I’d read a few recent posts on a police state under Obama. The case in favor rests on examples like the killing of al-Awlaki, the continuation of Guantanamo, drone attacks, the harsh incarceration of Bradley Manning, an increase in espionage charges for leaks to the press, indefinite detentions and warrantless wiretapping. That list may not be exhaustive.
But my intent is not to revisit the Obama/police state issue. I wanted to write about a few incidents of working and living in Latin America during their dictatorial period. Nonetheless, I note that the fact we can even openly discuss whether or not, or to what extent the current government constitutes a police state indicates it’s unlike those in 1980s Latin America.
Argentina had what’s referred to as a “dirty war” (though “state terrorism” might be more apt) from 1975-1983. It was under a military dictatorship and between 13,000 and 30,000 were murdered by government forces. This is a country whose population is about one tenth of the United States.
During the dictatorship my future ex, Rosa, was involved with one of the left of center political parties. For some of their meetings she would be told by someone who bumped into her in a café or on the street that she should be near a certain street corner at a certain time. A car would come by and she’d get in. More often than not she wouldn’t know the driver or the other passengers, though often it was just her and the driver. By mutual understanding there was no conversation. She’d be dropped at a house, often on the outskirts of Buenos Aires whose whereabouts she couldn’t always identify. The lights would be dim and she could seldom make out who else was there. Some voices she would recognize. First names only, though she did know a couple of participants.
It had to be this way. If you were arrested your address book would be seized. Anyone noted in it might also be arrested or at least put under surveillance. Many of those arrested disappeared. They never came back. If you had the misfortune of appearing in two or three address books, your days were numbered. Hence the secrecy of the meetings. But you can imagine the level of trust required to attend? What if it were infiltrated? Who might they be able to identify? Could it be traced to you?
I only had a single minor encounter. One Saturday afternoon I was out for a walk with Rosa, my old friend Chuck (this was a few years before the Tamara chronicles) and his Argentine girlfriend Monica. We were just moseying along in central Buenos Aires, laughing and joking. As my Spanish was in its infancy, I had my dictionary out as a conversational prop. Suddenly we were stopped by three police cars. A couple of cops split us up on the four street corners. Everyone passing by took a close look but no one stopped to gawk. Too risky in those days.
Chuck, an Archie Bunker lookalike, and I were obviously gringos. Rosa and Monica by their looks were Argentines. I was asked what I was doing in Argentina, how long I’d know Rosa and didn’t I know that prostitution was illegal. Chuck had an easier time as he didn’t speak Spanish and they didn’t speak English. Rosa was asked what she was doing with the gringos and what information she’d given us. And didn’t she know that the Americans were the reason why Argentina lost the war of the Malvinas (Falklands; it had ended just nine months earlier). We got off lucky as they let us go after an hour. Just some everyday harassment and who knows, maybe they might have blundered on to something of import.
I knew that a coup was coming. It had been rumored in the papers for weeks. After I’d finished a project in Trinidad, instead of traveling directly to the next country, Guatemala, I was told to cool my heels in Miami. Fair enough, if four days at the Fontainebleau are my orders, it’s hardly a resigning point to follow them to the letter. Finally I got the OK to proceed to Guatemala. When I boarded the plane I noticed about five camera crews with all their gear. Although I suspected the reason, I asked one of them. “Montt’s been overthrown!” Until the day before he’d been the President and a particularly bloody one. The newsies on board kept chattering about the Embassy’s “deep background” briefing awaiting them on arrival.
I was working with Dominic (my almost savior in The Accidental Cad post) and Manolo, a duplicitous Argentine about whom I have nothing good to say. After cooling our heels in Guatemala City for a couple of weeks, we were hankering for a road trip. The countryside is extraordinarily beautiful with dramatic mountains, valleys and lakes. We’d been told not to venture out but decided to consult a local who seemed to have connections.
Armando was pretty high up in the company. I wondered why he had a larger, more luxurious office than the CEO. We mentioned we were interested in seeing some of the countryside but had been told by New York that it wasn’t safe. He looked at us like we’d asked if it were OK to walk under a ladder. “No, no trouble now. Everything’s under control.”
We must have looked quizzical because he went on “Two weeks before the coup I wanted to go to my house in the country. I called a friend and he assured me nothing was going to happen till August” (the coup date was August 8). While this didn’t explicitly substantiate his “safe” assurance, it didn’t invite any follow-up questions either. So we rented a car and took off on the Friday.
Amatitlan, Lake Atitlan, Panajachel, Chichicastenango – it was a great road trip. But it was disconcerting to see the rebel slogans painted in large letters on mountainsides just fifty miles out of the capital. Anyone caught putting them up would certainly have been murdered. Four times on the weekend we were stopped at government roadblocks. Soldiers would wave us over while they checked our car and our papers. There were always a couple of 19 year old guys with machine guns on us. I’d seen this before in Israel but suspected the latter were a lot better trained.
The first three passed without incident. On the fourth they took a closer look at Manolo’s documents. His secondary Argentine ID had a section blackened out, as though someone had taken a lit cigarette to it. Later we found out that because he didn’t like one of his middle names, “Angel”, years ago he’d tried to obscure it. Well, that triggered the “No pasaran” sign from these soldiers. A couple of them kept their guns trained on Dominic and me. We were all standing close enough that I was able to offer assurances that Manolo did indeed work with us. Maybe my Spanish was even worse than I thought or the soldiers worried that I might be trying to put one over. Manolo kept talking rapidly in his and their native language but that wasn’t getting anywhere. Unfortunately for him, he was one of those guys who sound like he’s bullshitting even when he’s not.
I had no idea how this Guatemalan stand-off would end. We didn’t want to call anyone in New York because we weren’t supposed to leave the city. They didn’t want to let us go but sensed that there’d be trouble if they didn’t. And then, Armando appeared. Said he’d been returning home from his country house and noticed us. Had a few words with the soldiers and we were free to go. We were never going to know if it were just a simple coincidence or if more mysterious processes were at work. But we did know that being gringos with connections had its privileges.
This was ten years after Pinochet’s violent overthrow of the democratically elected Communist government of Salvador Allende. Thousands were killed and thousands went into exile. Much of this is covered by Costa-Gavras’ excellent movie Missing.
I was taking Spanish lesson three times a week. But twice the instructor was a no-show. When she returned she explained she had taken part in one of those protests where folks take to the streets banging pots and pans. She had been arrested and locked up for three days. No charges but now they knew about her.
I remembered that day. Many people had taken to the streets and the authorities responded with mass arrests and fire hoses. That evening on the news an oleaginous old fart delivered one of those more in sorrow than in anger “editorials” about how the mayhem on the streets didn’t really help Chilean society, that surely the protesters’ time would be best spent at the jobs or their schooling, and that after difficult times the government’s economic programs were working etc. etc. Needless to say (though I’ll say it anyway) there was no op-ed.
I was back in Buenos Aires several years after their return to democracy. There were various protests about a too-generous amnesty law regarding the military officials who committed, organized or oversaw the torture and killings. One of the most striking displays were stenciled human forms on various buildings with a script explaining “This was the last place so-and-so was seen – disappeared April 19, 1981, age 23”. Incredibly vivid reminder.
In the first couple of days following Guatemala’s coup, I have a distinct memory of having seen news footage of the coup taking place at the presidential palace where an American Embassy official was in the center of the action, apparently directing traffic on his walkie-talkie. And I’m sure this fellow was reported on the local news as having been present on the scene. However, before writing this I googled for background and could find no specific references to American direct involvement.