I will never forget the sadness and revolt that I felt in Chile forty-one years ago as the military were overthrowing Salvador Allende.
How could I ever forget such a brutal experience, one that plunged me into a deep crisis relative to the United States, the Chilean Catholic Church, and my own Canadian government? Although I had spent nearly eight years in the seminary training to become a priest and a missionary, it was as if, on that September 11, 1973, I was opening my eyes for the very first time.
I discovered that the United States, a country whose presidents constantly repeat that their nation is the best in the world—God bless America— readily uses economic sabotage, propaganda, assassination and widespread torture to defend its interests. I discovered that the Canadian Ambassador, Andrew Ross, while openly welcoming the military takeover, was accepting only a dozen of the thousands of Chileans who, desperately trying to escape imprisonment, torture and possibly death, were knocking on his door. I discovered that the Catholic Church, which I had always identified with a universal love that prioritized the marginalized, was clearly siding in Chile with the military by accepting, a mere one week after the coup d'état, to pray with the military junta in a ceremony that was being broadcast throughout the country thanks to the only television station to have survived the coup, Channel 13 of the Catholic University of Chile!
In September 1970, a coalition of progressive political parties called the Popular Unity won the national elections. Its leader was an experienced and well-respected politician, Doctor Salvador Allende. The main objective of the Popular Unity government was to rid Chile of its chronic problem of poverty and underdevelopment.
Chile, in 1970, was facing several major problems:
- Land concentration was extremely high; less than 4.2% of the population owned the arable land, most of it divided into huge estates.
- Two percent of the ten million Chileans received 46% of national income whereas 60% received only 17%.
- Copper mining, in the hands of American multinationals represented 85% of foreign exports and created huge profits — $1,500,000 per day. Practically all these profits were expatriated, that is simply returned to the US.
- The Chilean foreign debt stood at more than $4 billion, the second highest per capita debt in the world.
- In the capital city of Santiago, 600,000 people lived in makeshift, emergency homes. Plain earth constituted the floor in 66% of the homes of the peasants and only 10% of them had electricity.
- 600,000 children were retarded because of protein deficiency developed in the very first months of their lives;
- 1,500,000 children were malnourished and of these, 25,000 below the age of one died every year.
- Some 60% of all Chileans were born without any medical assistance.
- In the countryside, only 52% of the school age-children actually went to school.
- Salvador Allende was attempting, through an ambitious land reform, the nationalization of the largest copper mines and key sectors of the economy, to improve the lot of the landless peasants and the hundreds of thousands who lived in slums. In so doing he posed a serious threat to the interests of the large landowners and enterprises, mainly the American multinationals such as ITT, Anaconda Copper and Kennecott Copper.
Anatomy of American Involvement in Chilean Coup
The United States had been preparing for an Allende victory for a very long time. As his victory in Chile's 1964 elections seemed possible, the CIA, according to the US Senate Report Covert Action in Chile: 1963-1973, "spent more than $2.6 million in support of the election of the Christian Democratic candidate (Eduardo Frei), mounted a massive anti-Communist propaganda campaign, (...) used the press, radio, film, pamphlets, posters, leaflets, direct mailings, paper streamers, and wall painting (...), placed CIA-inspired editorials almost daily in El Mercurio (...) and, after 1968, exerted substantial control over the content of that paper's international news section."
On November 17th 1965, the Pentagon, increasingly aware because of Vietnam of the limits of sheer military power, contracted ABT Associates Inc. to carry out, with the help of sociologists, a simulation in which a fictitious country, Patria, was undergoing a revolution. Main export of this country: copper, produced by Anaconda Copper, a real American company. Purpose of the simulation? To predict, in order better to control, the behavior of the various sectors of Patria: army, large landowners; political parties of the left, the right and the center; students; foreign embassies, government, multinationals, etc.
As soon as Allende was elected in September 1970, a plan to overthrow him was already in the making. The Secret Documents of ITT published by the Washington Post reporter Jack Anderson reveal that in the weeks following the election, the CIA, in close collaboration with ITT and two generals closely linked with the Chilean elite, Viaux and Valenzuela, were preparing for the overthrow of Allende. Promised millions of dollars from the CIA and ITT, the two generals wanted to carry out the coup d'état immediately. However, enlightened by its failures in Vietnam and the lessons of the simulation carried out by ABT Associates Inc., the CIA decided that another strategy was preferable. Postpone the coup; use various means to make the Chilean economy scream—for example an international financial blockade; publish negative stories about Allende in both the national and international press; incite the Anti-Allende sectors of Chile to create, through an intense and increasing campaign of sabotage, a situation of national chaos and instability; then, proceed to overthrow Allende, resting assured that a substantial part of the population will perceive the event with an immense sigh of relief, and as a patriotic and thankless task carried out by the military to restore order and economic growth.
