Chile’s coup at 50: countdown toward a coup

Chile’s Coup at 50 - 01

Chile’s Coup at 50 – 01

Chile’s Coup at 50: Countdown Toward a Coup

September 8, 2023, Washington D.C. – “In the Eisenhower period, we would be heroes,” Henry Kissinger told President Richard Nixon several days after the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile, lamenting that they would not receive credit in the press for this Cold War accomplishment. Fifty years later, as Chileans and the world commemorate the anniversary of the U.S.-backed military takeover that brought General Augusto Pinochet to power, a fierce debate over the extent of the U.S. contribution to the coup continues. On September 6, a leading Chilean television channel, Chilevision, broadcast a major documentary film titled “Operation Chile: Top Secret,” featuring dozens of U.S. declassified records obtained by the National Security Archive’s Chile Documentation Project, including recently obtained documents published in the new Chilean edition of Archive analyst Peter Kornbluh’s book, “Pinochet Desclasificado.”

On the eve of the 50th anniversary, the Archive is posting an edited section of Kornbluh’s book—The Pinochet File—on the “Countdown Toward the Coup.” The essay records U.S. government actions, internal debates and policy deliberations as conditions for the coup evolved between March and September 1973. “This is an intricate, complicated and extraordinarily revealing history,” Kornbluh said, “that holds many lessons on the secret abuses of U.S. power and the danger of dictatorship over democracy for today’s world community.”

Chile’s Coup at 50 - 02

Chile’s Coup at 50 – 02

Countdown toward a coup

On September 12, 1973, a day after the Chilean military violently took power, State Department officials met to discuss press guidelines for Henry Kissinger on “how much advance notice we had on the coup.” Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs Jack Kubisch noted that one Chilean military official had told the embassy that the plotters had withheld from their U.S. supporters the exact date they would move against Allende. But Kubisch said he “doubted if Dr. Kissinger would use this information, for it would reveal our close contact with coup leaders.”

In the months leading up to the coup, the CIA and the Pentagon had extensive contacts with Chilean plotters through various assets and agents and at least three days’ advance knowledge of a concrete date for a military takeover. Their communications derived from refocused covert operations targeting the military after the March 1973 congressional elections in Chile. The dismal electoral outcome convinced many CIA officials that the political and propaganda operations had failed to achieve their goals, and that the Chilean military, as Agency documents suggested, was the final solution to the problem posed by Allende’s Popular Unity alliance.

Until the spring of 1973, the political operations and propaganda generated by El Mercurio and other CIA-funded media outlets focused on a major political opposition campaign to decisively win the March 4 congressional elections, when all Chilean representatives and half of Chilean senators were up for reelection. The CIA’s maximum goal was to gain a two-thirds majority for the opposition in order to be able to impeach Allende; its minimum goal was to prevent Popular Unity from obtaining a clear majority of the electorate. Of the 3.6 million votes cast, the opposition polled 54.7 percent; Popular Unity candidates garnered 43.4 percent, picking up two Senate seats and six seats in the Congress. “Actions undertaken by CIA in the 1973 elections have made a contribution to slowing down the Socialization of Chile,” proclaimed a “Briefing on Chile Elections” written at Langley headquarters.

The reality was quite different, as both CIA headquarters and the Santiago Station understood. In the first national test of its popularity since Allende took office, his Popular Unity government had actually increased its electoral strength—despite concerted CIA political action, a massive, covert anti-Allende propaganda campaign, and a U.S.-directed socioeconomic destabilization program. “The UP program still appeals to a sizeable portion of the Chilean electorate,” the Station lamented in one cable. The CIA now had to reassess its entire clandestine strategy in Chile. “Future options,” headquarters cabled on March 6, “now being reviewed in light of disappointing election results, which will enable Allende and UP to push their program with renewed vigor and enthusiasm.”

The Station, now under the direction of a new Chief of Station, Ray Warren, took a forceful position on what “future options” would be necessary. In a pivotal March 14 postmortem on the congressional elections, the CIA Station articulated plans to reinforce its focus on the military program. “We feel that during foreseeable future, Station should give emphasis to [covert] activity, to widen our contacts, knowledge, and capability in order to bring about one of following situations:”

  1. Consensus by leaders of armed forces (whether they remain in govt or not) of need to move against the regime. Station believes we should attempt induce as much of the military as possible, if not all, to take over and displace the Allende govt ….
  2. Secure and meaningful Station relationship with a serious military planning group. Should our re-study of the armed forces groups indicate that would-be plotters are in fact serious about their intentions and that they have the necessary capabilities, Station would wish to establish a single, secure channel with such elements for purposes of dialoguing and, once basic data on their collective capabilities is obtained, to seek HQS authorization to enter into an expanded … role.

At the same time, the Station also reaffirmed the need to refocus attention on creating a coup climate—the long-standing goal of U.S. policy. “While the Station anticipates giving additional impetus to our [military] program”

Other political power centers (political parties, business community, media) will play an essential support role in creating the political atmosphere which would allow us to accomplish objectives (A) or (B) above. Given the outcome of the election results, Station feels that creation of a renewed atmosphere of political unrest and controlled crisis must be achieved in order to stimulate serious consideration for intervention on part of the military.

The Station’s gung-ho position, which clearly influenced its attitude and actions on the ground in Chile, was supported by a number of hardliners within the Western Hemisphere directorate who pushed for a far more aggressive, violent approach—an approach that clearly did not count “saving democracy” in Chile as an objective. In a bald and blunt internal challenge to the strategy of pursuing political operations, on April 17 a group of CIA officers sent a memorandum to WH/C Shackley on “Policy objectives for Chile” calling for cutting covert support for the mainstream opposition parties. Such support “lulled” those parties into believing they could survive until the 1976 election. Moreover, if the CIA helped the opposition Christian Democrats win in 1976, the authors argued, it would be a “pyrhic victory” [sic] because the PDC would pursue leftist “communitarian policies.”

Chile’s Coup at 50 - 03

Chile’s Coup at 50 – 03

Instead, the CIA should directly seek “to develop the conditions which would be conducive to military actions.” This involved “large-scale support” to the terrorist elements in Chile, among them Patria y Libertad and the “militant elements of the National Party” over a fixed time frame—six to nine months—“during which time every effort would be made to promote economic chaos, escalate political tensions and induce a climate of desperation in which the PDC and the people generally come to desire military intervention. Ideally, it would succeed in inducing the military to take over the government completely.” [42]

But the position of the Station and the hardliners at Langley was not shared by the State Department, nor by key senior CIA officials who feared the consequences of precipitous military action and believed in the prudence of caution given the ongoing congressional committee investigation into ITT (International Telephone & Telegraph) and covert operations in Chile. There was disagreement on a number of fundamental and strategic questions:

  • Could the Chilean military be counted on to act against Allende?
  • Should the CIA be encouraging violent demonstrations through covert funding of militant groups before knowing for sure that the military would not move to put down the demonstrators?
  • Given the current congressional inquiry on the CIA in Chile, did the risks of exposure outweigh potential gains of working directly with the militant private sector and the Chilean military to sponsor a coup?

These questions were discussed repeatedly as the process of formulating the Agency’s Fiscal Year 1974 proposals and budget for covert action became grounds for a significant internal debate—kept secret for 27 years—over the strategic nuances of U.S. intervention in Chile.

