Fulano told me

Published : Dec 21, 2007 00:00 IST

Two books that explore the politics of violence in Latin America.

CALL it the curse of Columbus. The conquistadors came to what would be called the Americas in search of Gold, God and Glory. Gold they found, eventually, and between the sword and the crucifix they brought God as well. It was harder to measure Glory to have ones name engraved on the landscape gives you posterity. But to get there, one would have to spill blood without mercy. David Stannard, in American Holocaust (1992), estimates that Euro pean violence along the hemisphere led to the death of about 100 million people. The curse of Columbus carried forward; the country named for him, Colombia, has an entire decade (1948-58) named La Violencia, when over 200,000 people died in what is politely called a political feud.

Call it the curse of Washington. Whenever the people south of the Rio Grande tried to fashion their own destiny, Washingtons powerful winked in the direction of the barracks and stood aside as the Generals sent forth one set of the poor to kill another. The salvo begins against Mexico (1846) and Nicaragua (1850), and from then onward it is a torrent.

A hundred years later, in the 1950s, Washingtons intellectuals provided a framework for the dominance of the Generals military modernisation. Since few institutions were allowed to flourish in Latin America, the Pentagon intellectuals argued, only the military is capable of bringing forth the promise of modernity. So, the United States government could in all good conscience back the Generals as the agents of history. Massacres, then, were the lubricant for progress. And besides, tropical democracy is nothing other than frigid communism.

Plunder and murder produce poverty and grief. The contradictions of Catholicism intruded into Latin American history at around the time when socialist movements gained a fillip from the audacity of the Cuban Revolution. The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) elaborated upon Pope John XXIIIs 1961 encyclical that the Church should concern itself with mans daily life, with his livelihood and education, and his general temporal welfare and prosperity. The inequalities of advanced capitalism, the pontiff continued, drove a wedge between the classes with wages so insufficient even to the point of reaching starvation levels and working conditions such as to be injurious to health, morality and religious faith. Between Castro and the Pope, people across Latin America, and their priests, felt the urge to move history away from the barracks and closer to the barrios.

Father Arthur MacKinnon of the Scarboro Foreign Mission Society felt that Castro was the leading danger to the world. Nonetheless, when MacKinnon, in his late twenties, arrived in the Dominican Republic in October 1960, he came with a sure sense of justice and an aversion to inequality. Three days into his sojourn, he wrote in his diary, Repblica Dominicana is a police state pure and simple guards at every crossroad and soldiers everywhere. Life is cheap and freedom of speech practically nil. Could he have expected anything different? The Scarboro missionaries had first come to the country in 1943, the 13th year of the rule of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, the U.S.-backed strongman. The U.S. had occupied the country from 1916 to 1924, and remained reassured by trujillismo. Raised in the hardscrabble working-class landscape of Nova Scotia, Canada, MacKinnon instinctively felt for the Dominican workers and peasants. Naturally the cry of the stomach overwhelms the interest of the soul, no matter how well meaning, the padre wrote in January 1962. And can you morally force one to go to church on Sunday if he is ashamed to go because of the tattered rags he has for clothing? Even for one wary of Castro and the Cuban example, the scale of suffering in the former plantation colonies of the Caribbean could not be overlooked. It became MacKinnons spiritual guide.

Not long after he settled in, the Canadian padre, now Arthuro to his flock, watched as the social democrat Juan Bosch Gavio won a rare election; he was ousted in six months. Two years later, Boschs legions rose against the military state and corralled the Generals at their base (General Elas Wessin y Wessin and his tanks sat ominously silent in San Isidro, ready to strike).

As the counter-revolution brewed in the late months of 1964, MacKinnon moved to the parish of Monte Plata (Wessin y Wessen was born in nearby Bayaguana and was aware, it is said, of the concerns of the regions landed aristocracy, the tutumpotes). The army would not wait for an uprising; it arrested a number of young men from the town and its hinterland. MacKinnon went to San Isidro to demand their release. He had identified himself with the poor. The officers who saw him said, Youre a communist. He answered, Not a communist. Im a man of the church. But the gap between the two meant little if the pulpit challenged the Generals. A few days later, MacKinnon was shot to death, in the company of two policemen, by their bullets and by that of a passing soldier. No investigation, no explanation nothing of merit followed the death. The Canadian vanished, except in the heart of scores of Dominicanos.

A generation later, Arthurs nephew, the journalist J.B. MacKinnon, returns to find out what happened to his uncle. In an apartment in the western suburb of Santo Domingo, known as Kilometre Ten, MacKinnon meets an old parishioner of Father Art. Juan Mara Ayala Regalo says, When I heard you were looking for the story of your uncle, I was worried. I thought: Here in this country, the truth costs a lot. Which is why, MacKinnon finds out, he has a hard time chasing the story. His informants, many of whom have vivid memories of their priest, tell him fragments, but often as third-hand information. When he asks where they got the story from, they reply, Fulano told me (Fulano = whatshisname).

MacKinnon does not relent. There is something nave about his book, Dead Man in Paradise, which uses the futile search for the murders and their motivation to tell the story of Father Arthurs short stay in the country and of the tragedy of the Dominican people. MacKinnon visits old friends and acquaintances of Father Arthur, whose memories are warm but wanting. He avoids the various human rights organisations (such as the Instituto de Derechos Humanos Santo Domingo) in favour of his own intrepid investigation.

