A Tale of Two Septembers

Date: 5 Sep 2003 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

A Tale of Two Septembers

by David Morris

Originally published on Alternet, September 5, 2003

September 11th, 2003 marks the second anniversary of the aerial attack by terrorists that killed 2,700 people and profoundly changed American society.

September 11th also marks the anniversary, in this case the thirtieth, of the aerial attack by terrorists that led to the murder of more than 3,000 people and profoundly changed Chilean society.

American commentators probably won’t mention the 1973 attacks on Chile and their aftermath. They should. Because in those attacks it was the U.S. government that played the role of Al Queda – recruiting, training, arming, financing and coordinating the terrorists.

Our involvement in this unsavory affair is now widely recognized. As Secretary of State Colin Powell himself recently acknowledged, “It is not a part of our country’s history that we are proud of.”

Powell’s comment implies a feeling of contrition. I doubt his colleagues in this Administration share his shame. Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld worked in the Nixon cabinet during the 1973 attacks on Chile’s White House. And in a most telling demonstration of continuity, President Bush appointed Henry Kissinger, the central player in the overthrow of the Chilean government, to chair the Committee investigating the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. (Kissinger withdrew in the face of ferocious worldwide criticism.)

On September 4, 1970, Salvador Allende, founder of the Socialist Party and four time presidential candidate, was elected President of Chile. Allende was duly and uncontrovertibly elected in a country with a long and rich democratic tradition, a country whose voting turnout is double that of the United States. However, this was irrelevant to President Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people,” Kissinger declared.

“Nixon was beside himself,” Kissinger remembered later. CIA Director Richard Helms remembers Nixon “wanted something done and he didn’t much care how.”

Initially, the U.S. tried to forestall Allendes taking office by financing the kidnapping of the head of the Armed Forces, General Rene Schneider. Schneider resisted and was shot on October 22, 1970 and died three days later. The CIA reportedly paid $35,000 to the assassins.

Having failed with plan A, Nixon and Kissinger moved to plan B. This was, according to Nixon’s CIA Director Richard Helms to “make the (Chilean) economy scream”.

Plan B was successful economically. By cutting off public and private aid, encouraging U.S. corporations to stop sending replacement parts to Chilean factories and fomenting strikes and sabotage in Chile the U.S. undermined its economy.

But plan B failed politically. Even in the face of growing economic instability Chile maintained its democratic traditions. And the percentage voting for Allendes Popular Unity coalition continued to increase, from 36 percent in September 1970 to 44 percent in April 1972.

In June 1973, parts of the Chilean Navy attempted a coup and failed. A million people marched to the President’s office and demanded arms to be able to defend the government. President Allende stood on the balcony and firmly rejected their request. He was a Constitutionalist to the end.

So were several of the leaders of the Chilean military. These were arrested in the early morning of September 11th. About 8:30AM rogue military units began bombing the Chilean White House. Allende died in his office. General Augusto Pinochet, an admirer of Adolf Hitler, seized power.

Pinochet’s military dictatorship killed thousands, tortured tens of thousands and drove more than a million Chileans into exile. A society with a 150 year tradition of democracy and participation suffered under totalitarian rule.

No elections were held at any level for 15 years. Women were arrested for organizing soccer clubs. As Tina Rosenberg observed in the New York Times, “Meetings of any kind were considered subversive – in the first year after the coup, even Miss Chile was appointed.”

The United States rewarded Chile by dramatically increasing both grants and loans. On June 8, 1976, at the height of Pinochet’s repression, Kissinger met in private with the dictator and told him “we are sympathetic to what you are trying to do here.”

Having thwarted the possibility that Chile would become a model of democratic socialism, the United States made Chile a model of dictatorial capitalism. Under the hands-on guidance of University of Chicago economists, the Chilean economy was restructured. Unions were outlawed. Real wages plunged. Social spending was slashed. Of 507 public enterprises in 1973 only 15 remained in government hands by 1980. Chile privatized its social security system.

The experiment failed. Unemployment soared. Malnutrition soared. In 1973, Chile had the second highest income in Latin America, next to oil rich Venezuela. By 1988, when the military relinquished the reigns of government, Chile’s income had fallen behind that of many countries, including Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.

As a result of widespread protests, none of which were financed by the United States, Pinochet agreed to step down. In 1989, a new government took office. This new government has, to some extent, healed the damage wrought by the Pinochet years.

But Chilean society remains scarred by the events of September 11, 1973. Recently, the military pushed through a Constitutional provision that allowed it sufficient representation in Congress to block reforms. And in 1991, General Pinochet declared that, if Chile were to try to undertake the kinds of economic initiatives embraced by Allende, “it will be impossible to prevent” the military from intervening once again. Although elections now take place in Chile and political activity has revived, its dimension and vitality, once so rich, is circumscribed.

The United States also felt the effects of the 1973 coup. Policymakers were shocked at the revelations of our involvement. Revelations occured at the same time as people learned of Nixon’s willingness to wield the powers of government against perceived domestic as well as foreign enemies.

Nixon resigned in August 1974. Congressional investigations into the national and international power abuses by the Nixon administration led it to reinforce and strengthen the prohibition on domestic surveillance by the CIA. It banned the use of assassination as a tool of foreign policy. CIA director Richard Helms was indicted and convicted of lying to Congress about US involvement in Chile.

Today, the connections between the two September 11ths remain. While we are pursuing Saddam Hussein, in order to try him for war crimes, prosecutors in four countries are pursuing Henry Kissinger to get him to testify about his role in the Chilean coup.

In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, the Bush White House has reinstated many of the practices of the Nixon White House and has adopted a similar approach regarding those who oppose its policies. Nixon had an enemies list. Vice President Cheney declares, “You’re either for us or against us.” The policy of covert interventions in foreign countries has been revived. The CIA now is intimately involved in domestic surveillance. The White House has formally re-established the practice of political assassination.

This September 11th, we should remember two anniversaries and reflect on the links between the two.

David Morris is vice-president of the Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., based Institute for Local Self-Reliance (www.ilsr.org). He lived in Chile when Allende was in office and his first book, We Must Make Haste Slowly, is about the political and economic dynamics in Chile.

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David Morris

David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.