How to Rig an Election and End a Democracy
Money, Kidnapping and Murder in the Pursuit of U.S. Foreign Policy Aims
Despite its problems, Víctor Jara believed in the political system of Chile. A popular folk singer in his country, Jara had released an album a year from 1966 to 1973, blending the personal and the political in his material and it was the latter that would gain him many supporters and detractors as he discovered over time. The polarization experienced in the country seemed worse than it had ever been and it was impossible for Chileans at the time to fully understand why. Jara’s political activism had only increased with time, ultimately increasing the risk to himself of which he was aware. Not content to communicate solely through his music in a passive way, he was a visible supporter in the media of President Salvador Allende, having written the theme song to his Popular Unity movement “Venceremos” (“We Will Triumph”) and participating in political campaigns on his behalf before and after Allende’s election in 1970. As a result, some of Jara’s own neighbors turned against him, some even who owned his albums refused to engage with him, and now violent threats were on occasion undeniable as he traveled through Chile.
Once while driving his car and stopping at an intersection in the middle of the day, Jara pulled up next to large light-blue Chevrolet in which a man, recognizing Jara in the adjacent car, pulled out a sizable knife of out his glove compartment and brandished it in his direction with an intense look of hatred in his eyes. The two remained momentarily locked in this moment after the stoplights had changed. The man with the knife ultimately drove away with a loud squeal of his tires once the car horns behind him began to blare in his direction. This exemplified the degeneration of political culture as by 1973, the opposition to Allende’s government in Chile was no longer interested in democracy or negotiation, only violence and complete surrender.
The political destabilization of Chile reached its apotheosis on September 11, 1973 after a series of strikes, violent acts in the streets, coup attempts, and assassinations. While Jara was en route to his job at the State Technical University that morning, the Allende government was in the process of being attacked and overthrown by the military that had for decades maintained civilian rule in the country. Hundreds were forced to remain in the university due to military blockades and were shot on sight if they attempted to escape during the night. The next morning, they were approached by tanks with around 100 soldiers, who began using machine guns on the University’s central building, destroying windows and equipment. Professors and students were escorted out into a courtyard and forced to lay on the ground with their hands on their heads. After exiting the building, Jara threw his identification card onto the ground in an attempt to avoid being recognized by his captors. After spending an hour on the ground, Jara and his associates were led to Chile Stadium, only four blocks away to the east.
The beatings of the political prisoners began on the short distance to Chile Stadium. “We all arrived beaten and injured, bleeding,” recalled Boris Navia Perez, “clothes ripped, many were barefoot. Many arrived without pants, in their underwear, dirty and dragged on the floor.” Jara himself was too recognizable to evade torture. As the prisoners were being searched in a lineup by soldiers, Erica Osorio recounted the moment of recognition: “ ‘You’re Víctor Jara!’ ” she recalled them saying, “ ‘You motherfucker! Sing now, asshole, sing!’ And he beat him.” Perez witnessed the following scene: “The soldier raised his machine gun and struck Víctor hard on the back. Then another soldier hit him again, and made him fall on his knees almost at the feet of the officer. Víctor tried to protect his face with his hands, but when he opened up his hands, one of the officers kicked him, almost bursting Víctor’s eye. Then, an Air Force officer approached, smoking, and flicked his cigarette near Víctor and told him, ‘Smoke it, asshole!’ Víctor said that he didn’t smoke. The officer yelled, ‘Smoke it, asshole!’ Faced with this, Víctor, with a hesitant and trembling hand, reached for the cigarette butt. The guard smashed his wrists and said, ‘Try playing the guitar now, with your hands like that, you son of a bitch.’ ”
Jara was placed in a group separate from most of the prisoners, some recall seeing from afar with a bloody wound on his head, flashing them a smile despite the horrors they were witnessing. He was transferred to the basement, where he had often in the past prepared for concerts, but was now used for interrogations. Prisoners passing by saw him lying on a floor covered in urine, with toilets overflowing with excrement.
Osorio recounted her experience: “They took off my clothes. They left me in my bra and panties with their weapons pressed up against me. They searched me. They touched me everywhere. I saw so many things there. They killed a young boy. He must have been 12 or 13. A friend of mine climbed up to the stairs. He shouted, ‘Long live Allende!’ Then he jumped.” Jara, in a poem smuggled out of the stadium, recorded the horror of what he witnessed:
Six of us were lost
as if into starry space.
