US Regime Change, Torture, and Murder in Chile

President Bush’s recent trip to South America provides a valuable foreign-policy lesson for Americans.

The president was greeted in Santiago, Chile, by some 30,000 angry demonstrators. But it was not only Bush’s invasion and war of aggression against Iraq that Chileans were angry about. Unlike so many Americans, the Chilean people have not fallen for the “We invaded Iraq to spread democracy” line that U.S. officials moved up to rationale number one after failing to find those infamous weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The reason? Chileans have not forgotten — and are still angry about — the U.S. government’s role in bringing about “regime change” in Chile in 1973. (Just as the Iranian people have not forgotten the U.S. government’s “regime change” in Iran in 1953.)

Chileans still remember that in the 1973 “regime change” in their country, the U.S. government played an active role in ousting their democratically elected president because he was a communist and replacing him with a brutal military dictator, Augustin Pinochet, who ended up ruling Chile for almost two decades, until 1990. Yes, you read that correctly — the U.S. government, the paragon of democracy around the world, helped to oust a man who had been democratically elected by the people of Chile and helped replace him with an unelected, military brute.

What mattered to U.S. officials was not democracy in Chile but rather the same thing that matters to them today in Iraq — the installation of a ruler, brutal or benevolent, democratically elected or not, who was friendly to the U.S. government. If that meant supporting a cruel and brutal military dictator whose forces killed, tortured, or disappeared his own people, so be it.

It is even likely that Chileans are much angrier than Americans over the U.S. government’s role in the murder of an American journalist, Charles Horman, during that Chilean “regime change.” In fact, despite the fact that a movie, entitled “Missing,” was produced about Horman’s execution. I’ll bet most Americans are not even aware of that execution or that the CIA played a role in it. (Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the CIA refuses to open all its files on U.S. government involvement in the Pinochet coup, the Hormon murder, and the succeeding years of torture, executions, disappearances, and other human rights abuses under the Pinochet military regime. “National security,” of course.)

Chileans remember the decades of military rule in their country, characterized by middle-of-the-night arrests, obliterations of civil liberties, torture, executions, disappearances of suspected terrorists, and other human-rights abuses that eerily bring to mind the U.S. military’s “war on terrorism” policies in Iraq, Cuba, Afghanistan, and the United States.

As their counterparts in the U.S. military are doing today, Chilean military officials long avoided responsibility for the wrongdoing by claiming that the human-rights abuses were committed by a few lowly soldiers. However, today’s Chilean army officials are finally taking responsibility for the institutional framework that permitted and encouraged the abuses to take place.

Obviously, we’re still a long way from that here in the United States. After all, don’t forget that the next U.S. attorney general is likely to be the very man who provided the president with the “Geneva Convention is quaint and obsolete” memo that not only opened the door to Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and the Pentagon’s suspension of habeas corpus and due process but also conveniently provided the president and other U.S. high officials with “legal cover” when the U.S. Army’s human-rights abuses came to light. Let’s also not forget the ongoing deception and cover-up in the Abu Ghraib scandal.

Just as bad, if not worse, has been the supine position that has been adopted by Congress in the face of the U.S. military’s torture, sex abuse, rape, murder, denial of habeas corpus and due process, and massive violations of civil liberties of prisoners. For all practical purposes, Congress’s silence has been no different from the silence adopted by the Chilean parliament under the Pinochet regime. Come to think of it, the “We’re here to support you and not ask questions” attitude of Congress toward the president and the Pentagon in the U.S. government’s “war on terrorism” is no different than it was when the U.S. government was “regime changing” and participating in the murder of an American journalist during the dark days of Chile’s “war on terrorism.”