Americans are understandably fixated on an event that, as their corporate news media never tire of reminding us, "changed the world." The date of September 11 has become riveted on boiler plate history. It recalls the beginning of the "War on Terror" in the unanticipated and "unprovoked" attack by an international criminal organization on American soil. It heralded the "War on Terror." It signified a global mentality of "them and us." Although President George W. Bush was not quite up to the standard of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who declared that December 7, 1941 was a day that "will live in infamy," he at least managed to summarize his attitudes toward his enemies: "You're either with us," he declared, "or you're with the terrorists." Three more-or-less declared wars and innumerable covert actions later, with incalculable damage done to friends and foes alike, the legacy of September 11, 2001 continues. Domestically, what Gore Vidal has quite properly called the "shredding of the Bill of Rights" has undermined American democracy. Abroad, an immediate outpouring of compassion and support for the USA has been frittered away. The consequences of al-Qaeda's attack have been more successful than Osama bin Laden could have imagined.
For Americans, September 11 was a pivotal moment in modern history. After September 11, the world would never be the same. I am not so sure. I do not doubt that the emotional effect of the television footage of the collapse of the World Trade Center was monstrous. I am acutely aware of how this led to indifference and even hostility to the Rule of Law in the USA and to the devastation of whole countries in the Middle East. Yet, I regard the focus on September 11 through a distorted American lens to be at least a little misleading. Elsewhere, what happened was the intensification of a well-established pattern. Some even question why the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq and Afghanistan, to say nothing of the millions of others that have been destroyed in the periphery of empire have counted and continue to count for so little in the leadership, the media and the popular culture of the wealthy liberal democracies. Some might even dare to say that if singular events are to be highlighted and distinguished from enduring patterns, then September 11 might be the right day, but 2001 was not the right year. They might ask that we pay attention to another one: September 11, 1973. It was important in the evolution of the American Empire. It was especially important in that long-standing hinterland of American power, Latin America.
Ever since 1775, when the as-yet undeclared United States of America attempted to conquer Québec, America has had a generally consistent policy in the Western hemisphere. Although it started small by undertaking genocidal attacks on aboriginal peoples and twice sought and failed to capture Canada, it has been the increasingly robust aim of the USA to dominate North, Central and South America. Important markers on this path include the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803, the acquisition of Florida from Spain in 1819, the annexation of Texas in 1845, the Oregon Treaty, in which the United Kingdom surrendered the "Pacific Northwest" in 1846, the Mexican-American War in 1848, the annexation of California in 1850, the purchase of Alaska in 1867, the resolution of the Alaska "panhandle" dispute in 1903 as well as various invasions and "covert actions" in support of military coups against democratically elected leaders and ongoing backing for cruel dictatorships throughout Central and South America. Add to this the control of vast portions of national economies and the diplomatic imperative of the "Monroe Doctrine," and it becomes clear that the USA has regarded all of the Americas and the sovereign states within them as its exclusive region of influence.
The language in which political, military and economic hegemony has been explained and justified has always been of the high-minded sort. It was America's expressed intent to promote representative democracy and free market economies in these benighted lands. If, sometimes, deals had to be made with shady characters to ensure the development of market economies (dominated by American corporations) and to protect allegedly backward people from the temptations of socialism, communism or free labour unions by "temporarily" withholding the right to free speech, political parties and fair elections, that was said to be the immediate price of ultimate progress.
Meanwhile, US corporate and government officials sniggered off the record that these were mainly merely "banana republics" filled with admittedly corrupt landowners and generals, but also with ignorant peasants who could not yet be trusted to exercise the right to vote responsibly. Stability and security were, after all, more important than liberty, which the US believed was likely to degrade into license.
This pattern persisted throughout the 19th and the 20th centuries. It has even been maintained in the 21st as the illegal overthrow of democratically elected governments in Haiti in 2004 and in Honduras in 2009, both with at least tacit American approval, attest. Efforts to subvert other governments, notably those of Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela continue, as does the 50-year economic blockade of Cuba.
