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Canada's NGO Radicals Confront the September 11th Coup

How the "CUSO Kids" forced the government to reverse course

by Dru Oja JayNikolas Barry-Shaw

Canadians mobilized opposition to the coup.
Canadians mobilized opposition to the coup.
Thousands, including elected president Salvadore Allende, were murdered when Pinochet took power on September 11, 1973.
Thousands, including elected president Salvadore Allende, were murdered when Pinochet took power on September 11, 1973.
The following excerpt from Paved with Good Intentions: Canada's development NGOs from idealism to imperialism is posted in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the coup d'etat in Chile. We hope to preserve the memory of the successful mobilizations to withdraw support for the coup within Canada, and the funding cuts that NGOs suffered as a result.
 
The most spectacular and telling conflict with radicalized development NGOs was the government’s power struggles with the Canadian University Service Overseas (CUSO) in the late 1970s. CUSO began life as the favoured child of the NGO scene, thanks to its founders’ deep political connections to the Liberal party. To create the organization, Keith Spicer, one of CUSO’s founders, claimed to have “convinced everybody who needed to be convinced, from the Prime Minister on down.” With the help of university administrators, Spicer had unified a variety of campus-based volunteer-sending efforts into a single structure and turned to the government for help getting the nascent organization off the ground. Spicer described CUSO to Prime Minister Lester Pearson as “a great idea to help Canada save the world.” By sending Canadian university students abroad as volunteers, Spicer argued, CUSO would contribute to the anti-Communist crusade. Spicer’s inspiration was derived in part from the ideas of Dr. Donald Faris, a Canadian missionary in Asia, who thought such a program could supplement the wider aim of the aid program–to keep the Third World in the Western orbit:
Our youth possess a tremendous potential of energy, idealism and enthusiasm, just waiting to be tapped. … To this end, visualize placing not just a few thousand balding experts in the field to cope with the advancing enemy, but a hundred thousand young people to supplement the other more seasoned men and women …  [emphasis added]
[...]
 
The CUSO Kids Shake Things Up
 
Despite the intentions of its founders, CUSO’s politics changed dramatically over the course of the 1960s and 1970s. Inspired by political struggles in the Third World, many of CUSO’s young volunteers and staff members became proponents of the “ideology of solidarity.” CUSO’s relatively autonomous Quebec branch, the Service universitaire canadien outre-mer (SUCO), became even more radicalized throughout the 1970s. The “CUSO kids” were out to shake up the development world:
 
Many were annoyed by CUSO’s growing bureaucracy, its increasing dependence upon the Canadian government, its apolitical stance in the face of growing Third World problems and by what they saw as the complicit apathy of the industrialized world. Many wanted to slap the rose-coloured glasses off the technocratic face of development and say loudly what they had seen: that the gaps, rather than narrowing, were widening to reveal a terrible chasm of poverty and despair that demanded urgent attention.
 
CUSO Executive Director Murray Thomson noted in 1974 that a “large segment” of CUSO’s members wanted “a shift of direction and of emphasis … towards more public identification with the unrepresented of the world; the poor, oppressed, the powerless.” With SUCO’s members in the lead, the radicals progressively won over more and more adherents to their point of view. Their influence within CUSO grew, reflected in both the organization’s activities and its structure.
 
Early on, youthful radicalism found expression at the organization’s Annual General Meetings. CUSO’s membership passed resolutions expressing solidarity with anti-colonial struggles and liberation movements throughout the world while denouncing Western-supported dictatorships and criticizing Canada’s foreign policy. Though non-binding, the resolutions soon “became an annual source of friction between CUSO and CIDA.” CUSO also investigated Canadian corporate ties with the apartheid regime in South Africa and established links with the liberation movements in southern Africa (Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa). At a time when support for Israel spanned the political spectrum, SUCO criticized Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. SUCO also made connections between the struggle for liberation in Angola and the sovereignty struggle in Quebec.
 
One of CUSO’s most effective actions was in the wake of the bloody 1973 coup d’état in Chile. Democratically elected in 1970 on an explicitly socialist platform, President Salvador Allende had infuriated the Chilean oligarchy by nationalizing the country’s hugely profitable copper mines and other major industries. Allende’s Unidad Popular government had also drawn the enmity of the U.S. government, whose multinationals held substantial investments in the country. On September 11, 1973, Chile’s experiment with democratic socialism was cut short when Allende’s government was overthrown in a brutal CIA-backed military coup. Allende was killed as the army stormed the Presidential Palace and a military junta led by General Augusto Pinochet took power. The Pinochet dictatorship reversed the socialist policies of the deposed government, banned political parties, unions and popular organizations of the Left, and savagely persecuted those who had supported Allende. 
 
Following the coup in Chile, CUSO organized a cross-Canada speaking tour for Hortensia Allende, wife of the slain Chilean president. To packed auditorium halls, the Chilean First Lady spoke of the terrible suffering of her husband’s supporters, who were being rounded up, tortured and killed by the thousands. The public sympathy generated by Mrs. Allende’s tour and other actions in solidarity with Chile forced a reluctant Trudeau government to open its doors to thousands of Chilean political refugees. The government had initially welcomed the coup d’état, and Canadian mining companies were some of the first multinationals to take advantage of the red carpet rolled out to foreign capital by the dictatorship. But public pressure obliged the government to curtail its more overt support for the military junta. CIDA, for instance, did not offer aid to Chile following the 1973 coup d’état. A confidential 1974 cabinet document lamented that “the attention … focused on the Chilean Government’s use of repression against its opponents has led to an unfavourable reaction among the Canadian public–a reaction which will not permit any significant increase in Canadian aid to this country.”
 
