Four Decades After the First 9-11 in Chile


September 11 marked, as we were endlessly reminded, the 12th anniversary of the profoundly shocking Al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon that engulfed the U.S. and the world in grief over the death of some 3,000 Americans, and also instilled the sense of anxiety and fear exploited by George W. Bush to invade Iraq and Afghanistan with such catastrophic and lasting human costs.

But much less known to U.S. citizens—cut off from the world by the mainstream media’s unwillingness to frankly cover their government’s actions abroad—the world had previously endured “the other 9/11,” the U.S.-funded and directed coup against the democratic socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile. As horrific as the toll exacted on the U.S. by 9/11/2001, the impact in terms of lives taken, the destruction of democracy, and misery imposed on Chile was much worse, proportionately, in the case of Chile.

In his book, Hopes and Prospects, Noam Chomsky examines the full scope of the U.S.-sponsored coup: “Vile as the atrocities on 9/11 were, one can easily imagine worse. Suppose that Al Qaeda had been supported by a superpower intent on overthrowing the government of the United States Suppose that the attack had succeeded: al-Qaeda had bombed the White House, killed the president and installed a vicious military dictatorship, which killed some 50,000 to 100,00 people, brutally tortured 700,000, set up a major center of terror and subversion that carried out assassinations throughout the world, and helped establish neo-Nazi security states elsewhere that murdered and torture with abandon. Suppose further that the dictatorship brought in economic advisers—call them the Kandahar boys—who within a few years drove the economy to one of its worst disasters in U.S. history while their proud mentors collected Nobel prizes and received other accolades…

“And as everyone in Chile knows, it is not necessary to imagine, because it did happen right here, the first 9/11, September 1973.”

In short, the Chilean 9/11 resulted in the death of the democratically-elected president, ended a lengthy tradition of constitutionalism unique in Latin America, unleashed a startling reign of murder and torture in a peaceful nation, enthroned the cruel and avaricious dictator Augusto Pinochet, and provided Pinochet and his supporters among international corporate elites a free hand to establish the most extreme version of what came to be known as “neo-liberal” capitalism. Chile, in effect, shifted from an experiment in democratic socialism to a testing-ground for a “shock therapy” form of unregulated capitalism which—especially under the conditions of a repressive military dictatorship—was overtly dedicated to enriching multinational corporations and local elites while crushing and fragmenting unions and other forms of democratic organization among the increasingly impoverished working class and poor.

As Naomi Klein wrote in her classic Shock Doctrine, “the shock of the coup prepared the ground for economic shock therapy, creating an unstoppable hurricane of mutually reinforcing destruction and reconstruction, erasure and creation. The shock of the torture chamber terrorized anyone thinking of standing in the way of the economic shocks.” This paved the way for the introduction of ruthless policies labeled as “free-market” capitalism, which in practice actually meant state subsidies and support for major corporations and investors, while government assistance to workers and the poor was vastly reduced or eliminated.

The central elements of these “shock-therapy” policies first fully applied in Chile—formulated and packaged by the University of Chicago’s Milton Friedman and then implemented by a coterie of about 100 of his “Chicago boy” disciples enlisted by Pinochet—included privatization, deregulation and union-busting. “Out of this live laboratory emerged the first Chicago School state, and the first victory in its global counterrevolution,” observed Klein.

But within a few years, the Chileans found themselves driven into a deep economic crisis brought on by the Chicago School’s doctrines. Ironically, noted Chomsky, “the economy collapsed, and had to be bailed out by the state, which by 1982 controlled more of the economy than under Allende.” Chile departed in numerous other ways from the Friedman orthodoxy, such as imposing controls on capital flows, and maintaining government control of the copper mines, the nation’s most important asset and key source of revenues and export earnings.

Nonetheless, despite the realities of Chile’s shift away from Friedman’s “free-market” prescriptions, the Chilean model came to influence both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in their efforts to redistribute wealth and income to the top 1 percent in their societies, severely weaken labor unions and other institutions which had served as the democratic voice of the majority and a counterweight to unrestrained corporate power, and, with the transparently false pretext of generating jobs, to re-define the purpose of government as assisting private corporations in maximizing the returns to their shareholders.

