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What Really Happened In Chile 30 Years Ago

Date: September 12, 2003

Having recovered from the worst of his own socialist deliriums, George Orwell wrote, after viewing the carnage of the Civil War in Spain: "At an early age, I became aware that newspapers report no event correctly. But in Spain, I read for the first time articles which bore no relation to the facts, not even the relation implicit in an ordinary lie." Of no nation since would that doleful observation apply more keenly than to the Chile of Salvador Allende and of Augusto Pinochet. Consider the Chilean revolution of that other September 11 — Sept. 11, 1973. It was less bloody than any other major 20th century revolution and, in economic and political terms it produced the best outcome. And yet, it is the most reviled of any in all the annals of Latin America. Hear first from Gonzalo Vial Correa, arguably Chile's leading contemporary historian. He has written that Chile's sociopolitical system, beginning at the end of the 19th century, "suffered a progressive decay, culminating in its later and total collapse — the collapse of death — in 1973." Out of the wreckage, Gen. Pinochet and his associates erected a sturdy, realistic political system, anchored in the most carefully-crafted constitution in the country's history, one still in effect today after 13 years of democratic rule by center-left governments. Like most charismatic, pioneering political figures, Allende was a complex man, steeped in democratic traditions, including 25 years in the rigorously democratic Senate, but persistently drawn to violent causes. In 1968, for example, he headed the Castro-backed Latin American Solidarity Organization, dedicated to the overthrow of democratic government. From the beginning, Allende's Chile became a magnet for revolutionaries from all corners of the globe; eventually their numbers grew to between 10,000 and 15,000. At his show trial in Havana in 1989, Cuban Gen. Patricio de la Guardia defended himself by citing his service in Allende's Chile, training clandestine military forces. Socialist Party congresses in 1965 and 1967 proclaimed that "revolutionary violence is inevitable and legitimate. Only by destroying the bureaucratic and military apparatus of the bourgeois state can the Socialist revolution be consolidated." In 1972 — two full years after Allende was elected — the Party proclaimed: "The bourgeois state is not suited for the construction of socialism; its destruction is necessary . . . we must conquer all power." By March of 1973, when the worst was yet to come, former president Eduardo Frei Montalva spoke of "this carnival of madness." He added: "Chile is in the throes of an economic disaster — not a crisis but a veritable catastrophe no one could foresee would happen so swiftly nor so totally. The hatred is worse than the inflation, the shortages, the economic disaster. There is anguish in Chile." Faced with illegal seizures of farms and factories, of defiance of judicial orders, unchecked street violence and death threats against the judges themselves, the Supreme Court warned on May 26, 1973, in a unanimous and unprecedented message, that Chile faced "a peremptory or imminent breakdown of legality." Three months later, on Aug. 22, the Chamber of Deputies — which had come within two votes of impeaching Allende — voted a resolution which said "it is a fact that this Government has been, from the very beginning, bent on the conquest of total power . . . so as to implant a totalitarian system." It was in that setting that Gen. Pinochet and the heads of the other armed forces acted, responding not to the craving for power typical of Latin caudillos, but to the clamor of a desperate people. Former President Gabriel Gonzalez Videla joined Frei and the third living president in thanking the military: "The Armed Forces have liberated us from the Marxist claws . . . the totalitarian apparatus which had been prepared to destroy us has itself been destroyed." After the coup, the radical left was still not going to give up. The military and the growing cadres of civilians who joined it had to take aim at underground terrorist forces. In that, they had expert help: French secret service agents who had waged France's savage war in the 1950s against Algerian independence forces coached secret police organizations in Chile — and also Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. The man who headed Chile's secret police, Manuel Contreras, said recently that Gen. Paul Aussaresses, former head of the French intelligence service, personally trained Chilean agents in Brazil. In his monumental work, "Modern Times," historian Paul Johnson wrote that the French state terror units headed by Gen. Aussaresses "murdered and tortured prisoners, and on a wide scale. In this case, neither liberal France nor the international community raised a whimper of protest." Mr. Vial Correa, a member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has written: "But I believe he [Gen. Pinochet] never imagined that in the feared DINA [the secret police], random abuse would be the rule, much less a rule so extreme and universally outside the law." Suppose Gen. Pinochet and his fellow commanders had not acted? Patricio Aylwin succeeded Gen. Pinochet as the first elected president and was among those imploring the military to act. A constant and acerbic critic in more recent years, he was in 1973 president of his Christian Democrat Party. He said then that if the military had not acted, Chile would have had to mourn the deaths of hundreds of thousands killed at the hands of Red brigades. He was far from alone in that judgment. Volodia Teitelboim, the chief ideologue of the Communist Party (who spent his entire exile preaching violence from the microphones of Radio Moscow), said a few months before the coup that if civil war came, "it probably would signify immense loss of human lives, between half a million and one million." On Sept. 11, because the military averted civil war, the actual death toll was under 200. Mr. Teitelboim was recently honored with Chile's National Literary award. Meanwhile, Gen. Pinochet, the man who saved the country, is every day vilified, ostracized. Abandoned even by his military colleagues, the 87-year-old general is supported by a small coterie of family and friends. But then, a Socialist president once again governs Chile. Mr. Whelan is an adjunct scholar at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, and former visiting professor at the University of Chile.