It’s predictable. Every 9/11, there’s two responses. The over the top star spangled .gifs proclaiming we’ll never forget (despite the fact we totally will), and the snarky “Heh, you actually care about this country? What about the [insert X event that they largely simplify and pretend is somehow unique to the history of the United States]??? Huh? Just blew your mind didn’t I?”
Whataboutery isn’t just a local sport in Northern Ireland and similar such locales. It’s now an international pastime.
In this Internet Age, there’s probably no greater proof that God is a trickster than the fact that 9/11 is the date of both the Al Qaeda attacks on the US and a coup against a Marxist in Chile. The first time someone realized they could post “Never Forget” with some Chomsky screed about the perfidious September coup on Facebook, it’s probably the closest they were to being actually happy on the Internet. Take a dump on that horrible red tribe, bemoan the CIA/corporations/Kissinger and praise a Latin American Marxist? Christmas just came 105 days early.
If no one takes the bait, you can always post it on every Facebook status about 9/11 you find with, “Oh yeah, well what about Chile? Ever think of that?”
Well, what about it?
The narrative is quite simple. The dastardly CIA engineered a coup against the democratic Salvador Allende (who was a Marxist but in a cool, that-hot-English-professor-you-once-had-with-the-cool-tweed-jacket kind of way) ushering in the dark age of Pinochet (it doesn’t help that Pinochet looked and dressed exactly like a Bond villain).
The premises are even simpler. Democracy is good. Foreign intelligence involvement is bad (because, “democracy”). If the CIA did it, it’s immediately morally suspect. Violence is bad and thus Pinochet was mean.
Problem? Each of them are either patently false or backward. In short, Allende’s regime was hardly “democratic.” He was opposed by the other democratic elements of the Chilean government. A foreign intelligence agency was involved but, plot twist, not the one you’re thinking of. Violence is bad and that’s probably one in the win column for the junta, not Allende.
Whew. That’s a heady brew. Where to start?
La Leyenda Roja: The Red Legend
Yes, it is true that Salvadore Allende was democratically elected in 1970 and he was the first Marxist to be elected in Latin America. But it was razor thin. In 1970, Allende received 36.6% of the vote. First runner up was Jorge Alessandri, with 35.3% of the vote and second runner up was Radomiro Tomic with 28.1%. The overwhelming Chilean consensus was anti-communist, whether it be of a liberal conservative, nationalist or Christian Democratic flavor. 1970-1973 wasn’t some brave, Marxist moment of the Chilean people sticking to The Man. This was a deeply unpopular government from the start.
Now in fairness to Allende, his presidency was confirmed by Chilean legislature, as was required by the constitution. However they did so after he agreed to abide by a Statute of Constitutional Guarantees. Functionally, a, “Hey, don’t wreck the place by making it some communist hellhole.” Allende told his allies it was a tactical necessity. Meanwhile, you know who else was democratically elected? The Chilean Chamber of Deputies. After three years of Allende, this is what they had to say about his government;
That it is a fact that the current government of the Republic, from the beginning, has sought to conquer absolute power with the obvious purpose of subjecting all citizens to the strictest political and economic control by the state and, in this manner, fulfilling the goal of establishing a totalitarian system: the absolute opposite of the representative democracy established by the Constitution;
That to achieve this end, the administration has committed not isolated violations of the Constitution and the laws of the land, rather it has made such violations a permanent system of conduct, to such an extreme that it systematically ignores and breaches the proper role of the other branches of government, habitually violating the Constitutional guarantees of all citizens of the Republic, and allowing and supporting the creation of illegitimate parallel powers that constitute an extremely grave danger to the Nation, by all of which it has destroyed essential elements of institutional legitimacy and the Rule of Law.
The Chilean Supreme Court stood by this assessment of events with its own resolution. Herein lies the problem for the would be mourner of Allende. The true narrative isn’t “Noble democracy overwhelmed by special interests.” 1973 was a constitutional and political crisis brought about by a widely disliked president. Call me some idealistic ‘Merican or (worse) a Calvinist, but one of the virtues of a constitutional government (be it a monarchy or republic) is the benefit of having other institutions that can check the power of a reckless executive (or legislature).
Also in fairness to my contrarian leftist friends when they mean “democratically elected” or “democracy” they mean a non-repressive, open, transparent government and society. Basically liberal democracy. I would suggest that a president that murders political opponents, violently steals people’s property, undermines an independent judiciary, manipulates a free press, and purposefully up-ends the balance of power between the legislature and executive may not be acting in the best interests of a liberal society. Now my more far left friends may say, “Actually all of that sounds pretty good to be to usher in communism,” to which I suggest you can’t blame the bourgeoisie for picking up guns and saying, “Try us.”
