50 years ago today, socialist leader Salvador Allende was murdered in a military coup. In the aftermath, thousands of refugees fled to Britain — and built a community of solidarity.

Chileans demonstrate against the Pinochet dictatorship. Hull, England, 1976. Credit: Luis Bustamante

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In the early hours of 11 September 1973, the president of Chile, Salvador Allende, received the news that the Chilean navy had occupied the port city of Valparaiso, less than 100 miles away from Santiago, and shut down the major radio and television stations. 

Not long after it refused to surrender power to the putschist generals, the presidential palace, La Moneda, still defended by Allende and a brave group of friends and family, was bombed by the air force. The president would deliver his last words to the nation on the communist Radio Magallanes from within the palace walls:  ‘Long live Chile; long live the people; long live the workers!’ 

By 3:00 PM, La Moneda, or what was left of it, had been taken over by the Chilean military. An announcement followed on the radio, informing people that those who were found resisting the military advance after 3:30 PM in the working-class areas of Santiago would be shot upon capture. By the evening, all parties and trade unions had been made illegal, and a government by a military junta was declared. 

Over the course of the following days, weeks, and months, embassies and safe houses filled up across the country — as did prisons, stadiums, graves, and torture chambers. The dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet lasted seventeen years and is estimated to have murdered, tortured, or arbitrarily imprisoned up to 40,000 people. Fifty years after the coup, many desaparecidos from the period remain unaccounted for to this day. 

Fleeing Pinochet

Chileans demonstrate against the Pinochet dictatorship. Hull, England, 1976. Credit: Luis Bustamante

Over 7,000 miles away in Blackpool, news of the coup in Chile led internationalist Labour Party members and trade unionists to pass an emergency motion at that year’s conference. It committed Labour to granting asylum to Chilean refugees fleeing, as Labour leader Harold Wilson put it, ‘the brutalities of Chile’s counter-revolution’. 

The Tory government under Edward Heath didn’t take long to recognise Pinochet’s new fascist regime. His secretary of state for foreign and Commonwealth affairs, Julian Amery, would defend the dictatorship by personally assuring Parliament that in Chile, ‘[E]verything will be carried out in accordance with the due processes of Chilean law.’ A Foreign Office memo in late 1973 sums up government refugee policy at the time: ‘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.’ 

The following year, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) voted to strike against the same Tory government. In response, Edward Heath called a snap general election, framed as a referendum on the power of trade unions — he lost, and the Labour Party took power. On 27 March 1974, James Callaghan, the Labour secretary of state for foreign and Commonwealth affairs, officially announced in the House of Commons that the new government would be ‘considering Chilean asylum applications sympathetically’. It is estimated that anywhere between 200,000 and 2,000,000 Chilean party activists, trade unionists, intellectuals, and politicians were forced into exile and scattered across the globe because of the Pinochet coup. Of these, some 3,000 ended up in Britain. 

They arrived mostly in two waves. The first wave comprised those who were lucky enough to escape from Chile into a neighbouring country in the immediate aftermath, arriving in Britain at some point in 1974. These included Lucho and his partner Carmen, two literature students living in the coastal city of Valdivia and part of one of the first groups to arrive in Britain, travelling from Argentina where they had managed to find temporary refuge.  

The second wave of Chileans came during the following years, mainly after periods of imprisonment or clandestine resistance. Many had had their sentences commuted to exile under Decree 504 or had simply been expelled from the country. This was Lautaro’s path to the UK. An indigenous Aymara from the border city of Arica, deep in Chile’s northern desert, he was arrested in late 1974 for political activity, tortured, and imprisoned for over a year before being exiled in 1975.  

Settlement in Exile

Chilean exiles at Allende Way, Sheffield. Credit: Luis Bustamante

Among the European nations that accepted Chilean refugees, the UK had the smallest Chilean diaspora: its 3,000 contrasted sharply with the 10,000 in Norway, 15,000 in France, and 40,000 in Sweden. In fact, Chileans were not eligible to come to Britain during the entirety of the dictatorship, except during the small window of the 1974–79 Labour government, before and after which the Tory governments of Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher would systematically deny claims of human rights abuses by the Pinochet regime. 