The neo-liberal leaders of the post-coup era—whether rightists like Reagan, the Bushes and Thatcher, or nominally liberal figures like Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama—popularized and worked within the confines of the notion that “there is no alternative” to capitalism’s increasingly inegalitarian and anti-democratic direction. The “New Labour” and Democratic variants of neo-liberalism softened the harsh edges of their predecessors, but never questioned that society’s central purpose is assuring maximum profits for corporations, purportedly in the interests of all.

Blair championed a program of privatization of public assets and quietly cut back on social spending, while even avidly lent badly-needed legitimacy to George W. Bush’s otherwise-isolated  drive for war against Iraq.

For their part, Democrats Clinton and Vice President Al Gore promoted “democracy and free markets”—while supporting dictatorial figures like Boris Yeltsin and others—and institutionalized “free-trade” through NAFTA, which proved immensely devastating to working-class constituencies which were crucial to their election. Clinton and Gore followed up with the Permanent Normalization of Free Trade with China and the World Trade Organization, which established a global economic regime marked by corporate supremacy over democratically-created protections for workers and consumers.

Despite Obama’s fierce statements of opposition to unfettered corporate globalization while campaigning for the presidency in 2008, he, too, turned his back on Democratic voters and rammed through NAFTA-style “free-trade” deals with Colombia, South Korea, and Panama, relying heavily on Republican votes in Congress to win passage. Further, Obama’s team is working on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, described as “NAFTA on steroids,” and Obama’s largely unconditional bailouts of Wall Street dispirited Democratic-leaning voting blocs prior to the disastrous 2010 mid-term elections, as Democracy Corps pollsters found that just 3 percent agreed that government’s policies helped the average working person or “you and your family” and “a 46 percent plurality of voters think Obama and Democrats put bailing out Wall Street ahead of creating jobs for ordinary Americans.”

Similarly, the bailout of General Motors and Chrysler was focused on the survival of the corporations rather than manufacturing jobs, with the federal subsidies permitting GM and Chrysler to shift substantial numbers of jobs to Mexico and China.

The neo-liberal trajectory of the past four decades has produced sharply-increased inequality across nations which have embraced the central neo-policies of deregulation of capital, anti-unionism, and privatization of public assets.

The U.S., for example, has witnessed the greatest extremes in income and wealth distribution in 90 years. The richest 1 percent claims 24 percent of all annual income in America, and increasingly vacuums up virtually all increases in earnings, gaining 93 percent of income increases in 2010 and an incredible 121 percent in 2011 (meaning that the 1 percent swallowed up earnings formerly going to the bottom 80 percent of Americans). Meanwhile, wages are under a fierce assault, led by highly-profitable corporations like General Electric and Caterpillar, and household incomes have fallen in the U.S. from $54,000 in 2008 to $51,584 in January 2013, as Thomas Edsall noted (NYT, 3/6/13).

Yet in few nations has inequality grown worse than in in Chile. The CIA’s latest World Fact book ranks Chile’s income distribution as the 15th worst in the world among 136 nations. A WorldWatch report noted, “In 2010 Chile was rated the most economically unequal country in the 34-nation Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In 2011, Chile was given one of the lowest rankings for social inclusion and cohesion in the OECD. The richest 100 people in Chile earn more than the state spends on all social services.”

An Experiment in Democratic Socialism

Looking back at what has ensued in the past 40 years since the first 9/11 in Chile, it is now clear that the coup in Chile brutally ended what might arguably be labeled history’s most important modern experiment in democratic socialism. This experiment was inaugurated by the election of Allende, a medical doctor and founder of the Chilean Socialist Party. Allende was a veteran member of the Chilean Congress who first gained attention in 1938 by authoring a bill denouncing the Nazis’ “Kristallnacht” assault on Jews and their property. Allende, although having sought the presidency in 1952, 1958, and 1964, was no ordinary politician whose ambitions overruled his political commitments. For example, he readily undertook the political risk of claiming Che Guevara’s body in Bolivia after he was slain by counter-insurgency forces in October 1967.

In Chile, Allende was instrumental in aligning all the key forces on the Left in an unprecedented coalition called “Unidad Popular” (Popular Unity). The UP came together in 1970 behind a common program to transform Chilean society away from a preoccupation with the top 1 percent and foreign multinationals and toward orienting institutions—including key industries which were to be nationalized—in the interests of the vast majority.

