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Our Brush with the Fates over Chile
Equivocater Hon. Darío Menanteau
By Celia Fábos-Becker
In August, 1973, it was not quite a year since Richard Nixon had been elected POTUS, partly by cheating in the election, including using burglary and dirty tricks. Even Minnesota had not been spared Nixon’s special attentions. Minneapolis was the closest large city to McGovern’s home town in South Dakota, and the George McGovern for President Headquarters was in Minneapolis. I’d been a researcher and press relations person there during the 1972 campaign, and we had been burglarized, vandalized and constantly harassed and sometimes threatened.
One fine day that summer, Tony and I had both taken part in a large, legal anti-Vietnam war march, along with tens of thousands of other Minnesotans, walking to the State Capitol, along with entire families singing, chanting and waving U.S. flags, and even bringing along their pet dogs dressed up in American flag motif bandanas. Back in 1968, all the POTUS candidates had promised to end this war. It was now four years later, another 30,000 dead and hundreds of thousands of wounded and permanently maimed and no end in sight, yet. Many veterans, from America’s several wars, also marched in this parade. No one was against the soldiers; we were against the war, and after almost ten years, we wanted it ended. The popular former Vice President of the U.S., Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey, and other state officials spoke at the rally. Newly re-elected President Nixon was not amused, and neither were many who had profited from the war and supported him, or firmly believed in his international policies.
Since the end of December, 1970, I’d been working at the old Dyckman Hotel in Minneapolis, to help get me through college, part-time to full-time, depending on my class load, as a night-time and weekends PBX switchboard operator and assistant desk clerk. The character ‘Ernestine’ developed by the comedienne Lily Tomlin as an operator for Ma Bell, used the same antiquated (cord and plugboard) board I did at the Dyckman. In 1973 the hotel was closing, scheduled to eventually be torn down for some new modern development, and it was not yet certain as to what would replace it. While the French restaurant–still one of the best in the city, and Wally Karbo’s wrestling federation with its gym on the second floor continued a short while longer, there was no longer need for the desk clerk and PBX switchboard. I was getting nowhere applying for museum work, despite having all the credits for two degrees and having done a master’s program as an undergraduate.
While continuing, the Vietnam War was beginning to wind down, and there was turmoil in U.S. industry. Companies were trying to change to peacetime uses, but hadn’t converted yet, and unemployment of both experienced engineers and recent graduates, such as my husband, was rising dramatically. Additionally, people were being punished for having voted for or supported McGovern or protesting the war, no matter how peacefully. The FBI still helped conduct background checks for many companies and Tony and I had already failed a couple of these checks and were sometimes told our politics, and our associations, were an employment problem.
At that time, The Twin Cities, Minneapolis-St. Paul, together, were the capital of the world’s large computer industry, and also had a growing medical instruments industry. Silicon Valley did not yet fully exist – most of the area was still planted in fruit orchards! The Twin Cities had a top ten public university with many excellent departments, including one of the best medical schools, with a heart specialty, and two well-regarded private colleges, and was not far from the Mayo Clinic. The area was of great economic interest other countries looking to develop their own high technology and health care industries, and this included Chile.
Beginning about 1970, the Chilean government embarked on a program to modernize and become more like West Europe and the U.S. It wanted college graduates and didn’t have enough of its own, especially in high technology. The government and some businesses in Chile saw opportunity and by 1972 was already recent graduates to come to Chile. Exchange students and visiting students began speaking in a number of colleges in the U.S., particularly where there were Chilean consuls who might help expedite the paperwork for people to get to Chile. Allende was a socialist and had put communists in his coalition government, but in 1973, he began removing some to restore relations with the Christian Democrats. Chile was a democracy and Allende did not have all the power. Allende could not govern without Congress and it was far more centrist. By late spring, 1973, my husband and I were beginning to consider immigrating to Chile, and knew that the trip required a Chilean visa and a U.S. passport.
The Twin Cities had an honorary Chilean consul, Dr. Darío Menanteau, who had significant authority and large responsibilities. Dr. Menanteau lived in the U.S. and was neither a socialist nor a communist, nor was he close to Salvador Allende. Dr. Menanteau was cautiously hopeful for Chile’s future and like many other Chileans recognized that the country needed to modernize and wages needed to rise to create a decent consumer market also. He had sympathy for the mothers marching, banging pots and pans together, demanding better work opportunities and pay and a better safety social safety net for those in real need, even if he didn’t belong to the political party many of them had joined. He was uneasy about the nationalization of some industries, such as the copper industry which had already made Nixon angry. We found though that the collectivization of farm lands was generally exaggerated; most lands were still privately owned and what was being done was generally more like the dairy coops in Minnesota and Wisconsin to reduce over-production and unnecessary competition to raise product prices enough to support the farmers.
