There Are No Words
“You have to write, Cesar! You were the
voice of the Revolution. If you don’t speak
out, we are mute.”
I sighed and looked around. The park, once teeming, now seemed half-empty. In Uruguay, in the Year of Our Lord 1979, anyone might be an informer, a spy.
If someone was listening in on our conversation, I could not detect it.
The park bench creaked as I turned back to Saturnino.
“Nino, I just spent nine-and-a-half years in prison. My wife is dead. I have a teenage daughter who needs a father. I cannot go back to prison.”
“We all take risks. We all made sacrifices for the Revolution.”
“The Revolution has failed. We have failed.”
We were silent for a while.
I spoke up. “It’s a beautiful day. Why are there so few people in the park?”
“You don’t know? Our people, all of our country, has been ….” Nino stopped, I couldn’t tell if his emotions were choking him, or he was simply seeking the right words. “One in five, Cesar. Every fifth person in Uruguay is either in prison or in exile. We have been decimated – worse than decimated! You are careful with words, you know that ‘decimated’ literally means ‘to lose one tenth.’ That was a punishment imposed by the Roman Empire. They would kill one-tenth of the population to halt a rebellion.”
This time he did choke. When he could speak again, he said, “One fifth of our entire county, gone. There are no words for that.”
~ ~ ~
Since most of the world cannot even find Uruguay on a map, I suppose I must explain a few things.
The Oriental Republic of Uruguay (“Oriental” in the sense of “Eastern” - we are east of the River Uruguay) is a small country. Just a few million people, over half of whom live in our capital city, Montevideo.
We only exist because we are a buffer between two great South American powers. At first, both the Portuguese Empire and the Spanish Empire wanted our land. Later, when the European powers were kicked out, it was Brazil and Argentina. But we have no natural resources worth fighting a war over, so everyone agreed that we could be an independent buffer nation between Brazil and Argentina.
We have grassland for raising cattle, and pretty beaches. That's about it. Our greatest resource is our people.
(Truthfully, we are closer to the Argentines than the Brazilians. We speak the same Italian-inflected Spanish that is spoken in Argentina. Brazilians speak Portuguese. When we were first getting organized, we even sent a delegation to Buenos Aries, expecting to become part of Argentina. If they had treated us better, we would probably be a province of Argentina today.)
Over the years, our miniscule country has had its little coups and civil wars. But most of the time, we were peaceful and democratic. Foreigners even called us “the Switzerland of South America,” because we were so stable.
We prospered during the Second World War, because the Allies needed as much beef as we could sell. But in the 1950s, the agricultural market crashed, and so did our economy. Our working class went from surviving to starving.
So some of us got together and decided to do something about it.
~ ~ ~
For a week after my meeting with Nino, I ruminated. I did not need to work: my late wife's family owned several apartment buildings. Her mother – who had always hated me – ran the apartments with an iron fist. We were not rich, but we were comfortable. My daughter was busy being a teenager and going to school. It was just the three of us: me, my mother-in-law, and my daughter.
I would like to say that I courageously made the decision to write again, despite the risk of being re-arrested. But the truth was, after such a long time away from my typewriter, I wondered if I could still write. Perhaps the skill had left me. So, after a week, I sat down at my typewriter for the first time since I was sent to prison.
~ ~ ~
We called ourselves the Tupamaros. Other groups have taken their name from the same source: an Indian named Túpac Amaru II. He led a major revolt against the Spanish Empire, over in Peru.
From the late 1950s through the 1970s, we ran around Montevideo like Robin Hood and pretended that we knew what we were doing. We stole from the rich and gave to the poor. We robbed banks. We kidnapped the rich and corrupt, then ransomed them. We did not kill; we did not torture. One banker (a crony of the president) was so well fed during his captivity that, when he was freed, he was visibly fatter. The poor joked, “Hey, Tupamaros! Kidnap me!”
Our official slogan was “Words divide us, action unites us.”
That is a rather uninspired slogan. I did not write it.
I did write the slogan “Everybody dances or nobody dances.” We painted that on the gates of the Naval Officers' Nightclub. Then we burned the club down.
