WUS and Chile: A Case of Solidarity

The World University Service has been an organization of great importance to a huge number of Chileans who lived the most dramatic political moments of the twentieth century as a result of the coup d’état. Many men and many women had to leave the country to protect their lives that were seriously threatened. Not a few left the dictatorship’s prisons for exile in Europe and other friendly countries in Latin America. They had nothing to live with but with solidarity. UNHCR, the High Commissioner for Refugees, estimated that one million Chileans who for various reasons had to leave the country. It accounted for almost 10% of the population. Numerous people came out for economic reasons given the high rate of recession in the 1970s and 1980s until about 1987. But practically all political leadership, intellectuals and left-wing professionals had to leave the country. Economic exiles headed mainly to Argentina, Australia, Canada, Sweden and other host countries. Intellectuals and leaders, for their part, embraced the hospitality of Mexico, Venezuela, Cuba, France, England, Germany, and many traveled to the countries at the time in the Soviet orbit. To show and remember how the world has changed, Romania was a country that welcomed many exiles arriving by land to Lima, Peru and from there weekly – for months – a plane to Bucharest. Many of them then searched for destinations in Sweden and other European countries. The same was the case with another plane that weekly traveled to Cuba carrying mostly colleagues who came with serious physical injuries. Solidarity with the Chilenos was enormous in those years of extreme dictatorial harshness.

In England, a group of peers, some academics, gathered around World University Service, obtained resources from the then Labour government and began a scholarship program aimed at arriving Chileans. They were known and are still remembered as the “WUS scholarships”. Later a reverse process began. Many of those who had left Chile discussed the idea of returning, the well-known return. It is not that they had changed the political situation within the country, rather it had even worsened and the repression was very strong, daily and widespread. But the idea of returning to contribute to a return to democracy was stronger. Again World University Service began a scholarship program to return to the country. This time it was directed from Geneva. Hundreds of Chileans benefited from all these programs, in various European and also Latin American countries and then in Chile itself. Many organizations and institutions that played a major role against dictatorship were favored by these programs. That’s what we’re going to talk about in this short article.

Origin of WUS Chile

World University Service began in Chile in the 1950s. It was linked as in many countries to the Federation of Students of Chile, and even in the general elections of student authorities was elected the manager or director of that organization. It was a kind of international section of the FECH, which was known in Chile and is known as the most important in the student youth world. Many leaders who were later well-known personalities – such as the Rector of the University of Chile Doctor Jaime Lavados – did their first international internships in this organization. As is well known, in those years World University Service operated in almost every country on the campuses, and in almost all of them linked to the movement and organization of students. It was defined as a system of aporI student. It was aimed at promoting construction and activities related to “student welfare”.

In Chile, works were carried out for the students of the University of Chile, the most important being a health clinic, established on the side of the Clinical Hospital of the University, which served the students free of charge and that still exists today..

The 1973 coup is well known. The University of Chile was intervened by7 the military and many faculties and schools suppressed. The Social Sciences, Philosophy and Humanities were not well looked on by the military in power and when not de facto suppressed, teachers, intellectuals and academics were expelled and repressed. For example, the School of Economics of the University of Chile and the Center for Economic Studies (CESO) in which some of us worked was dissolved. In this intellectual space worked numerous Latin American and European academics, some of them well known such as Andrés Gunder Frank, Marta Harnecker, Theotonio dos Santos, Ruy Mauro Marini, Tomás Vasconi, just to name the most named. All of them were persecuted the same day as the Coup and later the Center was closed and the Faculty of Political Economy closed to this day. The same was the case with the School of Sociology of that study house and later with all the humanities that were reduced to the slightest expression. A military Intervention Rector took over the country’s main university, to shame in the history of Chilean higher education.

In this context, the situation of the organization World University Service was put on hold, as was the Federation of Students of Chile. In 1974 there was a World Assembly of WUS, attended by the Chilean representative of the time. About what happened there, there is nothing but oral information that we have collected. The Chilean representative, a delegate of the students, appeared to be ambiguous in the condemnation of the Military Coup of Augusto Pinochet and the Assembly decided to expel the Chilean Committee from the international organization, which also honors its history. That is why from 1974 there were no WUS committees in Chile and there were no representatives in international General Assemblies.