The State Department, led by a new Assistant Secretary for Inter­American Affairs, Jack Kubisch, opposed the Station’s desire to foment a coup through direct support for the Chilean military or collaboration with extremist private-sector groups. Along with Ambassador Nathaniel Davis, who replaced Edward Korry in mid-1971, Kubisch preferred to concentrate covert action on an opposition victory in the 1976 elections. In addition, CIA officers at headquarters, such as former Chile Task Force director David Atlee Phillips—who would return to Chile operations as the new chief of the Western Hemisphere Division in June—well remembered the Schneider fiasco and remained skeptical of the Chilean military’s commitment to a coup. Cables from headquarters to Santiago reflected their uncertainty over whether the Chilean military would be more likely to move against the government than to move against street demonstrators and strikers that the Station wanted to support. Promoting “large-scale protests such as a strike,” cautioned a March 6 cable from Langley, “should be avoided, as should any action which might provoke military reaction against the opposition.” In a March 31, 1973, budget proposal, ‘‘Covert Action Options for Chile-FY 1974,“ headquarters argued that,

Although we should keep all options open, including a possible future coup, we should recognize that the ingredients for a successful coup are unlikely to materialize regardless of the amount of money expended, and thus we should avoid encouraging the private sector to initiate action likely to produce either an abortive coup or a bloody civil war. We should make it clear that we will not support a coup attempt unless it becomes clear that such a coup would have the support of most of the Armed Forces as well as the CODE [Chilean opposition democratic] parties, including the PDC.

Chile’s Coup at 50 - 04

Chile’s Coup at 50 – 04

On May 1, Langley sent a cable to Chief of Station Warren stating “we wish to defer any consideration of action program designed to stimulate military intervention until we have more definite evidence that military is prepared to move and that opposition, including PDC, would support a coup attempt.” The Chief of Station responded with a request that headquarters postpone its request for FY 1974 funding until the proposal could be re­drafted to reflect current Chilean realities. “The most militant parts of the opposition,” including CIA-supported organizations such as El Mercurio and the National Party, the Station reported, were mobilizing to foment a coup:

The planning focus and action of all the opposition forces is on the period immediately ahead rather than on 1976. If we are to maximize our influence and help the opposition in the way it needs help, we should work within this trend rather than try to oppose and counter it by trying to get the opposition as a whole to focus on the distant and tenuous goal of 1976. In sum, we believe the orientation and focus of our operational effort should be on military intervention.

On April 10, the Western Hemisphere division did secure the approval from CIA director James Schlesinger for “accelerated efforts against the military target.” These covert actions, according to a May 7 memorandum to Schlesinger from WH division chief Theodore Shackley, were “designed to better monitor any coup plotting and to bring our influence to bear on key military commanders so that they might play a decisive role on the side of the coup forces when and if the Chilean military decides on its own to act against Allende.” Headquarters authorized the Santiago Station “to move ahead against military target in terms of developing additional sources” and promised to seek appropriations for an expanded military program when “we have much more solid evidence that military is prepared to act and has reasonable chance of succeeding.”

The Chilean high command provided evidence that the military was not yet ready to act on June 29, when several rogue units of the Chilean armed forces deployed to take over the presidential palace known as La Moneda. In his secret “Sit Rep # 1” for President Nixon, Kissinger reported that Chilean army units had “launched an attempted coup against the government of Salvadore Allende.” Later that day, Kissinger sent Nixon another memo, “Attempted Chilean Rebellion Ends,” noting that “the coup attempt was an isolated and poorly coordinated effort,” and that the leaders of all three branches of the military “remained loyal to the government.” The failed coup attempt reinforced the hand of cautious U.S. policy makers who opposed a more activist CIA role to directly support the Chilean military.

This ongoing internal debate led to a delay in approval for the CIA’s FY 1974 covert action budget as the CIA and the State Department worked out compromises on how funding authorizations would be used in Chile. Finally, on August 20, the 40 Committee—an interagency group charged with overseeing covert operations—authorized, via telephone, $1 million for clandestine funding to opposition political parties and private­-sector organizations—but designated a “contingency fund” for the private­-sector operations that could only be spent with approval from Ambassador Davis. Within three days, the Station was pressing for approval to use the money to sustain strikes and street demonstrations as well as to orchestrate a takeover from within—pushing the military to take key positions in Allende’s cabinet where they could wield the power of state and reduce him to a “figurehead” president. “Events are moving very fast and military attitudes are likely to be decisive at this moment,” the Station cabled on August 24. “It is a time when significant events or pressures could affect [Allende’s] future.”

In Washington the next day, CIA director William Colby sent a memo to Kissinger, submitting the Station’s arguments—word-for-word—and requesting authorization to move forward with the funds. The memo, “Proposed Covert Financial Support of Chilean Private Sector,” used language designed to assuage State Department sensitivities. “The Santiago Station would not be working directly with the armed forces in an attempt to bring about a coup nor would its support to the overall opposition forces have this as its result,” Colby submitted. But he added this caveat: “Realistically, of course, a coup could result from increased opposition pressure on the Allende government.”

By then, the CIA had multiple, and promising, reports of coup plotting. In mid-August, C/WHD Phillips had dispatched a veteran agent to Santiago to assess the situation. He cabled back that “in the past several weeks we have again received increased reporting of plotting and have seen a variety of dates listed for possible coup attempt.” One report noted that military plotters had chosen July 7 as the “target date” for another coup attempt, but the date was now being postponed because of the opposition of Commander in Chief Carlos Prats, as well as the difficulty in lining up “the key Army regiments in the Santiago area.” According to the CIA source:

Key problem for the military plotters is now how to overcome this vertical command impediment. One way would be for the plotting Army generals to meet with General Prats, advise him he no longer enjoyed the confidence of the Army high command, and thus remove him. The plotters’ choice to replace Prats, at the time of the coup d’état is to be attempted, is General Manuel Torres, commander of the fifth army division and the third ranking Army general. The plotters do not regard General Augusto Pinochet, who is the second most senior officer in the army, as a suitable replacement for Prats under such conditions.

In late July, the CIA reported that a coordinated coup plan was “near completion.” The plotters were still dealing with the Prats problem. “The only way to remove Prats,” the Station noted, “would appear to be by abduction or assassination. With the memory of the affair of the former Army Commander, Rene Schneider, ever present in their minds, it will be difficult for the plotters to bring themselves to carry out such an act.”

The CIA also reported that the military was attempting to coordinate its takeover with the Truck Owners Federation, which was about to initiate a massive truckers strike. The violent strike, which paralyzed the country throughout the month of August, became a key factor in creating the coup climate the CIA had long sought in Chile. Other factors included the decision by the leadership of the Christian Democrats to abandon negotiations with the Popular Unity government and to work, instead, toward a military coup. In a CIA “progress report” dated in early July, the Station noted “there has been increasing acceptance of the part of PDC leaders that a military coup of intervention is probably essential to prevent a complete Marxist takeover in Chile. While PDC leaders do not openly concede that their political decisions and tactics are intended to create the circumstances to provoke military intervention, Station [covert] assets report that privately this is generally accepted political fact.” The Christian Democrat position, in turn, prompted the traditionally moderate Chilean Communist Party to conclude that political accommodation with the mainstream opposition was no longer feasible and to adopt a more militant position, creating deep divisions with Allende’s own coalition. The military’s hardline refusal to accept Allende’s offer of certain cabinet posts also accelerated political tensions. “The feeling that something must be done seems to be spreading,” CIA headquarters observed in an analytical report on “Consequences of a Military Coup in Chile.”

