labour leader in Chile, was born on 17 November 1899 at 48 Brasil Street
in Santiago de Chile. He was the second of three children of
Ricardo Blest Ugarte, an army officer, and Leopoldina Riffo
Bustos (d. 1958), a school teacher. Ricardo Blest Ugarte was a
first cousin of the writer Alberto Blest Gana, and grandson of
the Sligo-born physician William Cunningham Blest (1800-1884),
who arrived in Chile in 1823 and founded the first school of medicine in the country.
a child, Clotario Blest, together with his mother, brother and
sister, had to survive a difficult life, exacerbated by his
father committing suicide at a relatively young age. His eldest
brother died in Punta Arenas
at the age of twenty-five while on service in the army, and his
sister, a nun with the Buen Pastor order, died of tuberculosis
in Santiago. The penury of Blest's infancy would strongly influence his
life and ideas in the future.
Blest was sent to study at the public school in Almirante Barroso Street
and then, with the aid of a scholarship, he entered the Catholic
seminary of Los Angeles Custodios in Santiago. This was followed by studies of theology, law and chemistry at
the university, together with systematic athletic activity. In
1918, Blest received the first of the minor orders and the
following year he was transferred to the seminary of Concepción.
However, problems arose with the director, who supported, and
demanded his students to support, the political campaigns of the
Conservative Party. Blest rebelled against this unjust
requirement and was banished from the institution. 'Sometimes,'
he used to observe, 'the priests do not understand Christ's
message. They learn theology [...] What can they study about
God? Nonsense. There is no other divine science than the life of
Christ' (Salinas 1991: 6). Some progressive teachers however,
like Fernando Vives Solar S.J. and Fr. Alberto Hurtado, had a
significant influence on Blest's ideas regarding social justice
for the labouring class.
initial jobs that Clotario Blest engaged in after abandoning his
studies for the priesthood were minor positions at a pharmacy
and a law firm. Finally, in 1922, he was hired as an office
cleaner by the Tax Treasury in Santiago, where he would work for thirty-two years. Blest started his
political life by joining Casa del Pueblo, a labour institution
founded in 1917 to unite the Catholic unions. He was also active
in the Union of Catholic Youth Centres (UCJC), Fr. Guillermo
Viviani's Social Studies Circle 'El Surco', and the Popular Party. In Casa del Pueblo's
headquarters, 208 Salas Street in the Vega Central quarter,
Blest built the small chapel 'Jesús Obrero' - a name that would
identify the progressive segments of the Catholic church in
Latin America in the mid-twentieth century, in opposition to
those of a reactionary background - for instance, Acción Católica
- who used the emblematic 'Cristo Rey' as their trademark. The
chapel was eventually closed by the Vicar-General of Santiago.
1927, Clotario Blest was appointed president of the UCJC, which
opposed the official National Association of Catholic Students,
supported by the hierarchy. In UCJC, a 10,000-member
institution, membership was open to Evangelical and communist
workers, a fact that was disapproved of by the bishops. For
Blest, it was a time of intense social struggle, together with
profound spiritual searching.
this period, Blest started up a relationship with Teresa Ossandón,
who was four years younger than him and a member of the Young
Catholic Women's organisation. Two years later they decided to end the relationship and dedicate their lives to their mission.
Ossandón joined the order of the Carmelites and died in 1989.
1932 and 1939, Blest acted as president of the'Germen'
group, founded under the leadership of Fr. Fernando Vives. This
organisation, whose emblem was a Christian cross with the
communist hammer and sickle, published a newspaper and denounced
the growing gap between the church and the poor.
1934, Blest worked at the Treasury office of San Antonio Port, and in 1949 he was transferred to San Miguel in
Santiago. During this period union-bashing was prevalent among the
governing elite, and legislation passed by the administration of
President Arturo Alessandri prevented state workers from forming
their own trade union. In order to evade this ban, in 1938 Blest
and a group of labourers founded the Sports Association of State
Institutions (ADIP), which would become the National Association
of Fiscal Employees (ANEF) in 1943, uniting workers at the
Treasury, Internal Revenue Service, Civil Records Office, Roads
and other state offices. During the 1940s and 1950s Clotario
Blest would successfully lead ANEF, achieving national
prominence and challenging the government with frequent
large-scale strikes, in particular the work stoppage at the Post
Office and the state bank, and the teachers' strike of 1950 that
brought down the national cabinet.
