When Chilean President Salvador Allende was overthrown in a bloody coup on September 11, 1973, the Nixon Administration declared its support for the “preservation of Chilean democracy.” In fact, the United States had undermined democracy in Chile by covertly sabotaging Allende’s democratically elected socialist government and supporting the brutal military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The overthrow of Allende marked the beginning of an indiscriminate reign of terror in the name of fighting communism, which led to the murder, disappearance and death by torture of more than 3,000 Chilean citizens. In the years following the coup, General Pinochet’s campaign of repression swept through South America from Chile to Uruguay, Argentina and beyond.
Two important new studies–Peter Kornbluh’s The Pinochet File, and John Dinges’s The Condor Years, both published by the New Press–shed light on this dark chapter in US foreign policy and Latin American history. Kornbluh’s book is an unprecedented and admirably thorough dossier of truth and accountability regarding America’s support for the atrocities committed in Chile. The study relies heavily on an extensive body of recently declassified government records to present new and telling evidence about the US government’s relationship to Chile before, during and after Pinochet’s rule. Beginning in the 1960s, Kornbluh traces the history of the American government’s meddling in Chilean affairs, from its attempt to prevent president-elect Allende from taking office in 1970, to its substantial support for Pinochet, including financial resources and training for state-sponsored terror. By artfully selecting relevant quotations from the documents, while providing many in full text, Kornbluh unfolds the story in minute–and damning–detail.
John Dinges, for his part, explores the “underground history” of Operation Condor, a coordinated campaign of counterinsurgency organized by Pinochet and other South American military dictators to root out “terrorist” insurgents, as well as peaceful opponents of military rule. The formation of Operation Condor in November 1975 marked the first organized multigovernment effort to track down and eliminate leftists and dissidents throughout South America and abroad. In a lively narrative style, Dinges explores the background to high-profile Operation Condor assassinations and murder plots, such as the car-bomb murder in Washington, DC, of former Chilean Ambassador Orlando Letelier, and the plot to kill then-Congressman Edward Koch after he proposed legislation to cut off aid to the dictatorship in Uruguay. As Dinges acknowledges, such cross-border crimes accounted for a small percentage of the atrocious human rights violations committed by the military regimes. But they were particularly significant in bringing military leaders like Pinochet to justice. Dinges highlights the complicity of the CIA and other US government officials in Operation Condor activities–even when American citizens like Ronni Moffitt, who was killed in the car bomb along with Letelier, were targeted. The military leaders of the Southern Cone “found unequivocal support and public justifications for their war on Communism and terrorism.” The affection was mutual. “You are our leader,” Pinochet told Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, around the time the Chilean dictator gave the go-ahead to commit an assassination in Washington.
As both Kornbluh and Dinges demonstrate, the US government consistently lied about its involvement in supporting regimes that terrorized their own citizens, portraying South America’s dictatorships as “emerging democracies” and glossing over their human rights violations. “The first and most enduring human rights casualty was the truth,” Dinges concludes. The Pinochet File and The Condor Years touch directly upon issues at the center of today’s debate over US foreign policy–like secrecy in the name of national security–and attest powerfully to the potential dangers of a lack of government transparency. As Dinges observes, “the echoes cannot be mistaken by those who care to listen.”