Sometimes dramatic examples of these activities win a moment's notice in the US and world media. The horrific events in Chile on and following September 11, 1973 for instance, were so disturbing that Hollywood made a "controversial" film about the coup in 1982. It starred Jack Lemmon and Cissy Spacek. It was called Missing. It did not probe US involvement very deeply, nor did it focus on the abduction, torture and murder of at least 20,000 Chileans. In order to keep the interest of US audiences, it mainly concerned the disappearance of a single young American and the desperate and unsuccessful efforts of wife and father to find him amidst the carnage. It wasn't much, but it was something.
In 1980, other ghastly actions grabbed the headlines for a day or two. For instance, the assassination of Roman Catholic Archbishop Óscar Romero and the subsequent rape and murder of American nuns by US-backed forces in El Salvador caused a ripple of consternation. So did the illegal funding of the right-wing "Contras" in Nicaragua. That became something of an issue mainly because the US administration under President Ronald Reagan illegally (by America's own laws) sold arms to its alleged enemy, Iran, for use against America's then-ally Iraq then ruled by Saddam Hussein. It's complicated!
Amid all the calumny and confusion, at least a part of this horrendous set of connected stories has now been illuminated. For those who have let the memory of the death of Dr. Salvador Allende slip, or who never knew about or noticed it before, Lubna Qureshi has performed a good service. It is, after all, important to remember our history, and I say "our" advisedly, for the US depended throughout on the implicit consent of its allies. If the recollection of the past doesn't save us from repeating it, at least it will deprive us of the excuse of ignorance. Instead of denying complicity, we will be compelled to say: "Here we go again!"
The facts of the matter are not in serious dispute. American companies from Anaconda Mines to PepsiCo (owner of the Frito-Lay corn chip mascot, "the Frito Bandito" and friend of right-wing newspaper El Mercurio) were all involved in the effort to overthrow Allende. Coca-Cola, by the way, had already done its part, along with the infamous United Fruit Company (later Chiquita Brands International—hence the term "banana republic") in Guatemala nineteen years earlier when President Jacobo Arbenz was forcibly deposed. So, of course, was the Central Intelligence Agency (this story has many subplots).
The question that has never been satisfactorily answered is this: "Why?"
Why is it that the USA engaged in such systematic behaviour dedicated to undermining and overthrowing democratically elected government? Canadian Ambassador Andrew Ross, in cables to Ottawa during the blood-letting, touted the routine line that this was a desperate measure that was required by desperate times. He joined the chorus saying that Allende was some sort of communist and that the military had undertaken the "thankless" task of freeing the country. The only problem was that the country had elected Allende in a democratic ballot on two consecutive occasions. Where was the lack of freedom?
Of course, it could be argued that the USA (and Canada and others) were in the grip of an anti-communist hysteria that left judgement impaired. It could also be said that imperial powers maintain their hegemony by crushing anything that looks like opposition or resistance, regardless of ideology.
Qureshi helps sort out the mess and provides some provocative answers. She begins by paying homage to those who have helped to uncover the details of the role played by archivists and journalists including Christopher Hitchens, who was plainly on the right (or is that the left?) side when he began investigating how US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger helped engineer the coup. Kissinger, of course, had just won the Nobel Peace Prize in that same year in a daring display of Scandinavian humour almost as bizarre as Barack Obama's award in 2009. Obama would go on to announce the maintenance of the US system of "rendition" (contracting out torture) and ramp up the military misadventure in Afghanistan/Pakistan. So it goes.
Qureshi then provides a more than serviceable historical account of US-Chilean relations over the past two centuries, recalling that Chile was for many years among the most prosperous and certainly the most consistently democratic nation in South America. It was also the repository of vast natural resources, not the least of which was copper which, we should remember, was a precious resource during the Vietnam conflict—a matter that must have been on the collective mind of President Nixon, Kissinger and the entire military-industrial complex.