One dead, another beaten as I could never have believed
a human being could be beaten.
The other four wanted to end their terror —
one jumping into nothingness,
another beating his head against a wall,
but all with the fixed stare of death.
Some time later, Augusto Samaniego Mesias saw Jara in the stadium in a diminished state. “The condition in which I saw Víctor, he was beaten, destroyed inside. He would try to stand, but kept falling down. They’d beat him so he’d stay on his feet.” He last saw Jara “with a bleeding face, looking out at the stadium stands, at about one or two thousand political prisoners. Those were his people.” Food was scarce and Jara shared biscuits and jam with others as they wiped his bloody face. He could barely walk from his injuries, which likely included a broken rib from being kicked in the stomach.
On the afternoon of September 16, Jara was in a lineup of prisoners to be transferred to the much larger National Stadium, where thousands more were detained. After being taken out of the lineup once more, he was instructed “Sing now, if you can, you bastard!” and Jara offered a verse of “Venceremos” before being beaten once more and taken away. Army conscript José Paredes Márquez witnessed a superior officer use a revolver for a sadistic game: “[he] began to play Russian roulette with the detainees, which consisted of placing a bullet in the chamber and turning the cylinder and firing, first grabbing Víctor Jara and starting to insult him,” said Paredes. “He placed [Jara] towards the wall and turned the cylinder and shot him, [his body] falling to the ground and then he ordered us . . . to give him a burst of GIS rifle fire in his body.” Later, Jara’s autopsy revealed he had been shot a total of 44 times, including two shots in the right temple.
While Jara’s compatriots were spared witnessing his final moments, they were shown the aftermath as Perez recalled: “With our hands behind our heads, we were led towards the front of the stadium. And what we saw was like Dante’s Inferno. There were 20 to 30 cadavers piled up. And amongst that mountain of corpses was the lifeless body of Víctor Jara.” Jara and the thousands of victims of the coup d'état that week could not have known fully at the time, but their experience of political violence and torture was the culmination of a ten-year secret American project that had come to an end.
Phase I: Election Tampering
From 1818 to 1970, Chile had experienced three brief interruptions to democratic rule and was not subject to the periodic coups that had befallen its neighbors. From 1962 to 1964, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) funneled $3 million (approx. $25 million today) into the election fund of the eventual presidential election winner in 1964, Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei Montalva. As part of the campaign, the Agency supported propaganda efforts, including the distribution of posters and leaflets. The CIA’s Santiago Station in 1965 gave covert funds to prevent 13 leftist candidates from taking congressional seats. In 1967, the Agency set up a propaganda arm in Chile to place content in radio and news media and the next year, funds were again distributed by CIA operatives to congressional candidates running in 1969. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent in this effort opposing congressional candidates aligned with Dr. Salvador Allende Gossens, founding member of the Chilean Socialist Party.
Chile possessed a multi-party electoral system and the 1970 presidential election was slated to involve three main contenders. Since Allende was the most left-wing candidate among them, the U.S. government established the position that he was to be defeated at all costs. The Agency warned the new Nixon administration in April 1969 that preparations would need to begin imminently to successfully take on and defeat Allende in the next election. Richard Nixon and his Assistant for National Security Affairs, Henry Kissinger, failed to heed this advice from the perspective of the intelligence community. The CIA Director at the time, Richard Helms, later spelled out the reasoning behind the need for advanced planning in electoral subversion: “If one is going to get into covert political action, particularly involved with elections in anything approximating the democratic process, one’s got to be there very early because it takes time to put in the plumbing, to get the agents, to get the conduits set up, and all of those things which help to give you the leverage to affect the election.”
