A Lesson On Immigration From Pablo Neruda

Ariel Dorfman looks at immigration through the eyes of Pablo Neruda. The article featured in Tikkun.

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

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 killed28,000 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 tranquility 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.

While volunteers from the French Communist Party worked around the clock to ready the vessel, Neruda was gathering donations from all over Latin America — and from friends like Pablo Picasso — to finance the increasingly exorbitant enterprise. Time was short: Europe was bracing for war, and bureaucrats in Santiago and Paris were sabotaging the effort. With only half the cash in hand one month before the ship was set to sail, a group of American Quakers unexpectedly offered to supply the rest of the required funds.

Through it all, Neruda was fueled by his love for Spain and his compassion for the victims of fascism, including one of his best friends, the poet Federico García Lorca, who had been murdered by a fascist death squad in 1936.

As Chile’s consul during the early years of the Spanish Republic, Neruda had witnessed the bombardment of Madrid. The destruction of that city he loved and the assault upon culture and freedom were to mark him for the rest of his life and drastically change his literary priorities.

After the fall of the Republic, he declared, “I swear to defend until my death what has been murdered in Spain: the right to happiness.” No wonder he proclaimed the Winnipeg to have been his “most beautiful poem” as it steamed away — without him or his wife, as they did not want to occupy space that was better occupied by those whose lives were in danger.

And when that magnificent, gigantic, floating “poem” of his, after a hazardous voyage, finally reached Valparaíso, its passengers — despite the protests of right-wing nationalists and Nazi sympathizers — were given a welcome befitting heroes.

Awaiting the penniless survivors of Franco’s legions was President Aguirre Cerda’s personal representative — his health minister, a young doctor named Salvador Allende. Cheering crowds amassed on the dock, singing Spanish songs of resistance, gathered to greet the refugees, some of whom already had jobs lined up. And at each train station on the way to Santiago, they were met by multitudes offering them flowers and food, shouting that Spain was in their hearts.

The refugees who came ashore on the Winnipeg would go on to help fashion a more prosperous, open and inventive Chile. They included the historian Leopoldo Castedo, the book designer Mauricio Amster, the playwright and essayist José Ricardo Morales and the painters Roser Bru and José Balmes, whose benevolent influence – and often friendship – would touch me and my wife personally in the decades to come.

Almost 80 years later, those undesirables pose disturbing questions for us, both in Chile and elsewhere. Where are the presidents who welcome destitute refugees with open arms despite the most virulent slander against them? Where are the Nerudas of yesteryear, ready to launch ships like poems to defend the right to happiness, to food and flowers?

It comes down to one desolate question that the men and women who were greeted like brothers and sisters by the inhabitants of a land they had never seen before, ask us today: Where on earth and on our many seas are the Winnipegs of the twenty-first century?

Ariel Dorfman is the author of the book of essays Homeland Security Ate My Speech and the novel Darwin’s Ghosts. His article A Letter for Lord Ganesha will appear in the Summer, 2018 issue of Tikkun magazine.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on February 22, 2018, on Page A10 of the National edition with the headline: A harsher turn on immigration in Chile.


  1. "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."
    wow, i wonder what state the 'right-wingers' would be in if they were living in a country like ireland. - lets do some maths, we are getting another million immigrants - which if we had the population of chile would be approx. another 4 million. we have close to a million new people here already - so thats another 4 million. 4 million and four million equals 8 million, and these chileans are complaining about half a million in a population of 17.7 million. haha.
    as ive mentioned before, mass immigration is a fundamental part of the gospel of cultural marxism. and surprise surprise this ariel dorfman was born in russia to a well to do jewish family (according to wiki). funny israel wont take any refugees ariel!!!

    "While volunteers from the French Communist Party worked around the clock to ready the vessel,"
    surprise surprise there ariel.

    "Where are the presidents who welcome destitute refugees with open arms despite the most virulent slander against them?"
    not in israel anyway ariel hahaha.

    and what do u make of this lass ariel?

