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When the US helped kill democracy in Chile

When the US helped kill democracy in Chile

50 years after a coup swept Augusto Pinochet into power, Washington’s role in the attack has come into focus.

Latin America

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the military coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Chilean President Salvador Allende and ushered in a particularly brutal and bloody dictatorship under Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, which lasted until 1990.

The role of the CIA in preparing the conditions for the coup, as well as subsequent U.S. support for the dictatorship, contributed heavily to the perception in Latin America and beyond that Washington, despite its claims to champion democracy, preferred “friendly” authoritarian regimes over the possibility that non-aligned or democratically elected left-leaning governments could take power in regions that it considered to be within its sphere of influence.

Investigations in the mid-1970s into the U.S. role in Chile also led to unprecedented legislation — sometimes enforced, sometimes not – designed to ensure greater Congressional oversight of U.S. covert operations and to curb U.S. military and other assistance to governments and armies that abuse fundamental human rights.

To note the 50th anniversary, RS spoke with Peter Kornbluh, the veteran director of the Chilean Documentation Project of the non-governmental National Security Archive, whose work has resulted in the declassification of thousands of previously secret government documents related to U.S. relations with Chile from the 1960’s through the Pinochet dictatorship.

A prize-winning author, Kornbluh published “The Pinochet Files: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability,” which the Los Angeles Times selected as a “best book” of 2003. As director of the NSA’s Cuba Documentation Project, Kornbluh has also written several books on U.S.-Cuban relations.

Kornbluh spoke with RS from Chile, where he is participating in the country’s observance of today’s anniversary. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

RS: You are the most distinguished researcher on the coup and, in particular, the U.S. role. Briefly, can you say what support the U.S. lent to the coup both before and after?

Kornbluh: You know, it doesn't have to be me saying it. We can just simply quote Henry Kissinger briefing Richard Nixon five days after the coup. He [said], "The Chilean thing was getting consolidated." And Nixon expresses his slight preoccupation about whether the U.S. role is going to be exposed. Nixon says, "Our hand doesn't show on this, does it though?" Kissinger's response is a three-sentence summary of what the U.S. role was. First, he says, “We didn't do it.” And he's referring to the fact that the United States was not on the ground 50 years ago today, with agents driving the tanks, supplying the intelligence, piloting the planes that bombed the [presidential] Moneda Palace. The United States did not stand side by side that day with the Chilean military as they destroyed Chile's long democratic tradition.

And then Kissinger continues, "I mean, we helped them. Blank" — a word that is omitted, which you can fill in — "created the conditions as best as possible." And that's an accurate summary of what the U.S. role was. Starting almost the day after Allende's election [in 1970] but weeks before he actually was inaugurated as President of Chile, it was the U.S. goal and mission to foment a coup in Chile, to create what the CIA referred to as a "coup climate" and maximize the likelihood that Allende's model would be a model of failure. And if that also, at the same time, created the conditions, "as best as possible for a military coup," so be it. It was the political goal of Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon to assure that Allende did not have a successful model of electoral socialist change that other countries in the world might want to emulate, and the United States [intervened] through both an invisible economic blockade, a cut off of multilateral credits, and a five-pronged covert operations effort that targeted the military. The U.S. funneled a bunch of money into El Mercurio, which was kind of, in those days, the Fox News of Chile, openly pushing for a coup against the Allende government. Those were the operations that helped, as the CIA itself put it, set the stage for the September 11,1973, coup.

So it wasn't that the United States had a direct role on the ground here. It wasn't that the Chilean military were puppets of the United States of America. It was that the United States contributed to a set of conditions that would enhance the likelihood that there would be social pressure for the military to move, and the military did move.

RS: What was the reaction by the Nixon-Kissinger government, if we can put it that way, in the years that followed the coup?

Kornbluh: You can start with the hours that followed. Tomorrow will be September 12th, the 50th anniversary of Kissinger calling what was known as the Washington Special Action Group together and mobilizing everybody to help the Pinochet military regime consolidate. It's quite explicit. And as part of this gathering, one US. official says to Kissinger, "I guess our policy on Allende worked pretty well." And Kissinger jokes to everybody, "President Nixon is worried that we might want to send somebody to Allende's funeral." Kissinger says, "I told him we didn't plan to do that." And then another official in the meeting pipes up and says, "Only, of course, if you want to go, Secretary Kissinger." So they're joking around literally 24 hours after the coup about how successful they were.

Nixon and Kissinger just after the coup are commiserating. They want the credit for having overthrown Allende, and they're commiserating about what Nixon calls the "liberal crap" in the U.S. newspapers, and Kissinger says the newspapers are "bleating" because Allende has been overthrown and has died. Nixon says, "isn't that something?" And Kissinger basically says they should be celebrating. And he tells Nixon, "In the Eisenhower period, we would be heroes." That conversation took place five days after the coup. By then, Kissinger had reconfigured U.S. policy almost overnight.

