On September 11, 1973, General Augusto Pinochet toppled the democratically elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende – destroying the longest standing democracy in Latin America in the process. How much do we know now about what really happened in Chile in what is considered the ‘Other 9/11’? Maria Armoudian spoke with John Dinges and Peter Kornbluh.

John Dinges is a Professor of Journalism at Columbia Univesity. He is an expert in public radio journalism and is the author of The Condor Years: How Pinochet And His Allies Brought Terrorism To Three Continents.

Peter Kornbluh is the Director of the Chile Documentation Project at the National Security Archives. He is the author of The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length 

Maria Armoudian: Let’s start with a look back. John Dinges you were actually there living as a foreign correspondent at the time. How would you describe pre-coup Chile and then what happened in the days preceding the coup?

John Dinges: The reason I went to Latin America was to be in Chile [because] Chile was the story in Latin America, one of the biggest stories in the world because what was going on was a revolution and it was an incredibly unique and optimistic revolution because Salvador Allende was elected democratically with a minority of the votes in the popular election but was then elected with a strong vote in the Congress. And he was attempting to introduce a revolution on the Marxist model but using democracy. I like to describe it as circling the square: he tried to have the perfect revolution and have all the best of the democratic system and the radical upheaval of the remaking of the economy using fairly radical socialist principles.

I arrived when it was starting to go downhill. The most optimistic times were the first two years when the economy was booming and there was pretty much a ‘live and let live’ consensus by large sectors of the electorate, certainly the Christian Democrats and all of the left. The right-wing of course was implacably against him and of course there were already plans for subversion going on. But by the time I got there, there was a very large protest movement starting and by the end of the summer, July-August there were a lot of protests in the streets, there was some violence but it was not people being killed, it was right-wing gangs attacking left-wing demonstrations, there was a nasty situation towards the end. People were thinking ‘Is the coup coming? Is the military going to go over with the right and overthrow Allende?’ and there was a lot of divided opinion about that. When the top general, General Carlos Prats resigned in August that was the time that most people said ‘Okay the military no longer has the constitutionalist commander in chief and this is really dangerous’. What people were expecting was that Allende was going to pull a rabbit out of the hat again politically which he had done many times before and come up with some kind of way out of the incredible economic crisis the country was in, the incredible political crisis the country was in. And then on September 11, I woke up, was going off to work and was told that there were troops in the streets and it was happening.

MA: At the time when you were there you probably did not have a sense that there was US involvement in bringing about the coup?

JD: Well no. I had been accused of being a CIA agent enough, there was a lot of consciousness that the US had been intervening in Chile, there were revelations that had been made about the ITT [International Telephone & Telegraph] papers that showed that there was subversive action supported by the US through that company. And so people were denouncing the CIA intervention, there was a lot of paranoia about it and just being an American you could be accused of being somebody who was working against the government. So yes, we immediately thought that the CIA was involved in this and we didn’t have any proof.

MA: Peter Kornbluh you have read the declassified documents in the US to actually write the history about its involvement. Now looking back at it, how would you say and why would you say the US decided to support the coup?

Peter Kornbluh: Well it wasn’t that the US decided to support the coup, it is that the US decided there should be a coup even before Allende put his feet in the presidential office of Chile. He was elected, but long before he was inaugurated as president, Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon decided this was bad for US interests. It took years to get the documents declassified to know what Kissinger’s rationale really was but a lot of the focus was on the fact, as John said, that Allende was democratically elected and he was successful in redistributing wealth peacefully and nationalising US corporate mining interests in Chile peacefully. His model was going to be one that was going to be emulated around the world and as Kissinger wrote to Richard Nixon in a top secret options paper in November 1970 just the day after Allende was inaugurated, there would be an imitative phenomena that could change the world balance of power and affect US interests dramatically. He told Nixon, Allende has legitimacy and we can’t take that legitimacy away, the only thing we can do essentially is make sure he fails so that his model is not one that other countries, particularly countries in Europe like Italy, decide to follow. So the US government through the CIA was trying to promote a coup even before Allende did anything as president of Chile, and that effort continued for the three years that Allende was president, Allende’s thousand days, CIA covert operations, efforts to cut off economic credits, multilateral credits as well to Chile – “Make the economy scream” was Richard Nixon’s famous instructions to the CIA.