    " 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."

    who vetted these guys skills and moral character - mr panti?


    "Where on earth and on our many seas are the Winnipegs of the twenty-first century?"
    heading for ireland ariel.

    the irish are the joke of the world. an unfunny pathetic spineless joke. when they come at us in another 5 years and say we have to take another million - only then might some wake up from their slumber but it will be too late by then. amadans. keep welcoming cheap migrant labour paddy and fly ur flag on paddys day paddy and be a good little slave paddy and choke to death on kool-aid paddy.

  2. Grouch,

    it hardly matters that Dorfmann is Jewish.

    I don't think you do your own causes much good with this type of thing. Good ideas, when we have them, are best presented coldly and factually.

  3. yes yes - down with this type of thing - i heard that somewhere before! actually, the whole point is hes jewish/jewish descent. as is barbara specter. u have a lot to learn about cultural marxism/frankfort school. and good ideas are good ideas period - they just need to be presented - same with facts - which i have given above. its simple maths and not quite complicated. also look up stockholm syndrome when uve researched cultural marxism.

  4. Grouch,

    what has being Jewish or being of Jewish descent relevant to what he thinks? Are we to believe that all Jewish people think the same, that there is something in Jewish genes that prevent Jews from thinking and behaving differently from one another, that there is an unalterable Jewish otherness? If so, show us the scientific evidence that might support this. What you might regard as facts might not be regarded as facts by others. You have to make the case before it will be accepted.

  5. u obviously didnt look up stockholm sydrome.

  6. this is my favourite jew, agreeing with all i say in less than one minute.

  7. I admire any nation that gives refuge to the persecuted and those ready to die of starvation, etc. But the mass-immigration into Europe is not the same as giving refuge to Jews fleeing the Nazis, nor Spaniards fleeing Franco's regime, or Ethiopians fleeing famine. The Jews were not going to overthrow any of the nations who accepted them - yet most accepted only a few. The Spanish fleeing Franco were not going to overthrow France or Chile or wherever. And the starving can be given temporary housing and sustenance until their land can support them again.

    But the vast number of immigrants entering Europe are bringing their Islamic beliefs with them, beliefs that cause them to look for an Islamic control of their areas, and eventual dominance of the country they were welcomed to.

    Yes, quite a few will be glad to escape Islamic rule - but experience shows that the extremists are the ones with the zeal and endurance, and it is they who will call the shots in their community. The admirable courage of the former Muslims who are now atheists or Christians is encouraging. But I doubt it is they who will represent the immigrants.

    A controlled, vetted and limited, immigration is commendable - giving safety to both the immigrant and the host community. That doesn't seem to be the aim of the elites who govern us.

  8. Grouch - it's Christians, fundamental Christians, who if you read the blog are the driving force behind the anti-immigration push....very Christian indeed.
    Plus they are also responsible for destroying through war, the means that Muslims require to live...Muslim immigrants and refugees are coming here because our Christian leaders have blown their houses to bits, as well as their families...they have nothing, that's why they are fleeing....opening your door is the humane thing to do...look how many countries took in Irish immigrants over the centuries and still do...do they ask them to convert before being accepted?

  9. Maybe the Christian armies of the West can stop bombing the shite out of the people of Islamic persuasion Wolfie. If you have any doubt this is a modern crusade just look from the top down in the US military.

