50 Years After the Chilean Military Coup: Lessons Learned

Experts Discuss the Lasting Impact of the 1973 Chilean Military Coup

(left to right) Natalie Landau, J.D./M.A., 2024 & president, International Law Students Association; Joe Eldridge; Robert Goldman; Macarena Saez; Dr. Juan Gabriel Valdés; Mark Schneider; Roger A. Fairfax Jr., dean & professor of law, AUWCL; Padideh Ala’i; and Rashika Pedris, JD '24 & director of events, International Law Students Association.

September 11, 2023, marks the 50th anniversary of the Chilean Military Coup in which Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected government of Chile and replaced it with a military junta headed by Pinochet. Dr. Juan Gabriel Valdés, the Chilean ambassador to the United States, called it a “tragic anniversary.” 

The International Law Student Association and the LL.M. Board hosted a panel discussion that delved into the historical and contemporary aspects of Chile’s Military Coup, provided insights into the lessons learned from this pivotal event, and explored its relevance in today's global context. Distinguished speakers and experts in the field shared their perspectives, allowing attendees to gain a deeper understanding of international law, human rights, and political history.  

The discussion was moderated by Professor Padideh Ala’i, director of International & Comparative Legal Studies. Panelists included: 

  • Macarena Saez, executive director, Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch 

  • Joe Eldridge, executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) & Former AU Chaplain 

  • Dr. Juan Gabriel Valdés, ambassador to the United States, the Country of Chile

    Mark Schneider, senior advisor, Americas Program & Human Rights Initiative at CSIS 

  • Dr. Juan Gabriel Valdés, ambassador to the United States, the Country of Chile 

  • Professor Claudio Grossman, dean emeritus, AUWCL 

  • Professor Robert Goldman, Louis C. James Scholar, AUWCL 

The 1973 Chilean coup came on the tail end of a decade of US-backed military coups in Brazil in 1964, Argentina in 1966, Peru in 1968, and Bolivia in 1969.  

While the United States government did not provide direct support to the perpetrators of the Chilean coup, they did support the overthrow of the socialist president, Salvador Allende, and the installation of a leader who would be more aligned with US geopolitical goals.  

Claudio Grossman, who was living in Chile at the time of the coup, said he “always wondered if the coup would have taken place without US intervention. Perhaps it would, but that is a theory. We see that intervention took place.”  

The US government and the CIA worked to destabilize and delegitimize the Allende government to bring about regime change in the South American country.  

Joe Eldridge, executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) & Former AU Chaplain

There were two ways they did that, called Track I and Track II. Track I was applying pressure and attempting to persuade members of the Chilean Congress to choose the United States’ preferred candidate after no one won an absolute majority in the 1970 Chilean election. Track II involved encouraging members of the Chilean military to stage a coup, which ultimately is what happened. 

Grossman recalled a dispatch from the US embassy in Chile from just before the coup “finally, we have brought the Chileans to a point where the military solution is possible.” 

Mark Schneider was a foreign policy advisor to Senator Ted Kennedy in the 1970s and was part of an observation group sent by the Senate to Chile following the coup. He recounted visiting political prisoners who had been tortured.  

“You talk about torture, you talk about the violation of human rights,” he told the crowd of nearly 200 in the Ceremonial Classroom at AUWCL. “This is not something that is just in the air, these are the human beings that suffered.” 

Schneider said it was important for the United States and Congress to speak out against and oppose violent regime change and the possible human rights violations that follow because “others may not remember if they spoke out, but the victims remember. Because, when democracy comes back, those victims become the ambassadors, become the deans, become the presidents, and become the men and women who lead their democracies.” 

Several panelists noted the recent increase in world leaders who express

authoritarian views all over the world. They reminded students in the audience to remain vigilant against these sentiments and warned that violent, authoritarian regimes can still emerge.  

“What is disturbing to me is that we are seeing voices in these countries today that extol what happened,” said Goldman.  “Bolsonaro in Brazil, parts of the right-wing in Argentina, others in Uruguay, that talk about the ‘good old days’. We’re not out of the woods yet.” 

Story by Brice Helms.