Teaching Chile’s Road to Socialism: Topics, Questions, and Assignments

By Ángela Vergara

Fifty years ago, in September 1970, Salvador Allende was elected president of Chile. Amid the global Cold War, his victory represented a new kind of “revolution,” a peaceful and democratic transition to socialism. During the next three years, President Allende and the Popular Unity, his government coalition, attempted to transform the country’s economic structures, while responding to people’s long-term demand for social justice. Peasants, workers, and students stood up to make the revolution an everyday reality, pushing the legal and constitutional constraints that the government had promised to abide by. However, Allende’s transformations faced powerful domestic and international foes including Richard Nixon’s administration and other Inter-American Cold War agents. Hence, on September 11, 1973, a violent military coup, supported by the U.S. government, ended Chile’s road to socialism.

How do we teach this compelling story? How do we engage undergraduates in the United States to explore beyond traditional top-down narratives? Working with translated documents and participating in active-learning activities, students learn about the many layers and actors of the revolution, while applying new concepts, connecting to historiography, and developing research and analytical skills. More importantly, by designing the class around questions and problems, students become active and curious learners.

Photograph of Salvador Allende shaking hands with a Mapuche woman.
Salvador Allende saludando a mujeres mapuches, 1975.

Who was Salvador Allende?

The life Salvador Allende (1908-1973) mirrored the transformation of twentieth-century Latin America. He studied medicine in the late 1920s, participated in the foundation of the Socialist Party (1933), served as minister of public health and social welfare during the Popular Front (1939-1942), served as a senator (1945-1970), and run for president four times (1952, 1958, 1964, and 1970). In his ground-breaking study on public health, published in 1939, Allende diagnosed the country’s urgent social and medical problems.[i] A timeline assignment sheds light on the connections between political and social events and Allende’s life. I provide students with a template of national and global events and ask them to contribute new points and information based on Allende’s life. They can use the Oxford Research Encyclopedia to gather biographical details or watch a documentary, such as “Salvador Allende” (Patricio Guzmán, 2006) and “Beyond my grandfather Allende” (Marcia Tambutti, 2016). End with a discussion or short personal reflection about how Allende’s political career reflects his country’s history.

Was the Popular Unity a Revolution?

The program of the Popular Unity is a fascinating starting point for students to understand revolutions and reflect on the meanings of electoral politics and democracy. In a regular classroom, I use a “divide and conquer”activity to discuss the Popular Unity presidential program. Grouped in small teams, students analyze one section of the program. Then, they summarize it to the rest of the class and explain why the measure was revolutionary; what social, political, or economic structures it challenged; and who may have opposed or supported it. In an online class, instructors can use the discussion board: upload the document, include guiding questions, and ask students to post a comment and comment on someone else’s opinion. To go deeper into the topic of revolution, ask students to compare the program to other movements in Chile or the world.  

When did the Agrarian Revolution start?

Looking at the process of agrarian reform, from the first law in 1962 to the land occupations of the early 1970s, offers an opportunity to discuss the long 1960s and place the Popular Unity into the history of land reform and peasant movements in Latin America. By analyzing the laws and policies enacted in the 1960s, students can compare how different actors, including the Catholic Church and the U.S. government, viewed the countryside. The Chilean Reader includes several translated documents on this topic, including photographs and posters that help students visualize its symbolism. The agrarian reform also offers an opportunity for addressing historiographical and methodological debates. For example, building on Brian Loveman, Florencia Mallon, and Heidi Tinsman, students can analyze peasants’ demands, how ideas of gender and family shaped rural policies, and the impact of reforms on Mapuche communities.[2] 

How did people experience the Popular Unity?

Some of the most interesting historical research on the Popular Unity has explored how people lived the revolution. Peter Winn’s Weavers of Revolution continues to be an inspiring and engaging book, offering a path to studying the revolution from below. Through his analysis of textile workers’ political and everyday experience, he demonstrated the need to incorporate people’s voices. In recent years, historians have looked at other actors, including shantytown organizations, student and youth groups, women, the radicalized left, and consumers.[3] Scholars have also studied those who opposed Allende, for example, right-wing women.[4]The Battle of Chile” (Patricio Guzmán, 1975), especially part 3, offers powerful scenes, interviews, and shots of how people organized to defend and expand the UP program. 

Why did Salvador Allende challenge U.S. hegemony in the region?

