September 11 changed the world. The one 46 years ago in this country triggered the neoliberal counter-revolution to restructure the global economy. Apart from providing a blueprint for neoliberal policies, the Pinochet dictatorship (under the more competent General Matthei) also decisively influenced the Falklands War – and therefore Thatcher’s neoliberal project that metastasized to European social democracy, eventually killing it. It’s a highly complex, contested, and under-studied event and on the verge of dissipating into a revisionist ‘both-siderism’ consensus. Many Chileans grow indifferent or believe, together with the business press, some scholars, and commentators, that violence against fellow citizens is justified if it serves the capitalist economy.
To deal with what happened, Chile, as many countries, created narratives. They emphasize some things over others and facts carry therefore political weight.
“Many Chileans believe that violence against fellow citizens is justified if it serves the capitalist economy”
Everyone who cares can easily access some facts on the CIA website or more specialized ones like the Chile Documentation Project. It’s testimony to the deficiency of the local press to report when documents get declassified but never actually read and analyze them. Doing just this, however, reveals partially how the domestic upheavals of the time fused with superpower foreign policy. Without looking at international relations the coup cannot be explained, inevitably so since the Chilean nation/state is the very creature of foreign forces dating back to colonialist times. What happened here 46 years ago was the result of a domestic class war and Cold War geopolitics. The coup was consciously planned, executed with some risk, and a success from the point of view of those who called for it. But that success raises questions about the limits of Chileans’ willingness and ability to solve domestic crises without calling for foreign intervention (social cohesion), i.e., it throws the concept of patriotism in doubt.
Chile’s inability to control key events outside its borders that nevertheless affect what it can achieve, has turned into political common sense and to conceal that powerlessness many emphasize Chile’s ‘insertion into the global economy’ and buzz about ‘globalization.’ When a president, Salvador Allende, tried to regulate capitalist globalization, he also ventured onto geopolitical terrain and into the limits of sovereignty.
Salvador Allende and the nightmare of Kissinger
Allende’s presidency emerged at a turning point for both the inter-state and economic systems. World War II had destroyed the last shreds of European empires, and although the US emerged as clear winner of the war, the Soviet Union didn’t too bad either. Not too long after the US annihilated Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the help of Nazi scientists and the most terrifying weapon ever built, the Soviet Union acquired the bomb, too, and leveled the playing field. This situation didn’t create any advantage; the inevitable nuclear response to a nuclear first strike would simply wipe out everything. Conflict, thus, shifted to proxy theaters in what’s called the Middle East, Asia, Latin America, and Africa, where war heated up to the degree democracy consolidated in the ‘West.’ But the fall of empires also triggered decolonization which, in turn, ignited liberation struggles, so Marxist philosophy just fit the times. When early offshoots of these events reached Chile, President Jorge Allessandri’s land reform was just underway. According to US-historian Steve J. Stern, this reform aimed at the deep social structures of society and its power relations so upheaval was unavoidable.
Domestic struggles fused not immediately with international relations for the US ignored Latin America. Then-national security advisor, unindicted war criminal and overhyped diplomat Henry Kissinger disdained the region and thought it was too weak to put up a challenge, writes John Dinges. But that changed after Águstin Edwards, of the reactionary wing of Chile’s oligarchy, gave him some lessons in the White House. The Edwards dynasty used to thrive in the corrupted zone between Chilean politics and the economy, but land reform was an early tremor indicating that things might change. In the wake of liberation struggles, anti-capitalist rhetoric became the word of the day and threatened the oligarchic business model.
Additionally, encrusted thinking dressed up as tradition prevented Chile’s elite from coming to grips with change. As Edwards communicated the resulting anxiety, Kissinger, who believed in the quack Domino Theory and capitalism, saw a double whammy coming: Geopolitically, he thought that if one country renounced capitalism and remained successful – even without adopting Soviet communism – its neighbors would follow suit and one domino after another would fall toward Moscow, or at least outside the US sphere of influence. Economically, Kissinger worried about corporate US-America’s billion dollar investments in Chile.
“For Kissinger the case was clear: Chileans had no right to decide on issues that were important to the US”
These worries were based on the implicit assumption that Allendeism, and socialism in general, represented a viable alternative to democracy fenced in by the capitalist market and US dominance. Otherwise they wouldn’t have bothered with spending blood and treasure all over the world.
For Kissinger the case was clear: Chileans had no right to decide on issues that were important to the US. But making a move wasn’t straightforward. Then US-ambassador to Chile Edward Korry found that the country under Allende wouldn’t become Moscow’s puppet; he was a legitimate president and Chile had consciously voted “to have a Marxist-Leninist state” (in reality the Soviets refused Allende support because he wasn’t Leninist enough). In the tradition of US-style democracy, Korry lamented that no “miracle” such as a “civil war” triggered by the armed forces would arise. He stated that Allende won the “35 [percent] we feared plus more,” as “enough” middle class women voted for Allende. That’s no landslide, but still no reason to doubt the president’s legitimacy. Korry also found Chile’s economy in an impeccable state, and it would buzz along for many years to come. Crucially, before Allende’s election he made clear the US would put an end to that and “condemn Chile … to utmost deprivation and poverty.” This became part of weaponizing the economy, or making it scream.
