The Worlds of Claudio Véliz

On an evening in April 1956 Soviet leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin gave a reception at their embassy in London. One of the guests was Claudio Véliz, then a twenty-five-year-old PhD student at the London School of Economics. Khrushchev recognised him: “My Chilean friend!” he exclaimed in Russian, and then, through an interpreter, “How good to see you again! Let me introduce you to Sir Anthony Eden, and Lady Eden—oh, and Charlie Chaplin!”

Khrushchev was not the first of Claudio’s notable connections and far from the last. There have been hundreds around the world, many of them good friends, from Nobel laureates (including Pablo Neruda) to American Supreme Court judges, from Margaret Thatcher to Salvador Allende and Ernesto (“Che”) Guevara. In his younger days Claudio was on the political Left, but by the time I met him in 1982, in fact from the late 1960s, he had moved to a more conservative position. His historical work is widely respected and frequently cited. More effectively than anyone else, he broke the reputation of Manning Clark, in a single devastating article in the May 1982 Quadrant titled “Bad History”,[1] inevitably cited whenever Clark’s posthumous reputation is seriously under discussion, while in another Quadrant article, which won the George Watson Prize for 1983, he pioneered the idea of “A World Made in England”.[2] Across the years he’s talked to me about his experiences and connections. Some of it I taped.

I knew next to nothing about him until early 1982. It was in the southern autumn of that year that we first visited Claudio and Maria Isabel Talavera Balmaceda, at “South Main”, their ocean-front house on Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, about ten kilometres north-east of Lorne. Kipling called the seaway past there “the great South Main” by analogy with the Spanish Main,[3] and the house had been given the name by a previous owner. I’d met them through my wife Patricia[4] soon after we were married, and on the strength of one conversation he had invited us down for dinner. I read up on him before driving there, even read his 1980 Clarendon Press book, The Centralist Tradition in Latin America.[5] This was just weeks before Quadrant published his demolition job on Manning Clark.

I knew that in 1969 he had been invited to Australia to deliver the Dyason Memorial Lectures, broadcast over the ABC.[6] Three years later he had again come to Australia by invitation, this time to take up the La Trobe University Chair of Sociology. That was after his prestigious Institute for International Studies, founded by him at the University of Chile in 1966, was occupied by militants of the extreme-Left Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (MIR). All the Chileans I knew through Patricia had come to Australia to get away from the spiralling chaos of Salvador Allende’s socialist revolution—mostly they were on the political Right, though some were moderate Christian Democrats. All had left in 1971 or 1972 and were in professions of one kind or another. Some returned to Chile after the 1973 coup d’état, against the flow of a contrasting political demographic getting out. When I married into the earlier category it included the Chilean consul in Melbourne, Eduardo Vives who, along with Chile’s Ambassador to Australia, Jorge Valdovino, was among our friends.

I remember the night we first drove to “South Main”—there were heavy showers as we passed Fairhaven and Eastern View, an undulating stretch with the hills coming up ahead, and sheets of water were slewing across the road. It was warm in the car and cold outside.

“Do you know much about their backgrounds?” I asked at some point.

Not Claudio’s, she told me, she knew very little about him, but her parents knew Maria Isabel’s family, south of Curicó, on their estate—the Viña Santa Lucía in the Central Valley. Like Patricia, Maria Isabel had attended a French school. Later I learned that her Talavera roots went back to the conquistadors via Paraguayan estancias long since left. Her great uncle, President Balmaceda, a reformer, had shot himself in the Argentine embassy in Santiago after losing the Chilean civil war of 1891—instant sanctification in the eyes of his admirers. Claudio and Maria Isabel had children by previous marriages (his weren’t in Australia), and they had another house in Melbourne somewhere—Patricia had never been there, or to their place down here, and our curiosity was high.

The road began its circuitous ascent around Big Hill and after a couple of kilometres a lookout came into the headlights and passed us by on the left, just where the road swung right, a turn we didn’t take—at that point we had to negotiate a precipitous descent on a rough track to the house. It took us three bites to get around a tight left turn, then another turn to the right further down, before we levelled out by the small cottage that had a year to live before its consumption in the fires of Ash Wednesday, 1983, when so many around there died.

The showers had passed as suddenly as they’d hit. From below came the crashing of breakers on acres of rock-ledge. Everything smelled clean including the sour rot of eucalyptus leaves in the damp earth under-foot as we walked together to the door and the bell rigged up there. Claudio welcomed us into the living room with its open fire. A Bellini opera was playing somewhere in the background. Maria Isabel was putting the finishing touches to the hors d’oeuvres, and Claudio offered us drinks. Later we had dinner—empanadas as an entrée, then a main course of pastel de choclo (beef and corn casserole) and salads. Preserved fruits and ice-cream followed, coffee and chocolates, and it was late when the two of us headed home to Melbourne.

I recall some of the conversation too. I brought up The Centralist Tradition in Latin America and Claudio talked about its distinction between the political tradition of Spain and Spanish America on the one hand (bureaucratic centralism, strong control from the metropolis), and, on the other, the freer, individualistic Anglo-Saxon tradition. His analogy for the latter was the fox, for the former the hedgehog, a contrast later elaborated at length in The New World of the Gothic Fox (1994).[7] The fox knows many things in the way of survival, the hedgehog just one: extend spines. There was a dynamism to the Anglosphere that enabled it to weather and master change better than the conservative, defensive, authoritarian Spanish empire and its heirs.

So it was clear that he was an Anglophile, though his sensibilities were Continental and reflected an immersion in European philosophy and culture. Musically he was a Wagnerian. It was noticeable that his conversation never became argumentative. “You are right,” he would say, “to a point,” before patiently explaining how you were wrong. I liked the fact that he avoided moralising history, unlike many Marxists and some people on the Right. He was interesting to look at, too. His beard and hair at that time were still predominantly dark, his eyes were animated and his voice engaged you.

Over the years we’ve seen a great deal of each other. “I should put some of his experiences down on paper,” I often thought, “because he won’t, and all of those historical connections, places and scenes, they’ll vanish with him.”

