Chile Sheffield: 50 years of solidarity, resistance and memory

By Maria Vasquez-Aguilar

The world is plagued by injustice, but we’re not powerless to positively intervene.

Published date

13 June 2023

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I wanted to show with these photos that we are not just passive victims, we are actors in our own right – with a history back home and a whole wealth of skills and experience that we bring with us.

On 11th September 1973, a coup d’etat ousted the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. There followed a brutal 17 year military dictatorship, which saw millions of Chileans leave the country, fleeing political persecution, torture, killings and disappearance. 

The UK received around 3000 refugees, and approximately 400 settled in South Yorkshire, with local trade unions, CLPs, activist groups, church groups etc offering support to those arriving and solidarity with the resistance in Chile. Political prisoners were adopted by groups and individuals, writing letters and in many cases helping them be released and leave the country. 

In October 2019, the Chilean people rose up once again, this time against the neo-liberal model which had been imposed by Pinochet’s regime and maintained by democratic governments since. The state reacted by bringing out its security forces and thousands were imprisoned, tortured and maimed – Chile once again was in need of solidarity and Chileans across the world responded. 

We set up Chile Solidarity Network, and held weekly demonstrations in Sheffield, receiving support from trade unions and other local campaign groups. Public events took place and money was raised to support ‘community kitchens’ (ollas communes) which sprung up. Prisoners of the unrest were in need of support, and a group of students sponsored Carlos Peyrin. He was released in June 2001, the abuses suffered by so many, including the hundreds who lost their eyes remain unaccounted for. 

The mainstream discourse around refugees and migrants tends to focus on their ‘worthiness’ of receiving our ‘charity’, and whether as a country we can ‘accommodate’ them. I wanted to show with these photos that we are not just passive victims, we are actors in our own right – with a history back home and a whole wealth of skills and experience that we bring with us. Equally, our British counterparts who have supported us do not do so out of paternalism or sympathy, but from a place of solidarity, of equals, one that recognises that other people’s struggles are often linked to their own. I hope that these photos can help break down such stereotypes and show that history is made up of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

We are not just passive victims, we are actors in our own right.

Story

Meet Dr Sergio Vasquez

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The victory of Salvador Allende in September 1970 brought millions of people, particularly the youth, into the political scene. At that time I was a student of the Technical University Federico Santa Maria, Valparaiso, and an active militant of a political party (MIR) who saw the role of the students in Universities as militants for the social revolution. Many of us went to work with the industrial belts, mining areas, peasants’ communities, trade unions, shanty town organisations, and other popular organisations. 

At the time of the military coup in 1973, it was then natural that I should form part of an active resistance against the murderous regime, which I did for about 15 months. Whilst in clandestine, I met my now wife Miriam and formed a family with two children, Miriam and Mario. 

In Jan 1975, I was arrested by Pinochet’s secret state police (DINA), and was taken  to various secret detention centres and tortured. These included La Torre in Villa Grimaldi,  Regimiento Maipo, Rocas de Santo Domingo,  Cuatro Alamos, and finally after a wave of international solidarity and the work of ‘Latin America’s Schindler’ Roberto Kozak, I was released to an open concentration camp Tres Alamos in Santiago.

Subsequently I was transferred to a concentration camp near Valparaiso called Melinka in Puchuncavi.  Here my wife could visit me and bring our new addition to the family; Maria.  Due to strong international pressure Puchuncavi was closed and we were released in Nov 1976, I stayed in Chile for a further two years. Eventually we were offered refugee status by the UK and arrived here in June 1978. 

Once in Rotherham I participated and continued my political activism in support of Chile, Uruguay, Nicaragua, Cuba, El Salvador and Guatemala amongst other causes. We liaised with organisations like the City Council, trade unions, human rights groups etc and participated in the formation of Sheffield Latin American Solidarity Front. Whilst President of the Chilean community, we managed to get a road named in Sheffield after Allende, Allende Way, which remains today. 

