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Please let us also remember September 11, 1973 – the CIA coup in Chile

This week Americans remembered September 11, 2001. The papers and the media were full of memories and speeches about how those attacks marked the end of American innocence and (briefly) united the country with resolve to combat terrorism. I remember very well what it was like in the days and weeks that followed --- especially since my sister-in-law lost a very dear friend on one of the planes.

But September 11 is also a day when --- fifty years ago --- the CIA helped orchestrate the overthrow of the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile. The coup d’etat of September 11, 1973 ushered in 17 years of brutal murderous dictatorship and harsh economic policies that enriched the few and increased poverty dramatically.

[For a personal retrospective 50 years after, see the moving OP ED in the New York Times by Ariel Dorfman, a former official in the Allende administration who luckily escaped the junta with his life. “I Watched a Democracy Die. I Don’t Want to Do It Again,” available at https://www.nytimes.com/2023/09/10/opinion/chile-allende-september-11.html To quote Dorfman: “ more than 40,000 people were subjected to physical and psychological torture. Hundreds of thousands of Chileans — political opponents, independent critics or innocent civilians suspected of having links to them — were jailed, murdered, persecuted or exiled. More than a thousand men and women are still among the desaparecidos, the disappeared, with no funerals and no graves.” In fact, the current government of Chile is just now --- fifty years after the coup --- beginning a meticulous forensic search for whatever physical remains can be found of the “desaparecidos” to give their families “something” to bury. Unfortunately, most remains will never be found as the junta had a habit of just throwing people out of helicopters into the ocean. For the long run impact of the economic policy changes introduced by the junta as well as its influence on the rest of the world see: Marcus Taylor, From Pinochet to the 'Third Way': Neoliberalism and Social Transformation in Chile. (Pluto Press, 2006). Even the return to democracy in Chile did not solve the long run problems of increased inequality which was the legacy of the dictatorship. This led to a widespread series of demonstrations in 2019 against the strait-jacket of economic policies which were a result of the dictatorship’s constitution. In 2020, a new constitutional convention was called and a new constitution was written. When submitted to the population, however, it was rejected. As I write this, Chilean democracy once again hangs in the balance as a right-winger, dubbed “the Trump of the Andes” -- who supports what the junta did back in the 1970s -- is a strong candidate for President in the scheduled 2025 elections.]

Back in 1970, after Allende had secured the highest vote total in the election but before the Chilean Parliament had ratified his victory, unbeknownst to the people of Chile and the US, President Nixon’s National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger had said (months before the election). “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people.” [quoted in Mickey Zezima, “Nothing but Human Rights,” MIT Western Hemisphere Project (August 16, 2001). The full article is available at https://web.mit.edu/hemisphere/events/kissinger-chile.shtml. The article also has a decent summary of the role of the CIA in attempting to bring down Allende’s government.]

In the Presidential election there were three candidates. Although Allende had received the largest vote count, he did not win more than 50 percent of the votes. Thus, the election had been thrown into the Chilean Parliament where Allende’s political coalition did not have over half the votes.

In an attempt to prevent the Chilean Parliament from choosing the highest vote getter as President, the CIA, assisted by some conspirators in Chile as well as the International Telephone and Telegraph company (whose local business was slated for nationalization by the incoming Allende government), devised a campaign to kidnap General Rene Schneider, the head of the Chilean armed forces, blame it on extremist Allende supporters, and “demand” that the Parliament certify Allende as President. They hoped this would create enough outrage so the Parliament would choose one of the two losers in the election.

Fortunately for the people of Chile, the General resisted and ended up being killed. This exposed the real kidnappers and in the ensuing outrage over the right-wing effort to thwart Allende’s inauguration as President, supporters of the more moderate of the two losing candidates voted to certify Allende as President. So, the first round of efforts had failed.

Thus began a three-year campaign to destabilize the country and make sure Allende’s regime would fail. The first effort was an attempt to disrupt the economy in anticipation of the 1972 Parliamentary elections. The hope was to elect a large enough opposition majority in the Chilean Parliament to impeach Allende and remove him from office. When the Chilean people responded to this campaign by actually increasing their voting support for Allende, the opposition decided that a military coup was the only card they had left to play.

[In March of 1974, the Harvard Crimson posted a memoir by a reporter who was in Chile during the crucial period around those elections in March of 1972. (James Lemoyne, “March 1972: Prelude to a Coup,” available at https://www.thecrimson.com/article/1974/12/4/march-1972-prelude-to-a-coup/ Here are details of the three-year economic squeeze on Chile from Lemoyne’s article:

“The U.S. also all but terminated its economic aid to Chile. U.S. aid dropped from an average of $140 million a year prior to 1970 to $3 million between 1970 and 1973. At the same time U.S. military aid to Chile rose to $12.5 million in 1973 alone. International finance organizations also cut aid to Chile. The World Bank, headed by Robert McNamara, stopped all loans to Chile after 1971. It had given $270 million before 1971. The World Bank said that Chile was a "poor credit risk" and that it did not approve of Chile's expropriating foreign businesses without due compensation. The International Development Bank's funding of Chile showed a corresponding decline from $312 million before 1971 to $54,290 after. Without foreign credit to pay its debts and mortgages on past loans, Chile was unable to maintain its foreign reserves. It was basically a bankrupt country and inflation built up to 600 per cent by 1973.”

This economic devastation coupled with fears generated among the middle class in Chile (the tiny upper class was opposed to Allende from the get go) led to increasing polarization. (In my oral I referred to this as conflict between the “have somethings” and the “have nots”!). The working class and peasants remained strongly in support of Allende but Allende himself relied on the support for the Constitution on the part of the military. This proved a fatal mistake.

