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UK-Chile Relations and 50th Anniversary of Coup in Chile

Volume 737: debated on Thursday 14 September 2023

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Julie Marson.)

I am grateful to the parliamentary authorities for allowing this debate to take place. It might be said that the events under discussion took place a long time ago, but I am going to argue that they are relevant to this day. I want to speak principally about the events of 50 years ago and their contemporary significance, but let me begin by referring to the fact that both Chile and the United Kingdom are now part of this slightly bizarre relationship in the Pacific—not that we are anywhere near there—and that in some ways we are partners.

I hope that the Minister will not focus purely on the commercial relationships between our two countries, although those are important—trade is an important factor in bringing people together. But beyond trade, international relationships are also about democracy, progress and human rights, and about resisting torture and arbitrary murder. Those things are important too. When it comes to Britain’s role in the world, if we want to really be a motor for progress, yes, we should promote trade, but we should equally promote democracy and those other things that I have just referred to.

My next point, on which I will touch briefly, is about whether those events 50 years ago are still important today. I want to argue that they are, and for three reasons. The first is perhaps the most personal. I was 23 at the time of the coup, and it marked me profoundly. I do not know exactly why; over the past century, the capacity of human beings to inflict the most awful damage on other human beings—and animals and the planet too, come to that—has been profound. Yet somehow those events in Chile have particularly stayed with me from that day to this. I feel I want to make some points here about them because I believe that there is unfinished business for the British Government.

The second reason is also personal, as I shall shortly refer to. Significant numbers of people came from Chile to escape the violence, murder, torture and bloodshed, as refugees. They came in numbers, which I will give shortly. I met them and helped them. Some of them were legitimately here. Some were in fear of their lives; we helped them, in a kind of underground railroad in Leeds, to avoid the people pursuing them who might well have tortured and killed them. I think the issue is still relevant because, in Chile, the constitution, currently much debated in the country’s political life, is the same as that introduced following the military junta. It is important for that matter to be resolved, although that is for the people of Chile. It is there as a current debate that is interesting to watch.

I am quite clear about the third reason why I think the issue is still contemporary. The experiment in Chile following the junta involved the introduction of what we have now come to call neoliberalism—the attack on so many public services, privatisation, globalisation and the triumph of finance over industry. All those aspects of economic life were first tried in Chile, dripping in blood, and then implemented elsewhere, including in our country. Those three factors play in my mind when I think about Chile.

My hon. Friend is making an important speech. Nobody who heard President Allende’s last speech in Chile as the bombs fell on the palace will ever forget his voice or his words.

As my hon. Friend has explained, Chile was the first place where the Chicago school of economics—Milton Friedman and the rest; “the Chicago boys”—rolled out their neoliberal experiment, which spread across Latin America. Actually, Latin America was the first place in the world not only where neoliberal economics was tried but where elected Governments, in the late ’90s, fought back against neoliberalism with a different view. Would my hon. Friend like to reflect on that? It is poignant to think about it today.

My hon. Friend is of course right. Famously, the Chicago boys, as they became known in Chile, were those in the economics department of the University of Chicago who developed a reactionary theory about how economies ought to be managed. It was implemented first in Chile, as my hon. Friend has just remarked, and that was the point I was making. It was rolled out elsewhere, too, and there were conservative and right-wing politicians throughout the world watching what was happening in Chile to see whether, not so much the bloodshed, but the economic experiment could be brought about in their countries too—and of course we have seen it in our country.

I was reflecting on why this is still a contemporary matter and want to refer to some correspondence I received today from the Bell family, refugees from Chile at the time of the coup. The brother of the father of the family was murdered by the military and I understand that the father was imprisoned and tortured. They say in an email:

“As a family, we experienced unspeakable horrors at the hands of Pinochet and the military coup.”

It goes on to talk about communities in the UK who welcomed them, but the family has doubts about the role of the UK Government and I am going to come on to that. The email goes on to say:

“For 50 years we have been fighting for justice, searching for those who were disappeared and campaigning for the perpetrators to be held to account for the human rights violations.”

And we know the facts: the junta killed 3,600 people, tortured 40,000, and some 200,000 were driven away from their home country by what was going on there. The scale of this is hard to come to terms with, yet it happened and there are families who still today do not know where their disappeared ones are.

There is also a programme to build a memory forest for every person who was a victim called Ecomemoria. I recommend that Members have a look at it; there is a memorial there to each person who was killed.

