The Mexican Breakthrough

by John M. Ackerman*


Mural de Diego Rivera, Palacio Nacional, México DF. Photo by jd (A) via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The historic victory of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in the July 1st Mexican presidential election stands out as a beacon of hope amidst the turbulent sea of contemporary global politics. The collapse of the post–Cold War political establishment has conjured up a panoply of increasingly strange and dangerous demons throughout the globe, including Donald Trump, Emmanuel Macron, Rodrigo Duterte, Mauricio Macri, and Kim Jong-un, among others.

Mexico could have easily followed the same path of intolerance, elitism, and exclusion. Indeed, this was the generally expected outcome for the 2018 elections. Just as the corrupt establishment had stolen the presidential contests of 2006 and 2012, many assumed that the ruling Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI), along with its long-time ally, the right-wing Party of National Action (PAN), would find a way to defeat, exclude, or simply eliminate López Obrador.

The playing field was significantly tilted in favor of the authoritarian coalition. The “PRIAN,” the acronym used to represent the union built over the last three decades between the two establishment parties, controls the electoral authorities and enjoys the support of the national oligarchy and international financial capital. This coalition also counted on the mobilization of an extensive network of clientelistic government programs, vote-buying schemes, and intimidation tactics to “get out the vote” on election day.

Nevertheless, against all odds, López Obrador emerged victorious, thanks to an excellent campaign and the massive groundswell of citizen participation and popular indignation with the status quo of violence, corruption, poverty, electoral fraud, institutional failure, and neoliberal policies. He received 53% of the vote, completely routing his competitors, Ricardo Anaya of the PAN, who received 22%, and José Antonio Meade of the PRI, who was left in a distant third place with 16% of the vote. The former party of the left, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), was brutally punished by the electorate for having allied with the Enrique Peña Nieto government since 2012 and then having endorsed Anaya during the 2018 campaign. It received only 2% of the presidential vote.

The 30 million votes López Obrador received on election day make him the most highly voted president in Mexican history. Vicente Fox (PAN) received only 15 million votes in 2000, the first time the PRI was defeated at the ballot box. Enrique Peña Nieto (PRI) received 19 million in the last presidential elections, held in 2012.

López Obrador came in first place in 31 out of 32 states. His strong showing in the northern states, such as Nuevo Leon and Chihuahua, was particularly surprising, given that this more conservative region of the country tends to vote for the PAN. In the southern states, López Obrador´s victory was particularly spectacular. He received 80% of the vote in his home state of Tabasco and over 60% in both Oaxaca and Guerrero. In addition, over 60% of the votes sent in by Mexicans residing abroad, the majority from the United States, went to López Obrador.

López Obrador´s MORENA (“National Regeneration Movement”) party, in alliance with the Workers Party (PT) and the Social Encounter Party (PES), also won the majority of both federal chambers of Congress, the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, and the majority of the state governorships up for grabs, including key states such as Veracruz, Tabasco, and Chiapas. MORENA also now controls a majority of the state legislatures, which would allow the party to modify the federal Constitution if so desired.

Unsurprisingly, since the election there has been an explosion of optimism and high expectations. The peso has strengthened in international currency markets, the consumer confidence index has  risen, and recent polls show that if the presidential election were held again today López Obrador would win over 60% of the vote nationwide. Mexicans are thrilled to finally have a president legitimately elected  who has vowed to clean up corruption, bring peace, jump-start the economy, and stand up to Donald Trump.

Previously, Mexico´s political sphere seemed to have been frozen, in contrast to other Latin American nations. Over the last two decades, a majority of them had found a way, for a time, to channel social discontent through institutional politics. Today, many are in the process of political reversal, but all of these countries had demonstrated sufficient flexibility to respond through political-institutional channels to citizen frustration at the failure of “Washington consensus” policies.

Ironically, just at the moment that the “pink tide” has come to an end for the rest of Latin America, Mexico has entered onto the scene. López Obrador has represented for decades the stubborn resistance of the Mexican people to the neoliberal narrative of false “modernization.”  Suddenly, these pent up frustrations and hopes have blasted through the surface in an absolutely peaceful way, through the ballot box, and have brought to the presidency an intelligent, humble, and reasonable man determined to solve Mexico´s problems at their roots.