Chile’s Coup at 50 - 05

Chile’s Coup at 50 – 05

The resignation of Commander-in-Chief Carlos Prats in late August after an intense public smear campaign led by El Mercurio and the Chilean right wing eliminated the final obstacle for a successful coup. Like his predecessor, General Schneider, Prats had upheld the constitutional role of the Chilean military, blocking younger officers who wanted to intervene in Chile’s political process. In an August 25 intelligence report stamped “TOP SECRET UMBRA,” the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) noted that the departure of Prats “has removed the main factor mitigating against a coup.” On August 31, U.S. military sources within the Chilean army were reporting that “the army is united behind a coup, and key Santiago regimental commanders have pledged their support. Efforts are said to be underway to complete coordination among the three services, but no date has been set for a coup attempt.”

By then, the Chilean military had established a “special coordination team” made up of three representatives of each of the services and carefully selected right-wing civilians. In a series of secret meetings on September 1 and 2, this team presented a completed plan for overthrowing the Allende government to heads of the Chilean army, air force, and navy. The incipient Junta approved the plan and set September 10 as the target date for the coup. According to a review of coup plotting obtained by the CIA, the general who replaced Carlos Prats as commander-in-chief, General Augusto Pinochet, was “chosen to be head of the group” and would determine the hour for the coup to begin.

On September 8, both the CIA and the DIA alerted Washington that a coup was imminent and confirmed the date of September 10. A DIA intelligence summary stamped TOP SECRET UMBRA reported that “the three services have reportedly agreed to move against the government on 10 September, and civilian terrorist and right-wing groups will allegedly support the effort.” The CIA reported that the Chilean navy would “initiate a move to overthrow the government” at 8:30 A.M. on September 10th and that Pinochet “has said that the army will not oppose the navy’s action.”

On September 9, the Station updated its coup countdown. A member of the CIA’s covert agent team in Santiago, Jack Devine, received a call from an asset who was fleeing the country. “It is going to happen on the eleventh,” as Devine recalled the conversation. His report, distributed to Langley headquarters on September 10, stated:

A coup attempt will be initiated on 11 September. All three branches of the Armed Forces and the Carabineros are involved in this action. A declaration will be read on Radio Agricultura at 7 A.M. on 11 September. The Carabineros have the responsibility of seizing President Salvador Allende.

According to Donald Winters, a CIA high-ranking agent in Chile at the time of the coup, “the understanding was they [the Chilean military] would do it when they were ready and at the final moment tell us it was going to happen.” On the eve of the putsch, however, at least one sector of the coup plotters became nervous about what would happen if fighting became protracted and the takeover did not go as planned. On the night of September 10, as the military quietly assumed positions to violently take power the next day, a “key officer of [the] Chilean military group planning to overthrow President Allende,” as CIA headquarters described him, contacted a U.S. official—it remains unclear whether it was a CIA, defense or embassy officer—and “asked if the U.S. government would come to the aid of the Chilean military if the situation became difficult.” The officer was assured that his question “would promptly be made known to Washington,” according to a highly classified memo sent by David Atlee Phillips to Henry Kissinger on September 11, as the coup was in progress.

At the time of the coup, both the State Department and the CIA were making contingency plans for U.S. assistance if the military move appeared to be failing. On September 7, Assistant Secretary Kubisch reported to State and CIA officers that high-level department officials had discussed Chile and determined the following: “If there should be a coup attempt, which appears likely to be successful and satisfactory from our standpoint, we will stand off;” but “if there should be a coup, which might be viewed as favorable but which appears in danger of failure we may want a capability for influencing the situation.” Kubisch tasked the CIA to “give this problem attention.”

That issue proved to be irrelevant. “Chile’s coup d’etat was close to perfect,” Lt. Col. Patrick Ryan, head of the U.S. military group in Valparaiso, reported in a “Sitrep” to Washington. By 8:00 A.M. on September 11, the Chilean navy had secured the port town of Valparaiso and announced that the Popular Unity government was being overthrown. In Santiago, Carabinero forces were supposed to detain President Allende at his residence, but he managed to make his way to La Moneda, Chile’s White House, and began broadcasting radio messages for “workers and students” to come “and defend your government against the armed forces.” As army tanks surrounded La Moneda firing on its walls, Hunter Hawker jets launched a pinpoint rocket attack on Allende’s offices at around noon, killing many of his guards. Another aerial strafing attack accompanied the military’s ground effort to take the inner courtyard of the Moneda at 1:30 P.M.

During the fighting, the military repeatedly demanded that President Allende surrender and made a perfunctory offer to fly him and his family out of the country. In a now famous audiotape of General Pinochet issuing instructions to his troops via radio communications on September 11, he is heard to laugh and swear “that plane will never land.” Forecasting the savagery of his regime, Pinochet added: “Kill the bitch and you eliminate the litter.” Salvador Allende was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his inner office around 2:00 P.M. At 2:30 P.M., the armed forces radio network broadcast an announcement that La Moneda had “surrendered” and that the entire country was under military control.

International reaction to the coup was immediate, widespread, and over­whelmingly condemnatory. Numerous governments denounced the military takeover; massive protests were held throughout Latin America. Inevitably, finger-pointing was directed at the U.S. government. In his confirmation hearings as secretary of state—only one day after the coup—Kissinger was peppered with questions about CIA involvement. The Agency “was in a very minor way involved in 1970 and since then we have absolutely stayed away from any coups,” Kissinger responded. “Our efforts in Chile were to strengthen the democratic political parties and give them a basis for winning the election in 1976.”

“Preservation of Chilean democracy” summed up the official line, spun after the fact, to obfuscate U.S. intervention against the Allende government. On September 13, CIA Director Colby sent Kissinger a secret two-page overview of “CIA Covert Action Program in Chile since 1970,” meant to provide guidance on the questions concerning the Agency’s role. “U.S. policy has been to maintain maximum covert pressure to prevent the Allende regime’s consolidation,” the memo stated candidly. After a selective review of the political, media and private-sector covert operations, Colby concluded: “while the agency was instrumental in enabling opposition political parties and media to survive and to maintain their dynamic resistance to the Allende regime, the CIA played no direct role in the events which led to the establishment of a new military government.”

By the most narrow definition of “direct role”—providing planning, equipment, strategic support, and guarantees—the CIA does not appear to have been involved in the violent actions of the Chilean military on September 11, 1973. The Nixon White House sought, supported, and embraced the coup, but the political risks of direct engagement simply outweighed any actual necessity for its success. The Chilean military, however, had no doubts about the U.S. position. “We were not in on planning,” recalled CIA operative Donald Winters. “But our contacts with the military let them know where we stood—that was we were not terribly happy with [the Allende] government.” The CIA and other sectors of the U.S. government, moreover, were directly involved in operations designed to create a “coup climate” in which the overthrow of Chilean democracy could and would take place. Colby’s memo appeared to omit the CIA’s military deception project, the covert black propaganda efforts to sow dissent within the Popular Unity coalition, the support to extremist elements such as Patria y Libertad, and the inflammatory achievements of the El Mercurio project, which agency records credited with playing “a significant role in setting the stage” for the coup—let alone the destabilizing impact of the invisible economic blockade. The argument that these operations were intended to preserve Chile’s democratic institutions was a public relations ploy contradicted by the weight of the historical record. Indeed, the massive support that the CIA provided to the ostensible leading representatives of Chilean democracy—the Christian Democrats, the National Party, and El Mercurio—facilitated their transformation into leading actors in, and key supporters of, the Chilean military’s violent termination of Chile’s democratic processes.

