The arrest of Augusto Pinochet in London on October 16, 1998 was a major victory for progressives and human rights activists around the world. At long last one of the most nefarious dictators of the late twentieth century is being brought to justice–not only for the murder and torture of tens of thousands of Chileans, but also for the murder of foreigners deemed a threat to his regime, including two Americans, Charles Horman and Frank Truggi. Even if the British government or courts eventually decide to release Pinochet instead of extraditing him to Spain for trial, he will return to Chile a discredited figure, recorded in the annals of history as the first dictator ever to be pursued under international law for crimes against humanity.
For those of us who have used our organizing and journalistic skills over the past quarter-century to denounce the crimes of the Pinochet regime, it was gratifying to see the U.S. press applaud the dictator’s arrest and detention. The San Francisco Chronicle editorialized: “Pinochet’s arrest is a hopeful sign that former despots accused of crimes have fewer places to hide,” and that “there is no diplomatic immunity for genocide–and there should never be” (10/20/98). A San Francisco Examiner editorial predicted: “However Britain finally decides the issue of whether to extradite former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to Spain for trial, the case outlines a grim future for retired tyrants everywhere” (12/1/98).
With the notable exception of the Wall Street Journal, which argued that Pinochet should be freed to return to Chile because he “headed the coup that saved his country” (10/20/98), most of the national press also has endorsed the prosecution of Pinochet. An editorial in The New York Times declared that Pinochet’s “detention and possible prosecution are warranted under international law” (10/20/98).
But while it finally seems to be open season on dictators, there is still virtually no discussion in the mainstream press of the complicity of the U.S. government in Pinochet’s coup and long reign of terror. For most of the media, the denunciation of human rights violations starts and ends with Pinochet. The only exceptions in the Bay Area mainstream press were a few outside opinion pieces, such as Alexander *censored*burn’s “Next, Get Kissinger,” which appeared in the San Jose Mercury News (12/27/98). *censored*burn writes that as Nixon’s principal foreign policy adviser, Henry Kissinger “oversaw the whole covert U.S. program designed to destabilize Allende’s government.”
The truth is that the U.S. press has for years largely ignored or downplayed U.S. involvement in the coup and the Pinochet regime’s savage repression. Overall, the U.S. press has opted to support U.S. foreign policy objectives and multinational corporate interests over the basic needs, and even survival, of Chilean and sometimes U.S. citizens.
The U.S. role in the coup and subsequent repression in Chile is certainly not a secret. Both before and after Pinochet’s arrest, the alternative press reported extensively on U.S. involvement in Chile. In the Bay Area, the Information Service on Latin America (ISLA), published by the Data Center in Oakland, released a series of articles in December 1998 on Pinochet’s bloody rule and his U.S. backing. In one of the articles, “The Hand of the CIA in the Coup of ’73 Ignored by the Press in the United States” (originally published by the Mexican newspaper La Jornada), authors Jim Cason and David Brooks note that while “the dictator’s career of repression is often recounted, with few exceptions (those that merely point out that the United States endorsed the coup) no mention is made of Washington’s hardly disguised hand in the events of September of 1973, and during the following 17 years of dictatorship” (www.igc.org/isla/chile, Feature Coverage, Focus on Chile).
Another local news organization, San Francisco-based Pacific News Service, offered an article by Andrew Reding headlined “Reno Should Indict Pinochet.” Published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian (1/20/99), the article notes that U.S. government agencies such as the CIA and Defense Department are “determined to avoid further exposure of their ties” to Pinochet’s secret police (the DINA) and the Chilean military. Reding describes how the DINA carried out international terrorist actions, including the assassinations in Washington, D.C. of former Allende minister Orlando Letelier and his American associate, Ronni Moffet. In an age when U.S. grand juries are convened with increasing frequency to go after accused terrorists, Reding writes that “a grand jury would be certain to indict Pinochet.”
Beyond the Bay Area, other publications and research organizations (all considered outside the mainstream or left of center) have amply documented Pinochet’s reign of terror and U.S. involvement in it. The National Security Archive, based in Washington, D.C., has posted on the Internet 23 major declassified documents from FBI and U.S. intelligence agency files dating from 1970 to 1976 (www.seas.qwu.edu/nsarchive). One of the most damning is a report from then-Assistant Secretary of State Jack Kubisch to Henry Kissinger dated just two months after the coup. Kubisch wrote that 1,500 Chileans had already been killed and that there had been 320 summary executions in the first 19 days after the coup–more than three times the publicly acknowledged figure. The report goes on to detail U.S. aid to Pinochet, including special food shipments, plans to send Chile two naval destroyers, and efforts to get international agencies to open up to Pinochet financial coffers that were closed to the Allende administration.
Peter Kornbluh, who compiled the documents for the National Security Archive, wrote a feature article for The Nation (“Prisoner Pinochet,” 12/21/98) concluding that “the CIA was well aware of the DINA’s practice of ‘completely barbaric’ torture and murder,” and knew about Operation Condor, “the campaign of kidnappings and assassinations of political opponents carried out by a network of Southern Cone intelligence agencies, led by Chile.” The relationship between the CIA’s Santiago station chief, Stuart Burton, and the head of DINA, Colonel Manuel Contreras, was so close that they “used to go on Sunday picnics together with their families,” according to one human rights researcher cited by Kornbluh.