In the months that followed, the U.S. began a low-level campaign which attempted to fracture the Chilean left. The Santiago Embassy and CIA Station prepared a joint proposal for anti-Allende activity in December 1969, but work was not authorized until March 1970, when $135,000 ($932,000 today) was put towards spoiling his candidacy. In June 1970, an additional $300,000 ($2 million today) was provided for these purposes to the CIA. Under this arrangement, the Agency had five months before the September 4th ballot to engage in an anti-Allende propaganda campaign, providing political commentary and articles for radio and newspapers. In addition, the CIA distributed over 3 million posters, newsletters, books, and other media throughout the country. They engaged with sign painters to plaster the walls of Santiago with slogans meant to undermine Allende’s campaign. Right-wing groups were provided with subsidies to bolster the message that a vote for Allende would cause irreparable damage to Chile’s democracy, predicting violence and repression if he were to win. Covert psychological operations were also activated inside the left-wing political parties, with propaganda designed to split the Allende coalition, fabricated to appear as though it had originated from the left.
Around the same time, U.S. companies made their interests known, offering their assistance to prevent an Allende victory. One executive reached out to Helms, suggesting that funds be provided to the right-wing candidate, Jorge Alessandri Rodriguez of the National Party. International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) had a direct connection to the CIA through its board member John McCone, himself a former CIA Director. McCone met with Helms on several occasions in May and June 1970, where Helms informed him that activities were taking place to undermine Allende’s campaign but that other candidates were not being directly supported. This answer failed to satisfy McCone, who demanded that a CIA representative speak with ITT’s CEO, Harold Geneen. After asking for the Agency’s view of the upcoming election, Geneen offered to give the CIA a substantial amount of money to funnel to Alessandri. The CIA encouraged ITT to provide this support directly, meeting with ITT several times to provide names of Chileans who could accomplish the task. Using this guidance, ITT ultimately gave $350,000 ($2.4 million today) to the National Party.
In July, the intelligence community assessed that the election was too close to call between Alessandri and Allende and stated that “Chilean democracy is likely to survive over the next two or three years.” That assessment proved accurate on September 4, with Allende winning a plurality of the vote with 36.3%, followed by Alessandri with 34.9%, and Tomic with 27.8%. The administration blamed this outcome on the ineffectiveness of the CIA, as Helms remembered that Nixon and Kissinger “were obviously upset over Allende’s victory, they were looking around for scapegoats, there wasn’t any doubt about it. They didn’t want to accept the responsibility themselves for not having gotten on with this thing properly.” The CIA, in turn at the time, placed blamed on the State Department and the lack of direct support to an alternative candidate: “The basic problem was that reservations, almost philosophic in depth at times, persisted in the Department of State from the outset and suffocated considerations of a clear-cut, all-out effort to prevent Allende’s election . . . Translated into stark political realities, the issue was that of [the] Department of State being unwilling to consider supporting Jorge Alessandri . . . to whatever extent necessary to assure his election.”
Phase II: Coup Planning
Since Allende had failed to win an outright majority of the votes, the U.S. government next set their sights on preventing Allende from being selected by the Chilean Congress, even though historically its members had chosen the candidate in Allende’s position. They explored using the Chilean military to instigate a coup but the CIA concluded that “military action is impossible; the military is incapable and unwilling to seize power. We have no capability to motivate or instigate a coup” in a National Security Council morning meeting on September 11, 1970. Ambassador Edward Korry and the Agency were directed to use political, economic, and propagandistic measures to influence the congressional vote, and were provided with a contingency fund of $250,000 ($1.7 million today) to spend on changing congressional votes from Allende to Alessandri.
This strategy of using political or military covert activities to overturn the election became known as Track I. Track II was a more secretive, risky, and experimental plan to instigate a coup that came directly from the President himself. Kissinger explained Nixon’s thinking and directions to Helms on September 15 in his book White House Years: “In a conversation lasting less than 15 minutes Nixon told Helms that he wanted a major effort to see what could be done to prevent Allende’s accession to power: If there were one chance in ten of getting rid of Allende we should try it; if Helms needed $10 million he would approve it. Aid programs to Chile should be cut; its economy should be squeezed until it ‘screamed.’ Helms should bypass Korry and report directly to the White House.”
Helms handwritten notes from that day confirm the account:
One in ten chance perhaps, but save Chile!
not concerned risks involved
not involvement of Embassy
$10,000,000 available [$69 million today], more if necessary
full-time job—best men we have
make the economy scream
48 hours for plan of action
Helms doubted the prospects of a plan working, with the Agency assessing a military coup as the only viable option. However, the Chilean military was known for respecting its constitution and its leader, General René Schneider, was determined to stay out of the political realm. The Agency also lacked human assets on the ground, leading to “an almost impossible situation to deal with,” Helms contended.
