Lessons from the 1973 Coup in Chile – Part 1


To mark the 41st anniversary of the military coup that overthrew Salvador Allende’s democratically elected socialist government in Chile, we’re pleased to post the first article in a two-part series by Jorge A. Lawton, who worked as a Latin American analyst on the Senate “Church Committee,” and as an advisor to former Chilean Foreign Minister, Orlando Letelier, until his assassination in September 1976. — Ed.

By Jorge A. Lawton

Pre-dawn on Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, 1973, three years of relentless intervention by the hemisphere’s greatest power, the United States, succeeded both in choking off Chile’s historic experiment in its “transition to socialism through democracy,” and in giving birth to the brutal years of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. For many reasons, both U.S. perception and policy against the “Allende experiment in socialism,” as well as U.S. support for and use of the Pinochet alternative, are rich in present day and future lessons. Close examination also reveals how the same relatively limited repertoire of policy tools is likely to be available to implement U.S. interests today and in the future (for ex., destabilization efforts in Venezuela).

Over these past four decades, many formerly classified documents have been brought to light, and significant architects of the Chile policies have been interviewed. Not the least of these efforts came in l974-75, through the Senate Select Committee to Investigate U.S. Intelligence Activities, popularly known simply as the “Church Committee” after its chair, Senator Frank Church (D-Idaho). Valuable additional documentation has been unearthed through persistent Freedom of Information Act, or “FOIA,” requests for declassification by public interests groups such as The National Security Archive (located in Washington, D.C.) and The Center for Constitutional Rights (located in New York City), as well as authors and teams of investigators in Chile and abroad. Finally, some of us who lived through and survived those turbulent years, now growing older, are also putting pen to paper.

In the short space of this anniversary blog post, I will attempt to address four of the more persistent questions surrounding U.S. behavior and “the Chilean experience”: 

1) Who constituted the the Popular Unity (Unidad Popular, UP) coalition and what was the essence of its social base?
2) What were the four central strands making up the anatomy of Nixon/Kissinger policy toward the UP in 1970-73?
3) What was most responsible for Allende’s overthrow: a) strategic errors of his own coalition? b) internal opposition forces ? c) external opposition forces? And finally,
4) What were the fundamental post-coup priorities of the United States?

The Popular Unity Coalition

Senator Salvador Allende, M.D., had been a presidential candidate in 1958, again in 1964, and again in 1970. His UP coalition had been growing in strength over the years, and by 1970 included six broad parties: 1) Allende’s own Socialist Party; 2) the Chilean Communist Party; 3) the middle-class, non-Marxist Radical Party; 4) the Left Christian Party, a splinter from the powerful opposition Christian Democrats of the center-right; and 5) and 6)two new parties: MAPU and MAPU-OC (Obrero Campesino/ Worker Farm Laborer).

The radical, pro-insurrectionary “MIR,” or “Movement of the Revolutionary Left,” though allied, did not form part of the UP coalition. MIR could be seen as representing an ideological pole far more than offering any strategic alternative. Tactical differences between Chile’s broad Socialist Party – advocating “advance without concessions,” and its old and more traditional Communist Party – advocating “consolidate first in order to advance,” were evident on nearly every level. The great majority of organized labor also situated themselves firmly within the ranks of the governing UP coalition.

Aligned against the UP parties were Chile’s center-right Christian Democrats; a conservative splinter from the majority, middle-of-the-road Radical Party; the traditional right-wing National Party; and even an open, neo-fascist shock group known as “Fatherland and Freedom.” Increasingly, groupings of “guilds” or “gremios” and “owner associations,” such as the truck owners’ SIDUCAM, worked with the opposition.

The prevailing mood among all of the parties and social groups in the UP, from neighborhod and community organizations through the six parties, was overwhelmingly one of optimism and hope. There was a keen awareness, even in the midst of unbridled opposition and mounting chaos, of how, as organized workers, they were fundamentally transforming Chilean society.

For the status quo-defending parties, the mood was increasingly one of apprehension and visceral opposition to each and every UP initiative. We will see how U. S. policy worked to further increase this polarization on every level, and in its own words, “create a coup climate.”

The View from Washington

Richard Nixon viewed Allende’s surprise plurality election in September, 1970, as evidence of a “red sandwich” – with Castro’s Cuba in the north, and now “Marxist Chile” in the south, where “soon all of Latin America in between may turn Communist.” Henry Kissinger was somewhat more sophisticated. If allowed to succeed, Kissinger viewed the cooperative coalition between Chile’s Socialist and Communist parties as posing “an insidious example” to similar coalitions in France and Italy – whose societies were considered to directly affect U. S. strategic interests.

