by Lucy Komisar
The Progressive magazine, May 1999
I recently got hold of a declassified memorandum about Henry
Kissinger's only meeting with Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
The meeting occurred on June 8, 1976, in Santiago, and the internal
State Department memorandum shows how hard Kissinger tried to
shield the Chilean general from criticism and assure him that
his human rights violations were not a serious problem as far
as the U.S . government was concerned.
I had been trying since 1995 to get the memorandum, which
was stamped SECRET/ NODIS (No Distribution). My initial request
was refused, but suddenly, to my surprise, the State Department
"memorandum of conversation" arrived in the mail in
October, shortly after Pinochet's arrest, with a note explaining
that, on re-review, it had been opened in full.
The memo describes how Secretary of State Kissinger stroked
and bolstered Pinochet, how-with hundreds of political prisoners
still being jailed and tortured- Kissinger told Pinochet that
the Ford Administration would not hold those human rights violations
against him. At a time when Pinochet was the target of international
censure for state-sponsored torture, disappearances, and murders,
Kissinger assured him that he was a victim of communist propaganda
and urged him not to pay too much attention to American critics.
The meeting occurred at a gathering of the Organization of
American States (OAS). Against the advice of most of the State
Department's Latin America staff; Kissinger decided to go to Chile
for the opening of the OAS general assembly. He and Assistant
Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs William Rogers flew
into Santiago June 7 and met with Pinochet the next day. The site
of the meeting was the presidential suite in Diego Portales, an
office building used during repairs on La Moneda, the presidential
palace Pinochet had bombed on September 11, 1973, when he overthrew
Salvador Allende. Chilean Foreign Minister Patricio Carvajal and
Ambassador to the United States Manuel Trucco were also there.
(I've interviewed Rogers, Carvajal, and Trucco, but not Kissinger,
who has refused requests.)
Kissinger was dogged by charges he had promoted the military
coup against an elected Allende government, and he sought to maintain
a cool public distance from Pinochet. But at his confidential
meeting, he promised warm support.
Kissinger first assured Pinochet that they had a strong bond
in their overriding anti-communism. Pinochet noted that though
the Spaniards had tried to stop communism in the Spanish Civil
War, it was springing up again. Kissinger replied, 'We had the
Spanish King recently, and I discussed that very issue with him."
Then he made clear that the U.S. government was squarely behind
Pinochet. "In the United States, as you know, we are sympathetic
with what you are trying to do here," Kissinger told Pinochet."l
think that the previous government was headed toward communism.
We wish your government well."
A little while later, he added: "My evaluation is that
you are a victim of all left-wing groups around the world, and
that your greatest sin was that you overthrew a government which
was going Communist."
Kissinger dismissed American human rights campaigns against
Chile's government as "domestic problems." And he assured
Pinochet that he was against sanctions such as those proposed
by Senator Edward Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, which would
ban arms sales and transfers to governments that were gross human
Kissinger joked with Pinochet, saying: "I don't know
if you listen in on my phone, but if you do, you have just heard
me issue instructions to Washington to make an all-out effort
to defeat the Kennedy Amendment]-if we defeat it, we will deliver
the F-SE's as we agreed to do." He told Pinochet, "We
held up the [fighter planes] for a while in order to avoid providing
additional ammunition to our enemies."
Both men also indicated worry about an amendment by Representative
Donald Fraser, Democrat of Minnesota, to ban non-military aid
to egregious human rights violators. "As you know, Congress
is now debating further restraints on aid to Chile," Kissinger
told Pinochet. "We are opposed."
Still, Kissinger was being pressured by the U.S. media to
make a statement on human rights. He had just received an OAS
report saying that mass arrests, torture, and disappearances continued
in Chile. "Numerous political prisoners have been killed
arbitrarily or have died from torture received or from lack of
medical treatment," the report said. An earlier OAS report
had detailed those tortures: women beaten, gang raped, and forced
to endure electric current applied to their bodies; men subjected
to electric current, especially to their genitals, burned with
cigarettes, hanged by the wrists or ankles.
The speech Kissinger would give that afternoon to the OAS
couldn't ignore human rights. It had to be something Republicans
could point to. But it also couldn't offend or weaken Pinochet.
Kissinger wanted Pinochet to know that the speech should not
be interpreted as a criticism of Chile. He told him, "l will
treat human rights in general terms and human rights in a world
context. I will refer in two paragraphs to the report on Chile
of the OAS Human Rights Commission. I will say that the human
rights issue has impaired relations between the U.S. and Chile.
This is partly the result of Congressional actions. I will add
that I hope you will shortly remove those obstacles."
He told Pinochet, "l will also call attention to the
Cuba report and to the hypocrisy of some who call attention to
human rights as a means of intervening in governments."
Kissinger suggested to Pinochet that his statements on Chile
were calibrated to avoid greater damage to the country. "l
can do no less without producing a reaction in the U.S. which
would lead to legislative restrictions," he said. "The
speech is not aimed at Chile.... We have a practical problem we
have to take into account, without bringing about pressures incompatible
with your dignity, and at the same time which does not lead to
U.S. Iaws which will undermine our relationship."
Kissinger explained: "My statement and our position are
designed to allow us to say to the Congress that we are talking
to the Chilean government and therefore Congress need not act."
He emphasized the point: "My statement is not offensive to
Chile. Ninety-five percent of what I say is applicable to all
the governments of the Hemisphere. It includes things your own
people have said."
As if Pinochet could have had any doubt, Kissinger said, "We
welcomed the overthrow of the Communist-inclined government here."