With just over a month remaining and unable to buy influence in the Chilean Congress with its contingency fund, the CIA instead generated propaganda in Latin America and planted stories in newspapers in Europe and Japan, drawing parallels between present day Chile and the 1948 Czechoslovak coup d’état by the Communist Party. Current President Frei was urged through intermediaries to do anything he could to stop Allende’s ascension to power. Over the ensuing weeks, the Agency learned that Frei was not up to the task and that the role demanded “decisiveness and ‘machismo’ to a degree that . . . eluded him.”
Several options to employ economic pressure on Chile were explored in the ensuing weeks. The CIA again met on several occasions with ITT regarding their offer of $1 million ($6.9 million today) in corporate funds to block Allende’s confirmation, but their plan for economic turmoil in Chile was met with a muted response from the former CIA director McCone at ITT. The Agency turned to U.S. corporations such as Anaconda Copper, General Motors, and others with holdings in Chile, who similarly declined to participate. A run on the Chilean banks was also explored but was unable to be carried out. To explore the military angle, the CIA sent four false-flag operatives (individuals pretending to be from a country other than Chile or the U.S.) to meet with Chilean officers favorable to a military coup. The Chileans were informed that the U.S. was prepared to support a military solution by any means necessary, short of the U.S. invading Chile. The CIA looped in the Defense Department but was unable to move the Chilean military as an institution given its “apolitical, constitutional-oriented inertia” as the Agency termed it.
The only military path receiving some traction was with contacts the Agency had made with former Brigadier General Roberto Viaux, who had been forcibly retired after attempting a coup against President Frei in 1969. Running out of time and options, the Agency was now aligning itself with Viaux, who CIA officer David Phillips later termed “a crazy.” For his part in the coup, Viaux requested an airdrop of arms and ammunition, which the CIA declined as impractical. Instead, the Agency provided a token of good faith and a promise of $250,000 ($1.7 million today). After several meetings with CIA officers, Viaux pitched the coup as to occur on the night of October 9-10. The Agency’s response was to ask Viaux to wait for a more opportune time to launch the attack. As the U.S. administration’s efforts dwindled, Track I was mostly shut down, but the secret Track II continued. The CIA put Viaux’s odds of success at less than 1 in 20. On October 16, with just over a week left until the congressional vote, the CIA’s headquarters wrote to its Santiago Station: “It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup. . . . We are to continue to generate maximum pressure toward this end utilizing every appropriate resource. . . . There is great and continuing interest in the activities of [several Chilean conspirators] and we wish them optimum good fortune.”
The CIA was informed of Viaux’s plan to kidnap General Schneider days before the vote, with a full-scale coup to follow. The Agency was also approached by Chilean officers connected to Brigadier General Camilo Valenzuela, who requested “tear gas grenades, three submachine guns, and ammunition.” This group first attempted the kidnapping of Schneider, with failed attempts on October 19 and 20. Two days later, the group received the submachine guns and ammunition as requested and quickly proceeded with another attempt that day. The CIA predicted that “the prospect for a coup succeeding or even occurring before 24 October now appears remote.” Viaux’s team, which also included members of Valenzuela’s group, carried out the final kidnapping attempt on Schneider, fatally wounding him and he died three days later on October 25. In an effort to cover up U.S. government involvement, Velenzuela was visited by a military attaché officer from the U.S. Embassy in Santiago, Colonel Paul Wimert, to recover $50,000 ($345,000 today) and weapons provided by the CIA. When Velenzuela was unwilling to turn over the funds, Wimert took out his revolver: “I'll beat the shit out of you with this if you don’t get me the money.” Wimert recalled that “I just hit him once and he went and got it.” Wimert also recovered the CIA’s three submachine guns, which were thrown into the Pacific Ocean. Despite this recovery of funds, the Agency later admitted to paying $35,000 ($250,000 today) to Viaux’s group “in an effort to keep the prior contact secret, maintain the good will of the group, and for humanitarian reasons.” Complicating matters further, a 2000 retrospective revealed that the CIA had actually been involved with a total of three groups tasked with carrying out the kidnapping plot.
