viernes, abril 08, 2005
Two funerals and no wedding, A personal testimony
I wrote this personal testimony back in the late 80's, years after my 24-year-old brother Marcel was assassinated in mysterious circumstances never fully clarified in the aftermath of the Sandinista revolutionary victory over the Somoza dictatorship. I revised it recently.
There was something unusual about this funeral procession. Idle street prowlers, old men sitting on rocking chairs at their doorways, barefoot urchins who had witnessed far too many go by were intrigued by this particular one. Some just stood or sat, staring in confusion. The younger ones, amused by the spectacle, ran giggling behind the hearse. Strange that it should cause so much commotion for, in those days, any picture of the Nicaraguan capital, Managua, would have been incomplete without a funeral ceremony.
Perversely, funerals brought life to this city of wide empty spaces and chest-high weeds, of abandoned concrete hulks, the jagged ruins of hotels, banks, churches and cinemas where destitute families lingered, like ghosts.
They added bustle to the silence of bullet-marked walls and sounds to the slogans smeared with red paint urging "death to the bourgeoisie."
For years, Managua, or what was left of it after a crushing earthquake and months of civil war, had become synonymous with death. By the time of the Sandinista revolutionary triumph in July, 1979, Managua was as used to burials of young people, mostly of Sandinista "martyrs and heroes," as it had once been to street riots and barricades.
But this funeral procession presented an arresting, disconcerting scene. In it, oddly at ease, earnest youths in green fatigue uniforms, wearing red and black bandanas across their foreheads, walked side-by-side with rich businessmen and their elegant wives dressed in their best mourning clothes.
This potpourri of people, a social cross section, was mourning the mysterious assassination of Marcel Pallais Checa, a 24-year-old relative of the recently-deposed Nicaraguan dictator who had joined the Sandinista revolutionaries. For the first time, the young revolutionary caste felt united in a common cause with the old Nicaraguan ruling class, sharing in the loss of a young man of uncommon destiny who had belonged to them both.
The procession advanced mostly on foot, but there were a couple of cars. Looking through the window of the car that led the way behind the hearse, a handsome, middle-aged woman, wearing dark glasses, recognized a few of Marcel's high school friends. She also spotted a lot of new faces. Probably Marcel's new friends, his Sandinista co-workers, she thought. All looked forlorn, holding banners with Marcel's name printed in big, black and red letters, shouting revolutionary slogans as they walked. Scattered groups of people, dressed in rags, had walked all the way to the cemetery. They probably didn't know who had died, but it was clear to them it was a "Sandinista martyr" with upper-class connections, not the other way around. For, in those days, the dead were almost invariably young revolutionaries, all poor militants of the lower classes.
Wrapped in the red and black colors of the victorious Sandinista flag, the coffin arrived at the burial site in Managua's Cementerio Oriental. The woman got out of the car. She stood, dignified, near the hearse, the veins under the skin of her throat thick and throbbing. She was Laura Checa, Marcel's mother, just in from Miami, that bilingual haven welcoming those more at ease in its bland, air-conditioned comfort than in the politically over-heated tropics. Holding her hand tightly was Marcel's best high-school mate, Alonso Porras, by then an intense, bearded Sandinista militant just down from Nicaragua's northern mountains as a triumphant revolutionary. Next to him, a young, dusky Nicaraguan woman, dressed in green fatigues and wearing a white flower behind her ear, was sobbing profusely. She was Auxiliadora Cruz Castillo, Marcel's Sandinista girlfriend and, by all accounts, the last person who saw him alive.
Some in the crowd continued to bark out defiant Sandinista chants and, solemnly, a handful of men lowered down the casket into a hole in the ground. Irate, they all bellowed Patria Libre o Morir!, the revolutionary cry calling for a free country or death that many youngsters had taken to heart. Auxiliadora was leaning on Joaquin, one of Marcel's new comrades, as he began to address the crowd, his words drowning with tears: "We will continue your work, Marcel. We won't cry for long, because you wouldn't want us to. We will follow your example."
Auxiliadora swooned, fell to the ground and, at the same moment, just as unexpectedly, a short and stout man in an impeccable military uniform emerged out of nowhere. He looked older than the rest of the Sandinistas there. Imperiously, Tomas Borge, a legendary revolutionary leader and Nicaragua's new Interior Minister, asked for Marcel's mother to be brought next to him. Stabbing one finger upward, the expression of his face hidden under his green cap, he began his eulogy.
"Despite his ancestry, he was like a white flower in the dirty hay," Borge declared, in an allusion to Marcel's family origins that nobody failed to pick up. "He chose to live next to the poor when he could have had everything. Eternal Glory to Marcel!". Borge, the best orator the Sandinistas had, paused for a minute or two; then called out Marcel's name three, four, five times; each time, the crowd responded Presente! in unison, building up the rhythm, raising their clenched fists up towards the sky.
The night before, at Marcel's wake, Borge spoke to the press who were asking if any member of Marcel's immediate family would be allowed into Nicaragua to attend the funeral. They were testing Borge. "Marcel had a large family, he had many brothers. Every Sandinista in Nicaragua was his brother," Borge answered, and paused briefly. Pointing at me, Borge then told the press I was Marcel's "hermana de padre y madre" (Marcel's real sister). "Talk to her. Find out what she thinks," Borge said. Naturally, his suggestion, which was actually an order, was welcomed by all reporters.
They soon trapped me, their tape recorders so close to my lips I feared I might swallow them if I made the mistake of breathing in too heavily. As they bombarded me with questions, Borge stood nearby: "Was I a Sandinista like my brother had been? Did I know or suspected who had killed Marcel? Was I grateful to Borge? Was I coming to stay?"
Being a reporter myself, I knew only too well all about a journalist's zeal, the sense of urgency and the lack of tact. So I began to answer them as best I could: "You want to know if I am a Sandinista, like Marcel? I don't know.
All I know is that I stand by the ideals he believed in. No, I don't know who killed him. Do you? I just wish he wasn't dead. And yes, I am grateful to Borge for all he has done. No, I haven't come to stay. I have a job to go back to in New York."
What I didn't tell them was that I suspected Borge didn't know Marcel all that well, that I felt he had gone to Marcel's funeral for political, not personal, reasons, even if he looked sad and gloomy, as if one of his own children had died. I also didn't tell them that I was proud as a sentry to see that Marcel was being mourned as a "military hero" with four Sandinista militiamen standing, their eyes hardly blinking, at each side of his coffin; proud that at least one of us had had the guts to rebel, proud to be Marcel's sister. I didn't say I also resented both his death and my pride. I didn't say that, without Marcel, I was going to have a hard time finding out who I really was--a Sandinista perhaps, a Nicaraguan, for that matter? Who was going to convince me that, now that the Somozas were gone, Nicaragua could become a nation I might adopt as my own? Who was going to be my guide in the new Nicaragua?
“There will be no funeral without the mother,” Borge sentenced. “Where is the mother?”, the press asked. “Where is she?”, Borge asked. Blank faces stared at each other, looking for an answer, looking for Marcel's mother.
Laura Checa was far away from Managua, in her Miami apartment. She had just been told about her younger son's murder. She was alone. Her husband Noel was in Spain at the time and had decided to mourn Marcel right there. Her passport had expired, she had no visa and very little money. Laura's friends in Miami, all ferocious anti-Sandinistas, had told her traveling to Nicaragua would be suicidal. "Don't you see the danger you would be exposed to? Please don't go. Stay here with us, where it's safe," they begged. One of them had turned to me: "she is, after all, still married to your father, and everybody knows about his relationship to Tachito Somoza!"
