I’m late to this, but it’s a good time to look at Fidel Castro’s extraordinary 24-day visit to Chile in 1971, when Salvador Allende, a Socialist, was in office. A couple of years ago, this blogger filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the U.S. government for documents on this visit, as it was something the Nixon administration watched rather closely.
Such documents can shed light not only on U.S. policy but on the events themselves, as witnesses tell diplomats things they do not tell journalists and academics. How did Chilean and Cuban officials get along? What did the Chileans think of Castro’s extended visit?
But first, a brief recap. It was supposed to be a 10-day visit. Fidel arrived on November 10, 1971 and embarked upon an extensive tour, from the Atacama Desert to Tierra del Fuego, visiting copper mines, vineyards, gas and oil installations and meeting with laborers, trade unionists, students, fellow Marxists—and the military. There are photographs of him alongside future dictator General Augusto Pinochet, who at the time was commander of the Santiago army garrison, so the two men must have engaged in some conversation. And he gave Salvador Allende was an AK-47, with his name inscribed, which the Chilean leader would use to kill himself in the presidential palace during the brutal military coup on September 11, 1973.
Castro’s 10-day itinerary was extended to 24 days, creating a rather awkward situation for Chilean officials, none of whom wanted the job of telling Fidel to go home. Carlos Altamirano, who at the time was secretary general of the Chilean Socialist Party, said in an interview that Allende had asked him to ask Castro to wrap up his visit, but Altamirano refused. It was not easy, he said, to say something like that “to a head of state of Fidel’s stature, ‘enough already, go.’ And I wasn’t the most appropriate person to say this to him.”
Back to my Freedom of Information Act request, which made the rounds of the U.S. State Department, the National Security Agency, Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency. I got nothing from the State Department, the National Security Agency sent a letter in September of last year saying that my request had been reviewed and that the relevant material remains classified as TOP SECRET.
“The information is classified because their disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security,” the chief of the FOIA office wrote to me, then described the agency’s appeal process, which I then followed. Hopefully there’ll be more on this later.
In October of this year I received a polite letter from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) giving me a status update on my request. “Please by assured that our office is committed to processing your request as soon as possible as the DIA continues its efforts to eliminate the large backlog of FOIA requests.” My request was #139 of 232 in the Awaiting Response Queue, and there was a telephone number if I had any questions.
But the biggest surprise was the relatively quick response from the Central Intelligence Agency, which sent me only lightly redacted weekly summaries from October 29 to December 4, 1971, a short daily presidential briefing plus an eight-page intelligence memorandum, “Castroism Clarified in Chile,” which had been downgraded from “secret” to “sensitive.” Here are some highlights:
The President’s Daily Brief said that Castro was apparently satisfied with his Chile trip and its impact on the rest of the hemisphere. The Cuban leader was “generally well-received by a curious public and frequently showed that he still retains the capability of capturing the acclaim of crowds.” The length of his visit, however, “eventually bored many Chileans.”
The Weekly Summary dated 29 October 1971 is headed with the words, “Cuba Dusts Off Its International Image” and says that the Chile visit will be Castro’s first trip abroad since 1964. There was speculation that the Cuban leader might arrive in time to help Allende celebrate the anniversary of his electoral victory on 4 November (he didn’t) and that officials of both countries had refused to pinpoint the dates for the visit.
The Central Intelligence Bulletin dated 9 November 1971 said that Havana’s decision to publicize details of Castro’s arrival “probably stems from a desire to reap the greatest propaganda advantage from the outset of the visit, though the degree of real enthusiasm among Chileans for it remains uncertain.” The length of the visit was not mentioned, the report says, and there is a redacted sentence, followed by the arrival of Castro’s advance party four days earlier.
The 12 November Weekly Summary mentions Castro’s arrival in Santiago and that aside from a few minor incidents, “his reception was warm and friendly and large crowds turned out to greet him.” His four-member delegation, the report said, was “remarkably unspectacular and suggests the trip is not a business one.” The presence of the Havana army commander indicated that Cuba “realizes the importance of developing a “correct” professional relationship with Chilean military leaders.” One wonders whether the Cuban army commander had any contact with Pinochet.
The 19 November Weekly Summary said that Castro’s first week in Chile “reinforced early suspicions that the visit would be less a working trip than an attempt to improve Castro’s image” and that the Cuban leader had gone out of his way to be cordial and discreet in his public pronouncements, even going so far “as to moderate temporarily his attacks on the US.” The report said that the Chilean media coverage of the visit had been generally factual. The Chilean Socialist Party was praising Castro so effusively that “it reportedly provoked a complaint from President Salvador Allende that Socialist treatment of the visit emphasizes Castro’s stature at Allende’s expense.” There was a bomb explosion near the northern city of Antofagasta the day before Castro was due to arrive, blamed on “a small right-wing extremist group that has condemned Castro’s visit.” But overt opposition to Castro’s presence in Chile, the report said, “has been limited.”
The next CIA bulletin, dated 26 November 1971, said that the Castro tour “has been successfully demonstrating Cuba’s solidarity with Chile and improving his international image.” Chilean Communist Party members were receiving him “cautiously,” and Castro “has been circumspect in his remarks, however, lest he be accused of meddling in Chilean domestic affairs” and that he was “even less bitter than usual about the US base at Guantanamo, saying only that Cuba “one day” would recover it without a shot being fired.” He had spent relatively little time with Allende, other than a two-day cruise to Chile’s southernmost city, Punta Arenas.
The 2 December 1971 bulletin reports that a farewell rally in Santiago was scheduled for that evening and that Castro “probably believes that he has accomplished all his journey’s goals and now realizes that after three weeks his welcome is wearing thin.”
The last document, an intelligence memorandum on Castroism in Chile, is dated 27 December 1971 and reads like a summary of the earlier bulletins. One of the more interesting passages:
“Castro has a lot going for him in this regard. His large physical appearance and his breezy informality contributes much to his charisma. To Chileans accustomed to the dour Allende, Fidel was quite a shock, pleasant to some, scandalous to others. Where the throngs could make a direct comparison of Castro and Allende, Castro’s proclivity to play basketball, kiss babies, don miners’ helmets, etc., captivated many. Moreover, his nonstop traveling and speaking must have left most Chileans gasping at the man’s stamina.” But the report also notes that Fidel also had to deal with antagonistic confrontations with students, especially from the Christian Democratic Party and that on occasion he lost his cool. These encounters with detractors and the failure to attract a large turnout at his farewell rally affected him and that he “was an unhappy militant when he left Chile.”