Foreign Intel: Adventures of Cousin Ivan & Uncle Sam
Ok, you may say, sure Allende was slightly “problematic” but the opposition was totally the tool of the CIA. As we all know, once the CIA is invoked, you lose the argument. Problem is CIA involvement was limited and, largely, woefully inept. America’s early intervention in Chile was a mixed bag. In the War of the Pacific, the US backed down for fear of mighty Chilean navy (that’s not a joke). In the 1891 civil war, we sided with Balmaceda who, after nine months, lost the war and committed suicide. Ironically it was the British who were accused of engineering his downfall, starting a weird trend of Chilean presidents shooting themselves in September.
Things picked up in 1958 when Alessandri won the presidential elections, beating Allende. When it came for Round 2, the CIA spare no expense on radio and print advertisements against Allende, who lost to the Christian Democrat, Eduardo Frei Montalva. By the CIA’s own study, they estimated their assistance helped Frei Montalva upgrade his victory from a mere plurality to an outright majority. Ironically when a Chilean air force officer approached the US embassy and the CIA regarding a potential coup, they were strongly rebuffed.
1970 became Round 3. The CIA spent but not like it had before. Given how the anti-communist vote was divided, it did not focus on backing a singular candidate but rather discrediting Allende. This time they lost. While Nixon went into his usual jowly rage, Helms complained that Nixon had sent him to “beat somebody with nothing.” Not taking no for an answer, Nixon went into Plan B. The first “track” was to convince the Chilean legislature to vote against Allende. Due to Sal’s clever play with the Statute of Guarantees, the legislature wasn’t willing to be Nixon’s stooge, no matter how anti-communist they were. The second track was to look into dusting off that old coup idea. However by late October, Kissinger mothballed it, declaring it “hopeless.” The mighty CIA brought was brought down.
“But,” you say. “The CIA did bring down Allende 3 years later!” Not really. In the words of Senator Frank Church, no friend of the CIA’s nighttime activities,
Was the United States DIRECTLY involved, covertly, in the 1973 coup in Chile? The Committee has found no evidence that it was.
For once the CIA and Church agreed. The latest round of declassification and analysis found that the CIA had not taken any action to instigate, support or direct the coup.
“Still,” you may think. “Foreign intelligence involvement of any kind is unacceptable.” Ok, you’re right. It’s unacceptable for a foreign intelligence agency to interfere in the native ongoings of any government. You know who was one of these stooges, unpatriotically taking foreign money and seedy election assistance? Salvador Allende. In fact the guy had such close KGB connections, him and his wife had their own KGB codenames. Since 1958, Allende was an open asset of the KGB. All those elections the US was spending their dastardly Yanqui greenbacks? KGB general Vasili Mitrokhin revealed that the KGB was going dollar for dollar in order to keep their man in Santiago. While the CIA sat on its laurels in 1970, the KGB had been very busy and very hungry since the 50s.
The KGB didn’t take their 1973 setback lying down either. Vasili revealed that in 1976 they began a disinformation op called Operation TOUCAN, convincing much of the world that the CIA had murdered Allende (he shot himself) and that the post-Allende Chile was the new heart of darkness. It worked. In ’76 the New York Times had published 66 pieces on the abuses of the junta while sparing ink for a mere 4 articles on the Khmer Rogue.
The “CIA killed a noble democrat” narrative is nice but at best complicated and at worst totally false. If you hate foreign interference and love democracy, Allende may not be your guy.
The last major premise is that Pinochet’s regime was violent and thus this excuses Allende. It does not. British journalist and historian, Robin Harris goes into length about the violence of the Allende presidency and its steady and inevitable calcification into a violent, repressive regime.
The calcification started from the beginning. Allende, as a founder of the Socialist Party outlined this lovely little gem (emphasis added):
The Socialist Party as a Marxist-Leninist organisation proposes the taking ofpower as a strategic objective to be accomplished by this generation, toestablish a revolutionary state which will free Chile from dependence andeconomic and cultural backwardness and begin the process of socialism.Revolutionary violence is inevitable and legitimate. It constitutesthe only way that leads to taking economic and political power.
Allende openly admitted his goal was to “overthrow” the “bourgeois state.” Relevant to this goal as the immediate pardoning of various terrorist elements within the Chilean left. To Allende these were just “young idealists.”
The violence had been so brazen that the Chilean legislature complained that Allende had, “allowed the formation and development, under the protection of the government, of armed groups.” These groups became critical to his agricultural policy as armed bands of gunmen violently expropriated over 1,7000 farms from private owners. Additionally Chilean foreign intelligence soon played host to a variety of Latin American communist guerrillas. By 1973 it was estimated conservatively at at least 5,000 received some level of training in Chile.
Most ominously, starting in 1971 literally tons of military armament from Cuba starting coming into Chile, directly bypassing Chilean customs. These included semiautomatic military rifles, machine guns, sniper rifles, artillery, detonators, TNT and the like. Allende’s own mansion (who said a man of the left can’t enjoy himself?) became a training site.
To accompany the weapons, Castro sent two of his right-hand thugs to Santiago in August of 1973. These were Carlos Rodriguez and head of the secret police, Manuel “Barbarroja” Pineiro. Some maintained this was simply a friendly visit (some friends), but Castro thought otherwise;
Dear Salvador, Under the pretext of discussing with you questionsconcerning the meeting on non-aligned countries, Carlos and Pineiro havegone to see you. The real purpose is to discuss with you your situation and, asalways, to offer you our willingness to cooperate in the face of the difficultiesand dangers which hinder and threaten the process.