“You may also recall discussion of a Track Two in late 1970—which has not been included in this summary,” Colby wrote to Kissinger on the routing slip of his September 13 memorandum. Fundamental to the Chilean generals’ understanding of Washington’s support was the knowledge that the CIA had sought to directly instigate a coup three years earlier. “Track II never really ended,” as Thomas Karamessines, the top CIA official in charge of covert operations against Allende, testified in 1975. “What we were told to do was to continue our efforts. Stay alert, and to do what we could to contribute to the eventual achievements and of the objectives and purposes of Track II. I am sure that the seeds that were laid in that effort in 1970 had their impact in 1973. I do not have any question about that in my mind.”

Chile’s Coup at 50 - 06

Chile’s Coup at 50 – 06

** ** ** **

“Our policy on Allende worked very well,” Assistant Secretary Kubisch commented to Kissinger on the day after the coup. Indeed, in September of 1973, the Nixon administration had achieved Kissinger’s goal, enunciated in the fall of 1970, to create conditions which would lead to Allende’s collapse or overthrow. At the first meeting of the Washington Special Actions Group, held on the morning of September 12 to discuss how to assist the new military regime in Chile, Kissinger joked that “the President is worried that we might want to send someone to Allende’s funeral. I said I did not believe we were considering that.” “No,” an aide responded, “not unless you want to go.”

On September 16, President Nixon called Kissinger for an update; their conversation was recorded by Kissinger’s secret taping system. The two candidly discussed the U.S. role. Nixon seemed concerned that the U.S. intervention in Chile might be exposed. “Well we didn’t—as you know—our hand doesn’t show on this one though,” the president noted. “We didn’t do it,” Kissinger responded, referring to the issue of a direct involvement in the September 11 coup. “I mean we helped them. [Omitted word] created the conditions as great as possible.” “That is right,” Nixon agreed.

Nixon and Kissinger commiserated over the fact that they wouldn’t receive laudatory credit in the media for Allende’s demise. “The Chile thing is getting consolidated,” Kissinger reported, “and of course the newspapers are bleating because a pro-Communist government has been overthrown.” “Isn’t that something,” Nixon said, excoriating the “liberal crap” in the media. Kissinger suggested that the press should be “celebrating” the military coup. “In the Eisenhower period,” Kissinger told Nixon, “we would be heroes.”

See also:

Kissinger’s bloody paper trail in Chile.

Britain secretly helped Chile’s military intelligence after Pinochet coup.


Chile’s Coup at 50: Countdown Toward a Coup

Portside Date: September 8, 2023

Author: Peter Kornbluh

Date of source: September 8, 2023

National Security Archive

Peter Kornbluh is the author of Pinochet desclasificado: Los archivos secretos de Estados Unidos sobre Chile (Spanish Edition) and The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability.

Founded in 1985 by journalists and scholars to check rising government secrecy, the National Security Archive combines a unique range of functions: investigative journalism center, research institute on international affairs, library and archive of declassified U.S. documents (“the world’s largest nongovernmental collection” according to the Los Angeles Times), leading non-profit user of the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, public interest law firm defending and expanding public access to government information, global advocate of open government, and indexer and publisher of former secrets.

Secret cables reveal Britain interfered with elections in Chile

Allende - minutes before being killed

Allende – minutes before being killed

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Secret cables reveal Britain interfered with elections in Chile

Declassified Foreign Office files show that Britain conducted a covert propaganda offensive to stop Chilean leader Salvador Allende winning two democratic presidential elections – and helped prepare the ground for General Augusto Pinochet’s brutal military regime.

[The article reproduced below first appeared on the Declassified UK website on 22nd September 2020 but has only recently been brought to our attention. It’s typical of the society in Britain, which constantly bangs its ‘democracy’ drum that when facts are released that show the sham of that democracy then there is almost universal silence.

Some people might think that it is just the Tories whose foreign policy follows the same trajectory as British Imperialism did in the 19th century. After all it was Thatcher who pursued the obscene Malvinas War and she was also seen stroking the old fascist Pinochet’s thigh when he was detained under house arrest in England between October 1998 and March 2000 (whilst under investigation for crimes of genocide). Taking into consideration what is disclosed below – it was the Labour Government of Harold Wilson, 1964-70, that set up the anti-popular Secret Service Unit against the Chilean people – it should be no surprise that it was yet another Labour Minister (the then Home Secretary, Jack Straw) who gave the authorisation for Pinochet to be released back home to Chile.

Although the exact facts of the involvement of the Labour Government are new to us that doesn’t mean the news arrived as a shock. The foreign policies of the Labour Governments of 1945-1951 and 1964-1970 were only interrupted by the ‘thirteen years of Tory misrule’ – and even in that interim period the Labour Opposition rarely challenged the foreign policy stance of the Conservative Government.

Perhaps it’s worthwhile reminding readers of what has always been public knowledge about the anti-popular activities of the Labour Party in its foreign policy, both in and out of government. (There will surely be others which have yet to come to light.)

  • support (in all its forms) to the monarcho-fascists of Greece against the Partisans who had defeated the Nazis;
  • helped the transition from Japanese to French occupation of Indochina;
  • continued attempts at ‘regime change’ against the People’s Republic of Albania throughout their period in government 1945-51 – the challenge then being taken up by the Tories;
  • maintaining a military presence in the Middle East, one of the early examples of ‘poodle Britain’, a second class partner to the USA and looking after their mutual oil interests;
  • supported all the sentiments of Churchill’s anti-USSR ‘Iron Curtain’ speech of 1946;
  • eager early participants in what was to become NATO;
  • support for a Zionist Israel and the dispossession of Palestinian land in 1948;
  • sending of troops to Malaya in 1948;
  • sending troops to Korea in 1950;
  • giving the green light to Suharto in Indonesia in 1965 for the murder of hundreds of thousands of workers and peasants;
  • taking a weak stance against the Unilateral declaration of Independence by the white racist in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) in 1965;
  • sitting on the fence during the time when the US were increasing their troop numbers in South Vietnam;
  • sending of British troops into Northern Ireland in 1969.

These are issues where Labour Governments were directly responsible for policy decisions, there were many other, such as support for British Forces in Kenya at the time of the revolt of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA) (Mau Mau Uprising), where they were merely enthusiastic spectators on the side lines.

And that’s not even touching the foreign policy of the Callaghan and Blair Governments.

These events should be even more in our thoughts as this year (2022) will see a Chilean President with a world view similar to Allende’s planning to take control of the government.]

Secret cables reveal Britain interfered with elections in Chile

Almost 50 years after the September 1973 coup that overthrew the democratically-elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende, declassified Foreign Office documents reveal Britain’s role in destabilising the country.

Under the Labour government of Harold Wilson (1964-1970), a secret Foreign Office unit initiated a propaganda offensive in Chile aiming to prevent Allende, Chile’s leading socialist figure, winning power in two presidential elections, in 1964 and 1970.

The unit – the Information Research Department (IRD) – gathered information designed to damage Allende and lend legitimacy to his political opponents, and distributed material to influential figures within Chilean society.

The IRD also shared intelligence about left-wing activity in the country with the US government. British officials in Santiago assisted a CIA-funded media organisation which was part of extensive US covert action to overthrow Allende, culminating in the 1973 coup.

Anyone but Allende

A Foreign Office planning document written in 1964 had noted that Latin America was “a vital area in the Cold War and checking a Communist takeover here is at least as important a British national interest as negotiating trading and stepping up exports”.

The report added that the US was “anxious for the United Kingdom to do as much as possible in the propaganda field” in Latin America.

Several months before Chile’s 1964 presidential election, a British Cabinet Office unit called the Counter-subversion Committee’s Working Group on Latin America, advised the IRD that “it will be important to prevent significant gains by the extreme left” in Chile, “now and later”.

