Chileans in Australia: The Other 9/11 and the Legacy of the Pinochet Regime

By Zuleyka Zevallos, PhD

Today is the “Other September 11.” On this day in Chile, 1973, President Salvador Allende was killed in a coup by Augusto Pinochet. My blog post explores the ongoing impact of this event on Chileans living in Australia.

In his historic speech, Allende’s final address to the nation, he talks of his sacrifice against imperial forces and his vision for the future. SBS News has a great website commemorating this event, including the role that the Australian Government played in feeding intelligence to the USA, which eventually led to the rise of the Pinochet regime. When the Australian Labor government came to power in 1972, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam is said to have been appalled about Australia’s involvement in the coup and removed his Government’s political support.

Australia began accepting Chilean refugees in the mid-1970s. The Chilean-Australian community grew from 6,000 in 1971 to over 24,000 by 1991.

Chileans in Australia

In my forthcoming research,* I show that Chilean migrants are doing relatively better than most other Latin groups in Australia, but they are not as socially mobile as other migrant groups from non-Latin backgrounds. Partly, this is due to the lack of resources that these Chilean political refugees had when they were forced into exile during the 1970s and early 1980s.

Sociologist Mytoan Nguyen wrote about the legacy of the coup on Chilean migrants in Australia. She finds that Chilean-Australian activists continue to work tirelessly to raise awareness of the regime and to remember the dead and missing across time and distance. Nguyen carried out her fieldwork research in a post September 11 environment  – a date that is more widely associated in Australia’s public memory with the 2011 terrorist attacks in the USA. The Chilean-Australian activists Nguyen spoke to lamented that the Australian public did not know much about the “other” September 11. For these activists, the politics of the War on Afghanistan was reminiscent of the USA’s involvement in the Pinochet regime. At the time, these first and second-generation Chilean migrants were critical of the international politics of the USA:

The problem is that the towers in New York being hit by planes has somewhat overshadowed our struggle, and our struggle lies beyond that …  today we have a unipolar government in the world, and basic needs and human rights around the world are being crushed by the military [that is] being fostered and sponsored by the US government.

These activists organised public rallies in Melbourne and Sydney. In Western Sydney, the Latin community successfully erected a bronze statue of Allende in 2003. These acts of public commemoration were important to their construction of collective memory in the diaspora. This term describes how migrants and refugees in different locations around the world feel united to a place or culture specifically in response to forced migration. Nguyen argued that these participants were engaged in “the politics of mourning.” As these activists understood it, Chile was a Catholic country where burial is an important ritual for families. The fact that so many people were “disappeared” meant there was no body to bury. This only compounds their sense of injustice. One young second-generation university student emotionally recounted the multi-generational impact of the Pinochet regime on her family in Australia and in Chile:

My grandfather is one of the detained and disappeared. This event (Chile’s September 11 is about remembering the people who died defending democracy, who died defending their right to live. It involves a lot of pain because my father is one of the tortured and disappeared. I’ve got two photo s here [pointing to her buttons] . . . one is of my grandfather and another one is of my cousin’s other grandfather, she has two grandfathers who were disappeared , and we don’t exactly know what’s happened to them. There has been information that’s told us that after they were tortured, their bodies were tossed into the ocean, so their bodies will never be found and (we will) never lay them to rest. And because we don’t have the opportunity (to bury them), it’s just like this never ending pain that resurfaces every year …

Forty years after the coup, 60,000 people in Chile have marched in honour of the “disappeared” – people who opposed the regime were taken from their homes and never found again. The dictatorship left a further 3,200 people dead and another 38,000 people tortured. Chile’s official enquiry into the disappeared, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, officially recognise that 1,000 people were disappeared. Amnesty International reports the figure is  3,216.


*My research on Chilean migrants was presented in 2011: Being ‘Latin-Australian’: Constructions and Social Consequences of Pan-Latin American Identities in Australia, paper presented at Imagining Latin America in Australia Workshop, Sydney, University of Western Sydney, 12-13 August.

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