In a sense the liberal-conservative argument that Washington didn’t topple Allende remains true. But it’s disingenuous; everybody knows that Chilean armed forces did the deed. But even though the US’ “hand [didn’t] show in this one” (Nixon), “[it] helped them” (Kissinger) to make provide the backdrop. Without the schizophrenic anti-communism and determination of Washington policy-makers Chile would not have become what it did. Only fools believe that words uttered by the most powerful men in the world, complemented by a cunning scheme called Track II diplomacy, had no affect.
Conservatives today point their indignant finger at the scarcity before the coup. But right after the coup food and goods reappeared, so scarcity was artificially induced. The game was rigged, and to keep it that way truth had to be distorted. Enter Edwards. His media empire has always advocated free markets, i.e., the ability of oligarchs to determine the fortunes of citizens. Thus, he happily accepted millions of taxpayer money from a foreign government to keep his business afloat, while providing crucial intelligence and publish propaganda.
“With the help of a military dictatorship and El Mercurio no one asked inconvenient questions”
All of that, and more, helped to bring about a cunning dictator who’s in business circles seen as a hero as he let the Chicago Boys work their neoliberal magic, bring down inflation, and create an economy of plenty. That line works only when it omits, among others, the crisis of 1982, which was a systemic one similar to that of 1879, and the 2008 global one. Banks lent money beyond their capacity because they could. Suddenly someone noticed they were overleveraged and the state stepped in with a credit the Chilean people will pay off until 2022. Capitalism, not socialism, had caused crises in Chile, but with the help of a military dictatorship and El Mercurio no one asked inconvenient questions.
The dictatorship didn’t end with democratic triumph. The common narrative, pushed by left and liberal self-interest, right-wing politicians and the business press, has the herculean effort to organize a plebiscite and vote NO in 1988 as the key event. This narrative serves the latter two to rationalize the violence as they can cast a genocidaire as great statesman who turned a democrat and heard his people. As many narratives from that corner it’s also nonsense.
Peter Kornbluh writes, based on government documents, that Pinochet was hurt like a child whose ice-cream scoop dropped when he learned of the result. Participants of an emergency meeting said, according to Kornbluh, that Pinochet was determined to “overthrow the results.” He wanted to trigger another Plan Z, inciting violence at certain spots in Santiago, blame (non-existent) communists and remain in power via emergency rule. To do so, he needed the signature of some generals. Asked to give more powers to Pinochet, air force general Fernando Matthei refused and put his life on the line.
Had his colleagues not followed his example, Matthei would have been executed as traitor and his daughter would never have become a significant player in the Chilean right wing (and mayor of one of Latin America’s wealthiest suburbs, Providencia). Neither popular power nor a seasoned leader brought back democracy. A member of the military who showed unexpected courage when it counted did.
Today’s Chile is Pinochet’s for better or worse. The constitutional and the economic framework could not have been implemented democratically. Chilean politics deserve credit to have used those frameworks to advance the wealth of the nation and democracy. Although massive challenges remain, the numbers are palpable. Poverty, even economic inequality, are declining. Many Chileans grew up in slums 40 years ago but today own apartments or houses in posh districts. Pointing out that much work remains to be done doesn’t mean to talk down these achievements, nor does emphasizing them mean to justify the dictatorship.
They also materialized because Chile learned to venture not too far. A great many voices quickly point to the chaos that ensued under Allende whenever more democracy and egalitarian economics are discussed. This is self-censorship.
“Even president Piñera seems tired of defending human rights”
Another result is the increasingly popular opinion of letting bygones be bygones. This can be seen in the white-washing of the dictatorship as a ‘military government.’ Also, many actors, including the president, seem tired of defending human rights and analyzing how they could have been violated for so long in this country. Hence, they advocated to look forward. That’s disingenuous. A country without a past is a country without a future. If a society allows itself to forget what happened, it dishonors the victims and their families and denies its heritage. It cannot learn from past mistakes and built a better future. Curiously, an equally incisive event, the Pacific War, took place almost a century before the coup. But a specific battle of the war is still celebrated with a public holiday. Past is no excuse for ignorance.
Rather, it should be debated what could have happened had Allende succeeded, or had he been voted out of office as in a democracy. His program in any case could hardly take off. So the future remains open. But debate must respect that Allendeism cannot provide a blueprint for 21st century Chile; these times are gone. Learning from the past must also involve the meaning of Chile situated in multipolar world order with more players than ever able to determine the trajectory of the country. Nobody knows yet where the limits to sovereignty are in such a world.
Christian is Managing Editor at Chile Today, where he curates the foreign policy blog Teatinos One/Eighty. Christian is also Lead Editor of E-International Relations, co-editor of an open access textbook on International Relations Theory and Director at the Chilean Association of International Specialists (ACHEI).