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Image: Aída Hernández Castillo, Simón Bolívar Chair 2013-2014


Personal reminiscences on the establishment of the Simón Bolívar Chair of Latin American Studies at the University of Cambridge: Francisco Kerdel-Vegas

The initial idea of this project, which has been working effectively for almost 50 years now, was to establish a Chair of Latin American Studies at Cambridge University to inform an international audience of the contributions and achievements of the culture of that part of the world. In the year 1967, I was enjoying a sabbatical at Cambridge University and working as a researcher at the Department of Experimental Pathology, led by Dr. Theodore Gillman, of the Institute of Animal Physiology of the “Agricultural Research Council” of Great Britain, headed by Professor Richard Keynes.

Simultaneously, I had an “ad honorem” appointment as Scientific Attaché of the Embassy of Venezuela in the United Kingdom. By fortunate coincidence, the government of President Raul Leoni had appointed as ambassador of Venezuela to the UK, my good friend, Dr. Miguel Angel Burelli-Rivas. Not only did Miguel Angel invite me to accompany him to his presentation of credentials to Queen Elizabeth II in an elegant ceremony at Buckingham Palace, but he asked me to think of a significant project to strengthen cultural and scientific relations between Venezuela and Britain, something that I gladly agreed to, promising that I would think about it and would come back with some ideas to study together.

I remembered vaguely reading something about the “Pitt Professor of American Studies”, a Chair created during World War I to commemorate the British appreciation for the support of Americans during this international conflict. I immediately went to the library of the University to collect information, especially regarding the statutes governing the functioning of the Chair. Based on that concept, I conceived a new similar scheme, for Latin America in general and Venezuela in particular, for a Chair of Latin American Studies to be held by scholars and researchers who could interact with their colleagues from other countries, to “preach” from that strategic “pulpit” and make known the contributions and accomplishments of our culture in a truly international environment.

I then spoke with Miguel Angel, who immediately fell in love with the project and thereafter made it his own - or rather ours - because at all times we shared the co-authorship of the concept, which he continually  improved through his dedication and breadth of thought. From that moment on it became his main priority and from that day we “baptized” it as the “Simon Bolivar Chair” in honour of the great man of Caracas, who won independence from the Spanish Empire.

With the approval of the Ambassador, I asked for a meeting with the Vice-Chancellor of the University, a position that at that time rotated among the Masters of the twenty-odd colleges of the University. He was the Master of Queens’ College, Professor Arthur Armitage (later Sir Arthur Armitage). After a few days, I was received by a tall, strong man, with thick eyebrows, who spoke very softly and immediately made you feel comfortable, thanks to his friendly and well-chosen words. I explained the idea Ambassador Burelli-Rivas and I had conceived and our desire to know if the University of Cambridge would be willing and interested in a project of this nature. Without hesitation Professor Armitage told me that personally he felt it was a great initiative, and that he would make the necessary consultations. Since there existed the precedent of the Pitt Professorship of American Studies, he presumed he would not find obstacles in the approval of the project by the collective authorities of the institution, which he in fact confirmed to me some time later.

Its characteristics were very simple: the Chair would be held for one year by a distinguished Latin American intellectual, and in accordance with the profession and speciality of each candidate, their teaching and research program would integrate with the respective department of the University. The choice among nominees would be made by a committee whose members would include the Director of the Centre of Latin American Studies at Cambridge and the Ambassador of Venezuela. The capital needed to establish the programme, to pay for the professor’s monthly salary and other minor administrative costs, was one million U.S. dollars. Upon receiving the donation, the University of Cambridge was committed to establish in perpetuity the Simon Bolivar Chair of Latin American Studies.

Miguel Angel and I shared a great optimism and enthusiasm in what we considered would be the explicit recognition by one of the most famous and important universities of the world, of the new Latin American culture, certainly the offspring of Western civilization, but with unique characteristics that warranted recognition and study at this centre of world culture. We intended this project to be a model to be replicated in other universities, as in fact did happen.

On theoretical academic grounds, it seemed a triumph of the right idea, but soon we were faced by the harsh realities of the economics. Where were we going to get the staggering sum – at that time – of a million dollars?

Miguel Angel, with all the logic of a cunning diplomat, familiar with the major oil interests in Venezuela, had only one answer: the funds could and should be provided by the Shell Company. His argument was unobjectionable.  Shell had the financial capability to make the donation and at the same time had an interest in establishing a closer cultural link between Latin America, and especially Venezuela, and a British institution with the prestige and fame of the University of Cambridge. In fact there were no other possible donors and the only chance of the project succeeding was to seek the necessary funds from Shell International based in London.

Miguel Angel, as Ambassador of Venezuela, formally requested a meeting with the Chief Executive Officer of Shell, who at the time was an American academic, Dr Monroe Spaght, not informing him in advance of the reason for the visit.

Once the date and time of the appointment was confirmed, I travelled from Cambridge to London especially to accompany the Ambassador on this important mission, without having the slightest idea that he was going to appoint me to play a special role at that time. Indeed, it was in the Embassy’s car traveling to the imposing Shell building on the South Bank of the Thames (built, each brick, according to Miguel Angel, from the profits of Venezuelan oil) that he told me of his decision. He would introduce me to Dr. Spaght and I would explain the project and make the request for the funds. In fact, I was prepared to be a witness, but I never thought that Miguel Angel would delegate the project’s future to someone in my modest position. But instead of asking him to reconsider, I thought I had nothing to lose and that I would make a presentation as convincing and vehement as possible to justify the million dollar request.

