New film ‘Hora Chilena’ documents the British philanthropists who welcomed Chilean exiles and helped them face the aftermath of the military coup.

unnamedBy Carole Concha Bell, London.

2013 marks forty years since the devastating military coup in Chile that not only subjected the nation to a ruthless military regime but also ripped families apart by expelling over 200,000 citizens. It’s estimated that 2,500 of these came to the UK.

 Timed to mark this important anniversary, ‘Hora Chilena’ aims to provide an important historical document that is very much part of Cambridge’s modern cultural past and tells the story of the Chileans who arrived as refugees to Cambridge through interviews, personal photos, archive footage, music and a reunion event in Cambridge.

 First generation exiles describe their harrowing experiences and the difficulty of adapting to an unfamiliar language and culture. They were welcomed into the community by a cross-section of the British public, encompassing academics, MPs, local councillors and school teachers, many of which feature in the film.

 Help came via groups such as the Chilean Solidarity Campaign, Trade Unions, Cambridge colleges, university student unions and individuals, many of which not only volunteered their time and resources to help the Chilean exiles settle in and move on with their lives, but adopted whole families.

 These local organisations and individuals worked tirelessly and selflessly not only to help them find housing and jobs but also to campaign for the release of those left languishing in Chilean prisons.

 Professor Alan Tait from the Open University who became Chairman of the Chile Solidarity Campaign during the 1980s, was instrumental in helping the Chilean community in Cambridge, here he tells the story of his involvement with the community and Chile Solidarity Campaign.

“I was at work by then (1973) and studying as well, involved with quite a range of organisations that were trying to change the world for the better, as young people are, and we heard about the coup.

We heard though the media. I knew about poverty in Latin America and how extreme it was and so I knew there were a range of different governments around Latin America who were trying to change that and the Allende Government was one of those.

 It seemed from the outside, particularly impressive because he had managed to build an alliance from a range of different sorts of people to try and change society for the better and I personally have always believed that building alliances is the only way you can achieve things, I was very impressed by that.

 The coup I have to say, was really a terrible shock, it had been building up for a while and I think the lorry drivers were crippling the supply of goods to the shops, I remember watching this at a distance through the press, on the television and thinking ‘ I wonder what on earth is going to happen’.

 It was pretty clear from the reports in the British newspapers that the USA was involved in organising against the Chilean government which was a situation… That reminded me…..

 It reminded me very much of Spain in the 1930’s which was my fathers generation. I was very affected by that, it changed their lives. The Spanish Republican government was doing something similar, trying to change things for the better so it reminded me of that, and I thought ‘goodness me, it’s happening again’. And then the refugees started coming.

 People came together broadly speaking, of the left and some of the churches, both from the political and human rights point of view, in fact we always organise across those two fronts in Cambridge. One was about democracy and the other about human rights, torture and assassination, getting people out of prison. The churches were more interested in the human rights side of thing whilst people from the labour, socialist and communist party were interested in the political dimension: the defence of democracy.

 The stories people brought with them when they came were just horrific. They came in significant groups. There was an attraction in Cambridge because of the Bell School which to their credit offered the refugees English language lessons for free. So it was a place that gave a lot of support to the Chilean to be able to make a life here, at least for a while we didn’t know how long it was going to be for, nobody expected it to be as long as it was.

 People came we campaigned for their release. We’d write to the Chilean and British embassy. The British government was reasonably sympathetic. I think that the horror of the coup and the nature of the torture really struck a very wide range of people. So some of those campaigns were successful. You’d write and then you’d hear that they’d been released, expelled of course from their own country.

 Some of them came to Cambridge; others went to London or Glasgow who had a great tradition of helping people.

 It was tremendous to meet them. Some of them, a small number, were quite damaged by the experience of torture or having their partner assassinated, the psychological damage was quite considerable in some cases. But the majority of them were not damaged, happy to get out although I have to say, happy to be here in one sense but devastated in another sense the cultural transistor was very difficult and the employment situation was very difficult, language and culture but also the way in which a receiving society recognises their qualifications.

 One of the things that was wonderful to behold was the way that the Chilean organised themselves as a community here, politically but also culturally. We’d be invited to Chilean community events and watch the dancing and watch the children playing.

 I’m sure that was helpful for them in terms of surviving in another country and also in terms of surviving the changes.

 I remember one or two individuals who were very damaged by their experience, which isn’t surprising….

 There were two campaigns, one was the Chile Solidarity campaign, the other was the campaign for human rights. The solidarity campaign was party political, not letting the world forget that democracy had been removed, fighting against the recognition of that regime around the world.

 The Chile solidarity campaign was very active in the 80’s, I became chairman and heavily involved. We organised concerts for campaign to raise money for Chilean human rights. I remember the Flying pickets came and sang for nothing at a concert. We’d write to MP’s and ministers and embassies. We always made sure that in the political culture of Cambridge such as mayday parades there was a chile solidarity banner so that people would be reminded, it wasn’t forgotten. That was the main thing thing. Don’t let them destroy democracy and think there isn’t a problem. There is an issue..

 I liked the Chilean community very much and made deep friendships. It was a huge education for me about the savagery of the rich when it comes to defending their interests, what they would actually do, if you challenged their interests. It was a big lesson. I saw people who suffered a great deal because of that. It courted my view and understanding of the world.

 I remember some members of the Conservative party telling me it was a coup for the economic benefit of Chile and I remember having to argue with them that because a small minority of them become rich, the average income isn’t a very helpful figure, you have to look at how that income is distributed within a society, if a significant number are eating out of soup kitchens that isn’t a very successful society even if the rich become richer…”


Leave a Reply