Juan Gabriel Vásquez: Closed Circuits of the Cold War

In the rich and growing historiography on the Cold War in Latin America and the Caribbean, it is taken for granted that the most extreme experience was Cuba’s alliance with the USSR and the construction of a system of real socialism on the island. If we stick to the history of states, and not necessarily of nations, this consensus is well grounded. But if one explores the heterogeneous world of the guerrillas of the 1960s and 1970s, a subject that is now receiving more attention from the scholars, one finds that Soviet Cuba was perceived as conservative by many currents of the New Left.

Colombian storyteller Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s most recent novel, Volver la vista atrás (2021), is a glimpse into the little-known world of Latin American Maoism. Through the real life of a real character, filmmaker Sergio Cabrera, born in Medellín in 1950 and director of films such as La estrategia del caracol (1992), Ilona llega con la lluvia (1996), based on the novel by Álvaro Mutis, and Todos se van (2015), an adaptation of the book of the same name by Wendy Guerra, Vásquez reconstructs a bizarre chapter of Maoism in the region. A chapter that should be added to those of guerrillas, organizations and intellectual groups favorable to Chinese communism in Mexico, Peru and other Latin American countries.

Vásquez is a novelist who works with real fictions, as exemplarily captured in La forma de las ruinas (2015), the novel we commented here, where he threaded two central assassinations in the history of Colombia, that of Rafael Uribe Uribe in 1914 and that of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948. Now, without relinquishing his preference for the real story, he shifts his attention to a terrain in which the source is not only the political history of Colombia, but the personal and family memory of Sergio Cabrera. It is a terrain that shares parcels with national history, but which includes private or intimate spaces that escape the narrative of the nation-state.

Cabrera comes from a family of Spanish Republicans who, as in so many cases, took the path of exile after Franco’s triumph. The Cabreras first settled in Santo Domingo, during the first stage of the dictatorship of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo. Around 1940, thousands of Spanish refugees settled there, thanks to the efforts of the Junta de Auxilio a los Republicanos (JARE). Fausto Cabrera, the filmmaker’s father, was one of those young people fleeing from one dictatorship to fall into another. As soon as the Trujillo regime showed its inherent anti-communism, the Cabreras left again, first to Venezuela and then to Colombia.

In Medellín, where the filmmaker was born in 1950, his father became a leading figure in theater and television as an actor and director. He recited poems by Antonio Machado and Miguel Hernández and staged plays by Federico García Lorca and Bertolt Brecht. It was in those years of radicalization of Colombian liberalism, following the assassination of Gaitán, and of resistance to the tropical McCarthyism of Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, that Fausto Cabrera and his wife Luz Elena Cárdenas came into contact with the Chinese experiment.

The couple and their two children, Sergio and Marianella, settled in Beijing, where the parents were hired at the Institute of Foreign Languages. They lived there for several years and the youngsters learned the language, learned about the Cultural Revolution from the inside and were trained in the doctrine of Mao Tse Tung. At the end of the decade, the family returned to Colombia to join the Maoist guerrilla of the People’s Liberation Army (EPL), founded by Pedro Vásquez Rendón, which operated between the Cauca and Sinú rivers. That guerrilla was the armed wing of the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party MaoTse-Tung Thought in Colombia, to which the Cabreras were affiliated.

Sergio and Marianella’s experience in the guerrilla was traumatic: he was constantly humiliated because of his racial and socially privileged status; she was sexually harassed, put on trial for treason and shot in the back. The exquisite ideological education of both of them, their first-hand knowledge of the Red Book and Maoist revolutionary theory, far from legitimizing them in eyes of the guerrillas, made them targets of classist and anti-literate prejudices. The mother, Luz Elena, the only one of the four who did not go to the mountains, although she worked in the rearguard in Medellín and was even imprisoned, made the decision to take her husband and two children out of the guerrillas.

Almost all of Segio Cabrera’s missions with the EPL seemed like punishments, except for one. The guerrilla command gave him the order to enter an Emberá reserve, on the banks of the Green River, with the purpose of convincing community leaders to oppose the construction of a hydroelectric dam planned for the valley. The effort ended in a healing ritual with the cacique Genaro, which is captured in one of the most cinematographic scenes in Sergio Cabrera’s memoir and Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s novel.

The abandonment of the guerrilla was followed by a frustrated attempt by the father to return to China and place himself under Mao’s orders, and then, by the final fragmentation of the family. The guerrilla was that extreme situation that, instead of unifying the community, silently collapses it. In the kind of community a family is, such collapses are usually unconfessed and bitter. The plot of the novel is woven with the pigmentation of a bitterness that leads the children, not to disown their parents, but to challenge them introspectively.

That is what this novel is fundamentally about. The presentation of a closed circuit of the Cold War, which refers to the recondite or isolated connection of an area of the Latin American left with Maoist China, and of the settling of scores of a son with his father for having raised him as an ideological Pygmalion who, rather than a descendant or heir, seeks a disciple or legionary. At the moment of the father’s death, the son turns on the device of memory that leads him to abjure the guerrilla frenzy and to opt for the reconstruction of his own family.

RAFAEL ROJAS
RAFAEL ROJAS
Rafael Rojas (Santa Clara, Cuba, 1965). He is a historian and essayist. He has a degree in Philosophy from the University of Havana and a PhD in History from El Colegio de México. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Letras Libres and the newspaper El País, and is a member of the editorial board of the magazine Istor of the Center for Economic Research and Teaching (CIDE). He has published the books: Un banquete canónico (2000), Revolución, disidencias y exilio intelectual cubano (2006), La vanguardia peregrina. El escritor cubano, la tradición y el exilio (2013), among others. Since July 2019, he occupies chair 11 of the Mexican Academy of History.

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