September 11 Coup in Chile: Global Ramifications

By Eric Hershberg

Chilean Grape export photo by Dick Howe Jr CC-BY-NC Flickr / Indictment of Pinochet, Photo by a-birdie CC-BY-NC Flickr

Chilean Grape export photo by Dick Howe Jr CC-BY-NC Flickr / Indictment of Pinochet, Photo by a-birdie CC-BY-NC Flickr

In Washington last week many events recalled the bloody coup of September 11, 1973, which overthrew the Popular Unity government of Chilean Socialist President Salvador Allende and ushered in a dictatorship that, even by South American standards of the time, stood out for its brutality.  Discussion about “the other September 11” highlighted the human cost of the coup, the role of U.S. government agencies in undermining Chilean democracy and encouraging the military’s actions, and the memories of the coup and dictatorship that remain deeply embedded in Chile today.  These and similar gatherings around the world and in Chile featured demands for the full truth about the dictatorship’s crimes – the fate of some thousand of the disappeared remains unknown today, according to the Human Rights Observatory of the Diego Portales University – and to hold those who committed them fully accountable.

The coup led by General Augusto Pinochet destroyed Latin America’s longest standing democratic regime and ended a unique experiment testing the proposition that electoral democracy could catalyze a transition to socialism.  In Chile, the coup initiated 17 years of military rule grounded in state-sponsored violence, but it also resonated far beyond that country’s borders, marking a watershed in global affairs.  To this day how people around the world conceive fundamental issues of political change, economic development and human rights is affected by September 11, 1973.  These broader legacies were the focus of a panel discussion at American University, co-sponsored by the Center for Latin American Studies and the Washington College of Law, this week.  (Click here for details.)

We can now see three large sets of consequences that the Chilean coup had far beyond its borders. 

Political:  Across Southern Europe, it reverberated powerfully, undermining the confidence of sectors of the Left that believed fervently a socialist transition could be effected through victory at the ballot box.  After the coup, Eurocommunists in Italy and Spain came to believe that victory would require an alliance with Christian Democrats or other centrists, lest a coup coalition akin to that in Chile bring down democracy altogether. For much of the Latin American left, the Chilean experience would over time prove a wake-up call, alerting those aspiring to turn the world upside down that democracy was not a mere bourgeois luxury and suggesting that “second-best” options – more gradual change –were preferable to maximalist goals that would likely jeopardize democracy.

Economic: The coup paved the way for “neoliberal” policies that would shake the foundations of conventional thinking about development for nearly three decades.  They were prescribed across Latin America.  It would not be until the emergence of ALBA in the mid-2000’s that the region would again witness a faith (however misguided), in the capacity of import-substitution and inward-oriented redistribution to achieve lasting economic advance in the region. 

U.S. policy:  Finally, the coup set in train levels of violence and human rights abuses so abhorrent that they drove major changes in U.S. human rights policy and international jurisprudence.  In the United States, advocacy organizations, progressive majorities in Congress, and the Carter Administration introduced unprecedented legislation aimed at preserving democracy and curbing human rights abuses.  Well beyond Washington, numerous international regimes put in place to combat impunity were motivated and influenced by what had taken place in Chile and the imperative of ensuring that it not happen again.  

Just as the cataclysmic event that took place in the U.S. on 9/11/01 opened the door to extreme and ongoing changes felt around the world, so too did the Chilean tragedy that began on 9/11/73.

U.S. Credibility Takes Another Hit

By Fulton T. Armstrong

Photo credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff / / CC BY

Photo credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff / / CC BY

The domestic spying programs under the Bush and Obama Administrations further erode U.S. moral leadership in the hemisphere and probably beyond.  At crucial junctures since President Jimmy Carter made human rights a pillar of policy in Latin America, U.S. moral authority has been decisive in persuading regimes on the right and the left to open the way for pluralism and democracy.  Lecturing governments and militaries on the need to eschew torture, domestic spying, and other abuses, U.S. diplomats and politicians could have been charged with arrogance, but on these specific aspects of the U.S. government’s treatment of its own people, not serious hypocrisy. The U. S. had its racial and economic injustices, but trends were positive, and the country stood for the rule of law, skepticism of State Security officials’ penchant to use information for power, and a pretty solid respect for due process. Even before Carter, the Watergate scandal – and resulting resignation of the President and overhaul of the intelligence agencies – was a clarion signal that agencies created to monitor foreign affairs must keep their focus far off U.S. shores.

