The twilight of the tyrants

Print edition : October 10, 1998

The events of September 11 in Santiago serve as a stern reminder that military institutions still hold sway in Chile even as the country emerges from the shadow of dictatorship.

"Chile's flesh, faces scarred by the wind, martyred by the pampa, marked by suffering. I found a drop of my people's blood, and each drop burned by fire."

- Pablo Neruda, Cantos General.

ON September 11, the people of Santiago de Chile offered a tribute to the Salvador Allende regime, deposed 25 years ago. Gatherings in the poblaciones, or public housing areas, and marches towards the La Moneda presidential palace began early in the morning to show support for Chile's slow transition from military dictatorship to virtual democracy. A Communist Party march was stopped early in the day by the carabineri (militarised police force) to signal the start of state repression against the popular demonstrations. By the end of the day, the police had arrested 300 demonstrators, left 77 injured and killed one Communist Party member and a teenage girl. In response, people in the working class districts lit fires and threw rocks at the heavily armed state forces.

Leftist demonstrators clash with the police in downtown Santiago on September 11, the 25th anniversary of the military coup that deposed socialist President Salvador Allende.-ROBERTO CANDIA/ AP

The Government of Chile, run by a coalition of the Christian Democrats and the Socialist Party, responded in characteristic fashion. The Christian Democrats assailed the Left for the protests and the Socialists condemned the police violence - a sign once again of the paralysis of governance in this nation as it slowly wends its way out of the shadow of dictatorship.

IN the early 1970s, there was a spate of counter-revolutions in South America as one nation after another came under military rule (Bolivia, 1971-78; Uruguay, 1973-89; Brazil, 1964-80; Argentina, 1976-83). In a 1966 article, the head of Chase Manhattan Bank, David Rockefeller, urged the United States to assist in the creation of political regimes that provided "a more favourable business climate" rather than muddy the waters with "revolutionary change which shakes the confidence in the fair treatment of private property". The experience of Cuba lurked in the background as the "spectre" of Che Guevara (then in Bolivia) hung over the Southern Cone.

Chile, what Pablo Neruda called "a long petal of sea, wine and snow", became one of the test cases for U.S. intervention in South America, particularly after Allende's Popular Unity Government took power in 1970 and attempted to erect a socialist society outside the orbit of U.S. imperialism (a feature highlighted in the novels of the Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the Uruguayan novelist Eduardo Galeano's fine book of history, Open Veins of Latin America). The Popular Unity Government, from the moment of its inauguration, came under pressure from the wealthy and the powerful within Chile and from the U.S.

By coincidence, the National Security Archive, an independent organisation based in Washington D.C., gained access to crucial U.S. documents in the week prior to the 25th anniversary of the 1973 coup. These documents reveal unequivocally what has always been known: that the U.S. was an active agent in the organisation and execution of the counter-revolution in Chile.

Augusto Pinochet with Salvador Allende on August 23, 1973 when Allende named him the commander-in-chief of the army. Within a month, the socialist President was assassinated in a coup led by Pinochet.-ENRIQUE ARACENA / AP

Within days of the election of Allende's Popular Unity Government, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Richard Helms noted: "President Nixon had decided that an Allende regime was not acceptable to the United States. The President asked the Agency to prevent Allende from coming to power or to unseat him. The President authorised ten million dollars for this purpose, if needed" ("Genesis of Project FUBELT," CIA, September 16, 1970). A month later, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger ordered the CIA to "continue keeping the pressure on every Allende weak spot in sight" ("Memorandum of Conversation of Meeting with Henry Kissinger, Thomas Karamessines and Alexander Haig," CIA, October 15, 1970). There was an attempt to prevent the installation of the Allende Government before November 4, but this failed owing to inadequate CIA field strength and the fact that Allende had developed within the Chilean military.

For three years, the U.S. and also multinational firms attempted to strangle Chile's attempts to create a just society. Copper firms bled Chile of $4 billion from the 1950s until Allende nationalised the mines in December 1970. These firms joined together to "embargo" Chilean products internationally and prevent the accumulation of capital which would help the development of the nation. By 1973, the CIA was ready to help stage a coup and it found a friend in General Augusto Pinochet, Acting Commander-in-Chief of the Chilean armed forces. The Chilean Right and the CIA went into action and despatched Allende's regime. Just a few days after the coup, the U.S. media brazenly reported Pinochet's training visits to the U.S. Southern Command base in the Panama Canal zone in 1965, 1968 and 1972. One U.S. State Department official noted that "we will have to work with the generals and it makes no sense to issue some moral statement about democracy"(The New York Times, September 14, 1973). In a report sent to the CIA by U.S. naval attache Patrick Ryan, there is a sense of jubilation at the role of the U.S. in the coup, one that was "close to perfect". Ryan's report ends on an ominous note as he says that the "Chilean armed forces are acutely aware that their responsibilities did not terminate with the fall of the Marxist Government, but rather that they have just begun" (Department of Defence, Situation Report 2, October 1, 1973).