However, some voices have already tried to minimize the importance of López Obrador´s historic triumph. The conservative journalist and writer Héctor Aguilar Camín, for instance, writes that the July 1st vote supposedly implies a “democratic goodbye to democracy” since López Obrador is supposedly a messianic, authoritarian leader. Harvard scholar John Womack has said that López Obrador represents, at best, “the left wing of the PRI,” but that we should not expect any grand transformations from his government.

The concerns about a possible return of authoritarianism are terribly mistaken. Indeed, López Obrador´s victory implies precisely the opposite. His victory after decades of grass-roots struggles, repression, and electoral fraud means that democracy will finally have a chance in Mexico. It is the current Peña Nieto administration that put democracy at risk through its constant attack on the free press, political activists, and the division of powers. In contrast, with López Obrador Mexico finally will be able to experiment with authentic press freedom, a professional judiciary, and an independent civil society.

Ideologically, López Obrador is not a socialist and  has established a strategic alliance with an important sector of the national bourgeoisie. Nevertheless, he remains fully committed to social justice and to giving first priority to the needs of the poorest and most marginalized Mexicans. It is also important to note that in a country so profoundly ravaged by decades of neoliberal economics, institutional collapse, corruption, and violence, even seemingly moderate achievements such as establishing a functioning rule of law and ending corruption could have truly revolutionary consequences.

Some of López Obrador´s key proposals include: over two million scholarships for unemployed youth so that they can work and serve as apprentices in the formal economy; guaranteed access to free university education for all Mexicans; a vast infrastructure and development program in southern Mexico; ending corruption and waste in government by centralizing procurement and cutting top salaries for top bureaucrats; strengthening the national market for industrial goods and ending imports of oil and food; and ending the “war on drugs” and  initiating a process of “transitional justice” and poverty reduction in order to achieve peace by  addressing the roots of the problem of violence. Time will tell whether the new president will succeed in achieving his objectives  or whether the powerful national oligarchy and Donald Trump will  manage to sabotage his plans. For now, however, Mexico again stands as one of the key places worldwide to watch for innovation and hope for social justice and democracy, just as was the case in the past with the Revolution of 1910, the 1930s under revolutionary reformer Lázaro Cárdenas, and the 1994 Zapatista uprising.

• • •

* John M. Ackerman ( is a professor at the Institute for Legal Research of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), editor-in-chief of The Mexican Law Review, and a columnist at both Proceso magazine and La Jornada newspaper. Twitter: @JohnMAckerman

Premiere (Dispatch from Argentina #5)

by Laurie Coyle*

This is the fifth in a series of dispatches by filmmaker Laurie Coyle and Chicana activist and former political prisoner Olga Talamante documenting their current trip to Argentina. Click on the “Previous” button at the top of the page to read the previous dispatches and learn more about Laurie and Olga’s travels.

Left: Olga, co-producer Mili Abate, and director Malena Juanatey; center: Marquee of Cine Gaumont; right: Olga Talamante, Miguel Martínez Naón, Ruben Piazza

Left: Olga, co-producer Mili Abate, and director Malena Juanatey; center: Marquee of Cine Gaumont; right: Olga Talamante, Miguel Martínez Naón, Ruben Piazza

December 5, 2013

From Laurie:

The moment has finally arrived, the motive for our Argentina adventure: the premiere of Observando al Observador (Watching the Watchman). Olga and I hop into a cab, then jump out and walk the last block to the Cine Gaumont, where a crowd gathers on the sidewalk and strings of brightly colored pennants lend a festive air.

Located on the Plaza Congreso right across from Argentina’s national congress, the Gaumont is a historic theater founded in 1912. Today it’s the cinematheque for INCAA, the Instituto Nacional de Cine y Artes Audiovisuales. The current building was designed in the modernist style of structural functionalism, with clean lines and a wide lobby.

