Another 9/11: Lessons from the 1973 Coup in Chile – Part 2

Credit: Jorge A. Lawton

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 second article in a two-part series by Jorge A. Lawton. — Ed.

By Jorge A. Lawton

Key Factors in Allende’s Overthrow 

There has been a long and largely inconclusive academic debate over which factors were more influential in the overthrow of Allende’s Popular Unity (Unidad Popular, UP) government on Sept. 11, 1973. The question is usually put in terms of the relative influence of external vs. internal opposition factors.

We know that the most significant and visible actor in provoking the coup was, of course, the betrayal of the Chilean armed forces: Army, Navy, Air Force, and Carabiñeros or National Police, plus their various respective, and competing, intelligence services. The CIA., the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the NSA were far less forthcoming with the investigating Senate Church Committee, when it came to questions of the degree and nature of U.S. covert involvement at the time of the 9/11 coup itself, than with some of the details on the earlier covert U.S. intervention programs. That the coup culminated three years of unrelenting pressure and propaganda economically, politically, psychologically and militarily is often conveniently overlooked, as it is seen as an isolated event. Even so, serious questions continue to be raised regarding the likely continuation of the United States’ intimate role, but in a far less visible or considerably more discrete deployment on the day of the coup itself. Some critics have charged that the U.S. Airforce deployed two highly sophisticated aircraft, similar to AWACs, with orders to maintain a centralized military communication system far above the capital city of Santiago, just in case the Chilean military’s closely coordinated monopoly of all ground communications should suffer any unforeseen glitches.

Thus even today, 43 years after the fact, we are still limited to considering what forces were visible at the time, and what information has been revealed and confirmed by official sources. This does not prevent, however, further responsible and trained inquiry, given the nature of the policy and the intervention.

We also must analyze the essence of the CIA’s work. It is a clandestine agency working across national boundaries. As such, its primary task is to unite covertly the international, or external forces with the internal forces – not have one compete against the other. Both external and internal forces, so long as they are loyal to the policy’s central purpose – in this case,  in President Nixon’s words, “to make the economy scream” and “to create a coup climate” are aligned together if the C. I. A. and its fellow clandestine agencies are doing their job. Common cause is made between the external and the internal forces. Thus the very question as to which forces are more responsible for the overthrow is clearly the wrong question to ask.

Does this mean for a moment that Allende and the UP coalition did not commit their own errors in the intense three years of governing? Of course not. The most frequent charge against the coalition is often thought to be that of their alleged naiveté. “They should have seen the military coup coming and countered the same by arming the workers in a popular uprising” runs the argument. This view, often expressed by some on the Left from abroad, ignores how acutely aware each of the parties in the UP coalition were of a military coup, and how they realized that discovery by the military of introduction of any popular armed militia would only have accelerated the military’s timing and resolve to protect themselves and act to carry out a coup.

While many tactical errors did exist, the overwhelming thrust of the UP programs was to build a new, alternative social order. Time after time, Allende, a gruff conciliator by nature, reached out to sectors of the opposition to form broader national coalitions. One such accord had been all but reached with the opposition Christian Democrats in 1972. What remained was formal approval by former President Eduardo Frei, then traveling in Yugoslavia. It was learned that Frei consulted with the Nixon/Kissinger administration before ordering that absolutely under no circumstances would his party enter into any pact with the Allende coalition. One CIA report which reached the Church Committee, dealing with the September timing of the coup, predicted that if the coup were not successfully launched then it might well be “too late” soon after, as Allende was seen as consolidating his forces.

U. S. Post-Coup Priorities and “Los Chicago Boys” 

The Sept. 11, 1973 military coup in Chile marked a bloody watershed. It heralded far more than so-called “regime change.  The very democratic institutions which the CIA had carried out a drumbeat of  warnings as being “threatened” under Allende, primarily the country’s ample electronic and print media, but also the generations-old House and Senate chambers, were summarily closed with the coup.

