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The U.S. set the stage for a coup in Chile. It had unintended consequences at home

Military jets bombed La Moneda presidential palace during the coup on Sept. 11, 1973, in Santiago, Chile. President Salvador Allende killed himself and Gen. Augusto Pinochet began a 17-year dictatorship.
AP
Military jets bombed La Moneda presidential palace during the coup on Sept. 11, 1973, in Santiago, Chile. President Salvador Allende killed himself and Gen. Augusto Pinochet began a 17-year dictatorship.

Fifty years ago in Chile, the United States worked to end the presidency of an elected Marxist and, in turn, helped usher in an authoritarian right-wing dictatorship.

During the ensuing 17-year rule of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, more than 3,000 people would be disappeared or killed and some 38,000 would become political prisoners — most of them victims of torture.

The brutality in Chile, thousands of miles away, would have repercussions back in the U.S.

When the U.S. role in Chile's democratic collapse became known, activists took action. So did lawmakers. In effect, the coup in Chile led to human rights concerns and Congress taking on a larger role in U.S. foreign policy.

In America, the coup of Sept. 11, 1973, "galvanized public opinion in a way that no other activity, no other coup, no other military dictatorship in Latin America did," says Joe Eldridge, a longtime human rights advocate who was in Chile when it happened. "It was the suddenness, the abruptness in a country that had a long tradition of honoring democratic governance. Chile galvanized, it crystallized in the minds of so many, what was wrong with U.S. foreign policy."

But first, it's necessary to explain what happened. What follows is a history of what led the U.S. to have a hand in the coup, how it occurred, and what happened afterward.

The campaign against Salvador Allende

An undated photo of Chilean politician Salvador Allende. The U.S. spent massively to try to prevent him from becoming president. Nevertheless, he was elected in 1970.
/ AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
An undated photo of Chilean politician Salvador Allende. The U.S. spent massively to try to prevent him from becoming president. Nevertheless, he was elected in 1970.

The U.S. had been meddling in Chile's politics for years by the time 1973 rolled around. U.S. interventions in Latin America go back more than a century.

During the mid-20th century, the Cold War shaped much of policymakers' thinking. Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution in Cuba alarmed Washington about communism and threats of Soviet influence in the Western Hemisphere.

U.S. officials were especially concerned about Salvador Allende, a self-proclaimed Marxist and a member of Chile's Socialist Party who ran for president multiple times and was a leading contender in the 1964 election. He had pledged to nationalize the mostly U.S.-owned copper companies, a large industry in Chile.

The U.S. spent massively on anti-communist propaganda and support for Allende's opponent in 1964. The influence proved effective: Allende lost.

But Allende ran again in 1970. Richard Nixon was now the U.S. president and Henry Kissinger his assistant for national security affairs. They perceived Allende as a threat to U.S. interests and as a friend of the Soviet Union. (Allende's campaign did receive $350,000 from Cuba, according to CIA estimates, and at least $400,000 from Moscow, according to one book on the history of the KGB's foreign operations.) Kissinger was especially concerned about the example it would set for Western European countries to have a socialist freely elected.

In the months before the election, the U.S. spent hundreds of thousands on a "spoiling operation," much of it propaganda aimed at preventing Allende from taking power. International businesses, most notably International Telephone and Telegraph, were involved as well, passing funds to Allende's main opponent.

Still, Allende narrowly won in a three-way contest in early September 1970. Under the constitution at the time, the decision then went to Chile's Congress to vote between the top two finishers.

Nixon instructed top U.S. officials to do whatever they could to prevent Allende from taking office.

In addition to continued propaganda efforts, the CIA met with Chilean military contacts in a direct effort to foment a coup to stop an Allende presidency. A top general who opposed a coup was killed in a kidnapping plot.

Salvador Allende is pictured in February 1973. The Marxist was elected president in 1970 but was overthrown in a coup in 1973.
STF / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Salvador Allende is pictured in February 1973. The Marxist was elected president in 1970 but was overthrown in a coup in 1973.

