It was 1986, late afternoon and snowing pretty heavily in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and people were pouring out onto Eastern Parkway, charging up and down through the snow in their long winter coats, shouting with joy and triumph, some carrying and waving half blue-half red banners, the flag of Haiti. The neighborhood, back then, was a center of New York’s Haitian community; in the massive apartment building on the avenue that I was living in, many of our neighbors were Haitian. The date must have been February 7, the day the dictator Baby Doc Duvalier fled into exile, ending a family stranglehold of the country that had spanned thirty years. Rather than via CNN’s Magic Wall, the news would have reached them by long distance telephone calls, or over the radio, triggering what somehow could only be expressed outside on the avenue, with other people. I went out and ran and jumped around in the snow too.
That memory came back to me last Saturday, when the networks finally called our election, and so many—on social media or the news shows, friends texting—were comparing the jubilant celebrations filling the streets of American cities to the fall of a dictatorship, calling up media images of scenes of similar outbursts, perhaps with statues being toppled, images of The Wall swarmed. Watching on television at home in Mexico City, and looking at photos and videos sent by friends in New York and Washington who were taking part, I ached to be there. (Even Azalea, our two-year-old daughter, had caught the spirit, lifting her arms into the air, gleefully chanting her new children’s rhyme, “Joe Biden Joe Biden.”)
Likewise, the day before, on Friday, when Trump delivered his televised rant from the White House, insisting that he’d won the election and won it easily, alleging a vast conspiracy of electoral fraud—mostly centered in American cities with large black populations, of course—it seemed like a first reaction of many, myself included, once we’d shaken off the initial shock, was to compare Trump to a dictator. Like one of those stereotypical strongmen derived from certain Latin American, Caribbean and African novels, or cartoonishly outlandishly satiric movies: deranged, paranoid, a monster of violent ego and autosuggestion, but sinister and dangerous, blustering mendacity and buffoonery an essential part of his show, a deception, or maybe not a deception (maybe he really is that fucking crazy).
I thought of General Efraín Ríos Montt, the most notorious of the string of military dictators that ruled Guatemala for thirty-plus years following the 1954 coup against that country’s last democratically elected president. Guatemala is my mother’s country, but I’ve spent parts of my life there, including much of the 1980s, a decade during which Ríos Montt headed the military junta for two years. Ríos Montt, an Evangelical Christian in a mostly Catholic country, was regarded as divinely anointed, a “chosen one,” by his fervent followers. During his years in power, the Guatemalan military waged a campaign, against the rural Maya especially, of relentless massacres and atrocities, resulting in tens of thousands of civilian deaths. When 200,000 attended a Protestant gathering that Ríos Montt presided over, the dictator boasted that not even the Pope would draw as big a crowd when he visited Guatemala. On Sundays Ríos Montt gave television sermons on morality. “The guy who has a gun should be shot, not assassinated,” was the kind of moral edification he proffered. In the Guatemala City cemetery, young delinquents were being rounded-up and, without court trials, executed by firing squad.
People don’t always need to see a tyrant fall, to be ousted, to realize that our hopes of a better world have finally been realized, triggering an ecstatic outburst. Sometimes a democratic election—perhaps even regardless of who wins it—in itself can be a celebration, as much a release as any statue-toppling street carnival, though it can also be like the final sacred destination of a pilgrimage, a long line, stretching for city blocks and village squares, of pilgrims who’ve finally arrived. An election can be at least as much an expression of hope and optimism as what follows the toppling of a demagogue or tyrant. That was certainly the case during the Guatemalan presidential in the summer of 1986, when Guatemalans finally got to elect a civilian president for the first time in over thirty years, though the country’s long civil war wouldn’t formally end for another decade. It’s the longest I’ve ever gone without sleeping, two nights and three days, catching some occasional naps in the car as, with a couple of journalist friends, we tried to cover as much of the country as we could, from the city to Maya villages still shrouded by war and military repression, out to Puerto Barrios, on the Atlantic Coast.Normal people need to feel that their lives are normal and acceptably good even when they are living in the shadow of human cruelty and injustice.
