Report from Santiago: Deja vu

18 May 2000
Article

History repeats itself, wrote Marx, first as tragedy and then again as farce.

Published at
The Progressive

TNI and the Pinochet precedent

History repeats itself, wrote Marx, first as tragedy and then again as farce. First time: Chile, November, 1970. In one photo, a helmeted officer just to the right of and behind Allende's car wears a bored, or maybe slightly pained, expression. General Camilo Valenzuela sits in the saddle, a gray uniformed, gray-faced officer who had taken $50,000 from the CIA to organize a military plot to prevent Allende from being inaugurated. The plot failed - then.

Expectant Socialists around the world traveled to Chile to help the Allendistas carry out basic reforms. Others organized support and solidarity groups in their own countries to promote the first significant elected socialist experiment in the post-war world.

General Valenzuela was convicted for his perfidy, but President Nixon, National Security Adviser Kissinger and the CIA continued, in Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley's words "to mash up Chile's good order."

The CIA destabilization campaign appears in documented form in the 1975 Church Committee report. Allende re-distributed land and other social wealth. He provided milk for the slum dwellers, increased security for workers.

His fragile socialist coalition endured for three strife-filled years. Despite the CIA subversion in cooperation with Chile's owning class, Allende's popularity rose. The US-imposed banking-credit squeeze alone would have destroyed almost any struggling third world nation, but from about 36% of the vote in 1970, the Allende Popular Unity rose to 44% in March, 1973. By August, 1973, conditions had become so tense that Allende decided to announce a plebiscite on September 11. Chileans would again vote, this time to have him continue his socialist plan or leave office.

But on September 11, 1973, Hawker Hunter bombers and heavy tanks fired missiles into Allende's office in the Presidential Palace. The bloody coup succeeded in a matter of hours, with the - still classified - United States playing the role of military spy. Its shops, conveniently on maneuvers off the Chilean coast, delivered information to the coup plotters about communications from all Chilean military bases, so they could suppress any units loyal to Allende and the Constitution.

Almost no one could have conceived of the obsequious, quintessentially moderate Augusto Pinochet as directing such an extremely violent coup; nor could anyone have predicted his metamorphosis into the tyrant who ruled a military dictatorship for 17 years.

Pinochet, whose rise to head the army was the result of a series of unforeseen circumstances, vacillated before joining the plot - which he did at the last minute. Then, he out-zealoused the most fanatic fascists in his junta in destroying real and imagined opposition. His police and military killed 3,197, including some 1,200 disappeared. They tortured tens of thousands tortured, forced more tens of thousands into exile. Pinochet destroyed the Constitution, Parliament, political parties, trade unions, free universities; his soldiers made bonfires out of books that contained the word "Marx" or references to modern art.

To fix Chile's economy in a way that would curry favor with the world's richest and most powerful, he asked the Chicago Boys to implement their free unique brand of free-market philosophy - which, by the mid 1980s, under military fascism began to prove beneficial for the financiers and foreign investors. Real wages didn't rise to the level that workers enjoyed under Allende until 1999.

Pinochet ordered textbooks revised, so that Chilean history would show him as a major coup plotter and to justify the coup by inventing a document that purportedly proved that Allende, with Castro's help, had concocted a secret plan to wipe out the opposition by violence. Under Pinochet's invitation, foreign and Chilean companies devastated the environment. His government sold or leased pieces of Chilean forests to lumber companies. Corruption accompanied his privatization plan; military officers became millionaires. Scandals erupted involving Pinochet's son and son-in-law. Pinochet threatened dire consequences should any attempt be made to prosecute his progeny. Pinochet raised officers' salaries; gave them large pensions and made the military budget independent of the government - linked directly to copper sales.

Finally, by the late 1980s, world pressure led by Chileans who had regained their courage and supported even by the United States - which routinely abandons its progeny after they have done their service - forced him to hold a vote. In a 1988 plebiscite, Chileans voted "No" to Pinochet's continuing. Then, in 1990, Chileans held elections. The candidate of the combined Christian Democrat and Socialist coalition won two presidential elections in a row, presiding over ten gray years of very slow transition to democracy. Pinochet refused to concede on the independent military budget, nor would he relinquish the nine military Senate seats, sufficient to block constitutional change. Pinochet had forced an amnesty decree down the civilian government's throat, for crimes committed under his rule. Pinochet named himself chief of the army until 1998 and Senator for Life after that.

In 2000, a socialist won the primary and narrowly the general election against a Pinochetista. Ironically, Pinochet's name was barely mentioned by either candidate. The right winger ran on a populist ticket. Lagos, the socialist, the Allendista, maintained his commitment to the free market, while pledging social reforms. The socialist won, narrowly.