At this time, Allende was a presidential candidate in the election running as leader of the Frente de Acción Popular (Popular Action Front) against the Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei, who eventually won with 56% of the vote against Allende’s 39%.

The IRD initiated its propaganda offensive in Chile by covertly supporting Frei in the months leading up to the election. As Elizabeth Allott, a longstanding IRD officer, wrote shortly after Frei claimed victory, the unit had focused on “the distribution of our more serious material to reliable contacts and to securing the publication of certain press articles” critical of Allende, and favourable to Frei.

Allott had also proposed “SPA [special Political Action] with supporting action from the US” to split the left vote.

British planners viewed the 1964 election as a landmark success. “In Chile we surely have a rare opportunity”, wrote Allott: “If we believe our work in Latin America to be important, then there are surely few places which have a better claim on our resources and where there is such scope for us in both our negative and constructive roles.”

Leslie Glass, Assistant Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs and former director-general of British Information Services, agreed. Writing days after the election, he noted that this was “a victory against the communists to press home” adding that there was now “a government to support whose policies, if carried out effectively, offer what is probably the best chance we have had in the continent of robbing the communists of their raison d’être”.

Frei ruled Chile for the following six years until the country went to the polls again in 1970. By this time, Allende was leader of a coalition grouping known as Popular Unidad (Popular Unity), which pledged to redistribute economic power in Chile.

Allende’s platform proposed to transform “the present economic structure, doing away with the power of foreign and national monopoly capital and of the latifundio [large agricultural estates] in order to initiate the construction of socialism”.

Allende’s policies of nationalisation posed a considerable threat to British and US interests, particularly in Chile’s major industry, copper, whose mines were substantially owned by US companies.

As Allende looked increasingly likely to win power, British propaganda operations intensified. “Chile is in the front line as far as communism in South America is concerned,” one IRD planner noted in 1969.

The IRD deployed a specialist field officer to Santiago during the late 1960s, whose operations focused directly on thwarting an Allende victory.

At the same time, the Foreign Office dispatched a labour attaché to Chile in order to monitor trade union activity, although the attaché was withdrawn before the 1970 election.

On 13 July 1970, with just weeks until the election, Allott informed British ambassador David Hildyard that “the IRD operation… has been concentrating on preventing an extreme left alliance from gaining power in the 1970 presidential elections, and on helping suitable organisations which are likely to continue in existence whatever happens at the elections”.

She added: “The IRD field officer… has very close contacts with specialist officials in the [Chilean] Ministry of Foreign Affairs, [redacted], and certain student organisations. As elsewhere in Latin America we can cover areas closed to the Americans.”

Allott also proposed to IRD chief Kenneth Crook that Britain train the Chilean military in “counter-subversion”. Notably, she referred to Britain’s previous training of the Brazilian dictatorship’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which was later revealed to include lessons in torture techniques.

British efforts to stop Allende failed, and the Chilean presidential election in September 1970 brought to power the country’s first avowed socialist ever elected to office.

The Washington connection

British covert action in Chile was undertaken in collaboration with the US, whose role in destabilising the country has emerged in the decades since. Between 1962 and 1970, the CIA “undertook various propaganda activities” including “placements” of material “in radio and news media” in support of Frei and against Allende.

It also organised “spoiling operations” against Allende and engaged in a three-year campaign between 1970 and 1973 to politically “assassinate” him by funnelling “millions of dollars to strengthen opposition political parties”, according to a US Senate report.

IRD files show how, during the late 1960s, British planners shared strategic advice and intelligence with US officials. Though IRD planners cautioned the US against “possibly taking a too extreme line” in its anti-communist propaganda, they nonetheless provided US officers with a list of Chilean journalists who could produce desirable content.

The UK and US also shared information on left-wing activity in Chile, an arrangement which continued until at least March 1973, the declassified British files show.

Allende was overthrown in a military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet, the head of the Chilean military, on 11 September 1973, to widespread international condemnation. His regime quickly became one of Latin America’s most repressive in modern history as thousands of political opponents were herded into Chile’s national football stadium or secret detention centres.

Alongside much more extensive US covert action, British officials played a covert role in preparing the ground for Pinochet’s takeover in alliance with the US.

In October 1970, British officers in Santiago had covertly facilitated a CIA-funded news agency, Forum World Features (FWF), “to arrange for special coverage of the Chilean situation”. One month after Allende’s election, British Foreign Secretary Alec Douglas-Home had instructed the embassy in Santiago to “respond to any approach” from FWF after its chief, Brian Crozier, requested assistance for a series of “behind the scenes” articles on Allende’s programme.

FWF played a significant role in the propaganda onslaught against Allende. In December 1973, three months after Pinochet’s coup, FWF journalist Robert Moss published Chile’s Marxist Experiment – a CIA-commissioned book which denied Washington’s role in the coup, and laid the blame at the feet of Allende.

The Pinochet regime purchased 10,000 copies of the book “to be given away as part of a propaganda package” and Crozier later recalled that Moss’s work “played its part in the necessary destabilisation of the Allende regime”.

Foreign Office official Hugh Carless agreed, writing in December 1973 that the book “helped us to strike a balance” on Chile.

Rory Cormac, professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham, told Declassified: “These recently declassified documents are significant because they reveal British special political action outside of traditional areas of priority. As its material capabilities declined, Britain turned to covert action to help maintain its global role.”

Pinochet: ‘a staunch, true friend’ of Britain

The Conservative government under Edward Heath (1970-74) rushed to give diplomatic recognition to Pinochet’s new regime. Foreign Office files show that British planners in Santiago and London immediately set about conducting good relations with the military rulers as their repression increased.

By 1974, and under public pressure due to Pinochet’s human rights abuses, the Wilson government, which had returned to power, applied sanctions on Chile, involving an arms embargo and the removal of the British ambassador in Santiago. These were continued by the subsequent Labour government under James Callaghan.

After Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979, however, Britain resumed friendly relations with Chile, selling arms that could be used for internal repression while training hundreds of Chilean soldiers. Thatcher went on to call Pinochet a “staunch, true friend” of Britain.

After the fall of Pinochet’s dictatorship in 1990, a truth commission confirmed that during his 17-year rule more than 40,000 people were tortured, 3,200 were killed or “disappeared” and more than 200,000 fled into exile.

Though Labour and Conservative policy differed towards Pinochet, the recently declassified record sheds a new light on the claim that Labour sought to promote an ethical foreign policy towards Chile. It was under Wilson’s first administration that Britain’s covert propaganda offensive against Allende began.

British officials not only welcomed Chile’s dictatorship in 1973 – they spent a decade helping to create the conditions that brought it to power, and played a material role in destroying Chilean democracy for a generation.

About the author

John McEvoy is an independent journalist who has written for International History Review, The Canary, Tribune Magazine, Jacobin and Brasil Wire.

22 September 2020

More on Britain …

View of the world

Ukraine – what you’re not told

Indigenous representation in public art – the monuments and photographs

To the Indigenous People - Ushuaia

To the Indigenous People – Ushuaia

More on Argentina

Indigenous representation in public art – the monuments and photographs

Monuments to the Indigenous peoples

So if the church hasn’t got it right have the civil authorities? I only have a few examples to go on so far but the answer would probably be ‘not really’.

Monument to Indio Tehuelche – Puerto Madryn – Argentina

Indio Tehuelche - Puerto Madryn

Indio Tehuelche – Puerto Madryn

The name of this monument in itself says a lot. When Columbus reached the Caribbean he thought he had arrived in India – after all that was the plan of the journey in the first place. He wasn’t looking for a continent that he didn’t know was there he was looking for a quicker route to one he did know existed. That’s why, to this day, that part of the world is still referred to as the West Indies.