A chain-smoker, Laura sat in silence, her lap sprinkled with cigarette ashes, staring into nowhere, sipping a glass of warm beer with a shaky, sweaty hand. She knew only too well about her husband's ties to the Somozas, and she had suspected they would also trap Marcel. "I fear for him. Maybe I am being hysterical, but sometimes I dream someone is trying to murder Marcel," she had confessed a few weeks before over the telephone. Marcel used to make fun of her worries, telling her that in the event of his demise, he had named Desirée, our youngest sister, as the beneficiary of the "new life insurance policy the Sandinistas set up for potential victims of the revenge of Somocismo." Perhaps Laura Checa had been right to worry so much.
Making a huge effort, she looked up, her eyes begging me to make a decision for her. Lacking the energy for a well-thought out opinion, I honestly didn't know what was best to do. In dad's absence, neither did she. For almost three decades, since Noel Pallis married her and took her from Peru, her native country, to Nicaragua, he had made most, if not all, of the important decisions for her. But the couple were no longer close and she could no longer count on him. Though I thought she ought to come with me, I was uneasy about exposing her to a potentially unpleasant situation. I had no idea how she would be welcomed by the Sandinista authorities. So, less than an hour before boarding the plane to Managua from Miami, I telephoned a friend of Rev. Miguel D'Escoto, Nicaragua's new Foreign Minister. The night before, I had asked her to call him from New York and find out how he felt about mother's arrival in revolutionary Managua. Father D'Escoto family had been a friend of my family, and knew my parents well. I figured he would know best. But he could not guarantee that mother would be safe in Managua. "He said his government will only vouch for your safety, so why don't you go alone?," my friend suggested. And so I flew to Managua on October 5, 1979. Obviously, this was all just a dream.
As I was then toying with the idea of abandoning journalism altogether to become an actress, I preferred to imagine that this was just a tragic, wonderfully real, play in which I had one of the lead roles. It just couldn't be true. Once inside the airplane to Nicaragua, I felt slightly numb, somehow removed from it all. I was hardly aware that the Aeronica flight was full, that I couldn't get a window seat because I checked in very late. Before the Sandinistas took power, the daily Miami-Managua flight connection was usually half-empty, and I never had a problem finding whatever seat I wanted. Vaguely, I remember hearing people laughing, chanting slogans that praised Sandino and condemned the Somozas. Everything and everyone smelt of happiness. A contagious aroma, I thought. As the plane approached what I recognized as familiar territory, even from high above, a Nicaraguan lady I didn't know began to speak to me. Looking radiant, she told me how "thrilled" she was to be flying back to "my beautiful little country," finally "liberated, free from the greedy Somozas." Her two sons had "bravely fought" with the Sandinistas and would be at the "Cesar Augusto Sandino International Airport" waiting for her, she said with an untroubled, confident voice. Without hesitating, mechanically as it were, I proceeded to tell her, as if this was a clear issue, what I was about to do in that "beautiful little country" of hers that had once been mine. "I am going to my brother's funeral. He was found shot to death somewhere near Managua's Catholic University yesterday morning," I said, my voice sounding calm and resolute, proud of itself. Her self-possession had somehow induced a corresponding state in myself. She stared at me in bewilderment for a minute, and then asked me: "What was his name?" I told her: Marcel Pallais Checa, and stared back at her. "Oh, so you are a Pallais... How incredible, how sad... I am so sorry, but you should be proud of your brother, he is a hero of our revolution," the lady said.
We were about to land. The sun was setting. Even if I hadn't been there in over four years, I knew it was Nicaragua alright. I recognized the unmistakable shades of its volcanoes reflected on the lakes and up in the sky. From then on, all I remember tasted of contradictions. Never before had I smelt the scent of victory and defeat in one single breath.
"Where is the mother? Where is she?," he repeated. Still no answer. Tomas Borge's arrival had provoked a familiar kind of commotion. When he walked into the makeshift funeral parlor at Telcor, where Marcel's wake took place, I recognized the legendary Sandinista leader I had only seen in newspaper pictures until that day. But even before I realized it was Tomas Borge, looking mysterious and dressed in military uniform, I knew someone important had made an entrance. The caudillo, the Latin American strongman, whether he be from the right or from the left, rarely enters a room without creating an uproar. His bodyguards, a human barricade around him, looked as if their job was to protect god from the devil. People around and behind me were murmuring and prattling a bit louder. I couldn't help being reminded of the similar effect Tachito Somoza used to have on people when he entered a room. Borge was getting impatient. "Where is the mother?," he asked one more time, the last, squinting behind his thick glasses. It sounded like an echo but I couldn't really hear it.
By then, I was standing right next to Marcel's coffin and fighting a pain that blocks all sounds, tastes and sights. I was having a private battle with myself, furiously trying to deny the reality of my brother's death. And my anger began to grow madly like wild grass deep inside me, building roots in my hair, in my eyes, under my skin. It was suffocating. Someone pulled my shirt from behind, trying to get my attention, to make me react.
Nobody but me could answer that question, and I had lost all diction. Disappointed in my silence, Borge asked another question:
"Where is the compañera?"
"Right here, comandante," an attractive brunette, Auxiliadora, stepped forward, holding a white rose. I was dumbstruck. I had no idea that, in only a few months, Marcel could honestly fall in love with a Sandinista woman and betray his all-American fiancée, whom we, his family, believed Marcel would marry sometime in December of that year.
That shook me out of my trance. Ignoring Auxiliadora, whose presence I bitterly resented, I explained to Borge why "the mother" had stayed behind. Borge got visibly upset. How absurd, only I can say if she would be welcomed here or not, he was saying with his eyes. "I personally guarantee that she will be safe," he declared, adding that Laura Checa, the mother of a Sandinista martyr, could travel to Nicaragua with an expired passport or with no passport at all. "We will all wait for her arrival," he thundered. He then ordered that one of his bodyguards call "la señora Checa," tell her to take the next available plane to Managua and assure her that Borge had guaranteed her safety.
After gently patting Auxiliadora on the shoulder, Borge advanced close the coffin, right next to me, took a quick look at it and turned on his heels, followed by his men and everyone's curious gaze. From a room full of rifles and machine-guns, next to Marcel's office at Telcor, I called my mother in Miami. One of Borge's men had already called her, she told me. "Have you seen Marcel?," she asked flatly. The way she phrased that, for a minute I thought he was still alive. "Yes, I have, and he looks beautiful, just like we remember him." I wasn't lying.
A day later, Laura Checa arrived armed with an expired diplomatic passport, no entry visa to Nicaragua and only a one-way ticket Miami-Managua.
Ignoring the details of how her son had been murdered, she imagined the worst. Like me, she was amazed to see Marcel's peaceful corpse, astonishingly intact, looking just like the healthy, well-built young man he had always been.
Absent were the ugly bruises and the scars she had expected. Death wasn't able to distort the handsome features life had drawn over his face. His hands, bigger than most, had been neatly placed one on top of the other, as if gently accepting the end of all "raging fists," as he wrote in a poem. His huge questioning eyes were closed; some stranger had sealed them with care. Around his rather puffy eyelids, shut as they were under the stern, bushy line of his eyebrows drawn together by a slight, if frozen frown, was a smeary shade of hazel, a reminder of the color of his eyes. His lips, the thickset flesh of his inviting, sensual mouth, were dry, not the slightest quiver on them. His smile, never broad, mostly sad, was gone. His wavy, chestnut-colored hair over his smooth, square forehead, was still shining. His nails, never exactly mani-cured, were clean. The green fatigue uniform and the beard on his well-shaped, round chin, were new to us.