Latin American media have carried primarily factual stories revealing the “PRISM” program, which collects data from hundreds of millions of e-mails and other electronic communications each day and stores it for exploitation by targeters (now called “analysts”) on the lookout for alleged potential terrorists, based on secret profiling.  Some papers have reported that Director for National Intelligence Clapper lied to the U.S. Congress without batting an eyelash when asked directly if such activities were ongoing.  Coming after reports in recent years of the use of torture (and the impunity granted to the perpetrators), the so-called “extraordinary renditions” (and the cases in which kidnap victims were innocent), the use of “black prisons” (in which security services in new democracies were encouraged to circumvent their elected officials),drone attacks (even against U.S. citizens), and the continued detention of prisoners without trial at Guantanamo (giving human rights violations in Cuba a new meaning) have all been noted throughout Latin America.  PRISM may no longer be considered newsworthy.

The fact that British and American newspapers eventually brought the domestic spying programs to light may hearten some in Latin America, as evidence that an essential element of democracy – a probing press –shows signs of life despite reports of Justice Department harassment of the Associated Press and other media.  But sentient Latin Americans know the implications of PRISM – and what enterprising State Security “analysts” can do with years of data about even the most mundane aspects of potential targets’ lives.  The Obama Administration’s defense of PRISM as necessary to defend against supposed terrorists doesn’t sell well in a region that knows how information never sits unused.  The Bush Administration gave the Medal of Freedom to Colombian President Uribe, who deployed his secret intelligence agency to harass opponents and allowed his military to disappear thousands of youths.  The Obama Administration’s lectures to Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador on the need to give more space to opponents – however warranted – ring sort of hollow when, in Latin Americans’ minds, it has nurtured its own Frankenstein state-security apparatus that lacks credible checks and balances.  Washington can argue that U.S. moral authority doesn’t matter, and that the “terrorist threat” it faces calls for extraordinary measures, but it will be a long time before an American statesman can wag his finger at a Latin American counterpart for doing the same thing.

South America: Low Expectations for U.S. Election

Photo is in the public domain

Media in Colombia, Chile, and Peru are paying close attention to the U.S. presidential election, but only in Colombia do commentators seem to sense that November’s vote could have a direct impact on their country.  Colombian opinion-makers have not articulated specific concerns; their attention appears premised merely on the immensity of the relationship.  In Peru, commentators have noted concern about the positions advocated in the Republican primaries on a host of issues, such as immigration and the Cold War optic the GOP candidates espoused.  Chileans are following the horse race with curiosity but little mention of its potential implications.  In these countries, which are generally open to working with Washington, there is dissatisfaction with Obama but greater trepidation about a return to the foreign policies that characterized the Bush-Cheney era.  “Obama losing would not matter much,” wrote Antonio Caballero in Colombia’s Semana.  “But what would matter, a lot, is his Republican rival Mitt Romney winning.”  The columnist said it would be like re-electing Hoover after four years of Roosevelt.

Commentators fret that Romney’s swing right during the primaries proves he is unable to stand up to what they describe as conservative, white Tea Partiers on issues including gun control and taxes, but especially on immigration.  In Diario Correo, Peruvian Isaac Bigio wrote that Romney and Ryan would “launch an offensive against immigrants.”  On foreign policy, commentators see Obama’s record as mediocre.  In Colombia, the president gains points for passing the free trade agreement, but loses them for an overall lack of focus on the hemisphere.  But Romney’s rhetoric, punctuated by swipes at Russia and what he labeled a Chávez-Castro axis in the hemisphere, has created uneasy feelings.  “Romney advocates an aggressive discourse and hard hand in international relations,”writes Sergio Muñoz Bata of Bogota’s El Tiempo.  “If this sounds like a repetition of Bush’s policies, that is because those who dictate the foreign policy of the Republican candidate today are the same people who dictated Bush’s policies yesterday.”  Peruvian Santiago Pérez writes in Los Andes that Romney might “harden the U.S. position against ALBA…and try to intimidate (probably unsuccessfully) his unthreatening Bolivarian enemies.”  A return of the GOP could pose problems for the ongoing talks with the FARC and ELN, moderate Colombians fear.  Writing in Portafolio, Ricardo Ávila Pinto noted that Bogotá should be wary of “the U.S. reaction to any eventual success in the peace process with the FARC.”  Likewise, Chile’s Ernesto Ottone writes that Romney’s “uncultured simple-mindedness in foreign affairs responds to identity-based fanaticism with a warlike tone.”

A consistent theme is that the 2012 election lacks the hope of four years prior – hope for more effective U.S. partnership with the region, which Obama promised at the Summit of the Americas soon after his inauguration but has failed to deliver.  Many outlets reported former President Jimmy Carter’s comment that neither candidate was likely to pay much attention to the region.   While Colombian and Peruvian media reflect public concerns about immigration, the most prevalent fear is that a return to strident rhetoric would only heighten tensions between the U.S. and ALBA-aligned countries.  Colombia, Peru, and Chile don’t want to be stuck in the middle. There are no great expectations for improvement, but there is considerable worry about further decline.