“Story of a Death Foretold: The Coup against Salvador Allende, 11 September 1973”

A book by Oscar Guardiola-Rivera

“I left the woman I really loved — the Great Society,” Lyndon Johnson once rued, “in order to get involved with that bitch of a war on the other side of the world.” He meant the Cold War and its all-consuming obsession with the Soviet Union. More emphatically, he meant the military quagmire in Vietnam. But repercussions of the obsession were being felt elsewhere. LBJ didn’t live long enough to see what Latin Americans consider the most nefarious detonation of the U.S. war against communism, when on Sept. 11, 1973, bombs from British-made Hawker Hunter jets pounded the presidential palace of La Moneda in Santiago, Chile, as the CIA’s Operation Fubelt unleashed a fierce coup, ousted a democratically elected government, and left President Salvador Allende sprawled on a red couch with part of his skull gone.

By then, the war on communism, which had swiftly replaced the war on fascism, was well into its 25th year. Washington’s efforts to curb left-wing initiatives in Latin America had already culminated in a flurry of U.S.-backed military operations. By 1954, Operation PBSuccess, overseen by CIA director Allen Dulles, had toppled the democratically elected but inconvenient government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala. In 1961, Dulles’ deputy for plans, Richard Bissell, mounted the catastrophic Bay of Pigs Invasion, an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro. When Cuban soldiers foiled the CIA-backed brigade, shaming the United States and embarrassing President Kennedy in the process, Attorney General Robert Kennedy secretly initiated Operation Mongoose, a calculated campaign of terror to assassinate Castro and bring Cuban communism to its knees. Four years later, in Operation Power Pack, LBJ himself ordered 42,000 U.S. troops into the Dominican Republic to rid the Caribbean of the pesky “revolutionary” regime of President Juan Bosch.

All these preliminaries to what Latin Americans call “that other September 11” — whose 40th anniversary was quietly, even inconspicuously, marked two months ago — are recounted in Oscar Guardiola-Rivera’s fascinating, if haphazardly organized, “Story of a Death Foretold.”

We know, after a belated autopsy of Allende’s remains, that the president opted to end his own life rather than die at the hands of his assailants. As mortars and missiles slammed into La Moneda’s walls, Gen. Augusto Pinochet — a former student at the U.S. Army School of the Americas — screamed to his soldiers that there would be no negotiations. The raid, he said, had to end in unconditional surrender. If the army managed to capture Allende, the general added, they’d fly him out of the country, “but the plane falls in mid-flight.”

When the army swarmed into La Moneda late that afternoon, Allende’s populist experiment was stilled forever. Pinochet took power and ruled the country for 17 more years. Chilean intelligence operatives swept through the country in what became known as “the Caravan of Death,” executing Allende’s loyalists. With U.S. oversight starching their resolve, Pinochet’s agents proceeded to “disappear” more than 100 of Allende’s followers and dump their corpses in Argentina, so that they would seem victims of common crime. Eventually, the web of murder and torture that became the infamous Operation Condor reached across the globe, wreaking revenge on Allende partisans who had managed to flee. Gen. Carlos Prats, a critic of Pinochet, was bombed to kingdom come along with his wife as he started a car in Buenos Aires; Allende’s ambassador Orlando Letelier was blown up with his American assistant on the streets of Washington, D.C.

Guardiola-Rivera is not new to this difficult history. A senior lecturer in law at the University of London, he has studied the 25-year run-up to the Chilean coup carefully. A relatively young Colombian, he is considered a fresh, bold voice on the politics of the region. His previous books, “What If Latin America Ruled the World?” and “Being Against the World,” are, like this work, commendable for their originality and research. But “Story of a Death Foretold,” like the Garcia Marquez novel it echoes, also runs the gamut from logic to passionate rage.

It’s not hard to see who plays the villain. The book marshals a damning case against Washington, the CIA and what Guardiola-Rivera calls the Import-Export coalition — the joint U.S.-British economic engine that has dominated Latin America for 200 years. The idea that history does not take place in South America — a notion as old as John Locke, espoused by America’s founding fathers, and hammered home most famously by Henry Kissinger — would have the world believe that Latin Americans are hopelessly childish, perhaps less than human, and therefore better governed by the coalition.

Guardiola-Rivera depicts a continent held in virtual submission, languishing in invisibility, its natural resources extracted, for centuries, at the Import-Export coalition’s whim. He reserves his harshest criticism for President Richard Nixon, who, even as the flames of Watergate engulfed him, worked indefatigably with Kissinger to bring down Allende. Why? Because Allende was dangerously independent, irredeemably leftist, irresponsibly anti-business, and — perhaps worst of all — because he openly thumbed his nose at the United States.

