Words And Action: The legacy of Rodolfo Walsh

THE first I ever heard of Rodolfo Walsh was when I read Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine in 2007. By that time, Walsh had been dead for 30 years, but Klein cited him as a posthumous source for her treatise on “disaster capitalism”, and introduced him in the most dynamic terms: “A gregarious Renaissance man, a writer of crime fiction and award-winning short stories … a super sleuth able to crack military codes and spy on the spies.”

As a journalist and activist in post-revolutionary Cuba, Walsh had personally intercepted and decrypted the secret CIA telex that gave Fidel Castro advance warning of the Bay of Pigs invasion. Later, in his native Argentina, he was a chief intelligence officer for the Montoneros, a leftist group of urban guerrillas who opposed the country’s right-wing ascendancy. Many Montoneros, including Walsh’s daughter Maria Victoria, became casualties of the undeclared and unofficial “Dirty War”, which started some time before the military coup of 1976, and ended with the general election of 1983. On March 24, 1977, the one-year anniversary of the coup, Walsh addressed an open letter to the generals and admirals who had seized control of the state, itemising their crimes and listing their victims: “15,000 missing, 10,000 prisoners, 4,000 dead, tens of thousands in exile … ”

Of particular interest to Naomi Klein was the section on the ruling junta’s programme of Kissinger-approved Chicago School economics, which Walsh considered no less ruinous than its paranoid and ultraviolent mode of national security – favouring the foreign interests of Shell, Siemens, ITT, and US Steel while prioritising military spending to the point that Buenos Aires had rapidly devolved into “a slum with 10 million inhabitants”. Counting off what he called “the raw statistics of the terror”, Walsh went on to make a cosmic case against the dictatorship. “You have arrived at a form of absolute, metaphysical torture, unbounded by time,” he wrote, before ending that letter “with no hope of being heard, and with the certainty of being persecuted”. The morning after signing and dating it, and minutes after posting out the first copies from a mailbox in downtown Buenos Aires, he was ambushed and machine-gunned in the street by the junta’s secret policemen. Walsh was armed with a small pistol and apparently fired first, wounding one of the agents and ensuring that he would not be taken alive. According to Klein, they dragged him dead or dying into one of their trademark green Ford Falcons and drove him to the Navy School of Mechanics (or ESMA, which was then a notorious detention centre), where his body was burned and thrown in a nearby river. Reading this, I felt vaguely chastened to have known so little about Argentina, and nothing at all about Rodolfo Walsh, whom Klein had made sound like a hyper-political action hero.

Five years later, I came to live in Buenos Aires. It was March 2012, and it seemed to me that Walsh was everywhere. My apartment was about ten blocks from the former ESMA facility, which was now a museum of memory and human rights, with Walsh’s open letter to the junta printed onto sheets of glass outside. I got a part-time job teaching night classes at a bookshop in the city’s oldest barrio, San Telmo, and my walk to work from the nearest subway station took me around a quiet street corner that was decorated in Walsh’s honour. His portrait had been painted into a public mural alongside a cup of coffee and a typewriter, and a puppet-like effigy of the man himself was mounted on a miniature balcony, looking down at me through a pair of thick spectacles. Inscribed below in Spanish was the last line of his open letter: “ … faithful to the commitment I made to bear witness in difficult times.”

@Beatrice Murch

@Beatrice Murch

Three decades removed from his historical context, I thought it would be safe – if admittedly a little simplistic – to assume that Walsh was now recognised as one of the good guys, and the men who shot him as the baddies. As recently as 2011, a dozen members of the task force that took him down had finally been convicted of crimes against humanity, with two more facing further charges in the ongoing “megatrial” of ex-ESMA personnel. But the owner of the bookshop advised me to be careful when dropping Walsh’s name in conversation. A mild-mannered North American with enough tenure in Argentina to know that the past remains a live issue here, he pointed to the old framed photograph of Walsh behind the service desk, tucked away from the more prominent pictures of James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and Virginia Woolf. Most people had no problem with it, he said, but certain elder conservatives were still inclined to think of Walsh as something like a terrorist. He told me about one grandfatherly customer who appeared to be browsing quite happily until he noticed that photo and practically spat on the floor, demanding to know why the image of “a killer” had been thus enshrined on the premises. By the same token, I would later hear a taxi driver defend the former junta leader General Jorge Rafael Videla. It was the night that Videla died in prison last March, having long since been convicted for his commanding role in many multiple counts of forced abduction, torture, extrajudicial murder, and the theft of newborn babies from mothers imprisoned at ESMA and other concentration camps. “He wasn’t so bad,” insisted my driver. As in many other cities, the cabbies of Buenos Aires seemed to swerve to the right, politically speaking.