Everywhere we went we found excitement, and hope for an end to terror, death, and injustice, and for the start of a new era, during which Guatemala would get to be a normal country, one with problems, of course, its staggering poverty and inequality, but at peace, with some degree of justice at least, and where citizens would have a voice, and a chance to make things better, because they got to vote for their government. The Christian Democrat Vinicio Cerezo won the election. He frequently remarked that as president he would possess only “70 percent” of the political power; he meant that the military and its allies would retain the rest. When my friend Jean-Marie Simon interviewed him in the National Palace, he pointed to a nearby potted plant, suggesting that an eavesdropping device was planted there, that the National Palace wasn’t a place that he, the president, was free to converse. Seventy percent was wildly optimistic; whatever it actually was—25 percent?—amounted in reality to almost nothing. The military had only agreed to elections because the dictatorship’s human rights violations had made it a pariah state; the brutal war had essentially been won, and now they wanted, for obvious economic reasons, to be accepted by the community of nations.
In many ways, the dictatorship in Guatemala has never ended. The Cold War years, when the military and right-wing economic elites held power through complicity with the CIA, evolved into a military and political narco-kleptocracy. The cause of democracy and justice had some successes in the ensuing years, but under the last exceedingly corrupt government, fiercely supported by the Trump Administration, those forces were routed, driven from the country, crushed. So it goes, as Billy Pilgrim would say.
Trump isn’t a dictator, of course. He just acts like and reminds us of a dictator. Trump is like a dictator. A sub-headline in the November 10th New York Times read: “President Trump’s iron grip on his party has inspired love for him among many Republican lawmakers and fear in others.” Usually we think of dictators—“Dear Leader”—inspiring love and fear with their iron grip, not democratically-elected leaders. Trump’s circle of advisors, his supporters in government, act like the advisors and supporters in a classic dictatorship, utterly subservient, but also conniving and corrupt sycophants, fattening off the dictator’s delusions and lies. His most fanatical followers remind us of the fanatical followers of a dictator, worshipful, credulous of every lie, fevered by his rhetorical poison, because every dictatorship presumes a pact with violence and hatred of an enemy that needs to be stigmatized, subjugated, defended against, crushed. Otherwise, there would be no need for a dictator, or a dictator-like president, there would merely be an opposition, with its competing vision and ideas about how to govern; after an election, the winner would win, the loser would accept his or her defeat, and peace and civic seriousness, an essentially agreed upon common public reality, would reign. Obviously that’s not even close to what is happening in the United States of American today.
One of the reasons that Trump fired Secretary of Defense Mark Esper was because he stood up to the president, refusing to invoke the Insurrection Act to send American military troops into the streets to repress this summer’s Black Lives Matter-led protests. Imagine the protests we’ll see in the streets if Trump succeeds in deploying his power, if cowed and servile Trump-appointed judges overturn the election on false charges of fraud. Presumably his new Secretary of Defense—sure to be a yes man, Esper has already warned—would authorize the Insurrection Act. Now imagine the ensuing bloodshed in our streets. Does anyone believe that Trump’s most feverish supporters, the most extreme of whom like to parade military trappings and weapons of war even when they gather outside centers where votes are being counted, are not eager to see that happen, or that they wouldn’t swell with a sated righteousness if it did?
The fall of a dictator, the end of a dictatorship, is a release from suffering, fear, hopelessness, that’s why people flood into the streets to celebrate the way they do. The suffering is going to stop now, and so is the fear; a heavy darkness is dissipating, and that’s why we practically feel like we’re floating, and need to dance and raise a liberated clamor in the streets. The smothering pollution of lies and hate is lifting, and it’s our joy that is helping to drive it away. What we saw in the streets of so many American cities on Saturday was a genuine release. These aren’t really emotions that can be faked. (Did Republican voters break into such spontaneous outpourings of joy when Trump was elected to succeed Barack Obama? Not that I recall. No doubt they felt vindicated, now that their own chosen one, representing their own values and desires, would be running the country. But even Trump’s inaugural crowd was famously subdued. The closest Trumpian expression of carnivalesque public expression came months later, when the white supremacists and Neo-Nazis held their Charlottesville tiki torch parade.)The aftereffects of an evil dictatorship are hard to get rid of, to scrub clean. It usually involves a steadfast struggle, and justice is really the only remedy.