He looked intact, and we couldn't help wondering if perhaps he was still alive, despite that eerie stillness around him. It was as if life and death were both reflected in Marcel's corpse. He looked dramatic, engaging, and his innocent tenacity was still visible, vaguely lingering around his coffin.
Conspicuously absent, however, was his concentrated expression, the trademark of his youth. In an impulse, I touched Marcel's face. It was cold as ice. Shut, firmly coated with death, were his pores.
He had been shot in the neck. Just one fatal shot, on the right side of his neck, the medical examiner's report read. Sure enough, there it was, a small, swollen, black and blue spot, covered but not hidden by the beard, the longish hair, under a touch of make-up. I looked at it, stared at that wound, where a bullet had entered his skin, perforated his throat and put an end to his life. That did it. All doubts were dispelled. I realized he was totally, irreversibly dead. Neither the pomp and circumstance around his coffin nor the Sandinistas' victory over the Somoza family dictatorship would make him open his eyes again to read his books, search for answers and stare ahead with the inquisitive gaze of his painstaking turn of mind, beyond the rhetoric and the dogmas.
My brother Marcel, who told me that Nicaragua didn't have room for heroes and that it desperate-ly needed doers, was being mourned as a martyr of a revolu-tion he had desperately wanted to witness, but one which never quite became a reality for him. A poet with an urge in his blood, Marcel died too soon to witness his dream come true --to live in a Nicaragua without "the fire that rages in the families" and without "the injustice that burns," as he wrote in another poem, for Marcel was fond of writing poetry, and in most of his stanzas, his obsession with lamenting his country's fate was evident: "Nicaragua, the favorite daughter of crime, the nocturnal lament of the earth, its bitter salt. Nicaragua, poison is the marrow of your bones. Beware of her raging fists, her dignity is blind."
This Managua wasn't the noisy, dirty, hot, lively city of my school days. This was, at best, a wasteland. The night after Marcel's funeral, as we drove along the northern highway crossing the industrial zone of Managua, I noticed that the area was lined by ruins of dozens of factories that had once employed around 40,000 Nicaraguans. Some had been set afire after being looted during the civil war either by mobs of by Somoza's guards. Most had been hit by rockets and bombs. Demolition work in the 600 blocks making up yesterday's downtown, commercial section, which had begun shortly after the earthquake, hadn't been completed by then. Managua had been home to about a million Nicaraguans. The earthquake had left 250,000 of them homeless.
That October evening, only days after Marcel was killed, grass was four, maybe five, feet high where I remembered homes, offices and schools had once stood. The rubble of a concrete building along the shore of Lake Managua, where I went to high school, was covered with dry weeds. Just a couple of blocks away, in an area once festive with street vendors and noisy traffic, the outside structure of Managua's twin-towered Cathedral was still there, if now empty of mass sounds, its clock still standing at 12:25 --the time of the 1972 earthquake. In its dark and musty interior, deaf to the uncanny world surrounding them, a group of children were playing baseball. Spread over the cathedral's surface was an enormous banner of Cesar Augusto Sandino, the rebel whose memory had inspired Nicaraguans to fight against the long-overdue Somoza family dictatorship. Alone in Managua's dilapidated downtown area, the splendid Ruben Dario Theater, remained majestic and isolated, untouched by it all.
Life had settled into a tense normalcy after the long weeks of a civil war that had left more than 10,000 people dead. The white flags fluttering over homes and cars, demanding a truce, had been replaced by the red and black colors of the victorious Sandinista flags. The streets of Managua, deceptively calm, a maze of crumbling walls, provided safe refuge to those skirmishers still roaming around. Like vampires, former National Guardsmen faithful to the Somozas and angry ultra-leftist agitators would come out, blending their contradictions into the night, stir up people's fear again and hide at dawn. The evening before Marcel's murder, at least 20 Sandinista militiamen had died in a shoot-out with "unidentified assailants," the papers said. In order to prevent similar incidents after the wave of violence that followed the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship, the Sandinista junta ordered that an urban security program be installed in Managua. Military spot-checks along the city's main roads were an important part of this program. It was mandatory for all Sandinista militants to carry a gun at all times.
The night of October 3, 1979, Marcel went out on a date with Auxiliadora. When he stopped to get gas, he realized he had left his gun behind. The war was over, there was no need to exaggerate, he thought, paying no heed to the warnings of his superiors. The young, idealist that he was, he believed deeply in his own survival. Confident that nothing would happen to him on the one and only time he hadn't carried a weapon since la victoria, Marcel drove on. The next day, he was found dead in a muddy street. A .38 caliber pistol, aimed at close range, had perforated his throat and he had died instantly. His killers were "counter-revolutionaries" who knew Marcel had "important information" against them, the papers said. Wire reports indicated his assassins were "gunmen loyal to Somoza, the uncle he had fought." For weeks, rumors surrounding the circumstances of Marcel's death abounded, both in Nicaragua and abroad, especially in Miami, where most Nicaraguans faithful to Somoza had fled after his downfall.
Eleven months later, there was another funeral. This time it was in Miami. The man buried was Tachito Somoza Debayle, Nicaragua's last Somoza caudillo and the powerful relative Marcel had helped overthrow. It was hot and humid that morning of September 20, 1980, over a year after the Sandinista-led revolutionary junta had replaced Tachito and his family as the rulers of Nicaragua. Three days earlier, on the 34th anniversary of his father's death, Tachito had been brutally assassinated, after a single bazooka shot smashed through the top of his white, shiny Mercedes-Benz car in the Paraguayan capital, Asuncion, where he had fled with his mistress Dinorah Sampson. A little overzealous in their task, the killers had also fired eighteen bullets into Tachito's body so that, by the time the rocket struck the car, he was already dead.
Days later, when Tomas Borge was asked who might have killed him, he quoted the Spanish Renaissance poet Lope de Vega: "Everyone killed him." Indeed, there was no shortage of people with motives to assassinate Tachito. As far as the Paraguayan government was concerned, the Sandinistas in far-off Nicaragua had ordered the killing, which was carried out by a team of Argentine gunmen. But a crime passionnel could not be ruled out altogether. After all, Tachito's licentious ways and his drunken scenes in Asuncion's prudish society always made him a target for jealous lovers. For all this, and despite a well-publicized affair with a former Miss Paraguay, Dinorah, a telephone receptionist at a Managua radio station before Tachito discovered her, remained his long-time companion. "Adorable Tacho, only death can separate us. Your love, Dinita" read a note from Dinorah on a wreath of red flowers over his coffin.
Dinorah's relationship with Tachito lasted eighteen years.
During the first few years, the couple kept a low profile. But, as his quota of power in Nicaragua increased, so did his indiscretion and he grew unconcerned at being seen, arm in arm with Dinorah in public. During the decade before he was overthrown, he had no qualms about humiliating Hope Portocarrero Debayle, his Florida-born wife, publicly adopting the sexy, voluptuous Dinorah as his official mistress. In retrospect, Hope was glad to have kept her U.S. citizenship, even if it had meant she could not vote for Tachito. But her vote was soon replaced by Dinorah's.