His doggedness leads him to the homes of the Generals, now older, apprehensive, but no less powerful. Wessen y Wessen is the powerful leader of the Quisqueyan Christian Democratic Party. He will not see MacKinnon, but General Imbert will. General Antonio Imbert shot Generalissimo Trujillo, and took charge of the state after 1965 (although he played second fiddle, by his own admission, to Wessen y Wessen). Imbert is shrivelled up, like a child. This is the man who ran Operation Limpieza (Cleanup) from May 13 to May 21, 1965, when his forces, according to the U.S. government, were successful in eliminating rebel resistance outside Ciudad Nuevo and silencing Radio Santo Domingo. All this was done in the shadow of the arrival of the U.S. marines, whose intervention turned the tide against the rebels and on behalf of the Generals. But Imbert has nothing for MacKinnon. What time leaves behind, the General says to his young admirer, remains to be forgotten.

The truth costs a lot. On April 26, 1998, Father Jos Gerardi Conedera, the head of the Guatemalan Archdioceses Office of Human Rights (ODHA), was brutally killed in the driveway of his parish home. Gerardi had just overseen the release of a remarkable document, the Archdiocesan Recovery of Historical Memory Projects (REMHI) Guatemala: Never Again. Begun shortly after the peace accords of 1996, research for the 1,400-page document concluded that the war conducted by the Generals against the population claimed the lives of over 200,000 civilians. At a special mass to celebrate the release of the document, Gerardi said, The REMHI project has been a door thrown open so that people can breathe and speak in liberty, and for the creation of communities of hope. Peace is possible, a peace that arises from the truth of each and every one of us. Bishop Gerardi was beaten to death with a concrete slab the next evening.

Francisco Goldman, a Guatemalan American, covered the story of the investigation of the murder, and the trial of those charged with the brutal killing. Goldman, like the Dominicans who talk to MacKinnon, knows implicitly who is responsible for this death. Gerardi spent his career fighting against the army, first in the highlands of Santa Cruz El Quich, then in exile in Costa Rica and finally through ODHA and REMHI. With the REMHI report done, Gerardi told his associates, Now we know what happened, but we dont know who gave the orders.

This is true as far as the substance of each killing is concerned, although it is clear who set the policy for Guatemalas tragedy. The U.S., for one, has intervened when it sees fit: in 1921, President Coolidge sent a message that President Carlos Herrera y Luna was not acceptable, so he was removed; in 1954, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) overthrew the popular nationalist Jacobo Arbenz Guzman; but when some Guatemalan troops tried to overthrow President Jos Miguel Ramn Ydigoras Fuentes, President Eisenhower sent warships to constrain them; in 1965, the CIA, according to historian Greg Grandin, provoked Guatemalas own Operation Limpieza (Cleanup), a licence for the army to kill communists and their supportersand onwards.

The Guatemalan landed elite, whose interests were well protected by the military, were the other intellectual authors of the violence that wracked Guatemala. But knowing this is one thing and proving it in a court of law with reverence to due process and evidence is another.

The Second Vatican

Goldmans book, The Art of Political Murder, is an exquisite collage of the legal, political and social threads that collide at Gerardis battered corpse. Those who conducted the murder did not only kill Gerardi, but they also, and significantly, left an array of clues to divert any potential investigation. Allegations of homosexuality and of gang violence fogged up the evidence, and fear of the army silenced many eyewitnesses. Goldmans account purports to be a straightforward documentary of the investigation and the courtroom drama, but actually it is about something else. Given the enormous social power of the military, the process of identifying the perpetuators and finding them guilty already works toward the reconstruction of Guatemalan society. It takes social courage to challenge people like the Limas (the Captain and Colonel, both of whom are eventually found guilty as accessories), Francisco Escobar Blas and Marco Tulio Espinosa, all in the elite intelligence unit during the civil war; and people in government such as the Presidents Alvaro Arz Irigoyen and Efran Ros Montt, both knee deep in gore. The ODHA team, the journalists and, significantly, the judges hold fast to prove that something other than the status quo is possible. In fear, lawyers and investigators flee the country for enforced exile, but many of them return (crucially, Judge Yassmn Barrios, who flees with her life to Spain, but returns to Guatemalas bench two weeks later). Goldman sees this hope as he writes of the judges, They were too young to have been corrupted, demoralized, or made cynical. They are the future of his country.

The dirty wars that wracked Latin America through the 20th century are far from over. The scars linger. The people gradually attain enough confidence to live without a placet from the government, the army and the Church (Father Art and Bishop Gerardi did not exemplify the Catholic Church; there were also people such as Cardinal Manuel Arteaga of Havana, close friend of the dictator Batista, and Reverend Christian von Wernich, who was personally involved in the execution of people during the Generals rule in Argentina). Goldmans lawyers and activists are evidence of new beginnings, albeit through some very nerve-wracking struggles.

At the trial, Captain Lima complained that he was the fall guy, that ODHA wanted to go after the others. Goldman interprets Limas outrage against itself. For half a century the militarys clandestine world had seemed impregnable, Goldman writes. The Gerardi case has opened a path into that darkness. No more Fulano told me. Now we need to name names.

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