But the Tehuelche who lived in, what is now called, the Puerto Madryn area were not ‘Indians’, and the use of the word in the naming of the monument still looks at the world from the Eurocentric approach that was common up to the end of the 20th century – and still not uncommon even today.

But the same stereotype in the depiction of the indigenous people exists further north in Argentina as it did in the south. At least in the area around Puerto Madryn the temperatures get up to a level where the not wearing of clothes makes sense. The day before I left Puerto Madryn the temperatures were in the mid 30s Celsius. On the other hand there was never a full day when I was in Patagonia I did not feel that I needed to have something to protect me from the wind with its cold bite. Being naked in Ushuaia would not have been a life choice – even though the original people from that area would have been much tougher than any foreign tourist – myself included.

Indio Tehuelche - Puerto Madryn

Indio Tehuelche – Puerto Madryn

I’m not saying that such an image never represented a Teluelche hunter but it’s the fact that on so many occasions the indigenous people are depicted as being naked which was equated with ‘savagery’ by the Spanish Conquistadors very soon after their arrival in the continent and would also have been the view of the Welsh Protestants who were the first foreigners to colonise his part of Argentina. It’s the ideological position that is being presented which I challenge.

It’s very difficult to know exactly how the Teluelche dressed in their everyday life. A series of photos taken post 1865 when the Welsh colonisers arrived show a variety of dress, some of it sophisticated in design and decoration. Which shouldn’t be a surprise. Such has been found among such hunter/ gatherer groups elsewhere. Much of the clothing was based upon guanaco furs.

The problem is that very soon after the arrival of the Europeans they wanted to mould the local people in their own image. Forcing them to pose in dress which was good for the camera – and would help the photographer to sell the pictures – but not necessarily a good historical record. There was also pressure upon them to change to the woven blanket – in this way a money based market was forced upon the Teluelche which didn’t have such a system of exchange before the late 19th century.

So the male statue representing the Teluelche is naked, all but for a loin cloth, and carries the ubiquitous bow. Around his waist is tied a bolas (boleadoras) – the rope with weights at either end which was used to bring down a hunted prey. (There’s some debate whether the Teluelche used the bolas before the arrival of the Europeans or whether they adapted the practice once it was known to them.) However imperfect and suspect the photographic record might be I have not come across a single picture of a male Teluelche as depicted on the monument. So why choose it?

He has his right hand raised to his brow to shade his eyes from the sun as he looks out to sea. Now why he’s doing this is beyond me. He has hunting weapons which are used against land animals. To the best of my knowledge the Teluelche didn’t live off the sea so why is he looking out in that direction? Awaiting the Gods from the east as thought the Aztecs? Looking out for the Spanish invaders who had caused so much damage on a previous visit. It just doesn’t make sense. So another ‘black’ mark against the Puerto Madryn municipality.

They don’t get many brownie points when it comes to location. The statue stands on a promontory on the very edge of town and would not be seen by many visitors. On the other hand the monument to the arrival of the Welsh sits right in the centre of town, right on the sea front. So marginalisation continues.

Further to this there are two plaques on the plinth of the statue. One commemorates the hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the Welsh in 1965 the other (which didn’t make much sense to me) commemorates the efforts of those who worked for the unification of the ‘aboriginal’ and Welsh culture at the time of that centenary ‘celebration’ – this is dated 2004.

No mention of the Teluelche even on a monument that is supposed to ‘remember’ them.

Yet no street is named after them or not even a symbolic reference to the fact that the land on which Puerto Madryn now stands once belonged to no-one, but was for the use of those who passed through chasing the seasons and the wild animals.

Contrast with the monument to the Welsh arrival in 1865

Welsh Monument - Puerto Madryn, Argentina

Welsh Monument – Puerto Madryn, Argentina

As stated above this is in the centre of town, seen and passed by all who visit the city. It’s a monument which tells a story rather than merely being an image which has to be left to interpretation.

The bas relief on the southern side describes the coming ashore of the first Welsh colonisers in 1865, obviously bringing with them the most important export from Europe, the Bible.

It’s the bas relief on the north side I want to look at here.

It might be worth just giving a translation of the explanation of the images in the monument prepared and presented by the Puerto Madryn Municipality on the occasion of the unveiling of the monument in 2015 – the 150 anniversary of the arrival of the Welsh colonisers.

In describing the bronze bas relief on the northern facade of the monument it states:

‘Here we can see the Teluelche, sons of the land, receiving the colonisers, extending their hand in a gesture of welcome to the recently arrived, symbolising the meeting of cultures.’

Welsh Monument - Puerto Madryn, Argentina

Welsh Monument – Puerto Madryn, Argentina

Now I’m not questioning that this was the manner in which the Teluelche greeted the strangers from across the sea. Lots of cultures make it a point of honour to treat strangers with respect and kindness – unfortunately for the indigenous peoples of the Americas this was not part of the culture of those who arrived from the 16th century onwards.

I’m not also in a position to challenge what I was told by the curator of the small museum in the, now disused, railway station in Puerto Madryn that the Welsh colonisers argued, and were prepared to even take up arms to protect the interests of the Teluelche when they were threatened at one time by some of the more aggressive land grabbers from Britain with the assistance of the Argentinian state. What I want to ask is where are the ‘estancias’ – the large estates that make up the land grab of Argentinian and Chilean Patagonia – which are in under the control of the ‘sons of the land’?

Why is the city named after some tiny village in North Wales and not after the name the area would have been referred to by the people who had been passing through this region for generations before the Welsh ran away from Britain?

To remind readers of the situation as described by Chinua Achebe in relation to Africa – ‘when they came we had the land and they had the Bible, now we have the Bible and they have the land’. Is that any different with the Teluelche?

There’s also a bit of an oddity attached to the Welsh monument which has a tangential relationship to the Teluelche. On the hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the Welsh Protestants the Catholics in the area decided to thank them for bringing Christianity to ‘this land’. As can be seen in those images from the section on the church it was that Christianity that was important in destroying what might have remained of the indigenous religions and belief systems. And strange that the Catholics thank their most ancient of enemies in the Christian church – the Protestants.

Such believes, rituals and traditions are now seen as something quaint from a disappearing people but of having little relevance to contemporary life.

Monument to the Indigenous People – Ushuaia – Argentina

To the Indigenous People - Ushuaia

To the Indigenous People – Ushuaia

This is a small statue in the place that calls itself the ‘most southerly town in the world’. The smallness, in itself, might be making a comment. The Patagonians, when they first encountered Europeans in the 19th century were described as ‘giants’ and a number of excavations were made of grave sites looking for the large bones and a ‘scientific’ explanation of why they were so tall. This statue, of a male Selk’nam hunter kneeling, is probably half non-giant, life size.

Selk'nam group in traditional dress

Selk’nam group in traditional dress

I’m saying it’s a representation of a Selk’man as pictures I’ve seen of the tribe show the conical, fur cap as being part of the everyday dress of adult males. As with previous images he is not really wearing an animal skin coat but merely having it draped over his shoulders (in a totally impractical manner) which means that both his thighs, and the side of his upper torso, is exposed. In his hand he holds a bow – which seems to be accurate here as they were known to be good hunters with the bow and arrow.

One of the problems that modern sculptors might be having in making a realistic representation of the Fuengüino people before their culture was overwhelmed by the stronger and more aggressive European culture is the use of that European culture to represent Fuengüino people.