Upstairs in the mezzanine there’s a reception in progress. Tall, striking, and dressed in black with a huge bouquet of red roses, the director Malena Juanatey greets Olga with a passionate hug. The members of the film crew, their families, and friends are celebrating. Olga has her own contingent in attendance, including our friends from Azul and friends of friends from the States. Fellow political prisoner Julia has traveled hundreds of miles to be here. Earlier today, we met in a café where she and Olga caught up after more than 30 years. In jeans and Birkenstock sandals, Julia could be straight out of Berkeley. She spent eight years in prison, married another political prisoner, and raised five children.

I am amazed to be introduced to Miguel Martínez Naón, a young media activist. The last time I saw Miguel, he was a baby in diapers. His parents, Coco Martínez and Noemi Naón, were theater artists who had come to the Bay Area as refugees and became involved in the Olga Talamante Defense Committee. Now Miguel is all grown up, teaching filmmaking to disadvantaged youth and organizing traveling film programs for INCAA.

It’s the usual indie film opening, with excitement in the air, the buzz of anticipation. What is different this time is feeling “nerves” for the person in front of, not behind, the camera. Olga and I got a “sneak peak” of the film late last night. That’s when we discovered that Olga was the principal protagonist of the film. We are curious, not to say anxious, to see how an audience that doesn’t know Olga will respond.

Observando al Observador tells the story of two US citizens detained and tortured during Argentina’s 1970s-80s “Dirty War,” and explores the role played by the United States in supporting the military dictatorship. It’s an ambitious film for a first-time director, featuring a complex interweaving of three strands: the personal stories of Olga and Patricia Elb; a more academic analysis of US intervention in Latin America and the social conditions that gave rise to the repression; and finally, a self-reflexive essay narrated by the director, a young woman who grew up in the aftermath of the dictatorship, when Argentina was returning to democracy.

After the screening, strangers come up to Olga and hug her. There’s a certain intimacy, as if they feel they know her now that she has shared herself so openly on camera … an affective bond. A young woman and her father pose to have their picture taken with her. The following day, the reviewer for La Nación, Argentina’s largest conservative newspaper, writes, “se sigue con el interés creciente … a unas historias particulares, con buenas protagonistas, especialmente Olga Talamante Castillo, con singular carisma” (“We follow with growing interest the personal stories of good protagonists, especially Olga Talamante Castillo, with her singular charisma.”) Well, reader, most of us knew this already, but it’s nice to read it in the newspaper!

In the days after the premiere, we discuss the film at length. There is curiosity (and a little disappointment maybe?) on the part of those who came hoping or dreading to see themselves included in the film. I feel compelled to explain the mysteries of documentary filmmaking: Why interview 15 people if only five will make it into the final film? Why representative protagonists, not a cast of thousands? Why this voice or that focus? In these conversations I emphasize the tough choices filmmakers face, hoping to convey that we do take great pains to honor the trust our subjects place in us.

With the director and crew, we talk a lot about the “target audience”–Argentina’s youth, who didn’t live through the Dirty War. Some come from families directly affected by the disappearance of loved ones; for some, it’s a taboo subject never discussed; in others, they wrestle openly with the burden of relatives’ psychological scars. But the majority of young Argentinians don’t know any more about this recent history than young Americans know about the Vietnam War. The intergenerational aspect of Observando al Observador is its greatest strength–young filmmakers grappling with the legacy of the military dictatorship, paying tribute to the “elders” who were their age when the shit hit the fan. Their goal is to build bridges that can heal and forge a consciousness around “never again.”

From Olga:

The past and the present collide for me on the evening of the premiere. There are my old comrades, with whom I shared the experience of organizing in the poor barrios of Azul, the meetings, the marches, and our youthful idealism. And there are the young people, sons and daughters of that period of history, some who were born in exile, some with relatives among the disappeared. A celebratory moment: for Malena, the director, completing this six-year project; for her young cohorts, to see the fruits of their labor; for me and my compañeros, the vindication that our stories can be part of healing of the past and contribute to the present conversation on how to ensure that the horrors of the military dictatorship will not be repeated.

The culmination of this project, the actual projection of the film on the big screen, could be deemed long in its 77 minutes, by documentary standards. But it is 77 minutes of a few lifetimes, of long days of longing, of decades of political markers, of encuentros y re-encuentros over thousands of miles. It is 6,512 miles to be exact, the distance between San Francisco and Azul.

