The US role in the rise of Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile

During the 1960s and 1970s, Latin America saw a sharp rise in the number of military dictatorships taking control of a number of nations. The role of the United States government in these occurrences has been contentious, especially due to the clandestine tactics employed at the time. The case of Chile stands out due to the highly interventionist nature of the United States in the nation’s democratic political progression; this piece will consider the importance of US involvement in the rise and fall of Salvador Allende, and discuss whether it was the most crucial catalyst for Augusto Pinochet’s rise to power. This will include a consideration of the importance of other factors in the political transition – including economic strife and other internal issues – that may have led to the rise of Pinochet’s regime. Attention will also be given to the reasons why the US became involved in Chile; issues such as the fear of communism, and the effects of Chilean socialism upon US business interests, will be reviewed. Lastly, this piece will address the traits of Pinochet and Allende’s domestic policies, and consider whether the US support or opposition to them was justified.

To comprehend the involvement that the US had in the emergence of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, it is important to understand contemporary contextual relations between Latin America and the United States. In the early 1960s, when Salvador Allende began to gain momentum in his popularity among Chilean voters, tensions were rife between the United States and foreign governments that were perceived to be sympathetic to communism. The US considered the empowerment of any socialist or Marxist leader – democratic or otherwise – to be a direct threat to US interests; this stemmed from the belief that any state allowing such ideology to flourish would signify an expansion of Soviet influence. However, the support provided by the United States to Latin American military dictatorships that supported US interests was not unique to Cold War international relations; throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, US presidents authorised “overt military efforts” with the intention of removing governments considered to be resistant of accepting US political and financial interests[1]. Prior to this period, the tactics used by the US government in installing and maintaining dictatorships in the region had been largely consistent; support for “small oligarchical political parties” on the right side of the political spectrum had proved effective in protecting US interests[2]. However, the ousting of Fulgencio Batista in the 1959 Cuban Revolution, and the empowerment of Fidel Castro, led to the realisation that an oppressive US-supported right-wing leadership strengthened public support for the left. During his brief presidency, John F. Kennedy privately spoke of a “viable alternative” of fostering support for centrist and reformist parties[3] – a move that would have created a dissonance between those on the left who supported an outright revolution, and those who preferred a gradual reform of political institutions.

This approach was clearly seen in US policy when, in the 1964 Chilean presidential election, Christian Democratic Party (PDC) leader Eduardo Frei gained an absolute majority – ensuring his power[4]. However, Frei’s success was a direct result of covert intervention by the US Central Intelligence Agency in the campaigning process. The run-up to this election was the key point in which the United States made its first efforts to undermine Chilean democracy in this period; the CIA financed a significant portion of Frei’s campaign, and spread vast amounts of anti-communist propaganda. These actions included the distribution of 3,000 political posters, as well as the financing of radio spots and news commentaries that opposed Allende[5]. After ensuring his 1964 electoral win, the United States government then had to maintain Frei’s popularity among the Chilean people – to safeguard a PDC win in the 1970 elections. Therefore, a period of covert financial assistance ensued, with around $1.2 billion in grants and loans being provided to Frei’s administration to “sustain social and economic development”[6]. The fact that the United States found it necessary to fund the PDC at the time is indicative of the political failures of Frei’s governance to address the contemporary needs of the Chilean people.

A number of factors contributed to the US sentiment opposing the increasingly popular Allende; a potential for a Chilean alliance with Cuba and the Soviet Union, the spread of communism in mainland Latin America, and Allende’s significant support for the nationalisation of Chilean industries.  The latter was significantly contentious, as Chilean industries were “dominated by US corporations” at the time, and a nationalisation move would cause a dramatic loss of profits for the United States[7]; essentially, a significant reason that the US opposed the democratic election of Allende was to protect the business interests of a wealthy but powerful few. A CIA report at the time indicated that an Allende win would threaten “US private investment of more than $750 million”[8]. As noted in various sources, Chile historically had “the strongest tradition of democracy in Latin America”[9], yet with the implementation of various tactics by the CIA, and a few domestic issues, this democratic tradition was destroyed in 1973.