Allende emerged victorious with a 36.6 percent plurality in a three-way election on September 4, 1970. Significantly, the program of his Christian Democrat opponent Radomiro Tomic, who gathered 28.1 percent, was surprisingly radical, marking a major shift to the Left in Chilean politics. At the same time, the 35.3 percent share won by Jorge Allesandri of the rightist National Party foreshadowed the polarization of Chilean society that would arrive with extensive CIA involvement (see story detailing the CIA effort behind the coup).

In retrospect, the Chilean experiment under Allende was a uniquely advanced effort to create a society that was both genuinely democratic and in the process of moving toward socialism, under which society would no longer be harnessed to the maximization of profit but geared to meeting the needs and will of the majority. Allende’s Chile went far beyond any elected government before or since in making democracy meaningful; maintaining fundamental liberties, honoring electoral processes, and—far more than any government—incorporating working people in the day-to-day decisions which shape their existence distinguished by:

(a) a genuine socialist strategy based on taking over the most central parts of the economy to be run in the interests of the working majority, and re-orienting government resources like nutrition and healthcare to serve the poor and working class

(b) relying on respected democratic means to win elections and obtain unanimous support in Congress for the takeover of the copper industry

(c) beginning, however imperfectly, to democratize decision-making in the “everyday” institutions of society like work

All of this is fundamentally different than any of the many social-democratic and Labor governments of the 20th century (e.g., Leon Blum and Francois Mitterand in France, Willy Brandt and Gerhard Schroeder in Germany, the Papandreous in Greece, and the various Labour governments in Britain) which lacked the unswerving determination to transform society and the economy to serve human needs. True, many of these leaders helped win important reforms improving the lives of the working class and poor to an extent now unimaginable in the U.S. (universal health care without for-profit insurers, family-supportive policies on day care and family leave, substantial vacations, and reduced hours of work). At their furthest reach, these social-democratic regimes confined themselves to taking over utilities and sometimes even money-losing industries (known as “lemon socialism”).

his contrasts sharply with the project of transformation launched by the Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende. Along with working to change the fundamental direction of society toward human needs, Allende began to rebuild society from the ground up by supporting the democratization of workplaces and farms taken over by workers and peasants.

Allende departed from the social-democrats’ cautious pattern of seeking to soften the effects of capitalism, and sought instead to move from capitalism to socialism. He sought early on to capture the commanding heights of the Chilean economy. He accomplished a central priority by nationalizing the nation’s copper mines, which was crucial to ensuring that the income generated by this massive industry benefited the people of Chile. This was such a popular move that even the most hard-liner pro-capitalist elements of the Right in Congress dared not oppose it, with the measure passing on a unanimous vote. In fact, even after the 1973 coup, Pinochet never tried to reverse Allende’s takeover of the copper mines.

With a government fully supporting the rights of workers—and a highly class-conscious working class with a long tradition of struggle—wages rose significantly during Allende’s term. A UN study found that the poorest 50 percent saw their share of national income rise from 16.1 percent to 17.6 percent, while the middle 45 percent’s share climbed from 53.9 percent to 57.7 percent. Meanwhile, the richest 5 percent were surely displeased by their slice of the income pie dropping from 30 percent to 24.7 percent

The vital needs of Chile’s numerous poor, clustered in shanty-towns called “poblaciones” around cities like the capital Santiago—experienced for the first time a concerned government, reflecting Allende’s background as a doctor. A half-million poor children received an adequate supply of milk for the first time and the government established programs for prenatal care, reaching women whose care had previously been neglected.

To expand the opportunities for Chile’s vast peasantry confined to either working on huge farms owned by the wealthy or scratching out a bare existence on a tiny plot of land, Allende continued to implement and expand the land reform program begun under his Christian Democratic Party predecessor Eduardo Frei. By the end of 1972, all large “latifundia” larger than 80 hectares were broken up and the land distributed among peasants.

Along with material gains which modestly diminished economic inequality, workers gained an increasing voice in workplaces, where the concept of democracy was being introduced in factories formerly run like private dictatorships. However, as pointed out by Immanuel Ness in the important book he co-edited on workers’ control, Ours to Master and Ours to Control, the advent of workers’ control was initially a response to employers’ attempts to damage economic production—normally a suicidal gesture, but in this case, cushioned and compensated by secret U.S. aid encouraging economic problems to weaken Allende politically. As the systematic sabotage of the economy coordinated by the U.S. expanded to crucial sectors like trucking firms to withhold their production and delivery of services, severe deprivation was imposed on the working class and poor of Chile.