Once, during his presidential campaign in the late 60's, Hope recognized Dinorah, beaming in the front row, flanked by her husband's obedient bureaucrats and loyal bodyguards. Nobody, not even the father of her children, her "benevolent dictator with gypsy ideas," had the right to humiliate Hope that way. Those few among Hope's loyal friends who stood by her at first, refusing to be seen with Dinorah or to invite her to their house, were finally forced to make a choice. It was either Dinorah and Tachito or no Tachito at all. Invitations for Dinorah, who was soon proclaimed "The First Lady of the Poor," began to pour in. Perhaps she lacked the polish and education the official first lady had galore, but she was cunning and her keen sense of commercial enterprise rivaled that of the Somozas themselves.
Dinorah's facial bone structure was similar to Hope's, but the resemblance ended there. Hope was long and thin, while Dinorah was voluptuous and well-endowed. I remember hearing rumors that she was more in love with herself, and especially with her body, than she was with Tachito. "She had a narcissistic admiration for her breasts, which she frequently showed in public, driven by an obsession to overshadow those rather meager ones of Hope, her rival," a Nicaraguan writer said in a book, entitled "From Mrs. Hanna to Dinorah."
Tired of clandestine love-making, Tachito ordered that a mansion be built for her that outstripped his own in size and splendor. Overlooking Managua's southern highway on a lush green hillside, its deceptive gray exterior hid a large swimming pool as well all modern facilities most wealthy Nicaraguan families didn't have. A high wall surrounding the well-guarded villa was watched over by a closed-circuit television, a convenient gadget Tachito never installed in either of his two homes.
Dinorah, a bright student, learnt that political patronage and favoritism were the lubricants that turned every wheel in Tachito's autocratic regime.
So, she began to build up a network of businesses and partners, dispensing favors like the godfather of a mafia gang who expected the favor to be returned. As Dinorah's influence over Tachito grew, so did her power. In the end, anyone seeking help from Tachito found it more expedient to seek Dinorah first and soon, she became the most powerful person in Nicaragua.
Hope, who began to spend less and less time in Nicaragua, grew to despise Tachito for it all, though she pretended to ignore the affair by moving permanently to London, a city more suited to her frosty nature. And though Hope never made a big fuss about it --that wasn't her style--, she never forgave Tachito, the handsome first cousin whom she decided, at age six, was "the man for me."
Even if she was still full of scorn by the time the coffin arrived in Miami from Asuncion, the sight of Tachito's reconstructed corpse pierced the shield she had placed over her wounded dignity. Upon a first inspection, Hope lost her cool, if only for a few short moments. The corpse of her estranged husband was swollen in the wrong parts and had too many gaps under the suit. The face had too much make-up. It was overdressed. As she reached over to touch it, she failed to feel the puttylike chill of the flesh. She stared at it and she didn't see the marbleized yellow look of the recently dead. This couldn't be a real corpse. Her teeth began to chatter and she choked back a scream. Shocked, she realized this was nothing but a tacky, man-made replica of the man Tachito had been. It was just a dummy --a vulgar, second-rate dummy stuffed with Paraguayan cotton that would not have made it past the back door at Madame Tousseau's Wax Museum in London. The real man, her "General," as she was fond of calling him sarcastically, was butchered into bits, his mangled body entangled with the car wreckage after the blast. Her hands sinking into the cotton beneath the fabric, Hope burst into a flood of tears.
Almost as abruptly, aware that she was making a scene, she steadied herself and regained her composure. Withdrawing into her role as the "first lady" in control, she began to give orders. "Change him immediately. Find a more elegant, sober, darker suit. Don't forget the tie. Find a cotton shirt to match. Clean off his face," she growled. "And don't forget to take off that awful crucifix," she added curtly, pointing to the large wooden rosary beads Dinorah had placed over her dead lover's chest back in Asuncion. In less than an hour, Tachito's dummy, dressed according to her taste, was under Hope's cold, almost professional scrutiny. "Much better," she said with a sharp nod of approval, placing a small silver cross around the neck. "Now we can take him to the funeral parlor," she sentenced, walking imperiously towards her car. True to form, Hope was keeping her innermost feelings tightly out of reach before venturing into the outside world.
By the time I arrived at the smoggy funeral parlor that evening, Hope looked impeccable, and was thoroughly in control, coldly wiping off my tears as I reached over to kiss her, to prevent make-up stains in her dress. "Darling! Isn't this a terrible tragedy? Look what happened to your uncle!," she told me. But Hope wasn't really addressing me. She was merely performing the role assigned to her at this family gathering where Tachito was dutifully mourned in a ceremony more appropriate to a mafia leader than a head of state.
El Caballero, a narrow, steamy and over-lit funeral home with its ornate flower arrangements and their inevitable slogans --"To Our Only Leader," or "With Eternal Loyalty, to our only Chief"-- wasn't Hope's ideal setting for Tachito's coffin. The place was not as noisy as a market but just as full of darting bodies zooming, like flies, mainly around Hope and her children. Surely Hope would have preferred a simpler, more elegant funeral service.
But fate had trapped her in this tawdry scene over which she had little control. She was caged in by Cuban exiles, veterans of the Bay of Pigs 2506 Brigade, who had turned up in military uniform to form an honor guard at El Caballero funeral parlor. To Hope's dismay and for all her polite sighs of indignation, politics were engrained in the most minute exchange, turning the funeral into a pro-Reagan rally, with Nicaraguan and Cuban exiles shouting "Down with Carter." After all, only a few hours before Tachito was murdered, television news programs and newspapers all over the world were quoting him saying that Carter was a "bastard" who had betrayed Nicaragua by giving aid and support to the Sandinistas who overthrew him.
The funeral procession, a 12-car caravan led by the hearse, made its way through Miami's Little Havana along the Calle Ocho, best known for its Cuban restaurants and Spanish-speaking prowlers. The display of support could hardly be compared to the tumultuous reception that greeted the Sandinista revolutionaries when they led a victorious reception into Managua the year before. But the atmosphere was just as steamy. An unbearable heat took its toll on the air-conditioned cars, and some stalled. Passengers joined the boisterous crowd and, like a human tornado gathering momentum, were shouting "On foot! On foot!" Fearing a riot, private security men under strict instructions to control the Latin tempers boiling along the sidewalk, took out their walkie-talkies and positioned themselves alongside each car. But these earnest-looking bodyguards seemed incapable of protecting anyone, except perhaps the odd stray dog. I couldn't stand being trapped in the car and pretend to ignore the commotion going on outside.
Five minutes into the procession, I decided to join those "on foot." No sooner had I began to walk when I found myself irresistibly drawn to center-stage, and, after quite a bit of shoving and a lot of pushing, I was walking right behind the hearse and next to Tacho III, "el chigüín" (the little boy), the eldest of Tachito's children. A handful of bodyguards surrounded me, apparently in an attempt to keep me from being dashed back to my starting point. "She is a family member," I overheard one telling the others. Promptly, a handful of them encircled me all the way to the cemetery. One of them, whose suspicious gaze never left me, kept staring in the direction of my feet. I looked down, wondering what had drawn his attention. My black silk stockings were torn, one of my shoe heels was loose and my feet were dirty, swollen and bloody.