Such pivotal moments don’t inevitably lead to disappointment and disillusion, even if they usually do. But sometimes, almost instantly, they mark the start of a true change for the better. I was there the night, in 1997, that Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas became the first democratically elected mayor of the Distrito Federal, or Mexico City. Before that the Mexican president appointed the mayor, who, like the president, was always from the Party of the Institutionalized Revolution, the PRI, which ruled Mexico “with an iron grip” for seventy years. The Perfect Dictatorship, Mario Vargas Llosa memorably termed the PRI, in part for their mastery of “demonstration elections” that were always rigged so that the ruling party would win while providing the veneer, the illusion, of a functioning democracy.
Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas headed an opposition center-left party and his victory was the first breaching of that “perfect dictatorship”—three years later the PRI would finally lose a presidential election too, this time to the candidate of a right-wing party—but that night the streets of Mexico City overflowed with jubilation. Yellow PRD banners were everywhere, streaming from the honking cars circling the Angel of Independence monument; my friends and I went that night from riotous party to party in homes thrown open to strangers. At the time Mexico City was notorious for being one of the most dangerous and corrupt cities in the world; rife with violent insecurity, kidnappings, hold-ups, car-jackings, rampant sexual abuse, practically bankrupt, and its citizens, if they could afford to, were fleeing to the provinces.
Under Cárdenas and a succession of left-leaning mayors, Mexico City became an oasis of progressive reform; while much of the country—ravaged by the narco war and the corruption that remains the Perfect Dictatorship’s seemingly ineradicable legacy—grew ever more violent under succeeding national governments, including the disastrous PRI restoration of 2012-18, Mexico City became much safer, with a resilient and feisty civic spirt that made it a much better place to live, and transformed it into a cosmopolitan world city. By standing apart from the way the rest of Mexico has been governed, perhaps CDMX points the way to a better national future? (The current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is a former mayor of the capitol; but in my opinion the two most promising potential future presidents, younger than AMLO but from the same left-center party, are Marcelo Ebrard, also a past mayor, and the current one, Claudia Sheinbaum.)
Guatemalans often strike outsiders, and even themselves, as a taciturn, dour, mistrustful people, and those deformations of character are usually attributed to decades of living under repressive dictatorships; but those same fearsome pressures also account for the chapines’ defiant black humor, and the incredible warmth, loyalty and generosity of their spirits, at least once you’ve won their trust; I can tell you that there are no better friends on the planet.
During my first visits to Chile, I was struck by how sour, testy, closed-off older people seemed to be in that country—it made sense to me that Chile has more pharmacies per capita than any other country in Latin America, if not the world—compared to the younger people, who seemed just the opposite, friendly, open, charming and funny, as well as free-spirited and rebellious. My good friend, the Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra, has written brilliantly and movingly about the strange sense of distance that separates the generations of Chileans who’d lived to survive as adults, working, raising families, under the decades-long Pinochet dictatorship, the corrosive moral compromises so many of them were forced to accept as a consequence, the relentless grind and drama of daily fear and humiliating conformity they lived with, as opposed to the generations that at most witnessed the dictatorship from the vantage point of children, mostly sheltered from those fears, pressures, and inner struggles.And we are supposed to just forgive that? It’s time for Americans to come together, so let’s not talk about the family separations on the border anymore.