As soon as we reached the impressive offices of the Chairman of the company, the Ambassador presented me with generous words about my professional performance and my work as a scientific researcher in Cambridge, saying that I would explain on his behalf what he had in mind. I started using my best, but limited rhetorical resources to praise the worldwide significance of the University of Cambridge. I could read in my interlocutor’s face the curiosity and amazement at what he was hearing and he made a comment intended to approve what I was saying with such enthusiasm. But at the same time, he acknowledged that he knew the subject well, alluding to his past academic life, when he had been a research chemist at Stanford University. He was the first American to become President of Shell. With that academic experience, he could perfectly understand the importance and significance of the proposed scheme and therefore Shell would feel very honoured and willing to contribute to make it possible.

At that moment, I decided without prior consultation with the Ambassador, to take a chance. So I interrupted him, saying: Excuse me, Mr. President, maybe I have not expressed myself clearly, but what the Ambassador of Venezuela and I have come to ask for is not a contribution to the capital fund to establish the Simón Bolívar Chair at the University of Cambridge, but the entire donation required amounting to one million dollars.

It was a moment of great tension: the gentleman was speechless and turned as white as a sheet. He looked at Miguel Angel who nodded approvingly, giving me the necessary support, and after a silence that seemed forever, he replied: “You must realize that this is a sui generis request for a considerable amount of money, something that I cannot decide on my own, that will have to be discussed at various corporate levels and will therefore take some time.” To which Miguel Angel made the dignified reply: “Mr. President, we understand your situation very well, take all the necessary time, but always remember the importance that Venezuela attributes to this project of such significance in the relationship and better understanding between our countries. We leave with the assurance that you fully understand this and therefore you will become the best advocate to convince the company’s authorities about the merits of the project and the favourable consequences for a company that is capable of having a vision of such scope.”

Thereafter, there was no turning back and Miguel Angel and I continued to act as a team to achieve the realization of our dream. We did not imagine at the time the obstacles we would encounter and the time-consuming effort.

We had to start a “lobby”, with the proper follow-up, to keep the project alive with Shell. At the time we thought that due to the international character of the company the amount required could be provided with quotas from each country proportional to the volume of their business. But Shell decided that the donation would come exclusively from Shell de Venezuela, with a clear logic implied that they did not want to dilute the possible benefits. But they included as a condition, certainly understandable, that the funds would be deducted from the income tax the company paid in Venezuela (an amount close to half of the donation, if I remember correctly).

This “condition” threatened for months to make the project impossible, since according to the legal department of Miraflores (the government’s seat) it was a tax evasion scheme. Miguel Angel mounted an insistent lobby of the political leaders of the country. For my part, I availed myself of my friendship with Mrs. Menca Fernandez de Leoni, the then First Lady of the Republic, to win her to the cause, and such was my insistence that she hosted a dinner at the presidential residence, La Casona, so that I should have the opportunity to explain the project to the Minister of Finance, Dr. Benito Raul Losada. Unfortunately, the legal opinion still prevailed, even over the obvious sympathy for the project of a person with the influence of the First Lady. Nothing could be done, and the whole scheme languished without hope.

It took weeks, maybe months, and then one day in my medical office in Chuao in Caracas, a patient who happened to be one of the foremost lawyers of the Shell Company of Venezuela, my dear friend, Dr. Daniel Bendahan, who was aware of the impasse, appeared and questioned me about the present state of the case and I updated him as to what was happening. A few days later he phoned me and said he had devised a solution that would satisfy both sides. The Shell Company of Venezuela had no interest in ingratiating itself with, or doing some favour for the University of Cambridge (that was a matter for the headquarters in any case). Their interest was to render a service to Venezuela. Thus, Shell de Venezuela could make the donation of one million U.S. dollars to an institution of the Venezuelan State, and thereby avoid an income tax liability, provided that this entire donation was delivered directly to Cambridge University to establish the Simon Bolivar Chair of Latin American Studies.

Without hesitation we chose INCIBA - Instituto Nacional de Cultura y Bellas Artes - the highest institution in the country’s culture at the time, chaired by an admirable man, Dr. Simon Alberto Consalvi, who had given great service to the country and who on learning the details of the project, gave his support and agreed to shoulder the full responsibility of receiving the cheque for a million dollars, delivered personally by the then president of Shell of Venezuela, Mr. J. J. de Liefde. He immediately undertook to endorse it to the University of Cambridge, and to take the next plane to travel to Cambridge – all of which effectively took place without a hitch.

About the importance, cultural and academic value, as well as the favourable consequences of the scheme, there is much to be said, and to do this the people who are most qualified are those leading intellectuals who for their merits have occupied the Simon Bolivar Chair in its illustrious academic home.

I was personally involved in the selection of two of them. It was very important for both Miguel Angel and myself that the first recipient be a remarkable Venezuelan who would act as a role model for future nominees. We were unanimous and enthusiastic about the candidacy of Dr. Arnoldo Gabaldón, whose services to the country in the eradication of malaria were truly outstanding. Many years later, as Ambassador of Venezuela to the United Kingdom, and as such a member of the Committee that elects the Chair, I had the opportunity to propose another eminent medical colleague, Dr. Blas Bruni-Celli, whose merits have led him to be a tenured member of four of our National Academies.

In writing these notes, I cannot end without expressing great sadness that Miguel Angel Burelli-Rivas is no longer with us to endorse these recollections with me as would be my wish. Nevertheless, I trust that he would have approved of my intention to share the success of our idea, in loyalty due to one who always showed me generosity and a brotherly friendship at all times.