Hugh O’Shaughnessy obituary: Journalist who chronicled brutality of Pinochet’s Chile

Award-winning reporter also witnessed first hand the US invasion of Grenada in 1983

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).

Indonesian occupation

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.

Irish heritage

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.