American Crime #57: The 1973 CIA Coup In Chile

Bob Avakian has written that one of three things that has “to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better: People have to fully confront the actual history of this country and its role in the world up to today, and the terrible consequences of this.” (See “3 Things that have to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better.”)

In that light, and in that spirit, “American Crime” is a regular feature of revcom.us. Each installment focuses on one of the 100 worst crimes committed by the U.S. rulers—out of countless bloody crimes they have carried out against people around the world, from the founding of the U.S. to the present day.

See all the articles in this series.

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September 11, 1973, the Chilean military, with political guidance and secret backing from the U.S., carried out a military coup, dropping bombs on La Moneda, the Chilean presidential palace, murdering President Salvador Allende.

The Crime:

Beginning in the early morning hours of September 11, 1973, the Chilean military, with political guidance and secret backing from the U.S., carried out a military coup against the government of Chilean president Salvador Allende. With U.S. Navy ships offshore and U.S. spy planes overhead as backup, the Chilean Air Force and tanks and soldiers from the Chilean Army dropped bombs and launched artillery and small-arms fire in a furious, coordinated assault on La Moneda palace, the central government building in Chile’s capital, Santiago. Allende, a social democrat elected on a platform of social reform three years previously, was killed along with a small group of defenders.

Meanwhile, the Chilean military seized control of the radio and TV stations and key institutions of the country, bringing to power a ruthless military junta led by General Augusto Pinochet. The new regime enjoyed the widespread support of Chile’s top military leadership. But more crucially, it had the full support of the U.S. government at its highest levels. It was the culmination of years of U.S. covert intervention against the Allende government. It was, in every sense, a U.S.-manufactured coup.

The CIA had collected “arrest lists” and “key government installations which need to be taken over,” according to a 1975 U.S. Senate investigation. In the hours, days and weeks that followed the coup, tens of thousands of officials of Allende’s government and the Unidad Popular governing coalition, along with workers, union leaders, activists, students, progressive intellectuals, artists and people who just happened to be on the streets on the morning of September 11, were rounded up, then held in Santiago’s National and Chile stadiums and in military installations and facilities converted to concentration camps in locations around the country. They were subjected to brutal physical and psychological torture, or just outright murdered.

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In the weeks that followed the coup, tens of thousands of officials of Allende’s government and the Unidad Popular governing coalition, along with workers, union leaders, activists, students, progressive intellectuals, artists and people who just happened to be on the streets on the morning of September 11, were rounded up and imprisoned in institutions and concentration camps.

Among the thousands brutalized and murdered in Santiago stadiums was Victor Jara, a well-known and much-loved singer, song writer and supporter of the popular movement. Jara was beaten and tortured, his hands broken, before he was murdered. His body was sent to a morgue to be buried in an unmarked grave. Only the intervention of a mortuary worker who risked his life to tip off Jara’s wife kept him from being among the many who “disappeared” this way.

Over 140,000 people were rounded up during the coup and in the few years that followed. A 1991 Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation reported that many of those detainees were held in military prisons and special camps, and that sadistic forms of torture were the norm. Rape and other forms of sexual violence against women arrestees were nearly universal. A special Chilean death squad that came to be known as the “Caravan of Death” was transported by military helicopter to various military garrisons where they carried out horrific executions. Descriptions by survivors of their imprisonment by the U.S. armed and trained Chilean military rival in sadistic brutality the stories from Nazi concentration camps.

As many as one million people out of Chile’s population of 11 million were forced into exile. Some of those who fled were hunted down in other countries by death squads organized by the Chilean military.

Upon taking power, the military government of Augusto Pinochet dissolved Chile’s Congress, dismantled democratic institutions, abolished elections, made strikes illegal and broke up Chile’s largest union, the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores. The government imposed strict censorship of books, the press and school curriculum. Entire university departments were shut down.

Covert CIA operations against Allende and his movement had been going on since 1958. In September 1970, Allende was elected president. He promised to break the stranglehold of U.S. corporations on Chile’s economy by nationalizing foreign copper and other companies and using the proceeds to improve the conditions of Chile’s impoverished masses, half of whom were malnourished. Land taken from a handful of wealthy landowners would go to landless farmers.

Planning for the 1973 coup began in mid-October, 1970. The CIA was unable to prevent Allende’s election but was determined to block Allende from becoming president even though he had won the vote. A CIA deputy director sent a secret cable to the CIA station chief in Santiago conveying orders from President Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger: “It is firm and continuing policy that Allende (Chile’s president elect) be overthrown by a coup... It is imperative that these actions be implemented clandestinely and securely so that the USG [U.S. government] and American hand be well hidden.”

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U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visits with Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet in 1976. Pinochet led the Chilean military to overthrow the elected government of Salvador Allende in 1973, a coup fully backed by the CIA. Thousands of Chileans were executed, tortured and "disappeared" under this regime. 
Photo: Archivo General Histórico del Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, República de Chile

The CIA set in motion a coup effort by a group of right-wing Chilean military officers. They assassinated Chile’s army commander in chief General René Schneider, who stood against the coup, with machine guns secretly supplied by the CIA. But their plan failed, and Allende assumed the presidency on November 3 after the Chilean parliament overwhelmingly ratified his election.