And, of course, I wrote manifestos that we delivered to the press or printed up ourselves.
By the early 1970s, the government decided it had had enough of us. They called us Communists (some of us were, some weren't) and got help from the Americans. The Americans were always happy to help fight Communism. They sent a man named Dan Mitrione to Uruguay. He might have been with the US Army, or with the FBI. No one knows. His cover was that he was with a US aid agency called the Agency for International Development.
His job was to teach the Uruguayan police and soldiers how to torture.
That is how I was captured. The police arrested someone, and tortured them, and they gave up my name to make the torture stop.
I was already in prison when my comrades kidnapped Dan Mitrione. Did I say we never killed anyone? Too many of us had been tortured by that point.
So we executed Dan Mitrione.
Uruguay had already been under a state of emergency since 1968. In 1972, the government suspended civil liberties. But even that wasn't enough, so the next year the military took over. We were ruled by a junta until 1984.
Apparently, a junta in our little country was not enough for the Americans. So the CIA initiated Operation Condor in 1974. One by one, all the nations of the southern part of South America came under military rule.
This was a very bad time. Tens of thousands of people were killed or made to disappear permanently, in Chile, Argentina, and Brazil. We are a small country, so only about 200 of us died.
~ ~ ~
This is the first thing I wrote after I was released from prison:
Liberty Prison did not look foreboding. It didn’t look like a prison at all; it looked like a dormitory. It did not need to be a high-security facility. By the time a prisoner was transferred to Liberty, he or she was already broken physically.
Liberty Prison was a place to break the minds of prisoners.
I spent twenty-three months there, so I came to know it well. The favorite technique of the jailors for destroying minds was to constantly change the rules, without notice. For example, each cell had a window equipped with a window shade. One day you would be punished for leaving your window shade open. The next day you would be punished for leaving it shut. Multiply that example by a thousand, and you have an idea of life in Liberty Prison. It was a place designed to reduce its prisoners to madness or despair.
The cruelties of Liberty Prison were not confined to its inmates. The families of prisoners suffered as well. Liberty Prison was purposely difficult to get to. No motor vehicle – either bus or private car – was permitted within two miles of the facility. All visitors had to make the journey on foot. Aged parents and young children alike had to walk two miles in all weathers. At least they did not have to do so often, since the inmates were allowed visits totaling just nine hours a year. Each visit counted as a full hour, even if it was cut short by the guards (as it often was). That amounted to less than one visit per month.
The rules were especially cruel to one’s children. Child visitors were not permitted to be accompanied by an adult. Their mothers or grandmothers had to wait behind a fence, while a child entered the prison alone. It took a brave child to make that walk alone, under the stern gaze of the guards.
Even children were subject to the ever-changing rules. One day, my eight-year-old daughter brought a family portrait she had drawn. She wanted to give it to me. But the guard took it and tore it up, shouting, “No pictures of people are allowed!” My daughter spent her visit crying. Of course, I was not allowed to touch her to comfort her.
But my daughter was stubborn. On her next visit, she brought another drawing. This one did not depict people. It was a drawing of animals that she saw at the zoo. Yet again the guard tore it up, shouting, “No pictures of animals allowed!”
Two months later, my daughter returned. Again, she brought a drawing. This time it was a jungle scene, a riot of plants and trees. The guard must have been in a good mood that day, because he gave the picture back and allowed her to bring it to me.
I was thrilled to finally see one of her drawings. I told her, “This is very, very good. It’s a beautiful jungle, with trees and ferns and bushes. And these little circles in the trees – are they fruit?”
And my daughter whispered, “Shhhh! Daddy, those are the eyes of the people and the animals. They’re hiding!’
And I began to weep. After a moment, I reached out and touched the face of my dear daughter. At which point the guards – who were always watching – came and dragged me away.
That was the first and only time I touched my daughter in the years I was incarcerated at various prisons. For this infraction, I was beaten and kept in solitary confinement for two months.
It was worth it.
