The truth about the victims of political violence in Chile

by James Whelan (The Australian, December 15, 2006, extract). 

Six months before Salvador Allende was overthrown on September 11, 1973, Volodia Teitelboim told an interviewer for the Communist Party daily newspaper in Santiago that if civil war were to come, then 500,000 to 1,000,000 Chileans would die.

Teitelboim knew whereof he spoke. He was then the No.2 man in the Chilean Communist Party, the third largest in the Western world (after France and Italy), and a senior partner in Allende's Marxist-Leninist government.

The Communists were then planning to seize total power in the country, though they were not in as much a hurry to do so as the Socialists, the principal party in the Allende coalition and one passionately committed to revolutionary violence. So the Communists and the Socialists shared the same goal - ending once and for all the bourgeois democratic state - but differed on methods. So, when the Armed Forces finally did act on September 11 1973, they did so in response to the clamour of an overwhelming majority of Chileans.

News stories about what happened on that Tuesday in September routinely speak of the bloody coup. It was no such thing. About 200 people died in the shooting on September 11 and a little more than 1000 in the first three months of virtual civil war. But not the civil war the Communists were perfectly prepared to accept as their price for power: 500,000 to 1,000,000 victims.

Indeed, in all 17 years of military rule, the total of dead and missing - according to the official Rettig Commission - was 2,279. Were there abuses? Were there real victims? Without the slightest doubt. A war on terror tends to be a dirty war.

Still, in the case of Chile
, and contrary to news reports, the number of actual victims was small.

The Chilean Revolution thus was, by far, the least bloody of any significant Latin American revolution of the 20th century.


James Whelan is an historian who has published seven books, including arguably the most complete contemporary history of Chile (Out of the Ashes: Life, Death, and Transfiguration of Democracy in Chile, 1833-1988). He served for three years as visiting professor at the University of Chile and is regularly published in newspapers and magazines across the world.

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