There was also a St. Paul – Santiago Sister Cities organization which offered some presentations about the coming new Chile to the community though not everyone in that organization was happy with the official propaganda, or Allende. Between the end of 1972 and mid-1973, we attended a couple of these presentations, and watched heated, but generally civil, debate among members of the organization and some very anti-Allende, anti-socialist Chileans who had left Chile when he was elected and had become U.S. residents. We also listened to presentations by visiting Chilean students at two area colleges. Although it was clear they were from two or three political parties and had strong, often differing opinions, they were polite with one another and disagreed civilly — refreshing to see, after the 1968 and 1972 elections in the U.S.
I met with Dr. Menanteau a few times. I once asked him how he thought the next election, in 1976, would turn out. We agreed that it would be better for Chile, given the U.S. penchant for interference in Latin America, to not re-elect someone like Allende, after Allende’s recent overtures to Fidel Castro. Few Americans, even college students, had been happy with Allende playing footsie with Castro,and saw only potential trouble from that, but thought he’d be limited by his coalition, and Congress. He’d already had to jettison communists, a relief to me and my husband and others. We all hoped, that Nixon administration in the the U.S. would just treat Allende as something of a buffoon, the minority leader of a coalition as he was, and just peacefully work to see him eventually replaced with either a more moderate member of his socialist party or a Christian Democrat in the next election. Chile had one of the longest histories of democracy and relatively peaceful elections in all of Latin America. No one, not even Chilean Christian Democrats living in the Twin Cities or doing business there, seemed to expect anything different. If they did, they weren’t saying so. I also asked if Chile would continue its modernization and bringing in skilled college graduates to help, if Allende’s coalition was no longer in power after the next election. Dr. Menanteau thought that this program would continue, all the parties wanted modernization and new technologies and ideas. A number of Latin American countries had begun to experiment with socialism, and the ideal was the socialist democracies of west Europe that seemed to be doing a better job of providing for more of their people than the U.S.
Unfortunately for all of us, four people in particular had other ideas, and were not willing to wait another three years for another peaceful, democratic election. There was, of course, Richard Nixon, who was angry about Chile nationalizing some industries, becoming increasingly paranoid, hated communists and firmly believed in the ‘domino theory.’ He was supported and encouraged by his chief foreign policy adviser and Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, who literally said he often preferred dealing with dictatorships to democracies as fewer people were involved in negotiations and it generally took less time to accomplish goals of the negotiations.
It’s not certain how much they knew about a third key player, Walter Rauff, a Nazi war criminal living at Colonia Dignidad, a mysterious German colony that kept largely to itself and about which there were many dark rumors. It was well known all through the surrounding area that people who strayed onto the colony’s land often disappeared. In the late 1960’s and up to the coup, Walter Rauff went by the name Walter Rau and denied he was the famous war criminal wanted in Europe. Apparently the Nixon administration was willing to accept his denials, or didn’t care. Walter Rau was indeed Walter Rauff, as tens of thousands of Chileans, and some Americans, were to learn, and he still wanted to build a 4th Reich–in Chile. One of Allende’s goals had been to investigate the colony and bring it firmly under Chilean control. It seemed to operate entirely too much as a separate little country. I don’t think Allende had any idea how bad, bad really was.
Last, and not least, there was General Augusto Pinochet who wasn’t entirely sure about a 4th Reich but hated communists and socialists, wanted Allende permanently gone and was quite sure he could successfully run the country as a military dictator, without even a Congress. While I know now that some Christian Democrats knew of the coup in advance, none had expected Pinochet to abolish the Congress, which they dominated. Pinochet had no problem collaborating with real Nazis. He was also perfectly willing to make Rauff, under his Chilean name, Rau, head of the military secret police and let him secretly build dozens of internment camps all over Chile in the months before the coup, and then, after the coup, let Rauff dispatch all those arrested as he saw fit, until enough of the world became disgusted and took serious actions against Chile. The world began to react almost immediately, as Pinochet, emboldened by the U.S. support of the U.S., had violated the sanctity of embassies and their grounds literally invading them and dragging persons who had fled to them for asylum out of them.