The credit for this film goes entirely to Malena Juanatey, for her vision about the need for this film and her tenacity to bring it to completion. I believe she would have made it against whatever odds that confronted her, and there were many in the course of the six years that she worked on it.

But my participation in the film I owe entirely to my friend Ruben Piazza, my compañero, fellow cadre and political prisoner. He made it possible for Ed McCaughan and me to travel to Argentina to be filmed in March 2012 by providing transportation and lodging; traveling four hours each way to pick us up at the airport; putting us up at his and his wife Tuki’s home; allowing his house to be used for the initial interviews; providing crucial archival news clippings and photographs used in the film; showing the film crew the sites where we were arrested, the police station where were held, and the prison where I spent 16 months. (He went on to spend eight years under the most inhumane conditions.)

Most of all, Ruben encouraged me to come back and opened his heart to make sure that I felt welcome, safe, and able to process the enormity of my return–like the bells rung at the old Franciscan monastery in San Juan Capistrano, California, upon the arrival of the swallows from Argentina, letting them know they are safe and can rest from their 7,000-mile journey.

• • •

The Gift of Food and Friendship (Dispatch from Argentina #4)

by Laurie Coyle*

* This is the fourth in a series of dispatches by filmmaker Laurie Coyle and Chicana activist and former political prisoner Olga Talamante documenting their current trip to Argentina. Click on the “Previous” button at the top of the page to read the previous dispatches and learn more about Laurie and Olga’s travels.

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Left: Mariela’s fabulous flan; center: El Loro, pasta maker extraordinaire; right: Ramiro had a little lamb

December 2, 2013

From Laurie:

It’s taken me a few days, but I’ve finally figured out why the Argentinians skip breakfast: they have to get started on planning dinner. La cena involves so many decisions: who’s cooking (the meat), what to eat (which meat), which carnicería offers the best cut (of meat). Then there’s shopping, prepping, and finally cooking. The latter can take up to five hours or more, especially an asado, the Argentinian barbecue equal in stature to the mate ritual. Our visit is a special occasion and they’ve pulled out all the culinary stops, so I won’t make any generalizations about whether they eat like this every night. But I will say that we’ve had the best roast lamb, roast pork, and fresh pasta in our lives.

Then there’s la hora de la cena—nobody in their right mind sits down to dinner before 9:30 PM, and we’ve started dining as late as midnight because roasting a whole lamb takes five and one-half hours, whereas roasting a whole pig only three and one-half. Thank goodness for the fresh salads, which are varied and plentiful, because otherwise I’d have expired already from hardening of the arteries. After a few days on this diet, I was feeling the need for a little yin to offset the yang and made a nice lentil soup. The men scoffed, while the women declared they liked it—that, possibly, out of politeness or novelty.

Lest I seem to paint our hosts as obsessive foodies, let me set the record straight: there’s nothing fussy about food here. How can you be fussy calculating a kilo of meat per person for the typical asado?

Here as elsewhere, great food, wine, and conversation bring together old friends separated by long distances and even longer time. One rainy afternoon, “El Loro” makes the lightest, most delicious pasta from scratch that I have ever eaten, while he talks about the eight years he spent in prison and how the attention brought to his case by international human rights groups probably saved his life.

El Loro taught himself to cook to overcome the crippling shyness of his childhood—hard to imagine as he regales us with hilarious stories about living in Ushuaia, the southernmost town in the world where ships leave for Antarctica—where he had occasion to open the freezer door to warm up his kitchen.

There’s Ruben spreading his collection of detective novels across the table after dinner: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Jim Thompson, Chester Hines… Fellow prisoner Julio raising a toast for Olga’s return, while he delivers a sermon on the need for unity to the locals at the table. Mirta and Olga sing songs they had taught each other in prison…After 35 years, Mirta still remembers a Mexican love song, Ella.

Hear and see Olga and Mirta sing Ella, a Mexican song.

From Olga:

Throughout Latin America, Argentinians have a reputation for being arrogant, dismissive, obsessed with fashion and looks, and highly critical of everything. While there is a grain of truth in this, there is also an immense sweetness masked by these superior airs. They have to pretend not to care as they actually care a lot.

