THERE IS another 11 September, but there will be few tributes in the media to its victims. As the Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman says: ’11 September has been a date of mourning, for me and millions of others, ever since that day in 1973 when Chile lost its democracy in a military coup, that day when death irrevocably entered our lives and changed us forever.’ On that day the Chilean military, led by General Pinochet, overthrew the elected president, Salvador Allende.
Pinochet’s troops laid siege to the presidential palace. Hawker Hunter jets bought from Britain bombed the palace. Allende died during the siege. The rich and the military in Chile had long bitterly resisted all change inside the country. With the full backing of the US government they launched their bloody coup.
Pinochet became president and inflicted a reign of terror. The military rounded up tens of thousands of people, torturing and mutilating many of the prisoners. Detention centres sprang up across the country. The national stadium in the country’s capital, Santiago, was turned into a mass prison where Allende sympathisers were locked up and many were killed. Pinochet’s regime massacred up to 10,000 people. Dead bodies were left on Santiago’s streets with their bones crushed and fingernails removed.
Peasants crossing the Nuble River in central Chile found dozens of corpses, their hands tied behind their backs, floating downstream. Tens of thousands of people became exiles from their own homeland. Pinochet linked with other Latin American dictatorships like the one in Argentina to continue the terror in the years after the coup. They were united in Operation Condor – which involved a series of assassinations and torture of opponents.
Pinochet, with the help of US economists, embarked on a free market experiment, pushing privatisation which created massive job losses. These were the people from the infamous Chicago School that includes Paul O’Neill, Bush’s current treasury secretary. Pinochet stayed on as dictator until 1990, when protests forced him to step aside. The butcher has never been brought to justice. The US government backed him throughout his 17 years of undemocratic rule and human rights abuses.
In the run-up to the 1973 coup leading figures in the US establishment had made it clear they did not want Chile’s elected leader Salvador Allende. ‘I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people,’ said Henry Kissinger, US national security adviser.
His comments came after Salvador Allende was elected president in September 1970. Allende was the candidate of the left wing Popular Unity coalition. He said he was a Marxist who wanted to bring about a socialist society through parliamentary reform. Chile was a desperately poor and unequal country.
Just 3 percent of the population had over 40 percent of the country’s wealth. Allende won the election on the back of a wave of land occupations, strikes and student protests. He pledged to nationalise Chile’s copper mines, carry out land redistribution and raise the living standards of the majority of Chileans. Kissinger and US president Nixon were worried that Allende’s victory would inspire other Latin American countries to rebel against the US’s dominance in the region.
The US was continuing its bloody war against ‘communist influence’ in Vietnam and Cambodia to enforce US global power. Chile was a key country for the US – over 100 US multinationals had investments there worth over $1 billion. Allende had signed an agreement with the right just before the election. It was called the Statute of Guarantees which promised not to interfere with the media, education, the police or the armed forces.
But this was not enough for his enemies. They began to mobilise their forces against this ‘dangerous’ new president. The US wanted to create chaos, producing the conditions for a military coup. Nixon and Kissinger held crisis meetings within days of Allende’s victory.
‘Not concerned risks involved. No involvement of embassy. $10 million available, more if necessary. Full time job – best men we have. Make the economy scream,’ said the CIA intelligence organisation director’s notes of the first meeting. General Rene Schneider, the head of the Chilean army, was opposed to military intervention.
Kissinger organised contacts with extreme right wing officers, giving them large amounts of money, machine guns and teargas grenades to kidnap Schneider. The group sent a cable to the CIA in Chile, which was organising with those officers, on 16 October 1970. ‘It is a firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup,’ it said.
‘It is imperative that these actions be implemented clandestinely and securely so the United States’ government hand be well hidden.’ The right wing gang murdered Schneider on 22 October. Although the murder did not lead directly to a coup, ‘the seeds that were laid in 1970 had their impact in 1973,’ said Thomas Karamessines, the CIA deputy director for the plans.
The US squeezed the Chilean economy. US banks cut aid and refused further credit. This hit the economy hard. It poured money into the right wing parties and anti-Allende campaigns. Chile’s rich moved into action. Right wing parties organised a demonstration of 5,000 middle and upper class housewives through Santiago in December 1971.
They crashed pots and pans together in protest at food shortages. In reality it was the poor who were suffering from lack of food while the rich had hoarded supplies.
Some 150,000 Santiago shopkeepers took action in August 1972. Chilean truck owners launched a national wave of sabotage in October, causing four weeks of chaos. Bankers, lawyers and other professional workers joined the sabotage in large numbers.
Despite this Allende introduced reforms in a bid to improve the lives of Chile’s poor. His government increased the minimum wage by 35 percent, nationalised 3.5 million acres of land, reduced unemployment from 8.3 percent to 3.9 percent and the child mortality rate dropped by 11 percent. This made him popular among the working class. Workers had defended Allende by seizing the trucks that the rich refused to move.
Workers broke open the supermarkets, and threw out the owners who tried to stop the factories from producing vital goods. Workers’ committees, known as ‘cordones’, sprang up across Chile to distribute goods to the people. Allende’s Popular Unity coalition won 49.7 percent of the municipal elections vote of April 1971. Again in 1973 it won 43.4 percent of the vote in national elections.
The US and the rich in Chile realised they could not get rid of Allende through elections. The US suspended economic aid, and increased military aid. The military repressed the workers’ movement. The right wing media began to speak of left wing plots. When the transport owners again carried out sabotage action in August 1973, the US gave $5 million to support them.
Some 800,000 people marched through Santiago in support of Allende on 4 September. Tragically, he didn’t mobilise the power of his grassroots support. When sympathisers told him of plans for another coup he ignored them. He tried to make deals with the right and even brought the leaders of the armed forces, including General Pinochet, into his cabinet. Pinochet overthrew Allende and his government on 11 September, with the US establishment applauding every step of the way.
In 1976 Kissinger said to Pinochet, ‘We welcomed the overthrow of the communist-inclined government.’ The events in Chile show the US does not care about democracy, and the brutal measures it will take to maintain its interests around the globe.
More on Chile
Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Chile by Mike Gonzalez (£1.50) and House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende (£7.99) are both available from Bookmarks – phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com.com
Also Missing is a good film, starring Jack Lemmon as a man whose son is caught up in the coup.
Two inspiring strikes show the way forward
We shouldn’t let them hide from the truth