The geographical distribution of Chileans in Britain depended largely on the presence of sympathetic local politicians, councils, trade unions, or employers. In 1979, the Joint Working Group for Refugees from Latin America estimated that London and the South East had 1,190 Chileans; Scotland, 400; Yorkshire and Humberside, 400; the North West, 270; the West Midlands, 260; East Anglia, 130; Wales, 120; the East Midlands and the South West, 80 each, and the North East, 70 — a maximum of maybe 800 families, scattered across Britain’s housing estates. 

‘Cold, dark, and wet’ is how Lucho describes his first impression of Britain. Although the weather in Hull may have been bleak, he also recalls being amazed at the solidarity he received from the working class in that city. This experience inspired him to embark on a photography project documenting the life of workers in industrial Humberside and elsewhere, which he pursued throughout his early years in Britain. Most of the Chilean diaspora believed that their stay in Britain would be short. ‘In those first years,’ Pauline tells me, ‘I don’t remember meeting a single Chilean who didn’t think they were going home in the next few years.’ Indeed, while the longevity of the Pinochet regime back home remained unclear, the hope for most was that the dictatorship would buckle — and you needed to be prepared to return at any moment if it did.  

The Chilean exile experience in the UK was also shaped by a solidarity movement which stretched from Labour frontbenchers to rank-and-file workers, as well as smaller political parties, human rights organisations, trade unions, churches, and other religious groups. Indeed, some exiles were freed from Pinochet’s prisons by people and organisations that they had never even heard of before. Lautaro was one of them. ‘Before I even arrived in Britain,’ he said, ‘I had been “adopted” by a human rights group in Fife — I only found out after I got here.’  

A large proportion of Chileans were settled in Britain through the work of a small non-governmental organisation (NGO) called the World University Service (WUS), including both Lucho and Lautaro. Chilean settlement was financed by the British government through diverting funds from the development and aid budget, a portion of which had already been allocated to Chile. Two people were responsible for this idea. The first was Judith Hart, the Labour minister of the Overseas Development Ministry (ODM) and a lifelong internationalist who had spent time in Chile under Allende. The second was a 25-year-old physics graduate named Alan Phillips, the general secretary of the WUS. The ODM provided the funds, and the WUS, with no more than three full-time and four part-time staff, based in a run-down office on Seven Sisters Road in Tottenham, administered the grants process for 900 exiles.

Solidarity Activism in Exile

A Melinka trade union Gig. Hull. England, 1978. Credit: Luis Bustamante

At the time of the coup, various Chilean figures from Allende’s Unidad Popular coalition were already in Britain and found themselves in a de facto state of exile. People like Carlos Fortin from the Socialist Party (PSCh), Tomas Godoy from the Communist Party (PCCh), Carlos Parra from the Radical Party (PRCh), and Raul Sohr from the Christian–Marxist Movement for Unitary Popular Action (MAPU) were part of the first efforts to organise the arrival of Chilean refugees in Britain.  

Soon after, the Chile Solidarity Campaign (CSC) was formed and became the central pole of solidarity activism. Unlike in other European countries, the British CSC was transpartisan, with roots across the spectrum of the British left. It included trade unions like the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU), the ancestor of Unite, left-wing  Labour MPs like Ian Mikardo and Fenner Brockway, as well as figures from the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), International Socialists (IS) and organisations for colonial freedom. 

The broad line adopted by the CSC, pushed for in particular by the TGWU, derived from the specific political context of Cold War Britain. In those days, the international department of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) often overlapped with Foreign Office personnel and wasn’t considered to be a reliable vehicle for socialist internationalism. Stopping the fragmentation of the campaign along partisan lines meant stopping parts of it falling under the control of the TUC international department, the Foreign Office, and, ultimately, the security services. Indeed, in addition to the Chilean parties already listed, many exiles who came to the UK were from the armed struggle wing of the Chilean left, such as the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolutionaria (MIR). The view was that the security of the exiles themselves would have been compromised by a fragmented campaign. 

