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CHILE: Mandate for Allende

6 minute read

“We have given the world a lesson,” Salvador Allende Gossens declared jubilantly last week. Five months ago Allende became the world’s first Marxist head of state to win office through a free election. Last week, in nationwide municipal contests, he won a bigger share of the vote and a fair-sized endorsement of his policies.

Allende’s Popular Unity coalition claimed 50.8%. Actually, if void, blank and independent ballots had been included in the total count, the coalition’s share of the vote would have amounted to 49.7%. Still, the figure was an impressive increase over the 36.3% Allende received in the 1970 presidential elections. The Chilean Communist Party, which is closely aligned with the Soviet Union, increased its vote only slightly—from 15.9% of the total last year to 17.3% this time. The big winner was Allende’s Socialist Party, which stresses its independent Chilean character. The Socialists nearly doubled their share to 22.8%, replacing the Communists as the strongest element within the Popular Unity coalition. The only loser among the three main partners in the ruling coalition was the relatively moderate Radical Party, whose vote dropped from last year’s 13% to 8.1%. The conservative National Party’s strength dropped sharply to 18.5%. But despite the continuing movement to the left in Chilean politics, the most popular single party in the country remained former President Eduardo Frei’s Christian Democrats, who polled 3% more of the vote than President Allende’s Socialists.

No Arrogance. The results obviously strengthened Allende, who had said earlier that he would have been content with 43% of the vote. But it was unlikely that the outcome would cause him to increase the tempo of his reform program. He does not have a majority in Congress, where the opposition, notably Christian Democrats, can still block his program. Under the constitution he could call a plebiscite to give him the power to dissolve Congress and replace it with a unicameral legislature in which his position would be stronger. But the roughly 50% of the vote he won in the municipal elections is not enough to assure that he would win such a plebiscite. Allende insisted last week that he had no intentions of trying it. “I expect that the Congress will meditate on the popular verdict,” he said. “I expect cooperation. We are not going to become arrogant with the victory we have obtained.”

Inflation Threat. The most important legislation before the Congress at the moment is a proposed constitutional amendment that would give Allende the power to complete nationalization of the all-important copper industry. Allende has already nationalized the coal, steel and nitrate industries, as well as two of the largest textile plants and 60% of the nation’s banking. The cement industry may well be next.

But copper nationalization will have the most serious effect on the Chilean economy and on Allende’s relations with the U.S., since three U.S. companies (Anaconda, Kennecott and Cerro Corp.) own the bulk of the remaining foreign interest in Chile’s copper mines. Allende has also expropriated 350 latifundios (large estates), with a total of 2,593,000 acres. Although very few landless families have been relocated thus far, he likes to boast that “in five months we have done one-third of what the previous government did in six years.”

The cost of Allende’s revolution has proved higher than many of his countrymen yet realize. So far, direct controls have checked Chile’s chronic inflation, which last year galloped away at the rate of 34.9%. The controls have crippled Chilean businessmen by forcing them to hold down prices while having to pay higher taxes and higher wages to employees. Allende has granted cost-of-living increases ranging from 34.9% for public employees to 47% for private workers. The government’s policies have also laid the foundation for renewed inflation by increasing the money supply 55.2% during 1970 and 34.7% during the first quarter of this year.

As a result of the deteriorating economic situation, the Chilean escudo has slipped to an exchange rate of more than 40 to the dollar on the black market (v. 14.5 at the official rate). Since December, Chile’s foreign reserves have dropped from $332 million to $255 million. As foreign technicians have left the country, discipline at the mines has fallen steadily. At the giant El Teniente copper mine, absenteeism has increased from 7% last year to more than 25% in February, while copper production at some mines is running 20% behind last year.

Though he frequently takes a nationalist line, Allende knows that he has nothing to gain by antagonizing the U.S. unnecessarily. He is also acutely concerned about the steady decline in the flow of credits to Chile from the U.S. In recent weeks, accordingly, Allende has sought to offer assurances that his nationalization program is not an act of revenge against the U.S. He has emphasized that Chile will not allow the Soviet Union or any other power to use its territory for military purposes. He is angry over several recent slights by the U.S., including the Nixon Administration’s refusal to allow the carrier U.S.S. Enterprise to pay a good-will visit at Valparaiso last February.

Wary Attitude. “Don’t put up roadblocks for us,” Allende told TIME. “The worst thing would be if we were to fail not because we are inept but because artificial roadblocks are put in our way. If that were to happen, the people of Latin America would have no recourse but violence. If so, the day will come—not that I want it to—when no North American will be able to set foot safely in South America. This is the great political responsibility the U.S. has.”

Allende stresses his preoccupation with his own country’s problems. “I want to be a man of Chile,” he says. “We are a small country, but we have national feelings and we will never be at the service of any great power. Chile will never be a base for the U.S. nor China nor Russia and that should be enough for you. Your problems are Russia and China. These are not my problems. My troubles are milk, bread, work.”

The Nixon Administration has remained wary of Allende. But last week it became known that Washington is planning a shift that could portend a more relaxed attitude toward the Allende regime. U.S. Ambassador Edward Korry, who Allende felt had opposed him in last year’s campaign, will soon be replaced by Nathaniel Davis, 46, a cool-headed career man currently serving as U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala. Though delicate, Davis’ new assignment hardly compares with his last one. He went to Guatemala after his predecessor, John Gordon Mein, was gunned down by terrorist killers in the streets of Guatemala City.

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