My students tended to be much younger and more left-leaning – “liberal” according to the US definition of the word, which can mean the opposite in Latin America. I taught one girl in her early 20s, born long after Rodolfo Walsh was killed, who confessed to being “a little bit in love with him”. Those who felt less strongly were at least aware of his work, and respected him even if they hadn’t read it. When I started a course on New Journalism, assigning all the big names who made an art of narrative reporting in the 1960s – Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Hunter S Thompson, Truman Capote – the native Spanish-speakers in the class were quick to remind me that Walsh’s Operación Masacre had been the first great “non-fiction novel”, written almost 10 years before Capote coined that term for his own true crime story In Cold Blood. I had heard this claim made before in local literary circles, with the same defensive note of national pride that tinged the more common and less credible assertion that Argentina invented soccer, or that Buenos Aires had the first public buses in the world. But I hadn’t read that book myself, because my Spanish still wasn’t good enough, and I’d never seen a copy in English.

As it turned out, there had never been one before the brand-new and first-ever translation published just this month in the US by Seven Stories Press. A few weeks ago, I got hold of an advance proof, and tore through it like it was about to self-destruct. Operation Massacre, to use its essentially unchanged English title, recounts a half-botched atrocity committed by Buenos Aires police under an earlier military government. On the night of June 9, 1956—in the midst of a short-lived uprising by soldiers and citizens loyal to the recently deposed president Juan Perón—a group of friends and neighbours were rounded up from a suburban house in the working-class barrio of Florida, where they had gathered to listen to a boxing match. Only two of those 12 or 13 men were even remotely affiliated with the rebels, but all of them were driven to a nearby patch of waste ground for summary execution. Through a desperate combination of fight and flight, plus whatever luck was added by the general incompetence of their ad-hoc firing squad, at least six escaped to tell the tale. In the end, they told it to Rodolfo Walsh, who tracked them down one by one and persuaded them to talk. And Walsh, in turn, retold it with furious urgency, reporting on the fly and writing up a fistful of incendiary articles that were originally printed in the weekly journal Mayoría (Majority) through the austral winter of 1957, when no one else would touch them.

Those pieces were soon after compiled into a book by the tiny press Ediciones Sigla, at considerable risk to the publishers, and to the author himself. In his introduction to that first edition he wrote: “I happen to believe … in the right of every citizen to share any truth that he comes to know, however dangerous that truth might be.” Almost 60 years later, the book made me think of unexploded ordinance, dug up from a forgotten battlefield. As soon as I could put it down, I called the translator Daniella Gitlin in New York, to ask why it had taken so long to appear in our language. “Your guess is as good as mine,” said Gitlin, though she had only read the original when a friend from Buenos Aires gifted her a copy in 2009. A fluent Spanish-speaker with an Argentine mother, Gitlin later translated sections of the text for her Masters in non-fiction writing at Columbia, and felt compelled to finish the job. “I couldn’t believe that no-one else had done it,” she said. “It seemed like such an important book.” As advised by her publishers at Seven Stories (for whom she used to intern, and later worked part-time) Gitlin told me that she tried not to polish the rough edges of Walsh’s prose. In some ways, she said, it was “not typically Spanish”, hard and clear where that language as written can often be “circuitous and imprecise”.

In other ways, it was a translator’s nightmare, with rapid and repeated shifts between first, second, and third person, or past, present, and future tense, sometimes within the same sentence. “It’s almost as if there is a motor behind this thing,” said Gitlin. “And you can feel Walsh changing the gears.” Part of that effect is rooted in the looser rules of Spanish grammar, but much of it reads like technique, creating palpable suspense and a dread sense of fatedness. “He will let himself be arrested without any sign of resistance,” writes Walsh of one victim, Nicolás Carranza. “He will let himself be killed like a child, without one rebellious move.” Walsh goes on to reconstruct the shooting as if he had been there himself.

