Australia Played a Key Role in Chile’s 1973 Coup. Chilean Exiles Are Demanding an Apology.

Newly declassified documents reveal that Australia helped the US overthrow Chile’s democratically elected socialist government and install the brutal Augusto Pinochet regime. Chilean exiles in Australia are demanding an apology.

Chilean president Salvador Allende attends a press conference in the Government House in Santiago, Chile, in 1973. His government was overthrown by a violent right-wing coup months later. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

In an open letter to Australia’s minister for foreign affairs, Marise Payne, a group of campaigners representing the Chilean exile community and victims of the Augusto Pinochet regime have condemned Australia’s role in Chile’s violent military coup, which overthrew democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973.

Newly declassified files, released to Canberra academic and intelligence analyst Clinton Fernandes, detail how the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) requested assistance from the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) during the Allende administration in undermining the president’s authority and sabotaging Chile’s socialist project.

According to the files, ASIS set up a surveillance unit in Santiago, Chile, as part of the wider CIA campaign to discredit the Salvador Allende government. It’s estimated that, from 1970 to 1973, the United States poured $8 million into the smear campaign, funding the far-right El Mercurio newspaper to create a campaign of disinformation and fan preexisting social tensions in Chile.

Further details on the role of ASIS in Chile during the Allende administration are not yet forthcoming, thanks to the secretive nature of the operation and the government’s resistance to releasing this information, even forty-eight years after foreign powers helped install the Pinochet regime.

Despite Fernandes’s repeated requests, the Australian government insists that revealing the information would pose a threat to Australian national security. Fernandes has taken the case to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to push for the declassification of key documents on foreign interference during Allende’s thousand days in power.

Veil of Secrecy

In 2019, a protest movement dubbed el Estallido pushed to replace the Chilean constitution imposed during the right-wing, authoritarian Pinochet regime. But the constitution itself is not the only legacy of the Pinochet era.

Very few generals have been held to account for the human rights atrocities committed by the regime, while most of the 4,000 disappeared students, trade union leaders, and activists have yet to be found.

The current administration has strong links to the regime. President Sebastián Piñera is the brother of Pinochet’s ruthless Labor minister Jose Piñera, and Chile’s highly concentrated media is owned by Pinochet supporters.

The victims of the coup who remain in Chile have not received reparations — much less has the exile community, many of whom were barred from returning to Chile until the late 1980s, when the infamous blacklist preventing reentry was finally removed.

Rodrigo Acuña, the son of Chilean-Australian exiles and a signatory of the open letter, told Jacobin about his experience of exile and intergenerational trauma:

While I personally did not grow up with a violent or abusive father as a result of the torture he underwent, my old man did remarry and was absent in my life for many years, as I think he wanted to forget his past. Other Chileans I know endured some type of physical and psychological abuse from their parents who were victims of the dictatorship.

Then there were those who had to endure either their mother or father regularly returning to Chile to continue their pursuit of justice to find their disappeared relatives. In 2021 some people are still doing this, while many second- and third-generation Chileans have never known what it is like to grow up with an uncle or grandmother, because he or she was murdered by Pinochet’s thugs.

They have also lost their ability to speak and read Spanish fluently and other important aspects of Chilean culture that are very rich and diverse. Who will return this to them? Also, the horrors that were lived in Pinochet’s torture chambers were retold to many of the children whose parents suffered under the dictatorship.

Australia’s Debt to Pinochet’s Victims

The letter sent to Marisa Payne on behalf of Australia’s Chilean political exiles contains two key demands. The first is that the files be opened, so that the truth about Australia’s role in the 1973 US-backed coup is finally revealed. The second is that Australia apologize for the suffering that its interference in a sovereign nation has caused. Acuña comments:

It is still painful to know that the country that gave you sanctuary was the same one that destroyed the lives of your parents and millions of Chileans, who had to endure seventeen years of a brutal military dictatorship.

We are currently appealing the decision [to keep the files secret], but it speaks volumes of the Australian government. In summary, they are telling us that they reserve the right to overthrow democratically elected governments overseas.

We Chilean-Australians would not have any dignity or self-respect if we did not denounce, in the harshest language, Australia’s role in the violent coup in Chile in 1973, demand an apology, and ask for a full declassification of ASIS activities in Chile in the 1970s.

The case remains in the Australian appeals court, but as a new alliance between the United Kingdom, United States, and Australia — all of which had a hand in overthrowing Allende and installing Pinochet — takes shape in the post-COVID-19 geopolitical sphere, the battle for truth and justice will be hard-won.