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Image: Proposed regulations to establish the Centre's MPhil course, late 1970s

Recollections of CLAS: Maurizio Giuliano, MPhil student 1996 -1997
Chief Advisor for the Protection of Civilians in the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA)
After reading PPE at Oxford for my BA (1993-1996), I really had no clue what I wanted to do next, except that I wanted to do something as 'international' as possible, and do something good for humanity. I had participated in the usual 'milk round' process for Oxford graduates, and that only confirmed my belief that a career in business was not for me. So while I pondered a bit more about the purpose of my life, doing a Master's degree seemed the obvious choice. And since I was only aware of the existence of two universities in the United Kingdom, the logical thing to do seemed to move to 'the other one' for the sake of variety.

During my BA, one of my eight courses was in Latin American Studies and I did a dissertation on Cuban - US relations - which was not only interesting but also provided a great opportunity for me to sneak down to Cuba or elsewhere in Latin America whenever I could. So, continuing on the same route, an MPhil in Latin American Studies was definitely the right choice.

Hence, in September 1996 I took the three-hour bus ride from Oxford to Cambridge, still not ready to move to the real world out there. I had chosen Fitzwilliam College as it offered in-college accommodation to graduate students, good food (well, by British standards…), and it was located a leisurely 15-minute walk from the CLAS.

As I arrived at the CLAS on my very first day, I was welcomed by a very nice middle-aged lady, Clare Hariri, who was de facto running the CLAS other than the academic side – so many tasks not to be underestimated. The CLAS was located on the top floor of the History Faculty, with nice views over the rest of the university to the west. We were only five students taking the course: a girl from Spain, a guy from the USA, and a very nice couple from Colombia. We were all there for different reasons, from seeking an academic career to wanting an overseas study experience - while in my case I was just not creative enough to do anything else.

My one year with the CLAS was definitely a very important period in my life. On the academic side, I chose to do my dissertation on Cuba (specifically on the impact of the US embargo on sociological dynamics in the country), and could further consolidate my research on the subject - besides dancing salsa and having lobster in the Caribbean during half of the year. I received very strong tutorial support with full respect for my own ideas and methodologies, and the tutors also facilitated my networking with other academics and additional varied interlocutors in the UK and elsewhere - from FCO officials to third-country diplomats. It definitely felt, quite correctly, that Cambridge and the CLAS were the rightful epicentre of all that I wanted from life at that time.

The coursework was also particularly interesting, positively forcing me to research other topics. With a lot of enthusiasm I produced a paper on the evolving role of the military in Latin America - a very topical subject at that time (and sadly still now, albeit to a much lesser extent). With a strong network especially in the Southern Cone, I was able to produce some original arguments about where the military were headed. And I still fondly remember the classes I attended on the comparative history of Argentina, Chile and Venezuela. Being far more into international relations than history it was fascinating to study how the continent evolved from colonization to the present time - and see the interlinkages between past centuries and present realities.

It is no doubt thanks to that academic baggage acquired at Cambridge, that I was able to actually be an academic for a short while. With a rather symbolic appointment with Chile's Centre for Social Studies (CESOC, founded during the Chilean Socialist Party's exile in Rome and renowned for its anti-Pinochet work), I was an active member of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) for years and presented papers in varied locations, from Canada to Poland, from Israel to Uruguay - more pretexts to travel.

And perhaps more importantly, in December 1997 I published my first book, on the US embargo on Cuba. I was honoured and proud when I saw David Lehmann at a function in London and could present him with a copy. In May 1998 I published a highly controversial book on relations between Cuba's apparatus and its pro-regime intellectuals. I couldn't have done this without the research skills that I acquired at CLAS.

Between academic work and journalism (read as "pretexts for travelling"), by 2004 I had managed to visit all the sovereign nations in the world, which earned me an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records as the youngest person to have visited all the sovereign nations of the world (aged 28 and 361 days). In some countries I lived for months, including of course Cuba and Chile, while in others I only spent hours - but overall it was several amazing years of my life.

Yet in 2004, I figured out that I needed a real job. Alas, even idealists need to make a living - especially if they enjoy jet-setting around the globe. So, after several short-term experiences with the United Nations in Timor-Leste, Pakistan and Afghanistan, I got a real United Nations job. Since then, my further itinerary took me to Central African Republic, South Sudan, Sudan, Chad, Cameroon, D.R. Congo, Pakistan, Haiti, Mexico, Somalia and Mali. In my two years in Mexico, I was able to again recall how much I had learnt at Cambridge about Latin America - my studies still vivid in my mind - and still highly relevant. Sadly, the job was about trying to promote more equity, in a country which achieved or exceeded all of the Millennium Development Goals, but where significant proportions of the populations were left far behind. The struggle for fairer distribution of resources in Latin America is clearly not over, and the CLAS has a continued role to play in research on the subject.

I very much hope that more Cambridge graduates will consider a career with the United Nations. We are often criticized for shortcomings or even accused of outright failures. Yet, what would the world be like without the United Nations ? Do we really want to leave South Sudan, Central African Republic, Mali, and find out what happens? The world is far better off today, than it would be without the world body. From delivering humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees, to promoting development in tiny Pacific islands, to working for peace in the D.R. Congo, I feel that we are truly making a very positive difference in the lives of hundreds of millions of people, and indirectly in the lives of every person in this world. And that is something that makes me proud of my work every day.

Without doubt, the values that I have acquired at Cambridge - and Oxford before that - are what encouraged me to pursue this career, which I will never regret. Well, and I can still plan for my life-long dream of opening a beachfront pizzeria in Cuba once I retire, where CLAS graduates will get a 50% discount.

(September 2016)

This text is provided by the author in a personal capacity, and the views do not necessarily represent those of the United Nations.