“We start from different ideological positions. For you to be a communist or a socialist is to be totalitarian; for me no … On the contrary, I think socialism frees man”.
– Salvador Allende.
El President, from the 1998 album White Magic for Lovers, is a collaboration between Drugstore and Thom Yorke, singer of Radiohead. The song, released as the second single from the album and, much due to Yorke’s involvement, reached number 20 in the UK singles chart, giving Drugstore the biggest hit of their career. El President tells the story of the death of the democratically elected Chilean President Salvador Allende during the 1973 Chilean coup d’etat. The coup was a watershed moment in both the Cold War and the history of Chile. Following an extended period of social and political unrest between the conservative-dominated Congress of Chile and the socialist President Salvador Allende, together with economic warfare ordered by US President Richard Nixon, Allende was overthrown by the armed forces, led by Commander-in-Chief Augusto Pinochet, and national police.
Up until the 1960s, Chile had been known for its stability in Latin America, particularly compared to its neighbours. This all change when Chile began to be affected by the Cold War and Chile became part of the Alliance for Progress. The alliance was meant as a way to keep socialistic revolutions from taking hold in Latin America. However, the Alliance for Progress was scorned by a majority of the countries that signed it, including Chile. At this time, the president of Chile was Eduardo Frei. Frei was endorsed by the Johnson administration and sought to pass radical reforms. However, as Chile became more industrialised, the more Labour unions demanded higher wages. Due to the Labour unions’ dissatisfaction with the wages that they received, prices and inflation soared. The Chilean youth adopted a Leftist view and started to protest against the government with Labour unions, with both leaning towards Chile’s Communist Party.
In 1970, the Socialist Party won the presidency. New president Salvador Allende promised the people of Chile a republic and said that he would make the working class more equal. Meanwhile, in America, President Nixon, in conversation with his advisors, namely Henry Kissinger, scorned Allende and wanted him out of power. The viable method of removing Allende would be by way of a Chilean military uprising. Kissinger sent a cable to the CIA office in Chile saying that agents were to continue instigating a military coup. However, this wasn’t entirely necessary as after three years, the Chilean people were standing against the president. Allende nationalised the copper industry and other industries as well as freezing prices and raising wages in order to stop inflation. During these reforms, the CIA was busy running propaganda against the president.
By 1973, the Chilean Congress and Judiciary stood against Allende, claiming that his government went against the Chilean constitution. On September 11th 1973, shortly before the capture of the Palacio de La Moneda by military units loyal to Chilean Army leader Augusto Pinochet, President Salvador Allende made his famous farewell speech to the Chilean people on Radio Magallanes. The President spoke of his love for Chile and his deep faith in the future. He continued to tell of how much he was committed to Chile, so much so that he refused to take the easy way out or be used as a propaganda tool by those he referred to as “traitors”. Throughout his radio broadcast, gunfire and explosions could be heard clearly in the background.
Shortly afterwards, an official announcement was made declaring that Allende had gone to war with an AK-47 rifle. The rifle was reportedly given to Allende by Cuban leader Fidel Castro and bore a golden plate engraved with the words, “To my good friend Salvador from Fidel, who by different means tries to achieve the same goals”.
What happened next has been the subject of much speculation. At approximately 1.50pm local time, Allende ordered the defenders of the La Moneda Palace to surrender. In response, the defenders formed a line from the second floor, down the stairs and onto the Morande street door. The President walked along the queue, from the ground floor up the stairs, shaking hands and thanking each of the defenders personally for their support in that difficult moment.
The President went into the Independence salon, located in the north-east side of the Palace’s second floor. At the same time, Doctor Patricio Guijon, a member of La Moneda’s infirmary staff, was on the second floor of the palace recovering his gas mask as a souvenir. Guijon heard a noise and opened the door of the Independence salon in time to see the President shoot himself with the AK-47 rifle. At the other side of the salon, Doctor Jose Quiroga; Arsenio Poupin, a member of the cabinet; Enrique Huerta, a palace functionary; two detectives from the Presidential security details and various Presidential Security (GAP) members were able to either see the moment of death, or arrive a few seconds afterwards, attracted by the noise.