Claudio Véliz Soza was born into one of Chile’s oldest Presbyterian families, in a house on the Cerro Castillo in the coastal resort town of Viña del Mar, just north of the old port city of Valparaíso, on 21 July 1930. The summer palace of the President is on one side, private residences on the other. The President was General Carlos Ibáñez del Campo, who ruled by decree. To take the air, Claudio’s mother would wheel him in his pram around the top of the hill and along the cliffs facing the Pacific, a stunning walk also enjoyed by one of Ibáñez’s colleagues, Nelson Bravo, who would stop for a chat, and to pat the child on the head—its first political connection.

He was just two at the time of the farcical 100-day, coup-imposed Socialist Republic of Chile (June–September 1932), under Colonel Marmaduke Grove (both terminal e’s are sounded). One of its first acts was to order owners of pawn shops to return all merchandise to the owners free of charge—to the pawnbrokers’ ruination.

His first sharp political memory is of the remarkable events surrounding the national elections of 1938. Just before those elections there was an attempted coup d’état by the Movimiento Nacional Socialista de Chile, the Chilean Nazi Party, principally consisting of university students. They intended, with the help of friends in the Army, to bring down the government of Arturo Alessandri and replace it with one led by Carlos Ibáñez, and to that end they took over the university buildings and the Workers’ Insurance (Securo Obrero) building in front of the Government Palace.

“There was shooting left, right and centre,” Claudio was saying as I pressed Record. “They expected—and they were deceived in this—that one of the military regiments would join them. The majority of them were hemmed in at the University of Chile and surrendered after a while—artillery was brought in and the great gates were shot down. The authorities took prisoners, sixty-odd students at the University, which is eight or so blocks from the Workers’ Insurance building, one of the few skyscrapers in Santiago at the time, right by the Government Palace, where other students had made themselves strong on the top, from where they were shooting down. So these sixty-odd students were marched down eight or ten blocks, hands up, to this building, and forced to walk upstairs ahead of the armed police as a shield so that the people up there couldn’t shoot the police. The consequence was that the students on top of the building also surrendered. Then they took the lot, all these Nazi students, and lined them up in an alley or corridor, which is still there, right next to the building, and they shot them.”

“No trial—nothing?” I asked.

“No, and this caused the most extraordinary revulsion throughout the country, a summary execution of all these students, however stupid they may have been, so there was a virtual rejection of the Alessandri regime—a liberal, moderate regime. To this day it’s disputed who gave the order to shoot them. There’s a bronze plaque there now, with their names.”

“What happened next?”

“Something extraordinary. Ibáñez was the preferred candidate for the Nazis and fascistic people—he was not himself an extremist but a right-wing statist, believing social change lay in the direction of firm central control. When the shooting took place he was immediately arrested (though he claimed he had no advance knowledge of the attempted coup), and spent several days in jail. From jail he ordered his supporters, including the Nazi Party, to vote in favour of the left-wing Popular Front alliance, which, like the Popular Front alliance of France, had the moral support of the Comintern. So Chile is the only country in the world to have elected a Popular Front government with Nazi votes.”

“But … the other parties?”

“I know, I know, you might think the Popular Front would have won anyway, but not at all. The Nazis had about 10,000 members so they certainly controlled at least that many votes. Their leader, Jorge González von Morées, transmitted to his followers Ibáñez’s direction to vote for the Popular Front, which won by 4000 votes, so if the Nazi Party hadn’t supported them, the candidate of the right, Gustavo Ross (I was at school with his son), he would have won.”

“You knew Ross?”

“I knew his son Jorge. So I was eight years of age when Chile came under the Popular Front, and I remember, distinctly, going down to a very beautiful square in Valparaíso called the Victory Square, and people marching around the square shouting slogans, and one of them, I still remember hearing it, was

El martillo, y la hoz,
mataran al chancho Ross!

(‘The hammer and the sickle will kill Ross the pig!’)

“Anyway, the Popular Front won, and their leader, Pedro Aguirre Cerda, whom I never met—a Radical, an amiable and moderate Freemason (all Radicals were Freemasons)—he ruled throughout the War, during which Chile was neutral almost to the end.”

“Like Sweden and Ireland, you had a good war?” I asked, “better than ours here, at least?”

“The war was something distant and entertaining,” he laughed. “Every home had a map, and little pins, and, depending on where the battles were, you would move the pins around, and people would take bets—there was a sporting atmosphere about the war. In downtown Santiago there was a cinema called Principal, which wasn’t the principal cinema at all, just a little cinema to which you could go and watch, for an hour—any hour you liked—all the newsreels: the German UFA newsreel, the French Pathé Journal (the one with the cock), the American Movietone, and the British Pathé, all the newsreels at one sitting. Not everyone, however, felt neutral. Quite a few Chileans, people whose families had been there for generations, went to fight for the RAF, for the French, for the Wehrmacht.”

By that time he was attending The Grange School, the prestigious English private boys’ school in Santiago, having completed his elementary education at The Mackay School in Valparaíso. In class he sat next to young Carlos Kleiber, then exiled in South America with his father Erich. While at school Claudio won the cross-country and the two miles, his 400-metres freestyle record stood for a few years, and he took time to train with the Chilean ski team under Émile Allais, the great French alpine skier, who had established a skiing school in Chile.

At this stage he had two aspirations. His father, owner of the transport company Expreso Universal, was, among other things, a cattle importer and breeder of racehorses, and the enthusiasm infected the son, whose principal ambition was to win the triple crown of the Chilean horse-racing calendar—the Clásico El Ensayo, the Clásico St Leger, and the Derby—with his own horse, bred and trained by himself. His second aspiration was to climb Alto de los Leones, 5380 metres and unconquered until 1939. In 1947 he won a Presidential (Pedro Aguirre Cerda) scholarship for entry to almost any university course he chose, and he chose animal husbandry at the University of Florida in Gainesville. There, he believed, he could learn to breed and train the greatest racehorse in Chilean history.

