Lessons from the Chilean 9/11

By Mike Tudoreanu

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Last week, the world remembered 9/11, a tragic day that marks the deaths of thousands of people who lost their lives in a reactionary attack against democracy. Here in the United States, our thoughts and prayers were with the victims of the attack in 2001, 12 years ago.

But there was also another reactionary attack against democracy that killed thousands of people on that day in 1973 in Chile.

Forty years ago, a brutal military coup deposed the democratically elected government of Chile and installed a dictatorship that lasted for 17 years, killing and torturing tens of thousands of people in the process. The deposed president, Salvador Allende, was the first democratically elected Marxist leader in Latin America. And the man who replaced him, General Augusto Pinochet, was a free-market dictator backed by the United States.

The story begins in 1970, when Allende and his Socialist Party narrowly won the Chilean presidential elections. This did not come out of the blue; Allende had run for president twice before, narrowly losing to right-wing candidates whose campaigns were generously funded by the CIA.

The U.S. government was interested in Chile because it was the world”s leading source of copper, and American companies owned the mines. After Allende became president, he proceeded to carry out his campaign promises, which involved placing the copper mines and some other industries under state ownership, redistributing land to poor peasants, providing universal health care and investing in public education. There was also a long-term project known as “the Chilean path to socialism,” which meant a gradual transition from a market economy to a planned economy aided by computer networks.

The U.S. government decided it could not tolerate this, no matter what the Chileans thought. Then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger remarked, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.”

President Richard Nixon ordered the CIA to “make the [Chilean] economy scream.” Economic ties were cut and trade restrictions were imposed, which was particularly devastating for a country so reliant on its copper exports.

Right-wing officers within the Chilean military, many of them tied to wealthy families and corporate interests, also wanted to get rid of Allende. Eventually, in September 1973, with CIA help, a large section of the military , overwhelming constitutionalist forces. The generals offered to let Allende live if he agreed to go into exile. He refused, and stayed behind to fight with his last remaining loyal soldiers until the end.

Once Allende was dead, General Pinochet made himself the new head of state, the Socialist Party headquarters was set on fire, and over the
following days and weeks its members were hunted down by the newly-formed secret police. Pinochet set the tone for his new regime by gathering real and suspected leftists in the Chilean capital’s football stadium, and having them summarily shot. Others were sent to concentration camps in the far north and south of the country, where many “disappeared.”

Meanwhile, the United States openly supported Pinochet and promoted business ties with Chile.

Following advice from a group of free-market economists known as the “Chicago Boys,” which included Milton Friedman, Pinochet began by reversing Allende”s policies, and then went much further. He unleashed a massive privatization campaign, selling off nearly all state-owned assets in Chile (including those that had been state-owned before Allende).

In total, the government sold its stock in 160 corporations, 16 banks and more than 3,600 agro-industrial plants, mines and real estate. Countless public services were turned into for-profit private businesses – the national airline, the telephone industry, the social security system and eventually even public education. Unions were banned and their former leaders were imprisoned, tortured and sometimes killed.

Pinochet”s regime was ultimately overthrown in 1990 after a wave of public protests and demonstrations. Today, Chileans are still coming to terms with his legacy — both the human rights abuses and the enormous inequality and social injustice.

So what does any of this have to do with us? A lot. The tragedy of Sept. 11, 1973, is a warning from history.

The Chilean 9/11 is a warning about U.S. foreign policy. Every time an American president tells the nation about America”s supposed record of upholding freedom and democracy in the world, we should reply, “Tell that to the Chileans!” (or the Vietnamese, or the Cambodians, or the Nicaraguans…).

The Chilean 9/11 is also a warning about the power of the “one percent.” Pinochet received the enthusiastic support of the Chilean business elite. Allende gambled his life on the bet that Chilean corporate interests would accept socialist reforms as long as they were democratic, legal and constitutional. He was wrong.
If they have to choose between democracy and their wealth, the “one percent” will choose their wealth every time. All progressives would do well to remember this lesson.

And the Chilean 9/11 is a warning about the connection between “free markets” and oppression. Libertarian economic ideas have always been hostile to democracy, but Pinochet provided a particularly shocking example of free-market dictatorship, murdering people who did not appreciate his brand of “freedom.” Even today, the ghost of Pinochet lives on in the present drive for austerity policies and budget cuts.

Mike Tudoreanu is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]