Chile: Dismantling the Dictatorship

Rodrigo Acuña

16 May 2022

Australia’s role in the 1973 coup and the return to reform in Santiago

From Australia with love

In his biography The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh writes a passage concerning Australia. In their aim to overthrow the administration of Chile’s President Salvador Allende, by late 1971 the CIA was in Santiago ‘collecting the kind of information that would be essential for a military dictatorship in the days following a coup—lists of civilians to be arrested, those to be provided with protection, and government installations to be occupied immediately’. Hersh notes that since it was aware its activities were being watched by the new administration, the CIA put a formal request to Australian prime minister William McMahon to send Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) agents to Santiago. Commenting on the request, ASIS noted ‘there was no vital Australian political or economic interest in Chile at the time’. However, the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Sir Keith Waller, viewed the request favourably and Canberra conceded, sending three agents to the Chilean capital. 

Whether the ASIS agents participated in identifying progressive Chileans to be arrested after the Popular Unity (UP) government was overthrown by General Augusto Pinochet on 11 September 1973 remains unknown, but by October the following year, journalist Ian Frykberg had published an article in The Sydney Morning Herald on the matter. There, citing two ex-intelligence agents, he claimed that ASIS agents were working with the CIA ‘acting as the conduit for money passing from the CIA to newspapers and individuals leaking propaganda information to newspapers and other influential people’. After running this story, the paper’s editor Brian Johns assigned journalist Hamish McDonald to look into it further. Years later, however, McDonald recalled:

I was told by our managing editor, Graham Wilkinson, that the deputy head of ASIS had rang out and said ‘Please, call it off, this is not in the national interest’…I did call the ambassador who had been in Santiago at that time…Deschamps, and asked him if he had any comment on the allegations and his reply was simply ‘What on earth do you expect me to say?’

McDonald’s comments, made in 2015, were to SBS journalist Florencia Melgar, who eventually broke the international story that former Pinochet intelligence agent Adriana Rivas was wanted by Interpol for kidnapping and disappearing seven members of the Chilean Communist Party—and was living in Sydney. Melgar made a formal request to the Australian government to investigate ASIS’s early-1970s activities in Chile, but not only was her request turned down, she was ‘warned’ she ‘risked legal prosecution’ if she published certain material on ASIS obtained through Chile’s Foreign Affairs official records. 

Melgar, like the reporters at The Sydney Morning Herald, is one of several journalists who have attempted to go down the rabbit hole of trying to uncover Canberra’s collaboration with Washington in creating a coup climate to destabilise Allende. In November 1988, when an unfinished manuscript of Brian Toohey and William Pinwill’s book Oyster: The Story of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service fell into the hands of the Australian government, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade ‘took action in the Federal Court which effectively prevented the publication by us of any material about ASIS which had not been vetted by the government’, as the authors commented in a note to their work. Years later, writing on Toohey and Pinwill’s study, Melgar and researcher Pablo Leighton noted that while the book had a ‘reliable record of Robert Hope’s report on Chile’s case, which summarises the findings of the Royal Commission on Security and Intelligence (1974–77)’, the ‘relevant information about the operation in Chile’ was blacked out.  

In mid-2021 an important breakthrough occurred when Clinton Fernandes, former Australian Army intelligence officer and now a professor of politics at the University of New South Wales, sought to have ASIS’s 2017 station reports from Chile declassified. On 2 June 2021, despite ongoing resistance, the Australian government conceded, handing over various heavily redacted ASIS reports that finally confirm Canberra’s role in supporting the overthrow of a democratically elected government in South America in 1973. While this important revelation drew some attention in the Australian media, these ASIS files reveal mainly technical information about ASIS activities in Chile. 