By overthrowing Allende, you have done a great service to the
West, Kissinger told him. "We are not out to weaken your
The memorandum also reveals that Pinochet twice complained
about Orlando Letelier, Allende's former foreign minister, who
was assassinated by Pinochet's forces in Washington, D.C., on
September 21, 1976, three months after the Kissinger-Pinochet
Kissinger knew that Pinochet had set up an infamous international
terrorist network, Operation Condor, to assassinate his enemies.
In 1974, when the CIA discovered that Chile and its allies wanted
to set up a covert office in Miami as part of Operation Condor,
Kissinger rejected his own State Department officials' advice
to publicly protest the plan.
That would have been a warning to prospective victims who
had sought safety in exile, hut Kissinger opted instead to Iet
the CIA quietly pass on the word to Chile's secret police, the
Directorate of National Intelligence (DINA), and the office wasn't
But Operation Condor continued to target and murder Pinochet's
enemies. In September 1974, agents assassinated General Carlos
Prats, Pinochet's constitutionalist predecessor who had been forced
out and had fled to Buenos Aires. The following September, Operation
Condor organized the Rome attack that disabled Christian Democratic
oppositionist Bernardo Leighton and his wife. Then in September
1976, the operation returned to the United States with a vengeance,
planting the car bomb that killed Letelier and his Institute for
Policy Studies colleague Ronni Moffitt in Washington.
George Landau, the U.S. ambassador in Paraguay, had warned
the CIA that two Chilean agents had been trying to get visas to
the United States in Asuncion under false names, but the CIA never
warned Letelier, a prime target for Pinochet, nor did it act through
its agents at other U.S. consulates to block the agents' travel.
The U.S. consulate in Santiago issued the killers visas to the
Manuel Contreras, head of Pinochet's secret police, who is
serving seven years in prison in Chile for his role in the murders,
declared in December 1997 that he was following Pinochet's orders.
Pinochet had no reason to believe the bombing would cause
problems for him. After all, he had just had a warm private meeting
with Henry Kissinger.
At that meeting, Pinochet said: "We are constantly being
attacked by the Christian Democratics. They have a strong voice
in Washington. Not the people in the Pentagon, but they get through
to Congress. Gabriel Valdez [a leading Christian Democrat] has
access. Also Letelier."
Kissinger: "l have not seen a Christian Democrat for
Pinochet: " ... Letelier has access to the Congress.
We know they are giving false information.... We are worried about
our image." Kissinger did not take the occasion to indicate
America's support for the rights of political opponents.
Foreign Minister Carvajal, who had coordinated the attack
on La Moneda, didn't like pressures on human rights that were
being brought by U.S. Ambassador David Popper. At the meeting,
he said to Kissinger, "I don't get along
with Ambassador Popper. I don't understand him, or he doesn't
understand the situation here."
"Yes, yes," Kissinger told Carvajal. "Yes,
Popper had enemies in the State Department. The Pinochet government
often got unofficial, unrequested information from them-gossip
or photocopies of things that had been said by the man whom Department
conservatives called "the Red Popper." One of his enemies
flagged the information for the Secretary of State in a routine
cable from the U.S. embassy in Santiago.
As investigative reporter Seymour Hersh first reported, Kissinger
wrote on the document, "Tell Popper to cut out the political
The ambassador got a call from Rogers, who said, "You
should know that at higher levels, a certain disquiet has been
caused." Harry Schlaudeman, an assistant secretary for Latin
America and number two at the American embassy in Chile during
the U.S. pre-coup destabilization campaign, drafted a letter to
Popper in which he tried to suggest that the ambassador was getting
One bizarre note in the Kissinger-Pinochet memorandum suggests
that the general recognized he was violating human rights. He
told Kissinger, "On the human rights front, we are slowly
making progress. We are now down to 400. We have freed more. And
we are also changing some sentences so that the prisoners can
be eligible for leaving." Kissinger's response: He advised
Pinochet to "group the releases" for better "psychological
After the formal meeting, Kissinger and Rogers went off to
have lunch with Pinochet on another floor of the Diego Portales
Kissinger's address to the assembly that afternoon was one
of his usual tour d' horizon speeches. As he had promised Pinochet,
Kissinger cited the reports of human rights abuses in Chile but
didn't condemn the government. "The condition of human rights
as assessed by the Organization of American States' Human Rights
Commission has impaired [the U.S.] relationship with Chile and
will continue to do so. We wish this relationship to be close,
and all friends of Chile hope that obstacles raised by conditions
alleged in the report will soon be removed."
Rogers, who had helped draft the speech, told me he had "pushed
Henry's envelope to the outer edge in terms of emphasizing human
rights." The statement about the U.S. vote on authorization
of a human rights commission was worked over carefully. Rogers
got Kissinger to say it, but noticed that he chafed over it before
and after the speech. Nobody else thought it was terribly bold.
Carvajal thought Kissinger's speech "balanced,"
and was pleased that it referred to the exaggerations of the Chilean
problem. Carvajal told me that he interpreted Kissinger's private
remarks to Pinochet to mean that he didn't really believe what
he had said publicly. Carvajal said, "The U.S. understands
that things in Chile are difficult, that maybe the steps taken
by Washington were exaggerated, that things would have been worse
if Chile hadn't acted."
Kissinger and Rogers left two days later. Kissinger told a
Chilean diplomat in Washington that he and his wife, Nancy, had
been received like pop stars.
James Wilson, then the State Department's coordinator for
humanitarian affairs, heard that shortly after his return to Washington,
Kissinger passed the word to his staff that he did not want all
he had said publicly applied too literally in practice.
Lucy Komisar, a New York journalist, is working on a book
about US foreign policy and human rights in several countries,
including Chile, in the 1970s and 1980s.