Nixon was clear in his immediate instructions to his national security advisors at Allende’s election: “Make the economy scream,” he privately ordered. Subsequently, U.S. Ambassador Edward Korry would privately pledge that “not a nut or a bolt” would make it into Chile on his watch.

The U.S. national security state under Nixon/Kissinger quickly developed a powerful anti-Allende policy with four strands: 1) diplomatic deception; 2) military-to-military intervention; 3) economic pressure/strangulation; and 4) a series of “covert actions.”

U.S. Diplomatic Deception

While the full force of U.S. power in fact moved swiftly and mercilessly against Allende’s Chile, the official U.S. position was deceptively conciliatory: “Our position is one of ‘wait and see.’ We are prepared to have the kind of relations with the Allende government that they want to have with us.”

Officially, the litmus test for the Nixon Administration was said to be whether or not they were satisfied by the terms of indemnization by the Allende government for the private U.S.-owned transnationals, particularly the U.S. copper corporations – Anaconda, Kennecott, and Braden, but also I.T.T, Chase Manhattan Bank, and not to be overlooked, Nixon’s former client, Pepsi Cola!

U.S. ire was hardly calmed when, after months and months of deliberations, Allende’s international legal counsel, Eduardo Novoa, declared that neither side owed the other anything. According to Novoa’s doctrine of “retroactive excess profits,” adopted by Allende, the transnationals would still end up with a traditionally acceptable annual profit even if not paid anything further for the nationalization of their properties in Chile.

U.S. Military Intervention

Much of what has been publicly revealed of the U.S. military actions against the Allende government, especially by the Church Committee, falls in the initial months in which the U.S. attempted to prevent Allende from being confirmed by the Chilean congress, rather than three years later at the time of the 9/11/73 coup itself. Yet we know that U.S. opposition to Allende not only did not wane, but significantly intensified as time went on. Thus, it would hardly be logical to expect U.S. military advice to have become less involved and less interested as the military ultimatum against the Allende
regime escalated month after month.

In the earlier, pre-confirmation period, we know that the U.S. went as far as to dispatch three “false flag” clandestine officers to Chile with submachine guns whose serial numbers had been erased. These clandestine U.S. officers, traveling as nationals of other countries, had instructions to pass these weapons to one of two renegade Chilean military factions in order to kidnap the constitutionalist Commander-in-Chief of Chile’s Armed Forces, General René Schneider. In the assault, General Schneider resisted and was assassinated. This U. S.-backed terrorist action so shocked Chile’s constitutionalist majority that it turned out to have precisely the opposite effect, facilitating Allende’s confirmation by the Congress on Oct. 24, 1970.

The first signs of the Chilean military coup itself came in the pre-dawn hours of Sept. 11, 1973, and commenced with the uprising of the Chilean Navy in the principal port of Valparaiso. Just concluding at the time were the war games being carried out by the U.S. Navy under Operation Unitas. It was the unguarded boasts of U. S. Navy officers, gathered at Viña del Mar’s Hotel O’Higgins on the Sunday night prior to the Tuesday morning coup, that U. S. filmmaker Charlie Horman witnessed, leading to his subsequent kidnapping and “disappearance,” later portrayed in the film, Missing.

In the capital of Santiago, as in cities up and down the length of Chile, the intricate choreography of the coup was carried off with a precision previously unassociated with Chile’s armed forces. Were they operating alone, as we have been led to believe by the “official accounts”? All traffic intersections and bridges had been taken over and controled; all radio and TV stations taken over; all “intervened” worker-controlled factories were surrounded and controlled by specialized military units; a master “watch list” of the thousands upon thousands to be arrested, interrogated and held had been prepared and distributed; and as the two British Hawker Hunter bombers slowly passed over La Moneda, the presidential palace, fixing its coordinates to launch its missiles, someone was there to film the bombing and burning of the constitutional symbol of the palace, with the elected president inside – and then feed the film to the national television channels. The resulting burning image was run over and over, exclusive TV content, accompanied only by various official pronunciations and warnings to citizens from the new military junta!

After three years of intensive preparation and unremiting hostility, are we really to believe that on the day of the coup itself, and subsequent days, the U.S. military advisors were on vacation?