MA: In your book you had pointed out one particular person that was having these conversations who was a media mogul Augustine Edwards. What was his role?

PK: Augustine Edwards was the richest man in Chile. He owned the leading newspaper and we have the documents on this issue that are very detailed. He became the leading collaborator with the CIA and the Chilean military to promote a coup and then to make sure that the Chilean military regime consolidated. The CIA, with the authorisation of Richard Nixon, funnelled more than $2 million into Edwards’ newspaper to keep it going, keep it afloat. Edwards came to Washington met with the CIA director Richard Helms and discussed the issue of promoting a coup. And then CIA documents show that Edwards’ media empire was coordinating with the military and the protesters in the street to create a climate of uncertainty and instability as Chile’s 9/11 grew nearer. One of the most dramatic documents that was declassified is a CIA document after the coup in which they say that their propaganda effort to support Augustine Edwards was critical to setting the stage for the coup on September 11, 1973.

MA: John Dinges, did you have personal experiences while you were there during the coup and after the coup that you could share?

JD: Certainly. I was an American expat, I was a freelancer, I was really a nobody as far as journalism was concerned at that point, and the day of the coup I got together with some friends I was living with both Chileans and foreigners and we took off on foot to go up towards the industrial belt area and that was where the workers organisations were strongest and if there was going to be resistance, if this thing was going to be pushed back it would happen out there. Of course, we were also looking to see whether there was a division in the military which of course did not happen. And so thinking that the last resort was the workers organisations who had been reported to be caching arms and that military resistance might happen from those factories, it took us an hour to walk to that area, we got there and there were buses full of soldiers with armbands showing that they were the coup soldiers driving back and forth, they weren’t getting out yet, but there was a tremendous show of force and people that we talked to said basically ‘Forget about it, people are going home, they are leaving the factories’ and people were saying ‘No this is not going to happen – save yourself’. There was resistance in several factories and there was a lot of killing and there was at least one low-income area where there was a military resistance against the coup, but other than that there was very little. That said, during the weeks and months after the coup there were gunshots every night, there was a curfew and after the curfew started you could start hearing gunshots around the city. Of course, now we know that many people were being killed during that period, day to day killings, bodies delivered to the morgue in trucks and things like that. It was a horrendous, horrifyingly frightening situation. A lot of that shooting I think was to inculcate terror in people. They were killing people no doubt about that, they killed up to two thousand people in the first few months, but a lot of it was to give people the idea that any sign of resistance would be met with death, and in fact there was almost no resistance, people were petrified. Over the period of the military government around 1000 people were disappeared. In that early period, the mass violence, the mass killings occurred which was the majority of the killings and that was in the first months. After that, instead of killing people and leaving their bodies around, they disappeared the bodies. So people were captured by the secret police, taken to torture centres, tortured, and then a number of those people, probably ten to twenty percent of the people who were captured in that way were then executed and their bodies were buried secretly or dumped into the ocean. That was the phenomenon of disappearances.

Another terror tactic: people would just disappear. A good friend of my wife’s who I had met, we were with him playing the guitar and a week later he was gone. Well, where is he? Well he didn’t come home and weeks went by, no sign, rumours came that he had been arrested, maybe he was going to show up. Eventually, in my research I came across a lot of information just on him because he was reported inside one of these detention centres and then at some point was taken off and killed and his body was found about ten years later. That is just one case of those thousand people that were disappeared. It was not the most people killed in Latin America by military governments, but it is the trademark of repression and the use of terror by the state in Latin America. And Pinochet achieved the reputation as the leader of this terrible wave of military governments that started after the Chilean coup so that almost all of Latin America within a few years was under military rule.

MA: Both of you have written about Operation Condor. Peter Kornbluh, why don’t you tell us a bit about what exactly Operation Condor was?

PK: John was talking about systematic violence and its evolution in Chile with mass killings in the first five or six weeks after the coup and then the creation of a secret police force which then undertook very systematic and selective seizures, kidnappings, interrogations, torture, and disappearances. But there came a time when the Chilean secret police decided that some of the key enemies of the state, not just militants but also ex-generals and civilian centrists in exile in Europe, and other members of the Allende government in Washington DC were to be hunted down and killed. Other militant groups in the region that were trying to unite against all of the Southern Cone military regimes and so the Chilean secret police known as DINA [Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional] came up with an idea of coordinating a rendition, interrogation, and assassination program that was called Operation Condor. It was basically a cross-border, multi-national secret police operation targeting militants and civilians in the region and as far away as Europe and the US for kidnapping, interrogation, torture, and assassination. It came right to Washington DC on September 21, 1976 when the former Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier and a young colleague of his were assassinated by a car bomb.

