Salvador Allende wins the elections: first coup attempt

In December of 1969, the Popular Unity (UP) —an electoral coalition formed by the Socialist, Communist, Radical, and Social-Democratic Parties of Chile, as well as the Popular Unitary Action Movement (MAPU) and the Independent Popular Action— presented the country with a joint legislative program for the upcoming 1970 elections.  It proposed the construction of socialism for the people of Chile through the further advancement of workers' interests, a thoroughgoing implementation of agrarian reform, the reorganization of the national economy into socialized, mixed, and private sectors, a foreign policy of international solidarity and national independence, and a new institutional order (the "people's state"), including the institution of a unicameral congress.(1) As an editorial published  in  El Mercurio put it, "The Marxist left has entered the campaign with important innovations when compared to their former tactics."(2) 

Early in 1970, Salvador Allende Gossens, a physician and a socialist politician with a long record of service, was chosen as the Popular Unity's presidential candidate.(3) Allende promised, if elected, to move gradually in enacting the UP program and, in particular, not to alter the situation of the nation's military establishment.  Nevertheless, the Clarin disclosed on July 14th that CIA agents had expressly been sent to Chile because of the impending elections.(4) Another ominous sign was a warning from Jorge Alessandri, the former president of Chile (1958-1964) who was again a candidate for that office, running independently, but with the support of the National Party and the rest of the Chilean right: "I don't think that [the left] will achieve its objective," he said, "because the organized public forces and Carabineros (military police) of Chile will not allow the criminal doctrines to win.  Moved by patriotism, they will save us [even] at the cost of sacrificing the liberty that we all enjoy."(5) At the same time, Radomiro Tomic, presidential candidate for the Christian Democratic Party, also campaigned using a clearly leftist tone.

On September 4, 1970, the elections took place, and it was known by 3:00 the following morning that Allende had received a plurality of the votes cast.  The final tabulation was: Allende - 1,076,616, Alessandri - 1,036,278, Tomic - 824,849.(6) In his victory speech, delivered from the balcony of a building on Alameda Avenue, Allende accurately foretold the problems his government would soon face: "Victory has not been easy, but it will be more difficult to consolidate this triumph and to build the new fatherland, the new coexistence, the new morality [of Chile]."(7) The foreign press noted the immediate impact of giving the Western world its first democratically chosen Marxist president: "This election must have been a shock to foreign investors in Chile, mainly for the mining companies owned by the Americans...Allende is ready to install a revolutionary government to end the dominion of native and foreign capital."(8)

Since none of the presidential candidates had obtained an absolute majority of the vote, the Chilean National Congress had to select a president from the two front-runners, Allende and Alessandri.  Claiming that "the electoral process has not ended," Alessandri's supporters exerted pressure by refusing to recognize their candidate's popular defeat.  The majority of the Chilean people, they alleged, had shown that they did not want to live under Marxism but in freedom.(9) By contrast, the national committee of the Christian Democratic Party acknowledged the victory of the UP in a public statement: Salvador Allende, they declared, had "won in a clear and indisputable manner," and rejected the contrary claims of Alessandri's supporters.(10) The actual endorsement of Allende's election by the CDP's congressional representatives was withheld, however, until he guaranteed his future government's respect for certain individual and social rights.  When Allende agreed to reform the Constitution accordingly, the CDP instructed its 75 congressional delegates to vote for him "in the upcoming October 24th session of that he can be designated President of the Republic of Chile."(11)

Still, the day before Allende's election was to be ratified, a group of terrorists apparently attempted to kidnap General Rene Schneider Chereau, Commander in Chief of the Army. With this criminal maneuver, elements of the extreme right evidently hoped to block Allende's acceptance by Congress and to bring on an intervention by the military that would place the armed forces, instead of the UP, in control of the state.  Schneider had always been a general who scrupulously respected the Constitution of Chile and its democratic institutions. Upon the electoral victory of the UP, he stated unequivocally: "The Armed Forces cannot stop the changes.  An important group of Chileans is not willing to let others 
snatch away from them a victory which they believe will change the course of their lives...Allende has given us his assurance that he will stay within the Constitution and laws.  He has personally told me something that I agree with: at this moment a government like the one of Mr. Allende is the only one that can stop a violent popular insurrection."(12)

The Commander had left his house in Sebastian Elcano around 8:10 in a Mercedes Benz driven by Corporal Leopoldo Maura.  At the corners of Zamora and Americo Vespucio Street, eight blocks from his house, several cars intercepted and blocked Schneider. According to an eyewitness: "Everything happened very fast.  I saw two well-dressed, black-haired men who got out of a Peugeot.  One of them began to smash the [rear and side] windshields with a hammer, while the other fired into the interior of the car."  The gunman emptied his 45 caliber revolver into Schneider, hitting him three times.  And as Maura attempted to defend the general, the terrorists fled. As soon as he saw the seriousness of Schneider's wounds, the corporal decided to rush him to the military hospital. Two additional eyewitnesses testified that they saw about ten men participate in the attack.(13)