So in late August 1948, in company with a friend, he flew to Miami. On arrival at the airport they hailed a bus for the centre of town. The driver yanked the lever that opened the door and they entered, walking up to the long seat at the back so that they could sit together with their cases beside them. Other passengers, all black, entered along the route but remained standing, though there were plenty of empty seats. Finally the driver shouted back to Claudio and his friend, “Move to the front, or no one can sit!” It came as a shock that blacks could not sit in front of anyone white, and when, the following year, Councille Blye, an African-American, sought admission to the university, supported by the NAACP, Claudio joined the unsuccessful campaign to get him in. Years later Blye won admission and subsequently joined the faculty, but controversy trailed him till his death on an undetermined date in January 1983. His decomposed and mutilated body was found in a dumped refrigerator—drug deal gone wrong, apparently.

They travelled to Gainesville, a six-hour trip. Headlines in the papers featured Whittaker Chambers’s latest revelations about Alger Hiss, and communist conspiracies were everywhere, none of which registered with the newcomers. Installed at the university, Claudio heard there were people offering odds of 50-to-1 that Dewey would beat Truman, so he bet all he could on a Truman victory, winning hundreds of dollars, and bought himself a car.

After a couple of terms he transferred from the BA course in animal husbandry to the BSc course in agricultural economics, supplementing his minimal income by working as research assistant to Professor W.W. McPherson, who was investigating Chicago beef-market prices. After graduating BSc in 1950, feeling he still knew nothing about economics, he applied for admission as a PhD student at the London School of Economics and was subsequently accepted. Meanwhile in 1950 he had married Dorothy Ann Benson, an American graduate student from Toledo working at the University of Florida on symbolism in literature. They had two children. She would later co-author a book on Cuba’s national hero, José Martí, writer, patriot and anti-imperialist.

In September 1952 Claudio arrived in Britain. The mood in the new “welfare state”, co-endorsed by Churchill’s ruling Conservatives, was bleak, reminiscent of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell’s numerical anagram for “1948”. People were emigrating in droves, among them many doctors. Detector vans with electronic equipment prowled the streets in search of the 150,000 households committing the crime of having unlicensed television sets. Admitted homosexuals (Alan Turing, for instance, the computer pioneer) were compulsorily treated with oestrogen or sent to jail. There was the odd liberal straw in the wind. At the LSE Michael Oakeshott had recently replaced the Marxist Harold Laski as Professor of Politics, to the dismay of the political Left predominant there.

Claudio’s supervisor was H.L. Beales, a Fabian socialist who had published on the industrial revolution and early British socialism.

“So, what do you wish to study, Mr Véliz?”

“The Theory of Value,” Claudio replied.

“That’s ridiculous!” Beales laughed. “Forget that. Study economic history, the real thing.”

“Perhaps … the economic history of Chile?” Claudio tried.

“Absolutely ridiculous!” Beales replied. “Look, I’ll lend you three books on the economic history of Britain. Read them, then come back with a sensible idea for a thesis.” The result was a decision to examine the agricultural reform movement of the eighteenth century. Beales was delighted: “Now that’s a subject!”

In addition to spending several years working in the British Museum Reading Room absorbed in the study of economic and social change, and attending seminars in sociology led by prominent scholars, Claudio was elected President of the Research Students Association, where his distinctive concept of the Conversazione was born. He initiated a series of Wednesday afternoon tea sessions in the Association’s rooms, to which he invited one outside guest per week. Among them were extraordinary people, older types with established reputations such as the philosopher Bertrand Russell and Kingsley Martin, editor of the New Statesman and Nation, as well as others whose careers lay ahead of them, for instance Paul Johnson (later editor of the same magazine) and Hugh Thomas, future historian and Labour candidate.

Around this time (1953–54) Claudio was elected Editor of the Clare Market Review, Britain’s oldest student-run journal, published by the LSE Students’ Union. He wrote articles for it, short stories and poems. It was announced that Isaiah Berlin would be visiting to deliver the annual Auguste Comte Lecture on May 12, 1953. The lecture, “History as an Alibi”, was subsequently published under the title “Historical Inevitability” and was an attack on that concept; thus it was implicitly anti-Marxist. Claudio had no intention of hearing a lecture by a right-winger, brilliant though he might be, and was walking away from the School when Dr Beales, coming in the opposite direction, asked, “Aren’t you going to the lecture?” and persuaded him to come along. The lecture infuriated Claudio because it appeared to undermine any possibility of social engineering. Accordingly he devoted a subsequent issue of the Clare Market Review (Lent, 1955) to an attack on Berlin after soliciting hostile articles including one by communist historian Eric Hobsbawm. Claudio’s editorial was ferocious. “Today,” he wrote, “we find ourselves in the midst of a revival of obscurantism; of a belief in man’s incapacity to understand the causes and find the solutions of social problems,” and that, he pointed out, went against the very purpose of the LSE. Surely there could be a real science of social change?—change underscored by belief in human improvability? It was appalling, he thought, that most young thinkers in Britain no longer accepted that. “The belief in man’s capacity to solve problems of poverty, destitution and oppression through social policy is undermined by this new irrationalism,” he lamented. By now Claudio was immersed in his PhD on the enclosure movement and committed to political and social change, even revolutionary change, albeit through the ballot box. He says he never joined a political party, however.

Years later, in 1975, as Chairman of the Department of Sociology at La Trobe University, he arranged for Isaiah Berlin to give guest lectures there. Berlin had kept a copy of the offending issue of the Clare Market Review, but now found Claudio agreeing with him. They became friends, meeting in Italy and the United States and attending the opera together at Covent Garden. Berlin was present at the launching of The Centralist Tradition in Latin America, and Claudio’s subsequent book, The New World of the Gothic Fox, is dedicated to him.

Already by the mid-1950s Claudio was having second thoughts about at least some of his socialist assumptions. He had never been doctrinaire, and what he wrote in the early 1950s lacks the hard edge of dogma. His study of agrarian reform in the eighteenth century made him see that the common-field agriculture, destroyed by the enclosure movement, while perhaps it had entailed a happy way of life, nevertheless provided minimal productivity, bereft as it was of incentives and innovation. Its spirit of community was also its stranglehold.

