Chameleons, Martyrs, and Cocaine: Latin American History from 1929 to Present in Five Vignettes


Dawn of the Cárdenasian Man

(Sonora, Mexico 1937)

Vicente Lombardo Toledano, founder and leader of the Confederación de Trabajadores de México, arrives in Hermosillo by night on a train whose thick, toxic smoke spills wistfully into the claustrophobic Sonora darkness. He descends the steps to see a pulsating swarm of hundreds loyal to the man they call “The Mexican Mussolini,” Román Yocupicio, governor of Sonora and staunch adversary of the Capitalist revolutionary President Lázaro Cárdenas, with whom the CTM has aligned. The furious masses chant “Death to Lombardo!” and push him, stumbling, sweating, terrified, back into the train car, where the Marxist is defended by bewildered railway workers. At cocktail parties in Mexico City weeks later, over tumblers of scotch and thick Cuban cigars, Toledano would assert that Yocupicio himself had conspired to assassinate him that muggy September evening. Passionately denying the charge, Yocupicio publically declares Lombardo more cowardly than a sterile hen. In his account of the incident, Toledano fled dressed as a woman.

Despite the animosity which meets Toledano in Hermosillo, President Cárdenas and his allies in the CTM enjoy extensive support in the dusty scrublands of Sonora, where the leather-skinned agraristas, jornaleros, peones, and heavily armed Yaqui and Mayo Indians become the subjects of a utopian land reform experiment they come to call Cárdenismo. Cárdenas, a former jail keeper and tax collector who refuses to live in the Presidential Castle at Chapultepec on principles of equality, looks out across the plains of Northern Mexico and sees not a sterile badlands of lizards and tumbleweed, but the elemental birthplace of Mexico’s New Man. (1)


The Reinvention, Rise, and Demise of Vargas the Chameleon

(Brazil, 1945)

Enola Gay, steel angel of death, opens her belly and expels the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan. Although Brazilian president Getúlio Dornelles Vargas sends planes, warships, and men to fight the Nazi menace overseas, tyranny reigns in Brazil during the war years. Vargas enforces strict censorship, burns state flags in a public ceremony to symbolize the end of their autonomy, and names himself dictator for life. But around the world the pillars of fascism are falling, and in Brazil Vargas’s self-pronounced Estado Nôvo is not spared from the wave of democratization that aims to purify the world of the terrors of totalitarianism.

Overnight, Vargas, populist chameleon, political acrobat, reinvents himself and the Brazilian government to appease a populace increasingly desperate for liberty. Some are successfully duped. Luiz Carlos Prestes, a left-wing organizer who for nine years rotted in one of Vargas’s many political dungeons, and whose own wife, a Jewish-German woman, was deported by Vargas to Nazi Germany where she would die in the gas chambers of Ravensbrück with their unborn child, allies himself with the dictator. Sickened by this political circus act, citizens of Rio take to the streets, as military tanks thunder from the barracks toward the presidential palace.

A special air-force plane delivers Vargas to his ranch and to political exile, where the sixty-two year old chameleon spends his days inspecting his cattle and sipping rich, pungent chimarrão, the maté of the Gaúchos, while his allies fill the ranks of the newly formed Congress and Supreme Court.

Brazil has not seen the last of Getúlio Dornelles Vargas, who is reelected in 1951 in an act of bizarre political memory-loss and rules in a characteristic frenzy of political inbreeding and demagoguery for four years. From the barrel of his glistening Colt .32 the necromancer of Brazilian politics reinvents himself one last time, ending his own life with a dramatic deathbed testament: I fear nothing. Serenely, I take the first step on the road to eternity and I leave life to enter history. (2)


“Guatemala is a violent society” - U.S. State Department

1986 (Guatemala, 1966)

The war-widows of the K’iche’, descendents of the Mayans, cannot bury those lost in la violencia which engulfs Guatemala for two decades. Husbands and wives, sons and daughters, fathers, mothers, priests, shaman accused of shielding guerillas from Washington bullets with their sorcery, all those caught in the cogs of this terrible war machine decompose silently in unmarked graves beneath canopies of lush tropical foliage, becoming nutrient-rich compost for the United Fruit Co.’s endless plantations.