When Chilean exiles began arriving in England, it was- as has already been said – the British World University Service Committee, known as WUS-UK, which reacted in solidarity. This organization was spread across many countries around the world, but the English at the time had a lot of influence and the international Secretary-General Richard Taylor was from that background. This organization was highly prestigious and had the status of an International Non-Governmental Organization with the United Nations and above all a collaborative status at the then United Nations Commission on Human Rights (now the Human Rights Committee) which, as is well known, operated in Geneva, Switzerland. Hence the international center of the WUS was located in that city. Its headquarters were a beautiful house, named the Villa, in the Chemin des Iris, near Cointrin Airport.

The mechanism used by WUS UK was scholarships. And it was extremely successful. Most of those who came to England had to first learn English and the best way to insert themselves and take advantage of their time in exile was to study. For this purpose, prominent academics from the most prestigious English universities who supported the Chileans, helped them enter the study centers, collaborated in the selection of fellows, in their evaluation, in short, a lot of people who worked voluntarily in this solidarity campaign. We don’t have the numbers and probably other contributions to in this compilation will deliver them. But it must be said that there were hundreds of scholarships so that Chileans were able to live, study and make the most of the time of exile. By the way, political activities of solidarity with Chile, with the “interior” as it was said, were made possible by this basis of support.

Over time, we saw the need to have in Chile a team that would support the selection for the scholarships, inform the English committees about them, in short, that there would be a communication with what was happening in the country, inside. Ese Comité was formed by a group of personalities of great prestige and presided over by Ricardo Lagos Escobar, who over time, was President of Chile and one of the most important political leaders to this day. Manuel Antonio Garretón, known sociologist and today professor at the University of Chile and winner of the National Prize for Social Sciences, formed part, like Lucía Sepúlveda, who had been the Principal and leader of the school of Social Work of the University of Chile and then founder of the same school at the Academy of Christian Humanism University; there was also Professor Iván Nuñez,who had been the intellectual author of the educational reform of Salvador Allende and then a member of the Education Program of the same Academy of Christian Humanism, an entity that grouped the universities of those years. Many people, we cannot name them all, participated in these activities, which were not easy at that time of dictatorship. It was even quite dangerous to get together.

The method was successful. The scholarships were given with great responsibility and in the vast majority of cases Chileans in England managed to complete their studies, many of them doctoral students. They were tight scholarships, which had an important ethical sense. They allowed them to live modestly and devote themselves to studying. We met years later, we who wrote this commemorative article, to discuss the way of life of fellows when we held meetings in a hall adjacent to Westminster Cathedral in the heart of London. A significant number of people met and always came to the well-known “empanadas” that some companions -certainly women – provided enthusiastically. There was also no need for a guitar that recalled the southern airs.

The colleagues who worked at WUS in London had a huge commitment, affection and solidarity with the Chileans, with the Chilean cause, and it is necessary at this time of the 100th birthday of the institution to remember it. Alan Philips, Pauline Martin, Susan Carstairs, John Bevan, Nigel Hartley and many we may not name for failing memory will not be easily forgotten by Chileans.

WUS International and WUS Chile

The Chilean question, that is, the coup d’état and the Dictatorship had a great political and especially emotional impact in Europe. It was read as an attempt to move socialism in democratic channels, as explicitly maintained by Salvador Allende. And it was seen that the Nixon-Kissinger administration, that is the United States of America, reacted with virulence and violence against this possibility. Henry Kissinger’s famous phrase, “until it hurts,” was true. The intervention was triggered and caused the rejection of the European democratic sectors in essence. Much more is known today about the cruelty of American international treatment.

The consequences to human rights institutions were profound. The Commission for Human Rights of the United Nations went from being a normative body, which dictated recommendations and prepared conventions and treaties, to an executive body. The first countries to be subjected to scrutiny were Chile and South Africa’s Apartheid regime. The Subcommittee on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, also known as the Subcommittee on Human Rights, was entrusted with monitoring these countries. Open Working Groups were formed in which once a year, and sometimes special sessions, human rights violations were reported from those countries. In the case of South Africa, punitive measures (commercial blockades for example) were advanced, and in the case of Chile to special delegates made visits to the country, but many of them that could not be carried out because of the refusal of the Dictatorship to allow them to enter the national territory. Each of these annual sessions was a privileged grandstand in which the victims presented their cases, analyses were made, in short, the situation of those countries was put on the table.

