- Interview by
- Lea Börgerding
On September 4, Chileans commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the historic 1970 presidential elections when Salvador Allende and the Unidad Popular (UP) rose to power. At the time, the Chilean left’s electoral success was seen as revolutionary. For a generation of young activists both at home and abroad, the 1970 elections seemed to confirm the possibility of a parliamentary road to socialism.
While Allende’s time in government was short-lived, ending abruptly on September 11, 1973, during a violent, CIA-backed military coup, it continues to inspire social and working-class movements to this day. In the wake of large-scale social unrest in Chile in the fall of 2019, many in the new Chilean left looked back with nostalgia on the UP years. In the five decades since his presidency, much has been written about Salvador Allende’s life and his political legacy. Much less is known though about the women who accompanied him and shaped his path.
Jacobin contributor Lea Börgerding recently spoke with Tanya Harmer, international history professor at the London School of Economics, about her new book Beatriz Allende: A Revolutionary Life in Cold War Latin America, a biography of Allende’s daughter and close confidante. Born in 1943, Beatriz was active in that turbulent period of Latin American politics — the long 1960s — and her life offers new insights into the decade leading up to Allende’s presidency and his years in government. It also sheds light on a generation of young activists in Chile who witnessed the rise and fall of left-wing revolutionary struggles across the continent. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
In your new book, you trace the life of Beatriz Allende, a young Chilean doctor, revolutionary left-wing activist, and daughter of Chile’s famous socialist president Salvador Allende. Can you tell us what first attracted you to writing her biography?
I became curious about Beatriz’s life while researching my first book on the international history of Chile during the left-wing Unidad Popular coalition government. Based on my sources, I could tell that Beatriz — or “Tati” as she was known to her friends and family — was an important political figure in Chile during the early 1970s: not only was she key in facilitating relations between Chile and Cuba, and very close to her father, Salvador Allende, then president; but she also participated in internationalist revolutionary ventures in Latin America, maintained close ties with figures like Fidel Castro, and was married to a Cuban intelligence official.
She struck me as an extraordinary woman, who lived a remarkable revolutionary life at a young age and held positions of significance. Yet nothing had been written about her; Beatriz Allende was largely invisible in history books. Partly, this was to do with her death by suicide in 1977, a taboo subject both for revolutionaries and Catholics. But it was also undoubtedly because she was a woman.
For the most part, histories of revolution in Cold-War Latin America had focused on the leaders of revolutionary parties and insurgents who fought in guerrilla campaigns — the overwhelming majority of whom were men. I wanted to know what it had meant to be a female revolutionary in the age of Che Guevara, including the constraints and opportunities women like Beatriz had faced.
Beatriz grew up in Santiago de Chile in the 1940s and 1950s, where she was part of her father’s political world from an early age. Can you talk a little bit about her childhood and the impact it had on her future life?
It is hard to understand Beatriz’s tenacity and revolutionary spirit without grasping her upbringing. Overall, Beatriz enjoyed a comfortable middle-class childhood that afforded her the space to grow up adventurous and rebellious. Her father encouraged her to be outgoing and sporty.
As a child and young adult, Beatriz spent long summers at the beach with extended family and family friends, many of them prominent members of Chile’s center-left political elite. There, she learned to swim and climb rocks. But Allende also wanted his daughter to study hard — something Beatriz had to do in order to pursue a career in medicine, and even more so because she was a woman. After all, securing a place at university in the 1960s was still much harder for women than men.
Unlike many of her contemporaries at school, politics also infused Beatriz’s daily life, because of her father’s extensive political network and because she often accompanied him on election campaigns. However, by her own account, Beatriz did not really understand the central issues affecting Chilean politics until she reached adolescence.
As it turned out, this period of her life was a particularly interesting time in Chile, coinciding with the build-up to the country’s 1958 presidential elections. And when she later engaged with politics at university, she did so with the confidence, ease, and curiosity that her upbringing had given her.