Strict nightly curfews were established. Gatherings of more than five persons were prohibited. A new reality, the CIA.-prepared “Watch List,” guided so many mass arrests that the overflow soon had to be sent to locales such as the National Football (Soccer) Stadium, now one massive political prison.  Eleven new “interrogation centers,” such as Villa Grimaldi or Londres 38, were set up. Old concentration camps, such as Tres Alamos or Pisagua, not used for decades, were re-opened.

From the first moment of the coup onward, the military succeeded in cutting Chile off from Argentina to the east, while controlling the northern border with Bolivia. That left control of Patagonia to the south and the Pacific Ocean to the west – effectively cutting Chile off from the world. This new territorial control was then used to corral, interrogate, and imprison  not only all of the hundreds of thousands of Chilean nationals, but also, of immediate interest, the thousands of foreign nationals, including dissident leaders from their own countries, who had been welcomed to Chile under Allende.  The interrogation process routinely employed torture. Summary executions ocurred widely, especially during the first weeks following the coup. Some prisoners, still alive, were cast into the Pacific Ocean from helicopters. Many were simply “disappeared,” never to be accounted for again.

One common experience reported was seeing a non-Spanish speaking man present at the torture sessions. Not infrequently, some anti-Allende residents used the coup climate to denounce and “turn in” any neighbors who they knew to have supported the previous regime. The highest level Chilean prisoners, former party heads or Cabinet members, were separated and sent to Dawson Island at the extreme southern pole, Chile’s equivalent of South Africa’s Robben’s Island.

Two CIA agents were assigned to prepare the military junta’s own publication, or “White Book,” to justify the coup itself and to present the junta in a uniquely positive light. Covert action programs were conducted to place the agency in close touch with the command level of the military, and to direct the national and international media coverage in the most favorable light possible toward the new junta.

The agency deployed other agents to help draw up the new national economic plans of the government.  Analysts on the Senate Church Committee learned in declassified information that on the afternoon of the military coup ravaging Chile, the CIA station chief encouraged his staff of officers to enjoy the bottles of champagne which they had uncorked, but to realize that “our real work starts tomorrow morning as we carry out the drafting of Chile’s new economic plan.”  

Even before the new national economic plan could be drafted, Chile’s broad public health network and decades-old social safety net had to be dismantled. “Privatization” and nearly universal “user-fees” in instance after instance replaced former public benefits; decades-old Chilean trade unions were banned. These plans were a bold copy of fundamental “neoliberal” or unfettered, market-oriented, Chicago School principles. Deregulation became the order of the day.

Eventually it became impossible to square the more drastic of these raw capitalist measures with some of Chile’s oldest constitutional guarantees. But rather than curtail the drastic economic measures, it was decided to rewrite Chile’s constitution – once again, with the explicit participation of  U.S. CIA agents! All new decision-making power was vested in the military junta itself; Congress had been closed and the ultra-conservative Supreme Court was only too happy to be subservient to the new mlitary executive, increasingly centered in the person of Army General Augusto Pinochet. Elections, formerly a near-constant in Chilean life, were now banned, and the new constitution guaranteed unquestioned terms of rule for the new Pinochet junta and its welcoming of foreign capital. Unemployment soared under Chile’s “new economy,” while a handful of well-placed financiers, including future president Sebastian Piñera, became the new billionaires. 

Nearly three years later, in June of 1976, Henry Kissinger paid a visit to Pinochet’s Chile. The dictatorship’s human rights repression had become known around the globe. Yet, in his private meeting with Pinochet, recently declassified memos quote Kissinger confiding to the dictator, “You did a great service to the West in overthrowing Allende.”  To his undoubted embarrassment, upon parting, Pinochet turned to Kissinger and publicly assured him that, “You are my leader.” 

General Pinochet remained in unchecked power for the next 17 years, until a national plebescite voted him out. Even then, he negotiated to remain as commander-in-chief of the armed forces for another eight years – effectively preventing any member of the military from cooperating with the various commissions of inquiry into the crimes committed by the military. And to this day, 41 years from the Sept. 11, 1973 military coup, the CIA-counseled, Pinochet constitution remains in place. Socialist President Michele Bachelet, herself a former victim of the dictatorship, must now decide whether the correlation of constitutional forces even today will allow her to rewrite Chile’s constitution.

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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