At the outset of this stage of the U.S.’s anti-Allende program, “the direct role of the workers was a defensive one” wrote Ness. “The first factories to be taken over were those whose owners had unilaterally cut back production.”

But workers, along with peasants who took over farms where wealthy owners abandoned efforts to maintain production, felt confident of the support they were to receive from Allende for their bold moves.

 According to Ness, “…Legal norms were established through the Ministry of Labor before regulating factory organization in the ‘social area’ (nationalized sector) of the economy, and these provided for a majority of worker-elected representatives on the administrative council of each enterprise.” Following the 1972 attempt by bosses to shut down the economy, said Ness, “expropriation became necessary not solely as a revolutionary goal but simply for the maintained of essential services.”

However, the ominous threat of a coup produced concessions by the Allende government which undermined the workers’ advances. “The workers overcame the stoppage and in so doing saved the government,” Ness stated, “but the government bargained away their victory by agreeing to return seized factories to their former owners in exchange for military guarantees to protect scheduled congressional elections.”

In this instance, the Allende government may have overestimated the immediacy of the threat from the Right and military, Ness asserted. Edward Boorstein, an economic advisor, conceded that the military was not prepared to launch an attempt at a coup with a reasonable prospect of success. “From the workers’ standpoint, the setback was total,” Ness wrote. “It signaled the end of any official encouragement of workers’ control, except in improvised response to the coup attempt of June, 1973, when again many plants were seized.”

After that moment, “workers in self-managed factories were subjected to systematic shakedowns and intimidation by the armed forces.… As in Spain [during the Civil War of the mid-1930’s], workers initiatives had been blocked from their own side—less wholeheartedly, but no less definitively. Still Chile had shown that government support for workers control was at least a possibility…”

Irreversible Push to Overthrow

But any concessions offered by Allende and his government could not stop the irreversible U.S. push for his overthrow. Allende and the UP were actually building more popular support despite the severe privations imposed on poor and working class people, with growing shortages of basic commodities caused by U.S.-sponsored economic sabotage. Thus, even as Allende’s base expanded in size and resolve, the economic and psychological wars—and preparation for a coup—by the U.S. and Chile’s traditional rulers was escalating.

The response of Allende’s supporters is particularly remarkable given the shortages coupled with incessant waves of propaganda and dis-information coming from the U.S.-subsidized and directed El Mercurio newspaper and other media outlets. When Allende and the UP’s support rose to 44.3 percent of the vote in the March 1973 congressional elections, his opponents felt compelled to accelerate their preparations for a coup before Allende’s support became even larger and more difficult to overcome.

Over the summer of 1973, Allende faced rising opposition in Congress, from the judiciary, and business leaders, with the CIA orchestrating production cut-offs, street violence by the fascist group Patria y Libertad (Fatherland and Liberty), and increasingly virulent propaganda against Allende. The military simultaneously staged searches of factories and other sites where workers had stashed their paltry supply of small arms, seeking to ensure that the working class would be disarmed at the time of the eventual coup.

Allende attempted to maneuver against a military takeover, by making concessions to the Right with one hand (e.g., installing Pinochet in his cabinet) and exhorting his base to resist the Right’s effort to destroy democracy. In early September, an estimated one million Chileans—one tenth of the entire nation—rallied in Santiago in support of Allende and the UP.

But on September 11, “operation Jakarta”—named after the 1965 Indonesian coup which resulted in the slaughter of some 500,000 leftists and inserted Sukarno as dictator—was launched with Pinochet’s leadership across Chile. The radio airwaves were filled with martial music, as radio and TV stations were taken over by the military. The presidential palace, La Moneda, was strafed and bombed by the Air Force, with a famous photo showing Allende—wearing a helmet and carrying an AK-47—surveying the skies. Army forces rounded up over 15,000 people and herded them into soccer stadiums, where these suspected leftists were interrogated and tortured, and some executed on the spot. With Army forces battering their way into La Moneda, a cornered Salvador Allende apparently committed suicide rather than face certain torture and death at the hands of Pinochet’s forces.