The CIA's efforts failed, however, and Allende was sworn in on Nov. 3, 1970. What followed were more attempts to shore up opposition. The U.S. spent $8 million on covert actions between 1970 and the 1973 coup, according to a 1975 Senate report. U.S. officials also backed economic measures to squeeze Allende's government.

"That was the policy of the United States: to make it difficult for him to successfully govern," says Peter Kornbluh, the director of the Chile Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, a nonprofit research group that works to bring secret government documents to light. "The invisible blockade, the cutoff of international monetary aid and assistance, stifling loans from the World Bank and the [Inter-American Development Bank], cutting off export credits from the United States, obviously pouring money into the militant pro-coup opposition and expanding contacts with the Chilean military. And, of course, the one that the CIA thinks really helped set the stage for the coup was the El Mercurio project," he says.

El Mercurio, a large Santiago daily newspaper opposed to Allende, received at least $1.5 million from the CIA. (A former CIA officer in Chile downplayed the influence the agency had on the paper's editorial line.)

The U.S. was not the only reason for the coup

An October 1972 confrontation between strikers opposing President Salvador Allende and supporters of the Allende government trying to access shopping centers closed down by strikers in Santiago.
/ AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
An October 1972 confrontation between strikers opposing President Salvador Allende and supporters of the Allende government trying to access shopping centers closed down by strikers in Santiago.

It's important to note that Chile was politically polarized. Allende took office having only won just over a third of votes. The Congress was deadlocked.

In the Allende years, "the far left mobilizes. The far right mobilizes," says Peter Siavelis, a professor of political science and international affairs at Wake Forest University who has studied Chile extensively. "Inflation starts to soar. The CIA funds the most important truckers union and the truckers were on strike. There's blockades. This is where the shortages come in. Food and basic necessities are not delivered and people are waiting in line. And a generalized sense of sort of chaos, polarization. ... The military increasingly sees that there's no way out of this situation except for a military coup."

The Senate report, from the committee led by Idaho Sen. Frank Church, found no evidence that the U.S. was "directly involved, covertly" in the 1973 coup. But the U.S. "probably gave the impression that it would not look with disfavor on a military coup. And U.S. officials in the years before 1973 may not always have succeeded in walking the thin line between monitoring indigenous coup plotting and actually stimulating it."

Kissinger himself told Nixon five days after the coup: "We didn't do it. I mean we helped them. [Word missing] created the conditions as great as possible."

A violent operation begins against leftists

People lie on the ground after being arrested by the military during the coup on Sept. 11, 1973, in Santiago, Chile.
/ AP
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AP
People lie on the ground after being arrested by the military during the coup on Sept. 11, 1973, in Santiago, Chile.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 1973, the military launched a coup and took control of the country. Military jets bombed the presidential palace. Allende killed himself after giving a final defiant address to the country.

Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the army chief once thought to be loyal to Chile's constitution, soon emerged as the country's new leader. The military junta began a ruthless campaign against communists and socialists.

"There's a state of siege declared. Political parties are outlawed. Universities are shut down. And a process of widespread arrest of political opponents begins to take place," Siavelis says.

People are tortured and killed in detention centers across Chile, including Estadio Nacional, the national stadium. Victims included the popular folk singer Victor Jara.

Leftists who were arrested after the coup were held prisoner in the national stadium, in Santiago, in September 1973. Many people were tortured at the stadium.
/ AP
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AP
Leftists who were arrested after the coup were held prisoner in the national stadium, in Santiago, in September 1973. Many people were tortured at the stadium.

"This sense of fear, the sense of everybody being in danger, was palpable," says the writer Ariel Dorfman, who was a cultural adviser to Allende's chief of staff.

Joe Eldridge, an American, was in Chile at the time as an elder of the United Methodist Church.

