The Early Days of the Chile Programme

My first contact with WUS came in June 1974 when I was told by one of my postgraduate tutors, Alan Angell, that there was a summer job opportunity to work on the WUS Chile refugee programme. I had completed a B.Phil in Latin American Studies in Oxford – the Chilean coup took place when I was returning home from my first research visit to Argentina – and I was not due to start my doctorate until October. I could help out on the programme for three months, long enough, Alan thought, to allocate the funds raised by Academic for Chile and WUS across campuses in the UK since the coup. I was interviewed by Alan Phillips and Liz Fraser in the somewhat cramped office building on the Seven Sisters Road and soon discovered that they had plans that could expand this initiative far beyond its initial scope. 

I was told that, since March, with the election of the Labour government, Alan Phillips had been in discussion with the Ministry of Overseas Development about reallocating part of the overseas aid budget earmarked for Chile to a humanitarian and social development programme that would support academic refugees from Chile in the UK. The ODM Minister, Judith Hart, was sympathetic to the idea and within a week or two of my arrival at WUS, Alan had received a letter saying that the ODM would support his proposal in principle,  though the length and scope of the initiative was left open and would be determined by how well WUS could make the case both for the need and also for the effective operation of the programme. We knew that there was a great scepticism amongst civil servants and ministers in the ODM, the Foreign Office and the Home Office.  

My first month, therefore, was spent preparing for the first awards meeting that took place in late July. We received a number of urgent cases from our partner organisations in Buenos Aires (CLACSO) and in Chile (FLACSO) who were in touch with Chilean academics and students, many in prison and a number in hiding, and our first job was to find courses and supervisors for them across UK universities, using the initial network of Academics for Chile who put us in touch with academics across the sector. We sent out the CVs of postgraduates and academics who had had their studies or work interrupted by the coup. These were strong applicants who were assessed and accepted on their academic merit. We were guided by the requirement to show ‘social need’ and also the ‘development’ nature of the area of study. 

At the same time we organised a panel of academics who would join ODM staff and WUS representatives in an Awards Committee. It was here that Alan Phillips made the crucial choice of inviting Professor Dudley Seers from the Institute of Development Studies in Sussex to chair the committee. Some ten years earlier, he had been appointed by Barbara Castle as the first Director of Economic Planning at the newly formed ODM. We would see the prescience and wisdom of this appointment in action in the first meeting. 

We also decided, a few days before the meeting, that the WUS offices could do with a lick of paint and also a new stair carpet leading up to what would be designated the committee room. The painting was not too bad, but laying a stair carpet, in the early morning before the first, midday meeting, was well beyond my DIY skills. Luckily Tom Shebbeare proved himself a competent handyman and I acted as assistant, though I managed to hammer my thumbnail instead of a tack, leaving it throbbing and swollen. Luckily, since I had been delegated to take the minutes, the injury was to my left hand and I could still write. So, in the nick of time, paint dry, carpet laid, I answered the door to the two ODM officials who had somehow found their way from Whitehall to what they must have considered the very edges of civilisation, the Seven Sisters Road. They looked me up and down – thinking, I am sure of it, that this whole thing was a whim of their Minister that would soon be curtailed – but their mood changed abruptly when Alan Phillips ushered them into the meeting room and they were greeted by Dudley Seers. This spoke to a level of complexity and seriousness that they had not imagined. 

I do not remember much of that meeting save for the pain in my thumb and also the developing pain in my sides for I was sitting between Dudley and Alan, who, every time they thought a significant point was being made, would nudge me in the ribs to make sure that I had it recorded. I would subsequently spend more than forty years in different academic meetings, but would never again encounter a committee better run or more intelligently argued than the Chile Awards Committee. And the minutes, that would contain phrases like ‘award given for one year in the first instance’, would offer a blueprint of how we could maintain and develop the programme. I do not remember how many awards we made on that first day, maybe twenty or thirty, but I do know that we had earned the grudging respect of the ODM officials and that we had proved that we had a viable programme.  

Of course, this was just the start and there were many obstacles that had to be overcome, albeit partially. There was the problem of visa delays at the Home Office and I remember, months later, accompanying Alan Phillips to a meeting with Alex Lyon the Minister at the Home Office with a bulging dossier of delays to student/academic visas. We had the advantage of knowing when the initial applications had taken place so could demonstrate that, with the delays, one government department was actively impeding the smooth running of a programme funded by another government department. Some improvements were made after that. I also remember attending the Joint Working Group for Refugees from Chile, made up of aid agencies along with Chile Solidarity and Chile Human Rights, that helped smooth the way for the resettlement of refugees, overcoming the initial objections that were raised by those organisations that had traditionally worked in the refugee sector. Out of this group – others know the story better than I do – would emerge a more systematic and structured way of receiving refugees in the UK. 

But, of course, the main, humbling and rewarding, experiences came from meeting the award holders as they arrived from Chile, at first slowly and then in increasing numbers, when, from mid- 1975, the Chilean government began to commute prisoners’ sentences to exile if they had a visa offer from a host country. Every one of the WUS staff members will have their own memories of greeting and advising and, in particular, learning from these arrivals: the phrase ‘case workers’ sounds rather too clinical and cold for what the work involved. I write separately about one academic, Don Edgardo Enríquez. By 1976, the programme extended right across the UK, and had expanded to include undergraduates starting course from October 1975. We made roughly three hundred awards in 1974 and 1975, though most award holders arrived, and the programme greatly extended, after I had left.   

I thought that I would spend three months in WUS and I ended up staying fifteen months, reluctantly returning to my deferred doctoral studies. But my time in WUS was a defining moment in my life. I ended up teaching Latin American literature, film and cultural history – focusing on Argentina, hardly ever visiting Chile – but the way I looked at Latin America, the way I read literature and watched movies, my outlook on life, were undoubtedly formed by WUS, the Chileans and, yes, the Seven Sisters Road.  

Author profile
John King

John King worked in WUS UK from 1974 to 1975 as part of the Chile team. After his time in WUS described as a “defining moment” he went on to teach Latin American literature, film and cultural history and is now Emeritus Professor of Latin American Cultural History at the University of Warwick.