When I arrived in Chile in July 1973, the economy was indeed screaming. One had to stand in line to purchase bread, milk, meat, cooking oil, etc. El Mercurio reported that the United States was refusing to sell wheat to Chile. Inflation was enormous and the black market flourishing.
And Chile, with each passing day, was experiencing mounting chaos and instability. One day I saw a gas station going up in flames; another day Allende's address to the nation was interrupted because of a power shortage caused by the blowing up of hydro towers; yet another day, bridges were blown up. The truck owners, heavily financed by the CIA, initiated a work stoppage that started spreading to various elite sectors of Chile. The plan was working.
American aid, as well as aid from international organizations such as the IMF and World Bank, which was literally flourishing under the Frei government, suddenly dried up under Allende. With one notable and troubling exception: US aid to the Chilean military was increased.
On July 15, 1973 the conservative and very influential daily, El Mercurio, wrote an editorial in which it openly encouraged the overthrow of Allende. When Indonesia was threatened by communism in 1965, the oligarchy, supported by the CIA, executed 500,000 leftists, thus rapidly restoring stability and remarkable economic growth, the editorial stated bluntly.
On August 22, 1973, just after receiving $1 million from the CIA, the Chilean opposition parties adopted a motion that declared the Allende government unconstitutional.
On September 4, 1973, as more than one million Chileans peacefully demonstrated their support for the Allende government, they were fully aware that Allende was far from perfect and that part of the economic crisis Chile was undergoing originated from his errors. However, they were equally aware that, to a considerable extent, this crisis and instability originated from the iniquitous plan conceived and being carried out by the CIA and the Chilean elite.
One week later it was the coup, with its tragic consequences: 500,000 Chileans detained, more than 30,000 tortured, 250,000 forced to take refuge abroad and more than 3,000 dead; a dictatorship that lasted nearly seventeen years and implemented a neoliberal economic model in which the rights of workers are sharply curtailed, and education, health and even pensions radically privatized: a very successful plan!
Today Chile, despite what has been coined an economic miracle, remains a country where the gap between the haves and the have-nots is enormous. In the past two years, the student movement has carried out massive demonstrations supported by the majority of Chileans in order to obtain access to public funded education. Recent polls are showing that despite years of efforts by the Chilean military and the CIA to denigrate Allende, the majority of the population regards him as the most important Chilean of all times. Could this mean that the crass individualism that characterizes the neoliberal economic model implemented by the military and that continues to this day does not meet the aspirations of the people of Chile, aspirations so deeply aroused during the Allende revolution?
The Catholic Church Supports the Coup
In the September 2013 issue of the Quebec journal Relations, Jean-Claude Ravet wrote an editorial commemorating the military takeover in Chile in 1973. "The horror could have been much greater, as would be the case in Argentina a few years later—30,000 disappeared between 1976 and 1983—had it not been for the decision of the Church, an institution that enjoys a privileged status, to protect, in the name of the Gospel, the persecuted, while totally ignoring the order of the military: "Mind your own business and nothing will happen to you!"
While one should hail the courageous work carried out by the Justice and Peace Committee set up following the coup by the Catholic Church in close collaboration with the other Churches—I was able to see with my own eyes the remarkable work accomplished by Sister Marie-Denise Dubois who worked in this committee helping victims of the Pinochet dictatorship (Le Devoir, March 6, 2013)—it is totally false to imply that the Catholic Church in Chile courageously confronted the military and ignored its order not to intervene in helping victims.
As I have argued in Chili: le coup divin (Éditions du jour, Montréal, 1974), evidence showing the complicity of the Catholic Church in the military takeover is overwhelming. On September 4th 1973, as more than one million Chileans are demonstrating in support of Allende in the streets of Santiago, Father Raul Hasbun, the personal secretary of the Primate of the Catholic Church of Chile, Cardinal Silva Henriquez, is making a long speech on Channel 13 of the Catholic University of Chile in which he asserts that Allende, under the influence of Marxism-Leninism, an ideology foreign to the very Chilean soul, is leading his country into poverty and hatred and should thus resign.
