Chile: International Solidarity

In September 1973, the democratically-elected government in Chile of Salvador Allende was overthrown in a bloody military coup led by General Pinochet and backed by the US CIA. The SUA and WWF imposed a boycott on trade with Chile--a ban that would until the end of the Pinochet regime in 1989. It became the longest boycott in the history of Australia and a far-reaching impact on the country's export of wheat for which chile had become a major customer.

The SUA sent a strong letter of protest to Prime Minister Whitlam for his government's recognition of the military regime--"deeply shocked" was the underlying theme. When members of other trade unions accepted an invitation from the Chilean Airline to visit Chile, SUA officials opposed the trip and declined to participate. The SUA's position was clear: "Any acceptance by Australian worker's representatives of the hospitality of the fascist military junta in Chile is an indictment of our class consciousness."

Early in 1974, the boycott would take on real application: in May, two ships were to be loaded with wheat in Fremantle, shipments originally contracted with the deposed Allende government. The SUA refused to tug the ships and the WWF refused to load them.

Chilean trade unionists expressed their gratitude for the boycott, with one letter written to EV Elliott stating:

The boycott you have organised...is a strong stimulus to the activity of the workers of our country and a curb to the repression of those in power who want to destroy the trade unions and physically liquidate their leaders. Without your solidarity, our people would have lost many more lives.

The SUA also helped mount a blockade against the Chilean navy vessel Esmerelda, which had visited Australia numerous times to friendly reception but was, subsequently, used as a prison ship where many people were tortured by the junta, including prominent members and supporters of the Allende government.

When key Chilean figures traveled to Australia, they were hosted by the SUA. Della Elliot interviewed Joan Jara, the widow of slain Chilean songwriter Victor Jara, for the Seamen's Journal. Jara told Elliot:

We know that of all working people, seamen have overall a greater contact and therefore appreciation of the world and its people, and possible understand better than many others how international solidarity helps in the struggle of the people all over the world. I know of the fighting struggle of Australian seamen to help people of the oppressed countries and particularly the fight against fascism...You have already taken action--your attitude and protests...imposing a ban on trade with Chile, including refusal of tugs. The positive action, this is what is needed...your actions [are] a great inspiration and encouragement in our struggle.

There was pressure on the SUA to lift the boycott. At the end of 1977, the ACTU lifted the boycott. ACTU President (and future Prime Minister) Bob Hawke attempted to persuade the SUA to lift the ban, arguing that the boycott was economically detrimental to the country. But, the SUA stood its ground--and would hold its ground all the way until December 1989 when the ban was lifted after the election of a new President in Chile who was backed by a coalition of progressives and unionists, which defeated the right-wing candidate backed by Pinochet and members of the junta.

The position of the SUA was described by Tony Papaconstuntinos:

Given the nature of the Seamen's Union, you couldn't ignore what happened in South Africa in terms of apartheid...and you couldn't ignore what happened in Chile...and you couldn't turn a blind eye on other things...They're the things that workers should be involved with internationally because ultimately if you don't have involvement internationally, this international attitude about the struggles and plights of other people, well then you become isolated politically and ignorant.