Her youth coincided with a particularly turbulent period in Chilean and Latin American history: the long 1960s. Political mobilization spiked in those years, especially among young people who increasingly questioned established orders. What events, both at home and abroad, do you consider most impactful for the large-scale politicization of young Chileans, like Beatriz, during this period?
The Cuban Revolution of 1959 was undoubtedly important. It is hard to overestimate the enthusiasm, interest, and fear that it inspired around Latin America, Chile included. One of the questions I had when writing the book was why exactly it had such resonance. And the trajectory of Beatriz’s life led me to better understand the revolution’s relevance in relation to domestic developments.
The Left’s narrow defeat in Chile’s 1958 presidential elections — only four months before Fidel Castro arrived in Havana — is significant. Compared and combined, the two events seemed to suggest to young people in Chile that Cuba could provide the answers to radical change that Chile needed, and that the Left’s electoral strategies had failed to deliver.
That Cuba’s leaders were young and looked unlike traditional politicians inspired many young Chileans who were looking for something different. There had been considerable hope that 1958 would bring the recently reunited left to power; that it would solve problems of inequality and poverty that had led to mass protests involving thousands of young people only a year before.
In fact, during the long 1960s, for demographic reasons among others, political parties on all sides of the political spectrum attached great importance to mobilizing the youth, both as a target constituency and as political campaigners. And because of that, young people like Beatriz started regarding themselves as central protagonists in their country’s future.
During her time as a medical student in the South of Chile, Beatriz established close ties with the revolutionary left. In the book, you describe her and her companions’ romanticization of armed struggle as an ongoing source of tension with Allende’s more moderate, democratic stance. How divisive was the question of political violence to the Chilean left?
Very divisive. This formed part of a larger debate taking place throughout Latin America at the time about different roads to revolution. Salvador Allende was part of the majority of the Chilean left who believed that Chile’s constitution and historically strong leftist parties offered space to usher forth radical change through electoral democracy, without violence.
His generation’s memory of the Spanish Civil War, combined with the hostile geography of Chile’s landscape, meant that a rural guerrilla insurgency was never considered a serious possibility in the country. As a result, support for armed struggle in Chile was more rhetorical than concrete, at least until the end of the 1960s, and then only practicably embraced by a minority on the Left.
Those who were drawn toward armed struggle didn’t agree on how, when, and where it should occur, with some believing in the recourse to violence as a defensive strategy and a smaller minority still regarding it as a way to accelerate revolutionary change. The growing appeal of armed struggle must also be read in context: it was a response to state repression of workers, campesinos, and students before Allende’s election in September 1970, and then right-wing violence — sabotage, paramilitary attacks, and coup plotting – during his government.
And, of course, there was also the allure of guerrilla insurgencies abroad, of Che Guevara’s example, which somewhat paradoxically became even more appealing to many Chileans, Beatriz included, after his death in Bolivia in 1967.
In 1970, Salvador Allende was elected president of a left-wing coalition government, the Unidad Popular. His presidency marked the beginning of what many hoped would be “the Chilean road to socialism” — peaceful class revolution within the confines of constitutional democracy. Arguably, one of Allende’s principal aims was to reunite the different left-wing factions in Chilean society under a common agenda. Did Beatriz contribute to this project, and what was her role in the Allende administration more generally?
Yes, very much so. As one of Allende’s closest advisors, Beatriz was pivotal to his ability to keep what I call the far left on his side — namely left-wing parties and groups outside the UP that believed in extra-parliamentary roads to revolution, such as the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR) and some sectors of the Socialist Party. Initially, this meant involving them in building Allende’s security apparatus.
But Beatriz also convened meetings between her father and different representatives of this far left, ensuring dialogue persisted between them during the time of Allende’s presidency. There are debates as to whether Allende should have expended as much energy trying to keep the Left together as opposed to forging relations with the Christian Democrats (PDC) or winning over middle-class voters.
Instead, he tried to do all things at once, treading a fine line, with varying success, in trying to keep the Chilean left as a whole more or less together while simultaneously also reaching out to the PDC. Beatriz’s sympathies and stance — her friends, her connections in Chile and abroad, her predilection for uncompromising revolutionary change — undoubtedly influenced him in this regard.
