When García Márquez embodied Latin America

“Macondo is celebrating.

Thomas Osborne
Thomas Osborne
02 December 2022 Friday 23:50
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When García Márquez embodied Latin America

“Macondo is celebrating. Through the dying railway line, the only point of contact between magic and geography, came the news. The world bows in reverence to announce that, from now on, the people of the decennial rains and the round orange sun are the property of universal culture. The Fourth Nobel Prize for Literature treasured by a Latin American, comes to be the recognition of a thriving and powerful narrative, inspired by the territory and the man, chaining one to the other in a borderline time between slavery and redemption. They say that when Colonel Aureliano Buendía found out, he shook his chin and said in a very low voice: The time has come for another revolution... and I am going to win this one."

This is how the Chilean magazine Análisis published the announcement that broke out in Sweden on Thursday, October 21, 1982: the Colombian Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014) was the new Nobel Prize in Literature. It was the only news that could be celebrated in that edition. Because the rest gave an account of a country submerged in the dark night. Added to the terror imposed by the secret services of the dictatorship headed by General Augusto Pinochet were the devastating effects of a very serious economic crisis.

1982 and 1983 marked the high point of the worst recession that Chile experienced since the 1930s. Unemployment (unemployment) exceeded 30%. An index that did not include the thousands attached to the Minimum Employment Plan (PEM), created by the regime to demolish the rebellion of the workers: now they transported stones, garbage and debris in 40-hour days a week for 25 dollars a month . It was only enough to buy a kilo of bread a day. The old and solid structure of the male provider was demolished. And in the towns, the common pots multiplied at the same rate as the repression.

Pinochet proclaimed "Me or chaos" when announcing his new Constitution in 1980. He wanted to impose it in a plebiscite without an electoral roll, with tight control of the media and the security services deployed throughout the country to maintain terror. But something unprecedented happened on Wednesday August 27 at the great Teatro Caupolicán in Santiago. Heavily armed policemen occupied all the surrounding streets to prevent thousands of Chileans from saying NO to Pinochet's Constitution.

Thousands of men and women overcame fear and filled the stands early. On the outskirts, hundreds of others, shoulder to shoulder, reinforced that rebellion. For the first time, left-wing workers, residents, students, and professionals agreed with their Christian Democrat counterparts. Since the Christian Democracy became a staunch opponent of the Popular Unity and supported the coup d'état of September 1973, a grave separated them. Seven years had passed and the Christian Democrats had turned around.

Inside the theater there was tension. Nobody knew what could happen at that rally and if there would be a police attack. Suddenly, the cry "Allende, Allende, the people are with you!" rumbled in the Caupolicán. “Allende” echoed until it competed with “¡Frei sí, otro No!”, which another group let out powerfully from their throats. The tension escalated several seats in the stands, until a powerful voice broke in:

–The hope of Chile does not have the name of a person! It has the name of the town of Chile! launched Eduardo Frei Montalva, top leader of the Christian Democrats, president of Chile between 1964 and 1970.

Frei Montalva ended by summoning Pinochet: "I am willing to support, without conditions and without any personal claim, the form of transition that meets the essential requirements for the cause of democracy, which is the cause of Chile." An ovation closed his words. Frei thus became leader of the opposition. That night, thousands of men and women walked home almost unscathed by the cold and the impending repression.

With a fraudulent plebiscite, the Constitution was imposed and death continued to hit hard. But the underground noise that ran through the streets continued its course.

The heat was intense that January 22, 1982. A swarm of women and men went to the Santa María Clinic in Santiago, given the alert of the death of Eduardo Frei Montalva. Shortly before 6 p.m., two men were waiting impatiently in the clinic's parking lot. An ambulance appeared. Three men in white aprons got out. They were carrying a stepladder and some packages. Without wasting a minute, the men in white were ushered into the elevator. They descended on the second floor and went to the only entrance to the Intensive Care Unit. They passed through the gate without anyone stopping them. Quickly and stealthily they entered the room where Eduardo Frei Montalva lay. Expert hands hung the corpse from him. The operation started. His family never knew what was extracted from the body of the former president of Chile in those minutes.

When they received his body for the wake, Eduardo Frei Montalva's face had no traces of intervention. The only thing Dr. Rosenberg's team left intact was the brain. Frei's heart, as well as his liver and other organs, were already in tubes with formalin at the Hospital Clínico de la Universidad Católica. And there they would remain hidden for two decades. Frei Montalva had been assassinated, but it was a secret for many years.

When in October 1982 Latin Americans celebrated with emotion the new Nobel Prize for Literature, the seal of death was still embedded in the streets of Chile.

The economic crisis worsened. The working days were extended by more than twelve hours and the unemployment continued to grow. In coal the limit of subsistence was reached. The journey from lamp to lamp was just a role that no foreman fulfilled. Domingo Arteaga, president of the main employers' union, the Confederation of Production and Commerce (CPC), proposed a social pact: that workers cut 5% of their remunerations. The rebellion began to explode in the populations. The response was more repression.

