Mythmaking and foreign policy fleeing the Chilean Coup: The Debate Over U. S. Complicity By

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Fleeing the Chilean Coup: The Debate Over U.S. Complicity

By William D. Rogers

January/February 2004

Foreign Affairs

The myth that the United States toppled President Salvador Allende of Chile in 1973 lives. In 1975, a Senate subcommittee headed by Frank Church -- a stalwart Democrat and no friend of the Nixon administration -- determined that there was "no real evidence" of U.S. support for the military coup or for an earlier botched kidnapping by Chileans that ended in the death of Army Chief of Staff Rene Schneider. A more recent CIA study confirmed these conclusions. No evidence to the contrary emerged from the 24,000 Chile-related documents declassified by the Clinton administration.

There is, in short, no smoking gun. Yet the myth persists. It is lovingly nurtured by the Latin American left and refreshed from time to time by contributions to the literature like Peter Kornbluh's The Pinochet File and Kenneth Maxwell's review of that book, "The Other 9/11" (November/December 2003).

Both Kornbluh and Maxwell recognize that it was the Chilean military that stormed Allende's presidential palace on that September 11 three decades ago; neither alleges direct U.S. participation in the coup. Still, although they do not go as far as the excitable critics who fire off wild charges of international criminal intent, both purport to make what Maxwell calls "The Case Against Kissinger."

Kornbluh and Maxwell echo the traditional claim that the United States "destabilized" Chile. Kornbluh says that the United States created a "coup climate." Maxwell asserts that Washington "engineered" the overthrow; as "for the coup itself," he writes, "there is no doubt that the United States did all that it could" to bring Allende down.

Hardly. It was no secret that President Richard Nixon opposed Allende and was unenthusiastic about the prospect of another Marxist regime in the region -- not surprising given that this was during the Cold War. But to claim that the Nixon administration "did all it could" to topple Allende is an injustice to regime-changers in the U.S. government, past and present. A cursory review of history suggests that had Washington done "all it could" in Chile, it would have attempted an assassination (Castro and Qaddafi: unsuccessful; Lumumba and Diem: successful), an invasion (Panama and Grenada), an armed attack by mercenaries (Iran and Guatemala), or an attack by the U.S. military (Iraq). Nothing close to such measures was deployed against Allende.

Even in the more gentlemanly arena of economic pressures, the U.S. effort against Chile pales in comparison with its no-holds-barred sanctions against Cuba, Iran, Iraq, and Libya. What the United States did in Chile, from Allende's inauguration in 1970 until his violent downfall at the hands of the Chilean military three years later, was a pinprick by comparison. Washington funneled $6 million in secret subsidies to the opposition press and parties (which Allende was trying to shut down). Washington tried -- and failed -- to block the restructuring of Chile's foreign debt. Washington reduced bilateral aid (although Allende found relief by unilaterally shutting down debt-service payments and opening lines of credit with other, friendlier nations). And it counseled international financial institutions to reduce their lending (although the World Bank needed no persuading: Chile was bankrupt). That was it.

If $6 million in support for the opposition and a reduction of bilateral aid brought Allende down, while other, far more robust attempts at regime change have failed, one might conclude that Allende's was a remarkably fragile regime. And indeed it was: Allende made it so. Kornbluh, Maxwell, and others inflate his martyrdom by saying he was democratically elected. This is a stretch. Allende won with a less-than-resounding 36 percent of the popular vote in 1970; nearly two-thirds of those who went to the polls voted against him. By 1973, he had frittered away even this flimsy base of support. What is even clearer, though, is that he was no democrat once in office. Indeed, Allende set out to destroy his country's democratic tradition. His government was set on "the Leninist demolition of the 'bourgeois' state," as the former Chilean Communist Roberto Ampuero put it recently in The Washington Post. "[Allende] cast aside our democratic system in order to try to replace it with a system ... that had already failed in Eastern Europe, Asia, and in Fidel Castro's Cuba."

Allende ruined the Chilean economy as well. His term opened in 1970 with crowd-pleasing, budget-busting welfare payouts. He nationalized the foreign-owned copper industry, ordered sharp wage increases, and imposed price controls. These measures triggered a consumption binge, and within months Chile had eaten its seed corn of capital. Inflation took over. Imports and consumption collapsed. Unemployment, destitution, and anger followed. By 1973, the economy was "screaming," as Nixon had hoped it would, but not because of Nixon, Henry Kissinger, or the CIA.

