The coup was welcomed with relief and broad support

Monday, June 10th, 2019

Chile’s long-expected coup took place on September 11, 1973, after all three branches of the armed forces — army, navy, and air force — had agreed on a plan 10 days previously. Jared Diamond explains (in Upheaval):

The Chilean air force bombed the president’s palace in Santiago, while Chilean army tanks shelled it (Plate 4.3). Recognizing his situation to be hopeless, Allende killed himself with the machine gun presented to him by Fidel Castro. I confess that I had been skeptical about that claim, and had suspected that Allende had actually been killed by coup soldiers. But an investigative commission set up by Chile’s restored democratic government after the end of military government concluded that Allende really did die alone, by suicide. That conclusion was confirmed for me by a Chilean friend who knew a fireman of the fire brigade that went to the burning palace and met Allende’s surviving final companions, including the last person to see Allende alive.

The coup was welcomed with relief and broad support from centrist and rightist Chileans, much of the middle class, and of course the oligarchs.


One Chilean friend recounted to me the story of a dinner party of 18 people that he had attended in December 1973, just three months after the coup. When the subject of conversation turned to the question how long the guests present expected the junta to remain in power, 17 of the 18 guests predicted just two years. The 18th guest’s prediction of seven years was considered absurd by the other guests; they said that that couldn’t happen in Chile, where all previous military governments had quickly returned power to a civilian government. No one at that dinner party foresaw that the junta would remain in power for almost 17 years. It suspended all political activity, closed Congress, banned left-wing political parties and even the centrist Christian Democrats (to the great surprise of those centrists), took over Chile’s universities, and appointed military commanders as university rectors.

The junta member who became its leader, essentially by accident, had joined it at the last minute and had not led the coup planning: General Augusto Pinochet (Plate 4.4).


The CIA’s appraisal of Pinochet was: quiet, mild-mannered, honest, harmless, friendly, hard-working, businesslike, religious, modest in lifestyle, a devoted tolerant husband and father, with no known interests outside the military and the Catholic Church and his family—in short, not a person likely to lead a coup. The junta expected itself to be a committee of equals, with rotating leadership. They chose Pinochet as their initial leader mainly because he was its oldest member, because he was chief of staff of the largest branch of the Chilean armed forces (the army itself), and perhaps because they shared the CIA’s view of Pinochet as unthreatening.


Within the first 10 days, thousands of Chilean leftists were taken to two sports stadiums in Santiago, interrogated, tortured, and killed.


Hundreds of Chileans were tracked down and killed in other South American countries, Europe, and even one in the U.S. The U.S. case occurred in 1976, in Washington, DC, only 14 blocks from the White House, when a car bomb killed the former Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier (minister of defense under Allende), plus an American colleague.


By 1976, Pinochet’s government had arrested 130,000 Chileans, or 1% of Chile’s population. While the majority of them were eventually released, DINA and other junta agents killed or “disappeared” thousands of Chileans (most of them under the age of 35), plus four American citizens and various citizens of other countries.


South American military governments usually prefer an economy that they control themselves for their own benefit, rather than a free-market economy that they don’t control. Hence the junta’s adoption of the Chicago Boys’ policies was unexpected, and it remains uncertain why it happened.


The adoption is sometimes attributed to the 1975 Chilean visit of Milton Friedman himself, who met with Pinochet for 45 minutes and followed up the meeting by sending Pinochet a long letter full of recommendations. But Friedman came away from the meeting with a low opinion of Pinochet, who asked Friedman only one question during their conversation. In fact, the Chicago Boys’ program differed significantly from Friedman’s recommendations and drew on detailed plans that Chilean economists had already laid out in a document nicknamed “the brick” (because it was so lengthy and heavy).


Whatever the motives, the resulting free-market policies included the re-privatization of hundreds of state-owned businesses nationalized under Allende (but not of the copper companies); the slashing of the government deficit by across-the-board cuts of every government department’s budget by 15% to 25%; the slashing of average import duties from 120% to 10%; and the opening of Chile’s economy to international competition.


That caused the Chicago Boys’ program to be opposed by Chile’s oligarchy of industrialists and traditional powerful families, whose inefficient businesses had previously been shielded from international competition by high duties and were now forced to compete and innovate.


But the results were that the rate of inflation declined from its level of 600% per year under Allende to just 9% per year, the Chilean economy grew at almost 10% per year, foreign investments soared, Chilean consumer spending rose, and Chilean exports eventually diversified and increased.


In a democracy it would have been difficult to inflict such widespread suffering on poor Chileans, as well as to impose government policies opposed by rich business oligarchs.


Thus, Chile after Pinochet reverted to being a functioning democracy still anomalous for Latin America, but with a huge selective change: a willingness to tolerate, compromise, and share and alternate power.


The new governments continued most of Pinochet’s free-market economic policies, because those policies were seen to have been largely beneficial in the long run. In fact, Concertación governments carried those policies even further, by reducing import tariffs so that they came to average only 3% by 2007, the lowest in the world.


Average incomes in Chile were only 19% of U.S. averages in 1975; that proportion had risen to 44% by the year 2000, while average incomes in the rest of Latin America were dropping over that same time. Inflation rates in Chile are low, the rule of law is strong, private property rights are well protected, and the pervasive corruption with which I had to deal during my 1967 visit has decreased.


