Jose Cifuentes pushes an open book across the cafe table toward me. The face of a very young woman stares out from a passport photograph. She is holding an infant.

A caption explains that the young woman – Maria Cristina Morales Zapia – is ‘with Rocio, 1976’ and that the ‘passport was obtained in order to enable them to travel to the UK as political refugees.’ 

Jose, Maria’s husband and Rocio’s father, is showing me the picture by way of explanation, not of his story – the outline of which I already know – but of why he has met me here at the Killay Cafe, in a shopping precinct at the heart of one of Swansea’s westernmost suburbs, rather than at his home.

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For the past six years, Maria Cristina has suffered with a ‘one in a million’ condition that has left her requiring round-the-clock care. 

But it is clear from Jose’s words, and the way he shows me the photograph, that Maria Cristina is one in a million in other ways too.

‘She is still this beautiful girl, who saved my life,’ says Jose, explaining: ‘I don’t say that as something to say. Along with three other compañeros, she risked her life for me when I was in prison, so preventing even worse consequences for me.’

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Jose’s book, titled Revolutionary Dreams: From Chile to Wales was published in 2016, forty years after the events it describes. Its subtitle – ‘The Story of a Young Family’s Escape From Pinochet’s Fascist Regime in the 1970s’ – merely hints at the brutality the narrative contains.

The book was translated from Spanish by Rocio del Trigal Cifuentes, Jose’s daughter, and the new Children’s Commissioner for Wales.

The National Wales: Rocio Cifuentes began her role as the new Children's Commissioner of Wales this weekRocio Cifuentes began her role as the new Children's Commissioner of Wales this week

Rocio is the baby in the passport photograph, and her father is a fountain of pride about the ‘very special journey’ that has seen this infant daughter of political refugees rise to a position where she is responsible for upholding the rights of all children in Wales.

Before I have the chance to ask a single question Jose tells me: ‘She has always been a very bright girl’, how at the age of six and living surrounded by a foreign culture, Rocio’s Spanish was already ‘A Level standard’, how she also speaks French and German and is learning Welsh. That she is ‘very humble’. And finally: ‘She’d hate me saying all this’. 

Rocio’s journey, I suggest, must have a lot to do with him. 

Despite his best efforts at self-effacement, Jose partially agrees. After thirty years spent working as an educational psychologist, he is more than aware that: ‘We do influence our children, of course, but it’s not simply a case of if mum and dad do A then the kids would also do A. I would never take the credit for something that is not [me].’ 

The psychologist in Jose Cifuentes acknowledges the importance of both genes and life experiences on the paths we take, but his own story has also furnished the 72-year old with a strong belief in luck. 

‘Sometimes we are lucky, sometimes unlucky,’ he says philosophically. ‘If there’s anything I’ve learnt in life, it’s to appreciate the small things.’ 

This perspective has been gained through contrasting experiences, a life divided into two principal chapters, in Chile and in Wales. 

The National Wales: A rally in support of the democratically elected socialist leader of Chile, Dr Salvador Allende, who was ousted by General Augusto Pinochet’s military coup on September 11 1973A rally in support of the democratically elected socialist leader of Chile, Dr Salvador Allende, who was ousted by General Augusto Pinochet’s military coup on September 11 1973

Cifuentes explains that the pictures he chose for the cover of his book represent the two parts of his life. One shows a rally in support of the democratically elected socialist leader of Chile, Dr Salvador Allende, who was ousted by General Augusto Pinochet’s military coup on September 11 1973. The other shows an empty beach at Three Cliffs Bay on Gower, where Jose and his family finally found peace. 

‘Without this sanctuary,’ he says, pointing to the beach, ‘I would not have been able to write about this,’ indicating the picture of the rally; the ‘revolutionary dreams’ and political activism that led to his detention, torture and eventual escape from his homeland.

The National Wales: Three Cliffs Bay on Gower. Photo: Visit Swansea Bay / Swansea CouncilThree Cliffs Bay on Gower. Photo: Visit Swansea Bay / Swansea Council

‘Sanctuary’ has become a common way to describe welcome for refugees, including the stated ambition of Welsh Government for Wales to become a ‘Nation of Sanctuary’.

Jose Cifuentes says: ‘Sanctuary is not just a material place that gives you protection – it’s a place that somehow recovers your spirit.’

And while Wales has undoubtedly been that place for Jose and his family, he is keen to contrast his own positive experience with the many thousands of asylum seekers who have struggled to settle in Wales and the UK in the decades since he arrived.

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He explains that Chile was ‘a novelty to the whole world… the first and sadly the only country that chose a socialist president’.

‘Because of that, we became a symbol of hope to the whole of humanity. And so once the military coup took place, decent human beings the world over were sorry that it didn’t work.’ 