After three years in power, on September 11, 1973, the Chilean experiment with socialism ended abruptly when Allende’s government was overthrown during a violent, CIA-backed military coup. Following her father’s death, Beatriz escaped to Havana. Why did she end up in Cuba and did she continue her political work in exile?
After the coup, Beatriz went to Cuba for personal and political reasons. Cuba had been a second home to her since 1967, a place she visited multiple times and longed for. She was an intimate collaborator and fervent supporter of its revolutionary project, believing Cuba’s leaders could help the Chilean left to regroup and resist the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. So, it was entirely logical for her to go into exile there.
She was also married to a Cuban, Luis Fernández Oña, then serving as political counselor at the Cuban embassy in Santiago, who she had first met on a trip to Cuba in 1967. She had a daughter with him and was seven months pregnant with their second child on the day of the coup.
That Cuba’s revolutionary leadership, with whom she already had close ties, welcomed her and gave her ample support to set up a Chilean solidarity committee was also important. This committee – the Comité Chileno de Solidaridad con la Resistencia Antifascista – brought together Chilean left-wing parties to coordinate global information campaigns, and lobby foreign governments and international institutions to impose sanctions against the dictatorship.
As executive secretary of this committee, Beatriz traveled extensively to raise awareness about Chile and also managed a global solidarity fund, which she distributed to Chile’s left-wing parties. In continuing political work from exile, her role was exceptional but not unique. The majority of Chilean exiles after the 1973 coup regarded political work against the dictatorship to help their allies, friends, and family back home as urgent and imperative — the continuation of political projects forged since adolescence and the only way of responding meaningfully to the trauma of defeat.
You ultimately situate Beatriz’s biography in the broader context of the Cold War, La Guerra Fría, in Latin America. Historians such as Odd Arne Westad have long insisted to move beyond Europe and focus instead on the Africa, Asia, and Latin America as key frontiers of US-Soviet hostility and intervention. How, in your view, does examining this young Chilean woman’s life add to our understanding of the conflict and its global dimensions?
Studies of individual lives can provide insight into the human dimensions of the Cold War. Beyond superpower summits and the nuclear balance of power — as important as these were at a macro level for understanding twentieth-century world politics — a micro-historical approach reveals how people’s everyday lives got caught up in the global conflict and how they in turn affected the way in which the Cold War played out as it did.
In the long 1960s, for example, Cold War ideologies strongly impacted, and were impacted by, understandings of how families should be structured and operate, how young people should behave, what work was suitable for men and women of different backgrounds, and who got the space to make their dreams heard.
In this way, the Cold War affected how people lived, loved, worked, and dreamed. In Beatriz’s case, too, her politics and her worldview shaped her friendship groups, her love life, and her profession — first as a doctor, then as member of her father’s presidential team, and finally as a coordinator of global solidarity campaigns.
I believe that her biography also helps us grasp how individuals shaped the conflict and entangled reality of Cold War transnational networks. Many histories of the Cold War still buy into simplistic East vs. West geographies. Beatriz’s travels in Latin America as a teenager and then in the Americas, Europe, and Africa after 1973 complicate these narratives. They show the extent of revolutionary activism in the 1960s and 70s. And of course, finally, Beatriz’s life also provides a lens through which to view the immense personal costs involved in the Cold War when it comes to her experience of the coup and exile.
At first sight, many facets of Beatriz’s life seem closely bound up with that of her family, and especially her father’s political career. In what ways does your book help understand her as a historical actor in her own right?
In Beatriz’s case, it is impossible not to understand her political trajectory as the result of who her father was. Beatriz’s public identity, particularly after the coup, was always tied to Allende and this affected her personally. In one of the last conversations she had, she nevertheless spoke of wanting to escape her role as “Allende’s daughter” — not because she didn’t love and admire him, but because his status on the Left and in Cuba prohibited her from living a “normal” life, out of the spotlight.
