Fidel in Chile

Fidel Castro in Chile

 

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.”

fidel-and-allende

 

The literary assassin

Mariana Callejas, former secret police agent and one of the more notorious figures from the Pinochet dictatorship, died in a care home this week.

I interviewed her in Santiago in 1989.  She was astonishingly frank, but then she was used to talking about her past, having given extended statements to FBI officials investigating the 1976 car bomb assassination of Chilean exile Orlando Letelier in Washington, D.C.  Her husband, Michael Townley, an American working for the regime’s Direccion de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA), had placed the bomb which killed Letelier and his co-worker Ronni Moffitt.

“If there are any doubt about what really went on under the regime, well, I had it straight from the horse’s mouth,” she told me. “These army people, the captains, the majors, when they talked about assassinations it was as if they were talking about the last movie they saw.”

The interview took place at her home in Lo Curro, an affluent municipality in eastern Santiago.  She brought out some short fiction to show me, saying she was writing more in English than in Spanish these days. I quickly read through one of the pieces, about an emperor and a butterfly and have to admit, she had writing talent. In the mid-seventies she hosted all-night literary gatherings (a curfew was in effect), even as their basement was being used as a holding pen and torture site for political prisoners. The late Roberto Bolaño wrote a fictionalized account of these dark events in his novella By Night in Chile; Callejas was called “Maria Canales.”  She published a collection of stories, La Larga Noche, which contained descriptions of torture and bomb making.  Another story was awarded a prize sponsored by a Chilean literary magazine, causing an understandable outcry; the magazine explained that the entries were submitted under pseudonyms and that the author’s identity was not known until after the winning story was announced.

I asked her how she came to work for the DINA.  She said the regime knew of her and Townley’s “resistance work” against the ill-fated socialist government of Salvador Allende, when far-right groups set off bombs and engaged in other sabotage.  She claimed to have been concerned when Townley told her of the plan to murder Letelier, and that the DINA chief had promised him a commission in the Chilean army after completing this deadly mission.

But Callejas was not exactly a cowed wife.  A Chilean court later found her guilty of involvement in another car bomb assassination: former army commander General Carlos Prats and his wife Sofia, in Buenos Aires in 1974. She was given a 20-year prison sentence in 2008 but Chile’s Supreme Court later reduced this to five years under house arrest.

Last year Callejas and 14 other DINA agents were indicted in the 1976 murder of a Spanish diplomat, Carlos Soria; Chile’s Supreme Court ruled that the victim had been kidnapped and brought to the Townley-Callejas home in Lo Curro where he was interrogated and killed during torture and that the perpetrators sought to cover up their crime by staging an automobile accident.  But Callejas, now in a care home, was suffering from dementia and was not formally charged.

 

 

 

 

A story about Victor Jara, Chilean folk songs and….Condoleezza Rice

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He was Chile’s Bob Dylan, the folk singer whose music provided the soundtrack to the Sixties and early Seventies, and whose brutal killing after the 1973 military coup has made him a legend. In her memoir of their life together, Joan Jara describes how she went to the Santiago morgue and walked past a long line of bodies on the floor  and found her husband’s body with “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.” But more than four decades after his death, his accused killer has gone on trial in Orlando, Florida.

That’s right. Retired Chilean army officer Pedro Pablo Barrientos moved to the United States in 1989, a year before the military dictatorship grudgingly handed over the government to an elected civilian president. The Los Angeles Times reports that Barrientos, who was indicted in Chile along with eight other former officials, is facing civil accusations brought by Jara’s family that he is the gunman who killed the singer. (For the record, Jara was not held in the National Stadium but in the smaller Estadio Chile).

Now Jara’s family has forced Barrientos into a U.S. federal courtroom, where he will face civil accusations that he was the gunman who killed the singer.

And here’s an account by my friend and colleague Lezak Shallat on singing one of Victor Jara’s songs in Santiago decades after his death:

“During the presidency of Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006), I sang in a choir (Bellas Artes) that was regularly invited to entertain visiting dignitaries at state dinners in La Moneda, Chile’s Presidential Palace. (After it was restored from having been bombed to bits in 1973, that is.) We sang for Brazil’s President Lula, Argentina’s Nestor Kirchner and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the presidents of Algeria, China and for all 30+ presidents of the Americas (everyone but Bush and Castro, including two from Costa Rica, outgoing and incoming. I have a great story about that event, but that would be a digression).

Anyways… one day we were called to sing at La Moneda for an event that we were not given the details of, just that we should show up and enter through the underground parking lot and install ourselves in the room next to the bank-vault-converted-into-a wine-cellar as we always did.

Since the wait between call and concert was always long, I happened to grab a newspaper on my way there. We changed into our concert clothes and were given our music to look over. We were going to be singing our standard two songs by folklorist Violeta Parra, in this case “Que he sacado con quererte”  and “Casamiento de negros.” This last song talks about a wedding where everyone and everything is black and then the black bride dies and even the wake is black.)

