Opinion: Chile, and the other 9/11


Published: 09-11-2023 6:00 AM

Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot.

September 11 marks the 50th anniversary of the military coup that overthrew Chile’s democratically-elected government led by Salvador Allende. It is the lesser known 9/11 but one that also had huge consequences. The coup, unleashed by Gen. Augusto Pinochet and the Chilean military, resulted in a bloodbath of murders, torture and disappearances.

Disappearances of those perceived as political opponents became the signature action of the military dictatorship. For many many years, family members could not find out if their missing relatives were alive or dead. Terror defined the Pinochet regime.

Chile’s present government just announced a national search for over 1000 people who went missing during the Pinochet years. In 1978, after some remains were discovered, Pinochet ordered the military to exhume hundreds of victims buried secretly around the country so they could be disposed of permanently. He ordered corpses to be incinerated or to be dumped in the ocean or volcanoes. Pinochet tried to remove all scraps of evidence.

In complete contrast, Allende’s election to the Chilean presidency in 1970 was a hopeful watershed moment. Before that, the conventional wisdom had been that no socialist could be democratically elected president of a country. Cold War propaganda still held a powerful hold and right-wing parties hammered that theme. Allende and his Popular Unity government overturned the mythology that it was impossible to build socialism through peaceful democratic means.

Allende had been a perennial candidate, running for the presidency four times. Before he won he used to joke that his epitaph would be “Here lies the next President of Chile.”

He became the first democratically elected socialist leader in Latin America. Since he was a young person, Allende had dedicated his life to serving those living in what he called “subhuman conditions.” He was a physician, focused on public health. Earlier in his life he played a key role in creating Chile’s social security and national health systems.

Because of the negative stereotypes about socialism, it is important to acknowledge that under his presidency there were no human rights abuses. There was absolute freedom of assembly and the press.

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Before 1970, Chile reflected the massive economic inequality that characterized so much of Latin America. A small number of the super-wealthy owned everything. Two predatory U.S. corporations owned the huge copper mines. The majority of Chileans desperately wanted agricultural reform and favored nationalizing the mines.

Allende’s election in 1970 led to a significant redistribution of income and services to the poorest members of society. According to the writer Ariel Dorfman, Allende’s priorities included, “a half-liter of milk daily for every child; cabins erected by the ocean so workers could vacation with their families (most had never seen the Pacific before); the acknowledgment of indigenous identities and languages; the publication of millions of inexpensive books that were sold at newspaper kiosks; and major advances in health, affordable public housing, education and child care.”

The U.S. government feared Allende’s example of popular socialists winning a democratic election. To this day, the American role in the overthrow of the Allende government is poorly understood but because of the declassification of government documents much more is now known. President Nixon and his national security advisor Henry Kissinger were unalterably opposed to Allende.

When they were unable to secure electoral success for the candidates they lavishly funded, they opted to support a military coup. Kissinger famously said, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.”

After Allende won the presidency in 1970, the U.S. operation was about discrediting Allende’s government through black propaganda. The CIA hoped to destabilize the Chilean government and they used an economic blockade to make the economy scream. They also tried to enlist leaders of the Chilean military to support a coup.

There had been a long tradition of the military being neutral and after Allende’s 1970 election, the army was not interested in overthrowing the government. The CIA sent machine guns and agents and helped to finance the assassination of Gen. Rene Schneider, the head of the army. Schneider was maintaining neutrality and the CIA saw people like that as obstacles who needed to be removed.

In spite of all the CIA efforts, Allende became more popular and his coalition received 45% of the vote in 1973 which was a 10% increase in his share of the vote since 1970. At that point, the Chilean military led by Pinochet turned against democracy. The military coup of September 11, 1973, led to a reign of terror that lasted 17 years. There were thousands of extrajudicial disappearances and executions. Pinochet’s military abolished all civil liberties, Congress and political parties.

Nixon and Kissinger had their fingerprints all over support for Pinochet. Even after Pinochet became a human rights pariah, Kissinger with his insidious realpolitik backed the monster. He told the ambassador to Chile, “stop it with the human rights lectures.”

Those who are especially interested in the events around Chile’s coup might want to check out the great Costa-Gavras movie “Missing” made in 1982 starring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek.

Pinochet went on to create what the historian Peter Kornbluh called a “Southern Cone Murder Inc.” He and other Latin American military dictators organized an international death squad operation called Operation Condor targeting enemies in Europe and around the world. The diplomat Orlando Letelier and his colleague Ronni Moffitt were two famous victims assassinated by car bomb in Washington D.C. in 1976.

The Chilean people ultimately voted Pinochet out of power in a plebiscite election on October 5, 1988. Pinochet was later arrested in 1998 and was held in Britain for 16 months for crimes against humanity. The British government ultimately released him on what it termed “humanitarian grounds.”

Back in the early 1970s many Chileans believed democracy could never be destroyed. I think many Americans would now like to believe this as well about our democracy. The experience around the 2020 election and Trump’s insurrection shows there is a continuing danger to our democracy.

To quote Ariel Dorfman, “The main lesson that the Chilean cataclysm bequeaths the U.S. is to never forget that the rights we take for granted are fragile and revocable, protected only by the unceasing, vigilant vigorous struggle of millions upon millions of ordinary citizens.”

If anything, American experience shows both the fragility and revocability of our rights that Dorfman describes.