Costa Rica. Guatemala, twice. Cuba, although that didn’t go so well. The Dominican Republic. Brazil. Chile. Bolivia. Argentina. Nicaragua. Grenada. Panama. The list of CIA and US interference in foreign democracies during the cold war, and their overthrow of unpalatable democratic Latin American regimes in favor of military dictatorships sympathetic to the US, is long.
Put simply, the US in their covert and illegal (and politically deniable) interventions shaped the fortunes of an entire continent, driving millions of its people towards enforced poverty. And this is just in the Americas, with the USA managing to spend 30 years losing in Vietnam at the same time, as well as their influence of European democracies such as Italy.
It isn’t like this is the distant past either. Their involvement in a military coup in Honduras in 2009 send hundreds of thousands of refugees northwards seeking help from the very country that caused their distress. And as recently as 2019 their attempts to interfere in Bolivian elections drew a stinging backlash from the international community.
And so it was with their overthrow of Chile’s democratically elected President, Salvador Allende, in 1973.
The CIA and Chilean Politics
Salvador Allende fought a long, hard battle to come to power. He contested the presidential election three times unsuccessfully in 1952, 1958 and 1964. He was finally elected president in 1970 and assumed power after approval from Congress.
Apparently, the United States never liked Salvador Allende as it feared the socialist ideology of Allende might strengthen the ties of Chile with Cuba and the Soviet Union. Therefore, the US opposition to Allende started many years before his election as the President of Chile.
Some of the declassified documents have revealed that the CIA had spent around $3 million between 1962 and 1964 for running anti-Allende propaganda. In addition to this, the CIA had apparently contributed around $2.6 million to the presidential campaign of Allende’s rival, Eduardo Frei.
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The election of Allende as President in 1970 happened in spite of this interference, and was perceived as a disaster by the US administration. President Nixon was briefed by the CIA in 1970 that the Allende government could be detrimental to the US government’s interests in the region. It seemed that no matter how much money the US spent, they weren’t getting the results they wanted.
The basic motive of the CIA behind the opposition to Allende was targeted at safeguarding the geopolitical interests of the US government. From a broader perspective, the US government was worried about radical spread of communism in Chile during the Cold War.
Salvador Allende was the first Marxist to be elected as the President of Chile, and his large-scale nationalization plan was directed towards benefiting the people and the working class, with whom it was hugely popular. The diplomatic relations of Chile with the Soviet Union during Allende’s tenure also caused concerns of the US government.
And so the CIA issued a decree stating that Allende could be overthrown through a coup. With Nixon’s authorization, they sought to overthrow a fellow democracy, preferring a dictatorship which sided with the US to the will of the Chilean people.
The “40 Committee” led by Henry Kissinger and the CIA planned two distinct covert efforts, referred to as “Track I” and “Track II,” to achieve the goal. “Track I” focused particularly on the period between the announcement of results and Allende assuming power.
As a matter of fact, Allende was not able to score a majority in the 1970 presidential election, albeit having the highest vote share. Tradition dictated that Allende would still have assumed the role of President. However, parliamentary trickery came into play, courtesy of the CIA, and the Senate delayed rubber stamping the decision for months.
The death of General Rene Schneider, the Commander in Chief of the Chilean Army, in a bizarre accident on October 20 also appeared to have been down to the CIA. General Schneider defended the view that the army must never interfere in the politics of the nation.
After General Schneider’s death, president Eduardo Frei appointed General Carlos Prats as the new Commander in Chief of the army. Before Allende came to power in November 1970, the CIA had laid the foundation for its “Track II” covert operation.
The Track II initiative focused on convincing key military officials to a coup. The CIA later claimed that they had no direct role in the coup, which we now know to be a lie.
What Happened to Chile and Latin America?
Supported, armed and funded by the CIA, the coup took place in the presidential palace or La Moneda in 1973. A group of military officers led by General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the government and ended civilian rule, arresting Allende and installing themselves in power.
Left wing political movements were suppressed and protestors were rounded up. Pinochet himself rose to the position of supreme leader in 1974, and Chile would remain trapped under military rule until 1990. The coup is considered one of the most violent events in Chilean history, and saw the end of democracy in Chile, once the envy of Latin America, for decades.
Allende himself, the people’s chosen President, died during the coup in 1973. The official statement said that he had committed suicide, and although this reeks of a cover up it appears to be the truth. Allende had apparently wanted to avoid the cliché behavior of Latin America leaders facing an uprising which was to flee with a suitcase of money, and had instead opted to die with his principles intact.
Under Pinochet’s military dictatorship, torture and other human rights abuses became commonplace. The dictator wanted to instill fear into the populace, and Chilean death squads targeted political opposition. People disappeared into interrogation and death camps, and one death squad known as the “Caravan of Death” murdered 68 people in broad daylight in three days.
So the CIA created a monster. But CIA involvement was far greater than simply installing Pinochet and leaving him to his extrajudicial murders: their hands were every bit as dirty as the general’s.
Under “Operation Condor” Chile joined with other right wing dictatorships in an active campaign of political repression and state terror. As many as 60,000 people died and 400,000 were imprisoned across Latin America, under dictatorships bought and paid for by the CIA.
All to defend US interests.
Top Image: Pinochet, middle, was installed as military dictator of Chile in 1973. Source: Levan Ramishvili / Public Domain.
By Bipin Dimri