What’s the Deal With “The Esmerelda” and Allende’s Suicide?

Hello all, and welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?”  the blog that translates today’s news from catchy headlines to an in-depth history lesson!

I'm going to teach you a lesson.... a history lesson that is

Today’s discussion highlights the recent exhumation of the former Chilean President Salvador Allende’s corpse to truly distinguish whether he was murdered or whether he committed suicide during the military coup of 1973.  We’ll also talk about the Chilean tall ship The Esmerelda, that is currently touring the West Coast of the U.S. as an “ambassador” to promote Chile, but really is a floating reminder of the violent military takeover that ended the Allende presidency.

On September 11th, 1973 the government of Socialist President Salvador Allende was taken over in a coup d’état by the Chilean Armed Forces led by General Augosto Pinochet.  What followed was a right wing military suppression of leftist groups, individuals, and supporters of Allende and other liberal parties.  The first few months after the coup were months of purging of the remnants of the socialist government and its supporters.  130,000 people were arrested in a three year period with thousands of documented cases of torture and detention.

It was no pleasure cruise

Many of these atrocities occurred aboard The Esmerelda during the months following the coup in 1973.  Reports of sexual assault, bloody beatings, and electric shock torture all ring soundly in the minds of those Chileans who lived through the violent suppression.  The Chilean Navy may use the ship as a roving ambassador right now, but it really is simply a grim reminder of the human rights violations that took place under Pinochet’s 17 year dictatorship.

In the most recent reports from Allende’s exhumation, forensic evidence is showing that his death was a clear suicide with an AK-47 rifle shot wound to his head.  His former supporters (including Fidel Castro) claim that he would rather die than face handing over the government to a group of power hungry conservatives and they celebrate his legacy today.  It is interesting to examine how Allende came to have his own military surrounding his palace in a coup d’état that forced his own suicide.

At the surface looking at the current events of the time in Chile, it looks like a simple case of a fed up populace that was suffering through difficult economic times because the socialist agenda by Allende was not working, and ergo, popular protests led to a call for a new government.  But, oh ho no, that is not the whole story at all.

Beep, Beep, Beep… let’s back up and bring the big picture into it here: its another case of American intervention in Latin America to protect business interests from “bad” Marxist governments.

Capitalism is neither Lazy or Fair

The U.S. had primary economic interests in Chile since the early 20th Century, with private corporations owning copper mines and other resources, controlling up to 20% of the Chilean GDP.  With foreign investment dominating Chile’s economy, domestic business was difficult because foreign companies set the prices and could out-compete local industries.  The U.S. wanted to protect its foreign monopoly in Chile and through clandestine efforts by the CIA, planned to thwart leftist governments, including socialist governments, that sought to give Chileans more choice and freedoms within their own country.

In the 1950’s and 60’s the U.S. backed more conservative candidate Jorge Allessandri, someone who supported a capitalist government with limited power.  Alessandri was able to defeat Allende in the 1958 election (with fundraising and marketing help from the U.S.) and right away reduced tariffs for foreign imports which brought American products to Chile and undercut local production, putting economic dependence on American products.

Allende was not a fan of Bay of Pigs

In the election of 1964, Allende became an even more popular candidate for president, and the U.S. spent $3 million mostly on negative ad campaigns against Allende.  The U.S. directly spent $20 million and hired over 100 people with the mission of preventing Allende’s election.  Allende wasn’t just feared for his policies (which would give more power to Chileans away from American business interests) but for his socialist ties to Cuba’s Communist government and Fidel Castro (they were close friends).  In the 1964 election, the U.S. supported the Christian Democratic Party candidate Eduardo Frei Montalva, because the laissez-faire policies were only forcing Allessandri to depend even more heavily on the U.S. and foreign investment.  Frei inevitably won the election by a large margin.

The U.S. again tried to prevent Allende’s election in 1970, but this time Allende won with a small majority because the United Party (consisting of major left groups) decided to unite under Allende.

Regarding the actual coup, it seems that the U.S. government had little involvement in its actual planning or execution, but a U.S. telephone corporation, ITT, financially helped Allende’s opponents organize a coup attempt for 1973.  ITT owned a majority of Chilean telephone company Chitelco.  ITT’s headquarters in NYC were bombed in retaliation 17 days after the coup on Sept. 11th 1973.

So what was the U.S. involvement in Allende’s actual death?  Probably not too much direct involvement (other than spreading false information to stir up opposition groups) however, the Nixon administration knew of opposition group plans and was definitely glad to have the conservative military dictatorship of Pinochet in power where he would support U.S. interests.

Let’s summarize what the big deal is here and why I’ve written 872 words on this subject (according to the counter at the bottom):

  1. The U.S. covertly attempted to prevent the election of Salvador Allende from 1958 and 1970
  2. The U.S. was attempting to protect powerful business interests that would be undermined by a socialist government
  3. The Coup brought about violence, human rights violations, and a dictatorship or 17 years.

So, this is another story of American intervention in foreign affairs to protect business interests in Latin America right?  Yep, and just like in Haiti, Honduras, El Salvador, Puerto Rico, Grenada, Colombia, Panama, and Nicaragua, the U.S. got their way.  Basically, Scrooge McDuck has been the director of our foreign policy.  Sweet.

Welp, thanks again for tuning into “What’s the Deal?”  Stay tuned for another entry next week and in the meantime, don’t read the news, that way you’ll be more inclined to read my blog.

Thanks for Reading!

Your Faithful Historian,

Eric G. Prileson


The U.S. involvement in Chile is documented in CIA papers that were released in 2000 under the Clinton Administration.

Stephen Kinzer has written a great book called Overthrow that details American foreign policy in clandestine works to overthrow leftist govt. to protect business interests.

The New York Times, NPR, and the BBC provide the current stories of The Esmerelda, and the autopsy of Allende.


About eprileson

I am a historian and writer who wants to bring to light current events through a historical perspective. It is difficult to understand today's current events without having a grasp of what has occurred before. This is a running thread to help keep people informed about the present and remind everyone to not forget their past. Enjoy and please comment!
This entry was posted in American Intervention, Politics, Revolution/Political Uprising. Bookmark the permalink.

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