power and privileges, a force for reaction when confronted with lower classes seeking a revolutionary transformation of society.

Yet, as Orlando Letelier pointed out, the tragedy of the middle class is that, after serving as a mass base for reaction, it also becomes eventually one of the victims of the counterrevolution.

(full text).

(A former member of the Philippine House of Representatives, Walden Bello did his doctoral dissertation on the counterrevolution in Chile in 1970-73. He is currently senior research fellow at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies of Kyoto University).


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