Sub-imperialism versus the rebel state

The geopolitical contrast between Australia and Chile in the early 1970s could not have been greater. According to Fernandes, ‘Australia is a sub-imperial state’ as ‘its geo-strategic tradition from the earliest days is to fit into the global strategy of a Great Power’. Having benefited from Great Britain’s exploitation of India, which saw large sums of British capital invested in Australia, Canberra eventually ‘acquired its own neo-colonies of Papua New Guinea and Nauru and a combined military-economic area of influence that extended to Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu’. With the decline of British power, Australia ‘aligned itself with the United States while retaining its geo-strategic tradition’. While Canberra, in theory, could have declined the CIA’s request to become involved in Chile in the autumn of 1970, such a course of action would hardly have been viewed favourably by the Nixon administration.

Across the Pacific Ocean, Chile had long been a subservient actor within the US sphere of influence. Diplomatically, occasionally Santiago would disagree with Washington. In 1962, at a meeting of the Organisation of American States (OAS) at Punta del Este, Uruguay, the Chilean delegation differed with President John F. Kennedy on imposing sanctions on the new revolutionary government in Havana and abstained from voting to expel Cuba from the OAS. But with four US companies controlling 80 to 90 per cent of Chile’s large-scale mining from the 1920s until the late 1960s, Santiago’s occasional discord with Washington was the exception. By 1970, even after the Christian Democratic president Eduardo Frei Montalva nationalised 51 per cent of Chile’s three largest mines, according to one expert, ‘foreign investors still controlled a quarter of Chilean industry’. 

When Allende took office in November 1970, after winning by a small electoral minority that needed his presidency to be ratified by Chile’s congress, a political earthquake took place at the White House. Two days after Allende’s inauguration, President Richard Nixon summoned his entire National Security Council (NSC). ‘We want to do it right and bring him down’, said Secretary of State William Rogers at the 6 November 1970 NSC meeting. Nixon himself added: ‘Our main concern in Chile is the prospect that he [Allende] can consolidate himself and the picture projected to the world will be his success’. As recorded in notes taken by CIA director Richard Helms at an earlier meeting with Nixon, the president had issued a directive to ‘make the [Chilean] economy scream’, indicating that over US$10 million was available to overthrow Allende.   

Allende’s socialism was via a constitutional path, and was a form of economic nationalism, but it was extremely unwelcome to the United States for precisely that reason. As Nixon stressed in the 6 November meeting, Allende’s reforms posed an ideological challenge. Their success could provide a model for other countries. In the words of the NSC, the United States had to ‘maintain and fortify the special relationship’. Any inability to do so would indicate ‘a failure of our capacity and responsibility as a great power’. If the United States could not maintain its system in the western hemisphere, it could not expect to be able ‘to achieve a successful order elsewhere in the world’.

The direction Allende’s government would take was no secret to analysts at the US State Department. As a senator representing the Socialist Party of Chile, Allende had arrived in Havana only a few days after Fidel Castro and the 26th of July Movement overthrew US-backed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in January 1959. In Bolivia, in 1967, when Comandante Ernesto ‘Ché’ Guevarra attempted to overthrow another US-backed dictator, Allende’s support went beyond eloquent speeches, obtaining safe passage through Chile for the few surviving guerrillas after the Argentine-Cuban rebel was captured and executed with the aid of US military advisers in October that year. 

When the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR) refused to join Allende’s broad leftist coalition because they viewed it as not revolutionary enough, the ‘golden wrist’, as he was known for his outstanding abilities to negotiate, nevertheless supported them with Cuban military and intelligence training so they could integrate themselves into his personal security team. Known as the Group of Personal Friends (GAP), these young men were the ones who stayed and died with Allende defending the presidential palace La Moneda as it was engulfed in flames after the Chilean air force bombed it on 11 September 1973.

According to one Soviet analyst, Allende was not a ‘down to earth person’ but rather ‘idealistically minded, motivated by noble ideas and easily persuaded to do things which were not reasonable, economically or politically, and to take gambles, which he lost. But no one ever actually doubted his honest intentions as a person and his integrity as a politician’. Worse for Washington, since the Chilean Left, with the exception of the Communist Party, did not adhere to any program inspired by Moscow but rather sought to push forward a broadly left agenda for Latin America, the United States could not label Allende a puppet of the Soviet Union.   

