Fifty years after the 1973 military coup in Chile, the United States finally declassifies part of its secret documents.
HAVANA TIMES – In the days just before the commemoration marking 50 years since the 1973 military coup in Chile, the United States officially declassified documents they’ve been holding for five decades. The decision was noted by articles in both “The Progressive Magazine” and, on September 9th, at the website of “Radio France Internationale.”
The new documents are in addition to many previous ones that were declassified in years past by several US regimes and posted at a site called “National Security Archives” maintained by George Washington University , part of an extensive research program dedicated to Chile. The site isn’t limited to just the declassified US documents but includes extensive information from several sources.
In an official statement, the US State Department referred to this recent declassification, with the words: “The Biden Administration has sought to be transparent regarding the role of the United States in this chapter of Chilean history, by recently declassifying additional documents from 1973 as requested by the Chilean government.”
Fifty years later, the documents are still sensitive
While the international press has highlighted the reasons that this 1973 coup d’état shook Latin America and the international community in general, the US involvement in the coup is an aspect that deserves further mention. This involvement has been well documented since then, and the current US administration has partially accepted responsibility. A September 11th article by the BBC offers four major reasons for its impact , and perhaps the US involvement deserves to be added to that list.
Readers should refer to a handwritten document from 1970, containing notes from then-CIA director Richard Helms of a 20-minute meeting between Helms, President Richard Nixon, Attorney General John Mitchell, and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. In this conversation, Nixon authorizes his staff to work to overthrow Chile’s future president if he should come to power. The memorandum was declassified in 2020, and, according to the article about it in “National Security Archive,” “Fifty years after it was written, Helm’s cryptic memorandum of conversation with Nixon remains the only known record of a US president ordering the covert overthrow of a democratically elected leader abroad.”
The most recently declassification of US documents, in August 2023, came in response to requests from the current Chilean government, the same site notes:
“After withholding this document in its entirety for decades, the CIA finally released the September 11, 1973, PDB today in response to a formal petition from the Chilean government of Gabriel Boric for still secret records as the 50th anniversary of the coup approaches. The CIA also partially declassified a second PDB, dated September 8, 1973, which erroneously informed President Nixon that there was “no evidence of a coordinated tri-service coup plan” in Chile and said that “should hotheads in the navy act in the belief they will automatically receive support from the other services, they could find themselves isolated.”
“The two PDBs are among the most historically iconic of missing records on the September 11, 1973, military coup because they contained information that went to President Nixon as a military takeover that he and his top advisor Henry Kissinger had encouraged for three years came to fruition”.
For readers’ information, the two quotes come from the original English text of the research program on declassified documents conducted by George Washington University. The program has established the chronology and has analyzed each one of the documents released by the United States in the last years.
The right to truth: lights and shadows
From the perspective of public international law, it’s worth noting that governments have no obligations whatsoever to release documents considered “sensitive” from the files in which they’re kept. Each State maintains their own national system of archives with internal information, data, and registries of diverse kinds. Their maximum authorities are the ones who can decide to keep these from public view or to reveal their existence.
Thus, Panama had to wait for 30 years to pass after the 1989 North American invasion, until the United States finally agreed to free up a large quantity of classified documents, as noted in the Spanish newspaper El Pais on December 17, 2019 .
In other cases, documents and police or military reports are “found,” such as the so-called “terror archives” that were discovered in a house in Lambare, Paraguay in December 1992, and that chronicled some of the illicit activities undertaken by the secret police force of Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner [military dictator from 1954-1989]. The moment when a Paraguayan judge, accompanied by the press, enters the house to verify and impound the documents can be viewed on video.
The data uncovered in these archives allowed the documentation of a large number of lawsuits in different parts of the Southern Cone. On July 8, 2021, it aided the Italian courts in finding 14 people guilty of the deaths of 43 people who were binational victims of Operation Condor in the mid-seventies. Operation Condor, a US-backed campaign of coordinated government repression in the Southern Cone, functioned from 1975 to 1983, and was responsible for the murder of 6 Italian-Argentinians, 4 Italian-Chileans, 13 Italian-Paraguayans and 20 Italian-Uruguayans. Similarly, in 2010, the French justice system condemned and sentenced those responsible for the disappearance of four French citizens in Chile.
