Monday, September 11, 2006

The Other September 11

Today is the 33rd anniversary of the Chilean coup that brought military dictator Auguste Pinochet to power. On this day in 1973, a US backed armed uprising overthrew the regime of a democratically elected president. Salvador Allende Gossens was the first socialist to be elected president in South America and he was killed on the day of the coup. A march on the eve of the 33rd anniversary in Santiago ended in clouds of tear gas as police dispersed demonstrators throwing rocks and bottles at government buildings, including the presidential palace.

Allende was born in the port city of Valparaiso in 1908. He graduated in medicine from the University of Chile in Santiago in 1933. That same year he was a co-founder of the Chilean Socialist Party. Five years later, Pedro Aguirre Cerda led a Popular Front government to victory and Allende was appointed Minister for Health. After Cerda died in 1941, Allende returned to his parliamentary career and served as a senator throughout the 1940s and 1950s. In 1952, Allende made his first run for the presidency, finishing well back in fourth. The same year, he was suspended from his party because of his support for the outlawed Communist Party of Chile. He ran for president twice more and failed in 1958 and 1964.

Allende became a person of interest to the Americans after he established a friendship with Fidel Castro. The Nixon administration, newly elected in 1968, feared that US corporations active in Chile might be nationalised by a socialist government and so became openly hostile. Nixon acknowledged that he had given instructions to "do anything short of a Dominican-type action" to keep the democratically elected president of Chile from assuming office. Allende put his name forward for a fourth presidential election in September 1970. Although he only received 36% of the popular vote (down 3% from his 1964 figure), he was 1% ahead of his main rightist opponent. The closeness of the result sent the election to the National Congress for a vote. In the six weeks waiting for this vote to occur, the CIA supported the assassination of General René Schneider Chereau, the armed forces Commander-in-Chief. His murder influenced the congress which voted 153 to 35 in favour of Allende. He was declared president of Chile on 24 October.

In office, Allende pursued a leftist program and his government established diplomatic relations with Cuba. He also moved Chile closer to communist countries such as China, North Korea and North Vietnam. At home, the new regime began to nationalise various industries, several of which had significant U.S. business interests. This line of action quickly cost the president the support of Chile's business community. The Allende government announced it would default on debts owed to international creditors and foreign governments. Allende also froze all prices while raising salaries. By early 1972, United States was working seriously to destabilise the country. It supported the opposition and worked systematically to weaken Chile's economy. Chile’s chief export was copper and prices declined on the international market. As a result, the government began to lose control. In order to control a strike by shopkeepers and truck owners, Allende temporarily brought senior military officers into his cabinet. With inflation out of control and his country becoming polarized between the extreme left and the extreme right, Allende slowly lost his grip.

On 29 June 1973, Colonel Roberto Souper led El Tanquetazo (the tank putsch) against Allende’s government. But his tank-led coup was put down by forces loyal to the regime. But less than three months later it was all over. In August, Chile was lurching towards a constitutional crisis as the Supreme Court complained that Allende could not govern. Early in the morning of 11 September, sections of the Chilean navy seized the port city of Valparaiso, Allende’s home town. The President went to his La Moneda palace when he heard the news. He tried in vain to contact senior military officers and concluded they were all in on the coup. Allende made a radio address "Confirmed reports indicate that a sector of the Navy has rebelled and is occupying Valparaiso. Santiago is normal and [the soldiers are] in their barracks. I'm here defending the government that I represent by the will of the people. Be alert and vigilant...I wait for the soldiers of Chile to respond positively and defend the laws and the Constitution. Workers must go to their workplace and wait for new instructions.”

Then the military junta made its own radio broadcast which called for the immediate resignation of Allende. The broadcast was signed by most of Chile’s leading generals. They offered a plane to take Allende out of the country but he refused. Allende made one last desperate address to the nation by telephone to another radio station which commenced “This will surely be the last time I speak to you”. The military surrounded the presidential palace with tanks. The air force circled the building. Forces loyal to Allende inside the building opened fire and started a fierce gun battle. The jets opened fire on the palace and unleashed twenty minutes of rocket attacks that destroyed the building. The army invade the wrecked palace. Allende was with his supporters on the second floor and ordered them to leave. He committed suicide when alone. General Palacios arrived at the scene of the suicide with his soldiers and ordered them to block the entrance to the room where Allende lay, except to forensic personnel. He then sent the following brief message to the generals assembled at the Ministry of Defence: "Mission accomplished. Moneda taken. President dead."

Some 3,000 people died in this September 11. General Pinochet led the new government and the US moved quickly to support the legitimacy of the new regime. Declassified US government documents showed how in the months and years following the 1973 coup, Henry Kissinger covered up US information about atrocities in Chile and sought to persuade Pinochet that the US did not consider his behavior a major problem.

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