From the outset of the Allende candidacy for the presidency in 1970, Washington took heroic steps to ensure his defeat and when, against their fervent hopes, he was elected, then a series of "dirty tricks" were put in play to ensure his failure. Under pressure from the US and Chile's own elite, Allende called a second election and ran a second time. He won, and thus he sealed his own fate. His violent overthrow and death came (lest we forget) on September 11, 1973.
After the overthrow led by General Augusto Pinochet, a campaign of terror killed many of Allende's followers as well as liberals, socialists, trade unionists, artists, students and democratic-minded citizens. Many more fled the country. They were replaced by US advisors—impressively economists from the University of Chicago—who saw Chile as an excellent laboratory for testing their theories of "free market capitalism," sans free speech, labour unions, social welfare programs and other customs and institutions that have made liberal democratic regimes with mixed economies liveable. Dictatorship and gross inequality followed, all to the merry jingle of the cash register and the accumulation of capital in the hands of the already wealthy. It was Milton Friedman's dream come true.
Qureshi pulls no punches. She directly blames Nixon and Kissinger for the death of Allende, electoral freedom and social democracy in Chile. Her analysis differs from some of the standard explanations of US imperialism in interesting ways.
The United States and its allies have an unseemly history of hostility to democracy abroad that seems to conflict with their expressed political principles and their stated purpose in engaging in military and diplomatic action abroad. Not only in Latin America, but in Africa, Asia and occasionally in Europe (for instance, in Spain, Portugal and Greece), it has openly and clandestinely supported dictatorships. The explanation has generally been that the "friendly tyrants" had to be propped up and aspirant democratic leaders put down lest worse should befall. The ogres of "international communism" and, now, "terrorism" have been trotted out explain otherwise hideous behaviour. By these lights, American foreign policy could be interpreted as an almost unfathomable and ongoing exercise in error—a product of a collective mental disorder of sorts that could be corrected if ever the American people were to be brought to their senses. The underlying motivational structure, the sincerity of America's commitment to a genuinely free and democratic world would not need to be questioned; only systematic misperceptions and collective paranoia would have to be addressed. The situation, while serious, would be salvageable.
Lubna Qureshi is not so sure. She rejects the notion that Nixon and his associates were sincerely concerned with, for example, the "communist menace." It was a good cover story. That was all. What was uppermost in the minds of American decision makers was the economic domination of the American "imperium." Allende's threat (briefly fulfilled) to nationalize the copper industry and thereby "rob" US corporations of their rather indecent profit margins was far more salient that any worry about the tawdry thinking of the campasenos.
If, she says, there was any concern about the political direction of Latin America, it certainly did not involve much authentic fear of the Soviet Union. Instead, Qureshi acknowledges mainly the disquiet that might flow from a successful egalitarian, democratic government. The general attitude of Washington toward its southern neighbours was one of contemptuous dismissal, an attitude that could quickly change if any Latin American nation could sustain free elections and provide a measure of equitable prosperity for its citizens, necessarily at the expense of the USA.
The chief question about Qureshi's view is raised by Tanya Harmer. Even granting that the United States and the Soviet Union came to an accommodation following the very scary Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, did the US not regard Cuba, with or without Soviet encouragement, as a potential leader of insurrection in South America? "From today's perspective," she acknowledges, "it seems ‘inconceivable' that the island of Cuba could have ever posed a threat to U.S. security … but that was not how policymakers like Nixon saw it." From my own limited experience in Cuba in 1973 and 1974, as well as from my distant observations of actions such as the US invasions from the Dominican Republic in 1965, to poor little Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989 and other mischief-making, it was plain even then that the American agenda was driven more by profit than mere ideology. The pertinent effects for the citizens of the variously affected countries may not matter much. Especially for those in the worst of circumstances, torture and death are torture and death regardless of what was going on in the minds of those with the steel cables and automatic rifles; nonetheless it may be of more than antiquarian importance to determine whether the US was more obsessed with mythology or with money.