Will history repeats itself, as farce, or has the repetition ended with the passing of the ceremonial sash? Looking back, it is easy to say that Allende's Popular Unity government of five left parties never had a chance. Elected by a plurality of 36.3%, the head of the, faced a hostile Chilean propertied class. Allende, a quintessential Parliamentarian, might have survived the direct confrontation with Chile's bourgeoisie, but not alongside the US-backed subversion. By September 1973, Christian democratic leaders who had pledged support for the constitution, openly called for the military to step in.

Allende's three years as president appear like a text book study of class struggle. One hour after the Chilean TV anchorman announced that computers showed Allende had won, I raced into the streets with camera crew and recorder. In Providencia, a wealthy neighborhood where thousands of posters and signs hung from balconies, supporting Arturo Alessandri, the right-wing candidate, most of the apartments and houses were dark. The Alessandri posters and banners had vanished.

A traffic jam clogged the road to the airport. "Where is everyone going?" I asked a man who wore a panicked look on his face. His car was filled with family and possessions; an expensive sofa roped to the top of his Mercedes Benz. The man said the masses had planned to invade Providencia and rape, pillage and loot. He was leaving with his family for Buenos Aires. Another carload was London-bound. Several miles away workers celebrated, drinking red wine, singing and not thinking about going to Providencia to acquire illicit wealth and exact revenge.

Salvador Allende pushed his basic social reform program legally, despite an antagonistic judiciary, a non-cooperative legislature, an anti left press and a US government hell-bent on overthrowing him. Did President Nixon and National Security Adviser Kissinger fear he would succeed and present to the world a democratic socialist model of legality?

We'll never know. Kissinger seems unable to do other than weave a seamless web of truth and lies.

But times have changed - for socialism and for Pinochet.

Second time: March 11, 2000

Christian Democratic President Eduardo Frei (the son) placed that presidential sash across the body of incoming socialist President Ricardo Lagos. Then came the hugs, the oaths, glad-handing - just like in 1970. Socialists and progressives again began their expectant watch again. Would Lagos become another Clinton lite, a third-world version of Tony Blair? Or would he resuscitate Chilean socialism - within the obvious limits placed on him by the times and the history of the last 27 years?

Now 84 years old, Pinochet had returned from England one week before, after spending 503 days under arrest. In October 1998, a Spanish judge had ordered his detention in England and then asked for his extradition to Spain to face charges of crimes against humanity, genocide and terrorism.

Imagine as Pinochet awoke from his anesthetic from a back operation in London, he sees and hears a tall man, who identified himself as a police officer, with an interpreter next to him. "You are under arrest. You have the right to an attorney. You have the right to remain silent..."

Just weeks before, General Pinochet had stepped heavily on the VIP red carpet at Heathrow, sipped tea with his soul mate Lady Thatcher, shopped at Harrods's and dined in London's most elegant bistros. The London police installed TV cameras in the bathroom of his rented house and placed officers in bedrooms on either side of the one he shared with Lucia, his wife.

This once drab hard working military clerk, whose father-in-law was a social-democratic politician, had been King of the World. El Comandante en jefe had become for much of the world el Criminal en jefe. The law v. Pinochet Pinochet thought he had covered all bases. But the "dead are not silent."

In Chile, victims and their families of the "disappeared." have filed some seventy five criminal and civil claims against him. Judge Guzman Tapia accepted the claims and has begun to call witnesses. If disappearance means kidnapping, it then is an ongoing crime. Pinochet intended to disappear people as a way to foul human rights monitoring groups. A disappeared person, unlike someone who is arrested and charged, has no record. A Chilean high court will decide if Judge Guzman has standing to continue his case.

But, in his zeal to eliminate those opponents who knew him best, Pinochet overstepped the tacit boundaries that even the CIA sets for its progeny. After the coup, CIA and State Department officials in Chile seemed a bit shocked by the severity of the repression. They reported to Washington that Pinochet, once thought of as politically mild if not downright neuter, had gone zealous. Washington did not formally object to the routine executions, including the fabled Caravan of Death, whereby a General under Pinochet's orders led a kind of Waffen SS squad through Chileans cities systematically executing leaders of the political opposition.

