Dead Man in Paradise
Unraveling a Murder from a
Time of Revolution
By J. B. MacKinnon
New York, the New Press, 2007, 272 pp.
The Art of Political
Who Killed the Bishop?
By Francisco Goldman
New York, Grove Press, 2007, 416 pp.
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 one’s 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 European 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, Washington’s powerful 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 on it is a torrent. A hundred years later, in the 1950s, Washington’s intellectuals provided a framework for the dominance of the generals—military modernization. Since few institutions were allowed to flourish in Latin America, Pentagon intellectuals argued, the military is the only one capable of bringing the promise of modernity. So, the U.S. government could, in good conscience, back the generals as the agents of history. Massacres were the lubricant for progress.
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 on Pope John XXIII’s 1961 encyclical that the church should concern itself with “man’s daily life, with his livelihood and education, and his general temporal welfare and property.” 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 from the barracks 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 20s, arrived in the Dominican Republic in October 1960, he came with a sense of justice and an aversion to inequality. Three days into his sojourn, he wrote in his diary, “República 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?
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 the Cuban example, the scale of suffering in the former plantation colonies of the Caribbean could not be overlooked. It became Mac- Kinnon’s spiritual guide.
Not long after he settled in, the Canadian padre, now Arthuro to his flock, watched as the social democrat Juan Bosch Gaviño won a rare election. He was ousted in six months. Two years later, Bosch’s legions rose against the military state and corralled the generals at their base (General Elías 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. The army would not wait for an uprising so 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, “You’re a communist.” He answered, “Not a communist. I’m 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 police, by their bullets and by that of a passing soldier. No investigation and no explanation followed his death. The Canadian vanished, except in the heart of scores of Dominicans.
A generation later, Arthur’s nephew, the journalist J.B. Mac- Kinnon returned to find out what happened to his uncle. In an apartment in the western suburb of Santo Dom- ingo, known as Kilometre Ten, Mac- Kinnon met an old parishioner of Father Art. Juan María Ayala Regalo said, “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 found out, he had a hard time chasing the story. His informants, many of whom have vivid memories of their priest, told him fragments of third-hand information. When he asked where they got their story, they replied, “Fulano told me” (Fulano equals whatshisname). MacKinnon did not relent.
There is something naïve about his book, Dead Man in Paradise, which uses the futile search for the murderers and their motivation to tell the story of Father Arthur’s short stay in the country and of the tragedy of the Dominican people. MacKinnon visits old friends of Father Arthur, whose memories are warm, but wanting. He avoids the various human rights organizations (such as the Instituto de Derechos Humanos Santo Domingo) in favor of his own investigation. His doggedness leads him to the homes of the generals, now older, apprehensive, but no less powerful. Wessen y Wessen is the leader of the Quis- queyan Christian Democratic Party. He won’t see MacKinnon, but General Imbert will. Imbert shot Generalissimo Trujillo and took charge of the state after 1965. Imbert was 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.”
On April 26, 1998, Father José Gerardi Conedera, head of the Guatemalan Archdiocese’s Office of Human Rights (ODHA), was brutally killed in the driveway of his parish home. Gerardi had overseen the release of a remarkable document, the Archdiocesan Recovery of Historical Memory Project’s (REMHI) “Guatemala: Never Again.” Begun shortly after the 1996 peace accords, research for the 1,400-page document concluded that a war conducted by generals against the population claimed 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.” Bishop Gerardi was beaten to death with a concrete slab the next evening.
Francisco Goldman, a Guatemalan American, covered the investigation of the murder and the trial of those charged with the killing. Goldman, like the Dominicans who talked to MacKinnon, knew implicitly who was responsible for his death. Ger- ardi spent his career fighting against the army, first in the highlands of Santa Cruz El Quiché, 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 don’t 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 Guatemala’s tragedy. The U.S., for one, has intervened when it saw fit. In 1921 President Coolidge sent a message that President Carlos Herrera y Luna was not acceptable, so he was removed; in 1954, the CIA overthrew the popular nationalist Jacobo Arbenz Guzman. In 1965, the CIA, according to historian Greg Grandin, provoked Guatemala’s own Operation Limpieza (Cleanup), a license for the army to kill communists and their supporters.
Goldman’s book, The Art of Political Murder, is an exquisite collage of the legal, political, and social threads that collide at Gerardi’s battered corpse. Those who conducted the murder not only killed Gerardi, but also left an array of clues to divert any potential investigation. Allegations of homosexuality and gang violence fogged up the evidence and fear of the army silenced many eyewitnesses.
Goldman’s account purports to be a straightforward documentary of the investigation and the courtroom drama, but actually is about something else. Given the enormous social power of the military, the process of identifying the perpetrators 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 were eventually found guilty as accessories), Francisco Escobar Blas and Marco Tulio Espinosa, both in the elite intelligence unit during the “civil” war, and people in government such as the Presidents Alvaro Arzú Irigoyen and Efraín Ríos 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 Yassmín Barrios, who flees to Spain, but returns to Guatemala’s bench two weeks later). Goldman sees 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 don’t 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 General’s rule in Argentina.) Goldman’s 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 Lima’s outrage: “For half a century the military’s 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.
Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (2007). He teaches at Trinity College in Connecticut.