In 1974, the Swedish ambassador, Harald Edelstam toured in the United States giving an eye-witness account of the coup and described how he and his staff literally had tugs-o’war over persons who had fled to the Swedish embassy, at the doors of the embassy and had to smuggle the refugees out at night in various ways and fly them out of the country with the ambassador himself on a privately arranged SAS jet commissioned by the Swedish government. I was now a Democratic Party official, and with horrified others, listened to the ambassador’s presentation in the twin cities.
The violation of the embassies eventually came back to bite, though many Americans would not realize this. Just six years later, when the Iranian students and supporters of the Ayatollah overthrew the Shah and stormed the U.S. embassy, one of the justifications they used was the invasions of the embassies in Chile with U.S. support. In 1990, I heard that very statement by one of the IRG, then going by the name of Hossain Ahmadi, who had been involved and interrogated the U.S. hostages. He had been let into this country, along with 19 others, to complete his higher education under terms of the Iran Contra deal by then President George H.W. Bush and was going to San Jose State University, finishing a degree in international business with an international public relations minor. His reason for selecting San Jose State University was, ‘it was the college that graduated Lyn Nofziger, who got an actor, Ronald Reagan elected President of the U.S. Iran considers Lyn Nofziger to be the best propagandist since Goebbels.’
The irony is that, despite Nixon’s sabotage of the Allende economy and Nixon’s and Ford’s economic, political and financial support for Pinochet’s administration, Pinochet turned out to be an economic Luddite, killing many well educated business and technology students and graduates and technicians–so many, that he couldn’t even maintain his own military vehicles and aircraft, much less design and build new, which is why his jet engines ended up going to Scotland for repair. Pinochet’s own incompetence eventually sank the Chilean economy and resulted in the 1982 monetary crisis. Before the coup Nixon had done his best to use his influence with banks and international business to sink the economy under Allende, especially after Chile nationalized the copper industry, to better influence prices and raise miners’ wages and improve working conditions. Anaconda Copper had not been seen as a benevolent employer in Chile, any more than earlier in the 20th century in Montana.. From 1974 to 1988, Europeans and others took various actions against the regime, but none were as damaging as the decisions by the junta rulers themselves, especially Pinochet, who despite the poor economy, had amassed great personal wealth by the time he lost the plebiscite election.
By 1988, even Pinochet’s fellow coup leaders and junta rulers were turning against him. He lost the plebiscite election for President and was finally removed from all power in 1998, and arrested for international human rights violations in London later that year, pleaded ill health and was returned to Chile in 2000. Found sane and healthy in Chile, he was tried for various crimes, living the remainder of his life under house arrest until his death in 2006 and still had criminal charges pending against him when he died. In the 1990’s, after his removal from the Presidency and any administrative power, the Chilean economy became the best performing economy in Latin America.
The cumulative cost was terrible. Over 3,000 of up to 80,000 arrested students, recent graduates, feminist leaders, and socialists, anyone deemed leftist–even some Christian Democrats, and members of Allende’s government, ended up tortured, killed and buried at the camps. Thousands more were tortured but survived, with bitter, long memories. For many years after the coup, and until Pinochet was finally removed from all power, known and suspected dissidents to the Pinochet dictatorship were taken to these concentration camps, for that is what they were.
The early victims included U.S. citizens, some of those former college students from excellent U.S. universities, and we just missed being among them. Pinochet and his regime even felt free to kill Chileans who had fled to the U.S., and Americans associated with them. He was found to be responsible for ordering the death of the former Chilean Ambassador to the U.S., Orlando Letelier, on September 21, 1976 in Washington D.C. A car bomb planted by an agent of the Pinochet regime killed him and Ronnie Moffit, a U.S. citizen and an employee of a Washington DC institute, traveling with him. (Moffit, is more often seen as Moffat and Moffet–a Scots name and the Moffet family was among the Scots Irish in the Shenandoah Valley as early as the 1740’s.)
In a recent series of programs about the search for Adolf Hitler and other Nazis in Latin America, and where they’d lived and when they’d died after World War II, it was shockingly documented that when the tens of thousands of Chileans were rounded up and taken to the internment camps, the walls of the intake building were decorated with a combination of Chilean and Nazi swastika flags. One survivor told how Pinochet’s victims were gathered in a hall prior to being assigned cells, and told they would be held there indefinitely. There were no trials. There were two flags on the back of the hall wall, behind the camp commandant doing the speaking: the Chilean flag and the Nazi swastika flag.