"He is our last hope," and "You are our leader now, chigüín," one woman screamed from the depths of her lungs. She was addressing Tacho III, who had idolized his father and had been groomed to succeed him. Apparently ignoring the bustle around him, the tall and bulky young man already fighting a receding hairline, walked right behind the hearse, eyes gazing down and arms crossed in front, feeling the backs of his knees batting against his trousers. I had heard many awful things about Tacho III, the soft, timid boy of my childhood memories who grew up into an unimpressive adolescent. To cover up his insecurity, he was always a trifle arrogant and vain. Later, he went further and became "ruthless and tough" with the troops at his command during Nicaragua's civil war, according to news reports I had read. He also acquired his father's business talents, setting up companies with interest in fishing, tobacco, timber and heavy-vehicle distribution. None of that surprised me. But I had difficulty seeing him as the immoral and cruel despot portrayed in most newspaper articles. He was too weak for that, I thought. Or was he? I noticed that his smile had become a calculated grin. He had also gained twenty pounds and looked incredibly like his father. "Adios, Tachito," a woman shouted, shortly before arriving at the Woodlawn Cemetery. He looked up. Some people also called him Tachito, a nickname for Anastasio. And then he looked down, apparently lost in thought.
"Dear cousin! You... Here!," Tacho III said in a sarcastic, patronizing tone of voice when he spotted me the night before, at his father's wake. Cousin and all, it was no secret that I had turned my back on the Somozas' octopus-like power structure. He also knew, I was sure, that Marcel, a Sandinista militant, was now a Sandinista martyr. Surely, I hoped, Tacho III, who liked to think of himself as a sort of pundit, knew better than to make any of that an issue at that moment.
"Do you realize what we are going through?," he asked as we hugged.
"We?" I felt inane and the painful memory of my brother's death grew stronger.
Whatin the world was I doing there anyway? I remembered that actions are sometimes questions, not answers. Was I seeking a past that no longer existed? There was one thing I found out for sure: I had taken a plunge into the emotional seesaw of Tachito's Nicaragua and, while everybody had a role to play at El Caballero, I hadn't a clue what mine was. My presence was similar to that of a stranger on board a sinking ship who ignores the hands forward, and, if the truth must be told, I was a stranger to myself as well. "We?" It was like a violent time warp, to be there, out of my choosing, paying tribute to a man I had nothing but disdain for and joining a family I no longer identified with. And my hands were betraying me. They were clammy. It was getting unbearably hot in El Caballero. I needed some fresh air.
But Tacho III had other plans for me. Gently touching my elbow, the way gentlemen do when they escort a lady to a ball, he said solemnly: "Please come with me." He spoke softly, but it sounded like an order. We advanced close to his father's casket. We were alone, the melting pot of people behind our backs. He began to speak, again softly but breathing a little hastily between his words. For a second, I could have sworn he was getting ready to pray.
Far from it.
"I haven't had a chance to break down. My father and I hadn't been on very good terms lately. He asked me to visit him in Paraguay, but I refused. A few weeks before he was killed, I finally went to see him. I am so glad I did, otherwise I would have never seen him again. And he was in pretty good shape, considering everything he was going through. As soon as he saw me, he run to greet me, and hugged me like he very seldom did, crying like a baby and saying `My son, I love you.' It broke my heart," and he stopped, gasping for air.
Making sure that he had my attention when, in fact, if only for a few seconds, he had also succeeded in winning my sympathy, he went on. "You know, my father wasn't really all that strong. He wanted the world to believe he was, but he was basically a soft, sensitive man who was thrust into a role."
That was a bit much, I thought. Of all his children, Tacho III was the one who had enjoyed, even thrived, on that "role" the most. He was also the one who knew his father the best. I was reminded of his cryptic comment to a journalist two years before Tachito was overthrown: "I can honestly tell you that I was born into a family that has political prestige, political pull and power, but I've also seen the ravages that it does to a family as human beings."
It had turned his father into a despot who preferred to bomb his own people rather than yield power. And Tacho III had helped his father along.
"Can you see that (the killers) didn't destroy his body at all?," he said, with apparent conviction. No, I couldn't. All I could see was a clumsy, Paraguayan-made dummy who vaguely resembled Tachito. His son's maudlin monologue, I realized, was only half-honest. Since Tacho III had seldom experienced life outside of the boundaries of his "family duty," his growth had been stunted for good, I thought. His words were far from being an intimate sharing of his real feelings. Maybe he was eagerly expecting to be interviewed. It occurred to me that he had found a role for me at that funeral ceremony --that of the estranged journalist in the family.
The pushing and the shouting had subsided when the crowd began to queue up, ready to pay homage at Tachito's grave. Compared to mausoleums where other Latin dictators were buried, this was surprisingly inconspicuous. For all his enormous power and his even more considerable wealth, Tachito liked to think of himself as a man of simple taste and, I concluded therefore, had ordered that his place of burial be a simple one.
Next to it, a tent providing shade had been set up for the immediate family to rest.
Hope glanced at the podium, frowning discreetly in anticipation of the verbose eulogies inevitably awaiting her. She had asked Orlando Montenegro, the last Somoza mayor of Managua, and Manolo Reboso, a former city commissioner of Miami, to stay away from politics in their eulogies. An impossible request in a funeral ceremony where Reagan supporters had distributed anti-Carter leaflets, she soon realized.
"In this afternoon of pain and anguish and tears of the Nicaraguan and Cuban exiles, I will quote the words of two American congressmen in relation to Somoza's death. They said dramatically that the blood shed by Somoza is sprinkling the steps of the White House," Montenegro barked, nodding to former Republican Congressman John Murphy of New York and Larry McDonald, a Democrat from Georgia. Appalled by the political overtones of Montenegro's address, Hope slipped away in a black limousine parked nearby.
Throughout the years I had kept more or less in touch with Hope. I had always admired her style and her grace; there was something regal about her cold veneer that I was attracted to. In a world of heated tropical tempers, I had found Hope's aloofness rather refreshing, a fascinating foil to Tachito's loud ways. Even if she was too coy and formal sometimes.
"Young women of your class and family background should stay away from politics," she had once told me, in English, after seeing my picture in the front page of the local opposition paper, holding a controversial poster that condemned Tachito's government pro-U.S. policy. Back in 1969, during Nelson Rockefeller's visit to Nicaragua, a savvy photographer of La Prensa had spotted me at a student's meeting in Managua's Universidad Centroamericana and seized the opportunity to produce the photo as evidence that not every member of the Somoza family was necessarily a Somocista. "One doesn't find people in life who care the way one's own family does!," Hope told me, lighting a cigarette and offering me another --all of which she did in that unique, poised style of hers I admired so much.
We talked for hours, about loyalty, about family, about tradition. And I discovered that, in her own distant way, she really cared about all those things. "Stay away from politics. Don't let anyone involve you in anything political," she warned me.
But both she and I, whether we knew it or not, were already "involved" in politics. We didn't discuss the issue any further and our bond remained unbroken for years afterwards. So, despite that part of me which secretly held Tachito responsible for my brother's murder, I arrived at El Caballero funeral parlor where he was being mourned driven by an overwhelming desire to be next to Hope and her children, especially Carolina, with whom I had grown up.
That night, Carolina looked drugged, drowning out her words into long, agonizing whispers, stuttering and unintelligible. When I approached her, she barely saw me and merely smiled mechanically. At first, I wanted to hug her and cry with her, but soon I realized that was impossible. Even if we had once been as close as sisters, politics, tooth and claw, had built a wall separating us forever. Yet, I felt this strange connection, this sort of atavistic link with Hope, Carolina and her siblings. Like them, I had once been a member of the quasi-feudal clan that had ruled over Nicaragua for almost half a century. Even if I had, for decades, openly rejected the nepotism and the corruption rampant in Somoza's Nicaragua, Tachito had once been one of my favorite uncles, long before I found out that families don't usually inherit countries.