Once in office, the UP administration moved Chile towards what the Argentine thinker Carlos Escudé would categorise as a ‘rebel state’, a term that applies when a small Third World country chooses to ‘be part of the anarchical system of the Great Powers by challenging the right of the Great Powers to dominate’. Nationalising the copper industry completely, the UP offered compensation to US companies based on the number of years they had spent and profits they had made in Chile and what they thought was an appropriate figure. According to historians Simon Collier and William F. Sater in A History of Chile, 1808–2002:

From the beginning, the new government strove hard to fulfil its program. It greatly increased social spending, and made a determined effort to redistribute wealth to the lower-paid and the poor. As a consequence of higher wages and new initiatives in health and nutrition, many poorer Chileans, perhaps for the first time in their lives, ate well and clothed themselves somewhat better than before.

Nationalising public utilities, non-foreign banks and a number of basic industries, the UP administration also froze prices on goods and rents while providing credits to small and medium-size businesses. In Allende’s Chile, children received free milk in schools, while hospitals were ordered not to turn away those who could not pay for their own medical attention. In 1972, when a CIA-funded national strike by over 40,000 truck drivers took place, aimed at damaging the UP, the administration relied on a telex network to determine which roads were accessible in order to coordinate the allocation of crucial resources and maintain factory production. Created for Project Cybersyn, a collaboration between the Allende government and a British consulting film, the project endeavoured to provide the administration with real-time information on the country’s production. Decades later Project Cybersyn would be viewed by many as one of the forerunners of the internet. 

In foreign policy, according to Victor Figueroa Clark, the UP was ‘revolutionary in that it proposed a sea change in Chile’s relations with the rest of the world’. ‘Chile’, he notes, ‘would no longer accept a subordinate place within an international system dominated by the United States, and would no longer accept the primacy of foreign interests’. Following this principle, Chile immediately established full diplomatic contacts with Cuba while also creating new relations with countries in Africa and Asia and the socialist bloc, and becoming a member of the Non-Aligned Movement. This was certainly not welcomed by Washington. The Americans sought to undermine the Non-Aligned Movement, contesting political change in the developing world generally by resisting calls for a New Economic International Order and destabilising various countries, encouraging military coups in Brazil (1964), Indonesia (1965), Bolivia (1971), Uruguay (1973), Chile (1973) and Argentina (1976).

Within South America, Santiago continued to support the economic integration agreement known as the Andean Pact, signed by the governments of Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. Resolving a border dispute with Argentina, prior to the 1971 coup in Bolivia, according to historian Jorge Magasich, Allende ‘negotiated reestablishment of diplomatic relations with La Paz, taking a favourable approach to Bolivia’s demand for access to the Pacific. At the same time, Chile granted asylum to thousands of political exiles from the countries of the Latin American dictatorships’. In April 1972 Chile hosted the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in Santiago. There Allende warned that UNCTAD needed to be defended as the United States, Japan and the European Economic Community were removing barriers to free trade through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (the forerunner of the World Trade Organization), which ‘at one stroke [would] wipe out the advantages that the system of generalised preferences contributes to the developing countries’.

On 11 September 1973, having strangled the Chilean economy, local elites and the Nixon administration succeeded in persuading enough members of the Chilean military to carry out a violent coup that would see General Augusto Pinochet in power until 1990. As thousands of Chilean leftists and sympathisers who had exercised their democratic right to vote for Allende were imprisoned and tortured in places like the National Stadium, or were executed, their corpses seen floating in the Mapocho River in downtown Santiago, one Australian continued to stay in the country, an ASIS agent, despite the ASIS station in the Chilean capital officially closing in July that year. 

