Peddling Miracles And Amnesia
issue 314 - July 1999
Who worries about human rights when you’ve got double-digit growth? Alejandro Reuss investigates the shifting PR campaign to justify Chile’s ‘economic miracle’ and to forgive its chief architect.
JULIO ETCHART / STILL PICTURES
September 1976. A car bomb planted in Washington DC by the Chilean secret police (known by its Spanish acronym DINA) kills the exiled Chilean socialist Orlando Letelier and his American colleague Ronnie Moffit. Letelier, a former cabinet minister in the Government of President Salvador Allende, overthrown by the Chilean military three years earlier, was one of the dictatorship’s most prominent critics. The double murder would become one of its most notorious crimes.
February 1999. Arriving home one night I catch the end of a news report featuring Francisco Letelier, an artist and one of Orlando Letelier’s sons. His parting words stick with me. What is ‘at stake’, he says – presumably in the legal case brought against Chile’s former dictator Augusto Pinochet in Spain and Britain – is the ‘future of Chile’. An unexpected turn of events in London has called that future into immediate question. Chile’s arrogantly insubordinate armed forces now watch helplessly as their maximum leader, Augusto Pinochet, is brought to heel. They will no longer strut about with the same air of invincibility.
In the decade since Chile’s return to civilian rule, the military dictatorship has received a great deal of favourable press, mainly for its free-market economic policies. Praise for the neoliberal economic program has filtered through the mass media in reports which, even if critical of the dictatorship’s authoritarianism, give it credit for bestowing on Chile a modern, dynamic economy. The article by Jon Lee Anderson in the 19 October 1998, issue of The New Yorker is a snapshot of the prevailing ambivalence on the eve of Pinochet’s arrest in London. Anderson, best known as the author of Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, on balance neither celebrates nor denounces Pinochet. The article, entitled ‘The Dictator,’ includes due criticism of the dictatorship, especially of human rights. It also includes praise for the economic results obtained by Pinochet and company. Anderson paints a picture of a bustling new Chile, with its high-rise office buildings and shopping malls. ‘The country that the new democratic leaders inherited,’ he says, ‘is prosperous and forward-looking.’ Even his description of the slums which ring Santiago, and the legacy of inequality they symbolize, do not prevent him from saying, ‘Pinochet’s most substantial claim to being a good leader is that he oversaw the Chilean economic miracle.’
By October 1998, the ‘Chilean economic miracle’ was widely reported in the mass media as the dictatorship’s main legacy – undoubtedly to the delight of the dictatorship’s celebrants. Pinochet’s arrest, however, upset the apple cart. The current international campaign in defense of Pinochet, scrambling to whitewash the dictatorship’s crimes, has thrown in everything including the kitchen sink. Sometimes it seems that in one breath Pinochet’s defenders say that he did nothing and yet that ‘it was necessary’.
The Chilean ‘economic miracle’ has figured less prominently in this campaign than one might expect. Instead apologists for the dictatorship have largely returned to the claim, vintage 1973, that the coup of 11 September saved Chile from Soviet- or Cuban-sponsored dictatorship. Perhaps they felt that with the re-emerging details of the thousands either tortured, executed or disappeared a high rate of economic growth might seem a somewhat hollow justification. Business people associated with Chile’s Augusto Pinochet Foundation are bankrolling the campaign in defense of Pinochet. Bell Pottinger, the public-relations firm headed by longtime Conservative PR guru Sir Tim Bell, worked under a $310,000 contract with the Chilean Reconciliation Movement, a pro-Pinochet organization operating in Britain. The firm had previously worked for the 1989 presidential campaign of Hernan Buchi, the dictatorship’s Finance Minister and its candidate in Chile’s first presidential elections since 1970. Bell Pottinger has sent 14 postcards, in the name of the Chilean Reconciliation Movement, to 5,000 British ‘opinion makers’ (including the heads of the top 2,000 corporations, the members of the Houses of Commons and Lords, and the major news media). The buzzword of ‘reconciliation’ appears frequently, and several of the cards argue that Chileans are entitled to and have in their majority chosen reconciliation over ‘recrimination’ and revenge. But the content of the postcards is hardly conciliatory. Clanging relentlessly through the campaign is the claim that in 1973 the elected Chilean Government was raising paramilitary forces in order to establish a communist dictatorship – this is their justification for the military’s violent seizure of power and dictatorial rule.