"People were disappearing right and left from my neighborhood. Friends of mine were disappearing and I was afraid I was going to disappear," he says. "The morgue was filled. Bodies were floating down the Mapocho River."

Tens of thousands went into exile, mostly in Europe, with some in the U.S. and Mexico.

Eldridge left two months after the coup. "I came back full of fury and indignation at the United States," he says.

The U.S. role is questioned

President Richard Nixon and his adviser Henry Kissinger are pictured at the White House on or about Oct. 1, 1973. Nixon instructed top U.S. officials to prevent Allende from taking office. Kissinger directed much of the U.S. foreign policy toward Chile.
/ National Archive/Newsmakers via Getty Images
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National Archive/Newsmakers via Getty Images
President Richard Nixon and his adviser Henry Kissinger are pictured at the White House on or about Oct. 1, 1973. Nixon instructed top U.S. officials to prevent Allende from taking office. Kissinger directed much of the U.S. foreign policy toward Chile.

Back in the U.S., news of Pinochet's atrocities began to spread via Chilean exiles and human rights activists. The journalist Seymour Hersh wrote articles in The New York Times in late 1974 exposing the CIA's role.

Kissinger, meanwhile, let the Chileans know early on that the U.S. was "favorably disposed" to the junta.

"The United States turned around [from] pursuing a policy to prevent Allende from consolidating to a policy of actively assisting Pinochet to consolidate. Notwithstanding the bodies in the street, the torture, the disappearances," Kornbluh says. He says documents show Kissinger was the "dominant policymaker on Chile."

Kissinger's office did not respond to NPR's requests for an interview.

Vanessa Walker, a history professor at Amherst College, says the coup, which came at a particularly volatile time in American politics, served as a catalyst for the modern human rights movement.

The movement for racial equality, Watergate and the disastrous conclusion of the Vietnam War were fresh in the American public's mind in the mid-'70s. There was "a real sense of apprehension about presidential power in particular and the government more generally," she says. "Cold War paradigms of fighting communism wherever you meet it are really starting to lose credibility in light of the Vietnam War. And so when Chile happens and then the subsequent reports of U.S. involvement in Chile come out, it really calls into question a lot of the fundamental premises of U.S. foreign policy for many people."

Activists and Congress take action

Now in Washington, Eldridge and a whole network of activists were committed to stopping U.S. military aid to the Chilean dictatorship.

Nixon had increased various forms of bilateral aid to Chile after the coup. Members of Congress began to take notice.

Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts held hearings about the situation in Chile. He introduced amendments to cut off aid.

Congress "cut off military assistance first, the grant aid. Then it cut off lending, the military finance program. And then it cut off commercial sales of military lethal weapons to Chile," says Mark Schneider, who was a foreign policy adviser to Kennedy.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., (right) meets with Isabel Letelier and Michael Moffitt just before he delivered a speech on Chile on the floor of the U.S. Senate in Washington on May 5, 1978. Letelier's husband, Orlando Letelier, and Moffitt's wife, Ronni Moffitt, were killed by a car bomb planted by agents working under Pinochet's orders.
Charles Harrity / AP
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AP
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., (right) meets with Isabel Letelier and Michael Moffitt just before he delivered a speech on Chile on the floor of the U.S. Senate in Washington on May 5, 1978. Letelier's husband, Orlando Letelier, and Moffitt's wife, Ronni Moffitt, were killed by a car bomb planted by agents working under Pinochet's orders.

As a result of what's called the Kennedy Amendment in 1976, U.S. arms sales and military aid to Chile were banned. (Separately, Section 502B of the Foreign Assistance Act in 1974 halted security assistance to governments that abuse human rights, but this measure has rarely been used.)

Together with reaction to the Vietnam War, the coup in Chile helped bring about a period where lawmakers looked to have a greater influence in U.S. foreign policy, especially with respect to human rights. Ted Kennedy, Minnesota Rep. Don Fraser and others were "trying to check executive power in foreign policymaking and bring Congress back to the table," Walker says.

