The violence which erupted in Chile last month has its roots in damaging economic policies introduced by a dictator installed by the US 46 years ago and who was liked by Margaret Thatcher.

Since October, hundreds of Chilean protesters have been shot and beaten at the hands of security forces. At least 20 are dead and thousands have been detained.

This eruption of violence – which the Chilean President, Sebastian Pinera, has described as a “war” – was sparked when people took to the streets to protest the Government’s plan to raise public transport fares.

After a week of nationwide protests, the price hike was suspended but it was not enough to end the public anger, which is now directed at the growing gap between the rich and poor, low salaries, the cost of education and the privatisation of healthcare.

Pinera’s response has been to deploy 20,000 police officers and soldiers. Tanks now freely roll through the capital Santiago, while live ammunition, tear gas, water cannons and strict curfews are used against residents calling for a fairer society. 

In an open letter published by Amnesty International, the rights group has accused President Pinera of “criminalising” protests. Erika Guevara-Rosas, Amnesty’s Americas director wrote: “Instead of likening the demonstrations to a ‘state of war’ and calling protestors enemies of the State, stigmatising them in a generalised way in an attempt to justify abuses against them, President Pinera’s Government should listen to them and give a serious response to their legitimate grievances”.

“It is imperative that these actions be implemented clandestinely and securely so that the US Government and American hand be well hidden”

Secret 1970 CIA Memo

Amnesty International has now dispatched a fact-finding team to the country to investigate the growing number of reports of abuse, torture and disappearances at the hand of the country’s security forces. The team said that, in just one week, it received more than 10,000 allegations of excessive use of force by the military and the police, as well as a mass of audio and video evidence.

“What is happening in Chile is tragic,” Ana Piquer, executive director of Amnesty International in Chile. “In three weeks, the Government has made excessive use of force, often unnecessarily, against mainly peaceful protestors and passers-by. We want to make it very clear, we are not talking about isolated events. The number of cases is running into thousands and they are occurring throughout practically the entire country.”

But, the scenes playing out in Chile today have roots in a far darker time in the country’s history.

Before September 11 became seared into the world’s memory as a result of the terrorist attacks in America, it was a date that Chileans associated with the 1973 overthrow of a democratically elected government led by President Salvador Allende.

Allende was a socialist elected in 1970 who inherited an economy that had been exploited by foreign interference and dominated by the rich. To redistribute wealth, he launched a programme that included wage increases, more rights for workers, land redistribution, rent reductions, better healthcare facilities, housing and sanitation, and free milk for school children. He also nationalised US-owned copper companies, enraging then US President Richard Nixon, who already opposed Allende and had ordered the CIA to “make the economy scream” by terminating financial assistance to the country and blocking loans from multilateral organisations. Instead, money was funnelled into the hands of opposition groups and the military.

In a secret memo written in 1970 by Thomas Karamessines, the CIA’s deputy director of plans, he stated: “It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup… It is imperative that these actions be implemented clandestinely and securely so that the US Government and American hand be well hidden.”

On 11 September 1973, the US got its wish and General Augusto Pinochet led the army to Santiago and overthrew the Government. Allende, refusing to be caught by Pinochet’s men, picked up an AK-47 assault rifle that had been gifted to him by Fidel Castro and turned it on himself.

Overnight, Pinochet transformed Chile from a socialist democracy into a US-supported authoritarian regime. Thousands of his critics and political rivals were rounded up by death squads and imprisoned or executed. Others were taken to the capital’s sports stadiums where they were tortured.

At the same time, the dictator introduced economic reforms which would rob the Chilean people of almost every basic service ranging from health, education, water, pensions and transport – they were all were privatised. 

The extreme capitalist makeover was overseen by a group of Chilean economists known as the ‘Chicago Boys’ – a name given to them after studying at the University of Chicago under the economist Milton Friedman. A 1975 United States Senate Intelligence Committee investigation also revealed that the CIA had helped develop the reforms.

Pinochet told citizens he wanted to “make Chile, not a nation of proletarians, but a nation of entrepreneurs” and his economic policies were set in stone via the country’s constitution – a constitution that has remained unchanged ever since.

Outside of America, one of Pinochet’s other big supporters was British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who Barack Obama once called “one of the great champions of freedom and liberty”. Britain had refused any arms deals with Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship but, when Thatcher came into office six years after the coup, she lifted the arms embargo allowing weapons and fighter jets to flow into the hands of Pinochet’s military.

Soon after, the Prime Minister was sitting down for meals with Pinochet and his family on an annual basis and, in 1999, Thatcher told Pinochet: “It is you who brought democracy to Chile, you set up a constitution suitable for democracy, you put it into effect.”

Chile’s truth and reconciliation commission concluded in 1991 that 2,279 people were murdered by Pinochet’s military regime, and a further 27,255 were tortured between 1973 and 1990.

It is this legacy of Pinochet which continues to haunt Chile today. His economic policies are the root of the unrest that has exploded onto the streets.

A central demand of protestors has been for the Pinochet era constitution to be rewritten, something that the Pinera Government pledged to do on 11 November. However, it remains unclear whether this will be enough to appease protestors following weeks of violence.


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