Gateway to Latin America: LAB chair, Sue Branford

21 Feb

For the past 34 years, the London-based research organisation, Latin America Bureau, has published groundbreaking books on Latin American issues and spread awareness through events such as lectures and workshops. Speaking to me from her home in Clun, Shropshire, chair of LAB, Sue Branford, tells me more about the organisation.

Sue Branford, Chair of LAB since 2003

Having been a member of LAB almost since its inception, and led the organisation since 2003, no-one knows LAB, or indeed the continent it represents, better than Branford. She has visited every Latin American country and most of the Caribbean islands. While working freelance for the Guardian and the Financial Times, she lived in Sao Paulo, Brazil throughout the 1970s, and returned for brief spells in later decades. She is fluent in Portuguese and speaks good Spanish.

She tells me how LAB was created, in 1977, by a group of writers, journalists and activists shocked by the military dictatorships of the likes of Pinochet, Videla in Argentina and Stroessner in Paraguay. During Videla’s ‘Dirty War’ in Argentina from 1976 to 1983 it is estimated some 20,000 people disappeared; human rights groups claim the figure is closer to 30,000.

Pinochet with his henchmen in the 1970s

“There was very much a feeling that we ought to show solidarity here in Britain with those suffering repression and disappearances in Latin America”, Branford enthuses. “There was a real surge of interest in Latin America after Pinochet’s military coup in Chile in 1973. Many refugees came over from Chile to escape the repression. Many countries in Latin America were under military dictatorships around that time, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Bolivia. Stories were beginning to be told of the horrors of these military dictatorships and the work being done in Latin America to mobilise against them was starting to echo around the world. We thought that needed more publicity. That’s where it all started from.”

Now LAB also works as a portal through which people from across the world, not just Londoners, can access Latin American culture. Their website, of which Branford is proud, boasts a forum, or ‘community’, with 333 members and counting. The idea is to promote the exchange of knowledge, experience and creative ideas with a worldwide network of Latin America enthusiasts. The site also offers regular updates on Latin American news. This is something Branford, a journalist herself, feels passionate about. “I think it’s quite shocking how little Latin American news we get in our press in the UK. There is less coverage of Latin American events now than there was during the 70s and 80s. When there is a major event like a leader ousted or Chilean miners trapped underground we get coverage but otherwise there is very little.”

As a member of LAB, Branford has seen London greatly diversified since refugees first started arriving in the late ‘70s. Now the Latino influence is seen in London’s eateries, bars and clubs, adding to the capital’s cosmopolitan, multi-cultural appeal. “There are a lot of Latin American events now, especially music and dance. I think that has improved quite a lot. It was largely the result of the refugees that came in the 70s and 80s, and although some have gone back, there is still a very big Latin American community here.”

In turn, LAB’s events attract a wide audience, from academics that specialise in Latin American issues to first-timers who come to learn a thing or two. Around a third of LAB audiences are made up of Latin Americans themselves, who bring their children to keep them aware of goings on in their home region. To suit its audience, and the growing presence of Latin American culture in London, LAB has started covering trends in Latin American dance, music and art as well as social issues and politics as before.

After a financial dip in 2006 which saw LAB move out of its offices in Angel and eventually gain funding from Oxfam, the organisation is on the look out for donations. Since the 70s a small group of monthly donators have just about kept LAB in the black. “It’s nice to see we have that loyal following”, Branford reasons, “but we could certainly do with some more”.

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Image 2: democrats diary

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