by Victor Verdejo, ’15
“It is useful to bear in mind that the crimes could have been even worse. Suppose, for example, that the attack had gone as far as bombing the White House, killing the President, imposing a brutal military dictatorship that killed thousands and tortured tens of thousands while establishing an international terror center that helped impose similar torture-and-terror states elsewhere and carried out an international assassination campaign; and as an extra fillip, brought in a team of economists – call them ‘the Kandahar boys’ — who quickly drove the economy into one of the worst depressions in its history. That, plainly, would have been a lot worse than 9/11.
Unfortunately, it is not a thought experiment. It happened. The only inaccuracy in this brief account is that the numbers should be multiplied by 25 to yield per capita equivalents, the appropriate measure. I am, of course, referring to what in Latin America is often called ‘the first 9/11’: September 11 1973, when the US succeeded in its intensive efforts to overthrow the democratic government of Salvador Allende in Chile with a military coup that placed General Pinochet’s brutal regime in office.”
In order to understand the nature of the involvement of the United States in the military coup of 1973 in Chile, and the 17-year military dictatorship that ensued, one must look at two different contexts: the socio-economic and political context in Chile in the late 1960s and early 1970s on one hand, and Chile as a pawn within the global framework of the Cold War on the other. In the late 1950s right-wing statesman Jorge Alessandri was elected president in Chile with the approval of the United States. He forcefully advocated laissez-faire economic policies and cut trade barriers with the US, giving North American products a stronger foothold in the Chilean market. These policies angered the working class, as they led to cuts in real wages and to the expropriation of land by the state as it furthered the privatisation of several industries that started after World War II. Massive discontent ensued in the early 1960s as it was generally felt that the laissez-faire policies, instead of strengthening the economy and preventing inflation, had increased the overall dependency on the United States, as illustrated by the “grand total of $130 million from the U.S. banking Industry, the U.S. Treasury Department, the IMF and the ICA” that Alessandri received (well over a billion dollars when accounting for inflation). Dissatisfaction with monetarist economic policies and the right-wing government turned the 1964 election into a race between Eduardo Frei Montalva, Christian Democrat, and Salvador Allende, of the Socialist party.
The United States, recognizing the imminent election of a left-leaning candidate, chose the less radical Frei as their candidate of choice and, through the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), spent over three million dollars in campaigning for Frei. Further aid was sent through the Alliance for Progress, that promised “$20 billion in public and private assistance in the country for the next decade.” Overall, the US spent around $20 million campaigning against Allende, trying to connect him with alleged “communist atrocities,” but also sent in a team of around 100 people with detailed tasks to prevent Allende’s election.5 Through the pressure of the US business sector in Chile and the covert aid from the CIA and the rest of the US government, Frei managed to defeat Allende in the 1964 elections by a large margin (56% of votes).
During his term, Frei conducted minor land reforms and increased taxation on the rich through the Alliance for Progress initiative. (Note: These tactics represent the same type of small concessions to avoid any major structural change that the USA promoted in Western Europe following WW II with the Marshall Plan as a strategy to oppose the rise of socialism in Italy, France and Greece.) Latin American countries, including Chile, pledged to spend $80 billion on capital investment (most of which was owned by the US), while the US guaranteed $20 billion in the coming decade. As William T. Denzer explains, “When you look at net capital flows and their economic effect, and after all due credit is given to the U.S. effort to step up support to Latin America, one sees that not that much money has been put into Latin America after all.” In fact, the US normally made a sizable profit over the tied-aid given to Latin American countries.
Nearing the end of Frei’s term in power, Allende was a likely contender in the 1970’s election, running against the ex-president Alessandri. Once again the US spent copious amounts of money campaigning against Allende, who deeply opposed the Alliance for Progress initiative, in the months leading to the election. As can be seen from the US Government’s own subsequent investigation led by Senator Frank Church, covert and even overt involvement by the Central Intelligence Agency and other agencies of the US Government in Chilean elections was extensive and quite effective throughout the 50’s and 60’s. Notwithstanding this external interference, however, in the elections of 1970, following the massive student and workers protest of 1968, Allende managed to attain a plurality of the votes. This meant that the Congress would have the final say in the election of the President between the two candidates with the most votes.
The CIA developed two plans to stop Allende’s rule, Track I and Track II. Track I, or “the soft track,” was to prevent Allende from attaining the presidency through parliamentary trickery. The US planned to pressure the congress through the outgoing president Frei to confirm Alessandri, the runner-up in the election, instead of Allende. This plan failed due to Alessandri’s opposition to interrupting the country’s democratic tradition, despite his own reservations about Allende’s Marxist tendencies. Track II, or Project FUBELT, involved convincing key military officers to carry out a coup d’état, ousting Allende from power by force. Project FUBELT relied on the assassination of General René Schneider, the army chief commander, because of his constitutionalist tendencies, which meant he would have opposed on principle a military coup. The death of Schneider, however, caused massive support for newly elected President Allende and stopped the coup initiative in October 1970.
