- Salvador Allende: Revolutionary Democrat by Victor Figueroa Clark
As social discontent and public protest rise in Chile, and as voters region-wide look leftward in search of solutions to long-standing social, political, and economic inequities, Figueroa Clark provides a timely reassessment of Chilean President (1970-1973) Salvador Allende Gossen’s life, legacy, and political thought. Attention to Allende’s life and legacy often focuses disproportionately on his administration’s denouement and his death on September 11, 1973, in the midst of the military coup that ushered in 17 years of dictatorship. Figueroa Clark goes well beyond this narrow framework to explore Allende’s political and professional life from the 1920s onward (with brief attention to his early childhood), placing both in historical context and highlighting Allende’s place in the Chilean and international left. Although the book includes information regarding family, friends, and personality, it is primarily a political biography, and this is where its strength lies.
Much debate about Allende’s political thought has revolved around whether he was a reformist, a revolutionary genuinely committed to democracy during the Popular Unity years (1970-1973), or some combination of these. Figueroa Clark traces Allende’s political trajectory over decades to argue that he was all three—reformist, revolutionary and democrat—and that these characteristics were not mutually exclusive despite politico-cultural assumptions to the contrary. Allende’s attempt to carry out peaceful socialist revolution through extant political and legal systems combined concepts [End Page 371] of reform, revolution, and democracy in ways antithetical to the polarized frameworks of Cold War political culture and discourse. Some on the left argued that the existing system was designed to prevent leftist revolutions from occurring and so could not be used toward revolutionary ends, and that counter-revolutionary violence would make peaceful revolution impossible. Right-wing elites considered Allende’s approach an undemocratic and illegitimate violation of the status quo and an existential threat to the economic, political, and social systems that favored them. Figueroa Clark offers a measured explanation of how Allende came to understand revolution, reform, and democracy as mutually inclusive, based on his decades of experience in medicine, social policy, and national and international politics.
Figueroa Clark lays primary responsibility for the 1973 coup that ended Allende’s administration and his life at the feet of the U.S. government, explaining that without U.S. intervention the Chilean elite was “too small and too weak to hold back Allende and the UP’s revolutionary process,” and that the U.S. also did much to discourage any alliance between the center and the left (pp. 144-145). While his identification of responsible actors and his assessment of the U.S.’s role is not new, his ranking of responsibility on the domestic front departs from dominant narratives. In a thread that runs throughout the book, he emphasizes the role of “those leaders of the PDC [Chilean Christian Democrat Party] who preferred to help destroy Chile’s democratic system rather than allow Allende’s process to continue,” and places the PDC’s responsibility above and beyond that of the radical left and the Chilean military (p. 144).
While in the final analysis Figueroa Clark may understate the agency of the Chilean right and the military, his argument regarding the political center is worthy of note. The PDC is often depicted as a secondary actor, its leaders forced by circumstances beyond their control to join the right in supporting military intervention. Figueroa Clark provides instead an unvarnished account of self-described “democrats” who deliberately chose to ally with anti-democratic forces and collaborate with a dictatorship rather than allow democracy to function toward ends not suited to their particular interests and designs on power.
The book is suitable for non-specialists and provides ample material for discussion and debate. As one of the few biographies in English on Salvador Allende, it is an important addition to the historical literature on the subject.