Beyond  /  First Person

50 Years After “the Other 9/11”: Remembering the Chilean Coup

Some personal reflections on history, memory, and the survival of democracies.

Because Allende’s unique experiment—the first time in history that a revolution did not resort to armed struggle to impose its views or eliminate its adversaries—had captured the world’s imagination, our defeat, and the savage repression that followed it, wielded an outsize influence far beyond the borders of what could be expected from a small, remote country at the far edge of the Southern Hemisphere.

Foremost among these global consequences was how our downfall forced left-wing and progressive forces abroad to rethink their strategy for taking power—particularly in Europe. By early 1974, Enrico Berlinguer, the head of the mighty Italian Communist Party, declared that that the lethal outcome of the Chilean peaceful revolution proved that radical reforms required a vast majority behind them, which meant alliances with the middle classes and their representatives. This analysis was later adopted by the Spanish and French Communist parties, leading to Spain’s transition to democracy after Franco and the socialist François Mitterrand’s tenure as president of France. Others on the left, like the Sandinistas in Nicaragua or the guerrillas in Colombia, reached the opposite conclusion: Only by engaging in protracted armed struggle could real change be guaranteed.

Chile’s coup also had a lasting impact in the United States—not because it shifted revolutionary tactics (there were hardly any revolutionaries) but in how it shaped American foreign policy. Washington had, under Nixon and Kissinger, destabilized the economy of Chile and conspired to overthrow a legitimately elected head of state, fearful that if Allende succeeded, other nations would follow his stirring example of trying to effect radical transformation through the ballot box. A series of amendments in Congress restricted security and military aid to the Pinochet dictatorship. And then came the bombshell investigation by the Church Committee in 1975 that revealed the dirty tactics of the CIA in Chile and led to laws that disallowed aid to governments with appalling human rights abuses. Public consciousness about the atrocities in Chile was a significant factor in making support for human rights—or at least giving lip service to it—one of the cornerstones of American foreign policy.

In other ways, however, the coup and its aftermath exercised a far less benign influence on the United States.

Pinochet’s reign of terror, destined to quash the slightest hint of opposition or criticism, allowed the military—and the right-wing civilians who had instigated the coup and then benefited from the ensuing policies—to turn Chile into a laboratory for neoliberalism: a series of measures that privatized the economy, imposed austerity on an unwilling populace, and trusted an unbridled free market to magically solve all the ills of society. The experiments in Chile were soon exported to other countries like Ronald Reagan’s United States (though Margaret Thatcher came first).