Analysing Chile’s position in the global context of the Cold War also helps clarify why the United States was so intent on ousting Salvador Allende from power in the early 1970’s. Salvador Allende was Marxist in ideology and ran for presidency with the support of the Unidad Popular, a coalition of the socialist and communist party of Chile. The United States Government, in its extreme communist paranoia, saw this as a Soviet take-over in their own “backyard.” During the Cold war period geo-political analysts and planners developed the idea of the “Grand Area.” “The Grand Area was a region that was to be subordinated to the needs of the American economy. As one planner put it, it was a region that is ‘strategically necessary for world control…’ It was to include everything [every geographic region], if possible.” This Grand Area was to be dominated through an economic imperialism rather than the more overt colonialism; this area would be friendly to the United States domestic economy by weakening trade barriers and promoting free market interactions that favoured the US. “The planners [of this geopolitical concept] recognized that other arrangements, other forms of organization, involving much less extensive control over the world would indeed be possible, but only at what from their point of view was the ‘cost’ of internal rearrangements toward a more egalitarian society in the United States, and obviously that is not contemplated.”
From this ideological perspective, Chile under Allende would seem like an imminent threat to the US Government planners’ grand scheme of economic hegemony. As Chomsky points out, “the United States has often opposed with tremendous ferocity, and even violence, these elements—human rights, democratization, and the raising of living standards,” in order to protect the raw materials (from local and indigenous populations) that ensure the United States’ control of “over 50 percent of the resources and their exploitation of the world.” Allende, with his effective land reform, social spending on health and education, and economic restructuring in favour of the poorer sectors of society, posed a serious threat to the US Government’s beloved vision of a global capitalist economy, controlled by Washington, DC. U.S. President Richard Nixon feared that Chile would become another Cuba, and therefore cut most of US foreign aid to Chile. When Allende nationalised Chile’s copper industry, the U.S. cut off all credits and increased its funding of the opposition, forcing Chile to seek alternate sources of trade and finance.
“The people who are committed to these dangerous heresies, such as using their resources for their own purposes or believing that the government is committed to the welfare of its own people, may not be Soviet clients to begin with and, in fact, quite regularly they are not… But by the time we get through with them, they will be Soviet clients… They will have nowhere else to turn for any minimal form of protection against the terror and violence that we regularly unleash against them if they undertake programs of the kind described.”
As was the case with Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, Brazil and several other countries with fully domestic and successful socioeconomic development, Chile provided a strong socialist model for the rest of the world. The United States could not allow this as, “such development could be a model for people elsewhere and could lead them to try to duplicate it, and gradually the Grand Area would unravel.” Nixon invoked this “domino theory” when he told Kissinger that if Allende “can prove he can set up a Marxist anti-American policy others will do the same thing.” After 1945, with the European powers on their knees and the US as the only nuclear-armed power with a booming economy, the need to ensure access to natural resources and foreign markets for US and to maintain the economic control, the US Government paranoically saw any deviation from their plan as a threat. Thus the need to contain China and Russia, the need to prevent Korea from going socialist, the need to intervene in Vietnam and “napalm it into the Stone Age”, and the need to stop the democratically elected socialist experiment in Chile.
Chile, unlike several other targets of US imperialism in Latin America, had a strong history of democratic processes, elections and institutions; therefore it was highly unlikely for a native initiative to arise in order to overthrow a democratically elected president. With the media failure that was Vietnam, the United States could not risk a direct military intervention either. What this meant for the United States was a different approach to its goal of government change. Unlike with Guatemala in 1954 where U.S. intervention was blatantly obvious, the actions taken to undermine Allende’s presidency and to provoke the military dictatorship were more covert and the extent of U.S. involvement was not certain, or rather could not be proved, until recently, under the Clinton administration when thousands of classified documents pertaining the military coup of 1973 were released.
Why was it so vital to the USA that the Government of Salvador Allende NOT continue to function? So important that the US had to resort to bribing the Truckers Union, threatening legislators, laundering secret money and encouraging Chilean military officers to rebel? By 1970, the US had already engaged in numerous political, economic and military interventions in Latin America. Much has been written about the overthrow of Árbenz in Guatemala, the serial occupations of Haiti, the hundreds of assassination attempts against Fidel Castro in Cuba and the military occupation of Dominican Republic. Nevertheless, Chile in the early 1970s represented a totally new type of threat, a socialist government, which had come to power peacefully through a democratic election. The danger of a good example—should the pacific, intellectual, humanistic and avowedly socialist Salvador Allende succeed in empowering the working people of Chile in transforming their society and establishing a socio-economic model independent of the US power—was too much of a risk to leave to chance.
