Chile: Pinochet was planning new coup in 1988

Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) had plans to foment violence and declare a state of emergency if he lost an Oct. 5, 1988 plebiscite on his regime, according to declassified US documents that the DC-based research group National Security Archive posted on its website on Feb. 22. The plebiscite, mandated by Pinochet's own 1980 Constitution, gave Chileans a choice between voting "yes" to have the general remain president for eight more years or "no" to end the dictatorship and hold an election in 1989. The "no" option won by 54.7% to 43% for "yes"; some 98% of eligible voters participated.

According to the declassified documents, as early as May 1988 the military became concerned about a possible loss and decided that the "no" couldn't be allowed to win. On Sept. 30 then-US ambassador Harry Barnes warned the administration of US president Ronald Reagan about the "imminent possibility of government-staged coup." US intelligence had provided "a clear sense of Pinochet's determination to use violence on whatever scale is necessary to retain power," Barnes said. The US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) reported that Pinochet supporters "are said to have contingency plans to derail the plebiscite by encouraging and staging acts of violence. They hope that such violence will elicit further reprisals by the radical opposition and begin a cycle of rioting and disorder." The military would then step in, and "the elections would be suspended, declared invalid, and postponed indefinitely."

Although the US government had supported the bloody 1973 coup that brought Pinochet to power, the Reagan administration felt that Pinochet was a polarizing figure whose presence was strengthening the Chilean left and weakening the center. The National Democratic Institute (NDI) provided some $1.6 million for voter registration and other work for the plebiscite, while Ambassador Barnes clearly supported the "no" vote, leading Pinochet to issue denunciations of "Yanqui imperialism." US military and intelligence officials warned their Chilean counterparts not to support plans for a coup.

At 1 am on Oct. 6, after the voting results were clear, the military junta held a meeting at which Pinochet—"nearly apoplectic," according to a participant—suggested having the military seize control of Santiago. The other military rulers refused to back Pinochet, who had to concede the loss and allow an election.

The National Security Archive posting of the documents was timed to coincide with the presentation of the Oscar awards by the US film industry on Feb. 24. "NO," a fictionalization of the 1988 campaign, was one of the movies nominated for the best foreign film award. Noting that "[t]he complexity of the story is not depicted on screen," the Archive said it wanted to use the recognition of the film to "draw attention to the fuller story." (National Security Archive, Feb. 22; La Jornada, Mexico, Feb. 24)

In other news, union leader Juan Pablo Jiménez Garrido was shot dead with a single bullet to the head the afternoon of Feb. 21 inside the offices of Ingeniería Eléctrica Azeta, an electrical contracting firm which provides services to the private electric company Compañía Chilena de Electricidad (CHILECTRA). Jiménez, the president of the Azeta Workers Federation, was last seen sitting on a bench near an office while he reviewed union business. Tensions had been growing between the union and the company over a contract and alleged labor workplace violations. Hundreds of people attended Jiménez's funeral on Feb. 23, chanting: "Justice, truth, no to impunity." Bárbara Figueroa, president of the Unified Workers Confederation (CUT), the main Chilean labor federation, stressed the "tremendous seriousness" of the killing and the need for a thorough investigation. (El Ciudadano, Chile, Feb. 22; La Nación, Chile, Feb. 23)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Feb. 24