14 April 2014
Most of us remember seeing that mop of curly dark hair dashing around town, probably from a meeting with the Principal to a protest about the increase on tuition fees. Patrick O´Hare, last year´s Students Association President, has kindly agreed to have a chat with us. Who was Patrick before becoming President and what is he doing now? In this interview, O’Hare will go through his life as an Anthropology & Spanish Undergraduate, his exotic year abroad in Uruguay and how the discoveries in this country affected his current object of research in Cambridge.
Half in English, half in Spanish, Patrick told me that our Modern Languages Department is “fantastic” and that St Andrews has nothing to envy with regards to Cambridge. He goes into depth about his fieldwork during his year abroad, which consisted of collecting rubbish from dumpsters and later classifying it, and warns current students that, “if you turn up in a shantytown wearing a kilt, it will not be soon forgotten!” He makes a positive overall balance of his presidency in St Andrews, but is in clear disagreement with some of the measures the University has taken.
With a man like Patrick, the political discussion is always luring at the back, and we will chat about the controversial article he wrote for ‘We Are Not Rats’, the future of Venezuela without Chávez and the current political panorama in Latin America. All of this before describing David Cameron as a “ratbag.”
The Interpreter Magazine (TIM): I understand your Undergrad was a joint degree between Anthropology and Spanish. Was your choice of studying Spanish affected by your prior interest in Latin America?
Patrick O’Hare (P.O’H): I decided to study Spanish after traveling in Latin America, and actually started with French as well, later dropping that for Social Anthropology. I travelled there for ten months, especially Argentina, Venezuela and Bolivia, working, volunteering and studying the region’s political developments. I had a working knowledge of the language, but thought taking it up at Uni would give me a better grounding in grammar and written Spanish, and knowledge of Hispanic literature.
TIM: Last week we interviewed the new Mod. Lang. President who argues that the School still has numerous difficulties to tackle. What opinion do you have on the School or perhaps, on the Spanish Department?
P.O’H: I think the French and Spanish departments are fantastic, although I obviously know the latter better. I think the School has been strengthened with the addition of the Arabic staff, who are a great bunch and I know very popular with students. Managing a School with so many departments will always be difficult, with a tension between federalists and unitarians, we could say! The language tutor redundancies were the main controversy when I was an undergraduate, and that was unfortunate, although the situation and resolution was different in each department. I’m not sure what current issues the School is facing, but one thing which should be safeguarded is that experienced professors do undergrad teaching, as this is of huge benefit to students.
“If people thought my Presidency of the Union was left-wing, theirs is controlled by Maoists!”
TIM: Spain seems like an attractive destination for a year abroad. However, you chose to go to Uruguay. Can you tell us what motivated your decision?
P.O’H: Basically, I couldn’t have studied anthropology in Spain, so I would have had to have studied just one semester there, and another semester of just anthropology back in St Andrews. I also wanted to return to Latin America and spend a long time there only speaking Spanish. It was absolutely the right decision, although it meant I split up with my girlfriend at the time!
TIM: Would you recommend it for current students?
P.O’H: Yes, I would absolutely recommend it. In fact I met with the two students who are there this year and gave them a few tips: they seem to be having a great time! Due to the British Government’s awful visa restrictions, Gustavo has had to switch the exchange from the Universidad de la República, where I studied, which is a shame, because it is a fantastic place, alive with the rhythms of Uruguayan student life. And if people thought my Presidency of the Union was left-wing, theirs is controlled by Maoists! But yeah, Uruguay is a fantastic friendly place, and the Cono Sur accent goes down a treat!
TIM: I understand the anthropological fieldwork you did in Uruguay was intrinsic to your dissertation. Can you tell us a bit about that?
P.O’H: I worked with a Cooperative of waste recyclers (clasificadores) in Montevideo, the group who are at the heart of the government strategy to cooperative the sector. I regularly went out to pick up rubbish with them, then we classified it back at their site. I also sat in on many of their cooperative training sessions with the Ministry of Social Development (MIDES), and even got taken on as a labourer building their cooperative housing! I think the exchange was that I could interview them, if I could be the object of constant derision! Note to future students: if you turn up in a shantytown wearing a kilt (a skirt, according to most), it will not be soon forgotten!
TIM: Does your anthropological work have a political dimension to it?
P.O’H: My anthropological work is definitely political, starting with my decision to work with and study the experiences and livelihoods of a poor section of society. I partly focus on the politics of cooperativisation, and my commitment to classifying rubbish side-by-side with the guys turned out to be more important than sharing the exact same political opinions as them, or advocacy. I don’t think the two always have to be explicitly connected though, and I do plenty of political work outside of and completely separate from anthropology.
