U.S. in Chile
The U.S. government turns over 5, 800 documents
by Alejandro Reuss
Z magazine, November 1999
The U.S. role in Chile has been an ill-kept secret for over
25 years. In 1972, columnist Jack Anderson blew the lid off the
International Telephone and Telegraph Co.'s involvement in coup-plotting
there. The dirt on ITT, which was heavily invested in Chile, included
offers of $1 million for CIA efforts to prevent Salvador Allende,
the leader of the Popular Unity (Socialist-Communist) coalition
and the winner of Chile's 1970 presidential election from ever
taking office. In 1975, the U.S. Senate report Covert Action in
Chile, 1963-1973 revealed extensive U.S. government intervention
in Chilean politics for a decade prior to the military coup of
September 11, 1973. Among the exposed schemes were CIA attempts
to block the results of Chile's 1970 presidential election by
hook (bribing representatives to vote against him in the required
congressional runoff election) or by crook (fomenting a military
coup), courses of action known, respectively, as "Track I"
and "Track II." The U.S. government's attitude towards
democracy in Chile is best summed up with Henry Kissinger's famous
words: "I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country
go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people."
The U.S. government has never made a comprehensive declassification
of its secret documents related to the coup or to human rights
violations under the military dictatorship which followed. The
arrest of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in London on
human rights charges in October 1998, however, brought new pressure
on the U.S., from both human-rights activists and the Spanish
prosecutors of the Pinochet case, to finally come clean. A February
1999 National Security Council directive calling on U.S. intelligence
agencies to compile and turn over documents related to Chile has
led to the June release of 5,800 previously classified documents
dating from 1973-1978 (including the dictatorship's most repressive
years) and the October release of another 1,100 dating from 1968-1973
(including the period of the popular unity government). A third
"tranche" of declassified documents is expected next
The documents released so far confirm that the U.S. government
had foreknowledge of the coup, that it knew very well the extent
of the repression in the days following the coup, and that it
was aware of the Chilean secret police's international terror
network (known as "Operation Condor"). They also include
useful dirt on U.S. officials like Ambassador to Chile Nathaniel
Davis and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. One document shows
Davis suggesting that, while it would be politically risky for
the U.S. to provide the Chilean dictatorship expert assistance
in setting up concentration camps, material aid such as "tents,
blankets, etc.," could be sent for the camps without specification
of their purpose. Another shows Kissinger assuring the dictatorship's
foreign minister Patricio Carvajal that he viewed criticism of
the dictatorship on human rights as "a total injustice"
and that he was committed to "helping [the Chilean] government."
(Documents made public earlier have shown Kissinger making similar
assurances directly to Pinochet.) The October documents show direct
CIA assistance, including weapons, to the group of coup plotters
who in 1970 assassinated General Rene Schneider, then the commander-in-chief
of the Chilean Armed Forces. They also confirm a long suspected
U.S. role in the murder of Charles Horman, an American writer
"disappeared" by the Chilean military in the days after
the military coup. An August 1976 state department memo says:
"At best, [U.S. Intelligence] was limited to providing or
confirming information that helped motivate his murder by the
government of Chile. At worst, [it] was aware the government of
Chile saw Horman in a rather serious light and U.S. Officials
did nothing to discourage the logical outcome of the government
of Chile's paranoia."
The revelation in the Horman case is particularly instructive
because the people close to Charles Horman, like his father, Ed,
have been saying something similar for 25 years. Thomas Hauser's
The Execution of Charles Horman, on which the film Missing is
based, describes both Charles's fate and his family's quest to
find out the truth about it. Charles, in the coastal city of Vina
del Mar on the day of the coup, may have heard too much for his
own good about U.S. Involvement in the coup from U.S. Navy personnel
stationed in nearby Valparaiso, where the coup originated. Chilean
soldiers arrested Horman shortly after his return to Santiago
a few days later. He was never seen alive again. The U.S. Embassy
tried to convince his family that he had not been kidnapped by
the Chilean military, even though neighbors testified that he
had been. Ed Horman came to believe that U. S. officials knew
before Charles's death that he had been arrested, and did not
attempt to prevent his murder. Translating the state department
memo from its bureaucratic language to plain English (keep in
mind that, instead of saying the Chilean Armed Forces intended
to murder Charles, it says they "saw Horman in a rather serious
light"), it says that the Chilean military asked the CIA
or other U.S. intelligence agencies about Horman. Maybe the Chileans
said they thought Horman was a dangerous individual, maybe they
asked whether he was a dangerous individual, maybe they just asked
what U.S. Intelligence agents knew about him. Any which way, U.S.