MA: John Dinges?

JD: Operation Condor was the effort to kill the elite. They had basically controlled things inside the countries and going international was intended to take the anti-Marxist fight worldwide. It had three phases. First to track down the militants, and as Peter said, we are not just talking about left-wing revolutionaries – that was the pretext. But the secondary target and probably the major purpose of Condor was to go worldwide to eliminate the democratic, highly popular opposition leaders such as Orlando Letelier who had tremendous access in Washington DC as an opposition figure discrediting the Pinochet government. Another target was human rights organisations who were effective in denouncing the crimes of these military governments.

So the documents that I have show they had Italian terrorists, Cuban terrorists, anti-Castro Cuban terrorists, an incredible array of nogoodniks around the world whose one goal which Pinochet was fomenting was to eliminate Marxist leaders wherever they could be found, or people who were friends of Marxists, the idea of the fellow travellers were as much an enemy as the Marxists. They actually called this struggle World War Three, they actually thought they were in a worldwide struggle to eliminate Marxism and that the US was not doing a good enough job in fighting back against the Marxist scourge and that they had to take it upon themselves to go internationally to do this. Luckily, it was nipped in the bud after the Letelier assassination in Washington, the profile was raised so high and I think to their great surprise the US did not go along with this and the FBI investigated very, very strongly, and solved the assassination. As a result, Operation Condor backfired on the military governments because it raised their profile internationally and these international operations began to be investigated not just by the FBI but other governments. And I think that was one of the important factors in leading to the ultimate discrediting and defeat of the military governments. Of course, it took many, many years.

MA: It took quite a while for Chile to return to some form of democracy and they have been trying to pursue justice. And I think Peter you have said that something like seventy of Pinochet’s military men are in jail, something like 800 are either under investigation or indicted. How have they rebuilt and how are they doing on the human rights enforcement aspect?

PK: Many years after the dictatorship ended, inevitably the issues of the past came up again and again. So it is a country that is confronting its past through memory and history, but it also through a debate over its politics. And a number of the right-wingers and pro-Pinochet people who were very much involved in facilitating the dictatorship have now come out for the first time and apologise for their misconduct. The Association of Judges came out and apologised for not supporting the habeas corpus petitions the victims’ families bought to them day after day during the regime, and the right-wing political figures are starting to abandon Pinochet’s ship in droves as well. So it is an amazing time in Chile after all these years.

MA: John Dinges?

JD: The Concertación was the government which brought together the coalition that had broken apart at the time of the Allende government. The left-wing parties, the socialist party, and the Christian Democrats governed for twenty years. And then, in what really was a good sign of a successful democracy, the right-wing parties elected a president. And I think we are now into the third generation of Chileans who are dealing with their past, younger people like Camila Vallejo who are coming to the fore and are grappling with the past, not with direct memories of it themselves, but stories that they heard from their parents and grandparents many of whom were victims of the military, or in the case of the right-wing, they grew up with the ideology that the Allende government was the epitome of evil, and of course, on the left growing up with the ideology that Pinochet was the epitome of evil. So this is a country that is still grappling with its memory, with its collective sense of itself, and it is not yet a unified country. This is the story that the wounds are healing as the country works through this, sometimes with very rough edges.

We have really entered a new period in Chilean politics that is bringing Chile in a sense into the realm of the populist movements that we have seen in recent years – a totally different kind of politics, progressive to be sure, but not ideological, not Marxist, and I think there is a lot of nervousness among the established political people certainly on the right, but of course, also on the left, that the grassroots politics is getting away from them. And they see what is happening in the other countries where parties have basically been discredited, the press has been under control, and they are saying ‘What can we do to bring in the new political forces so that we continue to represent them and they see us as representing them?’ It is a very interesting time in Chile.

This interview originally aired on the Scholars’ Circle. To access our archive of episodes and download this interview, click here.

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Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this discussion reflect the views of the guests and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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