Kornbluh’s article also discusses the U.S. government’s current recent obstruction of efforts to bring Pinochet to justice: “The Clinton administration stonewalled for more than a year before producing any records” requested by the Spanish court that’s trying to prosecute Pinochet. The documents that eventually were turned over by the United States amounted to “zilch,” according to one Spanish lawyer.
In contrast, the United States was persuaded to provide some important documentation to the United Nations-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission in Guatemala. To the dismay of many U.S. officials, when its report was released in late February, the commission’s head assigned major responsibility for 200,000 deaths and a 30-year civil war to U.S. involvement, including CIA support for death squads and a string of repressive Guatemalan regimes.
The forthrightness of the report compelled the U.S. press to take note. Charles Krauss of The New York Times even went so far as to look at declassified U.S. documents and report that “the CIA station in Guatemala City knew that the Guatemalan army was massacring entire Mayan villages while Reagan administration officials publicly supported the military regime’s human-rights record” (3/7/99).
If Pinochet’s case actually goes to trial in Spain, the mainstream press could again be forced to delve more seriously into the U.S. role. The mainstream’s current amnesia about or outright justification of U.S. activities in Chile–and elsewhere in Latin America–is rooted in its decision to support or ignore repressive U.S. operations in Latin America throughout the Cold War period.
The press’s record on Chile during the Allende years and the days following the 1973 coup is particularly appalling. In the Bay Area, the San Francisco Examiner editorialized two days after the coup: “Salvador Allende’s attempt to turn Chile into a Marxist society has now reached its tragic conclusion with death for Allende and a legacy of violence, deprivation, and military rule for the Chilean people” (9/13/73). The Examiner attributed Allende’s overthrow largely to a “succession of middle-class strikes,” and didn’t even mention the sustained opposition of the Nixon administration. The San Francisco Chronicle was a bit less biased in its editorial on the coup, noting simply that Allende’s “mercurial, socialist government” was brought “to a sudden and violent end” by a “military junta” (9/12/73). However, this editorial also failed to mention any U.S. role in toppling Allende, while giving prominence to the alleged opposition of the “middle class.”
During the Allende years, from 1970 to 1973, the U.S. press did run articles on the Nixon administration’s activities opposing the Popular Unity government. For example, in 1972, most newspapers gave prominent play to documents leaked from the files of corporate giant IT&T that discussed efforts by the CIA and U.S. corporations to prevent Allende from even taking office in 1970. But by and large the mainstream press failed to provide a cogent analysis or a sustained critique of U.S. efforts to destabilize and topple the Allende government. That task was taken up by the alternative press.
Locally, the Berkeley office of the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) maintained a special research team on Chile that produced a number of articles and reports on the Popular Unity government and U.S. efforts to undermine and destroy it. In January 1973, NACLA released a report called “Facing the Blockade” (I provided research assistance for this report while living in Chile). Describing U.S. efforts to derail the Chilean economy as the “invisible blockade,” the report documents how the U.S. government cut off all direct economic assistance to Chile, except military aid. Even more important, the Nixon administration got private banks and multilateral lending agencies to end or sharply curtail their credit to the Allende government. In 1972, for example, short-term commercial banking credits, the “grease” of international trade, stood at only $35 million, compared with about $220 million in previous years (NACLA Latin America and Empire Report, January 1973). And U.S. copper companies Kennecott and Anaconda, which had been nationalized by Allende, filed lawsuits in the United States and Europe seeking permission to seize Chilean copper exports. While the European countries rejected these efforts, the mere fact of the legal actions had the effect of entangling exports and making Chile’s economic situation even more precarious.
It was this international economic offensive against Chile that made the economy “scream,” as then-CIA director Richard Helms put it, turning sectors of the middle class against the Popular Unity government. The economic difficulties, combined with CIA support for right-wing terrorist groups like Patria y Libertad and sabotage by employers’ associations, destabilized the country, laying the groundwork for the military coup against Allende.
Although the alternative press systematically documented U.S. activities against Allende, neither local mainstream dailies nor national publications gave these reports any credence. The New York Times, in an editorial entitled “The Chilean Tragedy,” declared: “There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever of American complicity in the coup.” It went on to assert that “Washington had only the most peripheral responsibility in the downfall of Dr. Allende,” labeling the IT&T documents “bizarre” and not reflective of Nixon administration policy (9/16/73). The editorial argued that “Dr. Allende’s experiment failed because his Popular Unity coalition, dominated by Socialists and Communists, persisted with an effort to fasten on Chile a drastic socialist system.”
The belief that it was the Allende government’s policies that caused his downfall became widespread, enduring to this day even among some socialists in Chile. The arrest of Pinochet provides an opportunity to correct this false historic consciousness created by the mainstream media. The real tragedy of Allende and his Popular Unity government is that the most democratic experiment in socialism ever undertaken in the Western Hemisphere was destroyed, not by unsound economic or social policies, but by the hostile actions of the Nixon administration and U.S. multinational corporations, which provided critical support to the Chilean right wing and military coup leaders.
On a recent trip to Guatemala, President Clinton apologized for U.S. involvement in that country’s brutal military repression. With Pinochet’s arrest, it’s time for the U.S. government–and the U.S. press–to apologize not only for supporting Pinochet’s coup, but also for distorting Allende’s heroic experiment in democratic socialism.
Roger Burbach is director of the Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA) in Berkeley. He is currently working on a book on Pinochet. He can be reached at email@example.com.