As a young person I was beginning to think about politics. I had been a manual worker; I had left school at 15 with no qualifications and I had come across the ideas of socialism. I looked across the world; the distance between London and Santiago is 7,000 km but somehow it was inspiring to see a country trying to create a new path to this creed that I was beginning to embrace, called socialism. It was particularly inspiring to listen to President Allende, who insisted that:

“The road to socialism lies through democracy, pluralism and freedom.”

I was a young man, as I have said, and our hearts stood still as we hoped he would be able to find a peaceful road to socialism, although all the time we were hearing on the radio and the television that there was a possibility that something would happen there, and that was frightening. But we were also being told by the BBC and others that Chile had a long history of democratic representative government, and that the army and the Chilean state apparatus would not move against a Government; but, of course, they did.

Let me quickly talk about the United States. Allende moved more slowly than he promised he would. I was watching and thinking, “Get on with it, because there’s much more to do try to feed the poor and liberate so many working people in Chile.”

Early doors, Allende took public ownership of the copper industry. It was copper, above all—it was a resource that the Americans, the British and others were using—that turned the tide. Nixon’s crimes are well known, but among them we should add this: he had authorised action—I think he had put $3 million to one side—to try to prevent Allende from winning the election. The money was used in such a way as to try to achieve that. The CIA conducted spoiling operations prior to the Allende victory. Nixon personally authorised the agency to seek to instigate a coup to prevent Allende from taking office. Those were inappropriate—let us say it no more strongly than that—deeply reactionary activities by Washington. Santiago is 1,000 km further away from Washington than London. We cannot say that any kind of military or other threat was posed by Chile to the interests of the United States or Britain.

Moving on to the British Government, Edward Heath recognised Pinochet within 11 days of the coup. Diplomatic cables that have now become available in the National Archives indicate that the British Government were fully aware of the violence being used by the Pinochet regime against innocent people, whose only so-called sin was to hope for a better world. They were working people, socialists, trade unionists and activists of various kinds.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing this debate forward. I spoke to him beforehand, and he knows what I will say. It is important to put on record that in 2022, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom reported an increase in antisemitic social media posts and media publications against Chile’s Jewish community over the past few years. The US special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism has said that antisemitism erodes democratic institutions and values. I know that the hon. Gentleman and I stand together on that issue. Does he agree that it is time that our Minister and our Government conveyed to the Chilean regime that something must change, and that they cannot keep persecuting Jewish people just because they happen to be Jews?

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. I have spoken in this House about antisemitism, and I have been the victim of antisemitism, because we have Jewish blood in my family. I have even been to Leeds court as the victim of antisemitic behaviour. Nobody feels more strongly about this issue than me, and I am sure the whole House stands in condemnation of antisemitism generally. The hon. Member has made his points. I am not here to speak about that, so I will not follow him further down that track.

I was just speaking about the Heath Government. In the spirit of all-party truth, I need to record the fact that during the first of Harold Wilson’s Labour Governments, it appears to be the case that there was at least one MI6 officer in Santiago collaborating with the Chilean military prior to the coup.

When the coup happened, Heath was the Prime Minister, and Alec Douglas-Home was the Foreign Secretary. It is shocking to see what happened. They were aware of what was going on in Chile. The Foreign Secretary sent official guidance to British embassies across the world, only weeks after the coup, outlining British support—it is impossible to read it any other way—for the military junta. He said:

“For British interests…there is no doubt that Chile under the junta is a better prospect than Allende’s chaotic road to socialism, our investments”—

meaning British investments—

“should do better, our loans may be successfully rescheduled, and export credits later resumed, and the sky-high price of copper (important to us) should fall as Chilean production is restored”.

I am sorry, but it is simply not good enough for judgments on what is happening in a foreign country to be made on the basis of our commercial interests, as I said at the beginning of my speech.

The Heath Government defied calls from all sides to impose an arms embargo on Chile. In fact, they delivered Hawker Hunter jets to Chile before the 1974 general election, when there was a change of Government. It was Hawker Hunter jets that laid siege to the presidential palace during the coup. Over the past few days, it has been possible to listen to a Spanish language broadcast from BBC Latin America and hear the chilling sounds of the jets—British-made jets—attacking the palace, which resulted in the death of Allende. I am sorry, but it is not good enough that those events happened all those years ago, and I do not think we know the full truth about them yet.