Chile became part of a larger congressional investigation of U.S. intelligence services after another report by Seymour Hersh in The New York Times, this time about the CIA spying on anti-war activists in the U.S. The Church committee's work in 1975 and 1976 "makes Chile part of a larger pattern of behavior," Walker says. It "reinforces this idea that you have this government who is kind of unhinged from American values or even interests, that you're backing these repressive, anti-democratic regimes when you say you're fighting for democracy."

Congress' emphasis on human rights also helped lead to the creation of a new bureau in the State Department in 1977: the Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs. The bureau, boosted in prominence by President Jimmy Carter, would be in charge of writing regular reports about human rights conditions in other countries.

Exiles kept the spotlight on Chile

Demonstrators gather in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 26, 1976, to protest the killing of former Chilean Ambassador Orlando Letelier. Letelier and Ronni Moffitt were killed in a car bombing.
John Duricka / AP
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AP
Demonstrators gather in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 26, 1976, to protest the killing of former Chilean Ambassador Orlando Letelier. Letelier and Ronni Moffitt were killed in a car bombing.

Chilean exiles did what they could to raise awareness and support human rights back home. In the U.S., there were notable communities of exiles in California, New York and Washington, D.C.

"Everybody was trying to work, you know, either supporting the Chilean movement and also trying to bring awareness in the Congress and the Senate," says Soledad Labarca, who was living in the D.C. area after being kicked out of a university in Chile over her support for the Allende government. She and other activists supported soup kitchens in Chile; organized concerts; tried to drum up attention with the United Nations and Organization of American States (OAS); and helped new exiles with adjusting to their lives in the U.S. They worked to support the families of the detained and disappeared.

Dorfman, the writer, lived in Europe for several years before moving to the U.S. in 1980. The estimated 200,000 Chilean exiles around the world tended to be members of "a very educated elite" and had an outsize impact in their host countries, he says. "We're talking about very major cultural, intellectual figures and political figures who go into exile and who have this enormous influence on the policies of these countries."

A central figure among the exiles pushing for democracy back home was Orlando Letelier. He was an ambassador to the U.S. in Allende's government. After the coup, he was taken prisoner along with other Allende administration officials and sent to Dawson Island, a remote concentration camp. He was released under international pressure and came to work at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.

Ronni Moffitt (left) and Orlando Letelier were killed by a car bomb planted by agents working under the orders of Augusto Pinochet.
/ Moffitt family/Institute for Policy Studies via Wikimedia Commons, AP
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Moffitt family/Institute for Policy Studies via Wikimedia Commons, AP
Ronni Moffitt (left) and Orlando Letelier were killed by a car bomb planted by agents working under the orders of Augusto Pinochet.

Agents working under the orders of Pinochet planted a car bomb that exploded on Sept. 21, 1976, at Washington's Sheridan Circle — an act of state-sponsored terror in the heart of the U.S. capital by a U.S. ally. Letelier and his co-worker Ronni Moffitt were killed.

The Carter and Reagan years

A car bomb exploded in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 21, 1976, killing Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt.
Peter Bregg / AP
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AP
A car bomb exploded in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 21, 1976, killing Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt.

Letelier's assassination loomed large over the Chile policy of Jimmy Carter, who came into office in 1977 emphasizing human rights in foreign policy. The assassination plot was traced back to the high levels of the Pinochet government. Carter pushed for the extradition of three officers involved in the plot, but Pinochet had no intention of complying.

In response, the Carter administration implemented sanctions in 1979. By this time, Chile had already become a pariah on the diplomatic world stage, with condemnations from the U.N. and the OAS.

Pinochet expected a friendlier attitude when Ronald Reagan came into office in 1981. But after some initial overtures toward the dictatorship, within a few years, the Reagan administration concluded Pinochet had to go.

"Rather than an anti-communist bulwark, [to U.S. officials] the ageing dictator appeared to be more of an impediment to long-term stability," writes history professor John Bawden in a paper on the history of U.S. military aid to Chile.