In a CIA historical study, the Agency assigned responsibility for Schneider’s death to the Nixon administration, stating: “This burden must properly rest on an administration that insisted on sparing no effort to deny Allende the presidency.” On October 24, 1970, the day Allende received 153 out of 195 votes cast in the Chilean Congress to become president, Helms and his team concluded that “a maximum effort has been achieved and that now only Chileans themselves can manage a successful coup. The Chileans have been guided to a point where a military solution is at least an option open to them.”
Phase III: The Coup Against Allende
The U.S. government’s interest in Allende never waned following his inauguration on November 3, 1970. In fact, a separate branch in the CIA’s Western Hemisphere Division was created to focus on Chile and additional funds were allocated to the effort. Between $800,000 to $1 million ($5.7-$7.2 million today) were spent in the months leading up to Allende’s election and another $7 million (approximately $50 million today) were dispensed over the next three years, financing a range of clandestine activities including funding of the political opposition, propaganda, and covert support of organizations in the private sector and media. An important component of the plan involved direct subsidies of strikes to cause economic turmoil, including those involving truck drivers, shopkeepers and taxi drivers, which allowed them to not work for extended periods of time with strike pay surreptitiously provided by the CIA.
Track II, the plot to prevent Allende’s ascension to the presidency, continued in secret with only a slightly modified objective: “Track II was really never ended,” Deputy CIA Director for Plans Thomas Karamessines later testified. “What we were told to do in effect was, well, Allende is now President. . . . what we were told to do was to continue our effort. Stay alert, and to do what we could to contribute to the eventual achievement of the objectives and purposes of Track II.” Money flowed from the CIA to political parties, primarily to the Christian Democrats, in addition to the National Party and others. The propaganda campaign involved newspapers, which were again subsidized to foster anti-Allende sentiment, in particular El Mercurio, as well as the production of books, magazines, radio and television programs for the same purpose.
Beyond fostering dissent, the CIA maintained close contacts within the Chilean military, who provided regular updates on the status of their planning of a coup against Allende. The Agency’s Station in Santiago used deception to motivate their military contacts in their efforts, in one instance giving a Chilean military officer “evidence” documenting Cuban influence in Chile’s security establishment, which in reality was a CIA fabrication. The CIA’s own analysis of Chile’s government in 1971 and 1972 showed that Allende was pursuing a “cautious, independent course” in foreign policy and that Chilean democracy demonstrated “a remarkable resiliency.” This viewpoint meant nothing, however, in terms of Nixon’s foreign policy towards Chile, as Helms later explained: “If we turned out a hundred SNIEs [Special National Intelligence Estimates] which said ‘Allende is a lovely fellow; just leave it to him and things will just bloom in Chile,’ that would have made no difference if the President wants something else done.” Internally, operatives were aware that their continued contact with coup planners implied support: “CIA officers were concerned,” the U.S. government reported to Congress in 2000, “about the blurring of lines between monitoring coup-plotting—collecting intelligence on such activities but not directing or influencing them—and supporting a coup at least implicitly.”
Allende’s government and life came to an end on September 11, 1973, with General Pinochet commanding the army that attacked the presidential palace with tanks and aircraft that set the residence ablaze. Doctor Patricio Guijón was one of the last in line to leave the building and he decided to turn back to retrieve a gas mask. While passing Independence Hall, he looked inside to witness Allende committing suicide with an automatic rifle. Several of Allende’s aides and bodyguards were captured, placed in a military vehicle, and never seen again.
In the same way that Víctor Jara’s fame made him a target of Pinochet’s regime, it made his death impossible to ignore. Six bodies were lain in a row near the Metropolitan Cemetery in the San Miguel district the morning of September 16, 1973, all with visible machine gun wounds. The locals discovered the corpses early that morning. Jara was recognized immediately by one woman who had known him personally, having seen him sing and she remembered having invited him to her home for a meal. Within a short amount of time, a van approached and plain-clothed individuals transported the bodies to the city morgue.