Despite these witnesses to Allende’s apparent suicide, many of Allende’s supporters have always upheld the presumption that he was killed by the forces staging the coup. On the 28th September 1973, just two weeks after Allende’s death, Fidel Castro told the Cuban crowd in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolucion that Allende had died in La Moneda wrapped in a Chilean flag, firing at General Pinochet with Castro’s rifle. Castro continued to tell his version of events to the Cuban people for the next few decades. In his 1975 book The Murder of Allende and the end of the Chilean way to socialism, Robinson Rojas agreed with Castro’s version of events and claimed that Allende was killed by Pinochet’s military forces whilst defending the palace.
Despite the speculation as to what actually happened to Allende, the end of the military junta in Chile in 1988 and different testimonies becoming available in news and documentary interviews have made the verdict of suicide the more accepted version of events. Members of Allende’s immediate family have never disputed that killed himself. However, there are some who still argue that Allende was murdered, including Chilean doctor Luis Ravanal, who in 2008 published an article in El Periodista magazine claiming that Allende’s wounds were incompatible with suicide. In response to the article, Isabel Allende, the daughter of the President said that the correct version of events was suicide.
In January 2011, a Chilean judge opened an investigation into the death of Salvador Allende, as well as hundreds of other possible human rights abuses committed during the 1973 coup which brought Augusto Pinochet to power. In May of the same year, Allende’s remains were exhumed by order of the Chilean court in furtherance of a “criminal investigation into the death of Allende”. On the 31st May 2011, shortly before the autopsy had been completed, Chile’s state television reported that a top-secret military account of Allende’s death had been discovered in the home of a former military justice official. The 300 page document was only found when the house was destroyed when the house was destroyed by the 2010 Chilean earthquake. Following a review of the document by two forensic experts, findings revealed “that they are inclined to conclude that Allende was assassinated”.
The results of the autopsy were officially released in July 2011. Medical experts who conducted and reviewed the autopsy results confirmed that Salvador Allende had died from self-inflicted gunshot wounds, indicating that Allende had died after shooting himself with the AK-47 given to him by Fidel Castro. The report continued to tell of how Allende had died from two gunshot wounds fired from the rifle, which was held between his legs and under his chin. The rifle was set to fire automatically. The bullets blew out the top of his head and killed him instantly. The conclusion made by the forensics team was unanimous, stating “We have absolutely no doubt” that Allende committed suicide.
On Drugstore’s El President, singer and songwriter Isabel Monteiro, in a duet with Thom Yorke, upholds the belief that Allende was murdered by Chilean armed forces in a US-backed coup: “I’ve seen the masterplan, Kill the president, They killed the president …”
The song tells the tale of the arrival of military advisers, fighter jets and bombs to carry out the coup, “It came from the skies, In all shades of green”, with the “green” being camouflage. The song goes on to tell of Allende’s refusal to surrender and his final address to the nation in the lines “I’m not giving in, All the people understand, ‘Cause they all fell down and prayed, I know …”
Further to this, the song criticises the West’s involvement in the coup with the lines, “We can always justify, We can measure up your dreams, I know; I’ve seen the masterplan”. And of course, we all know what happened due to this masterplan: Democracy died along with Allende and Chile, under the new rule of Augusto Pinochet between 1973 and 1990, became a hotbed of repression, torture, forced disappearance, and for many Chileans, exile.
Propelled by Ian Burdge’s stunning cello playing, dramatic piano interludes and Daron Robinson’s strummed acoustic guitar, El President is a brief but beautiful retelling of the events of the 1973 Chilean coup d’etat. The song was coupled with an equally wonderful video featuring Monteiro and Yorke singing the song in a small room whilst the rest of Drugstore are projected on the walls around them.
Note at the end of the video, upon Yorke singing the line “I’m just a man”, he points two fingers, symbolising a gun, to his head, perhaps inferring that Allende’s death was suicide. Therefore, what the song is saying is that even if it was suicide, he was still driven to it by the events of the 11th September 1973, the Chilean army and the US.