In Guatemala, including around my own family, I was always noticing how people normalize their acquiescence to and silent complicity with horror. People don’t want to acknowledge, even to themselves, that they are being debased; they greatly resent anyone judging them as morally deficient because they, in order to live their lives, and keep their families safe, have had to go along with evil. They are right to resent it, especially when such judgments comes from people who haven’t had to endure what they have! Normal people need to feel that their lives are normal and acceptably good even when they are living in the shadow of human cruelty and injustice, of such murderous evil that, were they ever to act or speak out too emphatically against it, could cost them, and their family, everything. I love my middle-class Guatemalan family and learned to live with their conformity, their discomforted silences about all that I—an American, after all—was free to rail against, privately, and even in print.
There’s another side to this: people who need to feel that they were right in supporting the dictatorship, whatever its crimes. These are the people who to this day, decades after the disappearance of the Soviet Union, still revile any even slightly liberal person as a Communist. They are everywhere in Guatemala, though especially among the rich and powerful, going around even now in 2020 menacingly quacking, Communist Communist Communist!
It takes many years for a dictatorship, or even existence borne under a demagogic president who acts like a dictator, to finally damage the human spirit in the ways I’ve been describing. What would happen in the United States if Trump had been given another term to go on dismantling and subverting our democratic institutions in the way he has been, and now, unrestrained, probably even more radically and punishingly than before? The foundational rhythm to which Trumps moves his followers is cruelty. Racial cruelty, cruelty against immigrants from poor (“shithole”) countries, manifold cruelty against women, cruelty against anyone who is not like the people Trump and Trumpians approve of. Trump’s America dances and marches to cruelty, derision, mockery. Lies are his weapons in buttressing and justifying his various cruelties.
Evil dictator, that’s a normal collocation, evil and dictator. We don’t easily say, Evil president. It drags back on the tongue. The words aren’t supposed to go together. Our country elected him, how can he be evil? If he’s evil, does that mean we’re evil too? But, thank God, he’s not a dictator, and, at least now, this second time, we didn’t elect him, we dodged that bullet.
And so now we need to come together, Joe Biden and so many others are saying. Come together Americans, it’s the new consensus. Forgive and come together with people who disagree with us about what should be done about the economy, NATO, the Covid pandemic, and so on, even come together with those who don’t believe in climate change! But, of course, that’s feasible, a functioning democratic government includes the possibility that even parties holding extremely divergent opinions on the most crucial issues can somehow find a way to move forward. I can “forgive” someone for holding a view I disagree with, that I even detest, on any of those issues, and would expect the same in return. Our side just has to argue and persuade better, I suppose that’s what I tell myself in these circumstances.
But how are we supposed to forgive evil? How do you compromise with racism? It’s not possible to reach a half-way point of common agreement on racism. Or on denigrating and punishing immigrants. Or on unimaginable cruelty to children, carried out in our name.
It’s hard for a society to rid itself of the effects of an evil dictatorship, I’ve seen so many try and fail. Some of these effects can be institutional—in Chile, for example, the Pinochet dictatorship survives through a constitution absurdly contorted in such a way as to guarantee to right-wing parties an outsized share of power in any government, and through the extant, despised, repressive Pinochet-era militarized police colloquially known as “Los Pacos.” A decade of non-stop protests by students and other young people, especially, seems now finally to have led to the chance to write a new Chilean constitution. Maybe that will sweep away the other remaining vestiges of Pinochetism that survive, whether institutional or embedded in human spirits.But how are we supposed to forgive evil? How do you compromise with racism? It’s not possible to reach a half-way point of common agreement on racism.
In Guatemala, after peace negotiations put an end to its three-decade long internal war, with a blanket amnesty for human rights crime, the victors—the army, the rich, the establishment political parties—called for forgiveness. It’s time to heal. Our long nightmare has ended. Forget the past and forgive. But the Catholic Church’s preeminent human rights leader, Bishop Juan Gerardi, knew that really there can’t be forgiveness without some accountability, without justice. Standing up for that principle cost him his life. He was bludgeoned to death in his parish house garage days after presiding over the release of a Catholic Church-sponsored human rights report that exposed military officers to possible war crimes trials. In Guatemala, despite some victories, despite its at times laughable democratic facade, the only haphazardly disguised iron grip of dictatorship survives.