“The others seem stunned, resigned, bewildered. They still don’t believe, can’t believe … At this moment the story ruptures, explodes into twelve or thirteen nodules of panic.” His narrative voice is profoundly partisan – empathy bleeding into solidarity. The whole account expresses the originating sense of “insult” that Walsh had felt when looking at the bullet-wounded face of his initial source Juan Carlos Livraga, or hearing the testimony of fellow survivor Miguel Ángel Giunta. “It kills you to listen to Giunta because you get the feeling you’re watching a movie that has been rolling in his head since the night it was filmed … once he finishes he’s going to start again from the beginning, just as the endless loop must start over again in his head: ‘This is how they executed me’.”

Daniella Gitlin suggested that there was another story here, drawn out in the supplements and appendices of her new translation: “The story of Walsh’s own development as a writer and thinker and activist.” Walsh himself would later say that this book changed his life. Born in 1927 to third-generation Irish immigrants in the provincial town of Choele Choel, he’d been sent to a Catholic boarding school and orphanage when his family was ruined by the Argentine depression of the 1930s. He was beaten by the priests who ran the place, an experience that fed into his most thinly-veiled autobiographical fictions, and reportedly made him quick with his fists. In his angry teens he joined the far-right National Liberation Alliance, but soon broke with that group and denounced it as “Nazi”. In his 20s he became a largely apolitical artist, a promising young author of short detective stories whose debut collection won a national contest judged by Jorge Luis Borges. He was almost 30, with a wife and two daughters, when he first heard whispers of a “talking dead man” in the café where he liked to play chess. Resolving to investigate, he found that one dead man led to another, and uncovered the facts of the case that he would call Operation Massacre. In the process, Walsh provided critical information to the victims’ families – confirming, for example, that the still-missing Mario Brión had in fact been killed that night. He wanted his book to serve as admissible evidence against the officers responsible, up to and including Desiderio Fernández Suárez, the army-appointed police chief who had ordered the executions. But as the years passed and successive military governments would not even acknowledge the crime, Walsh came to think of his work as a failure in those terms. “This case is no longer in process,” he wrote in the prologue to the second, 1964 edition. “It is barely a piece of history: this case is dead.”

@Beatrice Murch

@Beatrice Murch

By that time Walsh had been to Cuba and back. In 1959, he co-founded the Prensa Latina news agency in Havana with Gabriel Garcia García Máarquez and Jorge Ricardo Masetti, and with the endorsement of his fellow Argentine, Ernesto “Che” Guevara. In 1960, at Havana Airport, he got the only quote that Ernest Hemingway ever gave about Castro’s revolution. “We Cubans are going to win,” said Hemingway to Walsh, apparently hedging his bets, on his way out of the country forever. (Papa then added, somewhat self-consciously, “I’m not a Yankee you know.”) And in April 1961, Walsh deployed his gift for puzzles and word-games to decode the Bay of Pigs telex.

The trajectory of his life from that point would put him “on a par with the great revolutionaries of the twentieth century,” or so I was told by Michael McCaughan, the author of True Crime: Rodolfo Walsh and the Role of the Intellectual in Latin American Politics. I called McCaughan at home in Ireland to ask why a writer of such tremendous anecdotal appeal was barely known across the English-speaking world. The most obvious answer, said McCaughan, was that Walsh wrote in Spanish. “If he’d written in English, he would have prizes and anthologies named after him.” Sure, I said, but everybody knows his Colombian comrade Gárcia Márquez, who later described Walsh’s open letter to the junta as “one of the jewels of universal literature”. Why hadn’t Walsh’s fiction and non-fiction been more widely translated? McCaughan guessed that it had something to do with “a sort of incomprehension surrounding Argentina”. He suggested that Walsh’s legacy had been obscured and complicated by all the twists and reversals of his country’s modern history. And particularly, said McCaughan, by association with “the highly ambiguous character of Juan Perón”.

