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Cutting Off the Dictator: The United States Arms Embargo of the Pinochet Regime, 1974–1988


In 1976, the US Congress halted arms sales to Chile. This paper examines the congressional debate over arms sales to Chile and the political and military consequences of the action. Recent scholarship has largely overlooked the embargo and its implications for regional security dynamics in South America. Initially US sanctions increased Chile's diplomatic isolation and military vulnerability, which made regional conflict more likely. However, Chile's ability to surmount the effects of the embargo eventually increased Augusto Pinochet's independence vis-à-vis Washington. When the Reagan administration began pushing for a transition to democracy, it lacked two key instruments for influencing a military government: weapons sales and security assistance.

En 1976 el Congreso de los Estados Unidos detuvo la venta de armas a Chile. Este artículo examina el debate en el Congreso sobre la venta de armas a Chile y las consecuencias políticas y militares de tal acción. Los estudios recientes en gran medida han desestimado el embargo y sus implicaciones para las dinámicas de seguridad regional en Sudamérica. Inicialmente, las sanciones norteamericanas incrementaron el aislamiento diplomático de Chile y su vulnerabilidad militar, lo que elevaba las posibilidades de un conflicto regional. Sin embargo, la capacidad de Chile para superar los efectos del embargo incrementaría con el tiempo la independencia de Augusto Pinochet frente a Washington. Cuando la administración Reagan empezó a presionar para una transición a la democracia, le faltaron dos instrumentos clave para influir sobre el gobierno militar: la venta de armas y la asistencia para seguridad.

Em 1976 o congresso dos Estados Unidos encerrou as vendas de armamentos ao Chile. Este artigo analisa o debate no congresso acerca da venda de armas ao Chile e as consequências políticas e militares desta ação. Estudos recentes têm em grande parte ignorado o embargo e suas implicações sobre as dinâmicas regionais de segurança na América do Sul. Inicialmente, sanções americanas aumentaram o isolamento diplomático e vulnerabilidade militar chilena, tornando um conflito regional mais provável de acontecer. No entanto, a capacidade do Chile em superar os efeitos do embargo eventualmente aumentou a independência de Augusto Pinochet perante Washington. Quando a administração Reagan começou a incentivar uma transição para a democracia, faltaram-na dois instrumentos-chave para influenciar um governo militar: vendas de armamentos e assistência à segurança.

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1 Congressional Record (CR), 93rd Congress, 2nd Session, p. 32717 (26 Sep. 1974). US Senate, Foreign Relations Committee, Hearings: Foreign Assistance Authorization Arms Sales Issues, 94th Congress, 1st Session (17 June 1975), p. 141.

2 See Johnson, Robert David, Congress and the Cold War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

3 Kelly, Patrick William, ‘The 1973 Chilean Coup and the Origins of Transnational Human Rights Activism’, Journal of Global History, 8: 1 (2013), pp. 165–86.

4 A long-standing theme in US–Latin American relations is the impact of US domestic politics on policy towards the region: see, for example, Schoultz, Lars, Beneath the United States: A History of US Policy toward Latin America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

5 Friedman, Max Paul, ‘Retiring the Puppets, Bringing Latin America Back In: Recent Scholarship on United States–Latin American Relations’, Diplomatic History, 27: 5 (2003), pp. 621–36.

6 Joseph, Gil, LeGrand, Catherine and Salvatore, Ricardo (eds.), Close Encounters of Empire: Writing the Cultural History of US–Latin American Relations (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998).

7 See Kornbluh, Peter, The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability (New York: New Press, 2003).

8 See Harmer, Tanya, Allende's Chile and the Inter-American Cold War (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2011); and Gustafson, Kristian, Hostile Intent: U. S. Covert Operations in Chile, 1964–1974 (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2007).

9 Historia del Ejército de Chile, vol. 8 (Santiago: Estado Mayor General del Ejército), pp. 84–5.

10 Ibid., p. 83.

11 See Díaz, Ismael Huerta, Volvería a ser marino (Santiago: Editorial Andrés Bello, 1988), p. 318.

12 ‘Editorial’, Revista de la Fuerza Aérea, 72 (1959), p. 3. All military journals cited are available at Chile's Biblioteca Nacional in Santiago.

13 Figures taken from Loveman, Brian, For La Patria: Politics and the Armed Forces in Latin America (Wilmington, NC: Scholarly Resources, 1999), p. 152.

14 Huerta, Joaquín Fermandois, Chile y el mundo, 1970–1973: la política exterior del gobierno de la Unidad Popular y el sistema internacional (Santiago: Ediciones Universidad Católica, 1985), pp. 8993.

15 Walter, Richard J., Peru and the United States, 1960–1975: How Their Ambassadors Managed Foreign Relations in a Turbulent Era (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010).