But back in August of 1973, none of us knew what was probably already planned by Pinochet and Nixon. My husband and I met with Dr. Menanteau, brought him copies of our college transcripts, were interviewed by him for suitability to become new residents of Chile and help it modernize, and asked him our own questions. Yes, it was true that the Chilean government was literally paying the airfare of a number of recent graduates with technology degrees to come to Chile and we’d be given housing and help in finding positions right away. My husband as a cross-disciplinary graduate in electrical and mechanical engineering, and an amateur radio operator besides, was high on the lists of desired new residents. Since I had four years of Spanish and was quite fluent at that time, and college education in history and anthropology. I could either find employment as a teacher or work in a museum if I wished. We were both in categories of graduates that Chile wanted and needed. So, we applied for our visas and U.S. passports and waited, and waited. They never came.
We went to a going away party at Macalester College, in St. Paul, for one of the last groups of graduates and others to be going to Chile. There were banners, balloons, cake and so much hope. We, and about a dozen others who also never got their visas and passports felt rather forlorn and left out, but we smiled, hugged our acquaintances and wished them the best and told ourselves that we’d soon be on another flight and see them again. We don’t know for sure who all suspended our applications for visas and passports, but we suspect Dr. Menanteau probably held up our visas, and have been very grateful to him and any others, for doing so.
On September 11, 1973 the coup happened and people were fleeing Chile, when they could, as the military had also seized the airports. We later heard some of those whom we had hugged good-bye, were among those who disappeared within the first days of the coup and a number of them never returned. Some were never found; some were found by their distraught families to have been murdered. Nixon had not cared what happened to them if they’d gone to build a new Chile under Allende, even with a coalition government, and a Congress dominated by centrist parties.
Suddenly, even the very nice, well-educated Dr. Menanteau and his family were in trouble. We went to see him a few days after the coup to see if he knew more about what was happening and he was quite upset. Although he was an honorary consul, and a resident of the U.S., he was also still a citizen of Chile, at that time, and had just been ‘summoned to come to Chile and be questioned to determine if his status as consul would continue’ by the new Pinochet government. He was afraid for his life and that of family members!
I had become acquainted with Senator Hubert Humphrey in 1972 and he, and other Democratic Party leaders in Minnesota were following the events as much as they could with great interest. I urged Dr. Menanteau to call the Senator’s office immediately and ask to speak with his senior aide Fred Gates, and tell them I referred him. I also called Senator Humphrey’s office, and the Senator and his staff were also quite concerned. The Senator then used various channels and let the new Chilean government know that Dario Menanteau was highly regarded in Minnesota and that the summons would be honored on condition that the Senator and the University were assured of his and his family’s safe return to the U.S. after this mandated visit to Chile.
After that, Senator Humphrey, Fred Gates and I went to work creating a lobbying plan for Congress to allow Chilean refugees into the U.S. who could make it to the U.S. Embassy in Chile–and order the cooperation of the U.S. Embassy officials (some were later found in U.S. Congressional investigations to have aided the coup, as did the CIA (admitted in Congressional testimony by then CIA director, William Colby in 1974, and the U.S. Navy). This is when I first began to learn how to lobby Congress, and get legislation passed, personally tutored by Senator Hubert Humphrey, none other than one of the greatest masters of the art of successful legislation, who had been one of the masterminds of the Civil Rights legislation. I met with Senator Humphrey and Fred Gates for about a dozen times in 1974, and continue to work with them and the Democratic party–and with many good Republicans who then cared about the nation and world–on many issues, until the Senator’s unexpected, untimely death in 1978.
It was eventually discovered that Nixon himself had ordered Navy and CIA cooperation, expecting not to have this discovered. Nixon and aides initially lied about his and U.S. agencies’ involvement, but William Colby and others, under oath, sometimes in closed hearings, revealed the truth. When the articles of impeachment were being discussed and drawn up, Nixon’s Chile orders were then made part of the impeachment proceedings. Both Democrats and Republicans in the House voted for the impeachment articles. President Richard Milhous Nixon then resigned as the impeachment trial was about to begin in the U.S. Senate–with Senator Humphrey and allies in both parties just waiting.
For persons who are interested in learning more about what happened in the Chilean coup and who Walter Rauff was, see the film Missing filmed in 1982, with Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek about a distraught American father who goes to Chile to find out what happened to his son who was caught up in the coup. It won a Palme D’or award. You might want to also find the 3-season series that was on cable television until March, 2018 on the History Channel, called Hunting Hitler. One of the episodes was almost entirely about Colonia Dignidad and its gory, sometimes mysterious history–it’s now a friendly gasthous in the Chilean Andes, but don’t go wandering about the estate too much or it won’t be friendly for long. One of the last episodes toured the concentration camps run by Rauff under Pinochet and interviewed a survivor who remembered the conditions well–and the Nazi flags.