Refugee shock over Aussie role in Chile coup

Refugee shock over Aussie role in Chile coup

Forty years after the coup that brought dictator Augusto Pinochet to power in Chile, refugees from his regime are demanding Australia apologise for helping the CIA undermine his predecessor. 

It's been said that the best place to hide something is in plain sight.


And this story has been out in the open for decades.


But it's only now, 40 years after the coup that brought dictator Augusto Pinochet to power in Chile, that refugees from his regime have become fully aware of Australia's involvement in Chile during that time.


They are demanding Australia apologise for helping the CIA undermine Augusto Pinochet's democratically-elected predecessor.


So what was Australia's role?


Florencia Melgar reports.



On the morning of September the 11th, 1973, Chile's President Salvador Allende, was at home in the presidential palace.


For weeks there had been mounting political uncertainty, and now there were soldiers in Santiago's streets.


Earlier that morning, the Navy had taken the port of Valparaiso, north of the capital, and since then the army had shut down several of the city's television and radio stations and bombed most of the others.


Allende, Chile's first democratically-elected socialist leader, hoped that only some elements of the armed forces had betrayed him, and that the leadership of the military would uphold the constitution.


But within hours, the army announced that it had taken control of Chile and that he had been deposed by a military coup d'état, led by General Augusto Pinochet.


President Allende refused to surrender.


Instead, he gave a farewell speech via the last radio station still broadcasting.


"The Air Force has bombarded the towers. Given these facts, I can only tell the workers, I am not going to resign. I will pay with my life the loyalty of the people. They have the power, they can dominate us, but social processes don´t stop. History is ours and people make history."


When troops entered the palace they found the President dead: he'd shot himself with a gun that had been a gift from Fidel Castro.


Until that point, Chile had boasted a long and stable democratic tradition in a politically fragile region beset by civil war and dictatorship.


Declassified documents have since revealed what many suspected at the time - that Allende's socialist government had been undermined by the Americans.


Before Allende's election in September 1970, President Richard Nixon's administration was using the CIA to fund Chile's right-wing media outlets and Allende's political opponents.


It was concerned that Allende's socialist policies would harm US business interests in Chile, like copper mining.


After they failed to turn the election outcome, the CIA set out to undermine the Allende government and they sought help to do so.


Following a formal request from the United States, two officers from the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, or ASIS, were stationed in Santiago.


Chilean refugee and author Gustavo Martin Montenegro says by 1972, the Australian officers had agreed to manage three agents on the CIA's behalf and to relay information to Washington.


"The CIA asked ASIS, the Australian intelligence organisation, to replace those people with agents from Australia."


In the same year, Labor's Gough Whitlam became Prime Minister after more than two decades of conservative government.


One of the things set to change was foreign policy.


At the time, Bill Robertson was head of Australia's Secret Intelligence Service, which was set up for overseas operations.


It was his task to inform Mr Whitlam that Australian spies were helping the CIA to undermine a left-wing government in South America.


There are differing accounts of what came next.


According to Mr Whitlam's memoirs, he was appalled at the news and ordered the officers be pulled out right away.


"Early in 1973 I asked the current head, William Thomas Robertson, where his men were operating. When he informed me that there were two in Chile I asked what they were doing there. He said that in the previous April, (PM Billy) McMahon had agreed to their assisting the CIA, which feared that it might be exposed and expelled at any moment. McMahon had noted that the arrangement should be reviewed in a year´s time. I told him that I believed they had no business there."


But a memo published by Bill Robertson in a bid to clear his name after Mr Whitlam sacked him in 1975 may be telling a different story.


"Mr. Whitlam, from a Labor Government point of view, expressed considerable concern about the difficulty he had with the ASIS deployment in one particular country. In anticipation that he would not agree to the continuation of the ASIS representation there I had taken to the briefing a submission prepared for his signature ordering the closure of the station and withdrawal of the ASIS staff. Mr Whitlam took the submission but declined to sign it at the time, expressing a concern that our intelligence allies might react adversely."


The fact of Australia's involvement in Chile only became public in 1977 when a Royal Commission, set up by Gough Whitlam to review Australia's security services, made its report.

The full implications of ASIS's role in Chile was never examined by the Royal Commission, and its report certainly did not condemn it.


