My mother is a poet and translator and she translated lots of Chilean poets in exile. So growing up in London, I learnt about the horrors of the Pinochet dictatorship through the work of Chilean poets. I read Maria Bravo’s Prayer in the National Stadium which has a heart-breaking poem about her time in Santiago’s national stadium. She also writes about the loneliness of exile, living in cold grey London and leaving behind everything she knew. I also knew the poet Roberto Rivera Reyes very well when I was growing up. He and his partner had been young students when the coup took place and they had had to flee to England. He set up a Spanish language school in Elephant and Castle. Another of my favourite Chilean poets was Alfredo Cordal. He was a brilliant performer, with a mercurial, puck-like quality.
Later, I found out more about Pinochet when he was arrested in London and Margaret Thatcher came to his defence, claiming he had brought democracy to Chile! I did a PHD and spent years rifling through the British government documents in the National Archives. I found that long before Margaret Thatcher came to power, Foreign Office officials had welcomed the coup because they thought the military regime would be better for British business interests. But I also discovered more about the incredible solidarity movement with Chile. Trade unionists, students, lawyers, teachers, journalists, Labour party members, human rights activists, along with Chilean exiles, campaigned against the Pinochet regime. There are dozens of folders in the National Archives packed full of letters from individuals and groups like student unions and Quakers, demanding that the British government take action against Pinochet. Their pressure ensured that the Labour governments of 1974-79 took a range of sanctions against the Pinochet regime – an arms boycott, the withdrawal of the British ambassador, cutting of export credits and the welcoming of refugees – which I see as an early example of ethical foreign policy. It’s really important to remember and recover these moments of internationalism in British history, particularly when we are currently going through an inward-looking period in Britain with Brexit. We should remember these times when thousands of people spoke out against a military dictatorship abroad, and welcomed refugees, and worked together with those exiles to end the Pinochet dictatorship.