Sunday, September 11, 2016

Reflections On The Chile Military Coup 43 Years Later

Dear Don Pablo:

       43 years ago both of our worlds changed. My mother-in-law, Dona Amelia Peres, had sent me to Santiago to meet with some wealthy people who needed help with getting their assets out of Chile. (She made a good living doing this in Brasil, by the way.)

     I flew first class on Varig from Sao Paulo to Santiago. In the seat next to me was a Chilean agricultural specialist who spoke English well. He told me that people rarely came to Chile because it was: "At the end of the world." When we landed and I got out of the plane my first impression was "This is the Los Angeles of South America. I got through passport control. I rented this very old and not dependable car that cost a fortune. Everything was very expensive.. I drove to the center of the city and marveled at Avenida Bernardo O'Higgins.

    I went to the Sheraton Hotel. 43 years ago it looked nothing like the grand two steel owers that it now has. I got checked in. Later at the pool I discovered that it was a place where many flight crews stayed. The poolside was full of attractive women despite the bleak economic circumstances. I walked around the hotel area. I saw some shops. The shelves were bare. But I did see some Kellog's corn flakes left in one store. When I got back to the hotel I wrote a letter to my sister (In those days international phone calls were too expensive.) I told her that it was amazing the influence of the USA around the world. Later I drove to a nice restaurant that was still in operation and had a steak. I got ill with diarrhea.

   The next morning I spent a lot of time with Dona Amelia's first client, the owner of a Chevrolet dealership in downtown Santiago.He had a bit of expensive Scotch left. We had a drink. I walked around downtown afterwards. It was not a happy sight at all.

     You know my habits the following morning I was up around five for a run. I had a sense that something bad was wrong. I came back to the hotel and had breakfast. The lobby was empty. Then "all Heaven and Earth fell in. There was smoke everywhere a violent noise of explosions. I saw jet fighters int he air, Due to Vietnam I knew when one is in a war zone.

     I knew to "lay low" but I was also curious. I went to the lobby. There were a number of men in dress-green US Army uniforms, both officers and sergeants. I also saw some men in civilian  clothes. They wore expensive silk shirts and designer slacks, Each man also had a Rolex President watch on. I knew from Vietnam that these men were from the dreaded CIA Phoenix Program. One of the hotel staff instructed me to go back to my room and stay there.

     A Couple of hours later i got a call on the hotel phone. I was told to go down to the loddy. A U.S. Army major wanted to talk to me. I came downstairs and reported to this man. He was very relaxed and genial. He looked like the American television actor Frank Olsen. He was a superb interrogator. He asked me to identify myself and to explain to him what I was doing in Santiago. I was honest and forth coming with him. I told him that I was a Vietnam veteran and even gave him my U.S Navy serial number. He politely asked me to go back to my room.

      On the orders of a U.S. Air Force colonel at the hotel that day (Colonel Ray Price) two U.S. citizens ( Charles Harmon and Frank Tuiggi) were sent to the soccer stadium and shot. If I had not given the right answers and checked out, I could have ended with the same fate.

    Four hours later the major called my room and asked me to come down and talk to him. He told me that I was unfortunate to get caught in the middle of a coup. For my own safety I was to stay in the hotel. As soon as possible transport out of Chile would be provided for me.

     It was five or six days before I could leave. I was fascinated to see an unmarked U.S. Huey Cobra helicopter flying to and from the hotel frequently. I got the impression that the military and intelligence side of the coup was being run from the hotel.

    When I was packed up and ready to leave,the U.S. Army major (now in civilian clothes) talked to me one final time. He had me sign a form acknowledging that if I discussed anything that I had seen there that I would be subject to prosecution under the Espionage Act and up to ten years in prison. As I rode to the airport it was a sad and desolate landscape. I was so relieved to get on the Varig flight. I filled my Champaign glass several times. After the plane lifted off and we were seeing the beauty of the Andes Mountains I was so glad to be out of there. I did not return to Chile until 1979.

     How I characterize the coup in one sentence: "There was a pathological fear of Fidel Castro and Chile becoming the next Cuba." The supreme irony here is that Fidel Castro once tried out for the Saint Louis Cardinals baseball team. Head be been picked for thew team he never would have been the leader the revolution in Cuba.

     For me today is a day to contemplate and give thanks. Most important is that we truly  did leave our children with a better world.