It had been a policy to destabilize Allende's ability to govern. Almost overnight after the coup, the policy had a complete reversal. It's now a policy to help the new military regime consolidate, and that policy continues all the way through the first three years of the Pinochet regime. It was that first year when the spigots of economic aid and military support to Pinochet [began] opening, including helping Pinochet build what became the most sinister and repressive secret police agency in all of Latin America, the DINA [Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional].

That policy starts to change after the September 1976 act of terrorism in Washington DC that took the lives of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt. By the second term of the Reagan administration, the United States has had enough of Pinochet's megalomania, his terrorism. The United States eventually abandons him, but it's a long and incredible history.

RS: You had congressional committees in the mid 1970s that expressed considerable shock about U.S. covert operations, and Chile was among the most important. Do you see Congress as assuming its responsibilities or failing to do so in regard to Pinochet's Chile? And how much of a precedent, if any at all, did that create or help create?

Kornbluh: The scandal of Chile broke in September of 1974 in an article done by that intrepid reporter, Seymour Hersh, where he had gotten hold of secret testimony that CIA Director William Colby had given to the House Armed Services Committee in which he had discussed the whole destabilization program. The scandal was immediate.

After the Hersh story ran, the U.S. Senate reconvenes. Frank Church was named head of another special committee, which became the famous Church committee, and Congress did its very first investigation of the CIA covert operations in general and a case study of Chile in particular. The House Committee under Congressman Otis Pike also started to look at Chile. That whole process was a lot less organized and a lot more chaotic. The Church committee reports really shook the foundations of Americans' perception of their own government. It became quite clear that their own government — in their name and without their knowledge — was intervening to overthrow a democratically elected government and bolstering a murderous, ruthless military regime.

Congress moved very quickly, not just because of the Church Committee investigation but because of a moral reaction of disbelief that our government didn't give a damn about human rights violations and was continuing to embrace this murderous regime. It was because of Chile that heroic senators and congressmen — Edward Kennedy in the Senate, Congressman Tom Harkin from Iowa — got together and drafted the first human rights amendments to U.S. laws governing military and economic aid abroad. Those laws were inspired by and directed initially at Henry Kissinger, who was just basically — can I say kissing Pinochet's ass? Kissinger was telling his own staff not to say anything to him anymore about human rights. These laws were passed, and, for the first time, human rights became an institutionalized criterion of U.S. foreign policy. Congress stepped up and represented the values of the American people in pushing those laws forward.

Some people here in Chile at the time of the coup, including a Methodist minister named Joe Eldridge, luckily got out. He returned to Washington so outraged that the United States was supporting the atrocities that were taking place that he founded the Washington Office on Latin America, and, with Amnesty International, almost single handedly created the modern human rights movement in Washington as we know it today. He sought to create a different U.S. foreign policy, one that better reflected the values of the American people.

RS: As you look back, this was Congress's high point, and it drew certain lessons from there, some of which have stuck, not necessarily all. But how has this affected long-term U.S.-Latin American relations? The U.S. intervention covert intervention there and its support for Pinochet, what kind of effect do you think it's had on U.S.-Latin American relations over the past 50 years?

Kornbluh: The U.S. role in Chile became a horrendous stain on any credible argument that the United States supported democracy, opposed military dictatorships, opposed human rights violations — all the things that the United States supposedly wanted to claim that it stood for. And even though presidents later, starting with Carter, have stood for those things, and the United States still is supposed to stand for those things, the history of the U.S. role in Chile has made it very difficult for that argument, even 50 years later, to be credibly presented.

One way to understand what the United States did in Chile is to compare it today to what Russia is doing to Ukraine. The Russian intervention in Ukraine was essentially inspired by the same issues that Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon feared with the election of Allende. [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky had been popularly elected. Ukraine was turning to the West. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin saw that as an affront to his hegemony in the region. In the case of Chile, it's not an open war, but it was a similar type of effort to control the region, to undermine a model that might change the broader influence of the United States if other countries emulated Allende's electoral model of change.

We're not really talking about the past. So many countries, including the United States of America, are facing the deterioration of democratic institutions and the onslaught and threat of authoritarian rule not just in the United States and Chile, but also in Spain, Sweden, Italy, etc. You have a situation where democracy and its meaning are slipping, and the forces of dictatorial rule are growing. Chile is a reminder of the extreme dangers to all of us if that process continues. Chileans have already lived through it once. They don't want to live through it again. That's why the resounding slogan at the official ceremony today from Chilean President Gabriel Boric was "nunca mas." Never again.

Gen. Gustavo Leigh, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, Adm. Jose Toribio Merino, and Gen. Cesar Mendoza, who helped overthrow the Salvador Allende's government on September 11, 1973. (Image via Flickr)
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