Therefore, the United States embarked upon a crusade of destabilization (a recurring theme in the United States’ intervention in Chile and in Latin America) that would topple Allende’s regime and his proposed “Chilean road to Socialism.” Much like the case of Guatemala, when the US Government allied with the United Fruit Company in bringing down the democratic government of Jacobo Árbenz, the Nixon administration at the highest level collaborated with U.S. based multinational corporations such as International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) company and Anaconda Mining Company to topple Allende.
The process of overthrowing Salvador Allende proceeded in an inexorable, step-by-step fashion. Through ITT, the CIA was able to funnel millions of dollars as campaign contributions to the alternate candidate Alessandri during the electoral campaign. After Allende won the presidency, the US Government used ITT as a conduit to fund several unions in opposition to Allende’s policies.
Chief among these efforts figured the financial incentives provided to the Truckers Union to halt distribution of basic foods and household products. Chile’s very geography requires smooth transportation of produce; sandwiched between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, it is a long, narrow country measuring over 6,000 kilometres in length and barely 90 kilometres in breadth in some parts. Capital-centric like so many Latin countries, Santiago has always been the hub and Valparaiso constitutes the chief port for importation and subsequent distribution of goods. In the early 1970s, right-wing groups organized the closing of stores and the hoarding of goods. By the final months of the Allende Government, working class families survived thanks to monthly ration cards and long lines formed at central distribution centres. The relatively small investment by the US Government in the truckers union, to persuade them to park their vehicles and block highways between major metropolitan areas, was sufficient to wreak havoc in local stocks of basic supplies, access to markets and levels of household food security in urban areas. US President Nixon notoriously instructed the CIA to, “make the economy scream” in Chile.
U.S. ambassador to Chile in the early 70s, Edward Korry emphasised, “Once Allende comes to power, we shall do all within our power to condemn Chile and the Chileans to utmost deprivation and [poverty].” CIA analysts predicted that to engineer a coup in Chile there must be “dire economic conditions throwing the country into chaos,” while also finding a military leader that was supported by most of the armed forces. By cutting all foreign aid, funding massive disinformation campaigns through right wing newspapers, and paralysing the Chilean economy through a countrywide truckers strike subsidised by the CIA, the United States Government created the conditions and general environment for a coup. Although Allende managed to retain popular acceptance for the most part of his time in power (1970-1973) the crashing economy orchestrated by the United States set up the coup in September of 1973.
The Chilean coup in 1973 certainly did not constitute the first case of unsolicited intervention by the US Government in other countries. As referenced above, there exists an entire literature covering US interference abroad in order to achieve economic or political advantage. Yet the Chilean case constituted a different type of operation, based on the long democratic tradition of the country and the fact that the “socialist threat” ostensibly posed by Salvador Allende came to power through a peaceful, democratic election. When initial US efforts to foment a military coup in 1970 failed (e.g., when promoting the assassination of General Rene Schneider only served to unify the country behind Allende), the Nixon administration was forced to carry a subtler, covert set of operations. These tactics included supporting the opposition, cutting off foreign aid, conduction a campaign to discredit the democratically elected government, funnelling money to opposition structures, bribing the truckers union, inserting covert operatives inside Chile and engaging with the right-wing elements of society and the military. The outcome of these efforts finally bore fruit on 11 September 1973 with the military uprising, the bombing of the Moneda Palace in Santiago and the death of Allende. What ensued—17 years of repression, tens of thousands of tortured and disappeared civilians, and the interruption of a democratic tradition dating back to the beginning of the 19th Century—can in good measure be attributed to the role of the USA.
It is, perhaps, worth noting that the tactics pioneered by Nixon, Kissinger and the CIA in Chile have not been abandoned in the 21st Century. It is too early to tell the extent to which US interference has been a factor in other recent efforts at regime change around the world. Blogs and articles on line abound with intimations about US involvement in social unrest in Libya, Yemen, Syria, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Bolivia and a host of other sites around the planet. Should the future provide proof positive that these uprisings were indeed fomented by outside intervention, it will indicate simply that the US Government has recycled initiatives first tested in the 1970s in Chile.
Born in Santiago, Chile in 1992, Victor is the youngest of three brothers. Because of his parents’ job in the UN, he has been travelling from a very early age and has learnt to appreciate different cultures and societies. Because of his Latino upbringing and his travels around the globe, Victor has become very aware of several social injustices that stem from US involvement abroad and has become very vocal in his criticism of economic and social imperialism. As of 2011 Victor is a student at Stanford University and hopes to earn a bachelors degree in Mathematics while engaging in the activist community at Stanford.