  10. niall, i cant believe ur coming out with that - u say fundamental christians are behind 'anti-immigration'. just think about that. i, like many others am all for sensible immigration policy - not mass immigration and open borders especially to a country like ours that cant even look after her own. the real fundamentalists are the people BEHIND mass-immigration. niall - seriously - just do the maths as ive pointed out above. we will be a minority in our own country by the time ur an old man. think about that. and a joke to the world - the most persecuted genocided race in history cant even keep their tiny island and unique culture for themselves and have a sensible immigration policy.
    as for other countries taking irish immigrants over the centuries. well think about that too. think of the Irish (and english too) shipped to botany bay - were they emigrants? or those cromwell sent into slavery. i worked with loads of africans when i was taxiing - very few of them were fleeing persecution. do u remember the nigerian lord mayor of portlaoise who originally claimed he was fleeing persecution and his family's life was in danger. turned out after he was elected mayor he was invited back to his place of birth for a big celebratory knees up by the local chieftain. some of them are laughing at us niall. u can see his story 25 mins 45 secs into this vid.
    another thing - if some of these lads were told they would have to work like my fathers generation had to work in england back in the 50s and 60s they wouldnt come within an asses roar of ireland. that is a fact. the paddys that left here in those times didnt head to the dole office and werent handed taxis and homes - they picked up shovels and worked liked dogs and contributed to england and built their own wonderful liverpool-irish london-irish coventry-irish communities. God be good to all of them paddys and bridgets forced out of ireland by the gombeen sleeveen class who are still ruling the roost here and still betraying ireland every day.

    ur being replaced by cheap migrant labour niall. the landlords and employers are jumping for joy over project 2040 as another million immigrants here will push up property prices and drive down wages. when the economy goes tits up, which it will, in the near future, itll be paddy who leaves again in droves niall. please try and research this issue online - u are being lied to all the time on msm - thats why they went ballistic with snow! enjoy this st patricks day - it wont be the same when ur old, thats for sure. and im not trying to be personal, but if u have young kids what will you say to them when they have to leave ireland because mustapha and mohammed and ayesha and ombongo have their jobs? and will they want to come back here? will you still be saying - send ur poor refugees here? will we be known as the generation that let all this happen? will we be a respected people or regarded as a bunch of spineless walk-overs? once again niall - the simple maths are this - we have nearly one million new people in this country as it is, they are telling us to expect another million and in 1991 the population of ireland was 3.5 million. also some politicians and IBEC are telling us to embrace the idea of having a population of 10 million by 2050. please think about all this.

  11. Steve

    There are no Christian armies of the West. It's been a long time - thankfully - since armies were raised under the flag of Christianity. We have various kinds of democracies of the West seeking to police the world, especially the Middle East. Our democracies are run by liberal or neo-conservative secularists. Some of the leaders - Tony Blair a prime example - profess an actual faith, but mostly they are nominal at best. Was Jack Kennedy really a Christian? Bill Clinton? Either Bush? Obama? Trump? MAYBE one or more can be described as Christian in any meaningful sense - but can their government, the regime that called the shots? Looks to me they were as secular as their voter base would permit. Only for the concerted campaign of religious groups, America would be as secular in action as the UK, France, Germany.

    I appreciate that the uninformed Muslim will perceive the West as Christian. But they only have to look at the social mores of the West to see Christianity has almost no say in how Western society behaves. Sexual promiscuity, abortion, homosexuality, drunkenness, blasphemy are the common practices, not the Christian alternatives.

    The top-down are generally power-hungry amoral hedonists, not Christians even in the Tony Blair sense.

    But I agree that the Muslim immigration crisis was sparked by Western meddling in Islamic lands. We have created the problem. My comments were only to point out the reality of the nature of the immigration and its consequences. We set the house on fire, but it's no good acknowledging that if we don't deal with the spreading fire. And of course, change our behaviour that caused the fire in the first place. Stop meddling: exporting democracy, securing energy sources or whatever the excuse.

  12. Oh please Wolfie, Bush even said that he was on a crusade...even said God spoke to him! And canvas the opinions of US soldiers particularly from the Bible belt. They most assuredly view the campaign as a crusade!

  13. Steve

    Bush used the word - foolishly - but he certainly did not mean it in its historic sense. I doubt that the Saudis would have allied themselves to a war for Christianity against Islam!

    Neither do I think any of the Bible belt soldiers saw it as that. A war against jihadi Islam, yes, but not for imposing Christianity on anyone. The neo-cons were not interested in Christianity either - just grasping power in the oilfield region. The only god most of them follow is Mammon.