Why Congress wants the CIA to come clean about a 1973 coup in Chile

Members of Congress are calling on the American CIA to declassify its documents related to Pinochet’s coup.
chile coup
Images of disappeared detainees are projected on the facade of the Palacio de la Moneda in Santiago on August 30, 2023, the day on which Chile's President Gabriel Boric presented the National Search Plan for the Disappeared to find missing victims of the 19731990 dictatorship. (Photo by JAVIER TORRES/AFP via Getty Images)

In 1970, Chileans freely elected a longtime politician to the country’s presidency. Salvador Allende became the first Marxist-Socialist ever elected in a Latin American democracy. Seeing his election as a mandate, he began moving the country to a socialist system, nationalizing Chile’s copper mining companies, its banking system and its healthcare system.

Things seemed to start going well for the country. Wages rose, inflation was reduced and more people began going to school. Chile’s GDP rose 8% and life for most Chileans improved, especially among the country’s poor in the first year. Then things started to go wrong.

By 1973, worker strikes began hurting sectors of the economy, staples disappeared from market shelves and tensions between the indigenous poor and wealthy white elites exploded. That same year, Chile’s military seized power in a coup d’etat led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet. The military junta would rule Chile with an iron fist for the next 27 years.

Now, members of the U.S. Congress, led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are calling on the American CIA to declassify its documents related to Pinochet’s coup. Ocasio-Cortez was part of a Congressional delegation to Chile that marked the 50th anniversary of the coup that brought down Allende’s government and ended civilian rule in the country.

“It’s very important to frame the history of what happened here in Chile with Pinochet’s dictatorship. And also to acknowledge and reflect on the role of the United States in those events,” Ocasio-Cortez said outside the Museum of Memory and Human Rights dedicated to the victims of Pinochet’s dictatorship.

Classification reviews for secret information begin automatically at 25 years, but there are nine causes for exception. After 50 years, there are only two reasons for keeping it classified, which is why most declassifications happen at 50 years. After 75 years, special permission is required to keep documents secret.

chile coup protest
Students of the University of Chile stage a peaceful protest with pictures of missing people to mark International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearance in Santiago on August 30, 2023. (Photo by MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP via Getty Images)

The United States was long thought to have played a role in the coup that overthrew Allende. It wouldn’t have been the first time the CIA was involved in overthrowing a freely elected government. A Senate investigation reported that the CIA didn’t initiate the coup but was aware it was coming. The CIA reportedly made no effort to stop the coup, nor did it assist the Pinochet government.

Previously declassified American documents showed that the U.S. government under President Richard Nixon was hostile to the election of a Marxist in Chile and that the CIA had tried to prevent Allende from taking power in 1970. It tried to bribe members of the Chilean legislature while supporting worker’s strikes and anti-Allende propaganda, but nothing came of the effort: Allende took power anyway.

A shadow has always loomed over American relations with Chile because no one knows just how much the United States was involved in Pinochet’s rise to power. It certainly seemed like something the CIA would do, but a lot of questions still remained unanswered about what the CIA did in 1973.

No matter who was involved, Pinochet’s reign resulted in thousands of executions, tens of thousands of Chileans forcibly interned, left-wing opposition quashed, repression of entertainment and the press, and millions stolen from the Chilean government.

Pinochet himself continued to serve in Chile’s senate after stepping down as president but was arrested on an international warrant while visiting London in 1998. Pinochet died after a heart attack while on house arrest, awaiting trial in Chile, in 2006.