By Dr Cesar Chelala
I met Gabriel García Márquez and Fidel Castro at the Convention Palace in Havana during a medical meeting I attended in Cuba in the early eighties. I also had the honour of being extensively quoted in one of his articles, “Con las Malvinas o sin ellas,” (With or Without the Malvinas). My article (which I had signed under the pseudonym of Juan Montalvo, to protect my family in Argentina from military reprisal) was a long interview with two leaders of the “Madres of Plaza de Mayo” organisation in Argentina. They are a courageous group of women who still search for their sons and daughters who were “made to disappear” by the Argentine military ruling the country.
In his article, García Márquez reflects on two of his main preoccupations: the abusive relationship between big industrial powers and Latin American and Caribbean countries, and the state of human rights in the continent. Although comments on his life and work talk primarily about his literary achievements, they don’t deal with political aspects of his life.
“The world has lost one of its greatest visionary writers — and one of my favourites from the time I was young,” said President Obama in a statement, and called the author “a representative and voice for the people of the Americas”. President Obama is absolutely right about this: in his long career as a writer Márquez has always sided with the less fortunate and against those who abuse them.
In his Nobel acceptance presentation Márquez elaborated on some of the topics that haunted him. He talked about two presidents that were suspiciously killed in airplane accidents, the reasons for which were never discovered. One of them, Jaime Roldós Aguilera, a president of Ecuador known for his firm stance on human rights, died in a plane crash on 24 May 1981, together with his assistants and their spouses.
John Perkins, former economist at the World Bank and author of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, believes that Roldós was assassinated because his plan to reorganise his country’s hydrocarbon sector would have threatened US interests. Months after Roldós death, another Latin American leader and close friend of Márquez, General Omar Torrijos, Panamá’s President, also died in a suspicious plane crash. John Perkins believes that it was the result of a CIA-conducted assassination.
Márquez also refers in his lecture to three countries in Central America, punished by long and bloody wars. “Because they tried to change this state of things,” he said, “nearly two hundred thousand men and women have died throughout the continent, and over one hundred thousand have lost their lives in three small and ill-fated countries of Central America: Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. If this had happened in the United States, the corresponding figure would be that of one million six hundred thousand violent deaths in four years.”
Because of foreign intervention, progress in many Latin American countries has been delayed for decades, a painful reality I was able to see in several health-related missions throughout the continent. But I also saw the optimism and the desire for a better future in peoples punished by long and brutal wars. Márquez expresses this powerfully in his own words: “In spite of this, to oppression, plundering and abandonment, we respond with life. Neither floods nor plagues, famines or cataclysms, not even the eternal wars of century upon century, have been able to subdue the persistence advantage of life over death.”
It is that desire for a better life that I saw one day leaving my hotel in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, when a band of school children passed in front of me neatly dressed, singing on their way to school. I couldn’t but marvel that in the poorest country in the hemisphere, with persistent lack of water and material means, those children were able to proudly walk to school in their clean uniforms, their singing a manifestation of their optimism.
These facts make me reflect than the best way to honour the memory and keep the legacy of one of Latin America greatest writers is not only to remember the literary man but also the man who always expressed his concern for the dispossessed of the earth.
Dr Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.