For two terrible days last week, the capital of Chile turned into a bloody battleground. Planes roared in almost at rooftop level, firing rockets and sowing bombs. Tanks rumbled through the streets, tearing holes in walls with shells from their cannon. Infantrymen popped up in doorways, and the sound of their fire reverberated through the city. The principal target, the Presidential Palace, disappeared behind a veil of smoke and flames. Inside, Chile's Marxist President Salvador Allende Gossens, 65, died in his office as a military junta took over his country.
After his inauguration three years ago, Allende had stood on the small balcony outside his office in the palace to launch a great experiment. While thousands of his supporters cheered in the plaza below, he announced a unique undertaking: he intended to lead Chile along a democratic road to socialism. Last week the balcony still stood, although the palace was a smoldering ruin. So was Allende's Marxist vision for his country.
Week after week, as a succession of bitter strikes plunged Chile toward economic chaos, rumors had circulated in Santiago that the country was on the verge of a military coup. Even so, many Chileans dismissed the stories. True, Chile had large and well-trained armed forces. But unlike the colonels of neighboring Peru and the generals of Brazil, Chile's officers had by and large a non-political tradition.
Instant Martyr. Chileans who thought that their country was somehow immune from military takeovers were wrong. Moreover, the coup that ended Allende's experiment in socialism proved to be extraordinarily violent even by Latin American standards. In the flurry of fighting that accompanied the golpe (coup) and in the two days of chaos that followed, several thousand people were killed or injured. The military claimed that Allende had killed himself rather than surrender. Allende's supporters insisted that he had been murdered. In a sense, the manner of his death was irrelevant. Almost overnight, he became an instant martyr for leftists the world over−and a legendary specter that may well haunt Latin America for years.
Allende's downfall had implications that reached far beyond the borders of Chile. His had been the first democratically elected Marxist government in Latin America. Moderate Lathis will certainly want no more such experiments because of Chile's experience; leftists, on the other hand, will ruefully conclude that revolution is a surer route to power than the ballot box. The U.S. was embarrassed by the coup−though Washington insisted that it had taken no part. Anti-imperialists everywhere immediately assumed that Washington was behind his downfall. At week's end the U.S. had made no move to recognize the new government, but most observers expected an improvement in relations. The change of Chilean governments might also affect U.S. corporations; their sizable holdings had been taken over by Allende, but they now might at least be reimbursed for what they had lost by a more sympathetic government.