Breaking with Pinochet’s legacy

In December 2021, 35-year-old former law student and activist Gabriel Boric won the Chilean national elections, to the jubilation of the mass of the Chilean public. Not since Allende has Chile seen a leftist president elected, nor such a massive grassroots movement as carried him successfully to La Moneda. The contrast between the two candidates could not have been greater: Boric faced the ultra-right politician José Antonio Kast, who openly campaigned as a student leader in favour of Pinochet during the 1988 plebiscite, and whose brother, Miguel Kast, served as the dictator’s central bank president. Were the Kast name to have needed any further link to fascism than to Pinochet himself, during the election it came to light that the presidential candidate’s father, Michael Kast, had voluntarily become a member of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party in 1942. 

Through Kast, these symbolic reminders of Chile’s dark past were important, and highlighted what was fundamentally at stake in the 2021 presidential election: a break with the Pinochet dictatorship’s legacy. During the election, Boric repeatedly stated that the judicial processes against human rights violators from the military dictatorship would be sped up, as Pinochet’s victims have complained of constant delays in the courts in carrying out prosecutions and convictions. By the end of the Pinochet dictatorship, in 1990, according to the country’s Commission of Truth and Reconciliation, some 40,018 Chileans had been tortured and 2279 executed, although many have argued that many more cases could be added to these figures. 

In a similar manner, many voices within Chile have been making strong calls for the country’s police force, Carabineros de Chile, to be replaced, given its long record of human rights abuses under the dictatorship, and well into the era of parliamentary democracy. Were there any doubts about its record of brutality, during Chile’s social uprising between October 2019 and March 2020—the largest demonstrations the country has seen since the days of the dictatorship—the right-wing government of Sebastián Piñera used the full force of Chile’s police to suppress dissent, even deploying the military onto the streets after declaring martial law. According to Chile’s National Institute of Human Rights (INDH), by late November 2019, 2391 people had been injured, 964 of them because they had been fired upon with rubber bullets. By that stage INDH had taken 384 cases to the courts, including 273 for torture and cruel treatment, and 66 for sexual violence.  

In March 2021, Amnesty International noted that during the protests there had ‘been more than 8000 victims of state violence and more than 400 cases of eye trauma’. With dozens of protestors dead, over 1.2 million people took to the streets of Santiago in one demonstration alone, protesting social inequality, seeking abolition of the 1980 military constitution, and demanding Piñera’s resignation. The previous year, in an agreement between political parties, one of the key demands of the protestors had been met, with Chileans able to participate in a plebiscite on whether to change their constitution. With those in favour of abandoning the military constitution winning, a Constitutional Convention was created, with 155 representatives elected to draft a new constitution. Although the final document will have to be presented to voters, the political Right performed poorly in the number of its representatives elected to the Convention.

All of these developments shatter the myth that was long promoted by neoliberal establishment outlets like The Economist that Chile was an economic miracle, if built on foundations of state terrorism. While students protesting a hike in fares in Santiago’s metro system triggered the recent social uprising, Chile had witnessed massive student demonstrations and strikes at both secondary and tertiary level from 2006 onwards. Boric himself was a key leader in the protests from 2011 to 2013, known as the ‘Chilean Winter’. Then, university students like Boric and Communist Party leader Camila Vallejo brought the country to a standstill protesting the exorbitant debts students typically incurred on finishing their education.

Fast forward to the uprising of 2019. Boric by then was a progressive member of parliament, and student grievances against the metro fare hike connected with broader discontent about the way vast sectors of Chile’s economy had been privatised under the dictatorship. With an excellent private health system for those who could afford it, approximately ‘10,000 persons died in the first half of 2018 while waiting for an operation or treatment in the public system’, noted US scholar J. Patrice McSherry, adding that ‘Chile’s income inequality gap is more than 65 percent wider than the OECD average, and it has one of the highest ratios between the average income of the wealthiest and poorest 10 percent of the population’. Combine these factors with Chileans’ grievances over the privatisation of water, freeways, the minerals industry, and pension schemes, which see vast numbers of people retire on pittances, it should be no surprise that they voted in a former student leader who, only a few years ago, was himself protesting and facing the Carabineros’ tear gas.

