Be Careful What You Wish For

Richard Nixon meets Leonid Brezhnev June 19, 1...

Richard Nixon and his adversary Leonid Brezhnev. Chile lost in the translation?

Chileans have their own 9/11.  For many Chileans, September 11, 1973 will be the date that forever will live in infamy. Theirs happened 38 years ago, a full 28 years before the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States that shook the world to its core and today overshadows anything that happened on that day, including on Chilean soil. But to Chileans, their own 9/11 is one huge sad chapter in their history, and one that continues to cause much pain almost 40 years after.

On September 11, 1973, President Salvador Allende was overthrown in a bloody military coup. Dozens of people were killed that day, but thousands died in the days, months and years that followed. The dictatorship proved more harmful and certainly more deadly to Chilean society than  anything Allende’s duly elected government had done.  Growing dissatisfaction at home with Allende’s socialist policies, lagging economic conditions, and cozy relationship with communist Cuba led to the coup. But external forces as well played a key role in Allende’s overthrow and the installation of the military dictatorship. In the midst of a Cold War and an arms race with the Soviet Union, the United States worried that the Soviets would gain yet another foothold in Latin America.

U.S. President Richard Nixon ordered the Central Intelligence Agencyto step up operations in Chile to hasten the removal of Allende, who as part of his socialist agenda had nationalized companies – including the mining industry – partly or wholly in the hands of American and other foreign interests. American companies, such as ITT Corp., also spent millions trying to derail Allende.

Los Desaparecidos

 ITT was a majority owner of the Chilean telephone company and openly worried that Allende would nationalize it as well. That would mean millions in losses for the U.S.-based corporate giant. So internal and external forces worked hand in hand to topple Allende. And so a ruthless dictatorship came to be. The human rights violations are immeasurable.

Every year, Chileans observe the somber anniversary with calls for justice for the men and women collectively known as los desaparecidos – the vanished. Over the course of the 17-year dictatorship, thousands of these individuals were executed, murdered, tortured and made to disappear. They were often picked up at their homes or place of work and never seen or heard from again. Some were buried in unmarked graves in the desert.
In Calama, where I currently live here in Chile, I was walking in the center of town when I came across a display and a group of women known as the Women of Calama. These are women whose husbands, sons, fathers were executed by the military regime or made to disappear. One of the women, a black and white photo of her father pinned to her chest, took the time to tell me about the display and the reason for it.


She said that on October 19, 1973, just over a month into the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, 26 men from Calama were rounded up – her father included – and were never heard from again. Some were executed while the whereabouts of others was never again known.  The Women of Calama each year call for justice for the individuals whose lives were cut short by the military dictatorship led by Pinochet. Annually in the center of Calama they display the photos of the men and items that tell their stories, such as family photographs, documents and news articles.

On the day I saw the moving display, hundreds of Chileans gathered around to see it. Children learn about the events of 1973 and beyond in Chilean schools, she said, so there’s little chance of Chile’s youths not knowing that part of their country’s history. Still, the Women of Calama dust off the displays each year in October as a way to remember those killed.

The woman told me that the wheels of justice move extremely slowly in Chile and many who took part in the murders and torture of innocents are yet to be brought to justice.  She said some of the accused are old and make all sorts of claims of senility to avoid prosecution.

Some say Chileans don’t like Americans for the United States’ part in bringing the dictatorship to power. I can’t say that I blame them, if that’s indeed the case. But in my three months in Chile, I have not seen any evidence of that. If anything, I’ve been shown nothing but kindness once Chileans learn I’m American.

Certainly, the United States wanted Allende gone. But Chileans also wanted his ouster. Those two forces obviously didn’t know that a military dictatorship that would go around conducting assassinations even beyond its borders would assume control. Herein lies the lesson for the United States and others backing the overthrow of longtime leaders in places such as the Arab world : Be careful what you wish for.

Milton Alfredo – executed October 19, 1973

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2 thoughts on “Be Careful What You Wish For

  1. camilo

    Hello Mike!
    I’m myself a Chilean and I find it very interesting how Americans perceive this unfortunate episode of our history. I’ll give you ‘my side’ of the story, because this episode touched very closely me and my family. I hope that you don’t perceive it as some random and resentful rant.

    I’d disagree of the US not knowing that there were going to be a weave of repression. That’s because (1) The US had already participated in another coup d’état in Brazil, with the same said consequences (2) Many of the people that organized and run the repressive agencies were trained in the US (in the School of the Americas) (3) the CIA kept contact with these people when committing the crimes, thus perfectly knowing what was going on (4) And despite of all the aforementioned, the US never stopped supporting those murderous regimes. These things make me think that the US had not much problem with the killings, provided that those regimes kept the left and the socialists away from power.

    So you’re right, there is some Anti-Americanism, especially among the left. But it is not directed against the people as such. In the US media, it is often argued that some country, say Argentina or Venezuela for instance, that happens to oppose American foreign policy, do this because they ‘hate America’ and what it stands for (say, the values of the declaration of independence: liberty, equality…). Pardon my language, but that’s just bullshit, and I find it disturbing that some Americans actually buy that. The reason for Anti-Americanism in South America (at least in the southern-cone, where every single dictatorship of the period was US-sponsored) is that the historical experience shows that the US had and has little respect for democracy in the region.
    And that’s not to believe that America is ‘evil’. I think that there is lot of good things coming out of America, and it is still one of the most innovative and free societies in know of. But just stop and think for a minute. What if someone else did the same to America? What if, say Russia, interfered in the domestic problems of your country, and financed some whackos, in total disregard for the democratic process, to take power and eliminate, by means of terror, the opposition, all in sake of Russia’s national interest? What if there were American kids and families dying as ‘collateral damage’ instead of Arabs, just because a foreign power, of which they know or care little about, is waging a war they have nothing to do with?

    It seems to me that Americans understand dangerously little of their country’s foreign policy. People in general like American culture. But those deeds are not lightly taken, and do linger for generations in the memory of societies, even though Americans might have long forgotten them, and act like there was no history but theirs, their shining city upon a hill.

  2. Hector Fedo

    nice and objective analysis

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