And then there was the unedifying experience of being in at the gestation of what later became Amnesty International, and seeing at first hand how communists exploited people of good will in causes which, ostensibly noble, distorted complex political realities that he couldn’t in all honesty ignore. As a child in Chile at the end of the 1930s he had got to know refugees from Franco’s Spain, some of whom worked for his father as mechanics. A sympathetic listener, he later took up their cause in England, working for the International Brigades Association (IBA), whose members in London were mostly communists. As a Spanish-speaking Chilean postgraduate, too young to have been a combatant, he was an ideal courier and go-between, and on several trips to Spain from 1952 he liaised with lawyers and others trying to help political prisoners there. He has described the experience in his article “The True Genesis of Amnesty International” in the May 2007 issue of Quadrant.[8]

The communist head of the IBA in London, Alec Digges, was the man from whom Claudio took instructions for these trips and to whom he reported on return. In late November 1954, at the IBA’s headquarters, Digges explained to Claudio and a non-communist friend, Peter Benenson (who in 1961 would formally convene Amnesty), his concept of such an organisation, even suggesting the name “Amnesty”. Digges, who had doubtless discussed the idea with the British Communist Party leadership, knew that to be effective it should not be headed by communists, just manipulated by them, and suggested Benenson head it. Benenson declined at that stage to be the front-man, or in Lenin’s words the “useful idiot”. Claudio also declined to be involved in any wider organisation, which he thought premature in any case. By now he realised that the IBA and any new organisation it planned to promote would assist only communist prisoners. He’d tried to get it to help imprisoned Freemasons (Franco was intensely anti-Freemason), with only grudging co-operation.

Soon after arriving in England Claudio had been invited by Kingsley Martin, editor of the New Statesman and Nation, to write for him, but was also writing for the Manchester Guardian, the Economist, Reynolds News (the co-operative movement’s newspaper), the Daily Herald (Labour newspaper), and the Daily Express. One of the senior correspondents for the Daily Express was René McColl, who spent several months reporting from the Soviet Union in the early part of 1954. Claudio knew him.

Stalin had died on March 5, 1953, and Malenkov, the new Soviet leader, wished to promote an openness towards the West. In that context, the Soviet embassy in London offered a free trip to the USSR for twenty British students, one from each of the major tertiary institutions. The applicant elected from the LSE was Claudio Véliz. Before leaving with the rest of the group, he ran into René McColl, who said he would get an introductory letter for Claudio to carry with him to someone of influence. A few days later the letter arrived, in a sealed envelope with a name written across the front in Cyrillic. Claudio is not sure which of McColl’s friends supplied it, but it may have been Cyrus Eaton or Armand Hammer, North American industrialists with business connections and powerful friends in the Soviet Union.

It was the spring of 1954, the month of May, and the majority of the party of twenty were in Leningrad. Among them was the young Harold Shukman, future historian and linguist. Some in the group had requested to meet with the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, publicly attacked in 1946 by Andrei Zhdanov who labelled her “part-whore, part-nun”, “an overwrought upper-class lady”, “politically indifferent”—some high praise there. She had been expelled from the Writers’ Union, though partially rehabilitated in 1951. A meeting, contrary to the visitors’ expectations, was arranged, but Claudio was not there. He was in Moscow for an appointment of his own, staying at the Metropol, the grand Art Nouveau hotel built in Tsarist times. In any case he had never heard of Akhmatova, so missing out on meeting her in Leningrad meant nothing to him. Some days earlier he had shown the Intourist guide the envelope McColl had given him, and on seeing the name on the envelope her eyes had almost popped out of her head. An appointment had been arranged, and at the prescribed time an official car drew up outside the hotel.

Claudio was driven to an important civic building in central Moscow, not within the Kremlin itself, and escorted upstairs to a room with a large table on which sat a bottle of water and a couple of glasses. There was a wait of several minutes before Khrushchev entered with an interpreter, welcomed the visitor and invited him to sit. This man had worked very closely with Stalin, endorsing his policies and running the Ukraine for him, among other things. Two years later, in February 1956, he would be condemning Stalin in the strongest terms in a secret speech to the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU. To his credit, he had been foremost in organising the Politburo’s ambush of Beria, his trial and execution—the last high Soviet official to suffer capital punishment and one of the most deserving.

“So, what are your impressions of the Soviet Union so far?” Khrushchev asked, smiling as he poured a glass of water for the visitor.

Well, Claudio’s impressions were mostly positive, he replied, considering the devastation of the Great Patriotic War and how much that must have set things back, but he added that, on the negative side, and given the homeless people he had seen on the streets, the lavishly-appointed Moscow Metro seemed an extravagance.

“I see your point, of course,” Khrushchev replied, “but the way we see it, while the current generation may never experience a truly communist society, at least while they’re in the Metro they’ll experience at first hand the world to which communism aspires.”

That was hard to contest. Khrushchev asked whether there was anything he could do to make Claudio’s trip a success.

“I collect maps,” Claudio told him, “antique maps and modern maps. I’ve been up and down Gorky Street trying to find a good map of the Soviet Union, so far without success.”

“That’s no problem,” Khrushchev replied. “Where are you staying?”

“The Metropol.”

“Very well then, I’ll have something delivered there in the next day,” he promised, rising from his chair. The interview was over.

The following morning a long cardboard roll, wrapped and containing half a dozen maps of the Soviet Union, was delivered to the Metropol. The largest of these, displayed today at “South Main”, is printed on excellent paper, highly detailed, around two metres long and a metre high. Three of the six maps were destroyed in the Ash Wednesday fires of 1983, but not the largest, which at the time was in the Melbourne house.

When Khrushchev and Bulganin visited London in April 1956, Claudio received an invitation to the stand-up reception they held at the Soviet embassy, and attended with Hugh Cudlipp, editorial director of the Daily Mirror. Having arrived at the embassy they walked up the stairs to the greeting point, where Claudio was introduced as “Mr Claudio Véliz” and was at once recognised and embraced by Khrushchev, who then introduced him to Anthony and Clarissa Eden and Charlie Chaplin.