“A lot of people still don’t know what to make of Perón. They don’t get how this great hope of the revolutionary movement could have so much in common with fascists like Franco and Pinochet.” Which is to say that Walsh’s evolving politics may well be confusing or off-putting to foreign readers unversed in Peronism. After 18 months in Argentina, I wasn’t much closer to understanding that term myself, which also seemed to be the codex for explaining all the contradictions of the national character. Current president Cristina Fernáandez de Kirchner still called herself and her party Peronist, but so did most of her opponents. In the primary elections of August 2013, a rival candidate named Julio Bárbaro claimed to represent “El Buen Peronismo”, or “The Good Peronism”, thus implying that De Kirchner’s was the wrong or evil version. (Bárbaro and his running mate Julio Piumato failed to qualify for the coming midterms in October.)

When I asked my local friends to account for this, they tended to throw up their hands. “Oh but Peronism is the purest form of politics,” said one with heavy irony. “It is our gift to the world.” She told me to think of it not as an ideology, but more an all-purpose method of governance, which relies on a single charismatic leader to tell each and every interest group exactly what they want to hear, and hold the society together by sheer force of personality.

Or failing that, by force of arms. Perón himself was the master, of course. His rise to power in the mid-1940s was founded on a compound base of labour unionism, Catholic conservatism, economic corporatism, and military authoritarianism. If the unlikely binding of these disparate elements seemed like a kind of witchcraft, his enemies were inclined to point the finger at his wife Eva, who cast her own spell of sentimentalism across the population. The President and his first lady inspired a certain thuggishness in the cult they had created, and Rodolfo Walsh was among the dissenters. He initially supported the so-called “liberating revolution” that ousted Perón by coup d’éetat in 1955, only to find the new regime no less repressive. Under General Pedro Aramburu, all mention of Perón was banned by law, and the threat posed by his loyalists provided licence for the brutal policing that Walsh exposed in Operation Massacre.

As he wrote in 1958, “I don’t understand how they intend to make us choose between the Peronist barbarity and the revolutionary one.” Even after his return from Cuba, Walsh was not yet fully radicalized. But repeat visits in the late 1960s, the death of Che Guevara, and the escalating violence at home, made Walsh more inclined to share the leftist hope that Perón might yet prove a true man of the people, and that militating for his return might be the best means of advancing the class struggle.  Walsh never claimed to be a Peronist, but only a Marxist, “and a poor Marxist because I don’t read much”. “I don’t have time for ideological formation,” he said. “My political culture is empirical, rather than abstract. I throw myself into life on the street.” This may or may not explain why Walsh joined the Montoneros, whose far-left interpretation of Peronism brought them into apocalyptic conflict with the far-right forces who embraced that nebulous concept with equal and opposite fervour. Perón himself courted both sides from exile in Spain. He once took a meeting with Walsh himself in Madrid, but gave equal time to Argentina’s land and business owners.

When he landed back in Buenos Aires to reclaim the presidency in 1973, his rival welcome parties shot it out at Ezeiza airport – 13 people were killed and more than 300 injured. Before Perón died the following year, his security forces had already begun their war against the Montoneros, which soon intensified under his second wife and successor Isabel, whose own reading of her late husband’s politics tended toward the fascist. But even she wasn’t far right enough to suit the military leaders who overthrew her in ’76. Videla, Massera, Agnosti and their men then brought the fight to the Montoneros in a firestorm that left almost every member riddled with bullets or wired up to electrodes in prison. The guerillas were not the only enemy of their new state, and the junta went after Peronist workers organisations and union activists with particularly lethal prejudice.

It is now known that their targets also included French nuns, teenage students, and grieving mothers, most of whom were arrested and tortured at ESMA before being drugged and dropped to their deaths from helicopters into the South Atlantic, or the Rio De La Plata. This October marks the 30th anniversary of the end of the Dirty War, and many of those men have only recently been prosecuted for their part in “disappearing” up to 30,000 so-called “subversives” – euphemisms that no longer provide any cover for the actions of the junta. For many families and friends of those disappeared, that war is still not over. There are thousands still missing —or at least their remains—and hundreds of now-grown babies still to be traced. The unsettled issue of truth and reconciliation is a matter of electoral politics. Ahead of the coming midterms, Christina Fernández de Kirchner has been playing up her human rights record, to set against her massively unpopular protectionist economy.

