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Standing behind dictators

The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability, Edited by Peter Kornbluh, The New Press: 552 pp., $29.95

September 07, 2003|Marc Cooper | Marc Cooper is the author of "Pinochet and Me: A Chilean Anti-Memoir."

Exactly 30 years ago, on that other Tuesday, Sept. 11, as Chilean Air Force jets bombed the government palace where I worked as a young translator to elected socialist President Salvador Allende, as Chilean troops trampled a century of democratic rule (and the dark night of a dictatorship that would last 17 years descended), we understood that the U.S. played some role in the coup.

A year before, Jack Anderson made public some of the anti-Allende machinations concocted by the Nixon administration in cahoots with the ITT corporation. In the ensuing years, kick-started by the 1976 Senate Church Committee investigations, much more about American covert action has come to light in dribs and drabs.

Now, thanks to Peter Kornbluh, we have the first complete, almost day-to-day and fully documented record of this sordid chapter in Cold War American history. Much in the way Stephen Kinzer's "Bitter Fruit" fully chronicled the CIA intromission into Guatemala, "The Pinochet File" should be considered the long-awaited book of record on U.S. intervention in Chile. Here is a veritable catalog of all the smoking guns used by Washington to obliterate Chilean democracy. But anyone hoping to find documentary evidence only of an arrogant imperial power blithely manipulating its pliant Latin American ally for its geopolitical gain is in for some surprises.

As a senior researcher at the nonprofit National Security Archives, Kornbluh was instrumental in securing almost 25,000 new Chile-related documents released after the 1998 London arrest of former dictator Augusto Pinochet. Kornbluh has done much more than assemble a clump of dense photocopied files full of bureaucratese. Instead, he's written a crisp, compelling narrative, almost a political thriller, wisely including scores of government documents as only secondary documentation.

The story he tells has no clear ending or resolution, but it certainly resonates with today's headlines, which again revolve around American intervention abroad. In the Chilean case, Nixon and his foreign policy guru Henry A. Kissinger panicked when, in 1970, Chileans elected Marxist Allende to the presidency. Over the previous decade, the U.S poured millions into Chile, hoping to shape that country as a model of reform democracy and a counterweight to the example of the Cuban revolution.

Allende and his political supporters vowed only peaceful and constitutional -- if indeed radical -- transformation. But that wasn't good enough for Nixon and Kissinger: This book suggests that they plotted to have the Chilean army take power during the two-month period between Allende's election and his inauguration.

Though the near entirety of the U.S. diplomatic corps in Chile, as well as State Department and CIA analysts, warned that an American-provoked coup attempt would be disastrous, the White House relentlessly raced down that path. Echoing the same sort of doubts expressed by dissenters against the current war in Iraq, Kissinger's top Latin American aide, Viron Vaky, sent his boss a memo stamped "secret/sensitive" that characterized any attempt to block Allende's inauguration as "patently a violation of our own principles and policy tenets. Moralism aside, this has practical operational consequences. "

Vaky was prescient: U.S. plotting, including the dispatch of "grease guns" by diplomatic pouch to extremist groups, resulted in the kidnapping and murder of the commander in chief of the Chilean army, Gen. Rene Schneider. Far from provoking a putsch, Schneider's shocking murder boosted popular support for Allende's inauguration, which followed two weeks later.

Washington merely shifted gears, and millions more were spent to destabilize the new Allende government. And though the Nixon administration's propaganda portrayed Chile as a Communist hell, its private correspondence -- as collected by Kornbluh -- underlines that Washington's real fear was that Allende's democratic methods would make radical change in America's backyard more alluring. A CIA memo warned: "When one considers Allende's superb political performance

The American covert program paid off three years later when the Chilean military seized power and Gen. Pinochet replaced Allende, who had killed himself before the putschists could do the job. In a passage bound to irk the more Manichaean members of the political left, Kornbluh convincingly argues that "[b]y the most narrow definition of 'direct role' -- providing planning, equipment, strategic support and guarantees -- the CIA does not appear to have been involved in the violent actions of September 11, 1973. The Nixon White House sought, supported, and embraced the coup.... The CIA and other sectors of the U.S. government ... were directly involved in operations to create a 'coup climate' ...."

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