But even Chilean rightists were shocked by a U.S. Senate subcommittee’s revelation that Pinochet had stashed $30 million in 125 secret U.S. bank accounts. While rightists had been prepared to tolerate torturing and killing, they were disillusioned to learn that Pinochet, whom they had considered different from and better than other dishonest Latin American dictators, stole and hid money.


  1. Graham says:

    In the 1989 miniseries The French Revolution, the falling out between Jacobin leaders Danton and Robespierre is given considerable air time.

    Both had been quite radical, terror supporting Committee of Public Safety men, but at last they split on the lines of vaguely normal human [Danton] and moral purist fanatic [Robespierre]. At one point Danton [Klaus Maria Brandauer] waves his hand and asks Rob, “You mean in all this, you’ve taken nothing for yourself?”

    Corruption strikes me as a complicated moral issue. A former boss who had some familiarity with life in West Africa [corruption pervasive and wildly out of control] and China [ditto but brutally if selectively punished, so there's a high price], stressed just how much damage pervasive corruption can do. So once it exists, it can get out of control and become social problem # 1 on a state destroying scale.

    On the other hand, it can and has generated furious and damaging overreaction when at a smaller scale, or served as an excuse for other repressions.

    So I’m left wondering what should be tolerated and when the alarms should go off. In particular, I am troubled by progressives redefining things as corruption as part of their drive to remove all the flexibility of politics and business, and I am not equipped to say where the line should be.

    Up here, our PM was embroiled in scandal because a Canadian company allegedly paid bribes overseas, and his office then asked the Justice Department if it might not consider the lesser option of a fine rather than prosecution.

    Now I’m actually OK with my nationals’ bribing overseas at their own risk, and probably would not have legislated against it. [I understand the US has longstanding laws also.] But more to the point, I’m also OK with the idea that in such matters the chief executive might ask the executive officer in charge of prosecution to be lenient for reasons of state, indeed openly, certainly behind the doors of government. Prosecution is an executive function, and where the alleged harm is offshore, I’m OK with political and commercial considerations playing a role.

    Diplomacy and politics and statecraft are governed by laws, but they aren’t operations of law so how tightly they should reflect judicial procedure is a question.

    All of which to say, I want a high standard on these issues but I’m OK with how the Anglo-Saxon world operated circa 1985.

    All of which for me comes back to that Danton scene. How easily the writers painted him as the human one just by having him take stuff for himself, and then comparing him to the fanatic who did not.

    So with Pinochet, I guess I’d tell those disillusioned-
    1. Nobody’s perfect. Don’t hero worship or mythologize anyone too much, even if they genuinely play the hero’s part in whatever your thing is.
    2. If you supported the cause, then judge its leader by its success or failure.
    3. If all he did was steal 30 million, that’s chump change considering the wealth of Chile and the length of his tenure. A man in that position has to consider his means and place of eventual exile. There are men out there who have stolen far more than that and have done measurable economic damage in the stealing.

    This also applies to things like minor sexual misconduct. I get it with the French, all of whom who knew Mitterrand had a second family concealed it for decades.

    I am increasingly on the moral, spiritual and ethical outs with the times.

  2. Kirk says:

    Question that might be asked would be, were those funds really “real”, in the sense that Pinochet was their source? You start telling me about things like that, I’m going to want to see provenance, because it’s all too easy to generate false banking records with fraudulent attributions. Sure, Pinochet’s name might have been on them, but… Was he really the person that opened them and deposited money in them?

    Other side of the coin, if he was…? Frankly, I’d have opened up some external accounts myself, in his shoes, and they wouldn’t necessarily have been for my own benefit, either. One never knows when you’re going to have to fund a government-in-exile, or bribe some American Senator not to declare legislative jihad on your government and country.

    You really can’t tell what the deal was, with those accounts, if they were even real. The CIA and FBI do enough “funny stuff” with the banking system that I’d want to see video of Pinochet coming in and opening the account, his signatures on the paperwork, thumbprints, and DNA verification for corroboration. And, even then, we don’t know motivation. If he used that money for his own benefit, sure… If not, then how do you know?

  3. Graham says:

    Indeed, all those things would fall under ‘reasons of state’ for me.

    It’s all good, and the US Government has among the poorest moral standings in the world for condemning such activity anyway, though it’s far more hypocritical, and I don’t complain about them either. Foreign policy doesn’t take care of itself.
    Wheels have to get greased, cogs added or removed.

    And if he was stealing it for himself, well, still not enough to do any harm to an economy like Chile’s, and not really that much to support an exile. We’re not talking Mobutu territory here. That guy stole so much from a much weaker [albeit resourced] economy that he practically destroyed Congo’s prospects by himself. And, as ever, we must consider practicalities. A man has to live. And probably pay a private security force in his exile.

  4. D. John 1 says:

    $30 million? That’s IT???

    That’s something like 1/10th of 1/1000th of 1/nth of 1% of what the kleptocrats grab. And yes, every single dime can be explained as acts of state by Pinochet’s regime or dirty tricks by CIA or FBI.

    And with Deep Fakes these days, even video of Pinochet personally signing the account paperwork should be summarily dismissed.

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