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Not-So-Magical Realism

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Writing about it didn't, alas, prevent it from happening.

In the late 1940s, Gore Vidal lived in Guatemala, where he shared a house with the writer Anaïs Nin, lived on the cheap, and wrote Dark Green, Bright Red. Published in 1950, this undeservedly obscure novel describes how the operatives of the World Banana Company work behind the scenes in an unnamed Central American country to help a smooth-talking dictator depose a president committed to land reform and free elections.

"With a population which is 80 percent pure Indian and illiterate, direct popular representation would destroy the fabric of the state and leave anarchy in its wake," argues Jorge Alvarez Asturias, the former dictator in Vidal's novel who wants to retake the government by force. He opposes a president who "represents an alien and unrepublican philosophy of state control and state planning, whereas I...we represent the individual. We respect the rights of property and the process of the law." This story line -- of generals versus presidents, property owners versus land reform, and rich versus poor -- tormented Latin America for much of the 20th century.

The general in Vidal's novel ultimately fails in his bid. But four years later, the scenario unfolded in an eerily similar fashion in Guatemala. Backed by the United Fruit Company, which didn't want to give up its land for redistribution even with government compensation, Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas succeeded in overthrowing Jacobo Arbenz's democratically elected government. Once in office, Castillo took away the voting rights of illiterate Guatemalans, reversed his predecessor's the land reform, and imprisoned thousands of alleged communists. Six years after that, Guatemala descended into a civil war. According to a 1999 Guatemala truth commission report, 150,000 people died in this war and another 40,000 disappeared, the vast majority at the hands of state actors.

But that was a conservative estimate. In 2005, human rights investigators discovered the enormous archive of the Guatemalan National Police -- 80 million pages -- in a crumbling and forgotten munitions depot in downtown Guatemala City. This year, the Institute for Policy Studies presented a Letelier-Moffitt human rights award to the archivists who have made these documents available to the tens of thousands of Guatemalans desperate for information about their loved ones who died or disappeared during the gruesome civil war.

The information this archive contains can be used in the service of not just truth but also justice. In 1999, Nobel-prize-winning writer and activist Rigoberta Menchú filed a lawsuit in Spain against members of the Guatemalan dictatorship for their role in genocide, torture, state terrorism, and other crimes against humanity. Menchú lost her parents and two brothers to the "pacification campaign" that the government conducted in the Western Highlands, populated largely by poor, indigenous peasants. In 2006, a Spanish court issued a warrant for the arrest and extradition of former dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt. But the 83-year-old Ríos Montt not only remains in Guatemala. He serves in Congress, where he enjoys immunity from prosecution.

Somewhere in those 80 million pages or in the military archives that current Guatemalan president Álvaro Colom has promised to unseal is the evidence that could finally bring Ríos Montt and his cronies to justice. Already, the government has provided prosecutors with a document outlining the military's role in one massacre of civilians. But can the Guatemalan courts end the climate of impunity in the country? In 2001, despite threats and grenade attacks, Guatemalan judges eventually convicted three people for the murder of Bishop Juan José Gerardi, who had just released a report on the state's and the military's complicity in extrajudicial killings. The case was so surrealistic that the novelist Francisco Goldman decided to abandon the magic of fiction and tell this "baroque story of perhaps perverse human passions" in journalistic form in The Art of Political Murder. The story of this case -- as well as the pervasive corruption, the attacks against union members, the killings of 50 candidates and activists in the 2007 elections -- suggests that bringing the true rule of law to Guatemala won't be easy.

While Ríos Montt continues to enjoy his political privileges, Rigoberta Menchú has become a lightening rod for attacks. In 1999, the same year that she launched her lawsuit against Ríos Montt, anthropologist David Stoll published a book that called into question many of her autobiographical claims. The right wing immediately seized on this critique. David Horowitz, with his typical flair for understatement, called her book I, Rigoberta Menchú, "one of the greatest hoaxes of the 20th century."

But as Greg Grandin writes in an important article in The Nation, Menchú's version of her own story, which essentially serves as a narrative of Guatemala's civil war, has emerged largely unscathed from the decade of attacks that she has endured. She provided the information that went into her autobiography in several interviews in Paris, from memory, in Spanish, which was her second language of Spanish, after a year of living in hiding in exile, and with no knowledge that the material would become a book. Only two novelistic changes -- her witnessing her brother's murder and her claim of having had no education -- depart from the facts. "More than a decade after the scandal, what is notable about I, Rigoberta Menchú is not its exaggerations but its realism," Grandin concludes.

Suddenly revealed documents haven't only exposed wrong-doing in Guatemala. Recently, in another archive, this time at the University of Pittsburgh, historian Susan Reverby discovered evidence that U.S. public health doctors deliberately infected nearly 700 Guatemalans with sexually transmitted diseases between 1946 and 1948. The Obama administration apologized. But, frankly, Guatemalans deserve a great more than an apology, considering how poorly the United States has treated the benighted country.

Menchú's memoir and legal briefs , the Guatemalan Police Archives' documents, the University of Pittsburgh's papers, Francisco Goldman's journalism: They all preserve the memory of atrocity and injustice in Guatemala. For all the thousands of pages of magical realism that Latin American novelists have produced over the years, nothing can quite measure up to the incredible and true stories found in this documentary evidence.

More incredible still, perhaps, is that this same old story of coups and colonialism is still with us today. Despite the region's decisive turn toward democratic rule, Latin America remains subject to strongmen who dream of power. Honduras succumbed to a military coup last year and still suffers from its tragic aftereffects. In the recent near miss in Ecuador, the United States "was actively involved in training the anti-narcotics unit and many of the police units that participated in the coup attempt," writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) columnist Laura Carlsen. Artist Edgar Endress, in an interview with FPIF's Peter Certo, tells a story of several ex-Yugoslav mercenaries hired by Bolivian secessionists to bring down President Evo Morales' government.

Pinochet, Fujimori, and Videla are no longer in power. But in the way that agribusiness and the CIA continue to cooperate with the powerful in Latin America, not enough has changed since Gore Vidal wrote his prescient novel. His experience in Guatemala in the 1940s turned Vidal into a life-long critic of the U.S. empire. "If I were a Guatemalan and I had the means to drop something on somebody in Washington, or anywhere Americans were, I would be tempted to do it," he told Marc Cooper in a 2002 interview. "Especially if I had lost my entire family and seen my country blown to bits because United Fruit didn't want to pay taxes. Now, that's the way we operate. And that's why we got to be so hated."

Dark Green, Bright Red
didn't prevent the coup in Guatemala. Critics either panned the book or ignored it, largely because of the homophobia that greeted Vidal's coming-out novel The City and the Pillar in 1948. If Dark Green, Bright Red had become a bestseller, who knows, perhaps Guatemala might have gone off on a different trajectory. After all, the printed word, as historians and archivists and lawyers will tell you, can be very powerful indeed.

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