Later that year, his PhD thesis not yet complete, Claudio returned to Chile on an invitation to edit Santiago’s new morning tabloid El Espectador, in preparation for which he had been rotated through the various departments of Cudlipp’s Daily Mirror, but he soon left El Espectador to take up the chair of economic history at the University of Chile while continuing to write for the local press under the pseudonym Lautaro Fabian—particularly for the leftist evening paper Las Noticias de Ultima Hora, affiliated with the Socialist Party of Chile. Lautaro was the legendary sixteenth-century Mapuche leader who fought the Arauco War against the Spanish colonisers. “Fabian” signified faith in “the inevitability of gradualism”, catch-cry of the British Fabian socialists, who shunned the path of violent revolution. Claudio was also writing for the monthly journal Mensaje published by the Jesuit Centro Bellarmino, and in 1957 organised the Grupo Lautaro, a Chilean Fabian society unrelated to the 1990s ultra-Left underground group of that name.

In 1959 he was awarded the PhD and the following year undertook archival work in London at the Public Record Office and the British Museum Reading Room for his first book, the history of the Chilean merchant marine,[9] a logical topic for someone who grew up around Valparaíso.

Then, from 1962 to 1966, he was Senior Research Fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he organised regular seminars as well as a major conference on Latin America, editing the papers in two volumes, Obstacles to Change in Latin America and The Politics of Conformity in Latin America.[10] That conference was remarkable for its inclusion not only of academic historians and economists but industrialists, statesmen and financiers.

Among his closest friends through the 1960s was the Chilean poet and (later) Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda—there is a volume devoted to their correspondence.[11] Neruda was a prominent member of the Chilean Communist Party and a person of wide sympathies and profound humanity. Their letters reflect their mutual affection and their contemporary attitudes.

In 1963 Claudio visited Cuba with a small group of Chilean economists drawn from the Lautaro Group, including Jaime Barrios (who later headed Banco Central under Allende’s Unidad Popular (UP) government, was in the Moneda with Allende on September 11, 1973, when it was under air attack, and disappeared a couple of days later, presumably executed), Alban Lataste Hoffer (later author of a book on the Cuban economy), and Sergio and German Aranda. They were invited by Carlos Rafael Rodríguez, Secretary-General of the Cuban Communist Party and head of the National Institute of Agrarian Reform, and Ernesto “Che” Guevara, to stay and help manage various aspects of the Cuban economy. Knowing Rodríguez’s weakness for Stilton cheese, Claudio would later send him Stiltons in small china jars purchased at the famous Paxton & Whitfield cheese shop in Jermyn Street, via friends who happened to be travelling from England or the Continent to Cuba—friends like Richard Gott, who mentions this in the Prologue to his history of Cuba.[12]

Che welcomed the group at an informal meeting in Havana.

“What did he say?” I asked.

“He had immense presence, and great charm, and he said to us (I remember it clearly), ‘We want you to join us. Stay with us, work with us, help us to strengthen the economic foundations here, help the revolution to prosper, and make the future work.’”

“You got to know him?”

“Well, I knew him well enough to commission him to write an article for International Affairs, the Chatham House journal, on the Cuban economy. It appeared in volume 40 if I recall, in late 1964.”[13]

I asked Claudio for his impressions of Castro.

“We were at this enormous rally in Havana,” Claudio recalled, “it was the 26th of July, 1963, and I was sitting directly below Fidel. He was up on the tribunal, the rostrum, addressing a vast crowd, a million people. It was the tenth anniversary of his failed attack on the Moncada barracks, which was the start of the revolution that culminated six years later with the entry of his columns into Havana on the night of the 31st of December 1958. He spoke for six hours, and I took many photographs, all destroyed at ‘South Main’ in the fire of ’83. He is—or he was—a tremendous orator, and would keep the people entertained, peppering his address with intermissions: ‘This is a good time for exercise: let’s dance to “Guantanamera”’; or ‘We’ll take a fifteen-minute break for those who need to go to the latrines’. It was marvellous spectacle.”

All except Claudio stayed on, serving at senior levels of the revolutionary government for several years. Claudio declined because, he says, “I felt professionally inadequate, and mainly because I found the climate intolerable.” While in Cuba he met and befriended the Polish artist Feliks Topolski and wrote the accompanying text for Topolski’s illustrations (“Chronicle”) of Castro’s Cuba.[14] This essay covered the achievements and failures of the Cuban revolution as Claudio saw them shortly after the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis. In the six decades following its independence from Spain, Cuba was a cultural vacuum filled from Miami “with all the things US tourists love to enjoy anonymously and away from home”—one of the best sentences in the piece. “Havana became a gigantic brothel,” he went on, “and gambling den for the millions who could not afford a return flight elsewhere. The worst elements of US culture crawled south and found their way into the island”—a “moral and cultural annihilation”. The revolution of 1959 was a rejection of all that. In its place was “the enthusiastic, naive, dynamic and almost childish energy with which a people go about the task of filling a cultural vacuum from within”. The revolution was national well before it ever called itself communist, indeed it remained essentially national, refusing to borrow culturally from China or the USSR (he made the same point to Neruda in a contemporary letter: “lo importante de la revolución cubana es precisamente su latinoamericanismo”, “the importance of the Cuban revolution is precisely its Latin American nature”)[15]. In remaking itself, he pointed out, the revolution made mistakes, including the imposition of equal wages. On landed estates and sugar plantations the government encouraged autonomous co-operatives, a fiasco soon replaced by state-run farms. Most foods and almost all consumer goods had been imported from the United States, a “parasitic dependence”, so that when that country blockaded the island severe shortages were inevitable. Everything was rationed, though the rationing schedules, on the whole, were generous. Attempting to diversify Cuba’s economy, the revolution had slashed the size of the sugar plantations, with disastrous results prompting an abrupt about-turn. The same was true of industrial policy. There was little discontent, though, amid the exigencies of a war economy triggered by the Bay of Pigs affair and the missile crisis, through both of which Cuba had emerged victorious, refusing America’s demands for inspections and shooting down a U2 spy plane, which Claudio had viewed at Havana’s Revolutionary Museum. “Of course we won,” Cubans would say to him. “If we had lost we wouldn’t be here, would we?”