Critics following Harmer may also dispute the crucial role that Qureshi gives to Allende's nationalization policies, stating that the formulation of a policy on Chile by the US National Security Council in 1970 did not discuss the question specifically. Again, I am inclined to see the matter in broader terms. The possibility of any successful centre-leftist or democratic socialist government would have been seen as a threat to America's economic interests regardless of the specific measures being contemplated. Salvador Allende campaigned and won on a democratic socialist platform. The only question was how far he would go; and, to the US, any measurable distance was likely to be too far.
In any case, economic motivations were plainly at the root of the US intervention. Ideological or even tactical political schemes to counter some reproduction of Che Guevara-style romanticism may emerge proactively to soften up potential criticism or retroactively to justify past acts. At the core, however, there is a general imperial strategy and the desire to maintain control of resources, investment opportunities and markets. Harmon is correct to say that a struggle over "ideas, credibility, visions for the future [was] in full swing." The question of whether that was the main play or merely the supporting rhetorical chorus can be put in some context if we examine other elements of the US imperial dream.
In South-East Asia, three successive American presidents, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush encouraged the genocidal Pol Pot against the Vietnamese for purely tactical reasons. In the alternative, in 1972, President Richard Nixon began to make a friend of China—previously no worse than second on the list of "godless communists" set to take over the world. Democratic ideals plainly played no role in these endeavours. In the case of Chilean democracy, economic advantage was at risk. In the case of China, massive economic gains were to be made. The US seems to have succeeded in both cases. Foreign ownership of Chile's resources remain pretty much intact, and China is now fertile ground for Walmart, to say nothing of being the United States' primary banker.
Incidentally, since 1990, Chileans have made a substantial effort to overcome the "democratic deficit" incurred by General Pinochet; nonetheless, the ever-powerful newspaper, El Mercurio remains influential as does PepsiCo. So, the Pepsi Music Festival held in Santiago on 3 April, 2009 was closed by the mock-rock group KISS. There is evidently a long way to go.
Returning to the question of anti-democratic initiatives in imperial defence strategy, it would be misleading to ignore the fact that, in suppressing Latin American democracies and supporting dictatorships, the US has not acted alone. Indigenous dictators like Pinochet, local comprador capitalists, drug lords, as well as common and garden variety thugs have always been happy to play secondary and sometimes even leading roles. What's more, the US has been perfectly happy to allow democratic governments to thrive wherever they have not posed a clear and present (or even a putative and potential) danger to American economic interests. Friendly relations, however, are conditional upon policy compliance. In some cases this goes no further than offering election strategy advice to preferred candidates for office (as President Kennedy did for the incoming Prime Minister Pearson and against outgoing Prime Minister Diefenbaker in Canada in 1963); in other cases, however, the interventions have more serious and, indeed, lethal.
Whatever one's conclusions, two overriding thoughts remain. First, the United States is now at least temporarily distracted from Latin America because of its continuing adventures in the Middle East; but, it is not totally distracted, nor will it be distracted forever. Meanwhile, many Latin American countries have taken measurable steps to the left, and are enjoying noticeable improvements in democratic governance and human rights as well as greater economic prosperity and social justice as a result. What will happen when the US again focuses its attention on the remaining heritage of "manifest destiny"? Second, how is it best to understand American thought and action with respect to its still dominant but increasingly precarious standing in economic, technological, political and military status in the world?
As a messianic and immense technological empire that is faltering but by no means fallen, how are we to interpret the past and anticipate the future as it continues (as it will) to engage foreign countries where it perceives an external threat? Is its mantra of freedom to be taken at all seriously and, if so, what must be done to engage it in realistic dialogue. Or, is its motivation little more than callous cash advantage, in which case there is no need to pay attention to its justificatory rhetoric and every requirement to assess what will provide it with material advantage. Is Chile the model of future intervention in Latin America? Or has the USA learned something from its earlier mistakes including the lesson that regional stability even in the absence of American hegemony may be an advantage that the United States has frequently failed to win through hostile means.
Meanwhile, each country within America's overlapping spheres of influence will do well to perform the necessary calculations, for there is no doubt that US decision makers are doing precisely that.
Howard A. Doughty teaches political economy and globalization at Seneca College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org