Newly released documents show how Pinochet duped British embassy staff
- The Observer, Sunday 16 January 2005 01.14 GMT
From The Guardian.
One of the Foreign Office’s darkest periods of diplomacy has finally emerged from the shadows, as records have been released detailing British diplomatic blundering over General Augusto Pinochet’s bloody coup in Chile against the civilian government of Salvador Allende on 11 September, 1973.
The papers - made available by the National Archives in Kew - reveal how British diplomats in Chile at the time were hopelessly deluded about Pinochet’s commitment to democracy and fooled into wildly underestimating his murderous brutality. The figures involved included Sir David Spedding, who went on to become “C”, head of the Secret Intelligence Service between 1994 and 1999 and who died in 2001.
On instructions from the Heath government, the British Embassy stood out from the other European missions by refusing asylum to any Chilean trying to flee the new dictatorship. Documents show that Britain resisted helping any of Pinochet’s victims and that no one who did eventually come was allowed in without laborious consultations with the US.
One Foreign Office memo set out the strategy on the question of Britain’s attitude to Allende’s supporters who had become Pinochet victims. ‘It is intended to keep the number of refugees to a very small number and, if our criteria are not fully met, we may accept none of them’, it said.
The view was likely to have been influenced by the hopelessly naive reporting of embassy staff, some of whom celebrated Pinochet’s arrival.
In the first draft of his report on Chile a year after the coup, the British ambassador Reginald Secondé said of Pinochet and his henchmen: ‘They are undoubtedly patriotic and honest.’
According to dispatches, British diplomats in Chile did not notice the murderous rivalry among the senior officers who participated in the conspiracy, shrugging off the armed insubordination of General César Mendoza, who seized command of the police from two outranking officers a few hours before the coup. Indeed in his year-end dispatch about the armed forces, sent on 2 January, 1974, Secondé highlighted ‘the extraordinary unity with which they acted’.
The embassy’s blindness dated back to the coup’s earliest days. As Pinochet, the army’s commander, was moving swiftly to eclipse the commanders of the less important navy, air force and police who constituted a four-man ruling group, Anthony Walter, a diplomat stationed in Santiago, referred to General Gustavo Leigh, head of the politically puny air force, as Chile’s ‘strong man of the junta’.
Walter’s memorandum was passed to London by the ambassador unquestioningly. Pinochet later had Leigh sacked, and his own predecessor as army chief, General Carlos Prats and Prats’s wife, blown up in Buenos Aires.
Typical, too, was the underestimation of Pinochet’s ruthlessness. Writing six weeks after the coup, Spedding reported that the embassy was convincing the Chilean officers that ‘tactics of tolerance and magnanimity can be as effective as discipline’ and added: ‘This message is getting home at top levels.’
In the real world, Pinochet’s torture techniques, used even on children and pregnant women, were being sharpened.
As his secret police were setting out to impose strict censorship on the media amid curfews that were to last for years and result in the death and exile of anti-Pinochet journalists, Walter happily forecast ‘the press … will not lie down meekly for long’.
Accounts in the British press were often more accurate than the embassy’s, but Walter shared a widespread Foreign Office contempt for British journalists, who were seen as ‘well left of centre’ producing ‘black propaganda’.
One diplomat complained of ‘the wolfish propaganda lurking in the sheepish guise of journalism’.
British journalists reporting about Chile, including this correspondent who sheltered in the embassy for several hours on the day of the coup and witnessed the rejoicing of some of its staff at the overthrow of the civilian government, were written off.
Meanwhile, Labour’s Harold Wilson replaced Tory Edward Heath in Downing Street in February 1974 and James Callaghan replaced Sir Alec Douglas-Home at the Foreign Office. Both of them started to suffer sustained criticism from the Labour rank and file for the timorous attitude to the dictatorship.
On 21 November, 1974, Secondé, who had been recalled to London for consultations, went to a meeting with Joan Lestor, a junior Foreign Office minister, which was also attended by Jack Cunningham, Callaghan’s PPS. Ian Mikardo, a leading left-wing MP, told the ambassador he was regarded by Labour as the ‘beast of the apocalypse’. Secondé said he hoped he could show himself to be ‘a sheep in wolf’s clothing’.
At the meeting the rising MP Neil Kinnock, who was heavily involved in anti-Pinochet activity, said there was a widespread feeling that Britain had not protested enough about human rights in Chile, compared with the likes of Sweden, Italy and India. Secondé argued he had done so ‘more often than any other European or Commonwealth ambassador’.
In all the political clashing however, the papers also reveal the snobberies of the Foreign Office. Christopher Crabbie at the Foreign Office wrote to the embassy in Santiago about a lunch he had on 6 December, 1974, with Mike Gatehouse, who had been imprisoned and tortured by Pinochet. Repatriated, Gatehouse become secretary of the Chile Solidarity Campaign and was adept at asking diplomats awkward questions. But Crabbie found they had both studied at Oxford.
‘I was surprised to discover he was a fellow Greats man, so he cannot be all bad, even though he does come from Balliol,’ he said.