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By Antonio Castillo

Sydney is among several major cities around the world where the centenary of Chile’s former president Salvador Allende will be commemorated. Allende was born on June 26, 1908, in the Chilean port-city of Valparaiso, the same place where Australia’s first Labor Prime Minister John Watson was born.

Salvador Allende belongs in the pantheon of the 20th century political leaders who represented and struggled for the most cherished universal values.

Democratically elected in 1970, Allende was a socialist who attempted to implement a progressive political and socio-economic program. He was a passionate revolutionary. However, in contrast to other radical reforms on the continent, such as the Cuban revolution, Allende believed in a peaceful and democratic transition to socialism. The process ‘a unique international political experience ‘ became known as the ‘Chilean way to socialism’.

Outlining his project in 1971 Allende spoke of a  ‘socialist society built on the basis of a democratic, free and pluralistic project’. His program included wealth distribution, land reforms, ethnic minority rights, women’s rights, access by the poor to education and culture, and the nationalisation of natural resources. His dream of a more just society became a nightmare for the wealthy Chilean oligarchy and the United States, which saw him as a threat to its hegemony in Latin America.

On September 11, 1973 President Allende was overthrown by a violent military coup organised and backed by the USA. The coup marked the end of Allende’s dream and also his life. He was killed while attempting to defend the rule of law, and Chile entered the darkest period of its history ‘ 17 years of military dictatorship under General Pinochet.
‘His virtue was his consequence,’ wrote Colombian writer and Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez of Allende. ‘The most dramatic contradiction of his life was to be a passionate revolutionary and a congenital enemy of violence.’

Another Nobel laureate, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, was a close friend of Allende and also shared his social and political aspirations.  Days after the September coup Neruda wrote: ‘Allende was the statesman who ‘ as a leader ‘ discussed all his policies. He was the anti-dictator and the democrat with principles even in the most minimal details.’

Reminders of the universality of his message can be seen in just about every corner of the world. There are more than 100 world cities with plazas, streets, avenues, cultural centres and even sporting associations with the name of Allende. There are also monuments. In Australia, Sydney’s southwest suburb of Fairfield has erected one. 

And villages. Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano tells the story of an indigenous tribe in the mountains of Mexico, which after learning about Allende’s courage and consequence, decided to name its village Salvador Allende.
The worldwide celebration of Allende’s centenary illustrates that his ideals are more relevant than ever. Just as his name is remembered, the celebrations in his honour remind us the fight for social justice, equality and democracy continues today. In Australia too.
A celebration will be held from 10 am on June 24 at the NSW Parliament.
Dr Antonio Castillo is a journalist and an academic at the University of Sydney’s Media and Communication Department.