While Laurie and I are the subject of gentle teasing and verbal sparring, “You Yankees always want to steal our best kept secrets, like how to make the best asado or the best pasta,” we are treated like royalty and offered the very best of what they have. While the bantering and dissing can be jarring at times, I am reminded of the Argentinian ways—that teasing is a form of love, that loss and grief are deflected through humor, and that actions speak louder than words.

So, the elaborate planning and preparation speak volumes of the love and camaraderie we share. The attention to detail—the coals just so, the pasta the perfect thinness, the ingredients the exact proportion—can certainly be attributed to the food craze that seems to have gripped our entire generation. But it is so much more than that. It’s a pure expression of love. The gift of time, those precious hours of prepping, consulting, and deciding, followed by the actual consumption of the feasts with the wine flowing. All that followed by critiques of the meal, emphasizing its finer points: was the crispness of the cordero skin better this time? Did the dressing enhance or overwhelm dandelion greens? And then moving on to the food of the soul, songs that bring back memories and bind us together.

• • •

Mate-Induced Reflections (Dispatch from Argentina #3)

by Laurie Coyle*

* This is the third in a series of dispatches by filmmaker Laurie Coyle and Chicana activist and former political prisoner Olga Talamante documenting their current trip to Argentina. Click on the “Previous” button at the top of the page to read the previous dispatches and learn more about Laurie and Olga’s travels.

Dispatch 3 photos_copy_S

November 26

From Laurie:

Highly caffeinated and packed with anti-oxidants, Argentina’s national beverage mate is brewed by packing the pungent herb into a gourd and pouring boiled water over it, then passing the gourd around and sipping the tea through a silver straw…an informal social ritual like drinking cardamom-infused Arabic coffee…with the sacramental qualities of the Japanese tea ceremony. On this trip, we commenced the ritual of drinking mate as soon as we arrived, when Ruben brewed and served the traditional herb while we drove from the airport to Azul. Have mate will travel!

The custom of drinking mate comes from the Guarani Indians; the word mate comes from the Guarani word mati, the gourd in which the tea is brewed and served. Traditionally, the Guarani sipped their mate through a slender reed. After their arrival in the16th century, the Jesuits introduced the silver straw. The gauchos (cowboys) lived on a diet of roasted meat and mate in Argentina’s expansive and solitary pampas.

The serious practitioner considers mate an art: the person who brews the mate and serves it (cebador or cebadora) is held to a high standard. Being an excellent mate maker is a bit like rolling the best joint, being the high priestess of hanging out, having your own salon in a thermos. The good mate maker is a respected facilitator who nurtures the sharing of good stories, jokes, and elaborate word plays.

My own initiation into the mate ritual happened many years ago, when I was a student at UC Berkeley. I became friends with a student in exile from Argentina who found comfort in the mate ritual. It kept her company when she was homesick and full of anguish about friends who had not been so fortunate to leave, and were among the disappeared. 

From Olga: 

Mate, while in Argentina, you either love it or love it.  When I first arrived in Azul in 1973, I was immediately intrigued and taken by the mysteries of the ritual: who was next in line, why did the cebador or cebadora spit out the first slurp, what was the perfect temperature, the ensuing commentary about it being too hot, too cold, muy lavado, and quickly learned that the less commentary the better … praise was reticent. While in prison, my motherly, caretaking instincts were manifested in becoming the cebadora. Prison life could be extremely routine, following strict schedules for getting up, meals, lights out, etc. But because of the ever-changing political situation, you never knew when there would be an impromptu prison-wide search, the suspension of basic amenities like books and radios, unexpected lockdowns, and so on. The mate ritual provided comfort and familiarity amid constant anxiety about what was coming next. It united us in a daily circle where we could talk, share, discuss, without actually calling a meeting.

Whether praised or maligned, the role of preparing the mate, keeping the circle going, maintaining the right water temperature, and keeping track of whose turn it was (oh my, battles could ensue if you skipped someone) was hard work. But it was also great fun and a perfect foil for the control freak in me. I became the official cebadora in our prison circle—an interesting position for the only non-Argentinian in the group. My friend Ruben teases me, commenting about what bad cebadoras the others must have been to cede me that post, and to this day he claims to be the better cebador. As I now prepare mate every morning and take it to Laurie to help her wake up, I am back in my glory, in control of the mate and the ritual. And giving Ruben some serious competition.