16 See Roy, François Le, ‘Mirages over the Andes: Peru, France, the United States, and Military Jet Procurement in the 1960s’, Pacific Historical Review, 71: 2 (2002), pp. 269300.

17 See Einaudi, Luigi R. (ed.), Arms Transfers to Latin America: Toward a Policy of Mutual Respect (Santa Monica: Rand Corporation, 1973).

18 See Klare, Michael T., ‘Political Economy of US Arms Sales’, Social Scientist, 4: 11 (1976), pp. 319.

19 See, for instance, González, Carlos Prats, Memorias: testimonio de un soldado (Santiago: Pehuén, 1985), p. 148.

20 Walter, Peru and the United States, pp. 147, 237–8.

21 Clavel, Patricia Arancibia, Conversando con Roberto Kelly V.: recuerdos de una vida (Santiago: Editorial Biblioteca Americana, 2005), pp. 144–7.

22 See Green, James N., We Cannot Remain Silent: Opposition to the Brazilian Military Dictatorship in the United States (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).

23 Angell, Alan and Turrent, Isabel, ‘La cooperación internacional en apoyo de la democracia política en América Latina: el caso de Chile’, Foro Internacional, 30: 2 (1989), pp. 215–45; Schoultz, Lars, Human Rights and United States Policy toward Latin America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981), pp. 344–79.

24 Ibid., pp. 196–8.

25 Johnson, Congress and the Cold War, p. 241.

26 US Senate, Foreign Relations Committee, Hearings, Foreign Assistance Authorization Arms Sales Issues, 94th Congress, 1st Session (17 June 1975), pp. 141–6.

27 CR, 93rd Congress, 2nd Session, p. 39175 (11 Dec. 1974).

28 CR, 93rd Congress, 2nd Session, p. 33514 (2 Oct. 1974).

29 CR, 93rd Congress, 2nd Session, p. 16234 (22 May 1974).

30 CR, 93rd Congress, 2nd Session, p. 26448 (1 Aug. 1974).

31 Figures for both countries are available in Brzoska, Michael and Olson, Thomas, Arms Transfers to the Third World, 1971–85 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 158–60, 234–7. For a Chilean perspective on the Peruvian arms build-up, see Clavel, Patricia Arancibia and Cave, Isabel de la Maza, Matthei: mi testimonio (Santiago: La Tercera and Mondadori, 2003), pp. 193–5.

32 CR, 93rd Congress, 2nd Session, p. 33251 (1 Oct. 1974).

33 Johnson, Congress and the Cold War, pp. 228–30.

34 CR, 93rd Congress, 2nd Session, p. 32441 (24 Sept. 1974). A Democratic senator, John Hughes, also introduced an amendment to halt the expenditure of monies destined for covert CIA operations. Like Holtzman's effort, the Hughes Amendment failed, but it added momentum to the new internationalists' cause in Congress.

35 US Senate, Covert Action in Chile, 1963–1973 (the Church Report), available at

36 ‘El caso de la CIA en Chile’, Ercilla, 25 Sept. 1974.

37 CR, 94th Congress, 1st Session, p. 39869 (11 Dec. 1975).

38 For a historically balanced evaluation of Chile's relationship to external forces in the twentieth century and the limits of US power, see Fermandois, Joaquín, ‘The Persistence of a Myth: Chile in the Hurricane of the Cold War’, Estudios Públicos, 92 (2003), pp. 287312.

39 See Johnson, Congress and the Cold War; and Zaretsky, Natasha, ‘Restraint or Retreat? The Debate over the Panama Canal Treaties and U. S. Nationalism after Vietnam’, Diplomatic History, 35: 3 (2011), pp. 535–62.

40 Herrera, Colonel Herbert Orellana, ‘La comunidad de inteligencia de los Estados Unidos de Norteamérica’, Memorial del Ejército de Chile, 405 (1980), p. 15.

41 CR, 93rd Congress, 2nd Session, pp. 33253–4 (1 Oct. 1974).

42 CR, 93rd Congress, 2nd Session, p. 38139 (4 Dec. 1974).

43 ‘Memorandum of Conversation’, National Security Adviser's Memoranda of Conversation Collection, 12-3-1974, Gerald F. Ford Presidential Library (GFPL), available at