Nothing unusual there, so I opened my newspaper to wile away the time and saw a headline about a fancy state dinner in honor of a slew of visiting African heads of state, with special guest Condoleezza Rice (US Secretary of State under George W. Bush). Hmmm, I thought… that must be the event we are singing for, said I to myself. And maybe a song about the wedding and death of little black people isn’t really an appropriate choice of music…

So I took my concern to our choir director, Vicho, who looked at me like I was crazy and told me that I was being too, too gringa and how could I still be so gringa after all those years in Chile, where everyone loved and understood Violeta Parra and how could Chileans be viewed as racist if there weren’t even any blacks in Chile…

OK, OK, it’s your decision, I told him, but think about it. You might not agree with me, but somebody who understands something about protocol might.

About 20 minutes later, I noticed that Vicho had left the room and was returning with a new set of scores. “We’re not singing Casamiento de negros, We’re singing this…” and he passes out “Te Recuerdo Amanda.” This is, of course, the song that Victor Jara is most famous for. No explanation for the change, just a slight nod to me.

Finally we are summoned to sing, between the main course and dessert, as is usually the case. The dinner is taking place in the Patio de los Naranjos, a big indoor patio, with the guests seated in dozens of round tables and President Lagos and wife seated with the Chilean Foreign Minister (I think it was Ignacio Walker) and Condoleezza Rica at a long table at the front.

The choir lines up behind the Presidential table. There isn’t much space so we are literally inches behind the honored guests. I am right behind Condoleezza Rice. In fact, I am so close to her that I can see the backs of her clip-on earrings and I could have touched the back of her head by stretching out my hand.

And we start to sing…. “Te Recuerdo Amanda.”

At this point, Foreign Minister Walker, who is sitting next to Rice, leans over and starts to whisper in her ear. She nods to show she is taking in this information until Walker suddenly places one hand flat on the table and makes a gruesome chopping gesture with the other… like he is cutting off his own hand at the wrist. Rice pulls back in surprise and horror and says, softly, “oh no!”

I could tell that, as we are singing, Walker is explaining to Rice just who Victor Jara is and silently demonstrating to her what happened to him while he was in military custody, before he was killed. his hands were broken.

And we kept on singing. Except for me…. I was biting my tongue to keep from bursting out in laughter and tears.”

 

 

The Honeckers in Chile

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Erich Honecker’s funeral in Santiago in 1993. His widow Margot stands with her hands folded.

Margot Honecker, widow of the former East German leader Erich Honecker, died last week in Santiago, where the couple found a kind of refuge after the fall of the Berlin Wall. How this came to be is an interesting footnote to the Cold War, and has also spurred some debate in Chile over double standards when examining dictatorships.

After the 1973 military coup, thousands of Chileans sought political asylum in other countries and a significant number ended up in what was then East Germany. These included future President Michele Bachelet and her mother, along with prominent members of Chile’s Socialist and Communist Parties. Fast forward to Christmas 1991, when Chile had returned to civilian rule and the Berlin Wall had collapsed: Erich Honecker, now wanted for embezzlement and the killing of nearly 200 people attempting to flee East Germany during his rule, arrived at the Chilean Embassy in Moscow. The Chilean ambassador was Clodomiro Almeyda, a Socialist and former exile who had lived in East Germany and become good friends with the Honeckers, whose daughter had married a Chilean. Honecker had not officially sought asylum, but was treated as a kind of guest while Chile’s new civilian government found itself entangled in a diplomatic and political quandary as it negotiated with Russian and German authorities.

Chilean officials were divided as to whether Honecker should receive asylum in their country. Some members of the center-left coalition were strongly in favor, while others worried about what it would mean for Chile’s image if it were to protect a notorious human rights violator. Even some right wing politicians did not want to seem as submissive to Germany, which was making increasingly sharp demands for Honecker’s extradition. A year and a half later Honecker was finally escorted from the Chilean Embassy in Moscow and made to appear in a German court, after which German officials released him on grounds of his age and illness.

So Erich and Margot Honecker lived rather quietly in Santiago until the former’s death in 1993. A few years later a correspondent for Chile’s El Mercurio newspaper visited the archive at the Stasi Museum in Berlin and was able to examine some of files collected on Chilean exiles living in East Germany during the Pinochet dictatorship. Some exiles were spied on by fellow exiles, who dutifully reported to East German officials and dossiers were compiled even on younger Chileans who had little political experience. The reports noted that many Chileans complained about the jobs they were assigned, and at least 21 Chilean exiles were deported from East Germany in 1974.

“These are persons who cannot adjust to normal behavior in the RDA,” one of the files said.

But Margot Honecker, whom some called the Purple Witch for her hair dye and hardline Stalinist views, was unrepentant and occasionally surfaced in public. She was sometimes spotted taking part in activities with the Chilean Communist Party and in 2012 she said in an  interview that the Stasi secret police were a necessary institution and that those killed while trying to escape over the Berlin Wall were “stupid.”