That said, it would be mistake to define her simply as Allende’s daughter. Beatriz was of a very different generation than her father, inspired by events and ideas that forged a new revolutionary youth in Chile and beyond. As a student in Concepción, she also began to chart a more autonomous path that connected her to future leaders of the MIR.
Her close ties with Cuba and her involvement in trying to reignite a guerrilla insurgency in Bolivia after Che Guevara’s death in the late 1960s, were not mediated by her father, even if they dovetailed with his sympathies. And later, during her father’s presidency, she held different views from him when it came to security, defense, revolutionary strategy, and foreign relations.
Did you also learn something new about Salvador Allende whilst researching Beatriz’s life?
Absolutely. Studying Beatriz as a historical actor in her own right and the way she interacted with her father, debated with him and was involved in his presidency, has helped me reassess and rethink Salvador Allende’s politics and identity. The lens that Beatriz provides suggests that history has tended to remember him as more cautious and conservative than he was.
For as much as he differed from Beatriz, he kept her very close, relied on her, and listened to her when it came to security, while also welcoming revolutionary groups into his inner circle. This, in turn, raises new questions about what we might learn by studying more men in relation to the women in their life rather than the still all-too-common tendency of understanding women in relation to men.
One of the things you explore in great detail is Beatriz’s identity as both a political activist and a woman. Can you elaborate what it meant to be a female revolutionary at the time?
In many ways, the 1960s and 70s were an exciting time to be a female revolutionary. In Chile and across Latin America, women were more mobilized and involved in politics than ever before. Across the political spectrum, women’s participation in Chile during the UP years grew when it came to student politics, grassroots organizing, demonstrations, food distribution, land seizures, and elections. However, women still faced considerable constraints.
Very few became leaders of revolutionary parties or their representatives in Congress and youth politics. Instead, they mostly held offstage roles as secretaries or treasurers, in covert logistics, or in communication, all of which were vital to revolutionary operations but are less well-known.
When it came to armed revolution, and her strong desire to follow in Che Guevara’s footsteps, Beatriz was therefore not allowed to train as a guerrilla insurgent in Cuba. Like most women, she was deemed more appropriate for intelligence work. Indeed, in revolutionary circles, just as elsewhere, men were still regarded as having a monopoly on the use of violence.
Even her father, who regarded her as his confidant and welcomed her advice on security, did everything he could to stop her fighting alongside him on the day of the coup. And when Beatriz asked to return to Chile after 1973 to fight in the armed resistance to Pinochet’s dictatorship, her identity as Allende’s daughter combined with her gender meant that the Cubans said no.
By the 1970s, the international feminist movement was increasingly questioning these patriarchal relations and gendered roles. Did Beatriz herself engage with feminism and questions of women’s liberation in her personal life?
I regard Beatriz as a feminist, though she would have almost certainly have rejected that label for herself. In left-wing Latin American revolutionary circles of the time, feminism was regarded as suspicious: a distraction from the more important imperative of class struggle at best and a bourgeois, imperialist import from the United States designed to undermine the revolution at worst. However, her actions and choices reveal her to have consistently challenged traditional gendered norms and constraints.
From refusing to conform to strict uniform codes at her girl’s high school, to choosing to study medicine at a time when aspiring male doctors got 85 percent of places at university, and then her role in security and intelligence work during her father’s administration, Beatriz was one of many women of the time who constantly pushed against gendered expectations.
She also did so while juggling family life, and facing resistance from her father and husband, who at certain points in her life believed she should prioritize her roles as a daughter, mother, and wife over politics. That she did not, and could not, reconcile herself to doing so was a constant source of tension for her personally, adding to the difficulties she faced, particularly as an exile in Cuba.
In 1977, Beatriz died of suicide in her home in Cuba. Cuban officials later argued that her death had resulted from the psychological wounds she suffered after the coup on September 11, essentially framing Beatriz as a victim of fascism. Would you agree with this interpretation of events?
Partly, yes. She was deeply scarred by what had happened in Chile, her father’s death, and the dictatorship’s ongoing repression of her friends. She was also increasingly pessimistic about Chile’s future. When Orlando Letelier, a high-ranking diplomat and minister during Allende’s presidency, was murdered in September 1976 in Washington, for example, this was a devastating blow to the resistance against Pinochet and a personal loss for Beatriz. But one of the arguments of the book is that regarding her as a passive victim would be wrong.