Australia: The chickens come home to roost

As right-wing billionaire President Piñera, surrounded by military officers, declared ‘We are at war’, and unleashed the miliary onto the streets in October 2019, hundreds of people in the Chilean diaspora converged on Sydney Town Hall to protest against the Piñera government’s serious human rights violations. In a similar manner, when they became informed about the Australian government’s sending Australian agents to help destabilise Allende in 1971, over seventy Australian citizens and residents of Chilean origin like myself sent an open letter to Foreign Minister Marise Payne denouncing Canberra’s actions. In November 2021 a second letter was sent to the minister, this time signed by 269 people. Noting that many had themselves been ‘illegally detained and tortured by state security forces of the military junta’, the letter noted:

Our loved ones were subjected to State terrorism from 11 September 1973 through to March 1990, and Australia recognised many of us as political refugees or beneficiaries of its humanitarian programme. We feel deceived as we learn that ASIS agents cooperated with the CIA to carry out the violent coup d’état which brought Pinochet to power, resulting in the violation of our human rights, prior to being offered refuge in Australia.

Arguing they are entitled to an ‘an unreserved apology from the Government of Australia’, because it ‘interfered in a sovereign nation in a clear breach of international law’, signatories to the letter also called for the full declassification of documents relating to ASIS and ASIO activities in Chile. Replying to the original letter, DFAT stated that, as ‘this matter is the subject of ongoing legal proceedings, it would not be appropriate to provide any comment’. By the time Pinochet’s victims sent their second letter, a Sydney court had refused Fernandes’ request to declassify more ASIS files on Chile, on the basis that the Australian Archives Act allows the government to keep certain documents classified ‘to preserve…[its] capabilities to keep secrets as necessary’.

Chilean activists such as radio journalist Pilar Aguilera of the National Campaign for Truth and Justice in Chile-Australia, who had written to DFAT seeking further declassification of documents, also campaigned to have the Pinochet agent Adriana Rivas arrested and extradited to Chile. Although Rivas had been wanted by Interpol ever since fleeing Chile in 2011, and was living in Bondi and working as a nanny, Australian authorities did not arrest her until February 2019. As a result of the campaign by Chilean-Australian activists, in June 2014 shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus, QC, presented a petition to parliament signed by over 600 concerned Chilean and Australian citizens regarding the Rivas case. That campaign, with media attention and resubmission of an extradition request by Chilean authorities, contributed to Rivas’ arrest. She is currently detained in Silverwater Women’s Correctional Centre. Having lost her latest appeal in the Federal Court to dismiss her extradition, Rivas’ chances of avoiding having to answer for her crimes in Chile, which include allegedly murdering a heavily pregnant woman, appear to be narrowing.     

In the last months of 2021, when it became clear that the political Left in Chile was making a major comeback in the presidential election, the Chilean diaspora in Australia could be seen mobilising in various Australian cities. When the final tally for the presidential election came in for Chileans in Australia, 2009 votes were for Boric, in contrast with 574 for Kast. 

On the day of the election, Boric’s campaign team loudly complained to the Piñera government that public transport was unavailable throughout the popular sectors of Santiago, where the vote would predominantly be for Boric. Once his victory was official, the Chilean stock market plunged by 10 per cent. While Boric’s light social-democratic policies cannot be compared with Allende’s ‘Chilean Road to Socialism’, the president-elect has promised to dismantle important sections of the neoliberal model.

If Boric follows through on his electoral promises, we can expect a strong reaction from Chilean elites and their US allies. There, the lessons of the UP administration might warrant study once again. In Australia Chilean activists and researchers will continue to press to declassify the archive, which would reveal the extent of Canberra’s intelligence activities in helping to overthrow a democratically elected government at the behest of Washington.

About the author

Rodrigo Acuña

Rodrigo Acuña is an independent journalist and researcher who specialises in Latin American politics. He is the host of Alborada’s Indestructible Podcast and publishes a monthly newsletter on Latin America. Rodrigo holds a PhD from Macquarie University and together with journalist Nicholas Ford is completing a documentary titled Venezuela: The Cost of Challenging an Empire. You can follow him on Twitter at @rodrigoac7.

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