Such was the reality in Chile. Nathaniel Davis, the U.S. ambassador in Santiago at the time, later said that thanks to Allende's madcap economics, there was "progressively less Chilean institutional viability to 'destabilize.'" Nor was it the United States that did the "destabilizing," "undermining," or "engineering." According to a document of undoubted authenticity appended to his memoirs, Kissinger made clear to Davis days before the 1973 coup that "we are not to involve ourselves in any way. ... Our biggest problem is to keep from getting caught in the middle."

The guardians of the myth prefer to see the United States as just that -- "in the middle." For them, the U.S. diplomatic record is quite enough to prove that Nixon and Kissinger, up to their necks in Watergate and Kissinger's confirmation as secretary of state, were also manipulating the turbulence in Chile. There is not one word in Kornbluh's chapter on Allende's time in office about his disastrous economic policies, his attack on Chile's democratic institutions, or the wave of popular resentment that swept the Chilean military to power. The critics see only the American text, not the Chilean context.

The mythmakers' case for U.S. responsibility for the 1973 coup, built as it is on what U.S. officials were saying to each other, is circumstantial at best. So they buttress it with references to events both before and after Allende's presidency. Maxwell, echoing Kornbluh, points to the 1970 murder of Schneider, as if to show U.S. responsibility for the coup three years later. Schneider was killed by a band of rabid Chilean nationalists. Maxwell says that the United States "approved" and "planned" their effort. The facts are otherwise. In September of 1970, the Chilean Congress rejected a parliamentary maneuver to block Allende's inauguration. Cia operatives in Santiago then began to canvass a move by the Chilean military. But the CIA quickly backed off. The military, which three years later had a different view, refused in 1970 to intrude on the constitutional process. The CIA so reported to Kissinger, then national security adviser, and on October 15, 1970, he ended U.S. involvement in the anti-Allende plotting. Kissinger later told the president, "This thing looked hopeless. I turned it off. Nothing could be worse than an abortive coup." But, according to the Church Commission's report, when CIA operatives relayed the turn-off instruction to the Chilean army, the plotters responded that they were going ahead anyway. (Kissinger proved prescient: the result of the abortive coup was precisely the opposite of what the United States desired.)

Maxwell goes on to say that the United States "did little to rein in Pinochet thereafter," implying that this also confirms U.S. responsibility for 1973. But the record is otherwise. Maxwell and Kornbluh give little weight to the stern human rights warning Kissinger delivered directly to Pinochet at their only meeting, in Santiago in June of 1976. (Full disclosure: I was there, as Kissinger's undersecretary for economic affairs and, as some of Kornbluh's documents suggest, his human rights gadfly.) They dismiss Kissinger's statement, made in an address to the region's foreign ministers, that the regime's human rights violations "[had] impaired our relationship with Chile and [would] continue to do so." And they skip lightly over Kissinger's personal order to the four U.S. ambassadors in the Southern Cone to tell the heads of their respective governments that political assassination and human rights violations would irreparably damage their relations with the United States and cost them dearly in aid. Despite what Kornbluh and Maxwell claim, Kissinger's warning was delivered in robust fashion to the Argentine president -- there are cables to prove it, although Kornbluh does not reprint them -- and probably to Pinochet's underlings in Santiago. In any event, after Kissinger's meeting with Pinochet there could have been no misunderstanding as to Washington's views on state-sponsored political assassination. The relationship with Chile (and the other Southern Cone countries) went into a deep freeze in the remaining months of Kissinger's term as secretary of state -- and under President Jimmy Carter as well.

Finally, Maxwell cites a maddeningly ambiguous cable from Kornbluh's collection as somehow relevant to an ominous "third event" in "the case against Kissinger": the June 1976 assassination of former Chilean Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier by Chilean agents in Washington, D.C. This is mischievous nonsense. Kissinger had nothing to do with the cable. So far as the record shows, he never saw it. The cable was not a Washington instruction to the field. It was not sent to Santiago. The bomb had already been strapped to the underside of Letelier's car when the cable, whatever it meant, was sent. It could not conceivably have been a link in the chain of causation leading to Letelier's death.

But it is of such stuff that myths are made. The evidence of U.S. responsibility for Allende's downfall is thin indeed, but the myth lives on, with unfortunate consequences. It eats at the good name and image of the United States in "that vast external realm," an image that needs no additional blemishes right now. In Latin America, it reinforces the instinct to blame Washington and to seek the redress of grievances there rather than at home. And in the United States, the Chile myth teaches contemporary interventionists that regime change works. It affirms the view that other countries are objects, blank slates on which Washington can write as it wishes. With U.S. power so overwhelming and the instinct to alter foreign regimes so strong, this is a dangerous message indeed.

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