As a Labour party member, I am sure that Members would expect me to say that, when Labour came back to office, I was pleased that the Wilson Government cut off all diplomatic relations and then instigated an arms embargo against the junta. However, Mrs Thatcher restored relations when she won the election a few years later in 1979.

The Wilson Government also accepted 3,000 Chilean refugees into our country. As I have said, I met a number of them in Leeds. Many of them are still here and have a personal interest in what happened. Those Chileans, who had fought for a different kind of country and a different kind of world, and who had friends, comrades and colleagues who were tortured and killed in the Santiago stadium and elsewhere, were among the finest people I have ever met. We can be proud that Britain had a tradition of accepting refugees into our country in such circumstances. If that were to happen again, I would like to think that Britain would be prepared to do the same. We took 3,000 Chilean refugees. Sweden took 40,000.

Let me wind up with a couple of points. I got to know those people. I worked with them and helped to feed some of them who were in the underground. We helped to house them—not many of them, just two or three. There were 250 in Leeds. They brought a different culture. We had Chilean music and Latin American music. It was the first time I had heard it. There were even cafés and restaurants opening serving Latin American food. It was a tremendously exciting time, but it was heartbreaking as well.

Before I make my final points, I just want to reflect on one thing. It has been possible to hear another sound on the BBC website this week, and it is even more chilling than that of the Hawker jets—built in Britain—attacking an elected President. It is the sound of the Chilean soldiers going to attack the palace of the elected President and they are singing a marching song. Visit the website if you like, but the sound is awful—it is blood- curdling—because the marching song is a song developed by the Nazis. When we think about antisemitism, we know that it has resided above all with the Nazis. To think that the soldiers were attacking their own democratically elected President and singing marching songs from the Nazis is really bone-chilling.

My hon. Friend has shared examples of chilling sounds from that coup. I would like to take this opportunity to ask him to share his memories of a very inspiring sound from Chile that the junta sought to silence, and that is the sound of the progressive folk singer Victor Jara, who went around Chile arguing for a better society and singing songs about social justice. He was taken to the football stadium, his hands, which usually played the guitar, were broken and then he was killed. Will my hon. Friend share his memories of Victor Jara during this significant anniversary week?

I do not want to detain the House for too long, but Victor Jara was a great folk hero. He chose to put his particular skills of singing and playing music at the disposal of the people, fighting for a better world and a better Chile. He was then taken to Santiago stadium, with thousands of others. His hands were immobilised so that he could never play music again, and finally he was killed.

I am reminded of the city of Leeds, and what happened with the Chile solidarity movement back in 1973-75. I hope the House will not mind if I detain us. The Chileans there decided to paint a tribute to Chile, to the movement and to our solidarity. They painted a large mural of Chilean people—peasants, workers and others—in vivid colours. Underneath it says: “And there will be work for all”. That was the simple objective of that Allende Government: to give decent work to all. It is not too difficult a thing to agree with.

Secondly on culture, there was a band that travelled Europe and Britain—I remember seeing them many times—called Inti-Illimani, which sang Chilean music. It was tremendously inspiring. It was great to be young and to fight back against what was an appalling assault on our common humanity in Chile.

I was trying to get to the end of my speech. I do not believe that we know all the truth about the British Government’s involvement, but we should. The email that I read earlier from the Bell family asks that the Government consider making public all the existing material that is not in the national archives, so that we know the true extent of what happened. To build a better future, it is important that we know what happened in our past.

I wonder whether I can tempt the Minister to express some sense of regret. Does he agree with my brief description of Britain’s involvement? I do not mean this in a partisan way, but this democratic Parliament—one of the great creators of democracy—should say that we regret our involvement at the time. I may be tempting it too far, but I feel that an apology is required from the House of Commons to the Chilean people who were killed and those who survived, and the children and grandchildren who are bereft of their dads, mums and grandparents. If the Government will not do it, let me say in my humble, Back-Bench way: I apologise on behalf of the British people—it is impertinent, but I do it—to the Chilean people for what happened in the name of the British Government, but not in the name of all of us.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) on securing this debate and on sharing his lived experiences and sincerely held views. I assure you, Mr Deputy Speaker, Members and my Parliamentary Private Secretary that I do not intend to speak until 5.30, but I will reply to the important points that the hon. Gentleman has made with sincere conviction, and to the other contributions.