I entered Sheffield University to study a BSc Maths in 1979, and formed the Chilean Society in the Student Union. Through this Society we organised and held many activities such as films on Chile and Latin America, as well as talks, conferences and cultural activities in the Lower Refectory and later in the Octagon Centre. 

I went on to do my PhD in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Fuel Technology; a substantial part of the research was dedicated to advance a well-known international computer code called FLUENT used for the advancement of computational fluid dynamics. My solidarity work with Chile, and other causes, continued throughout. 

In 2019 in Chile, in response to the social unrest, there was widespread repression and approx 4000 political prisoners were again imprisoned. I was involved in Chile Solidarity Network and started to look for grassroots organisations in Chile to help us locate the prisoners and initiate a sponsorship programme which materialised in the support for Carlos Peyrin.  Oriana Astudillo, a  legal adviser for Carlos, was my contact in Chile and together with the support of the student group and CSN Oriana managed to find a legal loophole which allowed Carlos to be released from jail and start a new life. 

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Meet Lizi Mussell

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I was 18 when I first got involved with Chilean refugees in London at the Reception Centre ‘hotel’. They arrived, often straight from Pinochet’s concentration camps and prison with the clothes on their back and little else. The regime had given them the ‘choice’ of up to a 30 year prison sentence or exile if a country would grant them asylum. I was privileged to meet some families as they arrived at the airport bewildered and exhausted but relieved to be free.

I was very ignorant about politics in general but at least could be useful as I spoke Spanish. You learn fast when you’re translating for people attending a GP Surgery, explaining to a doctor that their back pains originated from the torture with electrodes, or that the depression they were suffering related to the disappearance and murder of friends and family left behind in Chile.

As a student in Cambridge, with many others , I worked side by side with Enrique, Mario, Miriam and more refugees who had managed to get out. We were given lists of names by the Chile Committee for Human Rights, of people who had been tortured and imprisoned for the ‘crime’ of being a member of Allende’s legitimate elected Popular Unity government, for being a trade unionist, or a member of any left wing party or any trumped up charges. Student groups, British trade unions and community groups were asked to ‘adopt’ a prisoner from the list and worked hard to support their release. We campaigned together through Chile Solidarity meetings, street theatre and concerts, doing what we could to spread the word and the boycott of Chilean goods.

I came to Sheffield in 1981 to do my nursing course and met my lifelong partner, John on a Chile Solidarity Campaign national demo. We were soon living with Carmen and her son Jose Miguel, whose father was murdered in Chile where he had returned to work against the dictatorship clandestinely. Our lives were enriched by sharing sorrows and sadness but also celebrations and friendship with members of the Chilean community and our sons grew up listening to Victor Jara, Inti Illimani and Quilapayun, with songs like ‘El derecho de vivir en paz’ (the right to live in peace’ , the Plegaria a un labrador ‘ Jara’s anthem for justice, and ‘ yanqui yanqui yanqui -cuidado cuidado!’

Solidarity meant and still means for all of us sharing lives, dreams, struggles and the belief that together we can make the world a better place. It’s so heartening to see a new generation of young people sharing this belief.

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Meet John Webber

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I came across the Chile Solidarity stall at the freshers’ fair while I was a student at Sheffield University in 1981. My friend and I got chatting with Hector, a Chilean refugee, my knowledge of the situation in Chile was very sketchy, and with this conversation my education about the Popular Unity Government of the early 70s, the military coup in ’73 and the dictatorship of Pinochet began.

We decided to adopt a Chilean political prisoner through the Chile Committee for Human Rights (CCHR): we were put in touch with a prisoner and his family, letters soon began to be exchanged with him and his wife and I learned about the effect of his situation on the whole family. I also became involved in the local solidarity movement and got to know members of the vibrant Chilean community in exile in Sheffield.

Finding out about their struggle was an eye opener for me and represents a significant part of my political awareness and involvement in solidarity work. 

Through pressure from many quarters our political prisoner and his wife and young son were eventually released into exile in France. We subsequently visited members of his family in Santiago. I was active in the Sheffield Latin American Solidarity Front and through it met my partner. As our children grew up we shared our house with Carmen, a Chilean exile and her son, José Miguel, and Chilean community social events and actions became an important part of our family life.