In 1966 Claudio approached the Rector of the University of Chile, Eugenio González Rojas, with a proposal: set up an overtly elitist Institute of International Studies within the university, at postgraduate level, along the lines of Chatham House, and directly under the Rector—no connection with any of the faculties. The Institute, he argued, should be a forum for the free expression of views, a sanctuary, its members meeting regularly for dinner—which should be a good dinner—around a “high table” of the Oxbridge variety with invited guests, local and overseas, a place where astronomers could meet historians, academics mingle with businessmen and politicians. González accepted the idea in its entirety and proceeded to set it up under Claudio’s directorship, giving him a free hand. The guiding principle of its seminars was derived from Michael Oakeshott:


The pursuit of learning is not a race in which the competitors jockey for the best place, it is not even an argument or a symposium; it is a conversation … A conversation does not need a chairman, it has no predetermined course, we do not ask what it is “for”, and we do not judge its excellence by its conclusions; it has no conclusion, but is always put by for another day. Its integration is not superimposed but springs from the quality of the voices which speak, and its value lies in the relics it leaves behind in the minds of those who participate.[16]

Claudio appointed, as the academic core, five research professors: John Gittings, Richard Gott, Alain Joxe (all from Chatham House), Marcos Kaplan and Osvaldo Sunkel. Gittings was an historian interested in Mao’s China and the People’s Liberation Army, later senior editor and writer with the Guardian. Gott was a left-wing historian who started his book on Latin American guerrilla movements while he was at the Institute; later literary editor for the Guardian, he resigned when it was revealed that he had accepted money from the KGB. Alain Joxe, sociologist and historian, was the son of Louis Joxe, minister under General de Gaulle, but Alain was far to the left of Gaullism; he still writes—his anti-globalist Empire of Disorder was published in 2002, a title whose vindication has well and truly arrived.[17] Kaplan was an Argentine sociologist, Sunkel a Chilean economic historian. In addition there were associates in Argentina, Brazil and the United States. “I recall that [Claudio] had enemies in the university, and outside too, who made his life more difficult,” John Gittings told me; however, “with his unfailing optimism and conviction he could work around such difficulties”. Later, at La Trobe University in Melbourne, he would face similar hostility to his evening and weekend Conversazioni, decried by some colleagues as elitist.

Claudio thinks Richard Gott one of the most interesting of those he appointed.

“Interesting how?” I asked.

“In more ways than one—I’ll give an example. Like me, Gott had met Che in Cuba (he also delivered a Stilton in its ceramic pot that I gave him to give to Carlos Rodríguez). Che was enormously charming, hugely charismatic, and Richard immediately liked him. Anyway, in 1967 Richard decided, without consulting me, to try to meet up with him in neighbouring Bolivia, where Che was leading a hopeless insurgency. Some time in 1967, perhaps late September, Richard asked me if he could have a few weeks’ leave to drive to Buenos Aires. I said ‘OK’. Some weeks later it was announced that Richard had identified Che’s corpse in Bolivia, several hours after his execution. The CIA were involved. As one of only two people in the vicinity who had met Che, Richard was qualified to identify him.

“Anyway, time went by, and then I was called into the Moneda [the Presidential Palace] by President Frei’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Gabriel Valdés, who told me ‘Look, you have this gringo working for you—Gott. We don’t want him here. Get rid of him. Get rid of this bastard.’

“I told him, ‘I can’t just sack him, and I don’t want to get rid of him.’ Valdés was furious: ‘You get him out, or I will!’ Months went by, and nothing happened. Perhaps the CIA were pressuring Valdés.”

When Claudio advertised for a personal assistant around this time, one of the applicants turned out to be Maria Isabel Talavera, who was looking for an interesting part-time job, and certainly not for the turning-point it was. She’d lived a contented family life till the moment she sat down in that office.

Claudio maintains that the political alignment of his Institute was perceived as neutral, but in the view of people with whom I spoke in Chile in 1982 and 1985 it was certainly Left, not centrist. However, it would be fair to call it neutral as between President Eduardo Frei’s Left–reformist “Revolution in Freedom” and the opposition Socialist/UP’s Marxist line. The Institute’s regular guests included President Frei, Socialist Party and UP leader Salvador Allende and his deputy, Senator Carlos Altamirano, Pablo Neruda, and Commanders-in-Chief of the Army General René Schneider, a strong constitutionalist (murdered in 1970 by right-wing extremists) and General Carlos Prats (assassinated by the Chilean DINA security agency in Argentina in 1974). With all these people Claudio was on good terms, and they returned his hospitality.

From overseas, too, he brought many significant guest lecturers. They included Kenneth Younger, Director of the Royal Institute of International Affairs and formerly Britain’s Acting Foreign Secretary during Ernest Bevin’s protracted illness, Andrew Schonfield, the Royal Institute’s director of research (and economics editor of the Observer), and the historian Arnold Toynbee.

On Younger’s arrival, John Gittings told me, “Claudio asked him ‘How are things in Europe, Kenneth?’ to which Younger replied ‘I don’t know; I haven’t been there for several months’. Claudio had to struggle to hide his amazement that the director of the British Institute of International Affairs in the modern age should not regard Britain as part of Europe.”

Toynbee, whom Claudio had known from his days at the LSE, was fascinated by the Inca impire and had recently written the foreword to Harold V. Livermore’s translation of Garcilaso de la Vega.[18] Toynbee’s theory of civilisational rise and collapse turned on challenge and response, and he liked to visit the scenes of historical conflicts, seeing and touching them for himself. His visit to the Institute, at which he was to speak about contemporary history, came with a request—take him to the southernmost extent of the Inca empire, along the River Maule that flows from the Andes to the Pacific Ocean just north of Constitución in south-central Chile. There, where there are still Inca mummies buried on the hilltops, the legend goes that in the 1490s an army of Mapuche Indians stopped the Incas’ southward advance—although in the view of some Chilean historians, including Claudio, the Incas reached even further south, to the latitude of the island of Chiloé.

