Chile: Forty years on from US-imposed terror

Tuesday, September 10, 2013
The official death toll of the military regime established by the US-backed coup of September 11, 1973 is put at about 3200. Thousands more were jailed and tortured.

September 11 is a date forever associated with mass murder of civilians — and this was the case nearly three decades before the 2001 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York.

This year, September 11 marks the 40th anniversary of the US-organised military coup that overthrew the elected left-wing government of Salvador Allende and installed a brutal dictatorship headed by General Augusto Pinochet.

The day was the start of a nightmare for Chileans, as a reign of terror crushed left-wing groups, trade unions and popular organisations.

Left-wing activists and government supporters were hunted down and killed. The entire staff of Punto Final, the newspaper of the revolutionary socialist Movement for the Revolutionary Left (MIR), were gunned down in their offices.

Santiago's national football stadium was turned into a concentration camp by the military, where many were executed.

“There were two lines,” Adam Schesch, a survivor of the coup who was held at the stadium by the military for 10 days, was quoted by a 1998 Independent article as saying. “We called them the line of life and the line of death. One line led out, away from the stadium, the other led inside.”

The Independent said that, “in the 10 days he was held, Mr Schesch believes that between 400 and 600 people were executed by firing squads just yards from where he sat, hunched and terrified with his wife”.

Schesch concluded: “[Pinochet] was trying to wipe out the leadership of a whole generation of the working class.”

The official death toll of Pinochet's terror is about 3200. Many thousands more were jailed and tortured.

The popular reforms of Allende's government, which nationalised key sectors of the economy and raised wages for many workers, were reversed. With the workers' and democratic movements destroyed, Pinochet's regime turned Chile into a neoliberal laboratory.

A US-backed program of deregulation, privatisation and a huge shift of wealth to the rich was implemented, becoming a template for the rest of Latin America.

Allende was elected in 1970 as the candidate for Popular Unity, an alliance of five parties including Allende's Socialist Party and the Chilean Communist Party.

Fearing the threat to corporate interests and the growing confidence Chile's working class, US authorities and Chilean capitalists worked from the start to undermine and sabotage the government.

In fact, in an irony of history, Green Left Weekly reported on October 17 that just two days before before the September 11, 2001 attacks, “the CBS television network's 60 Minutes presented evidence showing how deeply the US government ... was involved in a 1970 plot to prevent Salvador Allende becoming Chile's president”.

“Researcher Peter Kornbluh, an analyst at the National Security Archive, an independent research institute which studies declassified secret US documents, told the CBS program that in 1970 the CIA sent a cable to its office in Chile instructing agents there to continue to foment a military coup.”

That coup never eventuated, but as soon as Allende took office, US-organised subversion that culminated in Pinochet's bloody coup was underway. US national security advisor Henry Kissinger famously said: “I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.”

President Richard Nixon's advised the CIA to sabotage Chile's economy, urging the body to “make the economy scream”. The US imposed economic sanctions and the CIA helped fund anti-government strikes.

This destablisation paved the way for the coup. In 2000, declassified documents revealed the CIA “actively supported” the coup and the Pinochet's regime.

Although Pinochet's rule ended in 1990, the legacy of the brutal class war is still felt today — with ordinary Chileans facing neoliberal policies and state repression. However, the huge student protests that broke out last year, challenging the anti-poor neoliberal education system, shows that a new generation is emerging no longer cowered but willing to fight.

The coup was part of US imperialism's struggle to keep control over a continent that it, as Secretary of State John Kerry shamelessly said this year, views as its “backyard”.

However, despite the horror the US imposed with the help of local elites in Chile and elsewhere in Latin America, the people of Latin America have not been defeated. In recent years, a continent-wide movement against US domination and corporate exploitation has grown.

In its most advanced sectors — in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador — governments have come to power backed by mass movements determined to challenge Western corporate power, redistribute wealth and move to empower the poor.

Unsurprisingly, each of these governments have faced coups by US-backed forces. But in each, the horrific events of September 11, 1973, have been turned on their heads — the people defeated them and the process of change deepened.

It was in Venezuela, emboldened by a mass mobilisation of the poor that defeated repeated attempts by the US-funded opposition to destroy their government, that then-president Hugo Chavez declared the goal of these rebellions to be “socialism of the 21st century”. The ghosts of Chile's dead would have cheered.

September 11, 1973, shows the brutality of the Empire — willing to trample on democracy and impose its interests through terror. But recent developments show it is possible to change these interests — and win.

Democracy Now! story: The Pinochet File: How U.S. Politicians, Banks and Corporations Aided Chilean Coup, Dictatorship


From GLW issue 980