Returning to the case of Chile, we should salute the iron will of the current authorities, who have insisted in the release of documents that were still being held by the current US administration.
It bears noting that in terms of non-binding “soft law,” Resolution E/CN.4/RES/2005/66 of the UN Human Rights Commission – today the Human Rights Council – adopted by consensus in 2005 at the initiative of Argentina and titled “The right to truth” indicates only that the Commission: “Encourages States to provide appropriate assistance on this matter to concerned States.”
Right to truth vs. hidden truths
The absence of any legal obligations for a government to turn over information it possesses in relation to human rights abuses committed in the past against another State, in no way hinders the national and international tribunals from employing a totally different dynamic, with an eye towards implementing the policy known as “Right to the truth.”
In this case, it’s the victims and relatives of victims, plus the human rights associations, who have advocated before their own authorities or before the national tribunals (and in cases where the latter ruled against them, before international tribunals) for the need to comply with this right that aids all victims of past actions committed by government authorities, be it an act directly against them or against someone else, or against one of their loved ones.
With respect to this, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights issued a very complete report on the Right to Truth in 2014, detailing the scope of the Right to the Truth within the inter-American system for protecting human rights. A long list of cases known to the Inter-American Human Rights Court was published in 2008 at the end of an article entitled “The right to the truth in postwar conflicts of a non-international character.” This gives an idea of the guidelines and precedents that have been set in terms of the jurisprudence of the inter-American Court, beginning with the first rulings against Honduras at the end of the 80s.
It should be noted that the significant advances observed in Latin America in terms of the right to the truth have still not permeated the legal system in Spain. The courts didn’t order the exhumation of the body of one of Franco’s victims until 2016, and that thanks to a request from Argentina’s justice system.
The current Chilean government
Unlike his predecessors, Gabriel Boric, the current president of Chile, has been much more demanding in the search for the truth of what happened in Chile on September 11, 1973.
On August 30, a decree was signed in Santiago to launch a National Search Plan to uncover the fate of thousands of Chileans who are still on the list of the disappeared. The recommendation to do so was made in 2013, in a report from the Working Group on Chile’s Forced Disappearances. On December 22, 2017, late in her second term, then-President Michelle Bachelet launched the initial push to do this.
As far back as 1989, Costa Rican Fernando Volio Jimenez, the UN special rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in Chile, referred in his fourth report to the important work that awaited Chilean society in terms of finally knowing the fate and the whereabouts of the victims of forced disappearance in that country.
An August 2019 report in The Guardian entitled “Where are they?: families search for Chile’s disappeared prisoners” details the drama of Chilean families faced with a lack of information regarding what happened to their loved ones, and the lack of political will on the part of President Sebastian Piñera [2018-2022] to search for the Chileans who disappeared following the 1973 military coup.
Operation Condor and the right to truth
Another tragic program in Latin America was Operation Condor, which involved not only Chile and the United States, but a large part of the region. This is an area where the United States is still holding on to many documents as classified material. A report published by Argentina’s Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), a recognized NGO, explains how this operation functioned, beginning in 1975. Among other things, the coordinated plan between the United States and the Southern Cone erased the protection afforded a person under threat when they cross the border into another country.
In another report from December 2014, Brazil’s Truth Commission goes into far more detail than former truth commissions. Chapter 6 of this report discusses at length the level of involvement that the Brazilian military authorities of the era came to have. There have been a number of other initiatives to completely document Operation Condor’s modus operandi, for example the University of Oxford’s research project that centralizes a large quantity of data.
It’s worth recalling that it wasn’t until 2016 that Operation Condor was the object of a first condemnatory decision from Argentina’s criminal justice system. The case centered on the Argentine high military commanders, several of whom were in their nineties when they received their sentences. When this verdict was known, the above-mentioned George Washington University research program published an article pointing out that the files declassified by the United States were used as documentary evidence by the Argentine judges.