TIM: Most of us know you as the Union’s President. What balance did you make at the end of your term?
P.O’H: I thoroughly enjoyed my year as Students’ Association President. I got to work with a lot of great people and it was an honour to represent St Andrew’s fantastic students. Qué balance? Well, I thought our team achieved a considerable amount and I fought hard to get a good deal for students. The partnership with an Egyptian Uni, with the GMB trade union, the focus on Equal Opportunities and the deal achieved at the time on accommodation were highlights for me. That the University would then tear up that agreement to later knock down Fife Park says more about them than me.
TIM: The article you wrote for the online newspaper ‘We Are Not Rats’ was quite controversial here in St Andrews. What motivated you to write it?
P.O’H: I was wary about writing that article because I didn’t want to seem like some bitter old President sticking the boot in to the University. As I said in the article, most of the University staff I worked with were fantastic and committed to the students. However, I thought it was important to highlight some of the locuras that go on behind the scenes at the University. Current student representatives and academics simply have too much to lose by disclosing that kind of information. The main point I wanted to emphasize was the Principal’s lack of commitment to a University that is free (no fees) and has democratic student involvement.
TIM: Now, from St Andrews to Cambridge: what are the greatest similarities and differences you notice between the two?
P.O’H: The sea! Also, the real differences are between undergraduate and postgraduate life to be honest, I think that explains most of the differentials in my experiences. From what I hear, undergraduate life in Cambridge is probably more intense, and attachment is often more to a college than to the University per se. There’s no doubt about where my loyalties lie though: St Andrews is friendlier, more beautiful and just as smart!
“Success of the ‘pink tide pirates’ (Tariq Ali) can be measured by the fact that right-wing parties now often have to mimic leftist discourse to stand even a chance of election.”
TIM: Is your current object of research the same as your undergrad. dissertation?
P.O’H: I’m doing a Research Masters at the moment, which prepares me theoretically and methodologically for going out to the field. I’m looking to do my Masters thesis fieldwork in Buenos Aires, probably with the Peruvian immigrant community. But most of my Masters is geared towards my doctoral research, which is again with clasificadores in Uruguay. It’s just a fascinating fieldsite, where discourses, interests and policies of environmentalism, social inclusion, economics and cooperativism become entangled. For my doctoral research, I’ll be deepening some of the themes of my undergrad research, as well as expanding my study to include the clasificador trade union, uncooperativised clasificadores, and the wider dynamics of the neighbourhood where I work (including actors like churches, NGOs etc.)
TIM: Tonight, Venezuela will have a new president. What do you think the future of Latin America 21st Century Socialism will be like without Chávez?
P.O’H: 21st century socialism has always been a contested and polyvalent term, but it certainly helped put socialism back on the agenda as a real possibility after the collapse of the Soviet Union. I’m sure that Chavez’s popularity will mean Chavistas in power for a considerable time, unless their forces implode through internal struggles. The government in Venezuela is by no means perfect, but its effectiveness in tackling poverty is evidenced in the unwavering popular support it receives, despite the distorted image our media like to portray. The problem in Venezuela isn’t so much democracy (perhaps elements of clientelism, but nothing like on the scale of the AD/Copei period) but crime, and Maduro, if re-elected will have to develop a comprehensive violence and crime reduction strategy. Only then might he be considered something more than a less charismatic imitation of Chavez.
TIM: Today, 8 out of 10 countries in South America have left-wing governments. Do you think they have been successful in trying to reduce the social inequalities that your research indirectly portrays?
P.O’H: The governments you mention are hugely divergent in their socialisms. Most have reduced poverty and inequality to some degree. But the possibilities and priorities for countries like Venezuela, Bolivia and Brazil are very different amongst themselves. Narratives of their actions in power seem to switch between covert continued collusion with neoliberalism or the complete defeat of neoliberalism. The reality is of course somewhere in between but mostly far from the idea of complete revolutionary transformation espoused in the 60s and 70s especially. Success of the ‘pink tide pirates’ (Tariq Ali) can be measured in their continued popularity and re-election and the fact that right-wing parties now often have to mimic leftist discourse to stand even a chance of election.
TIM: And finally, describe the following people with just one word:
Fidel Castro: Legend
David Cameron: Ratbag
Alex Salmond: Formidable
Angela Merkel: Imposing
Che Guevara: Inspiration
Mohammed Morsi: Disappointment
Margaret Thatcher: ****
Hillary Clinton: Machine
Yasser Arafat: Icon