Now I am out of prison, and Uruguay is on the verge of a new day. Now the dictatorship craves legitimacy, and is permitting a referendum on its rule. They also want amnesty for their crimes. They believe that the people of our country have been so brutalized, so intimidated, that they will approve in the polls what has been done to them.
I do not believe this. I think that our people are hiding, like animals in the jungle, waiting for the chance to oppose their tormentors. The dictatorship cannot see this opposition, but they are there. And – regardless of what the dictatorship reports as the results of the referendum – that day of reckoning is coming soon.
“You...you idiot! You just got out of prison, and the first thing you do is to write something that will get you sent back!”
I had read this essay to my daughter, my only child. The young woman who, as a child, had stubbornly brought me drawings. As soon as I finished, she began berating me. She is very like her late mother.
“It will be published anonymously,” I said.
“Of course,” she said. “And your friends are so good at keeping confidences. Which of your comrades is an informer?”
“My identity will be known only to a few.”
But my daughter would not relent. “What if one of the prison guards remembers you from this story? It’s not just about your safety any more. I’m an adult now. If you are found out, my security classification will be downgraded to a 'B.' I won't get into the University, and no one will hire me except for menial work!”
This gave me pause. In Uruguay, in those days, every adult citizen was classified as either an “A,” “B” or “C.” The “A” classification meant that you were politically reliable, could be employed by the government or go to university. As a member of the opposition, I was already a “C.” I was an enemy of the state, and no one could officially employ me. If my family did not have income from apartments, I would be washing dishes and paid illegally.
The “B” category meant that you were suspect. All that it took to be classified as a “B” was to be related to someone who was a “C.” Now that my daughter was technically an adult, her classification would certainly be downgraded if I were arrested again.
What father does not want the best for his child? It was this argument that finally convinced me. I put my essay away. I wrote nothing else political. I spent the next dozen years doing translations.
But my daughter’s security clearance was nevertheless downgraded. No explanation was given. Like so many others, she fled into exile. First to Argentina, which was even more dangerous. Some two hundred Uruguayans were killed in those evil years, but most of them were arrested up in Argentina, Brazil or Chile. Uruguay was too civilized for death squads. We just imprisoned our enemies, tortured them, then drove them mad.
From the Argentine mainland, she and a young man made their way to the Malvinas Islands. They are controlled by the British, who call them the Falkland Islands. (This was before Argentina and the United Kingdom fought a foolish war for possession of those islands.)
From the Malvinas, they fled to Britain. There they split up. Eventually, she made her way alone to the United States, which declined to accept her as a political exile. Fortunately, like her mother, she was very beautiful. She married an American and became a citizen. After she became a citizen, she divorced him and married another American, one that she actually loved. Then she forged a new life for herself. She had a career, and two children.
I hope that she was happy. She said so, in her letters.
I never saw her again. I was made clear to me that, if I left Uruguay, I would not be allowed to reenter. I would be stateless, seeking asylum, and I am too old for that. Similarly, my daughter was informed that, if she returned to Uruguay to visit me, she would not be allowed to leave.
The members of the junta remained powerful, even when they were not directly in power. And they were vengeful.
So I never saw my daughter again, nor her husband, nor my only grandchildren.
And now, now she is dead, slain in some meaningless robbery on an American street!
Always I hoped that next year I would be permitted to visit her. Now it is too late.
I have many, many regrets. One that haunts me is that, although I never published that essay to protect my daughter, she still had to go into exile. She fled from one dangerous country to another dangerous country, one where I could not protect her.
Uruguay is now a democracy. Freedom of the press has been restored. But the members of the junta were never punished. The voters defeated the first referendum, but the government passed amnesty anyway. The ones who are still alive walk the streets freely.
Some things do get better. Our current president, José Mujica, is a former Tupamaro. He spent even longer in prison than I did. He has brought in a liberal government, which has made abortion and same-sex marriage and marijuana legal. That may not seem like much, but South America is still conservative compared to Europe and North America.
So now, at last, I publish my essay. I meant it as a call to arms. But that was many years ago.
Now it is just a historical artifact. Like me.
Now, with so many new concerns and issues, will anyone read it?
Does anyone care?