by Bob Harris

Z magazine, December 1998


Chilean General and Senator-For-Life Augusto Pinochet is under arrest. Twenty-five years too late. Pinochet was arrested this Fall in London, after the Spanish government requested British assistance in apprehending him for his involvement in the torture and murder of 79 Spanish citizens. The charges against Pinochet now include genocide, torture, and terrorism involving almost 100 people from Argentina, Chile, the U.S., Spain, and Britain.

Usually, genocide and torture are considered bad things. But several conservative commentators here in the U.S. have actually argued, along with the current Chilean government, that the arrest is [itself] illegal, since Pinochet ostensibly has diplomatic immunity.

Hmm. I wonder how many of these same people objected to the American military intervention into Panama to arrest Manuel Noriega. Unlike Pinochet, Noriega was never accused of direct involvement in the political murder of Americans. Unlike Pinochet's quiet detention, Noriega's arrest cost the lives of several U.S. service-people, the lives of hundreds (and very probably thousands) of innocent Panamanian civilians, and millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars.

Here's another thing: American newspapers have front-paged the arrest and devoted entire pages to the legal case, often without once mentioning the entity largely responsible for the 1973 coup which brought him to power: the CIA. That's no conspiracy theory. That's the findings of a 1974 investigation by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee.

Turns out U.S. intervention began as early as 1958, when the leftist physician Salvador Allende first came close to being elected Chile's president. Can't have that. So up to 100 CIA and State Department operatives were dedicated to an ongoing operation, "creating propaganda and organizational mechanisms capable of influencing key sectors of the population."

Pretty soon, the CIA began to bankroll El Mercurio, Santiago's leading rightist newspaper. Dozens of CIA radio messages linking Allende to everything from Stalin to the kidnapping of children were produced and broadcast daily. The CIA even stage-managed and underwrote expenses for Allende's political opposition in the 1964 election-as historian William Blum notes, at a greater cost per voter than LBJ and Goldwater campaigns spent here in the U.S.

How come? Was Salvador Allende some evil pro-Soviet nutball, hell-bent on giving the Russkies a beachhead in the West?

Hardly. The CIA knew perfectly well that their propaganda about the pressing need to "save" Chile from Soviet influence was a lie. To quote from their own classified report, prepared within days of Allende's eventual election: "The U.S. has no vital national interests within Chile... The world military balance of power would not be significantly altered by an Allende government."

Fact is, the CIA knew damn well the Soviets didn't actually like Allende all that much, fearing another confrontation with the U. S. like the one in Cuba. Allende wasn't even supported by many Marxists in his own country, who considered him too conservative.

So why the ruckus? Go ahead and try to find the evil in what the guy was doing: Chile's new Popular Unity government began trying to deliver food, health care, and education to the poor. Allende, a medical doctor, also initiated a program to give free milk to poor children. In one of the most inequitable societies on the planet, the new president dared to advocate income redistribution to the poor, expanded trade with the Soviet Bloc, and, most worrisome, nationalization of Chile's powerful mining corporations.

Aha. Wall Street was about to lose a few bucks. There you go.

Never mind that he was freely elected, followed the Chilean constitution, and had the support of the Chilean people. Never mind that in spite of the CIA's best propaganda efforts, the popularity of Allende and his programs continued to increase. Never mind that the CIA's own analysis eventually showed no national security reason to proceed.

So the U.S. began an economic destabilization program designed to, in the words of CIA director Richard Helms, "make the economy scream"-a particularly brutal and pointless strategy, given that widespread poverty was precisely the major reason Allende was elected.

In addition, the option of a coup including the murder of Allende was also discussed in the Nixon White House as early as 1970, the year of Allende's first election. In preparation, the CIA assembled arrest lists of potential dissidents, lists of which stuff the new regime would need to seize immediately in order to consolidate power, and other contingency plans.

While aid and trade with the civilian sectors of the economy were largely curtailed, U.S. arms and advisors continued to flow to the Chilean military, eventually making it the strongest sector of society, although the army's respect for law and the nation's integrity-what the CIA termed an "apolitical, constitutional-oriented inertia"-would have to be overcome. The CIA even began slipping anti-personnel and assassination weapons to more fanatical factions.

The game was on.

In 1973, shortly after Allende's re-election-gaining eight percent more of the public's support than he had in 1970-the Chilean army marched. As the U.S. Navy and Air Force monitored the action from just over the border, the country was essentially closed off-much like Panama after the U.S. invasion-and thousands of potential opponents of the new regime were rounded up and executed.

At least 3,000 people died or "disappeared" in roundups of political opponents. Tortured and discarded, their bodies were reportedly hidden in pits of Iye, buried in mass graves, or even dropped into the ocean with their bellies slit open so they wouldn't float and would never be found.

Tens of thousands more were imprisoned, the constitution was abandoned and eventually re-written to permanently enshrine the Generals' power, and the Chilean people learned quickly that Pinochet's secret police, the DINA, was the law of the land.

Opposition wasn't even allowed outside the country's borders. Coordinating with the intelligence agencies of other South American dictatorships in "Operation Condor," the DINA contrived to eliminate even opponents living in exile throughout the continent. In 1976, the DINA even staged the car-bombing assassination of dissident leader Orlando Letelier right on Embassy Row in Washington, DC.

Bottom line, here's what this horrifying price managed to buy from Augusto Pinochet and his regime: In Chile today, after 17 years of grim dictatorship and 8 years of a government in which the killers and torturers retain respect, power, and immunity, many Chileans are fully aware of the sham democracy they live under. In some precincts, as many as 20 percent of election ballots are turned in defaced in protest.

Twenty-five years after the coup, after a quarter-century of economic policies to benefit First World investors, Chile now has the seventh most unequal distribution of income on earth, tied with Kenya and Zimbabwe.

One-fourth of Chile lives in absolute poverty and a third of the nation earns less than $30 a week. Education, health care, and other social institutions the citizens of most developed nations take for granted are privatized, and so are about as available to the tin shanty poor as a Faberge egg.

This is the country the Clinton administration wants to include in NAFTA. Not that you're gonna read the whole story in corporate media outlets that have rarely criticized the ongoing U.S. policies that helped create the situation. Some even question whether Pinochet belongs under arrest.

Believe it or not, the Washington Post's editorial admitted that Pinochet overthrew a democratic government and killed thousands, but then actually added that "he also saw to the rescue of his country. " Excuse me? Rescue from what?


Bob Harris is a political humorist who has spoken at over 275 colleges nationwide.

Human Rights, Justice, Reform