This, of course, did not get in the way of Chilean collaboration with the British left. The CSC headquarters, situated in the Liberation office in North London, became a hub of Chilean, Latin American, and British political collaboration. In the 1980s, the Chilean community came together with Labour-held Sheffield city council to rename one of the city’s roads ‘Allende Way’. A recent documentary, Chileans of the North, tells this story. Solidarity work was formative for many British activists. For Mike Gatehouse, joint secretary of the CSC during the period, ‘The experience … led us to redirect our entire lives. It changed us.’

Chilean Britain

Chilean exiles in Swansea, Wales, 1976. Credit: Luis Bustamante

Chilean associations themselves were almost always formed with respect to party affiliation, and bitter divisions between different orientations were not uncommon. In defeat, passionate questions of strategy gave way to visceral and painful questions of culpability. However, as time went on, cultural events became a shared space of collective resistance for all. Well-known Chilean and Latin American bands such as Millantu, Inti-Illimani, and Kaliche would play revolutionary folk music, kids would help to serve empanadas, and ticket sales would raise money for the fight against Pinochet.  

‘Political meetings were one thing, but cultural events were for everyone,’ says Maria, who grew up in Rotherham. 

A lot of us second-generation kids grew up together in these events. And the people that came to them became like the extended family that we’d lost. That was integration for me — British people coming to eat empanadas and to listen to Inti-Illimani.

Chileans were the first Latin American refugees to arrive in Britain and their cultural events became a hub of Latin Americanism in the country, attracting Argentinians, Uruguayans, Guatemalans, and Peruvians. Many shared the same political experiences of social revolution, dictatorship, and exile. This gave rise to numerous new internationalist campaigns, such as the Latin American Solidarity Front, the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign, and the Cuba Solidarity Campaign. You could scarcely attend a campaign rally — whether for Nicaragua, against apartheid, or for the miners — without bumping into some Chileans.  

Some of the first Latin American centres in London and elsewhere were founded by Chilean and British activists in the early 1980s. Today, spaces such as the Latin Village in Tottenham follow in their footsteps. Los Andes on the Bristol Road in Selly Oak, Birmingham, became one of Britain’s first Latin American restaurants. Further traces of the Chilean diaspora can also be found in the cultural projects of its children, such as Alborada, a left-wing magazine and also a film company of the same name — both founded by Pablo Navarrete, son of exiles Roberto and Cristina Navarrete; or El Sueño Existe, the music festival set up by an admirer of the famous Chilean folk singer, Victor Jara, murdered by Pinochet in 1973. In fact, Jara’s wife, Joan Jara (née Turner), was herself English and spent her exile in Britain with Victor’s two daughters. 

Between 1983 and 1986, a wave of popular revolts against the dictatorship broke out back in Chile. In the diaspora, this raised the question of return. Some adherents of the strategy of armed struggle went back to join the clandestine resistance, and partisans of electoral reconstruction returned with a strategy of political pressure. The revolts were put down, but their effects were felt in the promise of a ‘transition to democracy’. This would ultimately culminate in the ousting of Pinochet in the constitutional referendum of 1989 and, in 1990, the first set of elections in Chile in two decades.  

The end of the Pinochet era, when it eventually came, was a strange event. The Pinochet constitution was left untouched and the ex-dictator himself remained commander-in-chief of the armed forces and senator for life. But many exiles returned to Chile regardless. Those who remained in Britain had mostly made families here, now with British children and grandchildren. Some had always felt like Chileans stuck in Britain, others became British–Chilean. 

Legacies of Resistance

A demonstration in London, England, 1977. Credit: Luis Bustamante

In 1998, Pinochet visited Britain. Under European jurisdiction, he was indicted by Spanish magistrate Baltasar Garzon for human rights abuses, and an order for his extradition to Spain was issued. The event remobilised the remaining Chilean solidarity networks, and mass demonstrations were organised. 

