On the Vatican’s Relations with the Pinochet Regime

Wikileaks recently released another wave of documents, many of them coming from the Kissinger years. While much of these items are available to scholars in archives, their broader dissemination is still useful. Among the released documents are cables revealing the Vatican’s defense of the Pinochet dictatorship [English story available here] even while the Chilean government was executing hundreds of opponents in the aftermath of the September 11 coup in 1973. In spite of being the second-highest-ranking member of the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Giovanni Benelli effectively ran the department when his superior was unable to perform his duties, made clear the Vatican’s support of the Pinochet regime, and his fierce anti-communist stance has led some to refer to him as the “Vatican Kissinger.” Among other things, the cables reveal that Benelli expressed concerns over what it portrayed as the “international left’s efforts to completely falsify the reality of the Chilean situation” with claims that the new regime was using torture and extrajudicial murders. However, in spite of Benelli’s insistence such accounts were part of some global communist plot to exaggerate the Pinochet regime’s crimes and drum up support for Allende, the Pinochet regime was indeed committing torture and murdering and disappearing anybody deemed a “subversive.” Indeed, according to the documents, Benelli himself admitted that “there has been some bloodshed in the cleanup operations in Chile,” but that Catholic officials in Chile had “assured Pope Paul [VI] that the junta is doing everything possible so that the situation return to normalcy and the stories in international media that speak of brutal repression have no foundation.”

Of course, that wasn’t the case at all – nearly all of the roughly 3,000 murders that the Pinochet regime’s security forces committed between 1973 and 1978 with the general’s approval, both tacit and explicit. And that’s not mentioning the tens of thousands who suffered torture at the hands of the state in that period. To its credit, eventually the Chilean Church began to criticize the regime for its human rights violations. Nonetheless, the fact remains that, early in the regime, the Vatican tacitly supported Pinochet and his government’s actions by siding with him over the “communist” accounts of torture and murder, accounts that were, in the end, all too tragically accurate.

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
This entry was posted in Augusto Pinochet, Catholicism in the Americas, Chile, Human Rights Violations, International Relations, Latin American Foreign Relations, The "Disappeared", Torture. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to On the Vatican’s Relations with the Pinochet Regime

  1. The Catholic Church was not alone in its initial support for Pinochet. From what I understand, people across the economic (perhaps not political) spectrum supported the coup and hoped that things would return to normal with the calling of new elections within months. Once the brutality of the regime became more well known, elections were not going to be called, and the economy worsened, many of those who initially supported the coup changed their mind. It took the US more than a decade to withdraw its support unfortunately.

    I have a friend who studied the representation of revolutionary movements in Germany. She told me that she had been told by the Chilean exile community there that 50,000 or so were killed. Those exaggerated claims helped the US and Chilean governments smear the victims.

  2. Absolutely agree re: Catholic Church not operating in isolation. Certainly, Kissinger and Nixon had spent three years trying to oust Allende and were pleased to see him go. When one considers how Argentina’s Church never really did retreat from its support for dictatorship, it speaks well of the Chilean Church that it did.

    As for the exaggerated claims, they lasted some time – if I recall correctly, the intro to Peter Winn’s “Weavers of Revolution” (which was published in the late-1980s) had the number at 30,000, so elevated numbers endured for some time until the Truth Commission completed its work. That said, one would hope that governments (not just the Vatican) would take reports of high numbers to ask questions rather than to poo-poo such reports, but sadly, such was not the case for all too many countries with regards to Pinochet, Argentina, and elsewhere.

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