Street Fighting and a Plebiscite

After 17 years with Pinochet as dictator, popular discontent over the lack of democracy and economic inequality—expressed by the middle class by demonstrations in downtown Santiago and by the poor through riots and street-fighting in the poblaciones ringing the city—became so intense that Pinochet was forced to hold a plebiscite on the question of whether he should remain in power. Unexpectedly, the final outcome was not rigged and the “no” forces—as portrayed in the fascinating but flawed popular film No—prevailed, and Pinochet agreed to finally step down.

But the political steam which had driven Allende’s electoral engine had dissipated and scattered. While there were some signs of ongoing popular mobilization against deprivation, especially in the shantytowns, the mood of Chile had shifted to a kind of self-induced amnesia, where memories of the years of intense conflict leading to the coup and the subsequent Pinochet years of torture, disappearances, and murders—coupled with increasing misery for much of the population—were set aside by a substantial portion of Chile. The working class had been atomized as unions—with many leaders of the early 1970s killed off or exiled, and union rights severely restricted under Pinochet and only modestly reformed after he left power—now representing just 10 percent of the workforce compared with over 30 percent in the 1960s. Organizations among the poor were fragmented and weakened by forced government relocations under Pinochet that produced an apartheid-style containment of the impoverished.

Meanwhile, Chile’s rising economy—based on increasing exports of copper and other commodities whose prices were climbing—was heralded by business publications as the economic star of Latin America. The upward turn in the economy allowed individuals to divert their thoughts and energies into consuming the latest clothing and electronics. Real, inflation-adjusted wages have remained below those of 1973 and the level of inequality is shamefully high, but poverty has been significantly reduced and most Chileans have still experienced rising incomes.

In this context, four consecutive left-of-center governments—led by Christian Democrats Alywin and Frei, and the moderate Socialists Ricardo Lagos and Michele Bachelet—were all unwilling to fundamentally challenge many of the restrictions contained in the “labor code” left over from Pinochet (some of the code was softened under Lagos) or move forcefully to alter Chile’s appalling gap between the rich and the majority.

The tepid reform measures of these regimes have been followed by the re-ascendance of sharp-edged rightist economic policies. “The triumph of the right-wing billionaire Sebastián Piñera in the January 2010 presidential elections heralds a renewed capitalist offensive against the working class in that the government promises to attack weak economic growth rates and declining labor productivity with increased labor flexibility, further privatization, and the dissemination of a “culture of entrepreneurship among Chile’s poor,” observed Latin American scholar Fernando Leiva.

While Leiva views Chile’s union movement as hamstrung by its declining numbers, bureaucratic character, and the labor code which still prizes “flexibility” for management over any security for workers, significant social movements against rightist economic policies have re-emerged. In 2011, a broad coalition spanning labor, students, and center-left parties took to the streets to expand democracy through popular plebiscites, make free quality education a right for all, gain pension reforms (Pinochet privatized the Chilean social security system, with disastrous results) and more spending on healthcare, and basic changes in the labor code to empower workers. Major opposition is also emerging to large-scale hydropower projects and mining developments that threaten the environment. Despite these present-day activist movements, Chile has become a far more depoliticized and fragmented society as it recovers from the shock of the Pinochet years. Many Chileans even blame Allende for provoking the disorder and violence imposed on Chile by the CIA and domestic corporate leaders, former Allende aide Marc Cooper reported in his book Pinochet and Me.

In reality, Salvador Allende was bravely attempting to build a new Chile based on its longstanding traditions of democracy and social solidarity, and perhaps brought Chile to the world’s closest approximation of democratic socialism. But with the same inconceivable, unanticipated force with which the Al Qaeda crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon in the 2001 version of 9/11, it was clearly Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and the CIA who effectively inflicted long-lasting damage to Chilean society.

Accumulation of Arsenic

Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger have been correctly identified as the driving forces behind the military coup of September 11, 1973 and of ongoing support for Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship. Kissinger, in particular, remained supportive even as Pinochet and his henchmen devised and managed “Operation Condor,” setting up a hit squad that operated internationally to hunt down and kill Pinochet opponents in the Southern cone of Latin America, Mexico, and Italy. Operation Condor eventually raised an uproar in the U.S. Congress when Pinochet’s operatives killed dissident and former Allende diplomat Orlando Letelier and his American aide Ronni Karpin Moffit with a car bomb that exploded barely a mile from the White House.