On September 18th, exactly one week after the coup d'état, and just as I am listening to numerous testimonies indicating that the death toll is high, that the National Stadium in Santiago is being filled with prisoners and that many are tortured and killed, that bodies are being taken to the airport to be dumped into the ocean, Cardinal Silva Henriquez appears praying with the military junta and offering the new government the Church's "entire and disinterested cooperation". This, in a public ceremony broadcast throughout Chile thanks to the only TV station to have survived the military takeover, Channel 13!
On October 9, 1973 the military junta meets Cardinal Henriquez. Following the encounter, the latter states (reported in El Mercurio, the next day) that on the one hand the junta is allowing the Church to play its role of Good Shepherd, which consists in healing wounds and alleviating suffering, while the Church, on the other hand, is promising to improve the image of Chile abroad by making the truth known.
Two days later Pinochet, in a public speech reproduced in El Mercurio, refers to September 11, 1973 as the day "when the hand of God intervened to save Chile!"
A few days later the Justice and Peace Committee, which will provide humanitarian and legal aid to the victims of repression, is created.
In December 1973, the Episcopal Conference of the Catholic Bishops of Chile sends a long report on the situation in Chile to all the bishops in the world. Top secret—I obtained it from Father Bill Smith, an employee of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Canada, who, like Edward Snowden, wanted to relieve his conscience—the confidential report states that, "what is happening in Chile is so distorted by the media in the world that it appeared necessary to provide a more balanced view. (...) The Armed Forces and National Police in Chile are not at all initiators of a coup d'état or fascists; they have always been very professional. (...) For the great majority of Chileans, September 11, 1973 appears as the end of a nightmare (...) of the political meddling of foreigners (one must recall the letter of Fidel Castro to President Allende on July 22 1973), of violence in all its forms, of the brutal impoverishment of a nation, and, above all, of the Marxism towards which Chile was moving; the Armed Forces, by putting an end to this nightmare, represent the fundamental moral reservoir of the national soul".
Not a single word in the entire 59 pages about the flagrant and obscene American intervention to overthrow Allende!
Quite obviously, the Catholic Church in Chile was not bravely confronting the military and ignoring their order to mind your own business or else...
This being said, it remains true that the Catholic Church did eventually distance itself from the military regime. When Pinochet demanded in December 1975 that the Peace and Justice Committee be closed, Cardinal Henriquez accepted only to reopen, a mere few weeks later, a similar organization, the Vicariate of Solidarity. In a country where the media was totally controlled, people were not allowed to meet in public places, political activity was totally banned and people lived in fear, the Vicariate was not only the place where the persecuted could find refuge and legal services; it also provided a vital space where unions, grassroots organizations and political parties were gradually able to reorganize.
Canada Closes its Doors to Chilean Refugees
On September 11, 1973 shortly before the bombing of the Moneda in which Allende had just arrived, my then wife and I hear someone knocking on our door. As there is constant gunfire outside in the streets, we hesitate before opening it.
Patrick Boucher, a freelancer for Le Devoir and Le Monde Diplomatique, throws himself into our arms. His whole body is shaking and he is sobbing. "I was walking downtown to cover events when I was suddenly caught in heavy gunfire. I was not sure to come out of there alive", he explains.
Very moved, we listen to Allende's last words to the nation on the radio just before his death. Then we hear the Hawker Hunters shooting rockets on the Presidential Palace only a few blocks from our apartment.
Not long after the curfew is lifted for a few hours, my then wife Wynanne and I decide to take refuge in the residence of the Canadian Ambassador, Andrew Ross. When we get no as an answer, we are taken aback. Following a long negotiation during which Wynanne bursts into tears, Mrs. Ross finally lets us in. But the welcome is ice cold: "Why are you coming here, do you think you're in danger? People are starting to be pretty hysteric about nothing!"
Inside the embassy, I continue, as I have been doing since my arrival in Chile, writing my diary. On September 20: "M. Marc Dolgin, Mr. Ross' first secretary, told us last night that he had had a very depressing day in the embassy. Requests of people asking for refuge kept pouring in. Ottawa has instructed us not to accept refugees; presently we have ten, including three Canadians." As I am writing these words, the Mexican embassy is already bulging with hundreds of Chilean refugees. So is the embassy of Sweden, of Norway, of France.
After conversing with Mr. Ross, it becomes clear that he welcomes the military coup. As Mrs. Ross rocks her dog she is proud to tell us that the General who will be the Minister of Health is a personal friend of theirs.
