A Lesson on Immigration From Pablo Neruda

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The poet Pablo Neruda in 1952. He persuaded Chile’s president to offer asylum to some of the mistreated Spanish patriots rotting in French internment camps. Credit Gamma-Keystone, via Getty Images

SANTIAGO, Chile — Chile, like numerous other countries, has been debating whether to welcome migrants — mostly from Haiti, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela — or to keep them out. Although only half a million immigrants live in this nation of 17.7 million, right-wing politicians have stoked anti-immigrant sentiment, opposed the increased rates of immigration in the past decade and directed bile especially against Haitian immigrants.

Immigration was a major issue in elections here in November and December. The winner was Sebastián Piñera, a 68-year-old center-right billionaire who was president from 2010 to 2014 and will take over in March. Mr. Piñera blamed immigrants for delinquency, drug trafficking and organized crime. He benefited from the support of José Antonio Kast, a far-right politician who has been campaigning to build physical barriers along the borders with Peru and Bolivia to stop immigrants.

Chileans aren’t alone in witnessing growing xenophobia and nativism, but we would do well to remember our own history, which offers a model for how to act when we are confronted with strangers seeking sanctuary.

On Aug. 4, 1939, the Winnipeg set sail for Chile from the French port of Pauillac with more than 2,000 refugees who had fled their Spanish homeland.

A few months earlier, Gen. Francisco Franco — aided by Mussolini and Hitler — had defeated the forces of the democratically elected government of Spain. The fascists unleashed a wave of violence and murder.

Women and children aboard the Winnipeg, bound for the Chilean port of Valparaíso.

Among the hundreds of thousands of desperate supporters of the Spanish Republic who had crossed the Pyrenees to escape that onslaught were the men, women and children who would board the Winnipeg and arrive a month later at the Chilean port of Valparaíso.

The person responsible for their miraculous escape was Pablo Neruda, who, at the age of 34, was already considered Chile’s greatest poet. His prestige in 1939 was indeed significant enough for him to be able to persuade Chile’s president, Pedro Aguirre Cerda, that it was imperative for their small country to offer asylum to some of the mistreated Spanish patriots rotting in French internment camps.

Not only would this set a humanitarian example, Neruda said, but it would also provide Chile with much needed foreign expertise and talent for its own development. The president agreed to authorize some visas, but the poet himself would have to find the funds for the costly fares of those émigrés as well as for food and lodging during their first six months in the country. And Neruda, once he was in France coordinating the operation, needed to vet the émigrés to ensure they possessed the best technical skills and unimpeachable moral character.

It took considerable courage for President Aguirre Cerda to welcome the Spanish refugees to Chile. The country was poor, still reeling from the long-term effects of the Depression, with a high rate of unemployment — and had just suffered a devastating earthquake in Chillán that had killed 28,000 people and left many more injured and homeless.

An unrelenting nativist campaign by right-wing parties and their media, sensing a chance to attack the president’s Popular Front government, painted the prospective asylum seekers as “undesirables”: rapists, criminals, anti-Christian agitators whose presence, according to one chauvinistic editorial in Chile’s leading conservative paper, would be “incompatible with social tranquillity and the best manners.”

Neruda realized that it would be cheaper to charter a ship and fill it up with the refugees than to send them, one family at a time, to Chile. The Winnipeg was available but since it was a cargo boat it had to be refurbished to accommodate some 2,000 passengers with berths, canteens for meals, an infirmary, a nursery for the very young and, of course, latrines.

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