Although students may not have a strong academic background on U.S. foreign policy and the history of the Cold War, they have some familiarity with the topic. I ask students to brainstorm what they know about the pattern of U.S. intervention in the region. They are usually less aware of the long history of economic, cultural, and political nationalism in Latin America, and how Latin Americans had questioned U.S. imperialism. Through the posters and graphics of the nationalization of copper (1971), I teach the symbolism of the nationalization. Both the document and the video of Salvador Allende’s speech at the United Nations (1972) offer students a glimpse of a critical event, as well as the international resonance of Chile’s road to socialism. Students can find documents related to U.S. intervention and the outset of Allende at the National Security Archives, while practicing conducting research at digital archives. Alternatively, they can look at digital U.S. newspapers and magazines to see how different sectors within the U.S. perceived the Chilean revolution.

Did Allende and the Chilean Revolution have an impact on the rest of the world?

The Popular Unity was an inspiration, a place of refuge for Latin American exiled, and a recurrent topic in international media. By exploring these global encounters, during and after the revolution, students can debate transnational history, trace how ideas and people circulated, and evaluate the overall impact of the Chilean revolution on other social movements around the world. To explore and visualize these many connections, I use a mapping assignment. In the online map, students enter references of Allende from around the world such as names of streets, monuments, postal stamps, travels, and publications.  

World map pinpointing streets, schools, hospitals and monuments honoring Salvador Allende, in North and South America, Europe, and Africa.

Teaching to research, debate, and formulate questions provides students with the skills to become life-long learners. Although the sources available in English about the Popular Unity only offer a glimpse into the topic, a combination of translated documents, images, videos, and scholarly publications allow students to explore many of its aspects. If the online setting disrupts many of our traditional activities, especially face-to-face discussions, it also has the power to make resources available to a wider audience and engage students into research.

Ángela Vergara is a professor of History at California State University Los Angeles. She is the author of Copper Workers, International Business, and Domestic Politics in Cold War Chile (2008) and co-editor of Company Towns in the Americas (2011) and the special issue of Radical History ReviewThe Other 9/11: Chile 1973 – Memory, Resistance and Democratization (2016) A social and labor historian, she has researched, presented, and published on a wide range of topics such as labor and social movements, occupational health, labor relations, and transnational history. In her forthcoming book, Fighting Unemployment in Twentieth-Century Chile, she narrates the story of the unemployed and the efforts of the state to define and regulate the labor market in modern Chile.

Title Image: Salvador Allende, 1972.

Suggested Readings:

Barr-Melej, Patrick. Psychedelic Chile: Youth, Counterculture, and Politics on the Road to Socialism and Dictatorship. The University of North Carolina Press, 2017.

Frens-String, Joshua. “Communists, Commissars, and Consumers: The Politics of Food on the Chilean Road to Socialism.” Hispanic American Historical Review 98, no. 3 (August 1, 2018): 471–501.

Harmer, Tanya. Beatriz Allende: A Revolutionary Life in Cold War Latin America. The University of North Carolina Press, 2020.

Power, Margaret. Right-Wing Women in Chile: Feminine Power and the Struggle Against Allende, 1964-1973. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002.

Schlotterbeck, Marian E. Beyond the Vanguard: Everyday Revolutionaries in Allende’s Chile. University of California Press, 2018.

Trumper, Camilo D. Ephemeral Histories: Public Art, Politics, and the Struggle for the Streets in Chile. University of California Press, 2016.

Winn, Peter. Weavers of Revolution: The Yarur Workers and Chile’s Road to Socialism. Reprint edition. Oxford University Press, 1989.


[1] For an English translation, see the excerpt, Salvador Allende, “Public Health Crisis” in The Chile Reader, eds. Elizabeth Q. Hutchison et al. (Duke University Press, 2013).

[2] Brian Loveman, Struggle in the Countryside; Politics and Rural Labor in Chile, 1919-1973 (Indiana University Press, 1976); Florencia E. Mallon, Courage Tastes of Blood: The Mapuche Community of Nicolás Ailío and the Chilean State, 1906–2001 (Duke University Press Books, 2005); Heidi Tinsman, Partners in Conflict: The Politics of Gender, Sexuality, and Labor in the Chilean Agrarian Reform, 1950–1973 (Duke University Press Books, 2002).

[3] See for example: Boris Cofré Schmeisser, Campamento Nueva La Habana: el MIR y el movimiento de pobladores 1970-1973 – Memoria Chilena (Concepción, Chile: Escaparate, 2007); Joshua Frens-String, “Communists, Commissars, and Consumers: The Politics of Food on the Chilean Road to Socialism,” Hispanic American Historical Review 98, no. 3 (August 1, 2018): 471–501; Franck Gaudichaud, Poder Popular y Cordones Industriales: testimonios sobre el movimiento popular urbano, 1970-1973 (Santiago, Chile: Lom Ediciones, 2004); Marian E. Schlotterbeck, Beyond the Vanguard: Everyday Revolutionaries in Allende’s Chile (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2018).

[4] Margaret Power, Right-Wing Women in Chile: Feminine Power and the Struggle Against Allende, 1964-1973. (College Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002).

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