“Actions approved by the U.S. government aggravated political polarization and affected Chile’s long tradition of democratic elections and respect for constitutional order and the rule of law,” reads a White House press release that accompanied the November 13 declassification of 16,000 secret government documents on Chile. That statement, contorted bureaucratese for admitting a US contribution to undermining Chilean democracy and backing a brutal dictatorship, falls far short of accepting US accountability for the national and human horror experienced in Chile–an acknowledgment necessary for Chileans and Americans to reach closure on this shameful history.
The release marks the final installment of the Clinton Administration’s special Chile Declassification Project. “One goal of the project,” according to the White House statement–issued by the press secretary rather than in the name of the President–“is to put original documents before the public so that it may judge for itself the extent to which US actions undercut the cause of democracy and human rights in Chile.” Among the 24,000 documents declassified over the past two years are secret cables, memorandums and reports making that judgment perfectly clear.
The new documents dramatically record the imperial spectacle of high-level US efforts to destroy Chilean democracy in order to prevent an elected socialist, Salvador Allende, from governing. In a declassified transcript of a November 6, 1970, National Security Council meeting, President Nixon and selected Cabinet members casually discuss the need to “do everything we can to hurt [Allende] and bring him down.” There, in bald terms, the historical record reveals the callous willingness to promote upheaval and bloodshed to achieve this goal. “You have asked us to provoke chaos in Chile,” the CIA station chief in Santiago cabled headquarters in October 1970 during covert efforts to foment a coup; “we provide you with [a] formula for chaos.” The CIA Chilean coup-plotters predicted at least 10,000 casualties if the military coup went forward. “Carnage could be considerable and prolonged i.e. civil war.”
The CIA knew a year before the coup that Pinochet was prone to ruthlessness. An intriguing intelligence report records Pinochet as saying in September 1972 that “Allende must be forced to step down or be eliminated.” A Chilean informant, who apparently accompanied Pinochet on a trip to Panama to purchase US tanks for the Chilean military, told the CIA that US Army personnel based at the Southern Command had assured them, “US will support coup against Allende ‘with whatever means necessary,’ when time comes.”
In the United States, revelations of covert operations to destabilize the Allende government caused a major scandal in the mid-1970s. In Chile, where even the pro-Pinochet media have been forced to report on the declassified US records, this history is only now having a major impact on the national psyche. Throughout the country, there is outrage at this dramatic evidence of US intervention in Chile’s internal affairs. A group of prominent senators has demanded that the Chilean government formally protest US “violations of our sovereignty and dignity” and have summoned the foreign minister to explain what action the government of Ricardo Lagos intends to take toward Washington. Privately, Chilean government officials have requested that the United States clearly acknowledge actions that helped change the course of Chilean history.
The Clinton White House considered such an acknowledgment to accompany the final documents’ release–but in the end decided against it. Some officials fear that Washington could be held liable for covert war crimes in Chile–that the long arm of international justice that nabbed Augusto Pinochet could someday reach US officials. Although President Clinton did apologize to Guatemala for Washington’s cold war policy of aiding and abetting repression–“support for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression,” the President stated in Guatemala City last year, “was wrong, and the United States will not repeat that mistake”–no similar statement on Chile will be forthcoming. With the declassified documents, we now have a fuller accounting of the US role in Chile–but with no accountability.