Open-mouthed, I stared at the spectacle around me. The words of a popular cliché that had been often repeated to me as a child went through my head: "blood is thicker than water." Tuneless and unconvincing, these lines from the past disintegrated into meaninglessness at the ghastly El Caballero. This was, clearly, the final denouement of the long Somoza odyssey, the end of an extended family episode.
The mourners, a nondescript bunch solicitously grouping about the five Somoza children and their mother, were grieving an irreversible loss of power rather more than someone's death. But there was one exception. Tachito's mother, Salvadora (Yoya) Debayle de Somoza, who had once predicted Tachito would be murdered like her husband had been.
If Hope was Nicaragua's version of Jackie Kennedy, then Salvadora, my grandmother's eldest sister, was the Somoza family's Rose Kennedy. Her domineering streak and strength of character was far closer to Rose Kennedy's than Hope's wardrobe was to Jackie's. Besides, had it not been for her, the Somoza family would have never made it into Nicaragua's ruling elite.
Salvadora, the eldest daughter of that country's top surgeon, Luis Henri Debayle (whose French origins and European "aristocratic" education as well as his close friendship with Louis and Marie Pasteur, won him a rank held by none in Nicaragua), met Anastasio Somoza Garcia on a blind date while she was student in Beechwood School (now Beaver College) in Jenkintown, Pa.
A few years later, and much to her father's dismay, they were married in Nicaragua. By the late 20's, Salvadora's husband was on the road to becoming Nicaragua's undisputed strongman. A decade earlier, he was named chief of its 5,000-men National Guard, ruling through a stooge President, 76-year-old Victor Ramon y Reyes, who happened to be his uncle. With his loyal wife at his side, Somoza Garcia remained Nicaragua's despotic leader until 1956, when Rigoberto Lopez Perez, a young Nicaraguan doctor, murdered him at a dance.
For decades after he died, Salvadora became the living symbol of her husband's dynasty. But she knew all dynasties come to an end.
Dressed in the usual mourning black she liked so much to wear, her small dark eyes filmed over and her skin cracked, the 88-year-old matron arrived from Washington, where she lived, long after midnight. Shaking all over, her voluminous haunches swinging from side to side, Yoya was having a hard time entering the funeral room. She finally made it to her son's casket with the help of her grandchildren.
"She is really senile, poor old lady, and probably doesn't even know whose wake she is attending," someone whispered. She let go of her grandchild's hand and made a futile effort to reach her son's lifeless mask in the coffin. More than any other, that gesture symbolized the waning of the Somoza family dynasty.
Muttering incoherently at first, we finally made her words out: "What happened? What did he do? Where did it happen?" As she leaned over her son's coffin, Hope addressed Yoya, her mother-in-law, who was also her aunt. "It's alright, Mama Yoya. He didn't suffer. He had a peaceful death. He's gone but he was a good man and we should pray for him," she said calmly, appealing to the old woman's religious instincts.
Salvadora might have been very old, perhaps even senile, but she knew her son better than that. She knew. She had warned him. Her tears were real tears, a mother's tears, a cry of unadulterated pain. Her arrival, at least for a moment, forced everyone to forget the roles they had been assigned or had chosen to perform.
For too many years, Noel Pallais Debayle, my father, had adopted more roles than he could play for Tachito. He had been his confidant, his private secretary, his personal banker and he had finally exhausted his capacity for role-playing. Noel Pallais had no more loyalty for the Somozas and had accumulated too much pain. Happily, he was living in Peru at the time of Tachito's death, but he argued that, even if he had been in Miami then, he wouldn't have gone to the funeral. "Why did you bother to be there at all?," he asked me later. His brother Luis, a key negotiator during the last months of Tachito's crumbling empire and the long-time editor of the family newspaper, felt differently. "I am glad you are here representing your parents," he told me shortly after I arrived in Miami from New York.
The truth was that our close family ties with the Somozas had long waned by the time Tachito was killed.
In 1974, father resigned from his post as director of a bank controlled by the Somozas, after he and Tachito quarreled over what father considered to be an unethical financial deal. Since then, the two cousins hadn't been on speaking terms. Less than a year later, upon their return from a three-month trip around the world, Tachito ordered that my parent's luggage be carefully inspected at customs. "We were treated like drug smugglers while Luis Pallais (father´s younger brother, then the director of Novedades, the family´s newspaper) was welcomed like a king," mother angrily remembered.
Shortly after Marcel's death, Hope, his godmother, had sent Laura Checa a pithy note of condolence. "I am beyond suffering," the note said. She failed to mention how sorry she might have been. However distant my family had become from Tachito's by then, the curse of belonging to the Somoza clan was still with us. Because my father's name was irreparably linked to Tachito's, he was persona non-grata in Sandinista Nicaragua. Noel Pallais Debayle, who had served in Tachito's government for years, was one of a list of Somocista criminals facing jail sentences in Nicaragua for "illicit enrichment." Borge warned my mother about this. "You are welcome here, but I am sorry to say your husband isn't," he told her shortly after she arrived in Managua for Marcel's funeral.
I believe Marcel would probably still be alive if he hadn't been so closely related to the Somozas. Few considered his death to be a happenstance, a street crime. From the outset, the Sandinistas linked it to "counter-revolutionaries" working for Tachito. But it wasn't as if Marcel had suddenly betrayed either Tachito or the Somozas. The young man's antipathy for the Somoza regime was never a secret, even before he began collaborating with the Sandinista guerrillas. For years prior to the dictator's fall, Marcel had made a point of avoiding Tachito, in fact. There was never, not even when we were children, a rapport between the two. My case was different. I remember Tachito's charm vividly. As a child, I had loved the company of my jolly, engaging uncle who taught me how to swim and how to fish. In many of my favorite childhood memories --memories buried by time and politics that had nonetheless accumulated in my unconscious, Tachito had the lead role. There were, for instance, those week-ends we used to spend at Montelimar, his seaside estate with its 25 miles of private beach and its isolated colonial mansion overlooking the Pacific.
My clearest memory of that period is the day of a long fishing trip with Tachito during which we ran into a fishermen's old lobster-boat.
The evening before, at dinner, Tachito and Hope had their usual dinner row over nothing in particular. She was always nagging him about his lack of manners, his vulgarity, his loudness. Her civilized, sophisticated way of pestering him exasperated and enraged him every time. "God damm it, Hope, when will you come to terms with the fact that you didn't marry an English lord!," he told her in English. They almost always spoke to each other in English when they were having a fight or a serious conversation.
The two had been educated in the United States and were proud of it. Hope's English was faultless and her nasal accent, typically American --she was, after all, an American citizen. Despite his recurrent grammatical mistakes, Tachito peppered his everyman's English with quaint colloquialisms from his West Point days. Once, when asked what model his black armored Cadillac Fleetwood was, he shot back: "How the hell should I know? I don't get my kicks by being the guy with the newest car in the block."