Pinochet's military dictatorship dismantled the framework of democratic rule and disrupted the nation's capacity to produce capital goods. Everything was now subordinated to Washington. In order to sustain this regime, Pinochet systematically organised the "disappearance" (murder) of members of the Left in Chile. A U.S. report from November 16, 1973 notes that in the first 19 days of the coup, the military executed at least 320 people (three times the figure publicly acknowledged in 1973). In the next two decades, the "death squads" killed 3,197 people; Amnesty International reports that from 1968 to 1978 at least three lakh civilians "disappeared" in all of South America.

The presidential palace under attack during the coup on September 11, 1973.-ENRIQUE ARACENA / AP

Pinochet was able to remain in power without threat, owing to the infusion of massive funds from multinationals and from the U.S. Government, which found the general a bastion against Communism. As recently as November 8, 1995, while on a visit to the Conference of American Armies in Argentina's ski resort of Barioloche, Pinochet announced that "Communism is still dangerous" and that "Communism is a seven-headed monster: you chop off one head and there are still six left, you chop off another and there are still five." The violence implied in the statement is evident.

But popular sentiment against dictatorships was evident as the octogenarian tyrant left the conference for a walk; bystanders followed him with a chorus of cries of "murderer". A short while earlier, Judge Manuel Garcia Castellon of Spain had begun a criminal investigation into the Pinochet regime (1973-1990), notably into acts of terrorism against Spanish nationals resident in Chile. In February 1996, the U.S. agreed to turn over to the Spanish courts documents on the genocide of Pinochet's dictatorship. Emboldened by the Spanish decision, the secretary-general of the Chilean Communist Party, Gladys Martin, denounced Pinochet at a rally on September 11, 1996. Marin boldly called Pinochet a psychopath and a coward and held him responsible for the terror. In response, the general (still the head of the military) accused Martin of defamation on October 22 and charged her with violation of a state security law (a holdover from the Pinochet days) that forbids criticism of public figures. Martin was arrested and held for six days before international pressure secured her release. On January 20, 1998, Judge Juan Guzman of the Santiago Court of Appeals agreed to hear a complaint submitted by the Communist Party that accused Pinochet of genocide. The Judge noted: "Our business is to verify if these things happened and decide who might be responsible for them." "We're going to ask for General Pinochet to be summoned to testify," said the Communist Party's lawyer, Eduardo Contreras. "We have also asked for him to be arrested. This is the first time that a criminal complaint specifically aimed at General Pinochet has been accepted in this country." For a moment the tide turned against the dictatorship.

SOMETIMES democracy plays cruel tricks on the people. Witness how a divided and chaotic political scene in Bolivia allowed its previous dictator General Hugo Banzer to become President with only 22 per cent of the vote (August 1997) or how an arrogant P. W. Botha has been able to refuse to submit to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. In Chile, too, General Pinochet left office in 1990, but only according to the script he wrote for transition from dictatorship to democracy. He ensured an amnesty for himself through a provision for a lifetime seat in the nation's new Senate and control over the military until March 1998. "It is totally abnormal for a dictator to turn into a senator," said Jaime Estevez, a Socialist congressman, but that is indeed what has happened.

Further, Pinochet ensured the power of the military; since it has a seat in the Supreme Court, it has the power to try civilians in military courts and guarantees the election of six Institutional Senators elected by the Council for State Security (a Pinochet era advisory board). Along with Pinochet, they control a quarter of the votes in the Senate, the Upper House of Parliament. Just a few days before the 25th anniversary of the coup, Pinochet reached an agreement with the Government not to conduct the periodic victory parade in Santiago, which had become a routine. Instead, Pinochet attended a church service at the Military Academy to honour military personnel who died during the coup. That evening, at an Augusto Pinochet Foundation dinner, he justified the coup and condemned human rights organisations for their investigation of his violent rule. "We feel proud of the action we took on that unforgettable occasion," Pinochet told his supporters.

General Augusto Pinochet.-SANTIAGO LLANQUIN/ AP

In his 1943 collection Naqsh-e-Faryadi, Faiz Ahmed Faiz wrote: "Now the days of tyranny are but few; patience, the days of complaint are but few." This might be the anthem for the struggles in the Southern Cone, as the nations of South America leave dictatorships unravelled and move towards democracy. The events of September 11, however, offer a stern reminder of the resilience of military power and of the reluctance of the new leadership to dismantle military institutions. It also reveals the frustrations of those people discarded by the fundamentalism of the International Monetary Fund and neo-classicalism of all kinds. These people are the working poor who live in the poblaciones, the folks who joined the gatherings and marches and who protested as much against the memory of the dictatorship as the poverty of their lives. Faiz counselled patience because he felt that the day of liberation was perhaps at hand; but there is little indication of this in the Southern Cone these days (especially as Brazil is wracked by another economic crisis). But at least there is a sense of expectation rather than one of hopelessness.

Vijay Prashad is an Assistant Professor in International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, United States.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor