The journalist reported for 30 years from Latin American countries where grave human rights abuses were being committed
17 March 2022 | James Porteous | Clipper Media News
Includes reports from The Guardian and The Irish Times and ‘Chilean coup: 40 years ago I watched Pinochet crush a democratic dream,’ written by Mr O’Shaughnessy.
Top Photograph: Jane Bown
As the coup against President Salvador Allende in Chile unfolded on 11 September 1973, Hugh O’Shaughnessy was one of the few foreign correspondents in the capital, Santiago, and was able to give an eyewitness account of the seizure of power by the armed forces, and the death of the president.
Forty years later, O’Shaughnessy recalled that he walked back to his hotel through the deserted streets, hands in the air, to find Pinochet’s rich supporters already celebrating victory: “They whooped as he announced on television the closing down of congress, the political parties, the trade unions and the judges.”
In order to report as a freelance journalist on Latin America, O’Shaughnessy, who has died aged 87, had taken the typically bold step of uprooting his family to the Chilean capital in 1966, when he first met and became friends with Allende, then the Socialist party leader. O’Shaughnessy’s view that the 1973 coup was engineered by the US made him a trenchant critic of that country’s role in Latin America from then on.
In October 1983 he again found himself at the centre of events on the island of Grenada in the Caribbean when US forces moved in to overthrow the revolutionary government – the only occasion when there was direct confrontation between US and Cuban troops. He later published a book about his experiences there: Grenada: Revolution, Invasion and Aftermath (1984).
For 30 years, O’Shaughnessy seemed to appear everywhere, from Argentina to Mexico, usually properly suited and booted, and taking advantage of his vast network of friends and contacts to send perceptive reports back for the Financial Times, and in later years the Observer and the Guardian, as well as being a regular contributor to the Tablet, the Catholic weekly.
A lifelong Catholic, he also wrote regularly about the church, in particular its poor record on human rights in Argentina, Chile and elsewhere. He was a staunch supporter of the leftwing clergy in Nicaragua’s revolutionary Sandinista government, and of Oscar Romero, archbishop of El Salvador, and wrote a biography of Fernando Lugo, the Roman Catholic bishop who was president of Paraguay from 2008 until 2012 (The Priest of Paraguay: Fernando Lugo and the Making of a Nation, 2009).
At the same time, he was scathing in his contempt for more reactionary elements in the church, such as Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, whom he memorably described thus: “The pushy Mexican priest [was] the bisexual pederast, drug-addicted lover of several women and father of three who hoodwinked a succession of popes.”
Born in Reading, Hugh was the only child of Irish immigrants. His father, Charles O’Shaughnessy, worked as a porter at the Home Office, and his mother, Mary (nee Donovan), was an administrative assistant.
Evacuated during the second world war to stay with cousins in Cork, Hugh developed during his years there a love of Ireland and the Irish that remained with him all his life.
When he returned to England at the end of the war, his family was living in Chiswick, west London; Hugh was educated at the Catholic St Benedict’s school in Ealing, and subsequently at Worcester College, Oxford, where he studied modern languages and met Georgina Alliston (Georgie), whom he married in 1961.
After national service and a short spell working for Rowntree’s in York, he was determined to use his language skills to pursue a career as a journalist, in particular in Latin America.
The 1970s was a decade of brutal dictatorships throughout the region, and O’Shaughnessy reported from many of the countries where grave human rights abuses were being committed.
He was equally active in Latin American affairs when in Britain. He worked with Amnesty International and other organisations helping refugees from Chile, Argentina and other countries.
A stalwart of the Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR), he was one of the founders of the Latin America Bureau, a charity promoting the defence of human rights and social justice in the region. He later helped launch the Latin American Newsletters, an influential weekly series of newsletters analysing events throughout the area.
Somehow he also found time to write a series of books, perhaps most notably Latin Americans (1988); Around the Spanish Main: Travels in the Caribbean and the Guianas (1991); and Pinochet: The Politics of Torture (1999), written at the time of the Chilean dictator’s arrest in London.
One of his most moving articles was written following the death of Georgie, his wife of “50 years and 36 hours”, of a brain tumour in 2011. In it, he spoke of the magnificent care offered by NHS doctors and nurses, but bemoaned how the service was being privatised even then: “It seemed bizarre that the NHS was manoeuvred by an aggressive privatisation lobby into accepting a clearly inferior service from a company run from a country incapable of organising a health service for its own citizens.”
O’Shaughnessy won two British Press awards, the 1986 Maria Moors Cabot prize for journalistic contributions to inter-American understanding, and the Wilberforce Medallion from the city of Hull. Yet he was perhaps most proud of the honours that he received from Michelle Bachelet during her periods as president of Chile, in recognition of his support for its people during the years of repression.
In his final years he suffered from increasingly poor health, but remained typically active and sociable.
His son Thomas died in 1985. He is survived by his children Frances, Matthew and Luke.
Hugh O’Shaughnessy, journalist and writer, born 21 January 1935; died 1 March 2022
Award-winning reporter also witnessed first hand the US invasion of Grenada in 1983
10 March 2022 | Irish Times
Born: January 21st, 1935
Died: March 1st, 2022
The journalist and author Hugh O’Shaughnessy, who covered political and social issues in Central and South America for more than 40 years, has died aged 87. O’Shaughnessy wrote for The Irish Times, the Financial Times, the Economist, the Observer and most frequently, the Guardian. He also made many reports for BBC News and set up the Latin America Bureau in 1977 to provide independent news on grass-roots activism and the struggles for social and environmental justice in Latin America.
O’Shaughnessy, who was the only child of an Irish couple who moved to London, won several awards including two British Press Awards, the 1986 Maria Moors Cabot prize for journalistic contributions to inter-American understanding and relations on the American continent and the Wilberforce Medallion [named after the anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce] from the city of Hull. He was also recognised by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in the United States.
He was probably best known for his coverage of the American-backed military coup in Chile in 1973 (which ousted president Salvador Allende and his socialist government)and the brutality that followed. In his book, Pinochet: The Politics of Torture (2000), he described in great detail the events that led to the military coup in Chile in 1973 and the 17-year long dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
“He was always on the side of the poor, oppressed and underprivileged people of Latin America”
David Shanks, who worked on The Irish Times’ foreign desk at the time, says, “I have vivid memories of his 1973 piece from the grandiose Carrera Hotel, Santiago; of rich Pinochet friends, including military leaders, cheering and raising Champagne glasses as Pinochet told the TV Allende had been overthrown, while hotel staff cowered, worried about how they would get home to their families in the chaos – and how life might be under the dictator. The nearby Moneda palace smouldered.”
In October 1983, O’Shaughnessy reported from the small Caribbean island of Grenada during the invasion by the United States. His book, Grenada: Revolution, Invasion and Aftermath (1984), provided a rare first-hand account as he was one of only two journalists there to witness events as they unfolded.
O’Shaughnessy also co-wrote books, following on the ground coverage of political and environmental issues that reverberated across the world. These include Chemical Warfare in Colombia; The Costs of Coca Fumigation (2005) and The Priest of Paraguay: Fernando Lugo and the Making of a Nation (2009).
Apart from his regular trips to Latin America, he also travelled to Indonesia, covering that country’s illegal occupation of East Timor and the atrocities perpetrated against the East Timorese people. In his book, East Timor: Getting Away with Murder (1994), Shanks recalls how O’Shaughnessy praised the British film-maker Max Stahl, whose bravery in secretly filming the 1991 Santa Cruz cemetery massacre by Indonesians troops of perhaps a hundred Timorese mourners electrified the world to the illegal military occupation. “Diplomats looked the other way,” said O’Shaughnessy. Stahl’s ashes were buried in 2021 at that cemetery.
O’Shaughnessy, who was a practising Catholic with deep faith, also provided insightful coverage of the impact of religion on society, in particular the liberation theology movement of the Catholic Church in Latin America. Former Irish Times journalist Andy Pollak, who co-wrote a book with O’Shaughnessy [and Jan Karmali] on the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship by the Sandinista revolutionaries in Nicaragua in 1979, said he had a huge sense of social justice. “He was always on the side of the poor, oppressed and underprivileged people of Latin America,” said Pollak.
Whether in his books or his innumerable reports, O’Shaughnessy wrote with great clarity, fearlessly describing corrupt regimes, drug cartels and abject poverty
O’Shaughnessy was born in Reading and grew up in Chiswick in west London. His father, Charles Hilary O’Shaughnessy, worked as a porter in the Home Office, while his mother, Mary O’Shaughnessy (nee Donovan) worked as an administrative assistant. During the war, Hugh was evacuated to Ireland, where he spent time with his cousins and attended school in Cork city. Back in England, his parents made great financial sacrifices to send him to the fee-paying St Benedict’s School in Ealing. Thereafter, he studied modern languages at Worcester College, Oxford, where he met his future wife, Georgina Alliston, daughter of architects Jane Drew and James Alliston. The couple settled in Islington, where their four children, Frances, Thomas, Matthew and Luke, grew up.
Mastery of languages
Fluent in Spanish, O’Shaughnessy began to report on events in Latin America. In 1965 he moved with his family to Santiago in Chile, but after a year his wife and children returned to England while O’Shaughnessy stayed on for a time to report from the region. His fluency in Spanish, French and Portuguese served him well over the following four decades, when he would travel for extended periods to countries throughout Central and South America.
O’Shaughnessy was always in the job for the long haul, covering both the coups and the ensuing chaos
Whether in his books or his innumerable reports, O’Shaughnessy wrote with great clarity, fearlessly describing corrupt regimes, drug cartels and abject poverty and courageously calling out those in whose name murderous attacks and social and environmental destruction were carried out.
As recently as 2011 he wrote about an investigation into American involvement in “the deliberate infection of Guatemalans with sexually transmitted diseases” for medical research during 1946-1948, which he wrote was “nothing when compared with the US involvement in cataclysmic genocide of 200,000 people in Guatemala when that country was under the heel of military dictatorship fostered, encouraged and supported by Washington”.
Sadly, he wrote, “the mindset of the American establishment, particularly towards Central America, has not blurred at all and is unchanged”, even during the Obama presidency. “One has to look no further than the overthrow of Manuel Zelaya, the constitutionally elected president of Honduras in 2009 and Hillary Clinton’s dogged defence of the present illegitimate regime of Porfirio Lobo [president of Honduras from 2010-2014] to see that Washington is still practicing its old bad, no murderous habits in the isthmus.”
O’Shaughnessy was always in the job for the long haul, covering both the coups and the ensuing chaos. For example, he returned time and again to Cuba, chronicling how it slowly emerged from US trade embargoes and its transition from strong communist rule to a socialist regime embracing a tourism boom.
Back in England, he supported the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Amnesty International, with which he co-operated closely during its founding years in the 1960s. He was a friend of Bruce Kent, the retired Catholic priest who led CND during the 1980s and 1990s. In the early 1980s, he launched a weekly Spanish language newspaper, Correo which provided news on Latin America mainly to expatriates living in Europe.
He railed against the privatisation of the NHS during the treatment of his wife’s terminal cancer in 2011
His daughter, Frances, said that he was proud of his Irish heritage and held an Irish passport. “He was interested in people and he spoke to everyone. He had an amazing sense of humour and good banter,” she said. Shanks added that O’Shaughnessy was always convivial, witty and helpful. “He and Georgie were genial hosts at their Islington home. He might phone you with the greeting: ‘Hello old trout.’ ”
A great supporter of the National Health Service in England, he wrote The Dying Light of NHS Care, in which he railed against its privatisation during the treatment of his wife’s terminal cancer in 2011. O’Shaughnessy himself remained interested in everyone he encountered, even while suffering from dementia in the last five years of his life.
Hugh O’Shaughnessy is survived by his adult children, Frances, Matthew and Luke. His son Thomas predeceased him at the age of 22 and his wife, Georgina, died in 2011.
How the drama and repression developed as a US-backed coup overthrew Allende’s government on 11 September 1973
Few foreign reporters were left in Santiago on the spring morning of Tuesday 11 September 1973 when Augusto Pinochet, head of the army, was pulling off his trick.
The previous Saturday he had finally joined in preparations for the long brewing coup d’état against a fairly elected government and, only three days later, was revealing his capacity for terrorism, torture and treason with a foreign power. Only now was he throwing in his lot with a US government that detested the idealistic but ramshackle coalition of six parties headed by Dr Salvador Allende, the country doctor and upstanding freemason who was set on introducing elements of social democracy in a country long organised for the benefit of the landowners, industrialists and money men.
For months the original plotters had kept Pinochet at a distance, judging him too loyal to the elected – and, as the results of the recent local elections showed, increasingly popular – Allende, and too loyal to the constitution to be allowed into the conspiracy.
Most foreign journalists had given up and left Chile after weeks of waiting, many returning from deprived and poor Santiago – proud but provincial – to bustling Buenos Aires and their homes across the Andes. The Washington Post had a correspondent, but not the New York Times; Newsweek, but not Time magazine.
As troops fanned out in the town awaiting the arrival of Hawker Hunter jets to bomb and destroy civilian government, Allende desperately but vainly tried to contact Pinochet and for a few hours was convinced that his military commander had been kidnapped and silenced by the insurgents.
Many of we foreign reporters in the weeks before September 1973 had got into the habit of gathering in the snug downstairs bar of the Carrera hotel – across the square from Allende’s sober and unadorned presidential palace, the Moneda – where many of us were staying. Endlessly, over scotches and pisco sours, we tossed about our conjectures for the future, those with US passports rightly forecasting the worst for Chile’s “socialist experiment”.
On Tuesday, the counter-revolution was in full flood, telephone and telex lines were cut and the airports closed. Before 10am my friend and colleague, Stewart Russell of Reuters, and I trekked through deserted streets to the British embassy, above the Bank of London and South America, in search of a line that would take our story to London. No line was available but, as the firing in the streets increased, we were given house room and refreshments and could not but observe the unalloyed joy of many in the embassy, notably the British naval representatives, at the coup.
At that time Admiral Gustavo Carvajal, one of the plotters, was on the phone to Allende offering him a plane if he would leave the country. But the president, a man with high blood pressure, was trenchant: “Who do you think you are, you treacherous shits? Stuff your plane up your arses! You are talking to the president of the republic! And the president elected by the people doesn’t surrender.”
On the roof of our building a resister with a .22 rifle loosed off the occasional shot until he was killed by a passing helicopter. By four in the afternoon the city, ringed by its Andean peaks, was quieter, so Stewart and I, robbed of connections with London, marched out of the bronze doors down the centre of the deserted streets to our hotels, our hands in the air.
Back within the well-shuttered Carrera and gathering in its imposing reception area sheathed in black glass, Pinochet’s many moneyed supporters toasted him with champagne, and his three fellow members of the junta from the navy, air force and gendarmerie. They whooped as he announced on television the closing down of congress, the political parties, the trade unions and the judges.
The terrified staff gathered in a corner and watched their country’s fate being played out. As a precaution, for our safety, they had prepared beds for us past the laundry in the hotel’s sub-basement. After a good night’s sleep we emerged to watch the flames continuing to consume the Moneda. Under curfew the stadium began filling with Pinochet’s prisoners: some were summarily shot, others were sent to concentration camps in the Atacama deserts of the north or the frigid sub-Antarctic south. At the beginning, when the curfew was clamped down at 6pm, there was a nightly rush for transport, public and private, as people scrambled to get indoors promptly.
