U.S.-backed coup in Chile has global reverberations, 50 years later

U.S.-backed coup in Chile has global reverberations, 50 years later

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Chileans marked a half century since the “other 9/11” on Monday, when the democratically elected socialist government of President Salvador Allende was toppled by an army putsch led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Allende died in the military’s assault on La Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago. Tens of thousands of his supporters were detained and even marched off to prison camps; many were subjected to brutal torture and abuse. More than 3,000 Chileans were killed or “disappeared” by Pinochet’s regime, whose chilling methods, including the dumping of victims’ bodies into the sea or over the Andes, were aped by right-wing juntas across the Americas.

The coup was supported by the United States, which, in the depths of the Cold War, sought to check the spread of leftist governments in its hemisphere and had previously failed to foil Allende’s election. Washington helped usher in 17 years of dictatorship under Pinochet. It had all the classic traits of autocratic strongman rule: The banning of opposition parties, the censorship of media and vicious repression of labor unions, indigenous communities and suspected leftist activists. The coup-plotting general also famously pursued a dramatic free-market experiment in South America, embracing neoliberal policies that are, to this day, celebrated by the West’s conservatives and condemned by the left for stoking vast inequalities.

Pinochet’s reign ended with greater conciliation than some other 20th century dictatorships: A 1988 plebiscite foiled his bid to hold power as a civilian president and elections in 1989 paved the way for the return of constitutional democracy in 1990. Pinochet died of a heart attack in 2006 without ever facing full justice for his alleged crimes. But the deep traumas and divisions of that era persist, wounds that are arguably festering all the more in the current febrile moment in global politics.

That unease was on display Sunday, when Chile’s young, left-leaning president Gabriel Boric participated in a march honoring those slain and disappeared by the Pinochet regime. The commemoration was marred by scenes of violence, with some masked protesters of uncertain political affiliation vandalizing property.

Boric was the first elected Chilean president to join this procession since the tradition began after Pinochet’s departure. The country remains polarized, with roughly a third of Chileans agreeing in a recent poll that the military in 1973 freed their nation “from Marxism.” And the younger generation of Chileans, whose contemporary concerns are less tethered to the weight of the past, may shrug at the sins of a long-vanished dictatorship. Novelist Ariel Dorfman, a cultural adviser to the Allende government, linked the influential oligarchic interests in Chile that welcomed the collapse of the country’s democracy half a century ago to the current lack of consensus around the rights or wrongs of the coup.

“There was no mourning among the rich and powerful that night of Sept. 11,” Dorfman wrote in the New York Times. “They were celebrating that Chile had been saved from what they feared would become another Cuba, a totalitarian state that would erase them from the country they claimed as their fief. The abyss that opened that day between the victims and the beneficiaries of the coup persists, many years after democracy was restored in 1990.”

Indeed, José Antonio Kast, the far-right politician who seems on track to defeat Boric in the 2025 elections, has explicitly defended Pinochet’s legacy and balks at demands that he condemn the 1973 coup.

“If he were alive he would vote for me,” Kast told a local newspaper ahead of a failed election bid in 2017, referring to Pinochet. “If I had met him now, we would have had a cup of tea at La Moneda.”

Kast is hardly alone. In neighboring Argentina, Javier Milei, the far-right candidate in poll position to win elections later this year, is backed by a running mate who is an apologist for the country’s military dictatorship, which after a coup in 1976 held sway until 1983 and killed some 30,000 people in its notorious anti-leftist Dirty War. His movement threatens to break the left-right consensus on the evils of that era that has prevailed in the four decades that followed the restoration democracy.

Last week, Victoria Villarruel, Milei’s running mate, staged an event that sought to shift focus to leftist guerrilla violence in the 1970s. Counterprotesters massed outside the gathering, decrying the politician’s supposed defense of fascist authoritarianism.

“Those of us who are older and lived through the dictatorship know what state terrorism did,” Beatriz Olhasso, a Buenos Aires retiree, told Spanish daily El Pais. “It is no coincidence to me that Milei’s candidate for vice president is reaching out to very young kids, who didn’t live through that moment, and who feel that they are owed something from these 40 years of democracy because they have precarious jobs and live poorly.”

The reactionary zeal that drove Pinochet’s coup can be seen in various democracies around the world, including the United States. Some members of the Proud Boys, the white supremacist hate group that participated in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection on the Capitol, wear patches that read “RWDS” — a nod to the Latin American “right-wing death squads” tacitly backed by Washington during the Cold War. “Pinochet’s come down to us as the consummate, caricatured reference point for democracy’s doomsday villains, especially the hellhounds who exploit the fear of comunismo,” wrote veteran Latin America watcher Tim Padgett, adding that “Pinochet would have been proud of the Proud Boys.”

And on the American left, the coup is an ever-present reminder of the dark legacy of U.S. foreign policy. A recent delegation of left-leaning Democratic lawmakers toured a number of Latin American countries, including Chile, and echoed long-standing Chilean calls for the United States to declassify secret documents related to U.S. activities that may have abetted the 1973 coup. (The State Department recently declassified two relevant top-secret documents from the Nixon administration.)

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who went on that trip, pointed to current day connections between those who harbor nostalgia for Latin American dictatorship and the Trump movement back home.

“The U.S. far right and fascist movements have been working extremely hard to export many of their tactics and goals throughout Latin America,” she told the leftist magazine Jacobin. “We’ve seen it in Brazil, famously, with [former president Jair] Bolsonaro and the January 8 attack on their capital. But in Chile, this is also very prevalent. One of the ways we are seeing this is a desire to erase history.”

More the reason, Ocasio-Cortez added, for “the United States to be able to declassify this information, to say that there was external involvement, that this is something that happened and was incredibly unjust.”

Boric, who has faced numerous political difficulties since winning election in 2021, made the case for democracy — and against coup apologia — in a speech Monday.

“Reconciliation is not achieved through neutrality or distance but by unequivocally standing with those who were victims of the horror,” he said. “Reconciliation, dear compatriots, does not involve attempting to equate the responsibilities between victims and perpetrators.”