Not only am I weary of the male-as-protagonist and female-as-victim narrative that pervades histories of the period, it simply doesn’t make sense to regard Beatriz that way. For as much as she suffered the dictatorship’s effects, she was central to resisting the dictatorship. She also played a central role in momentous revolutionary upheavals and defeats. She chose a revolutionary project that many of her generation embraced and played a key role in striving to make it a reality. To regard her only as a victim of fascism therefore misses her significance as a historical actor and protagonist of the past.
A particularly timely aspect of Beatriz’s biography, I thought, was the close link between her political and her medical work, as well as her strong commitment to public health. Do you consider the politicization of the medical profession a relic of that time, or do you observe similar dynamics today?
By the nature of their work, public health professionals like Beatriz came into direct contact with broad sectors of the population in Chile and this experience politicized them. They understood health as being inextricably linked to socio-economic contexts — to poverty, malnutrition, working conditions, education etc. — and were encouraged to do so by their professors.
But it was not just young students who felt this way; public health and socialized medicine were considered necessary and mainstream at the time: the key to Chilean development and society in the 1960s and early 1970s. Neoliberalism and the shift to privatized medicine have since eroded these ideas in Chile and further afield, but it has not separated the medical profession from socio-economic realities.
And, of course, around the world, the coronavirus pandemic has again brought the link between health and living standards into sharp relief. Moreover, the failures of governments to give the medical profession the necessary means to confront it will also undoubtedly politicize health care workers further.
In the process of writing the book, what aspects of Beatriz’s story did you find most challenging to talk about?
Beatriz’s suicide was very hard to write about. We will never know exactly what led her to make her decision. She left a letter addressed to Fidel Castro but it is still in the possession of the Cuban state and I was unable to access it. Those who have read it have told me roughly what it said but they also told me it was confused. Without it, I pieced together as much of what I understood to be her reasons from her correspondence and from interviews with those closest to her. But talking about her death is still very painful for many of her friends and family.
I was fortunate that so many of them agreed to speak to me so candidly in this respect. Especially where we do not have a full written archive of a person’s life, oral testimonies are invaluable sources. They can also offer intimate portraits of a person that are essential for writing a biography. However, they come with a great responsibility when it comes to navigating memories, weighing evidence and respecting different interviewees’ perspectives.
Although Beatriz died more than forty years ago, she remains a powerful and poignant presence in the lives of those who were close to her. For them, this is not merely the history of someone they knew but of their own lives as well; their living memory.
More than four decades after her death, how well is Beatriz Allende’s life remembered today, by academics and activists in Chile?
When I began researching Beatriz’s life a decade ago, very few people knew very much about her. My interviewees often spoke of a need to recover her story and regarded the silences that surrounded her memory as indicative of a wider effort to rewrite Chile’s past — to silence revolutionary voices and conform to a new social democratic present.
However, in recent years, Chilean activists and academics have increasingly turned their attention to Chile’s 1960s “juventud revolucionaria” (revolutionary youth) that Beatriz was a part of. In this context, and in the wake of the student protests in 2011, and growing critiques of out-of-touch political parties and the neoliberal system Chile inherited from the dictatorship, activists have begun looking to her as a model and an inspiration.
More recently, the feminist movement in Chile, which has played such a key role in protests since October last year, has also shined a spotlight on female protagonists of the past. Today, there is a progressive women’s organization named after Beatriz (the Frente de Mujeres Progresistas Tati Allende), and more and more people are asking about her.
The lessons that activists and historians draw from Beatriz’s life will depend to some extent on what they are asking and their own political orientation. As a historian, my own questions were not necessarily about Beatriz’s relevance today as a model or inspiration, but what her life tells us about Chile’s revolutionary past. I believe her story opens up a wider window onto the experiences of young people and women who lived, loved, and dreamed of changing the world at the height of Latin America’s Cold War.