On exactly the same day, September 20th, an employee of the Canadian Development Agency (CIDA), Bob Thomson, is in total disbelief when he sees the confidential and classified cables Mr. Ross is sending to the Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs: "I doubt very much that the military junta is authorizing political assassinations (...) Chile was undergoing an excessive politicization and I am confident that the military will be delighted to organize elections as soon as possible (...) many of those detained in the National Stadium are expatriates and riffraff of the Latin American left (...) I cannot see why the Canadian government would not immediately recognize the new Chilean government".
On September 21, I write: "As Mr. Ross has just decided to prevent us from having any contact whatsoever with people outside the embassy, even by phone, it has become impossible to help people in desperate need to enter the embassy. Thus I have returned to my apartment. Wynanne stayed in the embassy as she is playing an important role as a mediator between the Chilean refugees and Mrs. Ross".
September 27th: "Someone knocks on our door. It is Dr. Roberto Bellemare, who was responsible for the National Program of Preventive Medicine under Allende. His face is pale. Just the day before, he had announced his decision to stay in Chile despite the danger. Now, I can see fear, sadness and anguish all over his face. About 5 pm a very conservative doctor who is close to the military came to pay me a visit, announcing that I was on the black list and that I should immediately take refuge, he explained."
"Wynanne runs to our neighbor's apartment to call Mr. Dolgin. Bring Mr. Bellemare to M. Ross's residence immediately, he tells her."
"When we arrive with Roberto, his wife Edith, and their three-month old baby, it is pouring rain and curfew is about to start. After listening to their request, Mr. Ross, holding an umbrella, immediately makes it clear that his answer is negative. According to my information, the wave of violence is over; the military are merely imprisoning people, mostly for mere questioning; people are hysterical about nothing, he insists."
"Wynanne pleads and pleads with Mr. Ross. So do I, but to no avail. It is pouring rain and we are drenched. Anger. Sadness. Disgust. Indignation. Canada!"
The next day, deeply upset, I write a report on the attitude of Mr. Ross towards refugees and bring it to a Canadian reporter, James Reed, who had given me an appointment in Hotel Carrera. I am very surprised to see who he is having lunch with. I write in my diary: "When I met Mr. Reed in Hotel Carrera at 2 pm he was having lunch with none other than " Frederico Willoughy McDonald, the press secretary of the military junta."
One day later, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mitchell Sharp, announces in the House of Commons that Canada has decided to recognize the new Chilean government and that the situation does not warrant Canada's accepting of any Chilean refugees. Upon learning this, Mr. Thomson, very upset and angered, places Mr. Ross' cables in an envelope and gives them to an NDP Member of Parliament, John Carney.
In the following days, the Canadian press has a field day criticizing the attitude of Mr. Ross and calls on Canada to open its doors to Chilean refugees and to fire the ambassador. On November 14, 1973 Jean-Claude Leclerc of Le Devoir writes a scathing editorial titled "30,000 Hungarians, 16 Chileans" in which he questions the double standards of the Canadian government, rapidly opening its doors to victims of the Eastern Block countries but closing them to Chileans suffering from a right-wing coup.
In the meantime a large movement of solidarity – Church leaders, unions, students, popular organizations –is developing throughout Canada, calling on the Canadian government to change its attitude. Particularly strong in Quebec, this movement organizes a Canadian tour for Mrs. Hortensia Allende, Allende's widow. Placed in a very difficult situation, the Prime Minister of Canada, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, accepts to meet with Mrs. Allende.
Not longer afterwards, the Canadian government sends Mr. Jeffrey Pearson, of the Department of Foreign Affairs, to Chile to carry out an investigation. He concludes that the repression in Chile is indeed very serious, that those seeking refuge are not riffraff people of the left and would make excellent Canadian citizens, and recommends that Canada open its doors to Chilean refugees.
Thanks to a whistleblower, who was soon caught and fired, to the work of conscientious reporters and, above all, to an extraordinary movement of Canadian solidarity, more than 7,000 Chilean refugees are eventually welcomed into Canada.
How Chileans Overcame the Military Dictatorship
Following the coup Chile remained a very divided nation. On the one hand there were the winners, those who had actively supported the coup and welcomed it with joy and relief. On the other hand there were the losers, those who had firmly believed in the Popular Unity dream of an altered society, more attentive to the needy and downtrodden, and who were now utterly broken, in their bodies, minds and hearts. Between the two, communication no longer existed.
The world of the winners was small and powerful: the wealthy elite and a portion of the middle class. So great was their gratitude following the military takeover that they generously gave money, jewels and even wedding rings for the ongoing 'national reconstruction' effort.