U.S. Economic Pressures

Immediately following Allende’s election, the Nixon Administration established an interagency working group to coordinate overt economic pressure toward Chile. This was composed of the CIA’s Western Hemisphere Division chief and representatives from State, the National Security Council (NSC), and Treasury. In 1970, U. S. direct private investment in Chile reached $1.1 billion, out of an estimated total foreign investment of $1.672 billion. Four-fifths of Chile’s foreign exchange earnings at the time came from copper exports, and 80 percent of Chile’s copper production was controlled by U.S.-based corporations.

The NSC’s decision to isolate Chile from all sources of needed foreign capital, summarized in National Security Defense Memorandum 93, Nov. 1970, can be traced in the macro statistics. While U.S. bilateral aid to Chile in 1969 reached $35 million, this had been cut to only $1.5 million in 1971. U.S. Export-Import Bank credits, which had totaled $234 million under President Eduardo Frei in 1967, fell to zero by 1971. Chile’s credit rating with the Export-Import Bank was dropped from “B” to “D” (the lowest level) at Allende’s election. Loans from the Inter-American Development Bank had totaled $46 milion in 1970; by 1972 they were only $2 million. The World Bank made no new loans whatsoever to Chile between 1970 and 1973.

As the Church Committee report states, “the United States [also] linked the question of indemnization for U.S. copper companies with Chile’s multilateral foreign debt. That foreign debt, an inheritance from the obligations incurred by the [previous Chilean governments of Presidents] Alessandri and Frei, was the second highest foreign debt per capita of any country in the world. In 1973 Paris Club foreign debt negotiations with Chile’s principal foreign creditor nations, the United States alone refused to consider rescheduling Chile’s foreign debt payments until there was movement toward indemnization for the U.S. copper companies. The United States also exerted pressure on each of the other foreign creditor nations not to renegotiate Chile’s foreign debt.”

U.S. Covert Actions

What do we mean by the category “covert actions”? Broadly speaking, these are activities which the United States government authorizes, pays for, coordinates, and carries out without ever divulging any association or responsibility. They may be falsely attributed to other authorities or entities. In intelligence slang they are often loosely referred to as “dirty tricks.” This may involve clandestine payments to individuals or parties, covert military-to-military activity, or, one of the broadest and most significant categories in the case of U.S. policy toward Chile, “psy-ops” or “psychological operations.” This is non-attributed, or falsely attributed (“black”) propaganda pouring into a country such as Chile to act as “scare tactics,” often in order to change how people vote.

The information itself does not have to be true, and often is blatantly false. Ironically, the U.S. covert action campaigns directed against the Allende candidacy in 1964, and again in 1970 against his candidacy and subsequent government, were so massive in character, that they often betrayed their allegedly “clandestine” nature. They thus turned out to be anything but “covert” to their targets, the people of Chile; they often were covert or unknown, however, to the U. S. people in whose name and through whose taxes they were being authorized and paid for! Only with the major congressional investigation by the Church Committee in the Senate and the Pike Committee in the House were descriptions of U.S. covert action programs against Chile ever revealed to the U.S. public.

The C.I.A. chose to pour millions into blatant attack copy for Chile’s daily opposition radio, TV and print media, especially the conservative daily, El Mercurio. The funds were routinely channeled through Chile’s black market, producing a five-to-eight-fold increase in a country whose entire population at the time was one twentieth of the United States’.

The “covert action” strategy was twofold: First, it aimed to denigrate and smear each and every initiative of the UP coalition, and increasingly, the character of President Allende himself; secondly, it furthered a self-fulfilling prophecy that the Allende government, per se, represented a threat to “freedom of the press,” forcing the government to choose between setting limits on what propaganda could be launched in the press, including suspension of printing privileges when the courts determined the attacks to be libelous, versus opting to refuse to be coerced into any such suspension and thus allowing ever more vicious daily attacks and rumors to spread. Allende and the UP chose to keep even the most rabid of the opposition press open and publishing all the time.

Jorge A. Lawton is a binational from the U.S. and Chile. During the Allende Popular Unity years, he worked as a daily staff reporter for the Financial Times (London) from Chile. In May of 1974, he returned to Chile as an advisor to former Attorney General Ramsey Clark. Subsequently, he worked as Latin American analyst on the Senate “Church Committee,” and as an advisor to former Chilean Foreign Minister, Orlando Letelier until his assassination in September 1976. Today, Dr. Lawton, a former Distinguished Fellow at Emory University’s Center for Ethics, writes and works from Atlanta, Ga.

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