50 Years After the Coup

Old audio from Letelier sheds light on days before the coup

A 49-year-old recording of the former Minister of Defense has shed light on the plebiscite that the Allende administration was planning before the Sept. 11, 1973 coup d’état. Discovered by CCN Chile, the cassette is from 1974 after the minister was released from military custody. The audio recounts an hour-long meeting between President Salvador Allende and his advisors during which they discussed ways to address the political crisis.

In an interview with CNN Chile, former Minister of Mining Sergio Bitar, revealed the existence of an audio tape of former Minister of Defense Orlando Letelier describing an hour-long meeting between President Salvador Allende and his closest advisors that took place on Sept. 10, 1973, during which they discussed the possibility of a plebiscite as to whether Allende’s should complete his presidential term.

The hour-long tape was made in 1974 by Joan Garcés, a former advisor to Allende. In it, Letelier, who was later assassinated in 1976 in Washington D.C., says that Allende and several of his closest advisors discussed the need to remove high ranking officers in the armed forces due to a suspected uprising, the trust the officers had in General Augusto Pinochet, and the need for a democratic solution to the political crisis they were facing. This in turn led to discussion of the plebiscite.

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“The conversation with Pinochet worried me”

“We had already told the president,” said Letelier, “that the measures that the government would take against the officers of the coup had to be accelerated …. It would happen before Friday, that is, in that same week, some six or seven generals would be called into retirement, with which a purge could also take place later at lower levels according to the information we had.” 

“This would be the day after the president announced the plebiscite …. The list of the six or seven officers would be made with the help of Carlos Prats [commander in chief of the armed forces before Pinochet] and then given to Pinochet.”

“This was the last alternative, the one in which the president told me ‘yes, that seems best to me. I will eventually speak tonight or tomorrow.’ At that point in the lunch we had agreed that the president was no longer going to speak that afternoon but rather the next day …. It was Carlos Prats’s suggestion, and it seemed to me what had to be done, because I was convinced that things went much further than [Generals] Bonilla and Arellano.”

Minister Letelier then recounted a Sept. 7 meeting he had with Prats, “He told me: look Orlando, things have reached a level that if the president does not take measures to remove some generals before next Friday, I believe that next Thursday or Friday – the 14th – there will be a coup.”

“What was still very clear about Carlos Prat that day, I’m talking about Friday [Sept. 7] was that he still had a lot of trust in Pinochet …. I told him ‘fine, but if Pinochet is so loyal, he could be forced to resign. It happened to you, Carlos.” Prats had been forced to resign from the army and ministry of defense in August 1973, after military officers protested his involvement in the government.

“If not, then Pinochet is at a certain moment going to fold towards the sector where there is a greater number of generals or forces, which may eventually be the sector that is in favor of the coup against the Government …. Carlos Prats did not refute me, but insisted that he thought that Pinochet had an attitude of loyalty towards the president and that, in any case, Pinochet would not be among the traitors.”

“From the moment I arrived at the Ministry [of Defense], in the first days of September … I realized that the coup was being assembled …. Pinochet – and this had led me to a certain degree of confidence towards him – told me: Minister, there are a bunch of crazy people [in the armed forces], unbalanced, who are proposing that it is preferable that a coup happen now and 100,000 people die before there is a civil war in which 1 million people could die.”

Letelier concluded by saying “The conversation with Pinochet worried me. This must have been around the 3rd [of September] and perhaps that same day … I asked the president to call a meeting of the heads of the Popular Unity parties and there I recounted that Pinochet had told me plain and simple that, if there was an uprising … it was not going to be a repeat of June 29 (tanquetazo). That there was going to be a general [coup], not only the Army, but all three branches of the armed forces.”

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