25 years ago, U.S. altered Chile's course

September 09, 1998|By Saul Landau

This Friday is the 25th anniversary of the U.S.-supported coup in Chile.

On Sept. 11, 1973, the Chilean military overthrew the elected government of Salvador Allende and established a dictatorship that ruled until 1990. The United States played a prominent role in these events.

The CIA began to instigate violence in Chile following the September 1970 election of Allende, who headed a multiparty socialist coalition. "I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people," national security adviser Henry Kissinger said at the time. In testimony before a Senate investigating committee in 1975, CIA Director Richard Helms told of how President Nixon gave him "the marshal's baton" to conduct covert activities designed to stop Allende from being inaugurated in November 1970.

Helms' covert staff tried to bribe Chile's Congress and its military to deny Allende the presidency. Failing, the agency paid an extreme right-wing group to assassinate Gen. Rene Schneider, Chile's chief of staff. When even the brutal murder of Schneider didn't succeeded in blocking Allende's inauguration, the CIA began to destabilize his government.

For three years, CIA officials helped instigate strikes in strategic sectors of the economy, promoted violence and initiated smear campaigns against Allende in the media. Washington applied a credit squeeze to make Chile's economy squirm.

This destabilization campaign had its desired effect. Social conflict grew to the point where the military commanders, with U.S. encouragement, decided to stage a coup. As tanks and aircraft bombarded the presidential palace on Sept. 11, 1973, U.S. Navy vessels appeared off of Chile's coast. U.S. intelligence vessels monitored activity at Chile's military bases in order to notify the coup makers, should a regiment loyal to the Allende government decide to fight.

Allende, a medical doctor who served 25 years as a senator before winning the presidency, died in the assault, alongside dozens of supporters. Cabinet ministers and other staff were thrown into a concentration camp. No charges were brought against them.

Chile's institutions were destroyed, including the Congress, the press and trade unions. Troops burned books deemed subversive. The junta began a systematic terror campaign, arresting, torturing and murdering thousands of "suspected subversives." A Chilean government agency estimates that the reign of terror between 1973 and 1990 resulted in the deaths of some 2,300 Chileans.

Pro-Allende Chileans took refuge abroad, but even there, the long arm of Gen. Augusto Pinochet's secret police managed to reach them. Among the victims were Gen. Carlos Prats, Chile's former chief of staff, and his wife, who in 1974 were blown nine stories high in Buenos Aires, the Argentinian capital.

In September 1976, Pinochet's hit squad struck in Washington. Michael Townley, a U.S. national and an electronics and bomb expert employed by Chile's secret police, recruited five anti-Castro Cubans to help him carry out the assassination. The assassins placed a bomb under the car of Orlando Letelier, Allende's former defense minister. As Letelier's car entered Washington's Sheridan Circle, half a mile from the White House, the bomb was detonated, killing Letelier. The blast also killed Ronni Moffitt, a passenger in the front seat. Both victims worked at the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington-based think tank.

The FBI discovered that the Chilean dictatorship had organized a six-country alliance of secret police agencies, which provided surveillance on each other's dissidents and helped assassinate the most troubling exiled opponents. Bureau agents also learned that the CIA knew considerable detail about this "Condor Operation."

The CIA even provided the secret police chiefs with a special computer to better conduct their relationship.

In the late 1980s, the United States, embarrassed over Pinochet's "excesses," pushed for a referendum to end military rule. Pinochet was defeated, but he forced the civilian government to accept him as head of the army until he retired in March of this year. He then became senator for life, a post he had arranged.

Chile has now returned to democratic procedures. But 17 years of military rule have taken an immeasurable toll on its people.

We should ask ourselves how we would feel if another government decided that our voters had exercised poor judgment and sent a team of saboteurs to undo the results of the election by force. This is what we did to Chile. We altered the country's destiny.

Saul Landau is the Hugh O. La Bounty Chair of Interdisciplinary Applied Knowledge at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.

Pub Date: 9/09/98

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