Moral Low Ground

War & Peace

The Other 9/11: Remembering the 1973 Chilean Coup

Remembering the thousands of victims of Pinochet's brutal regime (Photo: Marcos González Valdés)

Remembering the thousands of victims of Pinochet’s brutal regime (Photo: Marcos González Valdés)

Today the United States commemorates the worst terrorist attack in its history, replete with solemn vows to ‘never forget’ what decades of aggressive US foreign policy brought crashing into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon 12 years ago.

But we must also ‘never forget’ that on this day, 40 years ago, the original 9/11, an even deadlier, more horrific one, befell the people of Chile, this one caused by a direct, concerted effort by Washington and Wall Street to subvert a legitimately elected government in a nation known as a bastion of democracy in a decidedly undemocratic corner of the world.

In the early 1960s, anticommunist hysteria ran rabid through the veins of the US body politic. Reeling from the “loss” of Cuba and popular leftist uprisings around the globe (including one in a little-known place called Vietnam), the John F. Kennedy administration resolved to take action. It worked closely with elements of the Chilean right, many of them oligarchs whose wealth was accumulated through generations of exploitation and crony corruption, and US multinational corporations, to ensure that leftists never rose to power there.

Topping Washington’s Chilean enemies list was Marxist physician and perennial presidential candidate (and perennial loser) Salvador Allende. The CIA funneled more than a million dollars into the campaign coffers of right-wing political candidates like Eduardo Frei, a Christian Democrat who with substantial US support and assistance ruled Chile as president from 1964-70, in a bid to thwart leftist ambitions.

Salvador Allende (Photo: Flickr Creative Commons)

Salvador Allende (Photo: Flickr Creative Commons)

In 1970, Allende ran for president again. Again, a conspiracy against his candidacy was launched by elements of the Chilean right, the CIA and US corporations, including ITT, with operations and interests in Chile. While the conspirators attempted to bribe high-ranking military officers, the Richard M. Nixon administration set about trying to wreck Chile’s economy in a bid to bolster support for Washington’s favored candidate. Subversive elements of the Chilean military, armed by the CIA, attempted a coup.

Despite the best efforts of both US and domestic forces to thwart him, Allende won the September 1970 election and became the world’s first democratically elected Marxist leader. Nixon was incensed. A month after the election, the CIA, as well as Secretary of State Henry Kissingerbacked the attempted kidnapping of army chief Gen. Rene Schneider as part of Project FUBELT, an attempt to prevent congressional confirmation of Allende’s presidency. Henry Kissinger relayed the following order to CIA Santiago station chief Henry Hecksher: “It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup.” The coup attempt, which a handwritten note by CIA director Richard Helms proves had the support of President Nixon, failed miserably, despite $10 million in dedicated funds authorized by Nixon himself.

Still, Washington and Wall Street persisted in their efforts to oust Allende, who further infuriated them by cozying up to communist nations like China and Cuba and by expropriating and nationalizing banks and multinational corporations. He even dared invite Cuban dictator Fidel Castro to Chile. Castro stayed nearly a month and delivered fiery speeches denouncing right-wing “fascism” and the “criminal demagoguery” of the Christian Democrats. This was unacceptable to the Nixon administration.

Over the following three years, the US expended much treasure and effort in destabilizing the democratically elected government of Chile. Economic sabotage was a favored method—aid suspensions, cessation of IMF and World Bank credits and other measures resulted in loss of investor confidence and capital flight. An economic crisis, replete with food hoarding, financial speculation, strikes and work stoppages, ensued.

Gen. Augusto Pinochet

Gen. Augusto Pinochet

By the summer of 1973, a crisis within Chile’s military led to the appointment of Gen. Augusto Pinochet as defense minister and commander of the army. Amid continuing strikes and street demonstrations, the US and Chilean navies conducted joint exercises off the nation’s coast. Just before dawn on September 11, renegade naval forces seized Valparaíso, one of the country’s largest cities and most important seaports. By 8:30 am, the coup against Allende was well underway. At 9:10 am, Allende appeared on the balcony of the presidential palace in Santiago, La Moneda, and delivered his final address to the nation. “I am not going to resign,” he defiantly thundered. “They have strength and will be able to dominate us,” he said of the coup plotters, “but social processes can be arrested neither by crime nor force. History is ours, and people make history.”

“I will pay for loyalty to the people with my life,” he vowed, and he would. After the air force bombed La Moneda just before noon, Allende shot himself in the head.