The soldiers were initially frightening with their battledress and machine guns as they blundered in, messed up the houses of suspects and carried off whatever took their fancy. Foreigners who were fleeing persecution – in Brazil, for instance – and who had been given political asylum by Allende were in particular danger, as were office holders in the trade unions. Later on, the squaddies, many of them country boys, came to be seen as figures of fun as they took the presence of books on cubism, for instance, as evidence that the householder was an admirer of Fidel Castro and thus worthy of being arrested and interrogated. Comedians on television joked nervously about stupid people being as thick as a soldier without a car.
A rash of denunciations saw many imprisoned unjustly by the military, who would seldom confess who they had in prison and who they didn’t. Over the weeks at the Moneda the flames consumed what they could, leaving a thick layer of ash.
Thus had started 17 years of Pinochet’s dictatorship – he soon reduced his fellow members of the junta to a cipher – held together by terrorism. As had already been the case after the military coups in Brazil in 1964 and then in Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia and Argentina, and as was to be the case latterly in modern Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay, the military and police torturers were ready with their electrodes, thumbscrews and waterboarding equipment to defend “western Christian civilisation”. Many had been brought to a peak of perfection in their trade in the US itself or in its bases in the Panama canal zone by US instructors.
Seven years before, at a dinner party in 1966 during a prolonged stay in the Chilean capital with my wife Georgie, I met Allende and his wife Hortensia “Tencha” for the first time. He and I got on famously right up until he was killed in the attack on the presidential palace. Our host Álvaro introduced us jokily to the leader of the left, saying: “This man has already made attempts to win the presidency and wants to have another go. But he’ll never get there.” Allende equally jokily chimed in: “Young man, do you know what’s going to be on my tombstone?”
“No, doctor,” I replied politely. “What is going to be on your tombstone?”
Amid renewed laughter Chile’s future head of state replied using his full name: “Here lies Salvador Allende Gossens, future president of Chile.”
On 21 September 1970, Allende had been declared victor of clean elections, but before he took over the presidency, after a fruitless effort by Chilean conservatives and their US allies to have the victory declared unconstitutional, Edward Korry, the US ambassador in Santiago, reported to Henry Kissinger, the foreign strategist of President Richard Nixon: “Once Allende comes to power we shall do all within our power to condemn Chile and the Chileans to utmost deprivation and poverty.”
A few days earlier Richard Helms, director of the CIA, had scribbled notes on a meeting in Washington with Nixon, Kissinger and John Mitchell, the US attorney general, where the president demanded a coup. They read: “One in 10 chance perhaps, but save Chile! /worth spending /not concerned risks involved /no involvement of embassy /$10,000,000 available, more if necessary/ best men we have/ game plan/ make the economy scream /48 hours for plan of action.”
After Allende’s enemies finally claimed their victory against him on 11 September, Chileans protected themselves as best they could while Pinochet and his cohorts, well favoured now by Washington, turned to making themselves fortunes from the privatisation of public services and, quietly, from the trade in cocaine from Bolivia which the US never seemed to want to criticise or attack.
So confident was Pinochet in his protectors in “the free world” that on 17 September 1976 he ordered the killing of Orlando Letelier, Allende’s former defence minister, with a bomb planted in his car in Sheridan Circle in the diplomatic heart of Washington itself. Such an atrocity, had it been committed by any Arab or Iranian, or indeed a Muslim of any persuasion, would have brought down instant punishment, or even war. But Pinochet was in no danger. After all, he had been Nixon’s man all along.
Hugh O’Shaughnessy is the author of Pinochet, The Politics of Torture, published by Latin America Bureau and New York University Press