Carlos Altamirano: The Last Chilean Revolutionary


Licenciado en Historia y Periodista

Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile

Transitioning from being a radical leader of the left to one of the most important advocates of  socialist renewal, former Socialist Party secretary general Carlos Altamirano embodied the path of the mainstream left. Many like him started their political careers advocating the overthrow of the liberal-capitalist order to then end up defending liberal democracy and a form of social-democratic capitalism.

“Locate and detain.” That was the message conservative newspaper El Mercurio pushed against Carlos Altamirano during the first years of the dictatorship. Altamirano turned into a crucial target under the military regime after the 1973 coup d’etat.

CNN Chile

Life and Revolution

Born in 1922 into a privileged life, Carlos Altamirano Orrego dedicated himself to politics when he started studying law at the University of Chile, where he joined the Socialist Party (PS). He was party deputy from 1961 to 1965 and secretary general in exile from 1971 to 1979. During these years, he became together with Salvador Allende one of the most influential figures of the Chilean left in the 20th century.

As one of the architects of the 1967 Congress of Chillán, where the PS proclaimed to “combine the legal struggle with the illegal one,” he became a leader on the revolutionary path taken by an important sector of the Chilean left-wing, which sought to emulate the example of the Cuban revolution.

As a senator of Santiago (1965-1973) during the Allende administration (1970-1973), Altamirano led the most radical faction of the Popular Unity (UP) coalition that supported Allende’s Chilean path to socialism. Altamirano’s “move forward without compromising,” which included using the military to defend the president, put him often at odds with Allende.

The Coup And Socialist Renewal

While the president believed the military should stay out of politics, Altamirano, worried about the possibility of a military coup, insisted that it was necessary to ally with progressive sectors of the armed forces to defend the revolutionary process.

He pushed that idea in a defiant speech at the Estadio Chile (now Victor Jara Stadium) less than 48 hours before the 9/11 coup. Altamirano said that if the military would overthrow the socialist government, Chile would be transformed “into a new Vietnam.”

La Vanguardia

After the coup, Altamirano escaped to East Germany and then France. From exile he led a renewal of Chilean socialism, moving away from Leninist orthodoxy and the Soviet Union toward a more European, social-democratic model.

During this process, he helped forge the Alianza Democrática (Democratic Alliance, 1983-1988) coalition between part of the Chilean left and the centrist Christian Democratic Party to oppose the dictatorship and start a transition to democracy. This alliance would lead to the La Conertación coalition that won the 1988 referendum and then governed the country for decades.

What’s Left – Or Not

Altamirano returned to Chile in 1993, dissociating himself from active politics, though not from political reflection. Even though he defended socialist renewal in his country and in the world to stand firm with the principles of democracy and human rights, he was critical of the neoliberal model carried out by the center-left administrations (1990-2010/2014-2018).

His legacy is having withdrawn from politics to enable political regeneration, even though he was a fundamental actor of socialist renewal.

But although Altamirano abandoned revolutionary efforts in exile, many political figures, especially from the right-wing and the center, still consider him a key malefactor of Chile’s institutional and democratic breakdown. “As long as I am the great culprit of the failure of Allende, everyone else can sleep peacefully,” he told Patricia Pulitzer in a 1990 interview.

He knew he was one of the last members of a generation that tried to completely transform the socio-economic structure of Chile but failed. When asked in his last interview, with La Tercera newspaper in September 2018, how he wanted to be remembered, he bluntly stated that “I don’t want to be remembered, I just want to be left alone.”

Carlos Altamirano Orrego died on May 19, 2019.

*Imagen de cabecera propiedad de La Nación.

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