As a country, we share a long-standing and warm partnership and friendship with Chile, which continues to go from strength to strength, as demonstrated by this week’s highly successful Chile Day. I would like to take a moment to express my sincere sympathies for those affected by the recent deadly flooding in central and southern Chile, which saw over 30,000 people evacuated from their homes last month. Let me reaffirm this Government’s commitment to address climate risks.

This is a timely debate, following the anniversary of the coup on Monday and the fact that this year marks the 200th anniversary of the UK and Chile establishing formal consular relations. It has been an honour to join the celebrations on Chile Day this week. Let me begin by reflecting on the anniversary of the coup.

Just over 50 years ago, General Pinochet launched a coup against the democratically elected Government of Salvador Allende. Fifty years might feel like a long time ago for some people, but I remember it myself—perhaps not in quite the same way as the hon. Gentleman—and it is not quite as long ago for me as it will be for some people listening to the debate. Following the coup, the military junta was quick to suspend all political activity and suppress dissent. The total number of people who were disappeared or killed between 1973 and 1990 stands at 3,216. That is a slightly different number from that given by the hon. Gentleman, but as we understand it, it is 3,216. That is a large number of people, with the figure for survivors of political imprisonment and/or torture much, more higher. It is tragic to hear about the experiences of the Bell family and others. There can be no justification for an armed coup bringing to an end a democratically elected Government.

At the time, all countries grappled with the challenge of how to respond to the events on the ground. The UK was far from the first country to recognise the Pinochet regime. Indeed, we were the eighth European country to do so, having judged that we needed to be able to talk to the Government to present our views on human rights and protect the interests of over 4,000 British subjects in Chile. Demonstrating our support for the return to democracy, just over a year after it happened, the UK welcomed President Aylwin on a state visit in April 1991 when he met Her late Majesty the Queen and the Prime Minister.

It is important to recognise—I think the hon. Gentleman recognises it, too—that there is a live debate today in Chile over the context in which the coup happened. That debate is happening democratically and peacefully, and it is right that the Chileans are leading it. It is also the case that the hon. Gentleman has a democratic right to put his views on the record today as well. It reminds us of the importance, still today, of protecting democracy, freedom of speech and human rights. They have been hard won and hard fought for in this country and across Latin America over recent decades, and they absolutely need to be protected. Across the House, we would all agree with that.

Following the commemorative events this week in Chile, it was heartening to see representatives of all political parties come together to agree a commemorative statement made by the Senate President on Tuesday. The Foreign Secretary saw during his visit in May, which was part of an extended visit across Latin America, including Brazil, Colombia and the Caribbean, how Chile has restored and strengthened democracy since 1990, and how the country continues to work through the consequences of the dictatorship. In particular, his visit to the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, which commemorates the victims of human rights violations during the military dictatorship, highlighted the importance of memorialising the 50th anniversary of the coup, as the hon. Gentleman indicated. The Foreign Secretary met the museum’s director, Marcia Scantlebury, a victim of torture by the military dictatorship, and jointly toured the museum—this is significant—with Chile’s Foreign Minister, Alberto van Klaveren. In their meeting, the Foreign Secretary and Minister van Klaveren reaffirmed our countries’ shared values and commitments to protecting and promoting democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

Today, the UK and Chile are two like-minded, liberal democracies committed to working together to solve global challenges. I particularly welcome Chile’s membership of the UN Human Rights Council. It is a key priority for both Governments to protect and strengthen democracy and human rights in the face of increasing challenges. Democracy and human rights are not abstract concepts in Chile or the UK. They are values that must be fought for and protected. It is important, now more than ever, to reaffirm our shared values and commitment to protecting and promoting democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

Looking further back, this year also marks 200 years of our consular relations with Chile, which began with Christopher Nugent, the first British consul general in Chile, who was appointed to Valparaiso in 1823— I cannot remember that far back, Mr Deputy Speaker, before you cheekily intervene. It is a reminder of the strength and longevity of our partnership, which continues to thrive today. The UK supported the establishment of Chile’s navy. Admiral Lord Cochrane’s heroic efforts to support Chilean independence are still celebrated—he was certainly quite a character by all accounts. Indeed, our defence co-operation continues to this day through joint training and exercising among our armed services and through the defence dialogue between our two countries, addressing shared defence priorities on a range of issues.