In 1972, in the run-up to the Parliamentary elections, Allende had brought General Carlos Prats into the government. Prats maintained a strict neutrality during the election campaign and attempts at violence were neutralized. By the Fall of 1973, the right-wing within the military forced Prats to resign and Allende mistakenly brought General Augusto Pinochet into his cabinet – the man who would later join the coup plotters and make himself dictator after the success of the coup.

The coup struck me and my wife like a punch in the gut. In May and June of 1970, my family (including a 9-month-old and a one-and-a-half-year-old) had spent six weeks in Chile while I did research for my Ph D. We lived in a working-class neighborhood and hired a neighbor to help with the kids while I spent days at the national library. Thus, having studied Chilean history and having lived there, we had come to care personally about Chile’s future.

To commemorate fifty years since the coup, the Brooklyn Academy of Music showed parts 1, 2 and 3 of Patricio Guzman’s documentary, “The Battle for Chile.” I only saw parts one and two which begins with the Congressional elections of 1972 and ends with the coup and the death of Salvador Allende. It was very painful to relive the inexorable march to the coup knowing how the story would end, but I’m glad I did it.

Watching the movie, I began to think of parallels and differences between the run-up to the coup in Chile and the current struggles here at home to protect our democratic system of government from Trump and Trumpism. Just as in Chile during 1973, the United States is bitterly divided between MAGA supporters and the rest of us.

Chile’s division between the upper classes and the workers and peasants was joined when the middle class of Chileans became disgusted with the disruptions of the economy and fearful of a full socialist take-over. The Chilean military included many individuals who had received training and I would argue brainwashing at the School for the Americas, a United States run facility that has trained many military personnel from all over Latin America. When I used the word “brainwashing” I was not descending to hyperbole. The whole point of US training for military officers was to imbue them with the need to protect Latin America from communist subversion --- to keep the Cuban “disease” from spreading. Of course, there were Chilean officers who respected their country’s Constitution. One of them was the former head of the armed forces Rene Schneider whose kidnapping in 1970 had gone astray.

In 1973, Chilean officers who were strong supporters of the Constitution were forced to resign and in one important case a young Naval Officer was assassinated.

With General Prats resigned and out of the way, the road was wide open for the coup plotters to succeed.

[For more details on the US role in the squeeze on the Allende government and the coup, see Peter Kornbluh, “Chile and the United States: Declassified Documents Relating to the Military Coup, September 11, 1973National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 8, available at https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB8/nsaebb8i.htm]

After the successful coup, the Chilean junta radically transformed their society. They returned companies that had been nationalized to their “rightful” owners, reversed all the income redistribution policies of the Allende government and (as the Taylor book described) ushered in a regime known as neoliberalism.

Here in the US, a dangerously radical group is also plotting to transform our country. In many states legislative majorities created by unconstitutional gerrymandering are hard at work trying to make such majorities permanent. In Wisconsin, for example, the voters just elected a Supreme Court Justice pledged to reverse the unfair gerrymandering of the state legislative districts. Before this Justice can be sworn in, the Republican legislative majority (itself a product of undemocratic gerrymandering!) is poised to impeach her so she cannot be part of a majority to change the districts in Wisconsin to make them more representative of the political balance of forces in that state.

In Alabama, the legislature has actually defied an order by the US Supreme Court to create two black majority districts in order to be in compliance with that section of the Voting Rights Act that has not (so far) been eviscerated. Responding to a specific order, they have redrawn the maps with still only one black majority district. How’s that for “law and order?”

Voter suppression is alive and well in state after state.

The book banners are out in force. (See, for example the Zinn Education Project, “Teachers Describe Chiling Impact of Anti-Education Laws,” posted September 1, 2023, and available at https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#inbox/FMfcgzGtwzvBKvnbWcKqlnBGlNdqsBbd)

Individuals who dare to counter the desires of Trumpists (such as by certifying that Trump did indeed lose in their state) are subjected to death threats. Just the night before this commentary was broadcast, the interview of Senator Mitt Romney with McKay Coppins of The Atlantic became public. Romney reported that as the Senate geared up to vote in the second Trump impeachment trial (Trump was charged with inciting the January 6 insurrection) there were Republican Senators and Representatives who knew Trump was guilty but chose not to vote to impeach (House) or convict (Senate) because they feared violence. VOTES IN THE CONGRESS WERE CHANGED FOR FEAR OF VIOLENT RETRIBUTION>

More recently, the Grand Jurors who indicted Trump in Georgia have been threatened --- and every jury that sits on a Trump criminal case must be anonymous in order to make sure they don’t feel intimidated by Trump’s enablers. Once in control, the Trumpists vow to never lose power again and they have no problem enforcing discipline with violence and/or the threat of violence. That is what helped disrupt Chilean democracy between 1972 and 73.

What’s the difference between the US today and Chile in 1973? Most significantly, I believe the vast majority of our American military officers have a sincere respect for our Constitution. The behavior of General Milley, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when Trump was attempting to foment an insurrection in January of 2021, indicates how seriously he took his oath to the Constitution. He was so afraid that Trump would start a nuclear war with China that he directly contacted the Chinese to assure them that the US was not about to launch such an attack.

Unlike the Chilean generals, who were brainwashed to believe that Allende’s democratic government was just a first step towards a communist dictatorship, I believe our military has faith in our constitutional democracy. Therefore, I believe they will defend American democracy against Trump and Trumpism. For all our sakes, I’d better be right.

Michael Meeropol is professor emeritus of Economics at Western New England University. He is the author with Howard and Paul Sherman of the recently published second edition of Principles of Macroeconomics: Activist vs. Austerity Policies

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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