Fifty years after Chile’s coup, the region still not safe from US meddling

Destructive US efforts to control its ‘back yard’ continue to this day.

A demonstrator shows a picture of former Chilean president Salvador Allende during a rally to mark the anniversary of the 1973 coup
A demonstrator shows a picture of former Chilean president Salvador Allende during a protest marking the anniversary of the 1973 Chilean military coup, in Santiago, Chile, September 11, 2022. [Carlos Vera/Reuters]

Today is the 50th anniversary of a devastating military coup in Chile which gave way to one of the most brutal dictatorships in Latin American history.

On September 11, 1973, a military junta, led by General Augusto Pinochet, overthrew the democratically elected government of President Salvador Allende. What followed was a 17-year dictatorship which tortured 40,000, killed more than 3000 and “disappeared” more than a thousand others. Hundreds of thousands were forced into exile.

The Nixon administration in the United States encouraged and supported the coup that paved the way for these atrocities.

Since former US President James Monroe effectively announced a protectorate over the Western Hemisphere in December 1823, known as the Monroe Doctrine, the US has been interfering in nations across Latin America, often in pursuit of its own interests, but always under the guise of protecting democracy and human rights in its “backyard”.

The 1973 coup in Chile was one such intervention.

Official documents and telephone call transcripts that were declassified and made public over the years paint a clear picture of how Washington worked to ensure Allende’s downfall ever since he scored a narrow victory in the September 8, 1970, presidential election.

According to handwritten notes of then CIA Director Richard Helms, just more than a week after Allende’s victory, on September 15, 1970, President Richard Nixon ordered him to “make the economy scream” in Chile to “prevent Allende from coming to power or to unseat him”. Three days earlier, in a phone call to Helms that he recorded, Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, had already confirmed the administration’s intention to overthrow Allende, noting “We will not let Chile go down the drain.”

And on September 16, 1973, just six days after Pinochet’s bloody putsch, Nixon called his national security adviser to ask whether the US “hand” in the coup would show. According to declassified call transcripts, Kissinger admitted that “we helped them” and that “[deleted reference] created conditions as great as possible.”

The US did not end its destructive meddling in Chile’s affairs after successfully instigating a coup against its democratically elected leader either.

Three years into Pinochet’s murderous rule, in June 1976, Kissinger personally visited the Chilean capital, Santiago, to reaffirm Washington’s support for the dictator. According to a declassified transcript of their one-on-one conversation, Kissinger advised Pinochet on how to improve his image in the international arena and dismissed all criticism of his regime’s human rights record as “leftist propaganda”. “In the United States, as you know, we are sympathetic with what you are trying to do here,” Kissinger told Pinochet, who had by then already killed and disappeared thousands of his regime’s detractors “We want to help, not undermine you,” he added.  “You did a great service to the West in overthrowing Allende.”

The coup against Allende in Chile was perhaps the most destructive US interference in Latin America, but it was not the first of its kind and would not be the last either.

By the time it started working on destabilising the Allende government in Chile, Washington had already engineered a coup to overthrow the democratically elected Arbenz government in Guatemala in 1954, invaded the Dominican Republic with 24,000 troops in 1965, and made countless attempts to assassinate Cuba’s Fidel Castro.

And, after successfully placing the murderous but US-friendly Pinochet government in power in Chile, it went on to fund as a proxy army some 6,000 “contras” to overthrow the Sandinista government of Nicaragua, offer military training to the armies of the region’s many dictators at the School of the Americas, and invade Panama with 24,000 troops to depose its de facto ruler.

Regrettably, destructive US efforts to control its “backyard” continue to this day.

Indeed, Washington is still inflicting immeasurable suffering on the peoples of the Americas to ensure that they are all governed in a way that does not challenge US interests. It, for example, still keeps Cuba on the list of countries supporting terrorism in the hopes that the consequent economic distress would trigger a coup. It has also confiscated billions of dollars of Venezuelan property and is making the Venezuelan economy “scream” with its sanctions to arrange for the demise of its government, paying no attention to the suffering of its people. It condemns, in the words of Trump National Security Adviser John Bolton, “the troika of tyranny” (Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua), but says little about the corrupt right-wing governments in El Salvador, Guatemala, Ecuador and, until recently, Colombia, Honduras and Brazil.

It is now popular – and easy – to condemn the coup that deposed Allende and paved the way for Pinochet’s many human rights abuses and atrocities. No doubt on its 50th anniversary, there will also be some mention of the primary role the US played in the chain of events that resulted in the devastation of the Chilean people.

But there is not nearly enough discussion on how the US approach to its “backyard” did not change that much at all in the past 50 years.

After helping Pinochet assume power in Chile, Washington continued its support for the Monroe Doctrine, which came to mean that the US would intervene in the affairs of Western Hemisphere countries whenever it felt the need or the desire.

Barack Obama was the first US president to publicly reject the interventionist policy. His secretary of state, John Kerry, announced to the Organization of American States in a November 2013 meeting that the “era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.” Yet just five years later,  and without any major change in US policies towards Cuba, Venezuela and many others, Trump National Security Adviser Bolton told Bay of Pigs veterans in Miami that the Monroe Doctrine was once again “alive and well”.

President Joe Biden, who had shown a keen interest in strengthening relations with Latin American states as Obama’s vice president, seems to have re-buried the Monroe Doctrine – or at least its most interventionist interpretations – for now.

Nevertheless, as we remember the tragic events of 50 years ago in Chile, and recall the grave humanitarian consequences of the many other US interventions made in the name of protecting “the backyard” since, we should be conscious that the Monroe Doctrine, as interpreted by Nixon and Trump, still has countless supporters in Washington.

Exactly 50 years since Allende’s demise, and 200 years since the first articulation of the Monroe Doctrine, the threat of US intervention continues to loom large over Latin America.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.