Many were especially horrified by the military's killing of a young photographer, Rodrigo Rojas, in 1986. The 19-year-old Washington, D.C., resident had returned to Chile, where he was born. During a street protest, he was beaten and set on fire along with 18-year-old engineering student Carmen Gloria Quintana. They were dropped in a ditch outside Santiago, left to die. Rojas died of his injuries days later; Quintana survived and was severely disfigured.

Rojas' mother, Verónica De Negri, was living in Washington and was banned from returning to Chile. Dorfman says he was one of the people who helped facilitate her return to see her son in the hospital before he died.

"I was in touch with the U.S. Embassy that was very active in that case," he says. "You could already see the change in the way in which the U.S. Embassy was acting. Instead of being supportive of Pinochet, as they had been for many, many years, they were outraged by this."

But the Reagan administration considered its options for influencing Pinochet to be limited. Military aid was still cut off.

Pinochet had backed the creation of a new constitution in 1980, in part to legitimize the military government. That same constitution now required a plebiscite that was held in 1988: "Yes" or "No" to more years of Pinochet in power. Thanks to the work of Chilean opposition groups and the "No" campaign's messaging, he lost.

Pinochet's loss paved the way for democracy to return to Chile in 1990, though he still held influence over the country's politics for years after.

Dorfman maintains that Chilean exiles and a solidarity network played a prominent role in supporting the opposition all those years — particularly with money.

"The money kept people alive," he says. "They kept clandestine presses going. They kept trade union movements going. They kept youth movements going. They kept cultural movements going."

Without the network, he says, "I think we would not have been able to stop Pinochet."

Pinochet died in 2006 at age 91 having avoided trials for medical reasons.

The legacy of the Chilean coup at 50 years

A visitor looks at a display on the opening day of the Memory and Human Rights Museum in Santiago on Jan. 11, 2010. The museum is dedicated to remembering the tens of thousands of people imprisoned, tortured or killed during the Pinochet dictatorship.
Aliosha Marquez / AP
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AP
A visitor looks at a display on the opening day of the Memory and Human Rights Museum in Santiago on Jan. 11, 2010. The museum is dedicated to remembering the tens of thousands of people imprisoned, tortured or killed during the Pinochet dictatorship.

Chile was far from the only place where the U.S. had either sponsored a coup or meddled in another country's politics. But it was the exceptional violence of Pinochet's government, the coup's timing during the Vietnam War and the unique influence of Chilean exiles that all made the coup particularly well-known in the canon of U.S. interventions abroad.

Another factor is that conversations between top officials were well-documented — and many of those documents have been made public with the help of Kornbluh and the National Security Archive. The U.S. was "caught red-handed," Kornbluh says.

And for its part, Chile has had an outsize role in world history, Siavelis says.

A statue of Salvador Allende stands outside La Moneda presidential palace, where Chilean President Gabriel Boric holds an event on May 19, 2023.
Esteban Felix / AP
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AP
A statue of Salvador Allende stands outside La Moneda presidential palace, where Chilean President Gabriel Boric holds an event on May 19, 2023.

It was among the first countries to democratically elect a Marxist leader. "It was the first country that really had as open a neoliberal economy as it had. Its democratic transition was lauded as an exemplar democratic transition," he says. It predated South Africa in its truth and reconciliation commission.

A council is now working on a new constitution to replace the one dating to the dictatorship. Voters rejected a previous effort last year.

"I do think that there's something there about the uniqueness of this country and its democratic experiments that it's had over the last 50 years," Siavelis says. "And that provides a lot of lessons for other countries in the world."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

James Doubek is an associate editor and reporter for NPR. He frequently covers breaking news for NPR.org and NPR's hourly newscast. In 2018, he reported feature stories for NPR's business desk on topics including electric scooters, cryptocurrency, and small business owners who lost out when Amazon made a deal with Apple.