In 1970, after it became apparent through polling results that Allende was expected to achieve electoral success, the United States began to formulate plans to depose him, and install a leader with policies sympathetic to US interests. To exact this, the CIA concluded that “the only viable solution for blocking Allende” was a military coup covertly organised by US agents operating in the region, or Chilean proxies implementing CIA-backed actions. Following the elections in September 1970, a clear winner was not evident, as both Salvador Allende and Jorge Alessandri received a similar number of votes – both well below an absolute majority[10]. Due to the nature of the Chilean political system, the choice of who was to become president had to be voted upon in Congress. While a decision on this was still being considered, the United States executed the first stage of their anti-Allende plan known as the ‘Viaux solution’, due to the involvement of General Roberto Viaux. The commander-in-chief of the Chilean army at the time, René Schneider, had expressed opposition to the staging of a coup, due to his support for constitutionalism and an apolitical military. However, this did not get in the way of US intentions for a military coup; a group of insurgents led by General Viaux, and financed by the CIA, shot and killed Schneider during a failed kidnapping attempt[11]. The US involvement in this highly undemocratic move is indubitable; the US ambassador to Chile at the time, Edward Korry, described Schneider as the “main barrier to all plans for the military to take over the government”, and that he needed to be “neutralised, by displacement if necessary”[12]. This development was intended by the United States to cause instability in Chilean politics, while blame for Schneider’s murder was to be placed on leftists – therefore inciting the military to raid Communist-controlled areas, and leading to the creation of a ruling junta to dissolve Congress and prevent any empowerment of Allende[13]. Despite the intentions, Schneider’s death created a significant “repudiation of violence and a clear reaffirmation of Chile’s civil, constitutional tradition”[14], this culminated in Congress electing Allende as president of Chile.

The election of Allende was viewed as a more severe threat than previous Latin American leaders who were later overthrown by the United States, as he was the twentieth century’s first democratically elected “socialist parliamentarian” in the Western Hemisphere[15]; an ideologically opposing politician with a clear representative mandate. Evidence thus far is highly indicative of a crucial US involvement in the political process of Chile throughout the 1960s; however, it is vital to note that US efforts to depose Allende, destabilise democracy and create a dictatorship serving US interests, were largely failures until this point. Once Allende became president, US policy changed from a strategy of prevention to a more direct assault upon the stability of Chile. President Richard Nixon privately declared that the “Allende regime in Chile is not acceptable to the United States”, and ordered the CIA to “make the [Chilean] economy scream”[16]. President Nixon and his administration began to develop numerous tactics to ensure “that son of a bitch Allende” was removed and replaced with a dictator[17]. The logic of Cold War relations led to Allende’s election being seen by the United States as not “a legitimate action by the Chilean people, but as a ‘takeover’ by hostile, outside forces”; despite Allende’s acceptance speech outlining an intention to uphold the values of “democracy, pluralism and freedom”[18][19]. Most importantly, as Nixon’s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger explained, in the perception of the United States, “Allende’s election was a challenge to our national interest”[20]. Evidence has also emerged indicating that Kissinger’s anti-Allende policy was motivated by business interests; within two weeks of polls indicating an Allende win, Kissinger met with David Rockefeller or Chase Manhattan Bank, as well as the president of Pepsi-Cola, to determine how sabotaging Chilean democracy may prove useful to their interests[21]. This eventually resulted in Nixon instructing the CIA to “play a direct role in organising a military coup d’état in Chile”[22].

In August 1973, Allende appointed Augusto Pinochet as the new commander-in-chief of the Chilean army; a decision that was to change the nation’s fate. This topic is contentious, as Pinochet’s appointment was unrelated to US involvement in Chile – it is feasible that without Allende having made the decision to appoint him, the military coup may have been unsuccessful, and democracy may have been maintained. Several weeks after this occasion – when Pinochet ironically told Allende that he would willingly “lay down [his] life in the defence of the constitutional government” – CIA and anti-Allende Chilean conspirators had recruited Pinochet to launch a military attack upon the presidential palace[23]. The number of soldiers that the CIA had managed to recruit to fight the government by this point was substantial, this was especially due to the economic woes felt by many – ostensibly due to Allende’s economic policy; in fact, the United States had orchestrated an “international credit squeeze” which caused high debt and inflation in Chile, in order to establish a firmer opposition to his presidency[24]. Soon after the coup was initiated, Allende died in his palace. Pinochet assumed power of Chile immediately, and the United States used this opportunity to both overtly and covertly support his oppressive rule.