The UK Labour government – under Prime Minister James Callaghan, MP for Cardiff South – switched the foreign aid budget provided to Chile under Allende to support refugees from the Pinochet regime via the World University Service.

'There were 1.5 million political refugees from Chile spread across the world,’ says Cifuentes. ‘And for the 2,500 who came here to the UK, they protected our dignity. The word “asylum seeker” didn’t exist.’ 

The National Wales: Former Prime Minister James Callaghan who was MP for Cardiff SouthFormer Prime Minister James Callaghan who was MP for Cardiff South

Generous grants allowed young Chileans like Cifuentes to continue their studies. ‘We didn’t need to claim benefits,’ he says. But he recognises: ‘this was an oasis of experience compared to other refugees who have come to the UK since.’ 

‘We were political refugees. We had come straight from prison, from torture, from lost relatives – all of which could be fully documented.’

Now the reasons for seeking asylum are often more complex, with social and economic divisions much harder to prove, leaving many now negatively labelled as ‘asylum seekers’ in limbo for years while their cases are debated. ‘And it will be ten times worse with the climate crisis,’ says Jose Cifuentes.

The Chilean, who has continued his activism throughout his years in Wales, is highly critical of the UK’s treatment of refugees, the media that ‘demonises’ and government that ‘criminalises’ those seeking sanctuary. 

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Having been a member of the Labour Party for many years, he is now seeking election as a local councillor for his local Dunvant and Killay ward of Swansea. 

And although Britain faces many challenges, Cifuentes sees the immediate political priority as rejecting the ‘disgrace and discredit’ that the current UK government have brought on the British people. 

‘Sadly we often have the governments we deserve,’ he says. But Cifuentes’ hope is that the local elections will give the public chance to repudiate the Johnson government at the ballot box. 

If the policy of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda becomes law, ‘it would make us the most shameful country in Europe,’ he says.

But given his experiences over four decades in Swansea, Cifuentes remains hopeful that the ‘very strong characteristic’ of ‘common sense and fairness’ will prevail. ‘I hope that even within the Conservative Party, more decent and reliable people come forward, to honour themselves and the country.’

The National Wales: Thatcher with Pinochet and his wife in 2000 in Surrey, where the former Chilean dictator was under house arrest. Photo: PAThatcher with Pinochet and his wife in 2000 in Surrey, where the former Chilean dictator was under house arrest. Photo: PA

Of course, the Conservative Party has a troubled history with regard to Chile. Former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was a personal friend and political ally of Pinochet’s fascist dictatorship. 

When I ask about this period, it is clear that it still causes Jose Cifuentes immense pain.

‘We witnessed the fight of the Welsh miners,’ he says, recalling his early years in south Wales. ‘When we were joining with them, it was the same pain. Despite the language barrier, we felt they understood our pain.’

He draws a parallel between the societies and economies of his two homelands, both based on the extraction of mineral wealth. ‘In Chile it was copper, in Wales it was coal,’ he says. 

Copper from Chile and elsewhere was once shipped to Swansea for smelting, with Wales’ second city widely known as ‘Copperopolis’.

‘Thatcher’s support for Pinochet was very difficult to swallow,’ he says, wiping away tears as he remembers the moment he listened to the radio with his wife as Pinochet was finally indicted for crimes against humanity.

In 1998, the 82-year-old former dictator was woken by British police and informed he was under arrest on the basis of an international warrant issued by the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón. Although eventually released after 503 days, on the grounds of ill health, the Pinochet arrest set an important international precedent for human rights accountability. 

And despite his own personal suffering, and that of thousands of his compañeros, there is little bitterness in Jose Cifuentes, who says he is interested ‘not in revenge – but in justice.’

READ MORE: ‘All we’ve got is sheep and water’: how Welsh Armenians hold on to history

Time and again his conversation is peppered with praise for others who have over the course of his years in Wales proved their humanity, decency and humility. These are the qualities he ascribes to his friends Paul Elliot, former trade union rep at UNISON Cymru/Wales, translator Meic Haines, and Tom Cheesman, editor and publisher at Hafan Books, as well as his original mentor, a French priest named Charles Condamines, ‘a man who changed my life’.

But these are exceptions, and Cifuentes lays at the door of the media the ‘lack of knowledge, lack of interest and lack of fairness’ that leads to injustices the world over, including the discrepancy between the ways in which human rights abuses in some countries are given more attention than those in others.

‘There are very few people with the critical thinking to tell lies from truth,’ he says. ‘Those people who ask questions are very quickly identified as troublemakers. But without these people we just become puppets of systems or media.’

Despite everything he has been through, Jose Cifuentes is still a revolutionary dreamer after all these years.

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