Of course the United States has committed horrible crimes “in our names” before Trump. For years, when the US was directly supporting the military dictatorship and the slaughter of civilians in Guatemala, few things tore at me as much as the indifference of US citizens to the role of their government in these crimes which were partly enabled by their tax dollars, their silence nearly as painful and infuriating as conscious, implicit support. People could name many other countries where the same or maybe even worse has been done “in our name.” Our presidents and governments always have their justifications, ludicrous and exaggerated as they often are. We’re fighting Communism, Islamic terrorism, we’re keeping our country safe. Such are the disagreeable responsibilities of being an imperial power. Would you rather be ruled by Russia, China, a caliphate? Out of sight, out of mind, that’s certainly a big part of why people go along too.
Trump’s “Muslim ban” was carried out in our name. So was the abrogation of long held laws granting migrants fleeing lethally dangerous circumstances to petition for political asylum. The child-separation policy on our southern border was also carried out in our name. Families who’d arrived at the border, mostly from Central America, seeking asylum, were often separated, the children, including infants, taken from their parents, who were sometimes deported, while the children were infamously even “kept in cages.” All done in our name. There was nothing about the child-separation policy that was essential, or strategically sound, for putting a stop to illegal immigration. It was pure cruelty. Contempt for poor migrants, not just a lack of respect for the sacred dignity of their family units, but an active, aggressive policy to cause suffering, to do harm, to abuse and traumatize children. No other of the Trump administration crimes carried out in the name of the American people so befouled us.
And we are supposed to just forgive that? It’s time for Americans to come together, so let’s not talk about the family separations on the border anymore. Except only yesterday it was revealed that we now know that 666 of the separated children have not been reunited with their parents, and that those parents cannot be found.
In her classic book about the Argentine military dictatorship of the 1970s and 80s, and its disappearances of “subversives” and secret prisons, Lexicon of Terror, Marguerite Feitlowitz wrote, “The regime’s depravity reached its outer limit with pregnant detainees.” The Trump regime’s depravity reached its outer limit with what it did to the children of those detained migrants.
The Argentine dictatorship had a policy of keeping those pregnant detainees alive until they could give birth in secret birthing wards. Afterwards, the mothers would be murdered, and the children were secretly given away for adoption, usually to childless supporters of the dictatorship. The children of detained subversives were regarded by the dictatorship as “seeds of the tree of evil” that needed to be “replanted” in healthy soil. Ever since the fall of the Argentine dictatorship, Argentinian society has been reckoning with the repercussions of those crimes.
The group known as the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo have relentlessly searched for the missing offspring of their own disappeared children. Of the approximately 500 children believed to have been taken in that way, the Grandmothers have managed to identify and recover 130, restoring to them their original identities, at least. Argentina is one of the countries that has been most successful in bringing the criminals of the former dictatorship to justice. But it took longer to hold members of the former military junta and their accomplices accountable for their “systemic plan” to steal babies.
Back in 2011, when I was in Buenos Aires reporting on another case involving the Grandmothers and missing children, I attended some sessions of the trial being conducted in the enormous, chilly and bleak federal courthouse on Avenida Comodoro Py. On the left side of the courtroom, three groups of prosecution attorneys, including one from the Grandmothers, sat at their own tables facing the tribune of judges; the defense sat on the right, and behind them, in a sort of box of pews, sat the accused military men, including former junta leader General Jorge Rafael Videla; some of the former military men had been brought to the trial from prison, where they were already serving sentences for other crimes of the dictatorship. Separated from the courtroom by a high wall of bulletproof glass were two areas for the public, one atop the other. Upstairs was reserved for relatives and supporters of the defense. Journalists could sit downstairs with other spectators.