Foreign goods are blocked, domestic products suck, inflation is skyrocketing, and the middle-classes of Buenos Aires are out on the streets banging pots and pans in protest. Not many object to the belated prosecution of ex-ESMA secret policemen, though most prefer to credit the president’s more beloved husband and predecessor Nestor, who overturned the “full-stop” and “due obedience” laws that had effectively granted amnesty to some of the junta’s worst abusers. In this new context, the ruling Peronists have recruited Rodolfo Walsh as a symbol of their willingness to redress long-standing injustice. Or, as Michael McCaughan put it, “Rodolfo is now a useful and ethical figure to put on posters for a movement that has fallen short of everything he fought for.” Meanwhile, the anti-Kirchnerites and modern anti-Peronists would like to remind you that Walsh and the Montoneros bloodied their own ledger with bombings and assassinations through the early to mid 1970s – killing military leaders, political figures, foreign business executives, US consul staff, and more than a few bystanders. Walsh was implicated even before he was actively involved, when Montonero commanders invoked Operation Massacre to justify their kidnapping and murder of the former de facto president Pedro Aramburu in 1970.

The same friend who had tutored me in Peronism also told me that Argentine schoolchildren of her age had been taught “the theory of two demons” with regard to the right and left violence of their own recent history, which proposed an equivalence of state terrorism and guerrilla warfare. Attitudes have changed in the light of recent revelations about the practices of dictatorship. But more I learned about that period, the more estranged I felt from modern Buenos Aires, where I could not mention Rodolfo Walsh’s name without hearing inherited opinions or backdated politics. I could not find a witness to separate the dead martyr from the living writer, or tell me what the man himself was like, until I met his partner Lilia Ferreyra. They had never married, but she was the woman he spent his last days with, and remained his common law widow, so to speak.

On a Friday night in early September – late winter here in Argentina, the trees still bare and the wind still cold – I sat in Ferreyra’s small top-floor apartment, listening to her reminisce. Her memories of Walsh were a kind of indulgence, she said. She was 70 years old now, and suffering from pulmonary cancer. She liked to “drift away into the past”, and relied on her abiding militancy to bring her back to the present. I asked her how she first met Walsh, and she told me the story.

@Lilia Ferreyra

@Lilia Ferreyra

In 1967, Ferreyra was a chemistry student at the University of BA, and an autodidactic lover of literature. More familiar with Shakespeare than any local authors, she read a review of Walsh’s latest short story collection, and went to buy it the same afternoon. Taking the book to a nearby café, she met a friend who pointed out that Walsh himself was sitting at a table in the corner. Ferreyra asked him to sign her purchase, and soon after they went on a date. Walsh was long separated from his wife at this point, and had a reputation as a player (also as a drinker and gambler).

But they found things in common – his immigrant Irish great-uncle Willie had lived in Ferreyra’s provincial hometown of Junín – and shared roughly the same view of their country’s continued military rule. Walsh was changing around that time, she said. Having famously said that “the typewriter is a weapon”, he had come to doubt that words alone were any real substitute for bullets in effecting change, and particularly the fine words of literary artists. “Beautiful bourgeois art!” he later wrote. “When you have people giving their lives, then literature is no longer your loyal and sweet lover, but a cheap and common whore. There are times when every spectator is a coward, or a traitor.”

I asked Ferreyra if Walsh spoke like this in private too, if he was able to relax, if he had a sense of humour. “Rodolfo was a serious man,” she admitted. “He could never stop thinking.” She would watch him trim his moustache for hours, utterly distracted and absent, lost somewhere inside the mirror. But he could be a goofball too, she said. His friends called him Captain Delirium, a joke on his tendency to involve them in wild schemes, and a play on his pride as a boat-owner – Walsh spent much of the mid-1960s living on an island in the Tigre Delta north of Buenos Aires.

