Interview with Chilean-Australian journalist Rodrigo Acuña

In a letter to the Australian Government dated 17 September 2021, a group of members of the Chilean community in Australia expressed their human rights concerns following the publication by the National Security Archive at George Washington University, United States, of recently declassified Australian Government records confirming the involvement of Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) agents in Santiago, Chile, from 1971 to apparently early 1974. That is, during the popular government of Salvador Allende, during and after the coup d’état of 11 September 1973, in the genesis of the criminal National Intelligence Directorate, DINA, the political police of the Pinochet tyranny, commanded by the military “Mamo” Manuel Contreras.

By Andrés Figueroa Cornejo

In this regard, Chilean-Australian independent journalist Rodrigo Acuña (*) stated that, “in June 2021 the Australian Government officially confirmed that the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) worked with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In 1977 former Australian Labor Prime Minister Geogh Whitlam revealed to parliament that, “It has been written, and I cannot deny it, that when my government came into office, Australian intelligence personnel were acting as proxies for the CIA to destabilise the Government of Chile”. That happened in the context of a parliamentary enquiry into the activities of the intelligence services in Australia and since then some serious journalists have tried to investigate the case, but have been threatened through the judicial system by the Australian Government.”

Adriana’s Pact

-In that sense, there is a tragic coincidence with the case of Adriana Rivas, who was the personal secretary of “Mamo” Contreras when the man directly responsible for crimes against humanity led the dictatorship’s DINA. She received asylum and refuge from the State of Australia. Her eventual extradition to Chile is currently in process.

Adriana Rivas, also known by her nickname ‘la Chany’, was arrested by police in Sydney, Australia, in February 2019. In 2013, Rivas gave an interview to journalist Florencia Melgar of state broadcaster SBS where she admitted that she had worked with the DINA and had been a personal secretary to Manuel Contreras, its highest authority between 1973-1977. While she stated that her work was limited to using her skills as a translator and secretary, she also commented that torture was the only way to break people: “in the same way that the Nazis did, it was necessary”. According to her philosophy, “it is the only way to break people”.

Justifying the fascist regime of dictator Augusto Pinochet, her comments provoked many complaints from a section of the Chilean-Australian community, which mobilised and gathered signatures to have her arrested as she had fled Chile where she had already been arrested and was awaiting trial for the kidnapping and disappearance of seven members of the Communist Party, including Reinalda Pereira, a young woman five months pregnant.

Eventually more than 600 signatures were gathered against Rivas, including people who lived in her suburb, members of her football club and even her ex-husband. Later, some members of the Australian Parliament issued statements calling on the Australian authorities to cooperate with Interpol’s international arrest warrant for Rivas. Also, during this time here a film was shown about her entitled ‘Adriana’s Pact’ (2017) which was made by Lissette Orozco, a niece of Rivas in Chile. In an attempt to uncover the truth about her aunt, whom she had greatly admired, Orozco did an excellent job of research to show that her relative had been an agent of Pinochet’s political police during the early and harshest years of the dictatorship, as well as one of the worst torturers of the DINA.

-What is happening with Adriana Rivas today?

She is currently in a women’s prison in Sydney, Australia. She has already lost two appeals against extradition to Chile and her case is lodged in the Federal Court of Australia. For a person who resided in government public housing, and allegedly worked as a nanny, it is quite unusual in economic terms that she can legally defend herself at that level.

-Could there be other former members of the DINA, CNI or military living in Australia who committed crimes during the Pinochet tyranny?

I would not be at all surprised. For many years Australia’s intelligence services have worked with their US counterparts because Australia is part of the ‘Five Eyes’ alliance, an entity created after World War II. This alliance is made up of the US, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. On that basis, when the US has collaborated with the intelligence services of other countries, in this case with the military dictatorship in Chile, Washington’s allies have ended up taking a similar stance.

-And is it possible that Australian intelligence has “slipped” Adriana Rivas’s “dossier” in?

I don’t accept at all that Australian intelligence services were unaware of who Adriana Rivas was before she entered Australia. If they did not know, they would be incompetent and I doubt that they are. The one who did show incompetence was Rivas herself in giving such a revealing interview, which shows her to be very arrogant, as if protected by impunity, with the rest of the Chilean community in Australia. It is clear that she considered herself untouchable, and perhaps for a long time she was. In the case of other individuals like Rivas, I suspect they were more skilful and have therefore changed their names and created new identities years ago.

The provision of Australian intelligence services to the CIA

-We know of the French School originating in the Gallic colonial forces against the Algerian National Liberation Front, and its decisive impact in the United States, Brazil and the fatal Operation Condor in the dictatorships that ravaged Latin America between the 1950s and 1970s, under the then new doctrine of the internal enemy. However, the involvement of Australian intelligence is a very serious novelty. Why was the Australian state involved in the government of Salvador Allende and then in the hardest years of the Pinochet tyranny?

According to the American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, who exposed the My Lai massacre in Vietnam in 1969, Allende’s intelligence services had the CIA in Chile very well guarded, to the point that it affected their ability to do their job efficiently. On that basis, the CIA itself asked the Australian Foreign Minister to send ASIS agents to Chile. Apparently, neither the director nor the deputy director of ASIS himself was very enthusiastic about the idea, and even stated in a report that Chile and the Allende government did not present a threat to Australian interests. But the Australian Government being a good pet of Washington, Canberra agreed to the American request and sent its agents.

-How did the declassification of the files implicating the Australian state with the Unidad Popular and then with the military dictatorship in Chile develop?

The declassification of the ASIS files was achieved thanks to Professor Clinton Fernandes of the University of New South Wales. He is an Australian ex-military man (no relation to Latin America because of his surname) who worked in intelligence. Approximately 20 years ago he was accused of revealing sensitive military information about Australia and East Timor. At the time, Australia was supporting a military regime in Indonesia while the people of East Timor were fighting for their independence. Fernandes was disciplined by the military and eventually, when it could not be proven that it was, he who disclosed the information, he retired from the armed forces and entered academia. Since then, he has written several valuable books on Australian foreign policy, and has exposed how Australia is not only an ally of the US, but also has its own little empire in this part of the world.

As part of his investigations, in search of the activities of Australian diplomat Noël Deschamps, Fernandes requested Australia’s archives in Chile. Deschamps was Australia’s top representative in Chile during the Allende government. According to Fernandes, Australia and ASIS were probably seriously involved in the 1973 coup in Chile and the 1970 coup in Cambodia.

-What is the aim of the group of Chileans in Australia who signed the letter of 17 September?

The initiative was taken by the lawyer Adriana Navarro, who is also a human rights activist, and myself. Once we wrote the open letter it was quickly supported by 70 Chilean-Australians. In the letter we stated that we are a small sample of many Chileans living in Australia who were persecuted by the dictatorship. For now, we request an official apology from the Australian Government for having worked with the CIA and collaborated in creating the conditions for the military coup of 11 September 1973. We also call for the declassification of all Australian Government files relating to ASIS activities in Chile. This will be a lengthy process, but as victims of a brutal dictatorship, we would lack dignity if we did not do so.

(*) Interviewee Rodrigo Acuña is a freelance journalist who writes on Latin American politics and broadcaster of Alborada’s Indestructible Podcast. He holds a PhD from Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. You can follow him on Twitter at @rodrigoac7.