44 Ibid., 12-20-1974.

45 CR, 94th Congress, 2nd Session, pp. 1021–2 (26 Jan. 1976).

46 CR, 94th Congress, 2nd Session, p. 3598 (18 Feb. 1976).

47 Johnson, Congress and the Cold War, p. 228.

48 CR, 94th Congress, 2nd Session, pp. 3600–2 (18 Feb. 1976).

50 Ibid., p. 3609.

51 Ibid., p. 3614.

52 CR, 94th Congress, 2nd Session, p. 5228 (3 Mar. 1976).

53 Ibid., pp. 5227–8.

54 Lorenzo, Colonel Luís Ortiz, ‘Hablemos de psicopolítica’, Memorial del Ejército de Chile, 398 (1978), p. 105.

55 See Discurso pronunciado por el General Gustavo Leigh’, Revista de la Fuerza Aérea, 138 (1976), pp. 25.

56 Dailhe, Colonel Victor Chaves, ‘Carta abierta’, Memorial del Ejército de Chile, 397 (1978), pp. 4351; Mansilla, Hugo Llanos, ‘Los derechos humanos en la política exterior del presidente Carter, con referencia a América Latina’, Revista Marina, 726 (1978), pp. 451–8.

57 ‘Noticiario’, Revista de la Marina, 719 (1977), pp. 462–3.

58 See ‘Respuesta de M. Harrington y réplica de Pablo Aldunate: polémico debate sobre el proceso chileno’, Armas y Servicios, 5 (1976), pp. 80–2; and Neeb Gevert, Lieutenant Colonel Richard, ‘Comentarios a “Militares Chilenos” de Frederick M. Nunn’, Memorial del Ejército de Chile, 398 (1978), pp. 8395.

59 General Gustavo Leigh, speech transcript, Revista de la Fuerza Aérea, 142 (1977), p. 2.

60 See Arancibia and de la Maza, Matthei: mi testimonio, p. 110.

61 Dinges, John and Landau, Saul, Assassination on Embassy Row (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980).

62 For a nuanced look at the Carter administration's response, see Walker, Vanessa, ‘At the End of Influence: The Letelier Assassination, Human Rights, and Rethinking Intervention in US–Latin American Relations’, Journal of Contemporary History, 46: 109 (2011), pp. 109–35.

63 Schoultz, Human Rights and United States Policy, pp. 349–50.

64 See Wilkinson, Michael D., ‘The Chile Solidarity Campaign and British Government Policy towards Chile, 1973–1990’, European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, 52 (June 1992), pp. 5774.

65 Ibid., p. 62.

66 Walter, Peru and the United States, p. 291.

67 See Elizondo, José Rodríguez, Chile–Perú: el siglo que vivimos en peligro (Santiago: COPESA, 2005).

68 Spooner, Mary Helen, Soldiers in a Narrow Land: The Pinochet Regime in Chile (Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1999), p. 112.

69 ‘Memorandum of Conversation’, 6-8-76, Department of State, available at∼nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB212/19760608%20US-Chilean%20Relations.pdf.

70 ‘Memcon of Meeting with Admiral Jose Merino of Chile’, 7-21-76, National Security Council, GFPL, available at Scowcroft was President Ford's national security adviser at the time.

71 See Zbigniew Brzezinski to James Carter, ‘Your Request for an Assessment of Peru's Military Threat and Appropriate US Response’, 3-5-77, Jimmy Carter Presidential Library (JCPL), NLC-6-64-1-7-7.

72 CIA, ‘Intelligence Memorandum, Peru: An Assessment of the Threat’, 2-23-77, JCPL, NLC-6-64-1-8-6.

73 ‘Memorandum of Conversation, President Carter/President Pinochet Bilateral’, 9-6-77, JCPL, Staff Material: Pastor, North/South Country Files, Box 9, Folder 2.

74 See Dinges, John, The Condor Years: How Pinochet and His Allies Brought Terror to Three Continents (New York: New Press, 2005).

75 See Church, Jon Marco, ‘La crisis del canal de Beagle’, Estudios Internacionales, 41: 161 (2008), pp. 733.

76 For first-hand Chilean accounts of the period, see Clavel, Patricia Arancibia and Paez, Francisco Balart, Conversando con el General Julio Canessa Robert (Santiago: Editorial Biblioteca Americana, 2006), pp. 253–67; and Arancibia and de la Maza, Matthei: mi testimonio, pp. 193–203, 284–94.

77 Clavel, Patricia Arancibia and Serrano, Francisco Bulnes, La Escuadra en Acción, 1978: el conflicto Chile–Argentina visto a través de sus protagonistas (Santiago: Grijalbo, 2005).

78 Cyrus Vance to selected embassies, ‘Beagle Channel Situation Report’, 11-1-1978, Department of State; Buenos Aires to State, ‘Memcon of GOA Beagle Contingency Plans: Seizure of Unoccupied Territory’, 11-24-1978, Department of State. I obtained these documents pertaining to the Beagle Channel dispute, and those cited in subsequent footnotes, through a Freedom of Information Act request in 2009.

