On the 50th anniversary of Salvador Allende’s election, Mike Wayne looks at a declassified CIA report that shows how quickly plans were laid to stop him at all costs
On September 4th 1970, Salvador Allende, a self-declared Marxist, was elected President of Chile with the support of a coalition of left-wing parties called Popular Unity. Just over three years later, on September 11th 1973, a Washington backed military coup overthrew the Allende government. Plans to frustrate Allende’s ascension to the Presidency following the 1970 vote, began almost immediately. A particularly interesting declassified document dated November 18th 1970 by the Santiago based CIA Task Force set up to counter Allende’s election, reveals the role played by external imperialist forces in providing strategic leadership to the Chilean bourgeoisie and its three main groups: the political class, the military and private capital, especially in the media.
The Task Force set up a twin track strategy. Track One was to prevent Allende being inaugurated as President by constitutional dirty tricks while Track Two was to stiffen the resolve of the political and military elites in particular for the need to overthrow Allende by violence if the constitutional dirty tricks operation failed to pay dividends.
Track One was at least theoretically a possibility because Allende had won the Presidency over his challenger Jorge Alessandri by just over 1%. In normal times, although slender, the victory would be enough to ensure that the candidate with the majority of the popular vote would be made President. But these were not normal times and Allende was not an acceptable candidate to the Chilean bourgeoisie. The slender margin of victory opened up the prospect of breaking with constitutional norms and Congress choosing instead to select Alessandri as President. This however was not the endgame. Alessandri made it known that should he be selected he would immediately resign, thus forcing new elections in which the incumbent President, Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei, would be eligible to stand once more. This would give the forces of capital another crack at the electoral strategy and Frei would receive, as had his 1964 Presidential campaign, substantial funding assistance from the CIA.
The problem the CIA had was that Frei, while theoretically open to such dirty tricks, would have had to be much more of a leader than he was, to really push the plan through a political class hesitant to violate constitutional norms, at that point at least. The CIA report describes Frei as ‘reluctant, indecisive’ and lacking ‘dynamic leadership within his own party’. The report cites Frei’s antipathy to Allende: ‘Chile has a very short future and after November 4th [the date Congress formally confirms the next President] it will only have a past.’ But given Frei’s weaknesses as an advocate for frustrating the democratic process, the CIA organised an extensive propaganda campaign designed to get Frei to act in accordance with the election gambit and failing that, provide enough encouragement to the military to implement a coup to ‘save’ Chile.
This propaganda campaign involved targeting Frei himself as well as demonstrating the extent of the international support he had for taking decisive action (that is thwarting their own democratic norms). This included direct mailing foreign news articles to not only President Frei, but ‘Mrs Frei’ and selected military leaders. It meant mobilising the international Christian Democratic movement in Latin American and in Europe to both visit and send messages to Frei in trying to stiffen his resolve to fight against the historic enemy of Marxism. The West German Democratic Party dispatched ‘several top-level emissaries to Chile’ the report notes, while influential Catholics sent messages to or visited the Vatican. Telegrams were sent to Mrs Frei from women’s groups in other Latin American countries, indicating the sophistication with which the CIA, operating like a public relations organisation, understood that it had to mobilise through tailored messages and targeted audiences.
In terms of the national and international media, the CIA were extremely active. Over the six weeks covered by the report, the CIA estimate that they had produced 726 articles, broadcasts, editorials and ‘similar items as a direct result of agent activity’. By September 26th the report states that the CIA ‘had in place in or en-route to Chile, 15 journalist agents, from 10 different countries.’ They also had 8 more journalists from 5 countries ‘under direction of high level agents’ in managerial positions in the media field.
The CIA was concerned that initially, the world’s media regarded Allende’s victory as a curiosity rather than the political, strategic and economic threat which the CIA and Washington viewed it as. However they were pleased with their own efforts to turn around that initial media view, by their own ‘endeavours’. When Allende pushed back against the Santiago based national daily El Mercurio, the CIA spied a chance to change the narrative and invoke the Communist threat to press freedom. They arranged a protest statement from the International Press Association which had in turn the benefit of attracting world press coverage. They were pleased that their briefings to the US press and agent influence in the New York Times had turned an initially more neutral attitude towards Allende into a more antagonistic stance. A later report by a US Congressional Select Committee in 1975 detailed how El Mercurio was funded to the tune of millions of dollars to continue its attacks on Allende and ferment coup sentiments.
But in 1970, the CIA were unable to win enough widespread support within the political and military class for this option. Again they lamented Frei’s lack of leadership. Although he had confided ‘to several top-ranking military officers that he would not oppose a coup’ he backed away from such action after the assassination of the Army Commander in Chief, General Schneider. Schneider had insisted that the Chilean army must stay out of the political arena and his removal from what the CIA calls the ‘Chilean political equation’ potentially opened up a road to a coup. Instead the assassination backfired and Allende was inaugurated as President on November 4th. It would take nearly three more years of relentless CIA propaganda, funding, international support and strategic leadership for the CIA to coax the Chilean bourgeoisie to make the leap into fascism.
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