In April 1982, the impact came from Argentina. In a surprising operation, the Argentine army –which devastated that country with a dictatorial power that would leave more than thirty thousand victims– recovered the Malvinas Islands, a territory that England seized from them in 1833. The announcement that England declared war on our neighbors we were overwhelmed On April 3, all the information spaces talked about war.

Pinochet announced his neutrality. Nobody believed. Not just because he was a huge fan of Margaret Thatcher. The quasi-war between Argentina and Chile in 1978 due to border conflicts was latent, although the security services of both countries associated themselves to eliminate opponents in Operation Condor. The Argentine newspaper Clarín reported: "There is speculation that Chile has offered Britain the use of the Punta Arenas airstrip and its repair plant two hundred miles from Argentina's southern base at Río Gallegos." It turned out to be as real as the gifts that Thatcher gave Pinochet in return.

June has arrived. Neither the economic crisis nor the cold nor the repression prevented the streets of Chile from overflowing with excitement with the images that came from Spain. The magic of soccer broke down borders on June 13 when the Soccer World Cup opened in Barcelona. Only a year before (February 1981), the noise of sabers had shaken not only Spain. And now, what seemed incredible to us Chileans who grew up singing the republican chants of the Spanish Civil War: the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) was announced as the winner of the October elections.

Vertigo in those days. On June 14, Argentine troops surrendered at Puerto Argentino Stanley. With the Armed Forces of the neighboring country defeated, a gap was opened through which the ardor of freedom would make its way. So it was. On October 30, 1983, Raúl Alfonsín won the democratic elections (Unión Cívica Radical) in Argentina. In 1985 was the trial of the military chiefs of the dictatorship and some of them were sentenced to prison for the more than thirty thousand disappeared. What happened next is another story. But in the middle of 1982 the floor of loneliness moved.

On August 7, images from Colombia showed Belisario Betancourt assuming the presidency of his country. But violence did not let up in García Márquez's homeland, as the writer and journalist well knew. A month and days later (September 17) five catechists from the Christian Peasant Communities were assassinated by a commando of paramilitary units.

On October 21, Gabriel García Márquez received the news of his Nobel Prize for Literature. He was in Mexico. On March 26 of that year he had to leave Colombia. The Colombian army wanted to stop him. They accused him of having ties to the M-19 guerrilla movement. It was a milestone. There were chronicles and interviews about his life as a journalist and writer. His words echoed in those days when thousands of Chileans, Argentines, and Uruguayans dreamed of freedom and the right to life making their way in their countries. In one of those interviews, García Márquez stated:

–If I were born again I would do everything exactly the same, except for one thing: I would not leave Colombia for so long. I have always thought that if I had stayed as a municipal judge in Aracataca, I would not have done anything at all, but I would be completely happy.

A year and a half later, I was serving two days in the San Miguel men's prison in Santiago de Chile, when a tiny roll of paper came into my hands. An interview with General Gustavo Leigh, one of the masterminds of the September 1973 coup, led me there. I interviewed him in a modest real estate brokerage office, his new activity. I clenched my stomach, asked and listened. Those were times of strict censorship. And Leigh spared no epithets against Pinochet. He accused him of "unlimited ambition", of corrupting power and justice by delegitimizing the reasons for the coup and of "systematically eliminating" people he "considers dangerous". And he finished: "he only stays in power by force."

In the end, Leigh looked at me and said, "None of this will be able to publish!" I replied that it would be published.

The interview with Leigh was published in June 1984. But only what related to Pinochet's corruption. The other story, that of the coup, would require more work. The Home Office sued me (and not Leigh) for attacking State Security. And a minister from the Santiago Appeals Court, Marta Ossa, sent me to the men's prison in San Miguel.

The short time I was there I was sheltered by a group of extraordinary women from the MIR (Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria). All of them had been in that jail for some time as political prisoners in extremely harsh conditions. In them I saw dignity to stand before repressors and humanity towards the weakest. I shared their songs, their extreme shame not to talk about what they had experienced and their hope. I will never forget them.

And it was under these conditions that my hands unrolled that roll of almost transparent paper, and I read:

The speech that Gabriel García Márquez launched to the world contains a proclamation that would become a light for journalism in the midst of darkness:

That night I read García Márquez's speech again, I snuggled in and knew that they were accompanying us from outside.

MÓNICA GONZÁLEZ (Santiago, 1949), author of this text, is a Chilean journalist and writer. She has worked for magazines and newspapers such as El Siglo, Clarín, La Nación or Análisis; she founded and directed the magazine Siete 7 and Diario Siete. She is the author of several books, among others, La Conjura. The Thousand and One Days of the Coup (2000), about Pinochet's coup. She has received, among others, the Unesco World Press Freedom Award (2010), the National Prize for Journalism in Chile (2019) and the Ortega y Gasset Award for Professional Career (2020). She is a member of the Governing Council of the Gabo Foundation.