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Salvador Allende
Thirty years ago, the U.S. was the aggressor in upending a foreign government

Early one clear September morning, planes appeared in the sky, then hit their target. After the impact, a dense plume of smoke streamed from the building - a cherished architectural masterpiece symbolic of the people's political values. A few fanatics - whose leaders had been violently undermining the security and well-being of those they deemed their enemies - had attacked a free nation.

It was September 11, 1973, when military planes from a nearby air force base flew over the Chilean capital of Santiago, and bombed La Moneda, the 18th-century government palace, where President Salvador Allende was trying to hold his ground.

His attempts were fruitless. That morning, the Chilean navy had seized control of the main port of Valparaiso. A few miles offshore, a fleet of United States Navy vessels were waiting under the pretense of performing war exercises with their Chilean counterparts.

By noon Allende was dead, as were many of his followers. In the ensuing days, weeks, months, and years, hundreds of Chilean citizens and were imprisoned, tortured, executed, or massacred under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, the U.S.' choice to lead the country.

September 11 links America and Chile in ironic ways. In 2001, the U.S. was the victim of a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but in 1973, under the auspices of the CIA, America was the aggressor in a terrorist-like attack, which Secretary of State Colin Powell, has since said he considers to be a shameful incident.

In both the U.S. and Chile, the consequences of these unprovoked attacks remind us that our freedoms in a democracy are easily diminished, or even lost at the hands of power. And our own government - whether foolishly elected or imposed upon us - is not necessarily our best friend.

For many Chileans, 9-11 is remembered as the day when a seditious national army, encouraged and supported by the U.S. government, violently ended the freely elected government of Allende, the leftist Chilean politician. His popularity among the "wrong" people in the Americas made Washington, D.C. - particularly President Richard Nixon's national security adviser Henry Kissinger - nervous.

The U.S.-Chilean military coup happened because the Nixon administration was afraid that the leftist policies of Allende's socialist government might inspire other Latin American countries to elect similar leaders. The consequences for U.S. economic interests in the continent could have been enormous, Nixon's aides assumed, and any socialist success in Chile should be avoided at all costs.

In both the U.S. and Chile, the consequences of these unprovoked attacks remind us that our freedoms in a democracy are easily diminished, or even lost at the hands of power.
Meanwhile, in Chile, many feared the country would become another Cuba, and Allende's opponents used this uneasiness to justify the violence against an administration that had welcomed Fidel Castro to visit the country - and that was clearly moving towards a Marxist economic and social model.

After generations of suffering under a system that had been unable to solve the country's endemic poverty, many saw in Allende an answer to their demands for social justice. Happy to see their salaries increase and other social benefits improve, they were ready to support "their President."

Unfortunately, the U.S. saw Allende's political and economic reforms as part of the ongoing Russian communist propagation, particularly in Latin America. Even before Allende was elected in 1970, the U.S. government had been concerned that Chilean politics was evolving towards socialism under the Christian Democrats. For several years, the CIA was actively involved in plans and projects that would have avoided electing a socialist president. When all those plans failed the obvious solution was to apply extreme force, and keep applying it for as long as necessary.

After Allende's assassination, the country's upheaval was difficult and traumatic, as Chileans had become accustomed to living in a democracy, ostensibly the most stable and long-lasting in Latin America. After generations of a free - albeit deeply troubled - country, Chileans found themselves surviving, bereft of any rights, under Pinochet's rule.

Under the new right-wing government, political and social divisions emerged. Everyone belonged to one of two groups, each suspicious and fearful of the other: those who supported the "necessary" authoritarian and patriotic dictatorship, and those "godless" leftists who deserved persecution, harassment, torture, imprisonment, exile, or death.

In truth, everyone was the victim of the national tragedy, regardless of political views. The country had been soiled by political crime and state terrorism promoted by a foreign nation. Yet for the U.S., it was merely another crude intervention in the destiny of a nation, which did not know how powerful the powerful can be.

Today, after almost two decades of brutal dictatorship under Pinochet, and a little more than 10 years of democratically elected leaders, Chileans have chosen a socialist, Ricardo Lagos, as president. But even under the leadership of a socialist ideologue, Chile is still governed by a constitution penned by the dictatorship. And although Chile sets a democratic example in the continent, one has to question its validity: Its capitalist economy - a holdover from the Pinochet era - has not healed the gap between the rich and the working poor.

For Americans and Chileans, September 11 is an ominous example of how our political destinies can easily fall into the hands of foreign interests whose concerns are far from those of the commonweal. •

An American citizen, Santiago Daydi-Tolson was born and raised in Chile.

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