European photographers who went to Tierra del Fuego wanted to give the impression they had ‘discovered’ a new race of people, these mysterious ‘giant Patagonians’. For that reason (and as we all know the camera never tells the truth) they would have local people pose in a manner that was stereotypical for ‘natives’. In a sense this was a return to the idea that pervaded the very few early years of the Spanish presence in South America in that they had found the natives living in perfect harmony with his environment, a paradise or heaven on earth.

This idea went well together with the idea of nakedness and so what were presented as candid pictures of everyday life are actually, in the main posed, in a manner that suited the photographer’s idea of the story he wanted to tell. The long exposure time of photography of the time also meant that the subjects would have to ‘freeze’ for the camera.

Seeing these collected together in a book of the whole ideology behind the collection of these images at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century also shows the attitude of the Europeans to the local people. The power balance is shown in the often frightened, if not down right terrified, looks on the faces of the subjects – especially the children.

There are also examples where the photographer actually recorded his abuse of those who were weaker than himself. The two pictures taken by Martin Gusinde Hentschel – a Polish born missionary – show the extent to which the subjects had to suffer to get ‘the perfect image’.

Child abuse to satisfy European perversions

Child abuse to satisfy European perversions

Child abuse to satisfy European perversions

Child abuse to satisfy European perversions

It also seems to have been the fashion to have pictures of males just about to let loose an arrow in the countryside. The stories about the North American West and the ‘cowboys and indians’ had whetted the European thirst for peoples who lived by the use of old technology, whether it be to hunt or fight. However, those type of images in Tierra del Fuego were often of men who had adopted western culture and dress and were merely posing as natives, their ‘traditional’ dress over store bought trousers.

The monument is in the centre of town but slightly off the beaten track, in a small square just behind the tourist information office.

The accompanying plaque also tells a story.

To the Indigenous People - Ushuaia

To the Indigenous People – Ushuaia

This translates as:

‘The Community of Ushuaia to the Indigenous People who created the origin of the city which today achieves its first hundredth anniversary. The Centenary Commission. 1884 – 12th October – 1984.’

Remember that 12th October used to be known as Columbus Day.

Pioneers and First Settlers Monument – Ushuaia – Argentina

I’ve not been very positive towards the monuments I’ve written about so far and I’m afraid nothing is really going to change with another, more recent and much larger monument that is also located in the centre of Ushuaia.

Pioneers and First-Settlers Monument - Ushuaia

Pioneers and First-Settlers Monument – Ushuaia

This is in the form of a huge, concrete bird, an albatross, which has its wings unfolded so that it creates a semi circular protective space underneath. This is the only element that I think is original and creates a pleasing space. Unfortunately instead of just stopping here the sculptor decided to add to the perfection of the original shape.

But that’s not the worst thing about this monument. Taking into account the modest nature (to say the least) about Ushuaia’s recognition of the indigenous people one would have thought by the late 1990’s, when I believe this monument was unveiled, there would have been a review of the scant regard that Ushuaia had really paid to the people on whose land the city was built that a new monument would redress this balance.

But unfortunately this is just the opposite. This large, much more sophisticated, much more prominent and much more expensive monument is actually to commemorate the first (white) settlers of indigenous land and the so-called (white) ‘pioneers’ who followed in the late years of the 19th century.

Not only does the city celebrate the invaders, the colonisers, the robbers and thieves of land that already had an owner it treats the indigenous people as extras in their own dispossession and then insults them by declaring that their presence in the images by the sculptor was to show how ‘the lighten [sic] fires symbolize the union among natives and First Settlers throughout history.’

Inside this space we find a group of four people, three men and one woman, reclining against the wings and sitting around a large fire which separates the lone male from the other three. This fire has huge flames that rise up from the logs in the shape of the petals of an iris.

Some of them are dressed, some are not. Guess which (a ‘first settler’ or a ‘native’) is dressed. Wrong! It’s not the ‘first settlers’ but the two ‘natives’. First settlers come out of the womb already dressed and never take their clothes off – especially the religious ones.

Pioneers and First-settlers Monument - Ushuaia

Pioneers and First-settlers Monument – Ushuaia

So yet again there’s this distinction between the primitive and the sophisticated.

But it gets worse when we look at the decoration on the external part of the sculpture. As the indigenous people are mere bit players in this scenario, apart from their nakedness in front of the fire, they only appear once more, this time to accentuate their backwardness.

On the left hand side at the back we see examples of the masks used in their rituals (primitive), the simple huts in which they lived (primitive) and their use of canoes as a form of transport and for fishing (primitive).

Pioneers and First-settlers Monument - Ushuaia

Pioneers and First-settlers Monument – Ushuaia

Right next to these images, as we move right, are examples of what the ‘first settlers and pioneers’ brought with them. There’s a steam ship, a steam train (although no reference to the fact that the ancestors of these same ‘pioneers’ have allowed the once extensive railway network in the country to decay and rot into insignificance) and part of a large two storey building (the prison that was built in the early days of the city’s history – isn’t it interesting that a symbol of ‘progress’ is a prison building?) together with a European marching forward in a positive manner.

Pioneers and First-settlers Monument - Ushuaia

Pioneers and First-settlers Monument – Ushuaia

Next we have two males using a two handed saw to cut a log – representing the logging industry that was set up very soon as the town grew. This industry would have forced the Selk’nam and Yánama to fill in for shortages of labour.

This is followed by a carpenter in the process of constructing one of the typical houses that were everywhere in Ushuaia until the latest round of destruction which has replaced those typical buildings by featureless and souless modern concrete constructions – so even the ‘first settler’ and ‘pioneer’ culture gets trashed by the juggernaut of capitalist development.

Next is an image of a mother raising her baby high above her head as she plays with the child (natives’, presumably, didn’t play with their children) right next to an image of the Salesian Cathedral to be found on the main street of Ushuaia.

Finally we have the image of a man digging a hole in preparation for the planting of the small tree a child is holding.

So all the industriousness of the Europeans have created the city of Ushuaia. Of what the indigenous people had created over the generations there remains nothing, as their creations, their homes, their means of transport came from nature and returned to nature. Their culture is now only fit to be represented in museums, used as decoration on hostel walls or as artefacts to be sold in souvenir shops.

Pioneers and First Settlers Monument - Ushuaia

Pioneers and First Settlers Monument – Ushuaia

Just in front of the ‘camp fire’ is a roundel with a compass in the middle and radiating out to the edge of the circle on the lines is a list of those nationalities who had contributed to the construction of the city and its economy. Listed are: Poles, Croats, Israelis, Chileans, Greeks, Lebanese, French, Germans, English, Solvenes, Spanish, Yugoslavs, Argentinians, Italians – and as a sop to the past Selk’nam and Yámana.

Strangely the descendants of the ‘first settlers’ were asked how they wanted the monument to be called and even had the letters they sent in response to that request reproduced and put on display. When did they ever ask the indigenous people – or the few surviving descendants – how they wanted to be remembered?

There’s even a list of the first 50 settler families in the area, a plaque paying ‘homage’ to them having been placed on the wall to the back of the monument.

Ushuaia calls itself the ‘capital of the Malvinas’ and declares that ‘the Malvinas are and will be Argentina’s’ but it doesn’t pay any respect to any claims that the indigenous people might have on the site of the city.

The indigenous people in the photographic record

As it is almost certain that any images of the pre-colonial people who have been or are to be turned into a work of art come from the photographic record made by European photographers at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries it might be worth while discussing how using such material colours (and quite possibly) distorts the true representation of life before the invasion.

As stated before photographers were out to get ‘the’ image that would make their reputation and, hopefully (for them) their fortune – no different from the paparazzi now. This meant that as has always been the case they would have to produce images that the market wanted. By the end of the 19th century there were few civilisations that had not been documented in some way and however badly and inaccurately they may have been represented were ‘known’ in Europe. The encounter with Patagonians must have been a godsend for publicists.