But these extreme measures were preceded by a long-running, clearly bi-partisan policy of covert U.S. intervention designed to prevent Chile from electing Socialist Party leader Salvador Allende and the blow to U.S. domination that would result. The U.S. role in attempting to block Allende from being elected extends at least back to 1964 when the CIA spent $20 million—twice the amount that the Johnson and Goldwater campaigns spent combined per voter that year in the U.S.—to assure Allende’s defeat, according to Gregory Treverton’s book Covert Action.

Even President John F. Kennedy trumpeted the Alliance for Progress as a progressive effort in Latin America designed to prevent violent revolution by promoting land reform and other mesures fostering democracy and a more equal sharing of wealth. As his aide Arthur Schlesinger wrote, using a theme Kennedy reflected in later speeches, “If the possessing classes of Latin America made the middle-class revolution impossible, they will make a workers and peasants’ revolution inevitable.” Yet Kennedy’s administration used a variety of covert means to undermine Allende’s ability to win election and non-violently enact precisely the non-violent reforms that Kennedy supposedly favored, although Allende certainly intended further-reaching structural changes as well.

A central motivation in the relentless U.S. efforts to thwart Allende—especially for Kissinger—was apparently to prevent a successful democratic transition to socialism in Chile that would influence events, particularly in Italy, where the powerful Communist Party of Italy was considering a strategic shift toward a broadly-based coalition with Socialists and others on the Left. “The example of a successful elected Marxist government in Chile would surely have an impact on—and even precedent value for—other parts of the world, especially in Italy,” Kissinger wrote just two days after Allende’s inauguration, as reported by Seymour M. Hersh, in The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House.

Still, Kissinger and other officials emphatically denied any role in the coup of September 11, 1973, as Kissinger proclaimed, “The CIA had nothing to do with the coup, to the best of my knowledge and belief.” However, these claims were exploded as lies in the late 1970s during hearings chaired by the late Senator Frank Church. Kissinger, it turned out, had headed up a “Committee of 40” whose mission was to coordinate a multi-dimensional effort to destroy the Chilean economy, buy off the leading Chilean media to create panic and undermine Allende’s support, and to persuade the military that respect for democracy must be jettisoned in favor of a coup. Allende and his policies, regardless of his democratic election and the popular backing for his new direction for Chile, was outside the bounds of what the U.S. would tolerate, Kissinger stated. “We set the limits of diversity,” he declared.

But contrary to some liberals’ belief that the CIA was acting as a rogue agency running amok, James Petras and Morris Morley documented in The United States and Chile: Imperialism and the Overthrow of the Allende Government, that the CIA was merely following the directives of civilian officials committed to the destruction of democracy in Chile: “As (then-CIA director) William Colby and others have pointed out, the CIA was carrying out orders fashioned by the Committee of 40 and the White House.”

The full dimensions of the U.S. intervention have been uncovered in recent years. As startling as earlier revelations were, they pale beside declassified documents assembled by Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive. Kornbluh, editor of The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier of Atrocity and Accountability, sifted through an enormous trove of partially-declassified official memos and cables that reflect how U.S. officials proceeded with preparations for a coup despite the absence of vital U.S. national or direct strategic interests in Chile and the certainty of chaos and bloodshed in a nation which had been almost entirely free of the political violence marking the history of much of Latin America. Among the revelations:

A National Security Study Memorandum, a review undertaken in case Allende won in 1970, arrived at the unambiguous conclusion, “the U.S. has no vital national interests in Chile.” The stakes for the U.S., then, were only the economic interests of U.S.-based corporations operating in Chile and the symbolic importance of the election of a left-wing president committed to fundamental reform.

An astonishingly frank cable sent by CIA officials in Langley, Virginia to their operatives in Santiago Chile on September 27, 1970, freely professed that the paramount U.S. goal was a military coup. The CIA officials sought to promote “the acceptance of the failure of the political solution and the need for a military one.” The authors envisioned creating an opportunity “to persuade the military that it is their constitutional duty to prevent Allende from seizing power…”

“We conclude that it is our task to create a climate climaxing with a solid pretext that will force the military and the president [ex-president Frei, defeated by Allende] to take some action in the desired direction.” While clear on the final goal of a military coup, the CIA cable was remarkably frank in discussing the barriers to the desired takeover. Essentially, support for Allende’s election and democratic procedures was too strong: “As little as 10 days ago, there seemed to be almost no feeling outside of Chile and very little mass feeling within Chile that the election of Allende was necessary, an evil. Thus it may be difficult to move into a hard line about a military coup.