Intelligence agents told them he was a dangerous individual, and
that sealed his fate. That is the "at best" scenario.
The "at worst" scenario described in the memo is that
U. S. government officials knew Horman was in grave danger and
"did nothing" to prevent his murder. Really, the "at
worst" scenario, implicit in all this, is that they actively
encouraged his murder.
Much of the U.S. government's secret documentation on Chile,
even for the period covered by the recent declassifications, remains
hidden. Full disclosure in the notorious 1976 assassination in
Washington, DC of former Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier and
his colleague Ronni Moffitt may be complicated for some time by
the justice department's reopening of the investigation into the
murders. The crime has already resulted in the imprisonment in
Chile of secret police commanders General Manuel Contreras and
Brigadier Pedro Espinoza, and it is speculated that the new investigation
could result in U.S. charges against Pinochet. There is no excuse
for other gaps in the declassifications. The continued withholding
of information by the CIA has drawn particular criticism from
human rights activists. Despite its notorious role in Chile, the
Company contributed fewer than 500 of the documents made public
in June, and has withheld from the latest release documentation
of its role in the 1973 coup.
Though holes may remain in our knowledge of the U.S. role
in the coup, what is known for certain is damning of the U.S.
government. Former Ambassador Nathaniel Davis's The Last Two Years
of Salvador Allende offers an apologia for the role of the U.S.,
and his own role, in Chile in the years around the coup. Amidst
the avalanche of denials offered by Davis are the following admissions:
U.S. officials conspired with coup-plotting factions of the Chilean
armed forces in 1970 and 1971, before and after Allende took office,
with the express aim of fomenting a coup ("Track II").
U.S. officials maintained contact with pro-coup military conspirators
as late as May 1973. No U.S. official expressed to coup-plotters
that the United States would view a coup negatively. No U.S. official
warned the constitutional government of Chile of the coup-plotting
or told its representatives the identities of the seditious military
officers. Neither of these possibilities was considered by U.S.
officials, who knew that President Nixon, who was hell-bent on
the overthrow of the Popular Unity in Chile, would oppose them.
Even accepting the fantastic story that, after "Track II"
ended in 1971, U.S. officials had contact with coup-plotters only
as observers, and were not to (and did not) express approval for
or participate in the formulation of coup plans, is it not credible
that the coup-makers would have interpreted this as anything but
a sign of U.S. approval (confirmed by the U.S. administration's
support for the coup-makers once they took power). One thing which
remains to be known is whether there was a "Track III,"
U.S. support for the military coup coordinated not by the CIA,
but by the U.S. Armed Forces. Investigators for the Senate committee
which investigated U.S. covert operations in Chile have said that,
in the 1970s, they searched for evidence of a "Track III,"
but that the committee wrapped up its work before they turned
up anything. To find incontrovertible evidence of direct U.S.
military involvement would be a major new revelation, and calls
for pressure not only on the CIA, but also on the U.S. Defense
Department, the Armed Forces, and on their intelligence agencies
to open their archives on Chile.
Whether a "smoking gun" will be found proving direct
U.S. participation in the coup, in the compilation of "arrest
lists" for the dictatorship, or in other outrages remains
to be seen. Those who are committed to human rights, democracy,
and the truth, however, should not give in to "smoking gun"
fever. After the declassifications of June 1999, much of the news
media led with the "revelation" of CIA documents showing
the agency was aware of the dictatorship's plan for a wave of
"severe repression" in the days after the coup, and
then of the hundreds murdered in state custody (which a CIA memo
numbered at 1,500). As valuable as it is to have the CIA and the
U.S. government-whose officials pleaded ignorance as the killers
did their work-dead to rights, agencies like the CIA operate on
covering their tracks, so to maintain a skeptical position until
a "smoking gun" is uncovered plays into their hands.
The U.S. government admitted in 1975 to having plotted a coup
against the constitutional government of Chile, but denies having
anything to do with the actual coup which ended in the destruction
of Chilean democracy. If one took the official story at face value,
never did people involved in such dirty business manage to keep
their hands so clean. Even as the search for further evidence
continues, let us not pretend we do not know what we know, even
in the absence of any "smoking gun." Only those afflicted
with extreme faith can remain skeptical about the United States'
guilt in Chile. Some of the " smoking guns " may be
long disposed of. One thing, however, is for certain-no exculpatory
evidence will be found.
Alejandro Reuss was born in Chile. He is a member of the editorial
collective of Dollars and Sense magazine.