But there were some things he had to say in Spanish, if only for the sake of logic. Responding to Hope's criticisms, he boasted, "I am and will always be, a Nicaraguan farmer, and I am proud to have a farmer's manners!" This time, Tachito spoke in Spanish. Kicking a chair behind him as he got up, he grabbed his chewed cigar and briefly exchanged a significant glance with us children. We were used to her distant coldness and his sudden flashes of violent temper. They usually came together. "She always does this to me, doesn't she?," he asked us, in an attempt to distract us and win us over. As he stormed out of the dining room, he promised to make the next day's fishing expedition a long one. "I'll take the girls with me. Young ladies bring me luck and make me feel good," he said, in another fruitless attempt to provoke his wife. As always, Hope remained haughty and remote, as if nothing had happened. Naturally, our hearts went out to him.
Early the next morning, as we sailed off from Montelimar's harbor, Santa Claus himself would have blushed in the presence of generous, warm and funny "uncle Tacho," whose small eyes always seemed to be peering into infinity through his thick-rimmed glasses. A fishing trip with this tall, imposing man, who always got his way, promised to be a great success.
"You'll see, we will leave just enough fish in the ocean for us to come back and find some more next time," he told us. We all laughed at his exaggeration, but, knowing him, we wondered if perhaps he really meant it. After all, one of his most endearing qualities was that he never failed to fulfill his promises, never lied to us children.
By the time the sun hit the horizon, we had got badly sun burnt but not caught one fish. We had all tried our luck, including Tachito and the crew, to no avail. Spirits were low and, with the typically harsh judgment of inactive children, those of us who weren't asleep seriously began to question Tachito's magical touch. He was just a bully, we thought, nothing but a hoax.
Suddenly, speaking to the captain from the main-deck, Tachito's commanding voice woke us from our lethargy. "Let's move close to that boat," he said, looking through his binoculars and pointing to a small boat barely visible in the distance. Soon, the fast, sleek presidential yacht was looming over the small, wooden vessel, concealing the dying sun behind its shiny brass and its splendid masts.
The lobster-boat, stung by an enormous wave, bravely struggled to remain afloat. One of the fishermen was lifting a big, fat fish caught in a ragged net and dumping it with great ease on top of what looked like a wobbly mountain of fish still bouncing with life. However humble, the men were obviously professional. Sitting mightily on a high chair and holding a loudspeaker, Tachito went straight to the point. "Hey, muchachos, how about giving us poor ignorant amateurs a share of your catch?," he asked them. His request had the blunt authority of an order.
Transfixed, they stared up. It was no apparition. There he was talking to them, El Jefe Supremo himself, the most powerful man in Nicaragua. They looked like Lilliputians next to Tachito's Gulliver.
"Hope will blast me if we show up without anything to eat for dinner," he said, winking at us and roaring with laughter.
Promptly, the fishermen proceeded to unload a bunch of lobster and plenty of fish --their catch and probably their monthly income. "We better not tell Hope how we caught these, she might send for some more!," he joked. We were all reminded of Hope's penny-pinching ways.
As a sign of his gratitude, Tachito decided to cast anchor near the fishermen's village -- a squalid cluster of thatched-roof shacks, about 30 miles from Montelimar's mansion. It was the first time I had seen such poverty.
Tachito, surrounded by a handful of bodyguards --the crew members-- and about five of us girls, was greeted like a king as he got off his yacht, stepping on shore with the triumphant step of a conquistador. In a matter of seconds, the whole community, which consisted of about half a dozen families, with eight, nine children each, rushed to his side. I don't remember them asking Tachito for anything. I only remember their pleading attitude, their begging look. Christmas had come to them, if only for a few fleeting seconds and with no presents.
For as long as he remained on shore, he seemed to be paying attention to everyone at the same time. Immersed in a serious "man-to-man" chat one minute, smiling broadly the next, hugging a fat, toothless old lady, pointing out the beauty of her 16-year-old daughter, Tachito, like God, was omnipresent. He had a word for one, a gesture for another. A cuddle for a little boy. A manly word of advice for a teenager. That baby girl would grow up to be Miss Nicaragua, he told a toddler's mother, who was blushing because he had just told her she was a perfect example of a Nicaraguan "tropical beauty". So they lived in these shacks? Well, not for long, he told them, promising them he would make sure they got "better housing" in the very near future. They could count on him, he told them. "Don't worry, very soon you will all have decent homes, your children will be fed and a school will be built in the vicinity," he said, earnestly, as if he really meant it. And even if he what he said sounded like platitudes, that was much more than they had ever hoped for. They felt they had made a good deal, exchanging their catch for promises, however hollow. So, not quite bowing as he left them, they all glowed with hope, some even praised him profusely for his "generosity."
That evening in Montelimar's opulent dining table, there was lobster and delicious fish for supper. "Obviously the girls should accompany you more often on your fishing escapades," Hope said wryly after finishing her meal. "He's never caught so many!," she exclaimed with some enthusiasm. Tachito chuckled, we giggled and I prefer to believe that she never found out about the loot.
But Tachito was more than just a provider of fun and adventure for his children and the children of his relatives. He was also a kingly figure for all of Central America whose voice resounded well beyond Nicaragua. In the late 60's, his role was pivotal during a delicate, tricky period of direct diplomacy between the Central American heads of state themselves. In fact, years after the fishermen incident, I had a chance to see him, once again in Montelimar, this time exercising his political muscle. When Tachito was already famous as the "Godfather of Central America" I witnessed, admiringly, how he performed that role one evening over the phone. With one telephone in each hand, he cursed and cajoled the presidents of El Salvador and Honduras into stopping what became known as the "football war." He came close to making their foreign ministers obsolete. Appealing to the vanity of one and to the self-importance of the other, Tachito, a cunning manipulator, persuaded both presidents to come to an agreement. At stake was their border conflicts which had come to a boil at a football match between their two national teams. With one, who was his chum, he was friendly and informal. With the other, he was deferential and respectful. In the end, he proved to be an amazingly effective referee. If he wasn't able to provide a lasting solution that would satisfy the people of El Salvador and Honduras, at least he coaxed both heads of state into releasing a joint public statement to end the war.
Almost a decade later, however, Tachito managed to bring about a civil war that had negative ripple effects in the entire Central American region. By 1978, his refusal to leave power was threatening to destroy the stability of the Central American common market. Costa Rica, for instance, withdrew from it in protest against the approval by the region's bank for economic integration of a $20 million loan to the Somoza regime. A year later, Tachito succeeded in uniting almost all sectors of Nicaragua against him and even inspired the strangest of bedfellows to join a provisional revolutionary government of national reconstruction. The Sandinista-led revolution in Nicaragua was no ordinary political movement pitting left against right, civilians against army men, poor against rich, but rather a national mutiny in which car mechanics made common cause with coffee growers. Marcel was just another of the many young men of his class who had joined the Sandinistas. But there was something unique about Marcel, something he had no control over. He was the only close relative of the Somozas who had become a Sandinista revolutionary.
"It's all yours. All I want is a room and a job," Marcel told Omar Cabezas, a Sandinista comandante who met him shortly after the July 19, 1979 revolutionary victory, the day Cabezas and others occupied his house. "I was impressed with his humility. I didn't know he was our friend, let alone our collaborator. He told us the house was ours, just like that," Cabezas remembers. Later, Marcel moved into a room at an old friend's house and shortly afterwards, was named director of propaganda for Managua's communication workers at Telcor. "I have never been so happy in my life. This is a wonderful feeling," Marcel told me during our last telephone conversation. The revolution was giving birth to "a new, free Nicaragua," he went on. His enthusiasm was catching. He made me promise I would consider going to Nicaragua "for at least a year, to check it out," he suggested. Marcel, the intellectual, the bookworm, was finally participating, working, like the rest of his friends. These were times to act, not to brood. For too many years, he had been "a lucid observer," and, above all, a thinker, "a cuadro we were hoping to use later, when the war was over," a Sandinista friend told me recently.
