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...and today I thought I would revisit it.

The U.S. overthrow of Chilean democracy 25 years ago
by Saul Landau

On Sept. 11, 1973, the Chilean military overthrew the elected government of Dr. Salvador Allende and established a dictatorship that ruled until 1990. The United States played a prominent role in these events.

The CIA began to instigate violence in Chile following the September 1970 election of Allende, who headed a multi-party socialist coalition. "I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people," National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger said at the time. In testimony before a Senate investigating committee in 1975, CIA Director Richard Helms told of how President Nixon gave him "the marshall's baton" to conduct covert activities designed to stop Allende from being inaugurated in November 1970.

Helms' covert staff tried to bribe Chile's Congress and its military to deny Allende the presidency. Failing on that front, the Agency paid an extreme right-wing group to assassinate Gen. Rene Schneider, Chile's chief of staff. When even the brutal murder of Schneider didn't succeeded in blocking Allende's inauguration, the CIA began to destabilize his government.

For three years, CIA officials helped instigate strikes in strategic sectors of the economy, promoted violence and initiated smear campaigns against Allende in the media. Washington applied a credit squeeze to make Chile's economy squirm.

This destabilization campaign had its desired effect. Social conflict grew to the point where the military commanders, with U.S. encouragement, decided to stage a coup. As tanks and aircraft bombarded the presidential palace on Sept. 11, 1973, U.S. Navy vessels appeared off of Chile's coast. U.S. intelligence vessels monitored activity at Chile's military bases in order to notify the coup makers, should a regiment loyal to the Allende government decide to fight.

Allende, a medical doctor who served 25 years as a senator before winning the presidency, died in the assault, alongside dozens of his loyal supporters. Cabinet ministers and other staff were arrested and thrown into a concentration camp. No charges were brought against them.

Chile's institutions were destroyed, including the Congress, the press and trade unions. Troops burned books deemed subversive. The junta began a systematic terror campaign, arresting, torturing and murdering thousands of "suspected subversives." A Chilean government agency estimates that the reign of terror between 1973 and 1990 resulted in the deaths of some 2,300 Chileans.

Pro-Allende Chileans took refuge abroad, but even there, the long arm of Pinochet's secret police managed to reach them. Among the victims were Gen. Carlos Prats, Chile's former chief of staff, and his wife, who in 1974 were blown nine stories high in Buenos Aires, the Argentinian capital.

In September 1976, Pinochet's hit squad struck in Washington, D.C. Michael Townley, a U.S. national and an electronics and bomb expert employed by Chile's secret police, recruited five anti-Castro Cubans to help him carry out the assassination. The assassins placed a bomb under the car of Orlando Letelier, Allende's former defense minister. As Letelier's car entered Washington's Sheridan Circle, half a mile from the White House, the bomb was detonated, killing Letelier. The blast also killed Ronni Moffitt, a passenger in the front seat. Both victims worked at the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington D.C.-based think tank.

The FBI discovered that the Chilean dictatorship had organized a six-country alliance of secret police agencies, which provided surveillance on each other's dissidents and helped assassinate the most troubling exiled opponents. Bureau agents also learned that the CIA knew considerable detail about this "Condor Operation." The CIA even provided the secret police chiefs with a special computer to better conduct their relationship.

In the late 1980s, the United States, embarrassed over Pinochet's "excesses," pushed for a referendum to end military rule. Pinochet was defeated, but he forced the civilian government to accept him as head of the army until he retired in March of this year. He then became senator for life, a post he had arranged for himself.

Fortunately, Chile has now returned to democratic procedures. But 17 years of military rule have taken an immeasurable toll on its people.

We should ask ourselves how we would feel if another government decided that our voters had exercised poor judgment and sent a team of saboteurs to undo the results of the election by force. This is what we did to Chile. We altered her destiny.

Saul Landau is the Hugh O. La Bounty Chair of Interdisciplinary Applied Knowledge at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. He is the co-author of "Assassination on Embassy Row" (Pantheon, 1980), the story of the Letelier-Moffitt killings.

"What 9/11/01 gave the United States is a new rationale for overthrowing governments, not the moral authority to do so. In Chile, Henry Kissinger maintains, our government was preventing the spread of communism and promoting democracy. In Afghanistan and Iraq, President Bush claims, we are combating terrorism and promoting democracy. That is the way they would have us see it. It is what former Senator J. William Fulbright called the "tendency to equate power with virtue" or, in short, "the arrogance of power." Most realize, however, that our policymakers' motives are not always as pure they proclaim.

Why do people object to the United States assuming the role of world policeman in the wake of 9/11/01?" "Because they recall 9/11/73," is one answer. "Why do they question our government's motives in Iraq?" "Because they know that the Bush administration has close ties with business firms hoping to profit one way or another from Iraq's oil, because they remember we helped overthrow the democratically elected government of Chile, and because they recall Allende's caveat about capitalists," the cognoscenti respond. "But Iraq is not about oil," our policymakers say. "Sure, and Chile was not about copper," the skeptics retort. "Still we got rid of Saddam Hussein," the Bush administration boasts. "Yes, and in the process marginalized the United Nations, undermined respect for international law, killed thousands of Iraqi civilians, and neither advanced the cause of democracy nor diminished the threat of terrorism," diplomats and scholars respond. "What can we learn from 9/11?" people ask. "Which 9/11?" is the appropriate answer."
---Paul Cantor

As the United State seeks to impose its sense of good citizenship upon the world, it is now more important than ever that the US is the best possible global citizen it can be. It cannot simply say: "While we are for the war on terrorism, we do not support the war on AIDS, pollution, human rights abuse, child slavery, and corporate abuse."

Now, more than ever, is the time to throw hypocrisy aside.

Our very lives depend on it.
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November 2011


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