With its Manichaean view, Guardiola-Rivera argues, the Nixon administration hardly considered the subtleties of Allende’s political philosophy. True, Allende had visited Castro, befriended Che Guevara, won the Communist Party’s vote (along with that of its poet-candidate, Pablo Neruda), but Allende had also carved out an “ism” all his own. He had rejected the Cuban model as too extreme, Che’s revolution as too violent. He was adamantly against armed struggle. Winning the presidency on Sept. 4, 1970, he vowed to overturn Chile’s harsh economic injustices. He put forward a doctrine of “geo-economic sovereignty” and self-determination: a U.S.-free future, in which Chile would make its way alone. “The United States must realize that Latin America has now been changed,” he said, during one of his campaigns. Once in office, he would try to prove it so.Allende immediately nationalized the copper and nitrate industries, which until then had been controlled largely by the United States and Great Britain. He challenged American business with his “doctrine of excess profits,” arguing that the wages of Chile had been paltry compared to extravagant gains by big U.S. corporations. Latin America, the argument went, had been reduced to a mere colony of the United States. Though Spain had leeched the continent from 1492 to 1824, the axis between North America and Britain had done so ever since.

Allende’s goal was not so much “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” says Guardiola-Rivera, as the creation of a new kind of Latin America, free of predatory “multinational vampires” (which is how the novelist Julio Cortazar characterized the north). Relying on the input of a new generation of intellectuals — among them socio-economist Fernando H. Cardoso, the future president of Brazil — Allende and his like-minded colleagues set out to complete the project of independence begun two centuries before. Henceforward, he said, he wanted a Chile free of foreign intervention, one with a narrative all its own.

But by 1970, as Guardiola-Rivera chronicles, anti-communism in the United States had reached a state of religious dogma. The war in Vietnam was at full throttle, and Allende’s politics were seen as another festering boil. Would the Chilean brand of socialism spread? Would his anti-capitalism cost U.S. markets billions of dollars?

Even as Allende’s presidential campaign gained traction in 1970, corporations with interests in Chile — PepsiCo, Chase Manhattan, ITT, Anaconda, Kennecott, Ford — made their panic known to the U.S. government. Once Allende was elected, Kissinger advised Nixon to mobilize “quietly and covertly … to oppose Allende as strongly as we can and do all we can to keep him from consolidating power.” Kissinger quickly implemented Track I and Track II (also known as the CIA’s Fubelt), which would employ subversive means, even violence if necessary, to provoke a military coup and install a more palatable leader. Nixon instructed his foreign, security and intelligence services to “make the [Chilean] economy scream.”

“All’s fair on Chile,” Nixon told Kissinger. “Kick ’em in the ass. OK?” Later, he said to Treasury Secretary John Connally, “We’re going to play it very tough … we’re going to give Allende the hook.”

Perhaps we have reached such a level of permanent crisis — with CIA surrogates pulling Saddam Hussein from a spider-hole, with the spectacle of Moammar Gaddafi’s mutilated corpse in a freezer, with Navy SEALs descending on Osama bin Laden, with drone attacks so much in evidence in Pakistan and Afghanistan — that a Sept. 11 attack on a remote Latin American country 40 years ago just doesn’t provoke the collective outrage the author hopes for. In such a state of disconnect, can Secretary of State Kerry’s recent address to the Organization of American States, promising the end of U.S. intervention in Latin America, have any meaning?

Reading this sometimes meticulous, sometimes maddeningly erratic chronicle of how America trained its sights on a pacifist president makes for a bracing tonic. As Guardiola-Rivera tells us: Look at the reality. Forget what you’ve heard about Allende mismanaging the Chilean economy. Forget your natural, red-blooded aversion to the idea of nationalizing anything. Forget the quixotic, even naive nature of Allende’s utopian vision. Were the air-raids, the bombs, the executions, the Caravan of Death necessary?


By this time 40 years ago, Allende was in his grave; his widow was in panicked exile in Mexico. Pablo Neruda had expired of heart failure, Pinochet was in power, the Chilean purges were in high gear, and — for another reason entirely — Nixon was yelling to the U.S. media, “I’m not a crook!”

Arana is a writer at large for The Washington Post and the author, most recently, of a biography of Latin American liberator Simon Bolivar.

©2013, Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group

To see long excerpts from “Story of a Death Foretold” at Google Books, click here.

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