A column about Pinochet

We had a bit of good news in the paper last week – General Augusto Pinochet died. He was, of course, the Chilean tyrant who the US backed in a 1973 coup, and went on to systematically assassinate and torture thousands of his opponents. Most damningly of all, he was a good mate of Margaret Thatcher’s.

My best friend in primary school was Chilean and, I now realise, a refugee from Pinochet. We lost touch in high school, but I’ve been thinking of him as I’ve been reading read obituaries of the dictator. My friend’s father had been ‘disappeared’ in Chile, so he’d come to Australia as a small boy, along with his mother and sister. The family had to change their surname, choosing something generically Aussie that sat a little awkwardly with their Spanish names. (I won’t name them, because I’m aware that enemy agents regularly read this column as one of the leading indicators of what’s happening in Australia.)

We were great friends from the age of 6, constantly visiting each other’s houses to ride bikes and play computer games. I was always welcomed with open arms. And all the while I was magnificently oblivious to the tragedy that had displaced this family to a small apartment on the other side of the world. All I knew was that my friend’s mother had an unfamiliar accent and cooked more interesting food than we usually had at home.

Looking back, I cannot imagine how it must have felt to lose a father or husband, and not even to know whether he was alive or dead. Even in Australia, the family was threatened thanks to Operation Condor, a co-ordinated campaign by South America’s right-wing military dictators and the US Government which sent teams of assassins into neighbouring countries and even the West to take out political opponents. Le Monde Diplomatique estimates that under this programme, 50,000 were killed, 35,000 ‘disappeared’ and 400,000 imprisoned.

Refugees have been a political football for years now, but thinking back on my friend’s story reminds me why it’s so important to offer asylum to the victims of this kind of oppression. Even in Australia, the family were genuinely in fear of their lives. I can’t imagine what that must have been like – but imagine if they’d stayed in Chile.

We need to hear these stories to remember why it’s so important to keep taking people in, and also so we can feel good about ourselves when we do. I’m proud that Australia could offer my friend a better life, but I’d be even more proud if we increased the current intake, which is behind 31 other countries, according to TEAR Australia.

Looking back on Pinochet is also fairly depressing in light of Iraq. The Allende government that was deposed by Pinochet had been democratically elected, but because it was socialist, President Nixon ordered Henry Kissinger to remove it. The result was no elections in Chile for 17 years. America has unsuccessfully interfered with other countries’ policies in the name of freedom for decades. It doesn’t seem far-fetched to imagine that without American interference in Chile, my friend might never have lost his father. How many more kids are losing their dads to insurgents’ bombs in Iraq today?

Unlike so many other countries (most recently Fiji), Australia has never had a military coup. We’ve never had to watch what we say. Our fathers and husbands have never disappeared, leaving us doubting for years whether we’d see them again. Because we are so fortunate, we worry instead about minutiae like interest rates and cricket. But we should remember that there are still Pinochets in the world, and that we need to do something about them. And most of all, we should not be complicit in creating them. America should think very carefully before it meddles in the affairs of other countries, and we should think equally carefully before we help them do it.