In the three years that Allende served as Chile’s president and leader of the governing coalition, Unidad Popular, the U.S. maneuvered to undermine the Chilean economy and create political divisions to, in Kissinger’s words, “help prevent the consolidation of his [Allende’s] regime.” U.S. bank credit and government economic aid to Chile were frozen. The World Bank and other U.S.-controlled international financial institutions shut off loans. A committee of U.S. corporations worked out an anti-Allende strategy in consultation with the Nixon administration. CIA operatives were sent to organize sabotage of the Chilean economy. In one operation, the CIA organized and bankrolled a strike by truck owners that paralyzed the country’s transportation system. They also carried out acts of sabotage in factories and against railroads, highways, bridges, pipelines, schools and hospitals.

Meanwhile, the U.S. orchestrated a massive anti-Allende propaganda campaign through many forms of media, including subsidizing wire services, magazines and right-wing newspapers.

The U.S. increased its arming and training of the Chilean military, while developing a network of CIA “assets” in all its branches, and pushed forward preparations for a military coup. Yet, even as these moves were being made, there were political groups in Chile, including the pro-Soviet Communist Party (a revisionist, non-revolutionary party that was “communist” in name only), which widely promoted the idea that Allende’s government represented a “peaceful road to socialism” through elections, and that the Chilean military, or at least key parts of it, could be won over to the side of the people or, at least, somehow “neutralized.” When a general who proved to be unfavorable to U.S. coup plans was forced out as the commander in chief of the armed forces, Allende appointed General Pinochet in his place. Illusions about the nature of the Chilean military and its loyalty to the Chilean Constitution left people tragically unprepared for the U.S.-instigated blood bath that followed.

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BAsics from the talks and writings of Bob Avakian   

The essence of what exists in the U.S. is not democracy but capitalism-imperialism and political structures to enforce that capitalism-imperialism. What the U.S. spreads around the world is not democracy, but imperialism and political structures to enforce that imperialism.

—Bob Avakian, BAsics 1:3

The Criminals:

U.S. president Richard Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger were the main U.S. authorities behind the September 11, 1973 coup. Both made clear they would welcome Allende’s assassination. In 1970 Kissinger told other officials, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people.”

CIA Director Richard Helms, Attorney General John Mitchell and Secretary of State William Rogers were members of the so-called “40 Committee” chaired by Kissinger and made up of various U.S. military and intelligence operatives in charge of reviewing covert operations.

The CIA was the main organization that prepared for and carried out the coup.

The U.S. military helped arm and train the Chilean military, and stationed ships and planes nearby.

Anaconda Copper, Ford Motor Company, First National City Bank, Bank of America, Ralston Purina and ITT were among the U.S. corporations that directly conspired with the Nixon regime to economically strangle the Chilean economy in the lead-up to the coup.

The military leader of the coup was Augusto Pinochet.1 The military leaders of Chile’s army, navy and air force were active participants in the coup.

The Alibi: Opponents of Allende claimed that the Popular Unity government, in an attempt to impose “socialism,” mismanaged Chile’s economy and caused such disruption and chaos that the military had no choice but to step in and impose order.

The U.S. immediately denied it had any hand in the coup. A year later, President Gerald Ford claimed the U.S. had acted to help preserve opposition newspapers and political parties.

The Real Motive:

The 1973 coup was the culmination of U.S. efforts to undermine, then crush, the nationalist, reform movement that coalesced around Salvador Allende. That reform movement, the Unidad Popular, arose in opposition to U.S. economic and political domination of Chile and was part of a worldwide struggle against colonialism and imperialism in the 1960s and 1970s.

The coup was also motivated by the growing rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. In the mid-1950s, those leading the Soviet Union had abandoned revolution, socialism and communism; and by the 1970s, they had become the main rival to the U.S. imperialists. Posing as a friend to the nations and peoples exploited and dominated by the U.S. and other colonial powers, the Soviet Union was making inroads in areas the U.S. had long dominated, including Cuba and other countries in Latin America. The growing influence of Chilean parties friendly to the Soviet Union fed U.S. imperialist fear of further Soviet inroads into what they considered their “back yard.” A secret 1970 CIA memo warned that Allende’s victory could lead to “tangible economic losses” for U.S. capital, and, more importantly, big “political costs” to U.S.-dominated “Hemispheric cohesion” and a “psychological set-back” and “advantage for the Marxist idea.” All this made the brutal and bloody destruction of the Allende government an urgent matter for the U.S. rulers.

Upon seizing power, the Pinochet government dismantled the nationalization of foreign-owned enterprises; reversed the land redistribution to landless farmers and other social welfare measures; privatized Chile’s economy; and restored direct U.S. domination.

 

Sources:

Lubna Z. Qureshi, Nixon, Kissinger and Allende, Lexington Books, 2008

Pilar Aguilera and Ricardo Fredes, Chile, the Other September 11, Ocean Press, 2006

Bradford Burns, “The True Verdict on Allende: Nixon and Kissinger fiddle and Chile burns,” The Nation, April 3, 2009

1991 Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation, Part 3, Chapter 1

William Blum, Killing Hope, U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, Common Courage Press, 1995

The September 11 Massacre They Don’t Tell You About,” Revolution, September 17, 2006

Augusto Pinochet: Fascist General in Service of the U.S. Godfathers,” Revolution, December 24, 2006

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FOOTNOTES:

1. In 1998 Pinochet was indicted for human rights violations by a Spanish magistrate. He was later arrested in London and held for a year and a half before being released in March 2000. Upon return to Chile, Pinochet was indicted by a judge there and charged with a number of crimes. He was never tried because of “health” reasons. Pinochet died in 2006, without being convicted in any case. [back]

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