Owner of Chile’s El Mercurio admits pre-coup contact with CIA, denies cooperation

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  • October 9, 2013

By Travis Knoll

Agustín Edwards Eastman, owner of the Chilean newspapers El Mercurio and La Segunda, admitted last week to meeting with former CIA director Richard Helms and former U.S. National Security advisor Henry Kissinger shortly after the election of then-Chilean president Salvador Allende, The Santiago Times reported. The statement was made during his testimony in a trial investigating possible illegal activities by the media leading up to the 1973 coup, heightening the level of scrutiny El Mercurio has received for years regarding its role during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

While a working relationship between Chile’s business class and the United States is nothing new, the controversy now centers on discrepancies between Edwards’ claims and declassified documents from the National Security Archives allegedly showing a cozier relationship than that portrayed in Edwards’ testimony.

According to his testimony, transcribed by El Mostrador, Edwards’ traveled to the United States on Sept. 5, 1970, the day after Allende’s election. In response to the prosecution’s question regarding Nixon’s “urgent” meeting with him and the CIA director, Edwards said his trip was to visit the president of Pepsi, Donald Kendall. During their meeting, he said, Kendall received a call from Nixon – a former lawyer for Pepsi – and told him about Edwards’ visit. According to Edwards’ account, Helms only later contacted him to set up a meeting with Kissinger. He denied talking to President Nixon and said that he discussed “the communist” victory in Chile but no potential coup.

Edwards was asked to explain El Mercurio’s fear of losing advertising revenue during the Allende-era foreign capital flight. He claimed that his job search in the United States kept him from following the activities of El Mercurio during that time. He said that due to threats on his life, he did not definitively return to Chile until 1975.

Declassified documents from the National Security Archives say otherwise according to Peter Konbluh, director of the National Security Archive's Chile Documentation. In an interview with El Mostrador, the historian said documents show that Edwards helped “pave the way” for the coup. He added that El Mercurio received millions from the CIA, which subsidized the writing of articles that would “suffocate the left” in Chile. Documents also show that the relationship between Edwards and the CIA extend back to the 1960s when the two entities opposed Allende’s previous electoral efforts.

Edwards is accused of “ilícit [support of] human rights abuses,” according to Chilean newspaper La Tercera. The trial, which began with a lawsuit in January of this year by the Association of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared (AFDD in Spanish) and the Association of Relatives of Executed Politicians (AFEP), was deemed “the most important trial in the history of the country” by the prosecution, according to Proceso.

Edwards’ admissions come after controversial remarks by Chilean President Sebastián Piñera that media groups were “passive accomplices” during the dictatorship. In 2008, the Chilean College of Journalists apologized for “not doing enough” to oppose the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, which lasted thirteen years from 1973 to 1990.

Some have accused El Mercurio of covering up human rights abuses during the Pinochet regime. According to Chilean news agency Cooperativa, Edwards denies having a say in El Mercurio’s editorial stance.

However, during the trial Edwards expressed gratitude toward the military government in general. “I must clarify that the military government saved my life. However, it’s not accurate [to say] I gave instructions on whether human rights information was to be published or not.”

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.