Nor did Washington challenge Pinochet to stop the routine torture of tens of thousands of opponents. "Severe repression is planned," one 1973 State Department cable begins. "The military is rounding up large numbers of people, including students and leftists of all descriptions, and interning them. 300 students were killed in the technical university..." An October 26, 1973 CIA cable reports on Pinochet's plan "to destroy any and all resistance within two months." And, the cable continues, "This will require more killing by the military..." A February 5, 1974 cable refers to DINA using techniques "taken directly from the Spanish Inquisition, which often left the person interrogated with visible bodily damage." A September 27 1973 report from US Ambassador Nathaniel Davis offers a job description for "an advisor ...qualified in establishing a detention center for the detainees who will be held for a relatively long period of time."

The "advisor must have knowledge in the establishment and operation of a detention center." Davis suggests that the State Department send tents, blankets, etc...which need not be publicly and specifically earmarked for prisoners"-so as not to admit we're outfitting Chilean concentration camps. Pinochet had placed former Allende Cabinet Ministers in such a camp near the South Pole.

Since Washington made no official comment of disapproval, Pinochet saw a green light, a license to kill and torture, from the Empire, from those that had encouraged and indeed paved the road to the coup. Once in power, Pinochet behaved like Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi. He ordered the executions of his potential enemies and stole from the people. Pinochet developed a special proclivity for going after former Defense Ministers and others who had seen his personnel file, all of whom had listened to his endless oaths pledging eternal loyalty.

The First Dead Defense Minister

After the September 1973 coup, Jose Toha, Defense Minister years in 1972, a socialist, a gentleman, fell ill after Pinochet had remanded him to a concentration camp -without charges. Toha, bed-ridden, without strength to rise and go to the toilet, was found hanging by his own belt from a hospital ceiling bar. His widow still has an engraved copper plate that says: "To Jose and Moy, with eternal loyalty and affection, Augusto and Lucia."

The Second Dead Defense Minister

General Carlos Prats, defense minister, former chief of staff who resigned allowing Pinochet to replace him in August 1973, was blown nine stories high, with his wife, by a car bomb in Buenos Aires, where he had exiled himself. In 1978, FBI Agents learned that Pinochet's intelligence agency had orchestrated the kill. Two high ranking generals also died mysterious deaths in those early Pinochet years. General Lutz died of mysterious causes after being taken to a military hospital against his will. General Bonilla died in a helicopter crash. Both generals had been critical of Pinochet's excessive zeal in carrying out repression.

Shoot the Christian Democrat

In 1975, according to FBI intelligence, Chilean intelligence agents hired an Italian fascist hit squad in Rome to shoot exiled Christian democratic leader Bernardo Leighton. The assassin put a bullet in the back of Leighton's head and one in his wife's as well. Both survived, but never regained full health. The FBI discovered that the pistolero, Stefano della'Chia, visited Pinochet in Madrid three months later, when Pinochet attended Franco's funeral.

Miss a Couple of Targets

FBI agents also discovered that the CIA had put the kibosh on two other DINA hits, scheduled in 1976 one in Spain, the other in Portugal. "Don't screw around with our NATO partners again," the Agency essentially told their Chilean counterpart. But DINA had extended its long arm abroad with the full knowledge of US Intelligence. Indeed, Operation Condor, as the overseas hit machinery became known, had included US Agents in several of its Latin American operations.

The Third Dead Defense Minister

Orlando Letelier became Allende's last defense minister in August 1973. After the coup, Pinochet banished Letelier to the Dawson Island concentration camp - without charges. Pinochet freed Letelier in the Fall of 1974, after receiving pressure from Venezuela's oil minister, a close friend of Letelier. By 1975, Orlando had moved with his family to Washington DC to accept a fellowship at the Institute for Policy Studies. There, he dedicated fill time to developing a project on the new international economic order and to restoring democracy in Chile.

Whacking Prats in Argentina and Leighton in Rome were audacious acts. But in June 1976, Pinochet ordered his secret police chief to remove Letelier. As he and Ronni Moffitt, an IPS colleague, were riding to work, anti-Castro Cubans employed by DINA touched a remote control switch and detonated the bomb they had placed under his car. The FBI traced the killings to DINA chief Col. Manuel Contreras and his deputy for operations Lt. Col. Pedro Espinoza. That one action, out of all the killings, may become the key to Pinochet's demise.

Where, asked FBI agents, did Pinochet get the audacity to authorize this imprudent act? The possible answer might shock them. During a June 8, 1976 conversation, Pinochet told he was troubled. Kissinger, had come to Santiago to address an OAS General Assembly meeting on the subject of human rights, a subject on which he was about as qualified as Pinochet. Kissinger told Pinochet that although his next day speech to the OAS meeting in Santiago would concern human rights, the General should understand that the speech was not directed at his government. An official record of their conversation has Kissinger assuring "we are sympathetic with what you are trying to do here." In the same conversation, Kissinger went on to evaluate Pinochet as "a victim of all leftwing groups around the world." Kissinger went on to say: "We wish your government well." Pinochet twice complained about Orlando Letelier. Kissinger ignored the comments and told Pinochet that "we support your methods." In his Memoirs, Kissinger recalls the meeting as one where he gave Pinochet a stern lecture on human rights.

