Coup in Chile: The first 9/11

Chile coup 1973


Sept. 11, 2016, marks the 43rd anniversary of the violent 1973 coup in Chile against the elected left popular front government of Salvador Allende. Like the ancient Roman god Janus, imperialism has two faces. One face is political, the other economic. We must, if we wish to change the world, understand both faces. The first 9/11, as the coup is sometimes called now in Chile, provides us a glimpse of the political face of imperialism.

Chile is one of the most economically developed countries in Latin America and has been a major supplier of crucial natural resources for the capitalist world system for over 200 years—first guano in the 1800s, used for fertilizer, and later copper in the 1900s. Today, it is still the leading source of copper in the world as well as the second leading source of lithium. In addition, Chile is a major supplier of fruit, wine, and salmon to the world market. As capitalism transformed the earlier latifundio system (large landed estates producing food for local markets) and exploited the mineral wealth of the country, a strong working class arose. The working class was represented by a mass-based Socialist Party (founded in 1933), and a mass-based Communist Party (founded in 1922) that later aligned itself with the Stalinist leadership of the USSR.

A number of reforms were carried out in the 1960s under Christian Democratic presidents, but these reforms did not satisfy the growing working class. In 1970, Unidad Popular, a coalition of the Socialist Party and the Communist Party—along with the smaller moderately leftist Radical Party and other forces—won the presidency in a three-way race that split the vote between the ruling-class parties, the Christian Democrats and the right-wing National Party.

The candidate for the Unidad Popular coalition was Dr. Salvador Allende. Allende represented the left wing of the Socialist Party and had served for many years as a senator in the Chilean congress, where he was known as a strong defender (and participant) in strikes and unionization drives. Unidad Popular won 36% of the vote.

Unidad Popular sought a path to socialism within the rule of law, relying on the electoral process, as well as mass actions such as strikes, organizing drives, and marches. After Allende’s election in 1970, workers and peasants began to take more direct action, expropriating large estates and factories.

Allende and Unidad Popular nationalized the large mines, transformed the education system, and carried out a massive land reform. One of the most immediate impacts was the increase in real wages. Overall real wages increased by over 20% in 1970-71, while real minimum wages for blue-collar workers increased by over 50%.

The Empire strikes back

U.S. intervention in Chile was in line with Washington’s long-standing policy in the areas of the world that were considered under “our” (meaning the U.S. imperialist) sphere of influence. When possible, the imperialists would use elected pro-capitalist governments to secure its interests, but when necessary, the U.S. would install pro-capitalist dictatorships or authoritarian regimes.

For the first half of the 20th century, the U.S. used many direct invasions to topple governments and install its puppets. After World War II, U.S. imperialist policy became more flexible and nuanced. The U.S. would invade if needed or if convenient (as it did in the Dominican Republic, Grenada, and Panama) or it would use covert operations, as it did in Guatemala in 1954. The U.S. turned to the national armies of the various client states, armies whose officers had been trained in the U.S. or at the School of the Americas (originally located in Panama as an additional tool of intervention and control).

Even before the 1970 election, the U.S. used covert operations to prevent a Unidad Popular victory. With the victory of Allende, the U.S. launched a program to prevent his inauguration, and later, it used the CIA to destroy the economy and to create the conditions for a coup. But the economic damage caused by the U.S. was still not enough to alter the congressional elections of 1972. In those elections, Unidad Popular increased its number of seats by eight, strengthening its position in congress, but it fell short of an absolute majority.

Immediately afterwards, Nixon convened and attended a meeting of the National Security Council, chaired by Henry Kissinger, and adopted National Security Decision Memorandum 93, a plan for additional covert operations and economic warfare, along with a push for a military coup. The plan eventually included the blueprints and development of a secret police force and a plan to restructure the Chilean economy along neoliberal lines.

The coup

The coup was preceded by a series of crises, including a CIA-supported bosses’ strike in October 1972. This strike included small business owners, truckers, and medical doctors and increasing opposition from within the military. The truckers’ strike created widespread food shortages and hardships. Another element of the crisis was the operation of CIA-supported right-wing paramilitary groups, which carried out extensive economic sabotage. Finally, opposition within the Chilean military increased. Allende tried to control this opposition by bringing military officers into his cabinet.