79 Laudy, Mark, ‘The Vatican Mediation of the Beagle Channel Dispute: Crisis Intervention and Forum Building’, in Greenberg, Melanie C., Barton, John H. and McGuinness, Margaret E. (eds.), Words over War: Mediation and Arbitration to Prevent Deadly Conflict (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), pp. 298–9; Church, ‘La crisis del canal de Beagle’, pp. 14–19.

80 Buenos Aires to State, ‘Beagle Channel: Possible Mediation Role by Pope’, 12-5-1978, Department of State.

81 Raul Hector Castro to State, ‘Subject Beagle Channel: Impending Military Hostilities’, 12-7-78, Department of State.

82 Cyrus Vance to Buenos Aires, ‘Subject: Beagle Channel Dispute’, 12-16-1978, Department of State.

83 Church, ‘La crisis del canal Beagle’, pp. 25–31.

84 Colonel Máximo, Venegas F., ‘La brecha tecnológica con Estados Unidos y la defensa continental’, Minerva, 14 (1987), p. 7.

85 Arancibia and Balart, Conversando con el General Julio Canessa Robert, p. 264.

86 Brigadier-General, Caupolicán Boisset Mujica, ‘La importancia de la investigación tecnológica para el desarrollo de la Fuerza Aérea de Chile’, Minerva, 5 (1984).

87 ‘Industria bélica en Chile’, Revista de la Fuerza Aérea, 160 (1982), p. 28.

88 ‘Discurso pronunciado por el Sr. Comandante en Jefe’, Minerva, 12 (1987), p. 6.

89 See Hibbard, Justin, ‘The Chilean Connection: Carlos Cardoen – Arms Dealer to Iraq, Former Friend of the US Government, and now Fugitive’, San Francisco Chronicle, 2 Mar. 2003.

90 ‘Historia del Pillán: entrevista al Sr. Comandante en Jefe’, Revista de la Fuerza Aérea, 161 (1982), pp. 22–7.

91 Corvalán, Carlos Tromben, La armada de Chile desde la alborada al sesquicentenario hasta el final del siglo XX (Valparaíso: Imprenta de la Armada, 2001), pp. 1509–10; see also Corvalán, Carlos Tromben, Ingeniería naval, una especialidad centenaria (Valparaíso: Imprenta de la Armada, 1989), p. 317.

92 Andrés, Pérez-Cotapos D. and Francisco, Poblete B., Alas de Chile: aeronaves de la Fuerza Aérea, 1913–2006 (Santiago: Ediciones Santillana, 2005), p. 104; see also Shahak, Israel, Israel armó las dictaduras en América Latina (Buenos Aires: Editorial Canaán, 2007).

93 Phythian, Mark, ‘“Batting for Britain”: British Arms Sales in the Thatcher Years’, Crime, Law and Social Change, 26: 3 (1996/7), pp. 278–81.

94 Tripodi, Paolo, ‘General Matthei's Revelation and Chile's Role during the Falklands War: A New Perspective on the Conflict in the South Atlantic’, Journal of Strategic Studies, 26: 4 (2003), pp. 108–23; see also Sir Freedman, Lawrence, The Official History of the Falklands Campaign, vol. 2: War and Diplomacy (London: Routledge, 2005), pp. 390–9.

95 Kirkpatrick, Jeane, ‘Dictatorships and Double Standards’, Commentary, 68: 5 (1979), pp. 3445.

96 Rojas, Colonel Hernán Verdejo, ‘La política exterior norteamericana’, Minerva, 13 (1987), p. 22.

97 Motley to Eagleburger, ‘Chile Policy Memo’, 9-23-83, Department of State, available at

98 See Stern, Steve J., Battling for Hearts and Minds: Memory Struggles in Pinochet's Chile, 1973–1988 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), pp. 528–9.

99 Motley to Dam, ‘U. S. Policy Toward Chile’, 11-23-84, Department of State, available at See also Motley to Deputy Secretary, ‘U. S. Policy Toward Chile’, 12-20-1984, Department of State, available at

100 Santiago to State, ‘The Military Leadership-Mission, Political Views and Inter-Service Relations’, 4-29-85, Department of State, available at

101 Santiago to State, ‘Strategy Paper’, Department of State, 7-8-86, available at

102 See Morley, Morris and McGillion, Chris, ‘Soldiering On: The Reagan Administration and Redemocratization in Chile, 1983–1986’, Bulletin of Latin American Research, 25: 1 (2006), pp. 122.

103 Huneeus, Carlos, The Pinochet Regime (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2007), pp. 395429; Barros, Robert, Constitutionalism and Dictatorship: Pinochet, the Junta, and the 1980 Constitution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

* I am grateful to each of the anonymous peer reviewers for their constructive comments on earlier drafts of this article. Chris McGillion and the editors of the JLAS gave me valuable feedback, and the University of Montevallo supported the research and writing of the article.

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