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Chile coup 40 years on: How the US and ruling class ushered in a reign of terror

Kate Clark explains the background and brutal practices of the Western-backed junta

These are my personal memories of that savage coup d’etat which took place 40 years ago — on September 11 1973 — and brought down the government of the popular socialist president Salvador Allende.

He had headed a people’s government on a programme of measures aimed at improving the living standards of working people through economic changes such as nationalising Chile’s main resource, copper, and land reform to give more rights to the rural poor.

Though popular, with mass support from working people, the Popular Unity coalition fell victim to a sustained and heavily financed campaign of political opposition and destabilisation.  

Goods disappeared from the shops — the owners of lorry fleets ordered a nationwide stoppage to paralyse the flow of goods up and down the length of Chile.  

The centrist Christian Democratic Party veered further and further towards  the right, thus helping to prepare the ground for the coup which happened three years into president Allende’s term.

The brutal military coup unseated the constitutionally elected president and declared a “state of war” on the country.  Soldiers stormed factories and killed and detained hundreds of workers on the very day of the coup.  

Chile’s most popular singer-songwriter Victor Jara had the bones in his hands broken, suffered electrocution torture and was then machine-gunned in the Chile Stadium, his body later thrown onto a suburban street.  

The military junta that took power bombed the presidential palace using British Hawker Hunter aircraft.  

Allende, rather than capitulate, decided to end his own life, after recording a most moving and historic farewell speech to the people of Chile.  

In the days, months and years that followed, a reign of terror ruled in Chile.  

Sober estimates calculate 3,200 dead, 1,192 of whom were simply made to “disappear,” 33,000 people imprisoned in jails and detention camps and tortured.  

A “caravan of death” was set up by the junta — a top-brass military team whose job was to fly from north to south deciding which local leaders should die.  

“War tribunals” were later hurriedly set up to give some semblance of justice, condemning thousands to death and imprisonment.  

Many thousands fled into exile, unable to return for the 17 years that the military dictatorship ruled.

You might well ask yourself why? Why was a president, elected in 1970 with 36.6 per cent of the vote, subjected to such a campaign of destabilisation?  

Though president Allende tried his utmost to carry out, within the existing legal framework, his programme pledges on land reform, nationalisation of the main natural resources, better social housing and health care and other popular measures, the economic sectors whose interests and profits were affected by these measures soon organised retaliation to get rid of this “dangerous Marxist” president.

They had been horrified to see that in municipal elections of April 1971, the Popular Unity alliance had increased its share of the vote to 50.86 per cent — a clear indication of its growing popularity.

For decades the ruling circles had been used to presidents who had never challenged their interests.  

Big Chilean landowners were used to living in luxury, on their big estates or latifundios, with maids and obedient peasants to work their land for a pittance.

The owners of the copper industry, mainly US multinationals, were used to being able to siphon off huge profits from Chile’s main natural resource, giving little back in return.

But here was a president, Allende, who stood up and challenged this situation and actually started putting into practice what his Popular Unity programme had promised, including nationalising the copper industry.

So a plan, hatched by the CIA, was set in motion as early as 1970 to destabilise and ultimately overthrow the Popular Unity government.  

This is amply documented in the 1975 US Senate committee report on “Covert Action in Chile, 1963-1973” which shows in grim detail how the CIA, the White House, the Pentagon and multinational companies colluded with the Chilean right to set up, finance and support opposition media, far-right groups and terrorist actions to cause an impression of chaos in the country.  

The next stage would be a well-planned coup, followed by a system of state terrorism, to serve as a clear example to Chile and the rest of Latin America that no pro-socialist government, even if elected, would ever be tolerated in future. The effects of that ruthless state terrorism are still present in many Chileans even today.

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