Even now, in 2023, legal systems in the Southern Cone continue processing cases of victims and victims’ families. A web page set up through the collaboration of the University of Oxford with several Uruguayan and Chilean organizations and entitled “Legal cases and sentences in the national tribunals” lists 49 legal actions carried out by national tribunals in relation to Operation Condor, allowing the public to view these cases and their resolutions.
In the face of the resistance of some national judges to investigating and sanctioning events tied to Operation Condor, and of the diverse legal maneuvers carried out by lawyers of those responsible for such crimes, the Inter-American System for Human Rights Protection has offered (and continues offering) victims the possibility of obtaining justice.
The first Inter-American Human Rights Court decision in favor of a victim of Operation Condor is considered to have been the case “Goiburu and others vs. Paraguay” in 2006.
Another important sentence from an Inter-American judge in came in 2011 from the case “Gelman vs. Uruguay”. Part of the court’s conclusions read:
“51. The Operation Condor operated in three main areas, first, in political surveillance activities of dissident exiles and refugees; second, in the operation of covert counterinsurgency actions, in which the role of the actors was completely confidential; and, third, in joint actions of extermination, directed at specific groups or individuals for which special teams of assassins were created, operating within and outside their countries, including in the United States and Europe.
52. This operation was very sophisticated and organized, and had ongoing training, advanced communications systems, intelligence, and strategic planning centers, as well as a parallel system of clandestine prisons and torture centers to be able to receive the foreign prisoners arrested under Operation Condor.”
Ten years later, in a September 2021 ruling against Argentina, in the case of “Julien Grisonas family vs. Argentina”, the Inter-American Human Rights Court referred to Operation Condor as an “inter-State criminal plan” and affirmed that it now deserves a different coordinated effort of its members to find the truth and punish the guilty:
288. “Consistent with the requests made, the Court orders that the Argentine State, within one year from the notification of this Judgment and through the channels it deems appropriate, take the pertinent steps to call together the other States involved in the perpetration of the facts of the case—the Eastern Republic of Uruguay and the Republic of Chile—and, in general, in the context of Operation Condor—that is, the Federative Republic of Brazil, the Plurinational State of Bolivia, the Republic of Paraguay and the Republic of Peru —to form a working group that will coordinate possible efforts to carry out the tasks necessary to investigate, extradite, prosecute, and, where appropriate, punish those responsible for serious crimes committed within the framework of the aforementioned inter-State criminal plan. This coordination must take the form of a work plan shared among the competent authorities, depending on the matter in question, carried out in compliance with the applicable national and international legal frameworks and with support from international cooperation and mutual aid mechanisms. The different State authorities will thus have to undertake joint efforts to clarify what happened during Operation Condor as the context in which systematic human rights violations were perpetrated, including the violations that harmed the victims in the present case.”
In the effort to determine the exact origin of the “technique” of forced disappearance on the part of military leaders, it’s interesting to note that a recent investigation in France demonstrated that these tactics were piloted by the French soldiers in Algeria at the end of the fifties. A 2003 report titiled “Escadrons de la mort” (“death squads’), and disseminated in France , as well as in two short YouTube clips based on the report, bring together testimonies indicating that French military instructors in the military academies of the Southern Cone during the 70s and 80s “taught” this “technique” that was developed in France during the Algerian War.
Despite the 50 years that separate us from that terrible day for Chile and for the world that was September 11, 1973, many questions persist. Clearly, at this juncture the United States could be useful in clarifying these by releasing all the classified documents that it still has in its secret files regarding what happened in Chile. This is also true for the documents that is still holds with respect to the aforementioned “inter-State criminal plan” as the inter-American Court Justice called Operation Condor.
The grueling fight of the Chilean victims and their families who continue seeking the truth across time and insisting on learning the fate of their loved ones – be they from Chile or from outside – is truly exemplary. It has inspired, continues inspiring and we’re sure that it will always inspire, many families and several generations in Latin America and the world in their demand for truth and justice.