The coup that overthrew Chile’s leader in 1973 was trained and backed by the US. But the British state was also a key lieutenant in the suppression of Chilean socialism and the global export of Pinochet’s counter-revolution, writes Coll McCail.
On the 21st of November 1973, the Chilean national team were scheduled to play the Soviet Union at the National Stadium in Santiago. The winner would qualify for the forthcoming World Cup in West Germany. As kickoff loomed, Chile’s opponents were nowhere to be seen. The Soviets boycotted the fixture, refusing to play on a pitch “soaked in blood.” FIFA, taking no note of their complaint, ordered the game to go ahead and, having scored into an empty net, the Chileans secured their place in the World Cup group stage.
Two months earlier, Salvador Allende, the world’s first elected Marxist president, was killed in a US-backed coup. The overthrow of Allende’s socialist Popular Unity government inaugurated the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet and a period of brutal repression. Socialists, communists, and Allende supporters were rounded up, beaten, and detained in makeshift prisons all across the country.
Santiago’s National Stadium was one such torture centre, where as many as 20,000 people were incarcerated and dozens murdered. Victor Jara, the Chilean communist and folk singer, was among them. Before he was executed on the pitch that two months later would host his country’s national team, Jara wrote his final poem, Estadio Chile. “What horror the face of fascism creates,” he observed as soldiers turned their machine guns on the dissidents. When FIFA’s officers visited the Stadium to approve its use, the army hid the prisoners out of sight. Those left in the stands observed that the inspectors were “only interested in the quality of the grass.”
FIFA were not alone in turning a blind eye to the cruelty of Pinochet’s regime. In the immediate aftermath of the Coup, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger dispatched an envoy to convey the US’ “strongest desires to cooperate closely” with the junta. The British Ambassador in Santiago told the regime that his government was “anxious to enter early into good relations.”
These overtures marked the beginning of a concerted effort by the West to erase the barbarity of the Chilean dictatorship. Throughout his 17-year rule, Britain and the US developed close relationships with General Pinochet, nursing his reputation as a means of justifying the underdevelopment of Chile. As Kissinger reassured Nixon, while bombs fell on La Moneda, “in the Eisenhower period, we would be heroes.”
Addressing the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1972, Salvador Allende explained “that imperialism exists because underdevelopment exists; underdevelopment exists because imperialism exists.” Allende identified these processes as having plagued Chile since Spanish colonisation 500 years earlier. In 1929, the United States had $400 million invested in the Latin American nation. As Eduardo Galeano pointed out, in the four decades that followed just two mining companies — Anaconda and Kennecott — bled Chile of $4 billion. Between 1955 and 1970, Kennecott alone made an average of 52% profit per year.
For correcting this historic injustice and nationalising the Chilean copper industry, Allende would pay the ultimate price. Copper made up 70% of the nation’s exports but lay almost entirely in the hands of foreign capital. The US Ambassador feared the consequences for “other big American interests throughout the developing world” and quickly Washington shut down all investment in Chile.
The imperialists on the other side of the Atlantic objected too. One third of Britain’s copper came from Chile and, as far as the British government was concerned, the resource could not thus be returned to the people. Even before he came to power, the British government had been keen to oppose Allende. In the Chilean elections of 1964 and 1970, Harold Wilson’s Labour government organised a covert operation in the country against Allende, and in favour of his right wing opponents. A special unit – the Information Research Department – was deployed to work alongside the CIA in distributing propaganda and recruiting key civil society figures in the anti-socialist cause.
Days after the 1973 coup, the British Foreign Secretary wrote that “for British interests… there is no doubt that Chile under the junta is a better prospect than Allende’s chaotic road to socialism.”
The capitalist West eyed an opportunity in the ashes of La Moneda. US aid began to pour into Chile as Washington scrambled to help prop-up the fledgling dictatorship. Less than a month after the coup, the US loaned Pinochet $24 million for the purchase of wheat (eight times the credit Allende’s government received over three years). In 1974, Chile consumed almost half of the US’ entire ‘Food for Peace’ programme for Latin America. Weapons arrived too. Washington ignored the thousands of disappearances and, until 1976, Pinochet’s Chile was among the US’ biggest customers for military equipment. Kissinger visited Santiago himself in 1976 and told the dictator that he “did a great service to the West in overthrowing Allende.” Meanwhile, Allende’s Chile was transformed into a laboratory for neoliberalism as a radical, free-market economic revolution began.
The ‘Chicago Boys’ were a group of 26 Chilean economists who studied at the University of Chicago through a programme organised by the US State Department. Taught by Milton Friedman, who Thatcher heralded as having “revived the economics of liberty”, the US hoped these students would return home to influence Chilean economics. They would eventually do so beyond all expectations.
In 1970, the Chicago Boys launched their manifesto for economic liberalisation, El ladrillo (The Brick). After Allende’s death, the Wall Street Journal noted that the economists were “champing to be unleashed on the Chilean economy”. It would not be long before General Pinochet offered the Chicago Boys ministerial positions and The Brick formed the blueprint for the new regime’s economic policy. In Pinochet’s Chile, the monetarists found their testing ground.
Between 1973-80, the number of state-owned companies in Chile plummeted from more than 300 to 24. This fire sale of national assets was accompanied by huge cuts to public spending in infrastructure, health, and housing. The state shriveled as the economy opened to foreign investment. Friedman himself visited Chile in 1976 and advised the regime that “shock treatment” was “the only way” to solve the country’s rampant inflation. It was in this context that the dictatorship developed Chile’s 1980 Constitution. Barring Trade Unions from “political partisan activities”, the document gave the President the power to suspend “the rights of the unionised”. While attacking workers, the constitution enshrined the role of private capital in the operation of essential services, prompting newspapers to run headlines like “Constitution will protect Chileans from Marxism”. The dictatorship’s intention was to irreversibly shift the economic orthodoxy and hamstring any future attempts to challenge the role of the market. By the time of Chile’s democratic transition, the share of national income redistributed to the richest had risen from 10% to nearly 50%.
The Chicago Boys’ project reverberated around the globe. In the 1980s, neoliberalism found political expression in the government’s of Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher. Incubated in Chile, “There Is No Alternative” became the rallying cry of international capitalism.
The Thatcher government did more than simply adopt Pinochet’s economic policy however. On coming to power, the Conservatives restored Chile’s export credit and Cabinet ministers began to meet with their Chilean counterparts. In 1975, after the torture of Sheila Cassidy, the British withdrew their Ambassador in Santiago. Thatcher reinstated him in January 1980 and six months later lifted the embargo preventing the sale of arms to Pinochet’s regime. Dismissing concerns regarding how these weapons would be used, Thatcher told her Cabinet that the dictatorship had been the target of “left-wing propaganda.” She saw no issue assisting Pinochet’s soldiers either and, between 1981-84, Britain trained more than 200 members of the Chilean armed forces.
Toppling democracy in Chile was not enough. The British and US had to whitewash the 17 years of dictatorship that followed. It is estimated that, between 1973 and 1988, 3,000 people were murdered by Pinochet’s regime. Thousands more were imprisoned and tortured. In Washington and London, however, the dictator was an ally. Thatcher encapsulated this feeling in 1999 when she told Pinochet that it was he who “brought democracy to Chile.”
As Salvador Allende’s daughter Isabel wrote: “It was the time of the Cold War, and the United States would not allow a leftist experiment to succeed in what Kissinger called ‘its backyard’. The Cuban Revolution was enough; no other socialist project would be tolerated, even if it was the result of a democratic election.”