This weekend we’ll commemorate the 49th anniversary of September 11, 1973, when a fascist military coup d’etat, backed by the Nixon administration, was conducted on a democratically elected government on the other side of the world, Chile. An act of terror during which over 40,000 Chileans associated with the political left were captured and tortured with over 2,000 murdered or ‘disappeared’ – including my mother’s elder brother, Exequiel (Ezekiel) Poncè-Vicencio.
Salvadore Allende was a medical doctor and passionate democrat, elected as Chile’s president in 1970 to one of the most unequal societies in the world. The ethos was a ‘path to socialism’ through democratic means – a society to be built more in the image of Scandinavia rather than the communist forces of Cuba or the USSR.
However, democratic socialism was too uncomfortable for Western powers in the middle of the Cold War. The US, with the help of Australia, took a key role in destabilising the Allende regime resulting in the installation of military chief Augusto Pinochet, who ruled the country for nearly 20 years. This, even George Bush’s Colin Powell later remarked, was ‘not a part of American history that we are proud of.’
But how much do we know of Australia’s involvement in the Chilean coup? Recent documents have come to light including confirmation that an Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) station was established in Chile at the request of the CIA in 1971, approved by Liberal Prime Minister William ‘Billy’ McMahon. We do know that a high-level Australian official (name redacted from documents) questioned whether the station’s opening should be deferred, noting the situation in Chile ‘has not deteriorated to the extent that was feared’ and that Allende ‘had been more moderate than expected’.
It took Labor Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, to order the closure of the operation in February 1973. However, the ASIS did not leave Chile till October 1973, ensuring they kept the operations going till the September coup was complete.
Who were these ASIS operators, why were they supporting the overthrow of a democratically elected government, and why did they believe that supporting the climate and preparations for the coup were more important than taking orders from the newly elected Australian Prime Minister to come home? There continue to be a number of unanswered questions that remain cloaked in secrecy to date. So far ASIS has claimed that releasing unredacted information would be a ‘threat to national security’ and the courts have stated the Australian Archives Act allows the government to keep certain documents classified ‘to preserve…[its] capabilities to keep secrets as necessary.’
The failure of timely closure of Australia’s covert operations ordered by Whitlam was one of the reasons he gave for the sacking of the Director of ASIS on 21 October 1975. This took effect on 7 November, just four days before Whitlam’s own dismissal in 1975.
Former spy-turned-UNSW-Professor, Clinton Fernandes, has said, ‘It’s an obscenity to the memory of the victims to continue to hide the truth.’
With one hand Australia was dutifully supporting the US in the overthrow of a democratically elected government, and with the other it welcomed over 20,000 Chileans who migrated during the ’70s – seeking a refuge from the Pinochet dictatorship and calling Australia home. The vast majority of Chilean Australians came here during this period.
However, many couldn’t leave and many believed that it was important to stay and fight for the return of democracy – including Exequiel Ponce, who remains a missing person. The former head of the national union movement and socialist party leader was arrested in 1975 for his political organising and affiliation. A son of a peasant farmer later turned dock worker, he is among some 2,000 Chileans who have disappeared from all records. I remember, even in the 1990s, as democracy began returning to Chile my mother talked in hope that they may find her brother. But no, like many others they weren’t in a prison, they had long ago been murdered in a myriad of ways, including being dropped deep in the sea – ensuring their records are lost from history all so completely. Like many Chilean women, for my mother the grieving is incomplete.
Our own local filmmaker David Bradbury brings much of this to light in his 1986 documentary, Hasta Cuando? (When will it end?). He entered the country under the guise of making a film about music and religion, only to capture the horrors of a brutal military dictatorship. It’s wonderful that not only an Australian, but a local of this region has helped bring these memories of injustice to life.
We are free here to speak our mind and remember well the terrorist acts of the past. Lest we forget, lest we let it happen again.