Claudio’s old schoolmate Jorge Ross (son of Gustavo Ross) had a six-seater plane and a very good pilot, and agreed to fly Toynbee and Claudio over the length of the Maule. They were joined by Agustín Edwards, owner of Chile’s largest newspaper, the conservative El Mercurio. Claudio knew him from schooldays at The Grange. After a spectacular flight under blue skies, from one Andean peak to another, intermittently circling the craters of active volcanos and then straight down to the mouth of the river for a low-level circuit of the putative battle-ground, they stayed at Edwards’s fundo or ranch between Temuco and the Andes. A few days later they flew north, up along the Andes and then west to La Serena, from where it’s an easy drive to the Valle del Encanto to inspect the rock art of the Diaguita and Molle peoples, a culture destroyed in the Incan advance of the 1490s. These were the most spectacular site-inspections Toynbee had ever undertaken, and he said so.

Though he was not a member of Chile’s Socialist Party, Claudio had been a friend of Salvador Allende and his family for years. He had stayed with them in Chile and entertained them in London, introducing Señora Hortensia Allende to Bertrand Russell, for example. He had helped Allende by way of articles and the writing of speeches. But when Allende returned to Chile from one of his trips to Cuba in the mid-1960s he seemed a changed man. That was obvious at a dinner party Claudio attended at Allende’s Santiago house.

“He said to his family, he said to me, that he had had a life-changing experience in Cuba. He had stood with Fidel in Havana in front of a million people, ‘an ocean of people’ were his words, and after Fidel introduced him the crowd chanted ‘A-yen-day A-yen-day, A-yen-day’ many times over. Salvador Allende, one-time President of the Chilean Senate, had been a punctilious constitutionalist all the way back to 1938 when he was Minister for Health in the Popular Front government of Pedro Aguirre Cerda. Now he was questioning himself on that very constitutionality. Parliamentary democracy in Chile, he was saying, amounted to a frustrating process for change; Cuba, by contrast, had taken a much-needed short-cut.”

Claudio thought this a false dilemma, at the time and now. Chile was not Cuba. While he accepted that Ataturk, for example, could not in a democratic way have achieved what he did, that was because of the conditions at the end of the Ottoman empire—the only viable way was authoritarian if one were to use power in order to modernise. But in Chile the parliamentary way was deeply enshrined.

They had neighbouring seaside homes, and during a long walk on the beach in the lead-up to the 1970 elections that gave Allende power, Claudio wished him well but told him he did not feel able to help him this time around. He would not criticise him, but simply “stay at home” and concentrate on a major conference he and Maria Isabel were organising, the Conferencia del Pacífico (September 27 to October 3, 1970). On September 4 Allende won the presidential election with a plurality of 36.2 per cent of the votes, and over the next two months there were negotiations between Congress, Allende’s Popular Unity and the Christian Democrats over the formation of a government, leading to Allende’s accession to real power on November 3. In a cordial letter to Pablo Neruda written that night from London, Claudio welcomed “una nueva era en la historia política de Chile”, refraining from expressing doubts that by then were dominating his mind.[19] In the two months between the elections and Allende’s assumption of power Claudio presided over his Conference of the Pacific in Viña del Mar, which for the first time brought together speakers from all major states of the Pacific rim “to intensify research on the natural, scientific, socio-economical, historical, legal, cultural and technological aspects of the Pacific Ocean”.[20]

From late 1970 Chile’s political tensions were beginning their long spiral out of control. Already by the time of the Conference of the Pacific things at the University of Chile had begun to change in interesting ways. There was a movement from within Claudio’s Institute, led by people he had himself appointed, to “democratise” it, and (in their own terms) transform it into a vanguard, or “forward trench in the struggle against Imperialism”. Some thought everyone there should have one vote at staff meetings, even the janitor; as for the Director, he should be elected by direct vote of the members. Claudio point-blank refused to compromise, so in practical terms the Institute was now fractured. These people were not communists. The Chilean communists within Popular Unity, in fact most Latin American communists apart from a few like Che Guevara, were relatively conservative Moscow-leaning people who believed, at least ostensibly, in working within constitutional structures. They were not Trotskyists (that is, permanent-revolutionists, world-revolutionists). Their slogan from 1972 was “Consolidate to Advance”, directed against extra-legal, chaos-creating actions of the far-Left. But the radicals in Claudio’s Institute (and he was not letting go of it) were hot-headed revolutionaries of the MIR persuasion, well to the left of Popular Unity, which they wished to push into more and more extreme courses. Some of them were very small-minded for members of an institute of international studies, apparently unaware of new currents of Marxism in the United States. They vetoed, for example, Claudio’s invitation to Herbert Marcuse, issued personally at the University of California San Diego, to visit the Institute—an invitation Marcuse had accepted. They’d never heard of him (“some Yanqui”).

Following on from the Pacific Conference, the Institute needed funds from various bodies to recoup travel expenses and honoraria. Disbursements were made in US dollars. For this, not only was Claudio criticised by some of his colleagues, one of them reported him to the police. At 4.00 a.m. there was a knock on the door of his flat, he was arrested on the spot and taken in for interrogation. His friends got the lawyer Miguel Schweitzer (later a minister and ambassador) to help, even got Allende to help, and by evening Claudio was released.

And then one night the MIRistas took over the Institute entirely. When Claudio arrived the next morning there were red flags draped all over, and the slogan, “Transforming this institute into a forward trench against imperialism”. He was forbidden to enter. This was not an act of the Allende government, which was losing control of events, but an unapproved ad hoc takeover (“toma”) by extremists. The historian Hugh Thomas arrived to present a seminar paper and Claudio had to arrange for him to speak in a downtown building, the premises of the Council of University Rectors, where the Institute continued to conduct occasional seminars.

Opposing demonstrations by the Left and Right were an almost daily affair and everyone in the city knew what teargas smelt like. Through 1971 and 1972 the end of all this was increasingly predictable, and by many desired. There were not just the arbitrary, extra-legal tomas of farms but killings of the owners of those farms, expropriations of factories, crumbling social structures. It’s repeatedly claimed by the Left that the Chilean armed forces were pushed into the coup by the Nixon administration, but in the circumstances of growing anarchy no pushing was required. Slogans urging it began to appear on walls (“Jakarta is coming”), while out at the military academy young women from the Christian Democratic Right and more radical-Right groupings like Patria y Libertad (I met some) would gather to throw wheat over the perimeter at the officers inside, calling, “Here, chickens, chickens!” Of course the economic chaos was in large part the result of United States embargos, intended precisely to this end. It also has to be said that many initiatives of the Allende government were good for Chile and were not reversed by the Pinochet government—most of the redistribution of land, for example. But the country had become sick with politics, intoxicated and paralysed by politics.