For Maria, who was at the protest outside the building where Pinochet was being held, the atmosphere had been electric. ‘All you could hear were the shouts of “A-se-sino! A-se-sino! A-se-sino”, and the hairs on my neck just stood up.’ For second-generation young people, it was often a formative moment. ‘I just remember constantly being at protests with my dad and his comrades,’ says Jose, the son of a communist activist who came to Britain in 1977. ‘It was important because, being born after the dictatorship, it made all these things I’d been told about — Allende, Pinochet, the coup — quite concrete. It made me feel more Chilean.’ 

The ex-dictator was held under house arrest in Britain for eighteen months, after which, following the recommendations of his friend Margaret Thatcher and sympathiser George W. Bush, he was released to spend the last years of his sordid life back in Chile. The relentless piquete of British and Chilean activists which followed him around during his time in London gave rise to projects like Memoria Viva, a database of all the disappeared cases during the dictatorship, and Ecomemoria, a tree-planting initiative in honour of the dead. 

Being a child of an exile is a complicated thing. The transmission of historical trauma through the family can take many forms, some empowering and some painful. Those who remember the immediate aftermath of Chile’s catastrophe tend to carry the trauma more directly. ‘I carried around this weight,’ a daughter of an exile recounts in the documentary Hora Chilena.  ‘We’d been defeated, they’d won. It’s their version now; they’re writing history.’  

Maria’s family came to Rotherham from the city of Quilpue, not far from Valparaiso, when she was a small child. Her father, an activist in the MIR clandestine resistance in Chile, was captured, held in secret detention centres such as the infamous Villa Grimaldi, and subjected to torture. After Decree 504 and through an unknown sponsorship by a British Jewish organisation, the family was able to gain asylum in the UK in 1978.  

It was hard for us kids, growing up without any aunties, uncles, cousins, grandparents, because we’d had to leave them all behind in Chile. We didn’t have any of that stuff. When it came to raising children, things weren’t always easy either.  In my family, my dad spoke to us about what he’d been through. That wasn’t always the case in other families, and I know that was really hard on some of the kids. Some only found out much later.

The second generation’s relationship to Chile itself is varied, as one might expect. As with other immigrant groups, the culture, the food, and the music are often carried forward in family life and transmitted to the third generation, although the language perhaps less so. The dynamics of displacement and estrangement that accompany exile and military dictatorship tend to produce family configurations which are geographically and emotionally challenging. Although many have stable relationships with their families in Chile, the act of ‘going looking for family’ is not uncommon either.  

When it comes to the events of the past half-century, Chilean society is far more divided than the exile community. The recent social uprising and debate over a new constitution have awakened old ghosts in many families, at home and in the diaspora. 


A Chilean exile and her child. Swansea, Wales, 1976. Credit: Luis Bastamante

In 2019, in response to an explosion of social movements in Chile, three second-generation British-Chileans founded the Chile Solidarity Network (CSN), the latest iteration of Chilean solidarity activism in the UK. This year, along with other diaspora activists, they have launched the Chile 50 Years UK exhibition to organise and coordinate events commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the coup. 

Half a century after his death, Allende’s Unidad Popular remains a reference point not only for Chileans but for the global left — a part of that great subterranean river of the revolutionary tradition that the historian Enzo Traverso has called ‘the tradition of the vanquished’, which carries within it our collective history of struggle. Chile’s exiles and dissidents are people for whom there are few statues and who have rarely written tomes, but who all held the torch in the darkest night and felt the heat of the brightest day. They lived through social revolution, clandestine resistance, death squads, and exile; they all lost dear comrades to the struggle. They are models of revolutionary passion, courage, and commitment. 

In one of Lucho’s photo albums, I found a line from a Pablo Neruda poem that I knew. The poem is engraved on a memorial to the victims of the dictatorship in Chile’s Concepción municipal cemetery, where some of my family are buried.  

The rain will soak / The stones of squares 

But it will not put out / Your names of fire 

A thousand nights will fall / And their dark wings 

Without destroying the day / Of those who here fell 

This September, along with the victims of the dictatorship, we also commemorate all those who made this small diaspora possible. Let us not forget any of them. 

In memory of Alan Phillips, general secretary of the WUS, Chile solidarity activist, lifelong internationalist, and relentless campaigner for refugee and indigenous rights, 4 April 1947 –  28 April 2023.

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