Sadly, I missed the all-party group’s reception to celebrate the 200th anniversary this morning because I needed to respond to the urgent question on Libya, but I would like to thank the Chilean embassy in London and the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron)—sometimes I wish the Scottish constituency names were shorter—for organising the event to celebrate this important anniversary.

I would also like to welcome the Chile Day celebrations taking place in London this week for the 12th year. These events have now flourished to such an extent that I suggest that we change the name. Although it is not my call, I think “Chile week” would be a much more appropriate description. It is a perfect example of our close relationship, with over 300 top Chilean investors and businesses visiting London, led by Finance Minister Mario Marcel, to improve economic and trade co-operation between our two countries.

I know that it is not all about commerce, but commerce is important to bind our countries together. Chile was the first country to sign a continuity agreement with the UK after we left the EU. We have worked together with Chile to further strengthen our relationship through our annual trade dialogue and modernisation road map. The fourth trade dialogue took place yesterday, with Trade Ministers in discussions. It was led by my hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Economic Security on our side and by Claudia Sanhueza.

Chile acceded to the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership in February, and we are grateful for its support for the UK’s accession in July. As a result, the bloc now accounts for 15% of global trade. The partnership brings new opportunities for both countries, including for growth. The agreement will eliminate tariffs on over 800 products, including exports of Chilean fruits, fruit juice and olive oil to the UK. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) for his sterling work as trade envoy.

Overall, the figures show that trade between the two countries is thriving. Bilateral trade between our countries amounted to £1.7 billion in the year to March 2023, an increase of £100 million on the preceding year. Clearly, there are more opportunities going forward.

As the hon. Member for Hemsworth set out, this is not just about trade. Of course, we need to ensure that growth is green and sustainable. Chile is a clear climate leader in Latin America. Inspired in part by UK legislation, Chile has legally committed to a net zero target by 2050 and has ambitions to be a leading global producer of green hydrogen. I learned more about that during the Chile Day celebrations this week. There are clear opportunities to benefit both our countries and the planet if we move these initiatives forward. Our COP26 presidency came after Chile’s, creating a close relationship on climate action that continues to this day. Chile signed up to more commitments at COP26 than any other Latin American country. We have supported Chile to sell green and sustainable bonds worth more than £21 billion on London’s sustainable bond market.

Turning to foreign policy, we stand together against Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. President Boric is a leading Latin American voice against it. We must continue to work together with other allies in the region to condemn Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.

The ties between our countries are equally strong when it comes to cultural links. The UK is a destination of choice for Chileans undertaking postgraduate study. They are supported by UK scholarships such as Chevening and welcomed by leading universities such as the London School of Economics—where I was privileged to study—University College London, Sussex and many others. We want to expand the Chevening programme to enable more Chilean students to pursue postgraduate studies in the UK, especially when it comes to fields concerning lithium and green hydrogen. Plans are in train to launch a scholarship next year to boost the study of lithium battery technology.

British music is big in Chile. I hear that Chilean music was big in Leeds, at least for a period, and I am sure that it will continue with the support of the hon. Member for Hemsworth. Over the past 12 months, global British artists such as Harry Styles, Coldplay, and Dua Lipa have performed in Santiago to huge crowds. Some other bands that I am a bit more familiar with, such as Blur and Pulp, are at the vanguard of British music in Chile.

British immigrants introduced a number of sports to Chile, including football, tennis and rugby. We are all proud to see that Chile have qualified for the rugby world cup, for the first time in their history. We congratulate them and look forward to an entertaining match on Saturday.

I am confident that the links between our two countries will only continue to grow over the coming years and decades. Chile has an important role to play in making the international order fit for the 21st century, and the UK will work closely with our friends and partners there to do just that. We will continue to stand together to promote and protect democracy and human rights. We will work to boost our trade relationships further, creating jobs and furthering innovation in both our countries. On climate, we will continue our close relationship as we strive to deliver net zero, and on the global stage we will continue to stand together to speak out in condemning Russia’s aggression and supporting the people of Ukraine.

Although we might be rivals on the rugby pitch next week, our links across sport, music and education continue to promote friendship, understanding and connections between our people. Long may that continue.

I was privileged to visit Chile a few years ago with an Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation. I went to Santiago and a few other places, and we were royally looked after by the Chilean Parliament. It is a superb country. I was there at the same time as the Archbishop of Canterbury, so the links between the United Kingdom and Chile are incredibly strong. I wish all well for Chile week, as it has now been rebranded by the Minister.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.