1973 | Coup in Chile

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After three unsuccessful campaigns, Salvador Allende was finally elected in Chile in 1970 — the first Marxist president ever elected democratically anywhere in the world. His subsequent socialist reforms – which included nationalizing factories and agricultural estates, including mines belonging to Anaconda and Kennecott, US copper titans – put him quickly in the crosshairs of the United States.

The U.S. would intervene in Chile in many covert and overt ways to ensure that the Marxist government would fail — denying the country foreign credit, banning sales of spare parts and machinery. This led to the economy collapsing, the inflation skyrocketing and various strikes. The CIA was also backing middleclass business owners to disrupt the government’s plans – such as the October 1972 strike by trucking barons, which blocked the access to the capital Santiago.

By mid-1973, the situation was dire. Allende had survived a coup, and removed military officers from his government – an action that garnered him a censure from the parliament. Country was quickly heading into a constitutional crisis. Two military chiefs who opposed the military intervention in government had been removed (one by assassination, another via a road rage scandal) and the path was clear for the latter general’s successor, Augusto Pinochet, to stage a coup, with backing of the CIA.

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The photos in this post were taken on 11 September, the day of the coup. Allende was photographed, carrying a rifle, talking on the phone (allegedly) with Vice Admiral Patricio Carvajal Prado, one of the putschists (Carvajal would serve as Pinochet’s defense and foreign minister).  A few minutes later, at 9:10 am, Allende made his famous farewell speech on live radio, already speaking of himself in the past tense, of his love for Chile and of his deep faith in its future. 

Immediately afterwards, Allende went around La Moneda, the Presidential Palace, looking for good defense positions. As before, he was surrounded by his Group of Personal Friends (known by the Spanish acronym GAP, Grupo de Amigos Personales), informal armed guard trained and equipped by Cuba and maintained by the Socialist Party for Allende’s protection. Allende wore a metal combat helmet and carried a Soviet-made automatic rifle given to him by Cuba’s Fidel Castro.

Those were the last photos ever taken of Allende.

Later in the day, an official announcement was sent out that he had committed suicide with the same rifle. His supporters, as well as his widow and daughters, claimed that he was executed by the generals.

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Who took the photos above had long been disputed, and even when they were taken. It was sometimes alleged that they were from the previous coup attempt, the one that failed.

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The photos surfaced four months after the coup, on the front page of The New York Times. The paper’s Latin American correspondent, Marvine Howe, was given the photograph by an intermediary who said the photographer must remain anonymous. When they won the World Press photo award in 1973, the New York Times accepted the award on the unknown photographer’s behalf (Dane Bath of New York Times below).

The Times wrote: “Allende’s body was found in an office, but none of the photographs just obtained shows that scene. A Government spokesman in Santiago said that photographs taken later of Dr. Allende’s body were “really not suitable for publication.”

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A few names had been proposed as the photographer, including one mysterious “Davide”. In February 2007, the Chilean newspaper La Nación revealed that the photographer was Luis Orlando Lagos Vásquez, aka “Chico” Lagos, at the time La Moneda’s official photographer.  The World Press photo attributes them to Lagos, as did Iconic Photos in our previous post.

Family of Leopoldo Vargas, another photographer working under Lagos in the official photographer team, claimed that Vargas took these photos.

Vargas recounted that in the photo above of the call between Allende and Prado, the President ended the call with “Do what you want, motherfuckers,” and told Vargas as he stormed out of the room: “Comrade, instead of carrying a camera, you should better carry a machine gun.” 

With both Lagos and Vargas dead now, it is uncertain if this mystery would be resolved.

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