Sebastián Piñera present a souvenir gift rock from the San Jose Mine to Queen Elizabeth II in 2010. Sebastián Piñera present a souvenir gift rock from the San Jose Mine to Queen Elizabeth II in 2010. Photo: Gobierno de Chile / Wikicommons / cropped from original image / shared under licence CC2.0

Boris Johnson is continuing the Tory legacy of supporting human rights abusers, argues Carole Concha Bell

This week Boris Johnson is meeting with Sebastian Pinera, Chile’s hard-line right-wing President who has overseen the worst human rights abuses the country has experienced since the dark days of the Pinochet regime, during the social protests that rocked the nation from October 2019.

The Downing Street meeting is part of Pinera’s European tour that includes France, Spain, Italy and the UK. According to Chilean news sources the purpose of the tour is to discuss the upcoming Cop26, and the fight against climate change, however human rights campaigners view the trip as a publicity stunt designed to whitewash human rights and environmental crimes.

Chile, despite its lucrative export portfolio, is the OECD’s most unequal country. The richest 10% of the Chilean population has 39 times more income than the poorest 10%, with more than half of workers earning less than 400,000 pesos (£390) a month (the average rent in the capital is 300,000 pesos).

This extreme inequality is a result of decades of extreme neoliberal policy installed by the Pinochet regime, with the guidance of ultra-conservative right-wing economists dubbed ‘The Chicago Boys’, in reference to their Harvard training under Milton Friedman. Sebastian Pinera was himself a peripheral member of the Harvard clan, making his fortune during the dictatorship by introducing credit cards to the economy and dabbling in banking while his brother, Jose Pinera, was busy dismantling unions and deregulating working conditions, as Pinochet’s fearsome labour minister. 

It was the legacy of economic equality in Chile exacerbated by the privatisation of social goods such as education and health, that led to the spontaneous outpouring of discontent manifested through months of tireless protesting in 2019-20. But as millions of Chileans took to the streets across the country, they soon learned that it was not just economic structures that had been left intact since the dictatorship, its repressive mechanisms had too.

Tens of thousands of people were tortured and incarcerated, reports of rape and sexual abuse during detentions were reported and around 500 protesters were shot in the face with gas cannisters, many suffering the loss of one or both of their eyes. Today there are hundreds of men and women still languishing in jail, being denied political prisoner status.

The grave human rights abuses that took place during the unrest and into the pandemic have been lambasted by Amnesty International who sent letters to heads of state in each country Pinera is visiting. Erika Guevara Rosas, director of the organisation said,

“Almost two years on from the protests that began in October 2019 and the widespread attacks against the protestors by the Chilean Carabineros, investigations into serious human rights violations and possible crimes against humanity are making little progress. No strategic commander has been prosecuted to date, and in many cases the same officials who are alleged to have committed human rights violations are still in their posts in charge of controlling the protests. The international community cannot be complicit in this impunity by remaining silent.”

Following in Thatcher’s footsteps

The UK is no stranger to entertaining Chilean human rights criminals. Margaret Thatcher’s relationship with loathed Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet went far beyond formality. Thatcher was a great admirer of Pinochet’s fierce neoliberal experiment and was a vocal opponent of his detention in 1998 when Spanish judge Balthasar Garzon placed the general under arrest at the London Bridge Hospital, for crimes against humanity.

Thatcher and Lord Tim Bell quickly assembled a PR team and worked hard to place pressure on the Labour Government to release Pinochet despite his heinous record that included the torture and disappearance of pregnant women, the rape of daughters in front of their fathers and the use of Alsatian dogs and sarin gas during interrogations at his numerous concentration camps. 

Thatcher said at the 1999 Conservative Party Conference,

“I don’t know when or how this tragedy will end, but we will fight on for as long as it takes to see Senator Pinochet returned safely to his own country. The British people still believe in loyalty to their friends.”

After 18 months under house arrest in London, the General returned to Chile and died peacefully at home in 2006. The thousands of people he disappeared have yet to be recovered. 


Despite the introduction of the Magnitsky Act in July 2020, that would seek to “sanction those who have been involved in some of the gravest human rights violations and abuses around the world”, the Tories are continuing to deepen ties with serial human rights abusers. 

Maria Vasquez Aguilar from UK rights group Chile Solidarity Network comments, 

“In agreeing to meet with President Pinera, PM Boris Johnson is out of step with his own pledge to champion human rights, democratic values, good governance, the rule of law, and open societies. Values seen as central to the UK’s role as a ‘force for good in the world’.

“Pinera’s government has had multiple human rights missions document the repression and abuses at the hands of his security forces. He has ignored every single recommendation and has continued the culture of impunity crafted by Pinochet. This is alongside the allegations of corruption, environmental destruction, and accusations of genocide against the Mapuche people in Chile.

“History will judge Boris Johnson for welcoming such a President into No.10, just as Thatcher has been for her friendship with Pinochet all these years later.”

Chile is the UK’s third largest trading partner in Latin America and has recently signed a new association agreement with the UK. It is also one of the world’s largest exporters of lithium, vital for the production of ‘green energy’ making it ever more attractive for global investors.

This Conservative government, by welcoming a president that has resurrected the demons of Pinochet through state-sanctioned violence, has shown that it values profit far more than people or planet.

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