Chile had boasted a long and stable democratic tradition in a politically fragile region beset by civil war and dictatorship. But democracy was not to return for 17 years.
President Nixon and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, had been nervous about Allende since well before his election in 1970, as they knew his socialist policies would harm US business interests, like copper mining.
“But they also wanted Allende to fail because they were very afraid that the socialist experiment would be successful and would encourage other left-of-centre parties in a variety of Latin American countries to try the same thing – bring about socialism by democratic means,” says John Dinges, a journalist and author who has written extensively about Chile and who was in Santiago at the time of Pinochet’s coup.
The CIA was funnelling cash to Chile’s right-wing media outlets and Allende’s political opponents. But when it looked like he would win the 1970 presidential election, the agency stepped up its covert activities.
Declassified CIA documents reveal America’s hand in destabilising Allende’s government in 1970.
General René Schneider, head of Chile’s armed forces, was a constitutionalist, and respected the professional, non-political role of the military. He stood in the way of the military coup that the United States hoped would work as a last-ditch effort to keep Allende out of power. So in the lead-up to the 1970 elections, the CIA provided machine guns and cash to a group of plotters who planned to kidnap Schneider and send him to Argentina, leaving the way clear for a military takeover. But the kidnapping went badly wrong, and the General ended up dead.
The CIA rushed to cover its tracks, paying the jailed plotters $53,000 in hush money and throwing the machine guns they’d lent them into the sea. The army, and Chilean society, upset by the attempt to destroy proper democratic process, rallied around Allende. He was elected on 4 September, 1970. Now, the US would focus it efforts on undermining Allende’s government.
“They were actually organising a coup in 1970,” says John Dinges, but in the lead-up to 1973, the CIA was “very much in the background, doing things like fomenting the economic subversion, paying off right wingers to do violence in the streets – stuff like that.”
Nixon instructed his administration to “make the economy scream,” and before long, it would.
“The US definitely wanted the economy to fail so that the military would overthrow Allende,” says Dinges. “They promoted an economic blockade, preventing Chile from getting credits from international aid associations like the World Bank and the IMF.”
Meanwhile, nervous that Allende had them under close watch and that he may close the US embassy, removing their cover, the CIA called on its friends and allies to help out.