• • •

Volver (Dispatch from Argentina #2)

by Laurie Coyle*

* This is the second in a series of dispatches by filmmaker Laurie Coyle and Chicana activist and former political prisoner Olga Talamante documenting their current trip to Argentina. Click here to read the first dispatch and learn more about Laurie and Olga’s travels.

These images were taken November 22, 2013, at the place where Olga, Ruben, and their compañeros were apprehended on November 10, 1974.

These images were taken November 22, 2013, at the place where Olga, Ruben, and their compañeros were apprehended on November 10, 1974.

November 23, 2013

We arrived at the Buenos Aires airport this morning and were picked up by Olga’s friends Ruben and Ramiro. Without so much as a glance at the city, we headed south for the four-hour drive to Azul. A provincial city of 65,000 in the heart of an agricultural and livestock region, Azul is home to the historic Teatro Español, the annual Cervantes arts festival, and regional military barracks.

After graduating with a major in Latin American Studies from UC Santa Cruz, Olga had moved to Azul after meeting a group of Argentinian artists and activists. There, she worked as a community organizer in the poor barrios on the outskirts of Azul. After she had been there a year and a half, the government of Isabel Perón declared martial law on November 7, 1974. A few days later, Olga and her friends met to discuss the impact of the suspension of civil liberties on their organizing work. As they left the meeting, they were apprehended by plainclothes policemen and taken to the Azul police station, where they were held and tortured.

That fatal meeting took place at the home of a friend, which is now a neighborhood restaurant and microbrewery where we go for dinner on our first night in town. For Olga, dining in the building where her 16-month ordeal began is a surreal and ironic experience. In the cozy atmosphere, it’s comforting to see families enjoying a night out; at the next table, a party of young women dines. They are about Olga’s age when she was arrested.

Later that night, Olga writes in her journal, “When we raise our glasses there’s no mention of the past, but it surrounds us. Walls don’t speak, yet they contain our history. Though freshly painted, they don’t mask our grief and the loss. As survivors, we keep alive the memory of those no longer with us. The occasion is bittersweet. I revel in the moment and savor the wine, grateful to have returned. In Mexican or in Argentinian, Volver, Volver is a language I know.”

From Argentina, Volver:

Volver From Mexico, Volver, Volver:

Volver Volver

• • •

Adiós Muchachos/as Compañeros/as de la Vida (Dispatch from Argentina #1)

by Laurie Coyle*

* This is the first in a series of dispatches by filmmaker Laurie Coyle and Chicana activist and former political prisoner Olga Talamante documenting their current trip to Argentina. The occasion is the November 28, 2013, premiere of Observando al Observador (Watching the Watchman) in Buenos Aires.

The daughter of Mexican immigrants, Olga had traveled to Argentina where she became involved in community organizing in the town of Azul, four hours south of Buenos Aires. Laurie was an active member of the Olga Talamante Defense Committee, which was instrumental in bringing about Olga’s release from prison in March 1976.

Observandor al Observador is an important contribution to the Argentinian movement for Truth, Memory and Justice. It analyzes the role of the United States in the Dirty War in Argentina and features Olga’s experience of torture and imprisonment in the late 1970s under the dictatorship. The documentary was directed by a young Argentinian filmmaker, Malena Juanatey, who represents the enlightened children of the generation that suffered and fought against the dictatorship.

For an extended discussion of Olga’s views on torture and Operation Condor, see “Dirty Wars: On the Unacceptability of Torture—A Conversation with Olga Talamante” in Social Justice (Vol. 33, No. 1, 2006).

• • •


Left: Laurie Coyle, Ecuador 1974; Right: Olga Talamante, Argentina 1974

November 21, 2013

Olga and I are having our first border crossing moment and we haven’t even departed from SFO. At the United Airlines counter they inform us we can’t check bags and get our boarding passes because we have no proof of our Reciprocidad documents for Argentina. It’s a relatively new visa, instituted because Argentina decided that if the United States was going to charge Argentinians to enter the U.S., Argentina would “reciprocate” with a permit and fee of their own. Fair is fair. If you travel to Argentina as the citizen of another nation, you won’t be paying this fee!

