Salvador Allende (1908-1973) was president of Chile from November 1970 until his overthrow by a CIA-backed military coup in September 1973.
Allende was born to a middle-class family in the Chilean capital Santiago. He graduated from the University of Chile with a medical degree, however, Allende’s real interest was in left-wing politics. He joined the Socialist Party in 1933 and the coalition Popular Front government in 1938, serving as its health minister until 1942.
A reforming socialist rather than a communist revolutionary, Allende oversaw the implementation of policies to improve the lives of poor Chileans. He remained in the Chilean Senate during the 1950s and 1960s, where he continued to champion social reform and author important pieces of legislation.
Allende also sought the national leadership, running several times for the presidency. He was finally elected president in 1970, at the head of a populist coalition.
The first elected socialist leader in Latin America, Allende proposed radical economic policies, including sweeping land reforms and the nationalisation of banks, steel companies and copper mines. Allende’s government also increased social spending and welfare programs, increasing pensions and investing in public housing, education, maternal health and food schemes for the poor.
These policies were implemented democratically, with the support of Chile’s legislature – however, the government’s excessive spending had a detrimental impact on the economy, which had slumped into a recession by 1972. Allende also sought economic assistance from the Soviet Union and restored diplomatic ties with Cuba, hosting Fidel Castro on a month-long visit.
Allende’s policies antagonised the United States. His nationalisation program threatened American mining and manufacturing interests in Chile, while the forging of ties with Moscow threatened security in the Western hemisphere. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which had previously spent millions funding opposition parties to prevent Allende’s election, now backed his removal with an internal coup.
On September 11th 1973 the Chilean military, led by Augusto Pinochet, seized control of the country. Cornered in his presidential palace, Allende was either murdered or forced to commit suicide.
After the September 11th coup, Pinochet’s military junta embarked on a brutal recrimination campaign, arresting, torturing and murdering thousands of Allende supporters.