The planning for the coup accelerated in 1972 after NSDM 93. Pinochet was not directly involved but also did nothing to prevent or forestall the coup. Ironically, given that he later emerged as the Jefe Supremo (Supreme Ruler), Pinochet was not “our man in Chile.” That distinction went to the commander of the Chilean air force, General Gustavo Leigh, and the commander of the navy, Admiral Jose Toribio Mereno.

The coup started in the early morning of Sept. 11. The navy revolted first and seized control of Valparaiso (where the navy high-command is based). The army and air force soon followed by surrounding and attacking the Palacio de la Moneda, the Chilean White House located in the heart of Santiago.

The military selected Sept. 11 in order to prevent Allende from announcing a national plebiscite on his government, a measure he hoped would forestall a civil war or military coup. Allende planned on resigning if he lost the plebiscite. Allende killed himself shortly after addressing the nation for the last time in order to prevent his capture by the military. After destroying much of the Palacio de la Moneda, the military took control of the building and of the entire government.

The junta quickly acted to reverse all of the progressive measures taken by the Unidad Popular government and to implement an economic “reform package.” The economic measures were contained in a document called “the brick” (el ladrillo) for its size—over 500 manuscript pages. The brick was developed by conservative economists working for the CIA.

Pinochet soon emerged as the key figure in the junta, in part because of his creation and direct control of a new secret police force, La DINA, made up of members from all the military services, CIA operatives, and members of the paramilitary groups. The structure and training of DINA was provided by the CIA, allowing Pinochet to create it quickly and efficiently.

DINA soon carried out a series of brutal killings and tortures, including of military offices who did not support the coup. By the end of 1973, over 1823 political leaders and activists had been killed. The killings were not random but often used CIA kill lists of leading figures prepared before the coup. Tens of thousands were held as political prisoners or simply tortured, while hundreds of thousands fled to exile or were forced to leave. Torture and political assassination continued throughout the dictatorship, right up to the turnover of power to a civilian government in 1990.

The struggle against the dictatorship

Both the Socialist Party of Chile and the Communist Party of Chile talked of armed resistance to a military coup. While a few plans were made, they were poorly conceived, and the workers’ organizations were given no arms to resist the coup either before or immediately after Sept. 11, 1973. Both political parties were shattered by the repression but had somewhat recovered by the early 1980s, when they started organizing within Chile, creating an underground resistance.

The Socialist Party opted for protest in coalition with activists from the Communist Party (but not the CP leadership, which opposed or abstained from many of these protests) and from the Christian Democrats and other groups who had also been severely repressed by Pinochet. In the late 1980s, the Socialists moved more and more to “legal” and “constitutional” methods to counter the Pinochet regime.

Around 1977, the Communist Party began to advocate armed resistance, creating an armed wing, the Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front (FPMR in its Spanish acronym). The FPMR’s most dramatic act was the failed assassination attempt on Pinochet in September 1986. The FPMR later broke from the CP, and most of its members were captured and killed by Pinochet. The sabotage and killings carried out by the FPMR had little effect on the regime other than to increase the political repression. In addition, a third group that had given support to the Allende government, the MIR (Movement of the Revolutionary Left), attempted some armed actions against the Pinochet regime.

In 1988, the opposition succeeded in forcing a national plebiscite on the dictatorship. The “no” vote won by 54.7% and thus forced a transition to a managed “democracy,” with Pinochet remaining commander in chief of the armed forces and a senator for life. He also appointed some of his supporters as senators for life. The constitution was highly restrictive, although some of the most undemocratic provisions were later removed.

To this day, Chile remains one of the most neo-liberal capitalist states in the world, with a high level of privatization in all sectors. In recent years, the Socialist and Communist parties have returned to government, sharing power with the Christian Democrats and other pro-capitalist, “center-left,” and reformist parties.

The Spanish-American philosopher Jorge (George) Santayana wrote, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We must remember the experience in Chile, the lessons both positive and negative, as we struggle for a better world.

(Photo) The military fires on the Palacio de la Moneda, the seat of government in Santiago.





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