He liked the first part of that nickname, and wished he was a sailor. He taught her cryptography and turned it into a game. He made up new words and definitions for fun, he sang her songs in his tuneless baritone. When Walsh joined the Montoneros, Ferreyra did too. As the violence escalated and the danger intensified, they tried to live a normal domestic life, albeit with two guns on their nightstand – one each, next to a glass of water, every time they went to bed. “You had to integrate the struggle into your routine,” said Ferreyra. “Otherwise you would go crazy. There were days and weeks when there wasn’t much activity, when we could go to the movies or do other things.” After the coup of ’76, they talked about leaving the country, and agreed that would be an abandonment of their cause. But even before the coup, they had broken from the Montoneros.

Ever the strategic thinker, Walsh had weighed up the strength of the opposition, and arrived at what Ferreyra called “the probability of annihilation”. He warned the Montonero commanders to alter their doomed course of underground resistance, to be more judicious in their use of violence, to engage at an electoral level, and remember the hearts and minds of the majority caught in the crossfire. Walsh redirected his own energies into ANCLA, a clandestine news agency he had founded to report on the junta’s activities. Many contributing activists and informers were subsequently killed or captured – Walsh lost some of his closest friends and most of his former comrades in one way or the other.  His eldest daughter Vicky remained an active combatant with the Montoneros, and that September she held off a squad of government commandos in a siege later known as the Battle of Carro Street, before shooting herself to avoid arrest.

Soon after that, Walsh and Ferreyra withdrew from Buenos Aires to rural San Vicente, beyond the southern limits of the city. She described their final days together as a kind of idyll-exile, in a small house with no power or running water. Walsh devoured books on farming and gardening with the same voracity that he used to read Marx and Lenin, and they planted vegetables in the adjoining field. From his 50th birthday on January 9, 1977, to the first anniversary of the coup on March 24, Walsh worked there on his open letter to the military junta. The night he finished it, he stood outside with Ferreyra looking at the stars, and told her that they had finally found a home. And the next morning, March 25, she took a train with him into the city to mail out copies from various postboxes. They got off at Constitución and parted in the street, as per their private safety regimen, planning to meet back at home. The last time she ever saw him, he was disguised as an old man in a straw hat and beige overalls.

When Ferreyra returned to their house, she found it looted by soldiers and razed by army tanks, and knew that Walsh had been ambushed – though she didn’t get confirmation of his death until much later, and his body was never recovered. After that came her own escape to Mexico, where she lived until the end of the dictatorship. But Ferreyra didn’t really want to talk about that. I left her apartment thinking about the last words she ever said to him, a reminder shouted across the street, just in case he got home before she did: “Don’t forget to water the lettuce.”

On the subway, I remembered that the E-line station at Entre Ríos had recently been renamed Rodolfo Walsh, in respect of the fact that he had been shot less than one block away. I’d heard also that there was some kind of memorial on the corner where he made his stand. It was nowhere near my own apartment, but I took a detour, and found the station in question still called Entre Ríos, with no visible mention of Walsh. I asked a transit cop, and he shrugged at me. “That was for show,” he said. “Publicity for some politician. People don’t just suddenly start calling a place by some other name.” I couldn’t find the memorial either, and walked up and down the intersection of San Juán and Entre Ríos avenues until I looked down to see a tiny stone marker, planted at ankle height beside a lone, thin tree. The inscription was dated 2004, and said only that the writer Rodolfo Walsh had been “disappeared” from this spot by the military dictatorship. There was a heavily pregnant woman standing outside the café on the corner. I pointed to the marker and asked her who Rodolfo Walsh was.

“Sorry, I don’t know” she said. “I’m not from this neighbourhood.” It’s unfair to expect one woman to speak for a whole city’s historical memory, I thought. It’s also easy to overstate the importance of one dead man. I went into the café, and asked the guy behind the counter. He squinted as if the name rang a bell, and referred the question to an older guy who turned out to be the manager. “Rodolfo Walsh?” he said. “He was a writer or something. They took him just outside. Or killed him, maybe. I’m not sure. I wasn’t here then. It was during the dictatorship, you know … ”

He smiled at me, and gave a little wink. “Don’t worry about it man, it was a long time ago.”

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