The “Nixon administration officially [but privately] embraced the bloody coup d’état in Chile”, despite this, the US government publicly portrayed itself as being in a position of “neutrality” towards Pinochet’s regime[25]. Notorious uses of torture by the Pinochet regime against thousands of supposed militants and civilians (including children) were rife; evidence of abuse included the use of electric shocks and forced rape between family members[26]. Additionally, over 2000 people are thought to have been killed by Pinochet’s repressive regime. Despite these reprehensible abuses of human rights, the United States continued to support Pinochet; the Nixon administration agreed to provide “1,000 flares [and] 1,000 steel helmets” for the Chilean military junta with the spurious justification that the US should “be willing to take some risks to avoid [a set pattern of attitudes]”[27]. The provision of this equipment to the military was conducted with purported US ignorance to its usage; however, Nixon clandestinely provided equipment for other clearly malevolent purposes. The US eventually became aware that Pinochet was creating “detention camps” for political prisoners, but considered it to be politically untenable to aid in their establishment. Instead, the US indirectly supported the creation of these camps by providing materials such as tents and blankets which it insisted “need not be publicly… earmarked for prisoners”[28].

As well as providing equipment, the United States immediately lifted its financial blockade on Chile once Pinochet had seized power. On September 12th 1973, one day after the coup, the Washington Special Actions Group – a government task force – began to consider “short, medium and long term Chilean assistance requirements”[29]. This involved the United States dramatically increasing the amount of economic and military aid to Chile, including $24million to ostensibly “alleviate food shortages” – aid that was not granted to Allende’s government due to the aforementioned blockade. It is indubitable that the US government were fully aware of the atrocities committed by the Pinochet regime against the Chilean people. Recently declassified evidence indicates that Henry Kissinger was briefed with a secret document entitled “Chilean Execution” which detailed the hundreds of people killed by the regime since its establishment[30]. The disparity between economic support provided by the US to Allende, and that provided to Pinochet, is huge; between 1970 and 1973, the Allende government received $19.8 million in assistance, compared to $186 million provided to Pinochet between 1974 and 1976[31].

Despite this plethora of evidence indicating a crucial US role in the emergence of Pinochet’s military dictatorship in Chile, there is an array of other factors which may have contributed to the 1973 coup d’état. Importantly, Allende made a vast number of promises during his election campaign and victory speech that indicated a wide range of economic and institutional reforms; he pledged to “abolish the monopolies which grant control of the economy to a few dozen families… abolish a tax system which favours profiteering… nationalise credit… [And] to put an end to the foreign ownership of our industry”[32]. The expectations he provoked among the poor were very high, while the wealthy and middle classes viewed his proposed tax reforms as threatening; Chile was highly polarised, and Allende’s lack of progress at the start of his presidency exacerbated the rift between classes[33]. Social stability then deteriorated, with a major strike participated in by numerous workers who felt inappropriately affected by his political actions, or lack thereof; this eventually culminated into a “nationwide business lock-out which aimed to bring down the government”[34]. The effects of this strike, along with the unfortunately-timed drop in copper prices – a major industry nationalised by Allende, massively damaged the economy. Economic woes were also increased by high government spending on social programs such as a rise in minimum wage and the provision of free milk for school children, as well as an underhanded “sabotage by the economic elite”[35]. However, regardless of these financial issues caused by domestic factors, the most prominent economic factor in the failure of Allende’s government was the blockade imposed upon Chile by the United States. This also involved the IMF refusing to provide regular credits and assistance to the nation due to Allende’s unwillingness to recant to the institutional reformation criteria of the US-backed “stabilisation program”[36].