“…we are still in doubt as to the psychological temperature on this point [“that election of Allende is a nefarious development”] in Chile. We are talking about mass public feeling as opposed to the private feelings of the elite.”

On October 10, the CIA station in Santiago, Chile cabled this warning about the consequences of U.S. intervention: “Carnage could be considerable and prolonged, i.e., civil war…. You have asked us to provoke chaos in Chile.”

The first major U.S. step was the assassination of General Rene Schneider, a military leader committed to the Chilean constitution and, thus, regarded by the U.S. as a barrier to a coup. With six submachine guns sent to Chile from the U.S. in a diplomatic pouch, operatives killed Schneider on October 20, 1970. The CIA hoped that blame for the killing would be attributed to extreme-Left elements and to thereby turn military leaders against Allende. This development failed to materialize.

Still, CIA officials remained confident that they could set the stage for the coup with the proper application of U.S. resources. In much the same way that U.S. policy-makers were to wholly manufacture the Nicaraguan contras (handpicking leaders, writing their manifesto, arming them, providing global PR, and furnishing overall direction, as exposed by a Wall St. Journal news story) a decade later, the CIA saw itself both constructing and directing a new Chilean oppositional forced aimed inexorably at a military coup.

To put the opposition on this trajectory, the CIA leadership envisioned multiple dimensions of “warfare” within Chile: “A. Economic Warfare: The ambassador can be of powerful assistance in this effort. Ambassador Edward Korry, seen by some in the Nixon administration as taking too soft a line, nonetheless explained his role in these terms: ‘to do all within our power to condemn Chile and the Chileans to utmost deprivation and poverty.’ As Korry warned a Chilean leader, ‘Not a single nut or bolt will enter Chile.’ In this effort at economic warfare, the U.S. government had the full cooperation of international lending institutions, U.S. firms operating in Chile, and eventually, Chilean business owners that the CIA subsidized.

“B. Political Warfare:… ‘In every fashion every special interest group should be financed and assisted in making public statements, pubic rallies, traveling to propagandize, or in any other imaginative way the station can conjure to assure that Allende does not enlarge his base of support….’”

The CIA was particularly concerned about the difficulty of persuading the world that Allende was a secret threat to democracy if there were no significant, visible internal dissent questioning the legitimacy of his government. But the solution was obvious—if there is no mass, indigenous grass-roots opposition, then opposition can simply be implanted: “We cannot endeavor to ignite the world if Chile itself is a placid lake. The fuel for the fire must come from within Chile. Therefore, the station should employ every stratagem, every ploy, however bizarre, to create this internal resistance.” (The U.S. effort in this arena was immensely facilitated by heavy and secretive U.S. support to Chile’s dominant media outlet, El Mercurio.)

Discussing “Psychological warfare,” CIA officials were blunt about their dismissal of any “parliamentary solution” and their insistence that only a military takeover was sufficient to restore full-scale U.S. domination in Chile:

  • Sensitize feelings within and without Chile that the election of Allende is a nefarious development for Chile, Latin America, and the world
  • Create the conviction that Allende must be stopped
  • Discredit parliamentary solution as unworkable
  • Surface ineluctable conclusion that military coup is the only answer.  
  • Above all, the CIA called for a resolute commitment to thoroughly poisoning democracy in Chile. The cable’s authors chillingly warned: “However, we must hold firmly to the outlines or our production will be diffused, denatured, and ineffective, not leaving the indelible residue in the mind that an accumulation of arsenic does.”

Ultimately, four decades later, what the CIA called the “indelible residue” of poison remains in the bloodstream of Chilean society. Chilean labor remains constrained by Pinochet-era restrictions, average real wages are lower than in 1973, and Chile ranks as one of the most inegalitarian nations in the world.

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Roger Bybee is a Milwukee-based writer on labor issues and a labor studies instructor for Rutgers and the University of Illinois ([email protected]).