In response, a municipal official in the Santiago suburb of La Reina, where the Honeckers had been living, declared her persona non grata and said her comments “showed no respect for life” and that the Berlin Wall had been “a symbol of intolerance and authoritarianism.” The municipal official, Francisco Oleo, just happened to be a member of Chile’s Socialist Party.

Raul Castro in Chile, 1959

Browsing the New York Times online archive, I found this curious item:

“Chile gives snub to Major Castro”

It is dated August 19, 1959 and describes how Raul Castro, commander-in-chief of the Cuban armed forces, landed a plane in Santiago after a conference of foreign ministers had ended, ostensibly to take Cuban Foreign Minister Raul Roa Garcia home.

“After a delay in debarking because no suitable ramp could be found, Major Castro was taken to the customs office like any tourist.

The only leading Chilean greeting Major Castro was Senator Salvador Allende, unsuccessful 1958 Presidential candidate of a coalition of extreme Left-wing parties.

At a news conference tonight Major Castro declared “We confess we made an error” in sending a military  aircraft here with soldiers.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“A blatant example of a chief of state’s direct involvement in an act of state terrorism”

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The United States has turned over a collection of newly classified documents on the 1976 car bomb murder of Orlando Letelier and his American colleague, Ronni Moffitt in Washington in 1976.  Letelier was a former Chilean ambassador to the United States and cabinet minister under the socialist government of Salvador Allende (1970-73); he and Moffitt worked at the Institute for Policy Studies, a left-leaning think tank. A subsequent grand jury investigation resulted in an extradition request for the head of the Pinochet regime’s security agency, Colonel Manuel Contreras and two other Chilean intelligence agents—which the regime rejected.

The new batch of documents was delivered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during a meeting with President Michelle Bachelet this past week in Santiago. As I write this, only two have been published and they confirm what most people familiar with the case already knew–that Pinochet ordered the killings.  One is a 1987 memo from then Secretary of State George Schultz to President Ronald Reagan states

“We have long known that the Chilean secret police/intelligence service was behind this brutal act, perhaps the only clear case of state-sponsored terrorism that has occurred in Washington, D.C.”  Schultz then speculates whether the U.S. government would want to indict Pinochet himself, and that his role in the assassinations and cover-up “is of the greatest seriousness and adds further impetus to the need to work toward the complete democratization of Chile.”

The other document is a State Department cable sent early in 1987, with a couple of source names deleted and mentions assertions by Contreras that Pinochet had ordered the Letelier assassination. Contreras told another senior army official that he had hidden sealed documents in several locations “in the event of his, Contreras’ death.”

More documents to follow, and the National Security Archive web site, with its lengthy file on other declassified material on the case and on Chile, is a good place to find them:

http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB532-The-Letelier-Moffitt-Assassination-Papers/

9/11, the Chilean version

Chilean military guarding prisoners at the National Stadium after the 1973 coup. Photo by Marcelo Montecino

Chilean military guarding prisoners at the National Stadium after the 1973 coup. Photo by Marcelo Montecino

It’s been 41 years, but this year’s anniversary of the military coup that ousted Salvador Allende is one of the most stressful in recent memory. A bomb exploded in a food court at a Santiago metro station a few days earlier, injuring 14 people and prompting President Michelle Bachelet to convene an emergency meeting with cabinet and security officials. The Economist’s Americas blog has this post: http://www.economist.com/blogs/americasview/2014/09/bombing-chile

There have been small-scale bomb explosions in the past, but most have occurred late at night, when few people were around, and this is the first that seems to deliberately target the public. According to Chile’s interior minister, Bachelet’s mother was in the area when the bomb detonated (she was unhurt). Some background on earlier incidents from the BBC :http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-28850708

El Mostrador reports that 1,600 members of Chile’s paramilitary police force, the carabineros, have been mobilized and positioned in “the most vulnerable areas.” The electricity company Chilectra has also placed extra personnel on alert in case of power cuts. http://www.elmostrador.cl/pais/2014/09/10/once-bomba-falsos-avisos-de-explosivos-y-1600-carabineros-desplegados/

Several organizations of retired military officials published a paid insert in La Tercera newspaper, defending the 1973 coup, which it described as “a task of reconstruction…which continues to be recognized by Chileans who love order and security.” The statement said that while “delinquents, subversives, terrorists and killers of military and police officers are pardoned, given amnesty or protected, those who fought and created the conditions of security and order which permitted the nation’s progress have been condemned without due process,” a reference to continuing investigations into human rights violations during the Pinochet regime.

And the investigations keep coming. Last week a magistrate indicted three more retired officials in the killing of folksinger Victor Jara shortly after the coup: http://www.ilovechile.cl/2014/09/05/anniversary-vctor-jaras-murder-prosecuted/119005

And Foreign Affairs has this exchange by Peter Kornbluh and Jack Devine on the U.S. role in the coup: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/141859/peter-kornbluh-jack-devine/showdown-in-santiago