The United States was not simply involved in the emergence of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile; it was directly involved in multiple aspects of the Chilean political process during Frei’s presidency, Allende’s presidency and continuously until the wane of Pinochet’s power in the late 1980s – apart from the four years of Jimmy Carter’s US presidency, when the two nations’ relationship was compromised due to Carter’s opposition to Pinochet’s human rights violations[37]. The United States’ role was crucial in Pinochet’s empowerment and the deplorable crimes he committed against his people, and the US was vitally involved in derailing democracy and denying a voice to the Chilean people – with priority given to US political and financial interests. The Allende government made several political failures that led to disillusionment among the public, however, these were mostly exacerbated, if not generated, by US economic sanctions imposed upon Chile. Despite other factors, the United States was the key player behind the establishing of Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship.

[1] Kornbluh, Peter. The Pinochet Files, p2

[2] Kornbluh, Peter. The Pinochet Files, p3

[3] Kornbluh, Peter. The Pinochet Files, p3

[4] Kornbluh, Peter. The Pinochet Files, p4

[5] Kornbluh, Peter. The Pinochet Files, p4

[6] Kornbluh, Peter. The Pinochet Files, p5

[7] Schmitz, David F. The United States and right-wing dictatorships, p94

[8] Schmitz, David F. The United States and right-wing dictatorships, p94

[9] Livingstone. G.  America’s Backyard: The United States and Latin America from the Monroe Doctrine to the War on Terror, p51

[10] US Department of State. Cover action in Chile 1963-1973, US State Department, Washington DC

[11] Kornbluh, Peter. The Pinochet Files, p21

[12] Kornbluh, Peter. The Pinochet Files, p22

[13] Kornbluh, Peter. The Pinochet Files, p28

[14] Kornbluh, Peter. The Pinochet Files, p29

[15] Kornbluh, Peter. The Pinochet Files, p1

[16] Schmitz, David F. The United States and right-wing dictatorships, p96

[17] Kornbluh, Peter. The Pinochet Files, p25

[18] Schmitz, David F. The United States and right-wing dictatorships, p95

[19] Livingstone. G.  America’s Backyard: The United States and Latin America from the Monroe Doctrine to the War on Terror, p58

[20] Schmitz, David F. The United States and right-wing dictatorships, p95

[21] Nottingham University. Subversion in Chile, p42

[22] Livingstone. G.  America’s Backyard: The United States and Latin America from the Monroe Doctrine to the War on Terror, p52

[23] Livingstone. G.  America’s Backyard: The United States and Latin America from the Monroe Doctrine to the War on Terror, p59

[24] Livingstone. G.  America’s Backyard: The United States and Latin America from the Monroe Doctrine to the War on Terror, p59

[25] Kornbluh, Peter. The Pinochet Files, p209

[26] Livingstone. G.  America’s Backyard: The United States and Latin America from the Monroe Doctrine to the War on Terror, p60

[27] Kornbluh, Peter. The Pinochet Files, p211

[28] Kornbluh, Peter. The Pinochet Files, p211

[29] Kornbluh, Peter. The Pinochet Files, p211

[30] Kornbluh, Peter. The Pinochet Files, p212

[31] Livingstone. G.  America’s Backyard: The United States and Latin America from the Monroe Doctrine to the War on Terror, p62

[32] Lawson, George. Negotiated Revolutions, p179

[33] Livingstone. G.  America’s Backyard: The United States and Latin America from the Monroe Doctrine to the War on Terror, p59

[34] Livingstone. G.  America’s Backyard: The United States and Latin America from the Monroe Doctrine to the War on Terror, p59

[35] Livingstone. G.  America’s Backyard: The United States and Latin America from the Monroe Doctrine to the War on Terror, p58-59

[36] Sigmund, Paul E. The Overthrow of Allende and the Politics of Chile, 1964-1976, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1980, P235

[37] Ensalaco, Mark (2000). Chile under Pinochet: Recovering the Truth. P161

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