Doña Eugenia has invented hundreds of versions of her son since the day she witnessed the C.I.A. sponsored human-hunters of the Mano Blanco, their eyes bloodshot from aguardiente, bludgeon him first into unconsciousness then to the brink of death before throwing him into a Jeep and roaring off into oblivion. There is he who rots in the prison of the military barracks, he who is buried in a mass grave somewhere in the surrounding mountainside, he who escapes and joins the guerillas and will one day return to her with a wild beard and deep ravines in his brow, he who lives in hiding with a wife and Doña Eugenia’s grandchildren in Guatemala City. The invention of each son devours a small piece of Doña Eugenia, whose eyes no longer weep, and whose palms are scarred from clenching her wrinkled fists.

Convulsing with nightmares on her bed mat, Doña Eugenia cannot hear the “Voice of Liberation” radio broadcasts and triumphant martial fanfare which resound from colossal speakers atop the U.S. Embassy. 3


Lord Midas and His White Gold

(Sinaloa, Mexico, 1981-Present)

A diminutive, broken-sandaled teenager spends his days peddling oranges on the streets of Culiacán, Mexico, dreaming of red Ferraris and Scarface. The sun dies over a skyline cluttered with telephone wires and cinderblock rooftops, and he peers over a barrier into a compound, hypnotized, as bundle after bundle of Colombia’s purest national product is loaded into a black Chevy van under the watchful eye of Il Padrino—a tall, handsome man with feminine eyes and a thin, carefully trimmed mustache.

Ten years later the 1980’s arrive—the “lost” decade—and economists from around the globe sit in air-conditioned conference rooms at the International Monetary Fund, scratching their heads as Latin America plunges into the darkest caverns of debt, inflation, poverty, misery. The construction of infrastructure—highways and railroads—is abandoned half-finished throughout the continent, as government funding and foreign investment wither away or disappear into secret bank accounts in Zürich and Geneva.

That unassuming teenager, on the other hand, is quickly becoming one of the richest men in Latin America. He owns that compound of his youth, as well as coca plantations and politicians from Bolivia to Mexico. He has escaped a Mexican jail in a laundry cart and has been compared to both Elvis Presley and Robin Hood. He has also butchered hundreds of men as pure cocaine sends spasms of orgasmic ferocity down his spine, and has smiled as the lightning flashes of West German submachine guns illuminate his impish features.

Less than thirty years later, with the same piercing black eyes, greasy hair, and a few day’s stubble, Loera glares devilishly from the pages of Forbes magazine into pristine financial offices on Madison Avenue and domestic kitchens in Greenwich, Connecticut amidst the heroic portraits of other billionaires—captains of industry and A-list Hollywood celebrities. (4)


Saint Evo

(El Chapare, Bolivia, 2011)

Evo Morales, the President of Bolivia, sits on the banks of a muddy river which meanders through his now overgrown plot in the lush highlands of central Bolivia known as el Chapare. He chews the rich coca of his ancestors as the electric hum of crickets wash over him in a wave of euphoric meditation. The growl of Blackhawk helicopters and chants of protest still manifest in his memories of el Chapare, though they haven’t echoed through these hills since his election in 2007.

Upon taking office, Evo Morales, peasant, Aymara, fucking Indian, nationalizes the oil, mining, and hydrocarbon industry and bars the invasive U.S. program of coca eradication which has ravaged his country for almost thirty years. To Bolivians he is a saint donning a necklace of coca, holding the wiphala, vibrant flag of indigenous Andeans in one hand and the tri-colored flag of Bolivia in the other as he crusades through the nation defending the poor, the malnourished and the illiterate. (5)


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