Some of the sons and daughters of the well to do had been strong supporters of the Popular Unity; they also met with fierce repression. It sometimes happened that a friend in the military allowed one to escape repression. Generally, however, there was no escape. Anti-Popular Unity sentiment caused the break-up of friendships, of families, of marriages. In fact the polarization was such that some seemed undisturbed by the torture and imprisonment of a brother, a sister, a nephew.
The vast majority of the wealthy and middle class Chileans lived in their own little world. Now that the chaos of the Allende years was over, ordinary life simply resumed. For them, the military takeover represented liberation from the 'communist cancer', the beginning of a promising future. The activities of their political parties were suspended, but since the Junta was implementing policies with which they basically agreed, no real loss was felt. According to their opinion, human rights abuses simply did not exist in the new, liberated and 'free' Chile. When the foreign press, in the months following the coup d'état repeatedly alleged that the military junta was subjecting the people of Chile to gross and massive human rights abuses, they simply accused this press of falling prey to an anti-Chilean campaign initiated by international communist propaganda.
For the losers, however, it was as if life had suddenly come to a stop. They had lost their publishing houses, some of them renowned throughout Latin America, their dailies, journals, radio and TV stations. They had lost their music, their artists. Their political parties were banned, their leaders dead or dispersed, their political activities now confined to the rigors of an underground with which they were totally unfamiliar. Many of their friends were now living in exile. Their powerful National Union Federation (CUT) was eliminated. Even the names of their shantytowns, symbol of the revolutionary heroes they admired, were changed.
To some extent repression increased unity among them, past ideological differences suddenly appearing trivial in the light of detainment, interrogation, torture, the threat of losing one's very life. But the methods of the DINA, the secret police of the military, and its large network of spies and informants created an atmosphere of doubt and distrust that substantially dampened communication. Visiting each other's houses became dangerous. Trust, even among the supporters of the Popular Unity working in the underground, was difficult. Some of those who had undergone severe and prolonged torture were released and told nothing would ever happen to them again if they agreed to work as informants.
How did the Chilean people overcome the Pinochet dictatorship? By armed resistance, by prolonged and massive street protests, and eventually by an accord that united broad sectors of Chilean society, parties of the left, of the centre and even sectors of parties of the right.
Armed resistance: In the first years, many lived in fear and were traumatized. Many fled to other countries. A few, like the MIR, a small political party of the radical left, rapidly initiated small actions of armed resistance. However, the bulk of the supporters of the Popular Unity were in a state of disarray and disorganization. Eventually some who had always opposed an armed resistance changed their mind. For example, this was the case of the influential member of the Socialist Party, Clodomiro Almeyda. This was true of some in the Communist Party and in the Socialist Party.
Prolonged and massive street protests: In the early 1980s Chile experienced a very severe economic crisis. In this context the unions, which had managed to come back to life to some extent, organized a massive national strike that was very successful. Because the leaders of this strike got fired massively, the workers stopped protesting. However, the students, who could not loose their jobs, pursued. The psychological impact of this massive protest was probably the most important one: people, for the first time, were loosing their fear of the dictatorship.
National Accord of 1985: Thanks to the mediation of Cardinal Fresno, the leader of the Catholic Church, twenty-one politicians representing a broad range of political parties signed a National Accord for Transition to Full Democracy. For the very first time, people in various parties of the left, of the centre and even some members of the right, agreed to set aside their differences and called for the immediate re-establishment of democracy. All agreed to respect private property, including the Socialists. The Communists, who believed that armed struggle remained important as well as street protests, were excluded from the accord. This accord fell apart in 1986 when Pinochet barely escaped an assassination attempt not long after security forces had discovered a considerable amount of arms—enough to supply several combat battalions.
Thus the slow transition to democracy set out in the Pinochet constitution of 1980 prevailed: a yes-no vote was organized in 1988. A yes would mean that Pinochet would rule Chile for another 8 years; a no would mean that free elections would be held one and a half years later. Quite astonishingly the no vote won, and Chile has been ruled ever since by democratic governments that reflect the spirit of compromise of the 1985 National Accord. However, the constitution of 1980 still prevails, a constitution that protects the neoliberal model and grants illegitimate powers to the military.
Student-led street protests 2011-2014: The New Majority Coalition government of Michelle Bachelet, inaugurated in March 2014, reflects to a considerable extent an effort to rid Chile of the last element of the Pinochet dictatorship: the neoliberal economic model with its radical privatization of education, health, and even pensions. It includes leaders of the massive students protests that have occurred in the last three years and members of the Communist Party.