A lifelong Catholic, Hugh O’Shaughnessy was a regular contributor to the Tablet. Photograph by Jane Bown
Hugh reported for 30 years from many Latin American countries where grave human rights abuses were being committed
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.
Born 21 January 1935; died 1 March 2022