Lights Out for CUSO
 
As solidarity-minded voices grew within CUSO, Ottawa’s enthusiasm for the organization declined. Both in public and in private, CIDA officials and parliamentarians expressed displeasure with CUSO’s radical take on development and its criticism of Canada’s foreign policy. Media hostility to CUSO’s solidarity orientation added to the pressure on the organization. CIDA exerted pressure on CUSO, placing tighter controls on some activities and limiting funding for others, such as development education programs that were often critical of the government. The organization’s grant submissions to CIDA also came under greater scrutiny, delaying the release of money and forcing CUSO to borrow from private banks at high interest rates in order to cover ongoing expenditures. CUSO’s Executive Directors bore the brunt of the government’s fury. CIDA president Michel Dupuy (1977-1980), for instance, once summoned the heads of CUSO and SUCO to his office to issue a warning: “I know the difference between development and politics, and I hope that you do too.”
 
[...]
 
CUSO’s Executive Directors were under intense pressure to rein in the youthful radicals, but by the late 1970s, top management no longer had the control necessary to deliver the demanded changes. To accommodate rapid organizational growth and the youthful membership’s “passion for social action and participatory democracy,” CUSO had decentralized its operations in the late 1960s. Overseas local committees, composed of CUSO staff and volunteers, and regional groupings were given greater control over programs in the Third World. Greater authority was also vested in democratic decision-making bodies such as the Inter Regional Meeting, which twice a year brought together staff representatives from the overseas committees, as well as delegates from the Ottawa head office and the various Canadian sections of CUSO. 
 
With staff and volunteers assuming a bigger role in determining CUSO’s day-to-day operations and overall direction, the traditional hierarchy of the organization was turned upside down. On paper, the Board of Directors was responsible for governing CUSO, determining budgets and producing policies that the Executive Director and the staff would carry out. Authority was supposed to flow down and responsibility up. Instead, decentralization placed authority and decision-making power in the hands of overseas committees coordinated through the Inter Regional Meeting, which “had largely subsumed the role of both the Board and the Executive Director by the late 1970s.” While even critics of the CUSO kids acknowledged that the activities of the overseas committees were “more often than not beyond reproach,” CIDA was unhappy about the influence of radicalized students and staff, and pressured CUSO’s top managers to reassert control.
 
In 1978, Robin Wilson assumed the post of Executive Director at CUSO, determined to re-establish his position’s authority. Wilson sought to diminish the influence of staff with “militant leftist views” within the organization, which he knew was “a guarantee … of sure disaster in the CIDA cheque-writing department.” To patch up relations with the government, Wilson tried to push through a series of management reforms recentralizing power in the hands of the Executive Director and divesting the democratic structures of any real influence. Staff members were immediately hostile and denounced the undemocratic and authoritarian nature of the reforms, setting off a period of strained and uneasy relations between Wilson and distrustful staff. After a tense debate about the internal conflict, the Board of Directors decided to replace Wilson in January 1979.
 
Wilson’s firing proved to be the crisis the government was waiting for. CIDA cut CUSO’s entire funding of over $10 million. 95% of its budget disappeared overnight. The head of the NGO Division at CIDA publicly complained that “rads” (radicals) and “trots” (Trotskyists) had overrun the organization, and announced that no more funding would be forthcoming until major changes were made. Over the next year, CIDA dictated a total overhaul of the organization. The membership-elected Board of Directors was sacked and a new Board composed of civil servants, municipal politicians and university presidents parachuted in. CIDA also reserved the right to approve the two chairmen of the Board. Following a CIDA-imposed management audit, the overseas committees, the Inter Regional Meeting and other participatory management structures were stripped of power, which was given to a CIDA-approved Executive Director. Chris Bryant, a CUSO staffer, testified to the rapid growth of bureaucracy following the government-imposed reorganization: “[Before] CIDA gave us the money and we spent our time programming. … Now … all my time is spent filling out forms and calculating the telephone bills.” Radical currents in CUSO remained, but under assault from inside and outside of the organization, their influence was drastically reduced.
 
The fate of the more radical SUCO was harsher still. SUCO was jettisoned from CUSO in 1981, and when the same tactics of financial intimidation failed to convince SUCO’s members to adopt a less strident political stance, CIDA shut off all funding indefinitely. Without government backing, SUCO’s annual budget dropped from $6 million to only $400,000 and staff levels fell from 45 employees to 4. By 1984, the Quebec-based organization had effectively collapsed.
 
When CUSO forced policy makers to “look over their left shoulder” on international questions, the tolerance of the Canadian state disappeared. CIDA did not want to fund a democratically-run NGO that worked to address the world’s inequalities. Pious expressions about “pluralism” and “autonomy” notwithstanding, they wanted a bureaucratic organization accountable and responsive to CIDA.
 
Paved with Good Intentions authors will be on tour in southern Ontario starting September 16.

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dru (Dru Oja Jay)
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Member since January 2008

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Writer, organizer, Media Co-op co-founder. Co-author of Paved with Good Intentions and Offsetting Resistance.

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