most important organisation founded by Clotario Blest was the
Workers Only Union of Chile (CUT) established in 1953, and led
by Blest until 1961, when he resigned as a result of internal
feuds among members. In the 1950s and 1960s he was repeatedly
imprisoned - by his own account twenty-six times - a fact that
only served to increase his prestige among labourers. He was
often offered official posts and favours by private companies,
privileges which he consistently rejected. When Braden Cooper, a
US American mining company in Rancagua, presented Blest with a
generous gift in cash, he refused it publicly with a strong
reply, 'váyanse a la mierda [go to hell]'
(Salinas 1991: 17). On 13 September 1954, in order to separate
him from the trade union leadership, Clotario Blest was
transferred to a Treasury office in Iquique, in the north of the country and far from the capital. He was
therefore forced to retire from service.
himself full-time to trade and political campaigning, in 1952
Blest chaired the National Command against the Military Treaty
with the United States of America. Together with poets Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral, he
joined the National Committee for Peace in Chile, a committee which supported global disarmament and rejected
atomic weapons. In 1955 he was appointed member of the World
Peace Council Assembly in Helsinki. His name became recognised in international circles for his
demands for peaceful negotiations among nations, the solidarity
of the Latin American peoples, and struggle against global
financial bodies such as the International Monetary Fund.
Inspired by a deep-seated religious ethos and a strong
affiliation with the poor, Clotario Blest was a firm supporter
of the Catholic church's new approach to its flock. He worked
together with communists and others who were officially atheist,
including long-standing friendships with Ernesto 'Che' Guevara
and Galo González, the secretary-general of the Communist Party
of Chile in 1949-1958. He challenged the Chilean religious
hierarchy, denouncing their close relations with the ruling
class and the economic powers. He received occasional support
from certain bishops, like José María Caro Rodríguez,
Archbishop of Santiago during 1939-1958. On 11 August 1968,
Blest was among the priests and lay people of the
group who peacefully occupied the cathedral in Santiago to
protest against the methods of the traditional Catholic church
leaders who neglected the poor.
In 1971-1973 Blest supported the elected government of
Salvador Allende. After Augusto Pinochet's coup d'état on 11
September 1973, various diplomats offered him asylum in foreign
countries but he did not accept. On 24 October 1973 his house
was raided by the army. His property and books were confiscated
and he was mistreated and abused. However, Blest was not
arrested because of his international renown. He challenged the
state terror of Pinochet's government while working at the Human
and Labour Rights Defence Committee (CODEHS), which he had
founded in 1970 together with students and workers. Clotario
Blest was, according to General Pinochet, 'a Romantic' (Salinas
Contemporary reports describe Clotario Blest as an
ascetic and peaceful person, with blue eyes and of tiny, fragile
build. He ate frugally and drank only water, and sometimes milk.
He slept briefly on a bronze bed with a worn mattress, and
worked intensively for long hours and with great energy.
From 1981, when the first constitutional government
after the military regime took power, Clotario Blest worked to
reorganise the trade union movement. He was appointed honorary
president of the new CUT. However, his greatest concerns during
his last years were of a spiritual nature. At home, he lived in
abject poverty. In 1989, when he was hospitalised for acute
malnutrition, he weighed just thirty kilograms. Without a
suitable place to live, he was accepted into the infirmary of
the Franciscan convent in Santiago. On his ninetieth birthday,
he was presented with a Franciscan habit and appointed lay
friar. He died on 31 May 1990.
Blest Riffo (1899-1990).
accessed 24 August 2006.
Reyes, Sergio and Francisco Díaz. Clotario
Blest Riffo (Nov. 17, 1899 - May 31, 1990).
Available online <http://www.clotarioblest.org/>, accessed
24 August 2006.
Salinas Campos, Maximiliano. Clotario
Blest: Testigo de la justicia de Cristo para los pobres
(Santiago: Editorial Salesiana, 1991).
Vitale, Luis. Los
discursos de Clotario Blest y la Revolución Chilena.
<http://www.clotarioblest.org/cb-vitale.htm>, accessed 26