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 year.

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.

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