Earlier that year Allende’s coalition began their own process of militarization. Communist Party chief Volodia Teitelboim predicted that rightist opposition would trigger a civil war that would, “…probably would signify immense loss of human lives, between half a million and one million.”
After 1988 there was controversy over how far Allende’s plans for a potential violent revolution had gone. The junta circulated the notion of a “Plan Z” in which the Allende loyalists would institute a autogolpe (self coup), assassinate members of the legislature and take over the armed forces. It seems there are doubts about this theory, as even the CIA at the time questioned its validity. The Valech Report called into question the various inconsistencies of Plan Z, while some Chilean historians insist that it was largely correct. Self coup or not, it is hard not to take the independently attested actions and words of the Chilean left at face value. If men gather guns and tell you they’re going to violently overthrow the state at some point, you should probably believe them.
That leads us to the violence of the coup and Pinochet. While relatively few (60 or so) died in the immediate coup, by the end of Pinochet’s reign in 1988, over 3,000 people had died, several thousand had been tortured and over 27,000 had been taken prisoner. The majority of these, roughly 59% took place within the immediate months surrounding the coup. The testimony at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is staggering and is a sobering reminder of the ugliness of trade offs. Even to critics of Allende and communism, Pinochet’s leadership within the junta became violent, brutal and self aggrandizing.
However we owe it to history to do some contrast. Let’s look at a similar Latin American country; Cuba. From 1959 to 1987, anywhere between 4,000 to 33,000 Cubans were murdered. Reliable estimates put it around 17,000. Additionally between 750,000 to 1.5 millions Cubans were thrown in prison or forced labor camps. 10% of the Cuban population fled.
Yet, interestingly enough, Castro doesn’t get the same level of outrage or sense of tragedy as Chile does among Very Serious People. While the junta had set out with plan to liberalize by 1978, over half a century later the Castros show no sign of letting up. The purpose of this contrast is simple. If the coup had not gone forward, if the US had played no role at all, would Chile have been a more violent place? Given the historical record of communism, Allende’s own militarization of partisan politics, and his chumminess with Castro, it seems likely. At best Chile faced an entrenched civil war, worse than what occurred in 1891, in which 5,000 people were killed. At worst it faced a solidified Marxist government which tend to have pretty poor records of, well, almost everything. Today Chile is one of the envies of the Americas, while Cuba remains a desperate place where folks clamber up onto floating Oldsmobiles in the hope they make it to Key West.
So what did the US do right and what did it do wrong? First of all it backed the right horse. Allende was a disaster for Chile from the start. The CIA was largely correct to see to it he didn’t win earlier elections and keep mum once the coup was underway. Though the CIA played a limited role, it did help keep an important country from falling to positively insane government. Secondly, it helped in moderating the excesses of Pinochet. Economically the US ensured that the new government was committed to sensible economic reform, politically it pushed for liberalization once it was clear Allende’s ghost was really gone.
But the US doesn’t come away spotless. The US policy in Chile was often inept and without proper understanding of local events. The government did not listen to its own CIA when it came to reservations about Pinochet’s rise within the junta. As a result we got into bed with violence, much of it probably unjustified. Furthermore, we should’ve fostered anti-communist critics of Pinochet such as General Gustavo Leigh and Cardinal Raul Silva Henriquez.
A Chile left to Allende would’ve ended in a poorer, more violent, and more broken society than one left with 15 year rule by Pinochet. History isn’t as simple as we’d like and it isn’t some morality play. Americans are often under the impression that Latin Americans are are all Chomskyites, but when Pinochet died in 2006, some 60,000 people attended his funeral. As complicated and ugly as the story gets, September 11th, 1973 is not one of US perfidy and Marxist nobility. You may choose to “Never Forget” Chile but if so you owe it to yourself to know the full story.
For various & sundry related to the topic
- James Whelan, Allende, death of a Marxist dream, Arlington House. 1981.
- James Whelan, Out of the Ashes: Life, Death and Transfiguration of Democracy in Chile, 1833-1988, Arlington House. 1989.
- “Covert Action in Chile: 1963-1973,” Select Senate Committee.
- Greg Garcia, 9/11/73: The “Chilean Way” to Socialism Hits a Dead End, Western Oregon University. 2012.
- Nick Eberstadt, The Poverty of Communism, Transaction. 1990. Good discussion in there about the economic contrast between Cuba and Chile.
- Jeffrey Klaiber, SJ, The Church, Dictatorships and Democracy in Latin America, Wipf & Stock. 1998.
- Gonzalo Vial Correa, Salvador Allende: el fracas de una ilusion, Universidad Finis Terrae. 2005.
- Robin Harris’ essay, “A Tale of Two Chileans: Pinochet and Allende.” A little too fawning at times and a little too reliant on Plan Z, but all in all a valuable resource.