Media Beat, Sep. 8, 1993
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon
Chile Coup -- Media Coverage Still Evasive 20 Years Later
Twenty years ago the bloody hands of dictatorship strangled democracy in Chile.
On Sept. 11, 1973, a military junta struck -- bombing the presidential palace in Santiago, rounding up political activists, and seizing the media. When the smoke cleared, the country's elected president, Salvador Allende, was dead.
Thousands were executed, tens of thousands jailed. Chile became a land of torture and repression under General Augusto Pinochet. But U.S. news media shed little light on what caused the coup, and what happened in its wake.
Many reporters took their cues from the Nixon White House, which had special venom for Allende -- a Marxist elected to a six-year term as Chile's president.
Back in 1964, the U.S. had poured $20 million into Chile to help defeat Allende's first campaign for the presidency. When Allende won the popular vote in 1970, top U.S. officials were furious.
They tried -- unsuccessfully -- to prevent Salvador Allende from taking office. Among the many gambits: The CIA paid 23 journalists from ten countries to rush to Chile and write dire articles about the consequences if Allende became president; the reports sparked a huge bank panic in Santiago, leading to the transfer of large amounts of capital overseas.
Allende's "Popular Unity" campaign had pledged to fight poverty by providing nutrition, health care, education and employment to millions of impoverished Chileans. During the early 1970s, Chile's new government set about making good on its promises.
But corporations with big investments in Chile were eager to see an end to the socialist government. ITT pushed U.S. policymakers to move against Allende. So did Pepsico -- whose board chairman and CEO, Donald M. Kendall, was close friends with President Nixon.
Kendall beseeched Nixon and his foreign policy chief Henry Kissinger to intensify covert operations. The White House moved to fulfill a plan approved in a meeting that involved CIA Director Richard Helms, Nixon and Kissinger: "Make the [Chilean] economy scream," Helms wrote in his notes.
In a cable sent to Washington when Allende was about to take office, U.S. Ambassador Edward M. Korrey reported telling Chilean authorities: "Not a nut or bolt will be allowed to reach Chile under Allende. Once Allende comes to power we shall do all within our power to condemn Chile and Chileans to utmost deprivation and poverty, a policy designed for a long time to come."
Washington followed through on its threats. And, as the economic squeeze took its toll, U.S. agencies also stepped up the media war inside Chile. The CIA funneled money and a massive flow of anti-Allende propaganda into the Chilean newspaper El Mercurio, which played a crucial role in fomenting turmoil and setting the stage for the coup in 1973.
At about 9:20 a.m. on Sept. 11, with bombs exploding nearby, Salvador Allende spoke from the presidential palace on a radio station not yet blown off the air: "Having a historic choice to make, I shall sacrifice my life to be loyal to my people and I can assure you that I am certain that the seeds planted by us in the noble consciences of thousands and thousands of Chileans will never be prevented from growing."
In the United States, congressional inquiries during the mid-1970s illuminated deep CIA involvement in the overthrow of Chile's elected government. But, while the torture and repression continued, media attention on Chile was low in quantity and quality.
In 1984, a typical article in the New York Times recounted that Allende's policies caused "chaos" which "brought in the military" -- conveniently omitting mention of the pivotal roles played by the CIA, other U.S. agencies and corporations eager to protect their holdings inside Chile.
In August 1988 the New York Times front page ran a photo of a grandfatherly-looking Pinochet-over the heading "Pinochet to Seek a Third Term." The caption explained that he was "nominated to run in the Oct. 5 single-candidate election."
In fact, Gen. Pinochet was holding a plebiscite designed to perpetuate his reign. He wasn't running for any kind of third term. He'd never been elected to any office. Nor was he "nominated" by anyone other than a clique of military officers.
Pinochet lost much of his power in 1989 -- but U.S. news coverage has continued the old evasions. "The media make you believe that living under the junta wasn't that bad," observes Chilean exile Claudio Duran, now a Californian.
Although the dictatorship savagely attacked the poor, you wouldn't know that from U.S. media crowing about Chile's economic "boom" over the last decade.
The economy has been "anything but miraculous" for Chile's working people, writes Cornell University scholar Cathy Schneider in the magazine Report on the Americas. Forty-two percent of Chileans were living in poverty by the end of the 1980s. "Poverty and income inequality which grew by colossal proportions during the years of the Pinochet dictatorship have scarcely been addressed by the new democratic regime."
Today, Schneider writes, "the Chilean government provides funds only to those popular organizations willing to convert into small businesses. Many soup kitchens, for example, have become private bakeries, groceries or restaurants with government support. The entrepreneur is encouraged, the political organizer is repressed."
Seeing the world through the eyes of the wealthy, the New York Times recently reported: "Economists and bankers generally agree" that Chile ranks second among "the most attractive Latin American countries for investment." The article lauded Chile as Latin America's "fastest-growing and perhaps most open economy."
The newspaper added: "Chile is a good example of heightened investment by consumer-product and technology companies. Pepsico late last year announced a $100 million investment program, buying the country's largest bottler and snack-food concerns, and opening KFC's and Pizza Huts in Santiago."
There's another side -- a bloody one-to the Pepsico story in Chile. But you probably won't find it anywhere in news media coverage of Chile. Maybe the place you're least likely to hear about Pepsico's role in the murder of Chilean democracy is the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, sponsored by Pepsico to the tune of several million dollars every year.