Tim Bell’s public-relations expertise was also employed for a televised meeting between Pinochet and Margaret Thatcher in the house where the ex-dictator is confined. The meeting was arranged by Robin Harris, a senior advisor to Thatcher. Harris has also produced and sent to over 5,000 UK ‘opinion formers’ (the same 5,000 as the postcards, perhaps?) a paper entitled ‘A Tale of Two Chileans: Pinochet and Allende’. Harris’s paper rehearses the same accusation as the postcards – President Allende had planned a ‘self-coup’ with dictatorial aims. Over half of the paper’s footnotes cite a document produced by the dictatorship with CIA assistance shortly after the military coup. Harris also promises shortly an appendix detailing ‘Plan Z,’ the fictitious plot under which Allende and his associates were to eliminate an extensive list of enemies including prominent members of the armed forces.
The apologists of the dictatorship accuse the Left of crimes in fact perpetrated by the Right. On the lurid accusations of ‘Plan Z’, there were two current or former commanders-in-chief of the Chilean Armed Forces assassinated during the 1970s, but they were not assassinated by the Popular Unity. General Rene Schneider was murdered in 1970 during a failed kidnapping by right-wing military conspirators who planned to blame the crime on the Left in hopes of scuttling Allende’s victory at the polls. General Carlos Prats was assassinated in 1974, after his exile to Argentina, by agents of the military dictatorship. Both were despised by the Right for their ‘constitutionalist’ scruples.
The military dictatorship was also no stranger to hit lists. A Chilean friend of mine, a student at the time of the military coup, described to me going to his university on 11 September 1973, to find his name on a posted list of those sought by the military. After his arrest, he was tortured and subjected to mock executions, and eventually exiled. Many of the others on such lists, of course, were disappeared. When the pro-Pinochet campaign makes the conciliatory-sounding suggestion about suffering on both sides, it is to imply a false symmetry. It was the military dictatorship which turned the soccer stadiums into concentration camps, which strung torture chambers along the entire length of the country, and whose crimes include thousands murdered in state custody and tens of thousands tortured. And, of course, it was the Chilean Armed Forces, not the Popular Unity, which perpetrated a coup and established a dictatorship.
JULIO ETCHART /
The current campaign is not the first project in which the public-relations industry has served Pinochet and company. In fact, the military dictatorship directly employed numerous PR firms to polish its image over its 17 years. Starting in 1974, a US organization called the American-Chilean Council began work with the aim, in its own words, ‘to expose the misinformation, gross exaggerations and downright lies [about the Chilean dictatorship] being fed to the American public through the Left/liberal establishment’. Four years later the American-Chilean Council was revealed, in a lawsuit filed by the Justice Department, to be working in the pay of the dictatorship, basically as a front for the public relations firm of Marvin Liebman Inc.
In subsequent years, many public relations firms did register as agents of the Chilean dictatorship, and documented their activities on its behalf. From 1985 to 1990, for example, the Embassy of Chile paid Worldwide Information Resources (WIRES) over $600,000 for ‘public affairs counsel and services’. WIRES produced press releases and ‘media advisories’, ‘identified and contacted journalists who might be interested in writing sympathetic op-ed articles,’ and drafted speeches and arranged media appearances for officials of the dictatorship. The firm also handled behind-the-scenes lobbying in favour of Pinochet. WIRES’s access to power is evident not only from the list of public officials lobbied, but also the chummy tone of the communication. In February 1987, the firm’s chair, Richard J Whalen, sent a letter lobbying for the sale to Chile of replacement parts for US-made military jets to such officials as the Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy, and the Senior Director for Latin American Affairs. Each was addressed by first name. Whalen personalized the copy sent to Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Elliott Abrams, one of the architects of the Reagan administration’s Latin America policy in the era of the covert wars in Central America: ‘You gave an excellent account of yourself in opposing the House ultra-liberals the other day. Keep smiling and swinging!’
These PR efforts are undoubtedly just the tip of a very large iceberg. The public relations industry, meanwhile, is itself only responsible for a fraction of the pro-dictatorship message. Right-wing commentators, think-tanks, and academics have all played their role in the ‘molding’ of public opinion.
It would be a mistake to assume that the public has received these efforts with passive acceptance. In 1993, the Maine public relations firm of Holt, Hughes and Stamell received a $2 million contract from Chile’s first civilian government to influence US public opinion. The Government sought to change its image after finding that ‘many Americans either did not know where the South American country was or had a bad impression of it because of the 17-year dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.’ After years of propaganda much of the public was evidently not buying or else forgetting. Perhaps the ‘opinion molders’ – the government officials, corporate functionaries and media commentators – absorbed the pro-dictatorship propaganda to a greater extent than the ‘moldees’. Unfortunately, even in democracies, this is often all that is necessary.
Alejandro Reuss was born in Chile and now lives in Boston where he is a member of the editorial collective of Dollars and Sense magazine.