However, it did seek to clarify the ASIS mission in Chile.


"At no time was ASIS approached by the CIA, or made aware of any plans that may have been prepared to affect the internal political situation in Chile. The ASIS station in Santiago was concerned only with intelligence-gathering via the agents handed over to it."

But there are lingering doubts over whether the Australians could have been insulated from the CIA's efforts to unseat Allende.

In May 1977, Mr Whitlam himself told the Parliament that when his government took office, Australian intelligence personnel were working as proxies of the CIA in destabilising the government of Chile.


ASIS reportedly ceased handling the CIA's agents around May 1973.

The first of the two ASIS officers is said to have left Chile in July, and the second by October - just after the coup ended Allende's presidency.


But Australia's spy presence in Chile continued, even after ASIS withdrew.

Agents from ASIO, the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation, which normally focuses on domestic security, were in Santiago well into Pinochet's reign, working out of the Australian Embassy.


In 1983, an ABC Four Corners documentary called Allies broadcast remarks from Gough Whitlam's former Minister for Immigration, Clyde Cameron.


"I was appalled to think that my own department was involved in this sort of work and that our intelligence agents in Chile were acting as the hyphen between the CIA and the Pinochet junta. Imagine my amazement when I received a letter from the Prime Minister [Mr Whitlam] saying that I was to take no further action in the matter, that I was not to withdraw ASIO agents even from Santiago in Chile and that nothing was to be done about it at all."


Meanwhile, after the coup, Chile's military had clamped down, hard.


Soldiers occupied the streets of Chile's major cities, enforcing a dusk-to-dawn curfew.

Armed groups, inspired by Ché Guevara and the Cuban revolution, were organising in many parts of South America in the 1970s.


But under the auspices of a war against Marxist subversives, General Pinochet and his colleagues sought to wipe out all opposition, violent and non-violent, to right-wing military rule in Chile.


Suspected left-wing activists were rounded up and detained, and many of them tortured.


Political parties and trade unions were banned, and the media was heavily censored.


Pinochet's secret police, the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional, known as DINA, operated outside the criminal justice system: thousands of people 'disappeared' without official arrest, without trial and without any public record.

Mariana Minguez was 19 years old when she and her husband were 'disappeared' by DINA in 1984.


Mariana and her husband had been working with a Christian church group to help young people and pregnant women in the poor outskirts of Santiago.

She says it wasn't political work, but it created a consciousness that the government wasn't doing the best for the people, so in a way that was dangerous.


Mariana was held in a secret detention centre for eight days.


"I was missing for eight days and I was tortured, I was raped, I was tortured with electricity, I was hit. I was abused in all the different ways that a human being can be abused. They knew I was pregnant."


Many Chileans who feared being targeted sought to escape the country - across the Andes to Argentina or beyond, to Europe, the United States and Australia.

The Whitlam government, with bipartisan support, created a special program for Chilean refugees.


Between 1974 and 1981, about 6,000 Chileans were granted asylum, and hundreds more joined them under the family reunion program.


In 1971, there were fewer than four-thousand Chileans living in Australia but by 1991, just a year after Pinochet's regime came to an end, there were more than 24,000.


Now, four decades after the coup that brought Augusto Pinochet to power in Chile, a fierce debate about Australia's role in the coup is underway among Chilean refugees in Australia.


Many Chileans feel Australia's foreign policy regarding the Chilean dictatorship was hypocritical.


Among them is Mariana Minguez.


"I wasn´t that surprised about Australia was involved in the coup helping the USA because I see Australia being the little brother of USA, always trying to follow what they do: their involvement in Afghanistan or their involvement in Iraq, chasing and following what USA does. I wasn't that shocked that Australia was involved but I was shocked that the government that was in charge of that was Labor. Oh my gosh, I couldn't believe that it was a Labor government."


Paula Sanchez is a former political prisoner who came as a refugee to Australia.


"Looking at the relationship that Australia has with the United States, it sort of makes sense that yes, actually they were working together, that Australia was directly involved in the military coup, that they had spies in there located in Chile in the Allende government and they were actually reporting to the CIA in Washington, known by the Australian government, they were actually placed in there, which makes me imagine that Australia is quite involved in other military coups, in other conflicts. You can see obviously that in any conflict that America is involved, Australia follows."


