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
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
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
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
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
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,
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