News of the takeover of the Institute had reached Australia, and Claudio’s friends there were concerned—people like Heinz Arndt and Oscar Spate at the ANU, and Bruce Grant (all three had spoken at the Pacific Conference in Viña del Mar). Spate wrote asking whether Claudio would be interested in a chair of sociology at the new La Trobe University in Melbourne—Spate said he would ask La Trobe to write with details. Essentially, it was an invitation. Claudio, however, had never studied sociology. He had read in it—who hadn’t?—but he had no qualifications, so he wrote back with what he intended as a polite “No” but which was interpreted as “I will give the matter further consideration”. This was late 1971. Three months later a telephone call came from La Trobe’s Registrar: how long before a firm decision? Airline tickets were offered for a visit to look over the university and Claudio accepted, coming across with Maria Isabel, who quickly decided she loved Australia.

A couple of months later Claudio telephoned David Myers, vice-chancellor at La Trobe, asking what, with decorum, would be the minimum period he might serve in the position. Myers thought less than three years would be unusual. So Claudio and Maria Isabel held a meeting with her children and talked about the beautiful countryside, the surfing, the skiing and the kangaroos, and the idea was accepted. They also brought one maid with them.

Meanwhile the occupiers of the Institute had broken into Claudio’s files, destroying or stealing all his correspondence with Allende, much of his correspondence with Neruda, and many of the papers from the Pacific Conference, along with everything else there. Effectively the place had ceased to function. Following the coup of September 11, 1973, by which time he had long since left, it was delivered from the hands of its occupiers who, terrified at the prospect of real bullets, fled their forward trench. The Institute was soon its old self again thanks to good leadership and a renewed obsession with academic excellence—over half a dozen Chilean ambassadors were among its graduates. A second Pacific Conference was organised for 1979.

During his Institute’s long occupation Claudio saw a lot of Neruda, who was appalled at the takeover and offered to speak out in support. “The best way,” Claudio told him, “is to do and say nothing.” Of course Neruda was totally committed to Allende, as his 1972 collection of poetry, A Call for Nixon-icide and Praise for the Chilean Revolution, shows,[21] but he had little more time for the wreckers on the ultra-Left than he had for Nixon and Kissinger. As for Claudio, his political attitudes were rapidly transforming, though his friendship with Neruda (who had not long to live) was above politics. Recent experiences had been distressing and everything needed re-thinking, including the relationship of institutes like his to the universities of which they were part. If they were vulnerable to takeovers in times of political turmoil, perhaps their proceedings should somehow be distinguished from the academy, or even private.



[1] Claudio Véliz, “Bad History,” Quadrant, 26, No. 5 (May 1982), 21–26.

[2] Claudio Véliz, “A World Made in England,” Quadrant, 27, No. 3 (March 1983), 8–19.

[3] Rudyard Kipling, “The Flowers.” Kipling visited Lorne in 1891.

[4] Patricia Margarita San Martín Ramos, later Patricia Monypenny, and then Patricia Ayres, married to the author in 1981.

[5] Claudio Véliz, The Centralist Tradition in Latin America (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1980).

[6] Claudio Véliz, “Centralism, Industrialization and Conformity in Latin America” and “Foreign Policy and the Rise of Nationalism in Latin America,” publication of the Australian Institute of International Affairs (East Melbourne, 1969).

[7] Claudio Véliz, The New World of the Gothic Fox: Culture and Economy in English and Spanish America (University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 1994).

[8] Quadrant, 51, No. 5 (May 2007), 11–22.

[9] Historia de la marina mercante de Chile (University of Chile Press, Santiago, 1961).

[10] Claudio Véliz, Obstacles to Change in Latin America and The Politics of Conformity in Latin America (Oxford University Press, 1965 and 1967). These were followed a year later by Latin America and the Caribbean: A Handbook (Fredrick A. Praeger, London, 1968).

[11] Pablo Neruda–Claudio Véliz, correspondencia en el camino al Premio Nóbel, 1963–1970, ed. Abraham Quezada Vergara, Fuentes para la historia de la república, XXXIV (Dirección de Bibliotecas, Archivios y Museos, Santiago de Chile, 2011).

[12] Richard Gott, Cuba: A New History (Yale University Press, New Haven, 2004).

[13] Ernesto Che Guevara, “The Cuban Economy: Its Past and Its Present Importance,” International Affairs, 40, No. 4 (October 1964).

[14] Claudio Véliz, “Cuba,” in Feliks Topolski, Chronicle 17–20 [245–248], Vol. XI, 1963.

[15] Claudio Véliz to Pablo Neruda, 14 August 1963, in Pablo Neruda–Claudio Véliz, correspondencia en el camino al Premio Nóbel, 1963–1970, p. 53.

[16] Michael Oakeshott, The Voice of Liberal Learning, ed. Timothy Fuller (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1989).

[17] Alain Joxe, Empire of Disorder (Semiotext(e), New York, 2002).

[18] Garcilaso de la Vega, Royal Commentaries of the Incas and General History of Peru (University of Texas Press, 1966).

[19] Claudio Véliz to Pablo Neruda, 3 November 1970, in Pablo Neruda–Claudio Véliz, correspondencia en el camino al Premio Nóbel, 1963–1970, p. 159.

[20] Centro de estudios del Pacífico (Valparaíso, 1971), “Background”, p. 5. There was an article on the conference in the Chilean weekly Ercilla, No. 1841, 30 September–6 October 1970, “Mare Nostrum del siglo XXI,” pp. 45–56, and in the major newspapers of Santiago and Valparaíso of the time.

[21] Pablo Neruda, Incitación al Nixonicidio y alabanza de la revolución chilena (Editorial Causachun, Lima, 1973).

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