The Chilean community in Australia is, like Chilean society, divided along pro- and anti-Pinochet lines.

Not everyone who arrived in Australia was a dissident seeking exile from the secret police.

Victor Marrillanca, a former public servant and long-time broadcaster for Spanish community radio in Canberra, arrived as a refugee in 1975.


He says some people who had been part of Pinochet's regime migrated to Australia.


"It's well known that members of the secret police and the secret services of Chile were coming to Australia. Some of them - we were lucky that we stopped two cases, as we were advised in time from Chile that two former members of the secret police in Chile were coming to Australia. They had the tickets, they had everything ready. We made enquires in Australia and also with information we received from Chile, and they said they're arriving next week. So we met with [Immigration Minister under the Hawke/Keating governments] Gerry Hand, and he put a stop to the two cases. There are lot of cases that we'd let the authorities know and also the Chilean press knew about people from the Chilean secret police arriving in Australia, posing as refugees and Australia accepting them."


That upsets Mariana Minguez.


"I don't like that people who committed such atrocities can come here freely and live the same way as I am living, without passing through justice. I don't want them to be freely walking around, thinking what they did was right."


Mariana Minguez would like to see the federal government acknowledge the part Australia played in Chile at that time.


"They should say sorry. I don´t think they will, though. We need an acknowledgement of what has happened and their involvement. The USA was the one who caused everything, and they haven´t apologised either. If the government would say: look, that´s what happened and we did this and we are sorry for that, there would be some healing to the whole situation. It would start giving some closure. I think we´ve been on hold too long."


Professor of Latin American Studies at the Australian National University, Barry Carr, says Australia needs to publicly acknowledge this episode.


"We need to have an acknowledgement of what happened in the past and of errors and mistakes. Acknowledging the past and reconstructing the past and trying to understand the past is really important. One of the big problems in Australia has been historically, government activity of all kinds is shrouded with secrecy and public access to documents is much more difficult, it's much more restricted here than it has been for example in a country like the United States."


Professor Carr says it's unlikely that the documents that may be able to reveal the truth of Australia's activities in Chile will ever lose their "classified", or secret, status.


"I think that the actions of Australia´s intelligence, particularly overseas intelligence operations, is never at the centre of declassification. And I think that overseas intelligence operations, like ASIS rather than ASIO, is all more sensitive because it involves collaboration with friendly intelligence organisations in other countries. So the government always can argue that while it was prepared to release information on some issues, that simply is not able to release any information which might reveal data on the operations of a friendly country or of organisations or agencies of a friendly country."


Whether or not complete evidence of Australia's role in Chile is made public, human rights activist Dianne Hiles says one question should be asked of any Australian government.


"After 40 years, I think there should certainly be accountability and I think we should have some assurances of what would happen should the situation arise today. I would like to think people are more engaged and there would be better monitoring of operations. It's certainly very relevant to say, well, what would happen should a similar request be made today? Would we comply with it or would we not comply with it? Who makes the decisions and to whom are the people who make the decisions finally accountable?"


Chilean refugee Paula Sanchez feels an apology would be appropriate.


"I think Australia should apologise to the state of Chile or the government of Chile, and the Chilean people who were affected in the '70s, '80s and early '90s. The people that were killed, tortured, disappeared, sent to exile - I do believe the Australian government should apologise and recognise openly what happened, and their involvement in it."


Elizabeth Rivera just wants an explanation.


"If all the proofs are there, I think there should be an explanation, something must be said. I don´t know whether an apology would be what you really need at this point in time. I´m not sure about that. Someone must explain why this happened. So many people disappeared, so many people died in the hands of the military regime, that really, Australia should give an explanation."


A Chilean commission investigating human rights abuses under the Pinochet regime said in 2011 there are more than 40,000 recognised victims.


It said the official number of those killed or forcibly disappeared has exceeded 3,000.


The hundreds of bodies since found in mass and hidden graves still do not add up to the thousands of names on the lists of Chile's disappeared.


Efforts to convict Pinochet for crimes committed under his rule never succeeded, and he died a natural death in 2006, aged 91.


The former head of DINA, Manuel Contreras, is serving 25 sentences totalling 289 years in prison for kidnapping, forced disappearance and assassination.



feature by Florencia Melgar

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