The Conversation: Kissinger's Chilean obsession enabled enduring dictatorship

Noticing my nonappearance at the start of a black-tie dinner at the Johannesburg home of mining magnate Harry Oppenheimer, Africa’s richest man, the host assumed I was boycotting on principle.

It was a reasonable assumption, as I was the Chilean ambassador to South Africa, and Henry Kissinger was the chief guest. But I was just late, having encountered a hailstorm.

By then, a quarter century had passed since a military coup toppled freely elected Chilean President Salvador Allende, giving rise to Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s brutal 17-year military dictatorship. But the issue still lingered.

Many Chileans bitterly remembered the role of the U.S. government — and of Kissinger in particular — in the breakdown of Chilean democracy. It was something Kissinger himself acknowledged during the dinner, explaining that he routinely declined invitations to visit my home country out of fear over what “Allende Chileans” would do to him.

And in point of fact, plenty of Chileans still despise Kissinger.

On news of his Nov. 29 death at the age of 100, Juan Gabriel Valdes, Chile’s ambassador to the U.S., summed up that sentiment. He posted on X, “A man has died whose historical brilliance never managed to conceal his profound moral misery.”

It’s hard to overestimate the role Kissinger played in Chile. As national security adviser and secretary of state during the Nixon and Ford administrations, he oversaw policies that helped first install and later prop up a dictator.

Upon Allende’s election on Sept. 4, 1970, Kissinger became obsessed with blocking his inauguration. The measures approved by Kissinger included the botched CIA kidnapping of Chilean Army Chief René Schneider, which resulted in the general’s assassination instead.

Kissinger insisted on taking a hard line with the Allende administration. He did everything possible to make the “Chilean road to socialism” fail, among other things, by “making the economy scream,” as President Richard Nixon put it.

After a meeting with Kissinger in November 1970, a CIA agent cabled the agency station in Santiago to note, “It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown in a coup.”

The CIA’s covert financing of Chilean opposition parties, funding of the country’s right-wing media and support for a 1972 truckers strike, which snarled the nation’s freight and commerce for months, were amply documented by a U.S. Senate committee a few years after the resulting coup. And not content with having helped topple Allende, Kissinger wholeheartedly supported the repressive Pinochet regime afterward.

When the U.S. ambassador to Chile relayed his efforts to persuade the military to act less brutally against political prisoners, Kissinger wrote on the margins of the cable, “… cut out the political science lectures.” At a 1976 Organization of American States meeting in Santiago, he was asked to urge that Pinochet ease up on the repression, but instead told the general, “We want to help, not undermine you.”

In fact, Kissinger’s support for repressive military dictatorships extended well beyond Chile’s borders.

He supported Operation Condor, an international undertaking that coordinated intelligence and operations of repressive right-wing regimes in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia and Uruguay from 1975 to 1983. This contributed to the widespread detention, torture and murder of left-wing activists across three continents.

By September 1976, the excesses of Operation Condor had become clear for all to see, and the U.S. State Department prepared an important diplomatic message, known as a demarche, strongly objecting to its repressive policies.

Amazingly, Kissinger was able to stop it in its tracks. The message was never delivered to foreign ministries, and the timing was ominous.

Five days later, on Sept. 21, 1976, Orlando Letelier, an exiled Chilean diplomat who had served as Allende’s ambassador to the U.S., was assassinated in Washington, D.C. A bomb blew up the car he was driving, fatally injuring him and colleague Ronni Karpen Moffitt.

Letelier was giving Ronni and her husband, Michael, a ride to work. Michael Moffitt was thrown from the vehicle, but survived.

Preceding 9/11 by 25 years, the Letelier assassination was the first foreign-sponsored terrorist act ever documented on U.S. soil. Years of investigations revealed that Chile’s secret police planned and executed the plot to get rid of a prominent political figure with influential contacts in the U.S. capital.

Mocking Chile’s supposed lack of strategic significance, Kissinger once dismissed the long and narrow country as “a dagger pointing straight at the heart of Antarctica.” Yet, he devoted full chapters to Chile in each of the first two volumes of his memoirs.

What made Kissinger take such deadly aim at Allende was his new political model, a “peaceful road to socialism.”

It represented something else entirely from the revolutionary movements that were coming to the fore in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In Chile, an established and stable democracy had elected a Socialist president with an ambitious program of social and economic reforms.

Kissinger feared Allende’s Popular Unity coalition, which brought together an array of leftist and left-of-center political parties, could easily be replicated in Europe, in countries like France and Italy. That, he felt, could lead to anti-U.S. governments — Washington’s worst nightmare.

In this, Kissinger was not wrong. French Socialist leader Francois Mitterrand visited Chile in 1971, met with Allende, recreated such a coalition in France and repeatedly won presidential elections.

Successful democratic socialist countries did not fit Kissinger’s long-held design for the world.

His goal was creating a balance of power among the key players — the United States, Europe, the Soviet Union, China and Japan. This sprang from his studies of Europe’s long peace in the 19th century, anchored in a balance of power among Great Britain, France, Prussia, Russia and Austria-Hungary.

To Kissinger, what in the 1970s was called the Third World played no role. To him, history was shaped by the great powers, notably the U.S., China and the Soviet Union.

It is estimated that more than 3,000 people were killed by Chile’s military dictatorship, at least 1,000 of whom were simply never seen again.

These numbers pale in comparison to the estimated 30,000 deaths in Argentina under its junta; the hundreds of thousands of deaths in Cambodia as a result of U.S. bombings directed by Kissinger; the millions of deaths in Bangladesh in its 1971 war of independence against U.S.-backed Pakistan; and 200,000 deaths at the hands of Indonesian armed forces in East Timor in 1975, with Kissinger’s explicit approval.

They were casualties of the misguided geopolitical obsessions of a man blinded by a 19th century European view of world affairs. That perspective casts all developing nations as mere pawns in games played by the great powers.

To this day, Chile lives under the shadow of Pinochet’s 1980 constitution, which greatly expanded presidential powers and enshrined the neoliberal economic model he imposed.

Chileans have voted twice in two years on replacement constitutions designed to restore legislative power.

Both foundered on elements opposed by significant sections of a splintered electorate, and enthusiasm for a third try is limited. So the scars remain.

From The Conversation, an online repository of lay versions of academic research findings found at https://theconversation.com/us. Used with permission.


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