Olga already paid for her 10-year reciprocidad permit when she arrived at the Buenos Aires airport last year. But unbeknownst to our travel agent, now the permit must be paid for and issued right here in the United States. All this to say that I do not possess the reciprocidad permit and am sent running to the international terminal to pay up. Meanwhile, our UA agent is running as well, to ask his supervisor whether they will accept the reciprocidad stamp in Olga’s passport. Yes, it has a barcode, but they can’t read the barcode … yes, it says reciprocidad and even Argentina, but it’s not quite the same as the paper permit issued here. The topsy-turvy of North/South is finally righted and we are on our way.

So, in honor of the mysterious, maddening, frightening, and sometimes hilarious border crossing experiences we have all had–you reader, as well as we–I am sharing an earlier border crossing, this one from the diary I kept when traveling in Latin America in 1974. In the “comments” section below, please post a border-crossing story of your own.

Signing off with lyrics from the great Argentinian singer/composer Carlos Gardel: Adiós Muchachos Compañeros de La Vida!

Laurie (and Olga)


The List
October 7, 1974

Our bus roars across the border and up to the Aduana between Honduras and Nicaragua. We climb down for the inspection that has become a ritual on this trek through Central America. Several soldiers slouch around, looking uncomfortable in their uniforms, hands shifting continuously to the machetes hanging from their belts. Each feigns the petty tyrant, giving our group looks to kill. They act as thieves armed and authorized by the national banditry of Anastasio Somoza. I experience once again the strange sensation of being on the Frontier.

The Nicaraguan border is notorious among travelers and we are anxious to make the crossing as uneventful as possible. While they inspect our bags, I feel relieved to be a North American not subject to the harassment received by the citizens of Latin American countries. Our suitcases scarcely warrant attention; we are through the line almost instantly. Fellow travelers are not so fortunate. The Chilean sociologist, Lucho Alvarado, is subjected to a shameless search, down to dismantling his shaving kit. The soldiers are not actually looking for subversive materials, but it is common knowledge that Chilean refugees are pariahs in these small rightwing Central American republics. Their rite to pass through has not been revoked, but the border guards spare no pains to show contempt for the homeless ones: they scorn the Chileans for having fallen from positions of real political efficacy–positions beyond their actual and imaginative grasp.

We have made it through customs and head for the bus, but the guards redirect us to another building for yet another test. What now? Freddi and I feel protective of Lucho, so the three of us stick together. We enter a long narrow room with a low table running its length. Opposite us and across the table sits an inspector. His belly is slung with a holster stuck full of peg-bullets. He is slovenly and probably wears the gun to offset the ridicule his appearance would otherwise evoke. Leaning back fat in his swivel chair, he belches and, without looking up informs us that we will have to wait until he gets through his reading: a comic book. He keeps us waiting as long as he can with the calculated greed of a man with one small power. Great, the government censor, a book-cannibalizer who is a functional illiterate!

The show begins. Each book is pored over and checked against a 10-page list of prohibited literature. The censor looks twice at my copy of Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, shrugs, and then seizes two books that belong to Lucho. He gloats, having won round one. Lucho, however, asks to see the list. He points out that one of the books in question is not on the list; another title by the same author is (the list is ancient and does not include the author’s more recent work). Our cowboy looks quite unhappy with this development, but lacks the imagination to connect the two works, or the jurisdiction to seize a book not stipulated on his list. With a sigh, he hands the book back to Lucho. Next he confiscates a book written by a colleague of Lucho’s, who declares that this friend would be proud to be banned by Somoza.

And then he spies the Chinese characters on a copy of the I Ching that Lucho purchased in Mexico City. He pounces, scrutinizes the list, and finds no citation. Unbelievable. Shaking his head, he searches once again. Still not there. Unsatisfied, he places the I Ching between himself and Lucho, leans forward, and poses the question:

“Now tell me this (ahora dígame Ud.): was this book written before or after Mao?”

• • •