Santiago, Chile – Next week marks 50 years since the September 11, 1973 coup d’etat in Chile, led by General Augusto Pinochet in the middle of the Cold War.
One might think that after half a century, there is little left to know about the circumstances surrounding the overthrow of the world’s first democratically elected, Marxist president, Salvador Allende.
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But as details continue to emerge about what happened, nothing could be further from the truth.
Much has been written about the 17-year Pinochet dictatorship that followed the coup – especially the tens of thousands of Chileans who were tortured, executed and forcibly disappeared.
We also know that the United States played a role in pushing for Allende’s overthrow and supported Pinochet until he became too much of a liability.
But thanks to one man in particular, we continue to learn more fascinating details about how the coup was hatched, and why: American Peter Kornbluh has been tirelessly working since 1986 to sift through declassified documents detailing US foreign interventions in general, and in Chile in particular.
The goal, says Kornbluh, is to set the record straight. “The verdict of history is an enduring legacy that makes it all worthwhile,” he tells Al Jazeera.
US government files
Kornbluh is a senior analyst at the National Security Archive, an institute at George Washington University established in 1985 by scholars and journalists to disclose information based on the Freedom of Information Act.
As director of the archive’s Chile and Cuba Documentation Projects, he has obtained the declassification of thousands of US government files. The top-secret CIA, White House and Department of State documents detail the 1973 coup in Chile and Washington’s eventual withdrawal of support for Pinochet’s dictatorship.
Kornbluh is now back in Chile to release the updated, Spanish-language version of his book, The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability, which he presented before a standing-room-only audience in Santiago last week.
Among other things, the declassified documents that appear in the book reveal that financial and political efforts by then-President Richard Nixon’s administration to destabilise Allende began even before the Chilean president took office.
Henry Kissinger, then acting as Nixon’s US national security adviser, in August 1970 “ordered a study of the consequences of an Allende victory in the upcoming presidential elections”, Kornbluh says.
With the US consumed by the Cold War, Kissinger argued that a democratically elected, socialist government in Chile could initiate a domino effect throughout the region and beyond.
And just days after Allende took up his presidential post, a November 5, 1970 document written by Kissinger went further: “The election of Allende as President of Chile poses for us one of the most serious challenges ever faced in this hemisphere.”
Over lunch this week in Santiago, Kornbluh told me that Chile is one of the best-documented cases of covert US intervention for regime change.
Hundreds of CIA operational records were finally released under a special Chile Declassification Project mandated by former President Bill Clinton. More were made available under President Barack Obama.
“They include hundreds of CIA operational records, as well as around 24,000 other White House, National Security Council, FBI and State Department records on the US role in Chile from 1970 to 1990,” Kornbluh says.
“They demonstrate that beyond a shadow of a doubt, Henry Kissinger was the chief architect of US efforts to bring about the downfall of the Allende government.”
What do the documents say?
Secret US intelligence meetings with top-ranking members of Chile’s military, in which US financial support is offered to pre-empt Allende’s inauguration with what turned out to be a botched military coup plot, are now a matter of record thanks to the declassified documents.
Another revelation is the far lesser-known role that Brazil’s military dictatorship of the time played in promoting the military coup in Chile and then supporting it.
Kornbluh tells me about how the head of Brazil’s military junta, General Emilio Garrastazu Medici, went to the White House in December 1971 to meet with Kissinger and Nixon and told them that Allende “would fall” like former Brazilian President Joao Goulart.
Goulart was deposed in a 1964 coup that ushered in a 21-year military regime in Brazil.
In a stunning, declassified Memorandum of Conversation of that meeting, Nixon responded: “Brazil can do things that we can’t do. If there is a discreet way for us to give you funds and resources to pursue that, we should.” The US president then proposed setting up a secret back channel to coordinate their joint efforts.
For years, I have heard testimonies supporting claims that Pinochet received crucial cooperation from the Brazilian dictatorship after the 1973 Chilean coup, including interrogation and torture methods.
But what happened after the White House meeting between Medici and Nixon still has not been declassified in either the US or Brazil, leading to continued questions.
‘Chile serves as a lesson’
Kornbluh has issued a public appeal to left-wing Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to order the Brazilian military to turn over all documents related to Chile between 1970 and 1990.
“We have perhaps 95 percent of the documents on the US role in Chile, while in Brazil there are no strong freedom of information laws or advocacy communities, and so very few intelligence documents have surfaced,” Kornbluh tells me.
He also says the US government continues to withhold records on Brazil’s pivotal role in supporting the Pinochet regime. In addition, secret files on the CIA’s covert assistance to help Pinochet develop his infamous intelligence agency, DINA, have yet to be released.
Kornbluh also recently wrote about how files detailing a US Department of Justice investigation during the final year of the Clinton administration, “identifying Pinochet as the intellectual author of an act of international terrorism in Washington, DC, also remain off limits to public scrutiny”.
He is referring to the 1976 car bomb assassination of Allende’s Defence Minister Orlando Letelier in the US capital, where Letelier had gone into exile following the coup.
After more than 30 years of pushing to set the record straight, I ask Kornbluh if he is growing tired of fighting for the full account of what happened in Chile.
“Sometimes,” he replies. “But then I just cannot tolerate the idea of being denied information that my country, Chile, and indeed the region, have a right to.
“Fifty years after the coup, what happened in Chile serves as a lesson for the world at a time when we are living a global democracy crisis.”