The Rumpus Review of The Battle of Chile

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A meticulous and gripping eyewitness account of the events that culminated in the 1973 CIA-backed military coup and assassination of Salvador Allende.

“All points of view about a historical reality are valid and contribute to building a country’s history,” a wise young student says in Chile, Obstinate Memory, the heartbreaking homecoming film from the four-disc edition of Patricio Guzman’s mid-70s documentary, The Battle of Chile, just released by Icarus Films. The three parts of the Battle of Chile (The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie, The Coup d’Etat, and The Power of The People) comprise a meticulous and gripping eyewitness account of the events that culminated in the CIA-backed military coup that led to the assassination of the country’s democratically-elected president, Salvador Allende.

What’s most fascinating to this American viewer is that while the socialist “good guys” oppose all that we’re brought up to believe in a capitalist democracy, the baddies (the CIA and Chile’s right-wing opposition) seize power by using tactics normally associated the left. It’s the “mummies,” as the “fascists” are called in Chile, who organize strikes in order to disrupt the government, and who try to convince the workers they’re being economically exploited by Allende’s populist government. And it’s Allende — the legitimate head of state — who orders the increasing nationalization of factories in a state of emergency, who exerts Big-Brother-style control over private enterprise. Watching the documentary can make an American queasy: even as we root for Allende, we can understand the frustration boiling up from the right wing. The “mummies,” with covert help from the CIA, spent years attempting to undermine the left by forcing Allende to do the “wrong” thing; that is, limiting freedoms in an effort to keep the peace. When does the illegal — like the taking up of arms — become legal, is what one worker wonders.

So why was the U.S. able to provoke a civil war through sanctions and coercion in Chile, but not in Cuba? Idealistic Allende wasn’t the ruthless thug Castro is, for one. And Castro didn’t have a Judas like Pinochet in his cabinet, for another. After the nationalization, in the wake of Allende’s election, of banking, mining, and Chile’s natural resources, the opposition quickly realized their first line of attack must involve an economic collapse. What they hadn’t counted on was that as soon as the factory chiefs went on strike, the lower classes would continue to work in solidarity with the government. Indeed, Guzman’s doc captures the proletariat proclaiming how much more efficiently the factories are running now that the bureaucratic bosses are out of the way!

Nevertheless, Allende invited the military into his cabinet as a last-ditch effort to control the right, which had weapons on its side. One worker in the film expresses dismay with this tactic, noting that it’s unacceptable for a democracy to have the military participating in any wing of government. Our capitalist society certainly would agree with this socialist — even as we hypocritically tried to bring down his country’s democracy. Of course these workers knew the score, understood that the “mummies” were trying to make pawns out of them. They saw a proletariat uprising as the only solution. As one union leader said of Popular Unity’s frustrating contradiction, they were in possession of the government, but not power. Until Allende’s assassination on 9/11/73, that is, when they had to surrender even that.


Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and festival programmer, and a contributing editor at Filmmaker magazine. Her writing can also be regularly read at Documentary Magazine, Salon, Bitch Media and Hammer to Nail. Her book Under My Master’s Wings, a memoir about her time spent as the personal slave to a gay-for-pay stripper, is available from Random House sub-imprint Nexus Books. More from this author →