Forty Years Later, Still Missing Charlie and Frank


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Chile after 40 - Charlie, Frank, Victor JaraSeptember 11th evokes grieving memories and reflecting thoughts on tragic events. The attack on the WTC and on the Pentagon changed the world. Another tragic event took place on a September 11th, which also fell on a Tuesday, on a faraway place, also involving Americans.

Forty years ago in Santiago, Chile, my dear, smart, Harvard-educated, independent thinking, loving, trying-to-figure-it-all-out-and-do-the-right-thing journalist/documentary filmmaker husband was stolen from my life, from the lives of his loving parents, and all of his friends. Charles has been described as “an American sacrifice”—one of the many victims of the U.S.-backed coup in Chile on September 11, 1973. The presence, voice, thoughts, and future life of Charles Horman and thousands of others were nonfactors in the calculations of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to bring down the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende.

These are the words of Joyce Horman; her husband was one of two Americans killed during this coup. The other American was Frank Terrugi, a journalist. Their fate is described in the award-winning 1982 film “Missing.” Hollywood’s stars Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek portrayed Charles’s father and wife.

“Charles Horman, I hope you are out there,” Mr. Horman called out through a bullhorn at the stadium. “This is your father speaking. If you hear me, please come forward. You have nothing to fear.”

Mr Horman had flown to Chile seeking his son who had been seized by the military a few days after the coup. He was authorized to look for his son in the soccer National Stadium in Santiago, which had been turned into a concentration camp, where prisoners were interrogated and tortured and many were executed. There was no response. Charles had been dead.

Thousands others were assassinated, among them the renowned poet, folk singer and songwriter Víctor Jara. After being tortured, and his hands broken, he was ordered to play his guitar. Defiantly, he sang “Venceremos” a political anthem similar to “We Shall Overcome.” Then they killed him.

The military government became infamous not only for human rights violation, but for implementing the economic policies of what is called the Chicago School of Economics, headed by Milton Friedman. Chile became the laboratory in privatizing everything, except the military. The involvement of the Nixon Administration, and the role of the CIA, is well documented in declassified documents. The Associated Press reported in 2009 that the “CIA admits its deep involvement in Chile, where it dealt with coup-plotters, false propagandists and assassins.”

I live a few miles away from the Richard Nixon Library, which is located in Yorba Linda. Visiting the library and observing the recorded history of his presidency brings back painful memories. It also brings out the questions of what lessons we have learned, what could have been done differently to accomplish the simple goals of improving the lives of the impoverished and avoiding the loss of human lives. What would have happened if the RBKA amendment had existed in Chile. What would have happened if Henry Kissinger’s views had not been adopted by the Nixon administration, as a tiny country like Chile was not a threat to the national security of the US. Both September 11th poses significant lessons and questions, American philosopher Noam Chomsky offers these observations:

Suppose, for example, that the attack (2001) had gone as far as bombing the White House, killing the president, imposing a brutal military dictatorship that killed thousands and tortured tens of thousands while establishing an international terror center that helped impose similar torture-and-terror states elsewhere and carried out an international assassination campaign; and as an extra fillip, brought in a team of economists—call them “the Kandahar boys”—who quickly drove the economy into one of the worst depressions in its history. That, plainly, would have been a lot worse than 9/11.

Unfortunately, it is not a thought experiment. It happened. The only inaccuracy in this brief account is that the numbers should be multiplied by twenty-five to yield per capita equivalents, the appropriate measure. I am, of course, referring to what in Latin America is often called “the first 9/11”: September 11, 1973, when the United States succeeded in its intensive efforts to overthrow the democratic government of Salvador Allende in Chile with a military coup that placed General Pinochet’s brutal regime in office. The goal, in the words of the Nixon administration, was to kill the “virus” that might encourage all those “foreigners [who] are out to screw us” to take over their own resources and in other ways to pursue an intolerable policy of independent development. In the background was the conclusion of the National Security Council that, if the United States could not control Latin America, it could not expect “to achieve a successful order elsewhere in the world.”

The first 9/11, unlike the second, did not change the world. It was “nothing of very great consequence,” as Henry Kissinger assured his boss a few days later.

These events of little consequence were not limited to the military coup that destroyed Chilean democracy and set in motion the horror story that followed. The first 9/11 was just one act in a drama which began in 1962, when John F. Kennedy shifted the mission of the Latin American military from “hemispheric defense”—an anachronistic holdover from World War II—to “internal security,” a concept with a chilling interpretation in US-dominated Latin American circles.


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About Ricardo Toro

Chilean native and Anaheim resident for several decades.