Chile: 50 Years On

In Chile, the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the coup that toppled President Salvador Allende has reignited the national conversation about the legacies of both Allende and his successor, General Augusto Pinochet.


Image Source: Gobierno de Chile

In Chile, the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the coup that toppled President Salvador Allende has reignited the national conversation about the legacies of both Allende and his successor, General Augusto Pinochet. This event has also sparked renewed calls for greater transparency regarding the United States’ role in the lead-up to and during the coup. Peter Kornbluth, a Senior Analyst at the National Security Archive, has released a Chilean edition of his 2003 book, “The Pinochet File,” in which he outlines both old and new information. This includes details such as the White House meeting between Henry Kissinger and Augustin Edwards, the owner of El Mercurio, Chile’s main newspaper at the time. The meeting took place 11 days after Salvador Allende’s election victory.

Fast forward fifty years, and the United States’ role in Chile still casts a long shadow. The 1973 coup reshaped the nation’s trajectory to the extent that the country’s current constitutional debates essentially revolve around how much of Pinochet’s 1980 constitution (which has been amended hundreds of times since) should be retained.

However, the landscape has transformed significantly. The United States, once a central player in Chilean affairs, now navigates a changed world. This transformation is not solely due to the end of the Cold War a generation ago. The influence of the United States has been recalibrated by global and domestic shifts, as well as evolving foreign policy doctrines. The anniversary of the coup thus prompts a probing analysis of how America’s evolving stance towards Chile mirrors greater changes in its foreign policy approach on the global stage.

The focal point lies in examining the transition from the once audacious involvement of the United States in Chile’s domestic politics to its contemporary position in a world marked by a more diversified geopolitical landscape. The essence of this exploration resides not only in understanding why the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has purportedly retreated from past methods but also in grasping how the very nature of projecting influence has transformed. 

This narrative unfolds within a broader reality: while the U.S. may not have relinquished its power, perhaps it has moderated its willingness to employ it. Consider Ukraine, where the U.S. has actively opposed Russian aggression, typically through its NATO allies, and has been careful to strike a balance that avoids prompting a Russian escalation.

In the current post-Cold War and post-Iraq era, there is an acknowledgment that blunt force tactics undermine global credibility and moral standing such as supporting coups or invasions. The intention of the United States to refrain from interference in domestic affairs reflects domestic disinterest and a different global order, one in which meddling in the national politics of other countries is unpopular and less effective. As a result, the narrative of the CIA engaging in covert operations has shifted towards diplomatic engagement and economic collaboration.

Chile itself has undergone transformative changes that have shaped U.S. influence. The nation’s diversified economy, burgeoning trade partnerships, and diplomatic engagements have paved the way for a more self-confident country. The U.S. remains a crucial partner in areas like defense, education, and trade. Bilateral trade with Chile was around USD 3 billion in the years immediately following the authoritarian era. By 2021, this figure had surged to over USD 38 billion. In comparison, however, China’s trade figure was almost USD 58 billion, highlighting the shifting market dynamics of the 21st century.

In this sense, the United States’ adjusted ability to steer Chile’s course is a testament to the new global reality, which demands a more nuanced approach to foreign policy. This approach involves subtle yet consistent diplomacy and cooperation, which may prove more valuable than the tactics of the past.

This paradigm shift necessitates, among other things, a reevaluation of the role of public opinion. Today’s interconnected world, saturated with real-time information, requires greater transparency and accountability at a faster pace. An engaged populace means that any perceived impropriety would trigger a swift and vigorous backlash. The era of covert operations veiled in secrecy has given way to a public that demands a more selective and principled foreign (and often domestic) policy. Climate change and gender issues represent just a few of the challenges faced by the Global South, where the U.S. maintains a moral standing compared to most international rivals. The conflict in Ukraine, where Chile has been one of the few Latin American countries steadfastly defending a liberal international system, demonstrates that space remains for the U.S. to cultivate a values-based foreign policy in the region to counter the often clientelist approaches of its competitors.

Therefore, the highlights of today’s bilateral relationship are a far cry from the approach that prompted the U.S. to resort to covert actions half a century ago. For instance, a Chilean company, Cencosud, now holds a majority share in a significant U.S. supermarket chain, and Shake Shack, an American fast casual restaurant chain, offers vegan products developed by the Chilean firm NotCo. Beyond trade, a Chile-California agreement presents numerous avenues for cooperation in agriculture, energy, and education. The recently approved tax treaty in the U.S. Congress (after a 13-year wait) will facilitate investment by eliminating double taxation. Furthermore, after rigorous negotiations, Chile remains the sole Latin American country to enjoy visa waiver status with the U.S., promoting tourism and business travel.

Consequently, the evolving role of the United States in Chile underscores a broader narrative of shifting foreign policy dynamics. The shift from the past to engaging in mutually beneficial collaboration mirrors the global trend in diplomacy. The capacity for U.S. influence endures, although political realities have curtailed the audacious use of that influence. Chile, likewise, stands as a testament to the resilience of nations in shaping their destinies while struggling against external pressures. This reflection on the past fifty years serves as a poignant reminder that foreign policy, like the world it shapes, is constantly in flux, driven by often unpredictable prevailing winds. Successful navigation requires flexible adaptation while maintaining a clear sense of direction toward the desired destination.


Carl Meacham spent over a decade as Senator Richard Lugar’s (R-IN) senior professional staffer for Latin America on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC). He is currently a Managing Director at FTI Consulting.

Robert Funk is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Chile and a partner in Andes Risk Group, a consulting firm.

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