Jara was again recognized by a worker at the morgue, who acted swiftly to avoid his burial occurring in a common grave. Jara’s wife Joan was brought to identify his body at personal risk to the workers, who urged her to remain quiet lest their support be identified. There at the morgue, Joan saw the employees were wearing masks to cope with the smell of death while sorting through the hundreds of bodies, some of them with hands still tied behind their backs. The morgue was overflowing and administrative offices needed to be used to store all of the corpses. Upstairs, walking alongside a long line of bodies that included students, she made the following discovery:
It was Víctor, although he looked thin and gaunt . . . What have they done to you to make you waste away like that in one week? His eyes were open and they seemed still to look ahead with intensity and defiance, in spite of a wound on his head and terrible bruises on his cheek. His clothes were torn, trousers round his ankles, sweater rucked up under his armpits, his blue underpants hanging in tatters round his hips as though cut by a knife or bayonet . . . his chest riddled with holes and a gaping wound in his abdomen. His hands seemed to be hanging from his arms at a strange angle as though his wrists were broken . . .
Jara was buried in a matter of hours out of necessity, his coffin placed on a trolley to be transported across the road to a nearby cemetery. “As we came to the gate we met a military vehicle coming in with more corpses — someone would have to give way,” Joan recounted. “The driver hooted and made furious gestures at us but we stood there silently until he backed out and let Víctor’s coffin pass.” Joan had the unimaginable task of informing their two daughters. “I shall never forget Amanda's scream when I had to break the news to her that el Papi was dead,” she wrote, “just as I shall never forget Manuela’s maturity beyond her years, her courage, and the support that she gave me, seeming to understand how much I needed it.”
Reflecting on the media coverage of the coup the same morning that Jara’s body was discovered on September 16, 1973, Kissinger and Nixon lamented that they did not live in a different time:
Kissinger: The Chilean thing is getting consolidated and of course the newspapers [are] bleeding because a pro-Communist government has been overthrown.
Nixon: Isn’t that something. Isn’t that something.
Kissinger: I mean, instead of celebrating — in the Eisenhower period we would be heroes.
Nixon: Well, we didn’t — as you know — our hand doesn’t show on this one though.
Kissinger: We didn’t do it. I mean, we helped them.
Within days of the Allende coup, the CIA became aware of the human rights abuses of the Pinochet. They noted the “extremely rigorous manner” in which detainees were treated and prisoners being “harshly treated” in the National Stadium. On September 28, 1973, the CIA reported that 27 bodies showing signs of torture and mutilation were found in the Mapocho River. That same morning at 2 a.m., the Weather Underground group detonated a dynamite bomb in the ninth floor of the vacant ITT office on 50th Street in New York City. “This is in retaliation of the ITT crimes they committed against Chile,” a group member told the New York Times.
All told, during the Pinochet years, over 3,000 Chileans were executed and tens of thousands tortured. The U.S. intelligence community later noted that “many of Pinochet’s officers were involved in systematic and widespread human rights abuses following Allende’s ouster,” including some who were recruited agents of the CIA.
Kissinger became Secretary of State 11 days after the Allende coup and later advised Pinochet on public relations in 1976. He told the dictator that the U.S. Government was sympathetic to his regime, although Kissinger “advised some progress on human rights in order to improve Chile’s image in the U.S. Congress.” In 2004, a D.C. court dismissed a case brought by the family of René Schneider against Kissinger, ruling that “Kissinger had acted within the constraints of his position of National Security Adviser and that therefore the defendant should be the United States, not Kissinger personally. However, the Court held that the United States enjoyed immunity for the alleged crimes.”
Richard Helms in 1977 was convicted of two misdemeanor counts of lying to Congress regarding the CIA’s role in Chile, receiving a suspended sentence of two years in prison and a $2,000 fine ($9,000 today). For his part, Helms could not understand why this aspect of U.S. foreign policy merited so much attention. “Chile was [not] running the world in 1970,” he remarked.
Pinochet remained as dictator until 1990, when Chilean democracy began to return 17 years after the coup. Víctor Jara has only grown in stature both in Chile and worldwide since his death in 1973, his admirers over the years including Bruce Springsteen, U2, and the Clash. Chile Stadium, where he spent his final days, was renamed Víctor Jara Stadium in 2003. In 2016, a retired Chilean army lieutenant living in Florida was found in a U.S. civil court to be liable for the torture and murder of Víctor Jara. In 2018, a further eight former Chilean military officers were sentenced to 15 years in prison for his murder.