That day I listened to a witness, a former physician, testify about how the illegally detained women were brought to give birth in a small epidemiological area in a military hospital. Civilian physicians participated in the secret births. Newborns were entered as NN—no name—in the official birth ledger; the secret-prisoner-mothers were NNs too. A nervous woman in late middle age, in bulky sweater and a thick white wool scarf, who testified that same day was Sister Felisa, from a Franciscan order of nuns who’d worked at the hospital until 1983. She served meals to patients, and managed a dispensary where soldiers received and exchanged their bed linens. In 2007, when the Grandmothers had first called her to testify, she’d spoken of being told to write down NN in her ledger for bed linens handed out to people with “no name,” but now she told the court that she didn’t remember that. “I ask you to think back now,” said Judge María del Carmen Roqueta. “Why did they use NN? Who could those people be, who could not be named?” “I don’t know, doctora,” answered the nun, in her timorous manner.
In 2007, Sister Felisa had vividly described her encounter with three small children who’d turned up in a corner of the hospital one night in 1976, who the Croatian Mother Superior had ordered her to feed, but now she insisted that she didn’t remember those children either. Incredulously, Judge Roqueta read Sister Felisa’s 2007 testimony back to her. There had been a boy of about six, who was the cousin of the two younger children, another boy of about four and his little sister, who the nun had guessed was about two. The little girl was crying for her mother, the nun had testified, and the older boy had told the girl that her parents “aren’t here anymore.” Their parents, he’d told the nun, had hidden them all under a bed, and thrown a mattress over the little girl. This had apparently occurred on the night the parents had been abducted by the military; afterward, the children, separated from their parents, had been brought to the military hospital. And now Sister Felisa didn’t remember that? No, doctora, she did not remember.
“You were never told what happened to the three children?” Judge Roqueta asked, her voice exasperatedly rising. “You never wanted to know what happened to them?” The judge demanded, “Do you understand that you are testifying in a federal court? Has someone pressured you? Are you under a threat? Do you want us to clear the courtroom so that you can speak?” The nun, grinning nervously, said no.
Later, during the recess, I approached a group of lawyers huddled in the grimy vestibule outside the courtroom—all of them young, scruffy, in dark suits, looking almost like a gaggle of English public school boys—and asked, “So how could Sister Felisa have remembered so much in 2007, and nothing now?” A tall, gangly young lawyer with a shock of black hair falling over his forehead, said, “Because one of those two times she was lying.” It was obvious that he thought she’d been lying today. A man thought to be Sister Felisa’s lawyer had attended the trial that day TOO, he explained. The man had identified himself as a lawyer, and had arrived with two other nuns and they’d sat upstairs, and he’d stared at Sister Felisa throughout her testimony that day.
So even now the dictatorship survived in that nearly ghostly manner, in the person of that man, whoever he was, who’d come to stare from the balcony at Sister Felisa, delivering a silent message, intimidating her into retracting her testimony.
The aftereffects of an evil dictatorship are hard to get rid of, to scrub clean. It usually involves a steadfast struggle, and justice is really the only remedy. A post-dictatorship never manages to bring everybody who might deserve it to trial, I’ve learned, but it’s crucial that at least some of the official evildoers, hopefully the most prominent, be held to account. That means everything.
I try to picture Stephen Miller, allegedly the main architect of Trump’s child separation policy, standing in the defendant’s box instead of the Argentine former military men, in that bleak, chilly courtroom. I picture Trump standing alongside him. Up on the stand someone is testifying, perhaps a woman who worked in one of the ICE migrant detention centers on the border. She is white, and both she and her husband, a border patrolman, worked for ICE. She had earlier described for investigators an incriminating act she’d witnessed, something done to a Guatemalan child separated from her parents. Can she repeat that testimony now for the court? Hesitantly, she raises her eyes to the second balcony. Is the evil presidency, some incarnation of “the evil done in our name,” still somehow present in that courtroom? Or can we be at least symbolically cleansed of that stain.