But Europe had developed an idea, which had originated first with the invasion of the Americas in the 16th century and later with Africa and Australia, that all these primitive peoples behaved in a similar manner. They all walked around naked, they had no culture as was understood in Europe and had little technology in a world where the industrial revolution that had begun in the 18th century was still producing marvel after marvel.

To have presented the Patagonians as being any different would not have been accepted by societies which had preconceived (and it has to be said deep rooted racist) ideas of what other people were. If they are not us then they are different and if different they must be inferior.

The church also had a role in this, by the end of the 19th century the Protestant as well as the Catholic brand of Christianity.

Their mission (and the reason they sent out missionaries) was to ‘bring the word of God’ to those who were following a misguided road. Why God had to be brought to people who had been created by that very same God is a mystery to me. But then reason and rational thinking has never been behind religious proselytisation.

The church also had to show progress in their mission and the most obvious way that could be done was by changing how the native people’s looked – basically by getting them to adopt a western style of dress. To show that radical change in an easy way it was beneficial to their idea to show that the natives were so unsophisticated that they didn’t have any clothes at all and this is one of the expectations that pushed the production of naked images of men, women and children.

There could also be argued that there was a prurient reason for such images – European society had become so anal at the end of the 19th century that naked images of whites were rare (although available) and would never be displayed in public but such images of naked, dark skinned, foreign and distant peoples was totally acceptable.

Then there was always the question of power. Once the colonisers arrived they started to come in a flood. If the first few had been welcomed (as is shown in the Puerto Madryn Welsh monument) then there would have come a time when the numbers started to be unacceptable – especially as they were arriving with the understanding that the land was empty and there for the taking. This had happened in North America and Australia, why should Patagonia be any different?

That would necessarily have led to conflict, fights and injuries and deaths. But the battle would have been far from equal and massacres were far from being unknown. One that became famous due to the fact that it was documented by a series of photographs was that by a gold-prospecting Rumanian by the name of Popper.

As has always been the case one of the justifications for taking the land from another ‘tribe’ is to brand that tribe as being savage, uncultured and needing to be educated of the true light. If they refuse then eradication is the only option.

With this background, by the 1910s and 1920s the Patagonian people, of whatever tribe, were defeated, dejected and miserable. Their hunter gatherer way of life had been destroyed by the seizure and privatisation of the land, their culture and religion had been branded as heathen and had been forced to adopt the Christian faith, they had been forced to wear ragged ‘European’ clothing in place of their warm and comfortable guanaco furs, they had been forced into a situation somewhere between slavery and feudalism and having to adapt to a money economy. The overwhelming number of images I have seen taken in that 50 or so year period show a humiliated, defeated and thoroughly miserable race of people with little hope for the future and a past that had been destroyed forever.

A number of pictures show how the Salesians, the so-called saviours of the indigenous people, were far from reluctant to make use of this new and virtually free workforce with members of the various tribes being forced to work in small factories and workshops in the Salesian missions.

The situation there appears to be as abysmal as those experienced by British workers in one of the most dire periods of conditions of the working class in mid-19th century Manchester. Unlike the British working class who were eventually able to organise themselves and fight for their rights the Patagonian people just disappeared.

Note how in all these pictures a priest or a nun stands guard, as overseer, as boss, as ocontroller. I don’t use the word ‘evil’ on many occasions (it’s too value laden) but until I can think of a more appropriate word I’ll stress how this evil presence, the Devil’s representatives on earth, are a symbol of the pain and suffering of these defeated people. I don’t like using the word ‘defeated’ but I can’t find any evidence that the Fuenguinos were ever able to recover from this treatment.

Fuenguinos working in Salesian Mission

Fuenguinos working in Salesian Mission

Fuenguinos working in Salesian Mission

Fuenguinos working in Salesian Mission

Fuenguinos working in Salesian Mission

Fuenguinos working in Salesian Mission

Fuenguinos working in Salesian Mission

Fuenguinos working in Salesian Mission

Fuenguinos working in Salesian Mission

Fuenguinos working in Salesian Mission

One thing that did stand out in the pictures I have seen that were taken at the time of the transfer of power from the Selk’nam and Yámana to the white colonisers is those taken by the Salesian priest Alberto María De Agostini Antoniotti. His pictures are the only ones where the subjects seem to be happy in having their picture taken and not being coerced into being photographic models. Not being a fan of priests of whatever species he obviously had a different relationship to the local people (in the 1920s) than did the majority of the parasitic creatures which had been forcing subjects to sit for pictures which they either resented having to do or were photographed without any choice – and never would any of these people have seen their own images.

Smiling Girl - De Agostini

Smiling Girl – De Agostini

Statue of De Agostini and Pa-Chiek Kon Ona in Puerto Natales, Chile

Right next to the waterfront in the Chilean town of Puerto Natales is a statue commemorating the Salesian priest Alberto De Agostini and he is depicted shaking hands with one of the elders of one of the Patagonian tribes, Pa-Chiek Kon Ona with a symbol of a bow and arrow carved below his name.

Alberto de Agostin - Puerto Natales

Alberto de Agostin – Puerto Natales

This is a simple, almost cartoon like, sculpture of two people meeting and its simplicity makes it quite charming in a way. Again, whether this is a true representation of what actually happened is debatable but it is the first sculpture I’ve seen where the idea of an encounter rather than an invasion is being depicted.

Monument to General Julio A Roca – Rio Gallegos – Argentina

Roca Statue Rio Gallegos

Roca Statue Rio Gallegos

This idea of the marginalisation of the indigenous people in public monuments doesn’t just relate to events at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. This idea that they were a group of savages that had to be either converted to Christianity or destroyed was there from the time of the ‘liberation’ wars against the Spanish.

In the coastal city of Rio Gallegos in Argentina is a statue to one of the generals of the liberation war, Julio Roca. This ‘celebrates’ a meeting between him and a Chilean counter-part, Fernando Errazuriz in 1831.

(Ironically this posits the idea of the eternal friendship between the two countries. However when that friendship was put to the test in 1982, at the time of the war over the Malvinas, the Chileans – under Pinochet – showed themselves quite capable of stabbing a neighbouring country in the back by supporting the British in place of the Argentinians, even allowing the British armed forces to operate on Chilean territory as well as providing vital intelligence of Argentinian troop movements.)

But when it comes to the approach to the people who were here before the Spanish we have to look at the lower of the two panels that accompany Roca’s statue.

Here we have Roca and his aides, on horseback on the right. Roca has his right arm outstretched and his forefinger is pointing threateningly at a small group of indigenous people who are on the extreme left of the panels. Most of them are standing up and huddled together – aiming to get some comfort from the proximity with their kind. One of their member is crouched down, his head bowed and his arms covering his eyes. As is normal in virtually all depictions of the indigenous people they are half naked. The reason for this scene? The priest who stands between the two groups.

He has his right arm raised and in his hand is a crucifix which is radiating the light of the Lord. Even though the settler descendants of the Spanish were fighting against the dominance of the Spanish state in the affairs of the Latin American continent they were in no way fighting against the hold the Catholic church had on all the peoples of those lands.

The indigenous people are afraid of the power of this religion and the one crouched down is displaying his shame at not accepting the true religion.

And Roca is saying, with the threat of arms, that if the heathens do not accept the true religion the full force of the army will be used to force them to do so. ‘Submit or die’ is what he is indicating with that simple gesture of the outstretched finger.

So it ever was.

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