World University Service had consultative status with the United Nations and therefore quickly transformed into a privileged vehicle to present documents, to publicize the thinking of victims, etc. Numerous representatives, for example, of the Vicariate of Solidarity, of the Chilean Commission on Human Rights, arrived in Geneva with extensive information and could enter these sessions with the support of WUS credentials. As is well known, the Vicaría de la Solidaridad was created by Cardinal Silva Henríquez and played a very important role in defending human rights in the worst years of the Dictatorship. For its part, the Commission was made up of professionals, lawyers, doctors and one of the signatories to this paper was its Secretary-General.

This new context led to the need to re-form a WUS Committee in Chile, and therefore to have a relationship with the headquarters in Geneva and throughout all the committees that at the time were many and some of them very active. In Europe were, apart from the aforementioned one in England, there were committees in Denmark, France – still linked to the student movement – Germany, Austria and some more that escape us. In Asia, the Committee of India and the Philippines, and in Africa, South Africa and especially Rhodesia, later Zimbawe, were very strong, where anti-apartheid fellowship programmes were extensive and mportant. It is necessary to greatly appreciate the democratic character that the organization acquired at the time. Each Committee consisted of numerous people, many of them on the university campuses themselves, and went to a very large General Assembly, in which the authorities were elected, and in particular the Executive Secretary and an Executive Committee that led the institution.

A national committee was formed in Chile, which grouped together and expressed various “sensitivities” from all political sectors that were then directly involved in opposition and rejection of the Dictatorship. These were not militant members of political parties, or people appointed by them, but academics and human rights defenders, who gave confidence to the sectors involved. This was essential given the delicate task of this Committee, that is, reviewing curricula, serving as a nexus for those returning to Chile.

Jose Bengoa WUS Chile President 1978-95

From this context the return programme to be managed by this new National Committee begins. The funds were generously delivered by the Swedish Development Agency (SIDA), and managed in Geneva. The Committee sent the pay for chosen fellows and in Geneva itself bank cheques were made in the name of each of the recipient fellows in Chile. These cheques in dollars and nominatives traveled in diplomatic bags or in the hands of people of great trust, and were delivered to each one, in the small office that the Committee had in Santiago de Chile. In this way, the Committee did not handle these moneys and thus protected the beneficiaries themselves. Many times the police found those cheques and the explanation was convincing, that is, a scholarship was held by an international body, for which there was a small margin of care by the security and intelligence devices. For this reason, the Committee was always called in English, WUS Chile, in order to mark the international character and thus protect itself from repression.

Scholarships did not involve studies in this case. Many fellows shaped institutions, non-governmental organizations and there were also trade unionist fellows who held their fellowship in union formation. A network of small organizations was formed and in this WUS contributed greatly with its scholarships and people returning to Chile.

The crises of the International University Exchange Found and WUS International

The international context in the late 1970s changed very profoundly. The Nicaraguan revolution had opened a light of hope in a Latin America that had been marked by dictatorial violence in Chile and Argentina mainly. In El Salvador the war had broken out and in Guatemala the guerrillas had acquired enormous power. Colombia was continuing at war and at some point the military political movement called M 19 had several important achievements that soon led to an agreement, a demilitarization, which was very complex – and dramatic – as we know.

In that context an unheard-of event arose. Parallel to WUS there was an international body of similar characteristics called the International University Exchange Fund (IUEF). It differed from WUS, especially in a closer relationship with the political parties of European social democracy, particularly Germany. It had almost the same WUS donors, although the funds were of a much larger dimension, almost three times the WUS budget. In Chile it financed many small programs, linked to different contexts. One of them, for example, was a library in a parish in the southern area of Santiago, San Pedro and San Pablo, which was the birthplace of numerous youth and popular organizations. It was a program that was always pointed out as of high quality since the young university students of the population did classes in the afternoons to those in middle school. There were also several small projects of a solidarity nature.

From one day to the next this organization – IUEF – was self-shattered. It had many programs in South Africa and a member of that country was part of the International Directory. The Board knew not only the programs but had access to the beneficiaries, their names, etc. There was an apparently true accusation that this board member was part of the South African secret police, that is, a high-flying spy, who infiltrated this organization. Such was the impact that they met and decided to dissolve the institution.

The consequences for World University Service were very important. The General Assembly had elected Klavs Wulff, a member of the Danish committee, as its executive secretary. He was the negotiator, as members of the former IUEF recommended that WUS take over the abandoned programs for them. We personally accompanied Klavs in many of those talks or negotiations with the agencies and a huge number of programs were eventually passed over. The WUS International budget tripled from year to year. The programs were opened to all of Latin America, both “Chileans in Latin America”, as a way to get closer to the country, as well as “Latin Americans in Latin America”. For example, the Committee was formed in Argentina, as there were no programs there. That Committee was chaired by Jorge Taiana. Taiana has been the Chancellor of Argentina during the Kichnerist Peronist governments and is a highly respected personality in the field of human rights. In Panama, recently deceased sociologist Marcos Gandázegui led solidarity with Central American struggles.