By the early 60's, the choices available to those of us who could read and write well enough to know about something about freedom and justice, Simon Bolivar's dreams, Hegel's philosophy, Marx's theories, the United States' Bill of Rights and the French Revolution, were few and clear. We could try to upset the system, hide in the mountains with the Sandinista rebels in order to train in guerrilla tactics, win the support of the peasantry to create an armed opposition; or take the safe route, work from "inside" the system, quietly giving information to the rebels, supplying them with food, refuge and money. Or we could simply join the Somozas and keep our mouths shut. This was an alternative that, at least for decades, guaranteed a survival many preferred.
Or we could turn our backs to that small, undernourished and under populated Central American nation altogether. Some of us did. But, when the first signs of a guerrilla movement that might topple Tachito's government were evident, I assumed Marcel would join it. Most of his best friends were slowly vanishing from Managua's parties into Nicaragua's inhospitable northern mountains with the Sandinistas. And he was considered to be among the most radical of his peers.
But he didn't vanish into the mountains. While most of his best friends were fighting alongside the Sandinistas against Tachito's National Guard, Marcel transformed his parents' home into his barracks, helping the wounded and feeding starving compañeros during the seven-week-long civil war. "We all knew that if we wanted food, we could go to Marcel's house. He was famous for giving meat away, apparently from a freezer his parents kept well-stocked," another Sandinista friend, whose house wasn't far from Marcel's, told me. His choice sometimes bothered him. "I am a little dissatisfied with myself, feel restless and pessimistic about becoming a political engineer in this world of military struggles," Marcel wrote.
At the heart of his decision lied Marcel's inner contradictions. His life was a struggle between his ideology and his family roots. Above all, he was careful to maintain his close relationship with his father. "He was always loyal to him. He always tried to justify his relationship with Tachito, arguing that his father was trying to help Nicaragua the only way he could," a friend of Marcel's told me. In a letter to Gwen, his American girlfriend, at the beginning of Nicaragua's civil war, Marcel wrote: "It is not my time yet. I have learnt many things but now I want to get out of (Nicaragua) because my hands are tied and I need to go to graduate school, to study a technical career and build our future with modesty and hard work."
Marcel's reference to his hands being "tied" was a poetic allusion to his loyalty towards his father. But also, Marcel hated guns, uniforms and violence. Even if he was given the honors of a military hero when he died, Marcel was "nobody's idea of a military hero," a friend of his once said.
But the reality around him was full of all those things. And he knew that only too well. Violence was the only "national identity" Nicaraguans had after so many years of repression, he once wrote. "When you see a true Nicaraguan, you will see violence. Violence is their only root, one deeply engrained in them," Marcel wrote in a notebook he used to keep by his bed-side table.
As for guns, he preferred to stay away from using them himself, but he helped others find them. "Marcel used to steal and hide lots of arms for us," a Sandinista friend of Marcel's told me years later. Because of his family contacts, Marcel had access to various arsenals of Somocista weapons. His task was to steal them one by one and keep the loot in an underground tunnel in his house. It was a routine but delicate operation that had to be strictly compartmentalized. Only one companero in the Sandinista "proletarian tendency" had to be contacted. Only with him would Marcel make the arrangements to deliver the weapons.
All of these precautions were taken because it wasn't until shortly before the fall of Tachito that the Sandinista revolutionaries joined forces. Since the early 60's, they were wracked by internal divisions and later, they divided into three "tendencies" with different tactical objectives. Back in the mid-70's, Marcel joined the "proletarian tendency," which worked in the classic Marxist tradition, locating itself among the urban working class and youth as the driving forces of the revolution. It was a natural choice for Marcel, since the "proletarians" supported alliances in which revolutionaries were subordinated to the anti-Somoza wing of the bourgeoisie, to which Marcel belonged.
But, in the end, Marcel's comings and goings before and during the civil war were watched by all --Sandinistas and Somocistas alike.
"He got into trouble once, in fact, because a group of compañeros, from another Sandinista faction, who didn't know Marcel was on our side, rushed into Marcel's house, which as far as they were concerned, was a Somocista house," a friend remembers. Marcel's parents were in Miami at the time, but his grandmother, Margarita Debayle, came out of her bedroom when she heard Marcel arguing heatedly with two strangers. At the same time, another two stormed into the house. A Sandinista rebel commando in charge of finding Somocista weapons for the "prolonged people's war tendency" was paying them a visit. Speaking menacingly in front of his grandmother, they told Marcel they knew he was hiding an arms cache somewhere in the house. At first, Marcel seemed utterly confused, unable to think clearly. On the one hand, these men were Sandinistas and therefore, friends; on the other hand, he couldn't reveal his connection with the "proletarians." They probably would have not believed him. One of the rebels discovered the arms in an underground tunnel, built by Marcel's father, which went from the master bedroom to the outside highway. They accused him of being a Somocista, and took the lot away.
The mystery of Marcel's death lies under an overwhelming mass of dross; it is buried under the dust, weeds and mangled earth of roots, redolent of portents, omens and ghosts, like Nicaragua.
Beyond the Sandinista official version or the theory of their opponents, neither based on tangible proofs and, more importantly, on the premise that Marcel's murder was strictly political.
Fundamental reasons not verified by concrete facts, none of which are all that easy to decipher have led my way.
They are all a part of a confusing puzzle that include, in Marcel's case, values of Christianity, a solid U.S. college education, his commitment to a radical change in Nicaragua, his arrogant idealism, his height, his physical attributes, his white skin and wavy hair and, finally, his name and background, neither of which made him into a working class hero; and in the Somoza family's case, almost a quarter of a century of rule, power, greed with the unequivocal support of the U.S.; and, in Nicaragua's case, ignorance, lack of national identity, illiteracy, inferiority complex, where survival, for the working class, meant pleasing the "patron" by working their land (if this reads disconnected, disjointed, not quite right and at times ungrammatical, it cannot be otherwise, for so are the pieces in the puzzle leading to Marcel's death, and so is the labyrinth that makes Nicaragua what it is).
When he graduated from Williams College in the United States, Marcel was the recipient of high honors (none of these equaled the ones he received when he died, for his murder gave him military honors he didn't perhaps deserve, a futile attempt to extract him from his class origins and rise him to the ranks, held by quite a few, of being "a martyr of the Sandinista revolution;" according to Sandinista Commander Borge, after he died, "every Sandinista in Nicaragua is Marcel's brother;" eureka, Marcel had made it, he had been able to overcome his class origins, or had he?).
I believe Marcel never quite disentangled himself from the trappings of his class origins, of his kinship to the family dynasty he rejected. Not unlike Shakespeare's Cassius, as he claimed to be a poet while facing a crowd of angry Romans who thought he was an executioner, Marcel was killed for being a man, for having roots.
As he tried to deal with his contradictions, someone stepped over his poetry. The question is who, and why.
When Tachito, the uncle Marcel resented being related to and whose doings he felt committed to undo, was ousted, he stripped Nicaragua's treasury of more than $350 million, according to some accounts. He also left a cesspool of misery where "deep-rooted hatred proliferates," as Marcel wrote in a poem.
"Deep-rooted hatred." There lies my first clue.