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Our Other September 11 | The Nation

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Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

Our Other September 11


A supporter of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet holds a picture of Pinochet outside of Chile's Military Hospital in Santiago on December 3, 2006. (Reuters/Ivan Alvarado)

Let’s not forget Chile.

On September 11, 1973, warplanes began strafing radio stations and newspapers. Images arrived of people scattering in fear ahead of tanks in the streets. Fearsome generals in coats with starred epaulets ordered President Salvador Allende, the world’s only elected Marxist leader, to step down. A military communiqué: “The armed forces and the body of carabineros are united in their historic and responsible mission of fighting to liberate Chile from the Marxist yoke.” Signed; General Augusto Pincohet Ugarte, Commander-in-Chief of the Army.

Pinochet’s coup came the day before a planned national referendum scheduled by Allende, a man fastidiously obsessed with observing his nation’s constitution. Unlike Allende, the military chose not to chance democracy. Instead, they rounded up thousands and deposited them in the national stadium, some marked for execution. In the streets of Santiago, loudspeakers barked out commands: “All people resisting the new government will pay the price.” For at least seventy-five, in the first three weeks, the price was execution by Pinochet’s Caravana de la Muertethe “Caravan of Death.” One bullet-ridden body, belonging to the popular, pacifist singer Víctor Jara, was found dumped in a Santiago back street, his hands broken and his wrists cracked.

On the morning of the coup, the ousted president, refusing to yield, made his way to the parliament for one last speech. Then he fell back to the presidential palace, now bombarded by planes and pummeled by tanks, forty civil servants still pinned inside. The majestic building nearly burned to the ground. “Oh, baby!” a CBS Radio correspondent intoned on the air with an intake of breath as machine gun volleys sounded. “We’re in the wrong place…. We are pinned down on a corner…looking at a policeman with an automatic rifle…. What the hell am I doing here?”

I wrote here this winter about what General Pinochet’s subsequent rule was like, in the context of Ronald Reagan’s complaining two years later about “the innuendos and the accusations that the CIA and our government had a hand in bringing about the downfall of the government of Chile,” flaying congressmen who “act as if fascism had been imposed on the Chileans, to their great distress and unhappiness,” citing a goofy Gallup Poll—as if “citizens” in a police state could tell strangers honestly what they thought about their government—that 60 percent of Chileans approved of their government and only 3 percent did not. Reagan: “This is quite a contrast to much of what we’ve heard in the news about a reign of terror, political prisoners, torture and a depressed and frightened populace!”

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But the Chileans since September 11, 1973, had lived under an official “state of siege,” renewed every month by military decree and not lifted until 1978, at which point General Pinochet revised the state of siege to a mere “state of emergency.” The new rules, he magnanimously explained, meant “I cannot banish anyone for more than six months and there will be no more trials of a military nature.” The death toll of his murderous regime was up in the many thousands by then.

And it couldn’t have happened without our tax dollars.

On December 18, 1975, the Church Committee transmitted its report, U.S. Covert Actions by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Chile (Including the ‘Assassination’ of Salvador Allende), 1963, 1973.” Short, sharp and thorough like all the Church Committee’s publications—you can pick it up yourself in a nice 127-page paperback from ARC Manor Publishers, including Congressman Maurice Hinchey’s follow-up 2000 report. It concluded: “Covert United States involvement in Chile in the decade between 1963 and 1973 was extensive and continuous. The Central Intelligence Agency spent three million dollars in an effort to influence the outcome of the 1964 Chilean presidential elections. Eight million dollars was spent, covertly, in the three years between 1970 and the military coup in September, 1973, with over three million dollars expended in fiscal year 1972 alone…. What did covert CIA money buy in Chile? It financed activities covering a broad spectrum, from simple propaganda manipulation of the press to large-scale support for Chilean political parties, to public opinion polls to direct attempts to foment a military coup.” In 1970, when the agency passed weapons to the plotters, the army’s commander-in-chief, René Schneider, who opposed them, ended up dead.

What the hell were we doing there, indeed. Let’s not let it happen ever again.

Peter Rothberg commemorates Salvador Allende's final public address.

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