After Schneider's arrival at the hospital, Army Division General Carlos Prats was informed that one of the bullets had punctured his lungs and damaged his liver.  Immediately grasping the gravity of the situation, Prats, as the second in command, ordered that the Army of Chile be placed on emergency alert.  By 11:30, Prats had been summoned to an emergency meeting of the chief commanders, with Serigo Ossa Pretot presiding, the Minister of Defense in the outgoing administration of Eduardo Frei Montalva.  There, a joint public statement was issued, condemning the attack on Schneider and the implied attempt to destabilize Chilean democracy by provoking the military authorities.(14) Though General Schneider died of cardiac arrest on the 26th of October, two days earlier Salvador Allende had been proclaimed President of Chile by a wide margin in the congressional vote. The final tabulation gave him 153 votes to Alessandri's thirty-five.(15)

The Intelligence Office of the Armed Forces soon claimed to have unraveled the objective of the attack on Schneider. It was, they stated, a botched kidnap attempt. According to Prats: "Instigated by elements of the extreme right, and following orders from Roberto Viaux Marambio, a group of young men belonging to the upper class attempted to kidnap Schneider."  Presumably, they had intended to trigger a violent reaction from the army that would have stopped the congressional session in which Allende's election was to be completed.(16) Viaux was a retired army general who, in October of 1969, had led the rebellion of the "Tacna" regiment in Santiago during the presidency of Eduardo Frei.  At the time of the attack on Schneider, Viaux and others in the Chilean military had already been contacted by the CIA and encouraged to undertake an anti-Allende coup.  U.S. President Richard Nixon had given "orders to prevent the socialists' rise to power, hoping to prevent the creation of another Soviet ally in the Western Hemisphere."(17)

A few days after the burial of General Rene Schneider on October 26th, President Allende promoted Carlos Prats to the post of Commander in Chief of the Army.


[1] Valle, Eduardo. Camino a la moneda, (December 17, 1969). In Allende: cronología, (1974). México, DF: Fondo de la Cultura
[2] "La semana política: programa impersonal," El Mercurio, (February 15, 1970). In Los mil dias de Allende I, (1997). Miguel González Pino, et al., eds. Santiago, Chile: Centro de Estudios Públicos
[3] Tohá, Moy de and Isabel Letelier. Allende: demócrata intransigente, (1986), p. 66. Santiago, Chile: Amerinda Ediciones
[4] Cf. Valle, (July 14, 1970)
[5] Ibid., (July 16, 1970)
[6] Cf. Tohá, p. 75
[7] Cf. Gonzalez Pino, "Dijo Allende en su discurso: ‘la tarea recién comenzamos’,"  Las Noticias de última hora, (September 5, 1970)
[8] Gonzalez Pino, "Allende concita atención de la prensa mundial," La Tarde, (September 7, 1970)
[9] Gonzalez Pino, "Enrique Ortúzar, su vocero: declaración sediciosa del momiaje en pleno,"  Puro Chile, (September 7, 1970)
[10] Gonzalez Pino, "La DC reafirmó reconocimiento del triunfo de la Unidad Popular,"  Las Noticias de última hora, (September 8, 1970)
[11] Gonzalez Pino, "PDC ordena a sus 75 parlamentarios votar por Allende,"  El Mercurio, (October 21, 1970)
[12] Novello, Marcello. La clase obrera y el gobierno de la Unidad Popular, (1998). Database on-line available at
[13] Gonzalez Pino, "Criminal atentado: baleado General Schneider," El Mercurio, (October 23, 1970)
[14] Prats, Carlos. Memorias: testimonio de un soldado, (1985), p. 184-186. Santiago, Chile: Pehuén Editores
[15] Gonzalez Pino, "Salvador Allende elegido presidente por congreso pleno,"  La Segunda (October 24, 1970)
[16] Prats, p. 187
[17] "CIA plot against Allende: Operating guidance cable", (October 16, 1970). Database on-line available at:

Photo credits (from top to bottom)

1 and 2: Tohá, Moy de and Isabel Letelier. Allende: demócrata intransigente, (1986). Santiago, Chile: Amerinda Ediciones

3: Prats, Carlos. Memorias: testimonio de un soldado, (1985). Santiago, Chile: Pehuén Editores

4, 5 and 6: Los mil dias de Allende II, (1997). Miguel González Pino, et al., eds. Santiago, Chile: Centro de Estudios Públicos

7: [   ] Entrevistas escogidas: 75 personajes conversan con Analisis, (1987). Santiago, Chile: Editorial Emision

8: Harrington, Edwin and Mónica González. Bomba en una calle de Palermo, (1987). Santiago, Chile: Editorial Emision

Front page of the communist newspaper El Siglo (Sep. 4, 1970)

Salvador Allende leads a  caravan of  followers

René Schneider, Commander in Chief of the Army

Front page of El Mercurio newspaper

Allende receives the Presidential sash. Eduardo Frei stands behind the new President of Chile

Augusto Pinochet (on horse) follows the Allende motorcade. José Tohá, Minister of the Interior, is seated next to the President

Roberto Viaux in a mid-1980s photo

Allende and General Carlos Prats

 Allende wins the elections
 The Popular Unity government
 El Tanquetazo: June 29, 1973
 The definitive coup
  Resources and links