Never has WUS International had so many programs and economic resources. In those eighties it was the main financial agency of the educational field in many parts of the world. The General Assembly held in Harare, Zimbawe, the year of its independence, was instrumental in negotiations between the various blocs that had been formed between the National Committees. Indeed, the tranquillity of Richard Taylor’s times had been lost, and in those years WUS was in the midst of the complex political processes that were not only in Latin America but also in Africa and Asia.

Last stage of WUS Chile 

In Chile these resources allowed us to open a number of new programs. The Small projects program was particularly important at a time when recession was widespread in the country. Productive projects were common projects that grouped mainly women from the populations, support for nascent trade union organizations, and above all  training in popular education. A very successful Young Research Program was also developed, in the absence of state support for social research. Some programs of the former IUEF were continued, and others were implemented. 

Perhaps because of the expansion of the programs was the reason that intelligence systems were dropped into the institution. First it was the expulsion from the country of the partner in charge in Chile of the WUS UK, then it was the imprisonment of the Secretary General of WUS Chile and co-author of this article, then an assault on the offices seeking compromising papers. Fortunately the measures taken in the office were extremely careful. Many times the selection was made reading the curricula of the applicants and burning them immediately leaving a very small tab and proof of dangerous commitments. A number of well-known members of the institution played an important role in this complex process, including Angela Jeria de Bachelet, widow of General Bachelet and mother of President Michelle Bachelet, unfortunately recently deceased.

It should be noted that these new programs did not imply changes in the bureaucratic organization of the office. A huge number of people voluntarily participated in the activities of WUS Chile. Each program had a committee that ran it and all of its members were volunteers, that is, ad honorem. As the programs had management funds, established by the agencies, money was accumulated that was not spent because of the voluntary nature of the management. This led us to discuss the fate of these funds on a visit to Chile by the beloved new Secretary-General Nigel Hartley. A Foundation, called the University and Development Foundation, was formed, which used these resources for new programs and university support. With this Foundation and already ended Dictatorship, in 1996 approximately, the activities of WUS Chile were completed.

Appendix: Members of the WUS Chile Committee

President José Bengoa, University Professor, later a member of the United Nations Subcommittee on Human Rights; Secretary-General, Germán Molina, Advocate, Executive Secretary of the Chilean Commission on Human Rights and subsequently Minister of Democratic Governments, Directors: Germán Correa, sociologist and later minister and vice president of the Republic, David Farrel, holy cross priest, Angela Jeria de Bachelet, recently deceased, archaeologist, wife of the murdered General Bachelet and mother of the former President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, current High Commissioner of the HRDs in Geneva, Leopoldo Benavides, historian of Flacso, Rafael Maroto,priest, deceased, Mariano Requena, physician, José Aravena, Director of the Traperos de Emmaús de Chile, Juan Cavada, economist, Francisco Vergara, professor of philosophy, later Rector of the University Academy of Christian Humanism, Isabel Araya, writer, Gloria Vio, social worker, Manuel Barrera, sociologist who worked in the general secretariat until the end of the institution.

Author profile
José Bengoa

José Bengoa was a professor at the University of Chile until his expulsion in 1973 for political reasons. He became president of WUS Chile from 1978 until 1995. His numerous visiting professorships include Cambridge University, and he inaugurated the Salvador Allende Chair there in 2017. He was twice rector of the University Academy of Christian Humanism and worked there as professor of Anthropology. He has been an elected member of the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities four times, a member of the UN Advisory Committee and of the UN Minorities Working Group in Geneva, which he chaired. He was a key speaker at the Santiago conference on the WUS UK programme in 2016.

Author profile
Germán Molina

Germàn Monlina Valdivieso was executive secretary of WUS Chile. He was president of the Chilean WUS Centre, director of the International Organization for Adult Education and founder and vice president of the Chilean Human Rights Commission during the Pinochet military dictatorship. One of the founders of the Party for Democracy and holder of various party positions, he was Minister of Transport and Telecommunications during 1992-4, Chilean ambassador to the Netherlands (1994-7) and Minister of Labor and Social Welfare from 1998-2000. He has held several other senior government posts. He is a professional lawyer.