End Flash Back

On Sunday, March 12, 2000, I join some 250,000 people, mostly between ages 18-25 as they celebrate in Parque Forestal, in Santiago's downtown. Lagos will speak in the early evening. In the meantime, it's music and song. Young people wave banners demanding that Pinochet face trial. I see tattooed and punctured youth, passing bottles and joints. Every few minutes, groups rise from the grass and the familiar sweet, smoky odor and shout "Juicio a Pinochet" (Pinochet to trial). An eighteen year old carried a banner, with the face of Allende.

"What does he mean to you?" I asked the young woman.

"Freedom," she said, without pausing. "He means social justice and an end to the horrible black years of military fascism and the ten gray years of so-called transition to democracy under the Christian Democrats.

"Yes," added a young man from Antofagasta, who was sipping rot gut with a friend and holding up a Lagos poster that also said "Say no to drugs." We want real democracy, real freedom."

Six months before, pot-smoking would have brought about a quick arrest and a long jail sentence. "On the day after Lagos' inaugural it's time to declare independence from the tight-assed years," said a young, bra-less woman, with pink hair. This is the time for the young people to come out of the closet and create our own freedom."

"Juicio a Pinochet," (Bring Pinochet to trial) they began to shout, jumping and laughing.

"Ridiculous," said one of the older onlookers. The military will never allow him to be tried.

"Fear," responded Carolina, nineteen years old, a university student wearing a pierced lip with a stud in it. "Pinochet has thrown fear like a blanket across this country. But now, after his detention in London and after four countries are demanding his extradition, he no longer frightens me or my friends. Maybe we're too young. We did not know the murders, the disappearances, the torture, the constant sense of dread that the old goat's secret police inflicted."

The older woman said nothing, a feint smile appearing on her lips. "Perhaps," she said. Perhaps she was referring to candidate Lagos wagging his finger at the Chilean military in warning not to overstep their boundaries and, later that night, to his words from the presidential palace balcony stating that Chileans "will always remember the traitors who bombed the palace." He called for the elimination of "authoritarian enclaves" in Pinochet's constitution and declared his intention to complete the transition from military to civilian government.

Perhaps she was referring to the recent push by the Justice Department to reopen the Letelier-Moffitt case. Indeed, Attorney General Janet Reno represented the US government at the inauguration and she met with Hortensia Bussi Allende, the widow, and with Sofia Prats, the daughter of the slain general.

The US Ambassador hosted Isabel Morel de Letelier, the widow and her son Juan Pablo, now a socialist Member of Chile's lower House. The FBI has sent a slew of agents to Chile to interrogate witnesses. During Lagos' first week, Chile accepted US Letters Rogatory, asking for assistance in questioning 42 witnesses, most of them high ranking military or former military ands secret police officials that were connected to the Letelier assassination. A Grand Jury sits in Washington hearing the evidence presented by an Assistant US Attorney. At the very least, they could indict Pinochet tomorrow for obstruction of justice. We may soon see the holes in his immunity cloak.

New documents emerged, one signed by Brigadier Pedro Espinoza, former Number 2 man in DINA. The documents point to a cover-up on the Letelier assassination, which Espinoza was convicted of arranging. Espinoza invokes Pinochet's name as the author of the Letelier assassination. Belgium, France, Switzerland and Spain have called for his extradition for Crimes Against Humanity, genocide and Terrorism. In his first week in office, Lagos abolished compulsory military service and replaced it with a volunteer army that gets paid.

The new president has pledged to restore the infrastructure Chilean workers won over more than a century. Lagos promised to reform "harmful legacies of the military dictatorship that limit the exercise of democracy," like the nine non-elected Senate seats the military brass allocated for itself in perpetuity. He has already introduced legislation to help the unemployed and strengthen social security. But unlike Fidel Castro in Cuba and President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Lagos will not alter the free market model. He accepts the corporate global system as a given. Under Lagos, Chile's working classes may restore their memory of struggle. The are regaining their courage. This may allow them again to make their own history - but with the immense limits imposed by our times and certainly not on the terrain they had chosen before a military coup inspired in Washington and the Board rooms of Santiago changed their destiny.

Copyright 2000 The Progressive