Bombing La Moneda, September 11, 1973

Bombing La Moneda, September 11, 1973

Chilean democracy died with Salvador Allende on that fateful September 11, not to return for decades. That day’s coup was hailed by US Naval attaché Patrick Ryan as “close to perfect” and “our D-Day.” The coup masters, led by Pinochet, declared a state of war, suspending civil liberties and unleashing security forces to arrest, torture and murder opponents, both real and imagined. Leftists were targeted with particular ferocity. The National Stadium in Santiago was converted into a concentration, torture and execution camp where thousands were murdered. Among the more prominent of the regime’s victims was Victor Jara, a folk singer who dared pen songs critical of military rule. Bodies of executed Chileans piled up in the streets and floated in rivers. Dogs were specially trained to rape female prisoners. Women and girls were also raped with rats. Others were forced to have sex with their own fathers and brothers.

Stadium of horrors (Photo: Pedro Encina/Flickr)

Stadium of horrors (Photo: Pedro Encina/Flickr)

To all of this, Secretary Kissinger would later assure the Pinochet regime: “In the United States, as you know, we are sympathetic with what you are trying to do… we wish your government well.”

When two American citizens, Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi, were executed by Pinochet’s forces, Washington essentially turned a blind eye, noting “the need to be careful to keep relatively small issues” from damaging US-Chilean relations. Many a blind eye was also turned toward the ongoing torture, executions, disappearances and repression of Chileans, all of it funded and tacitly backed by the Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush administrations. Even Jimmy Carter, the ‘human rights president,’ largely tolerated Pinochet’s regime, even while criticizing it and scaling back US aid.

In fact, some of the worst human rights violators within the Pinochet regime were trained at the US Army School of the Americas (SOA), where they were instructed in democracy suppression, counterinsurgency, kidnapping, torture and assassination by US officers utilizing US-authored torture manualsGen. Armando Fernández Larios, a member of a military unit responsible for the torture and execution of scores of political prisoners—the notorious ‘Caravan of Death’—was also responsible for the Pinochet-sponsored 1976 car bomb assassination of former Chilean official Orlando Letelier and his newlywed American aide Ronni Moffitt, an attack that took place in broad daylight in Washington DC. Not only was Gen. Fernández SOA-trained, he was also allowed to live in the United States despite his crimes. He resides in Florida today.

Pinochet’s US-backed oppression extended far beyond Chile’s borders. The nation’s military rulers formed the dreaded National Intelligence Directorate (DINA), which in concert with the CIA and security chiefs in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia, all of which were ruled by US-backed military juntas that often seized power by overthrowing democratically elected governments with Washington’s aid, launched ‘Operation Condor’ in 1975. ‘Condor’ was characterized by harsh political repression, terrorism and an international campaign of assassination targeting enemies of any of the regional military regimes. The Letelier assassination was among its most prominent ‘successes.’

Some of the many thousands of victims of Operation Condor

Some of the many thousands of victims of Operation Condor

Back in Chile, Pinochet ruled with an iron fist for the better part of two decades. Buoyed by strong support from right-wing world leaders like US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, as well as by a robust economy dubbed the ‘Chilean Miracle,’ Pinochet enjoyed favored status even as he tortured and murdered anyone who dared oppose his ruthless regime. Chileans brave enough to organize public demonstrations against the government were met with deadly force. “God placed me in power,” Pinochet once boasted, and woe unto he who dared interfere with the Almighty’s plans.

Right-wing birds of a feather...

Right-wing birds of a feather…

After securing himself perpetual control of the armed forces and a lifetime seat in parliament, Pinochet eventually began loosening his grip on power, finally stepping down from the presidency in 1990. Eight years later, he was arrested in London for human rights violations, but was released following a lengthy legal battle. He returned to Chile, where he was placed under house arrest in 2004 and ordered to stand trial. Hundreds of charges, ranging from human rights violations, tax evasion and embezzlement, were filed against him.

Just when Pinochet’s victims were buoyed by the turning wheels of justice, their former oppressor died on December 10, 2006 at the age of 91. Pinochet never faced justice for his brutal, 17-year reign of terror. Nor have any of the US leaders and officials who supported his regime. But justice or not, Chileans will ‘never forget’ their 9/11, one directly caused by US meddling and intervention; one which was more horrific and which claimed more victims than that which struck New York and Washington DC out of the clear blue Tuesday morning sky in 2001.

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