We maintain links with Chilean friends to this day, the uprising of 2019 led to renewed action and renewed friendships. In January 2020, we were privileged to visit Chile and see first hand aspects of a new wave of struggle to liberate the Chilean people from the continuing brutal effects of Pinochet’s legacy 50 years on.

Solidarity is as important as ever and it’s great to see renewed activism in today’s students supporting our Chilean friends and comrades.

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Meet Maria Vasquez-Aguilar

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Arriving as a child of political exiles, my childhood was embedded in political activism. We lived in Rotherham but Sheffield was like a second home as it was where most of the political activity was centred –  it and its Universities were hubs for fighting against injustices. 

My parents were not only involved with campaigning for Chile, but also supported other campaigns in Latin America, Britain and across the world at the time – they were  internationalists and the struggle was seen as one. 

As I grew older I began to become politically active myself – organising in my workplace, in my community and involved in campaigns of the day. So in 2019, when Chile exploded, I along with two other 2nd Gen Chilean women set up Chile Solidarity Network – a UK based informal network whose aim was to raise awareness of the human rights abuses and support the demands of the protestors. 

As a PhD student at UoS, I approached UCU for support and spoke at a teach-out. As a result some students came to CSN’s inaugural meeting in town and offered their support, so when my Dad and I set up an initiative to support the prisoners of the unrest, they were the first to get involved. 

My role was to work with the students to assist them in maintaining contact with Carlos and put pressure on the Chilean authorities; raising money to fight for his release. We wanted him to know that he was not alone.  When Oriana was arrested, we were able to get her message (recorded in the back of the police van) out across the world using the networks we’d formed. 

The students were amazing, and we were all elated when Carlos was released. It was inspiring to see the spirit of solidarity continue all these years later. I am very aware that we are standing on the shoulders of giants, hopefully we have contributed with our grain of sand. 

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Meet Joe Diviney, Catherine McAndrew and Tanju Çakar

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Representatives of Socialist Students; we’re a group of friends, and activists, based at the Universityof Shefheld. Following on from her talk on the 2019 uprising in Chile, Maria Vasquez-Aguilar invited us to attend the Chile Solidarity Network founding conference in February 2020. Later that year, we were approached to participate ni (SN’s initiative to sponsor a political prisoner, a construction worker only slightly older than ourselves, Carlos Perin Matamala.

Considering it our internationalist duty to answer the call, we formed a campaign group – Student Action for Chile Human Rights – introducing ourselves as “friends you haven’t met yet”. Our work initially consisted of writing on Carlos’ behalf, interceding with prison authorities to improve immediate conditions; fundraising for legal costs became our most significant activity, which eventually factored into Carlos’ release on conditional parole. 

One of the most difficult days was 29 March, when Chilean authorities arrested Carlos’ human rights representative Oriana Astudillo Sanhueza. Breaking-up Oriana’s press conference, however, was a miscalculation on their part as this gave national prominence to Carlos’ situation. We were overjoyed to see Carlos’ victory speech outside El Manzano prison, on 5 June 2021. The international attention given to Carlos’ case was cited in his hearing

The world is plagued by injustice, but we’re not powerless to positively intervene! Even a small group, like ours, was able to play an effective role – reactivating older solidarity networks – by working under the direction of Chilean refugees in Sheffield.

Using modern communications technologies to establish direct connections, you too could show meaningful acts of practical solidarity which leave political footprints in another continent. 

I hope that these photos can help break down such stereotypes and show that history is made up of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

Archivist

Maria Vasquez-Aguilar

Research

My research aims to explore the political activism of the Chilean refugees who fled the UK following the military coup in 1973. Political and human rights networks were formed locally, nationally and internationally, and a great amount of solidarity was both received and given to other political struggles during that time. I explore the impact of political activity on the second generation, as well as ongoing activism of the Chilean diaspora after democratisation.

Contact
pop05mev@sheffield.ac.uk 

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