Gabriel García Márquez, known to millions as simply “Gabo,” passed away on April 17, 2014, at age 87. Many praised him. Others, especially in the Cuban-American community, criticized him.
Who is right? Who is wrong? As it turns out, both of them are right – in their own way. Judging a person’s worth is never an easy undertaking because of a tendency to analyze a person from one’s own perspective. Not only is this unfair, but it is also inaccurate.
In my opinion, to do a person justice, one has to use a three-prong methodology. The analysis has to be based in a measurement of the person’s political, ethical, and contribution-to-humanity perspectives. So, let’s apply this formulaic approach to Gabo and see how he comes out.
Gabo leaned to the left when it came to his political views. One can argue that the genesis of his leftist ideology comes from the Banana Massacre of 1928. Gabo was only 1-year old when this incident took place, but Hispanics as a whole tend to be very nationalistic when it comes to their birthplace and don’t forget easily an affront to their country or their home town. The majority of Hispanics live in a world where the contributions of Latin America have been belittled for so long that their natural posture always tends to be a defensive one.
Gabo was born in Aracataca, a town near Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Its economy flourished until the workers of the banana plantations in nearby Cienaga went on strike in December 1928. The workers were fighting for written contracts, eight-hour work days, six-day work-weeks, and the elimination of food coupons. Rather than negotiate or mediate in good-faith with the workers, the government sent the Colombian army to end the strike. While the exact number of casualties remains in dispute, the estimates range from 47 to as high as 2,000 killed – too many to overlook quietly. The United States Government had threatened to dispatch the U.S. Marines if the Colombian authorities did not act to protect the United Fruit’s interests. Gabo never forgot this slight to his people at the hands of the Colossus of the North.
Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, a prominent liberal politician in Colombia, used his lawyerly skills to fight for workers’ rights, and demanded accountability of those involved in the Banana Massacre of 1928. While a presidential candidate, Gaitan was assassinated on April 9, 1948. This incident triggered a 10-hour riot, popularly known as the “Bogotazo,” that resulted in 3,000 to 5,000 deaths and thousands injured. While many conspiracy theories emerged for Gaitan’s assassination, one points the finger at the CIA. It is not farfetched to conclude that this turn of events caused Gabo to become more anti-American.
The next step in his political development came as no surprise. Anyone who stood up and spoke truth to the powerful North Americans became a natural ally of Gabo. Thus, he befriended Fidel Castro, who returned the favor by making Gabo a member of his inner-circle. Fidel ensured that Gabo led a VIP life in Cuba by gifting him a mansion and a Mercedes, while Gabo authored articles that portrayed Fidel’s exploits in the best light and criticized Washington’s interventions in Vietnam and Chile.
Both men used hyperbole to compliment each other. Fidel once referred to Gabo as a man with “the goodness of a child and a cosmic talent.” Gabo praised Fidel for “his love of verbs, his power of seduction.”
Gabo was also not impressed during his many stays in Europe. His writings reflected his belief that Europeans looked down on Latin Americans despite the fact that European societies were in decline. To make his point, he indicated in one of his speeches that Europeans “insist on measuring us with the yardstick that they use for themselves, forgetting that the ravages of life are not the same for all, and that the quest for our own identity is just as arduous and bloody for us as it was for them.”
In essence, Gabo’s close friendship with Fidel emanated from his strong commitment with the poor and the weak against national oppression in the 1970’s — together with the foreign exploitation in the region that re-ignited his anti-Yankee feelings that he had acquired during his youth.
A dictator is someone who reaches power by force, by ignoring the will of the people. To quote Malcolm X, they believe in attaining power “by all means necessary,” and staying in power for as long as it is feasible “by all means necessary.” To meet their objectives, they resort to force and torture to subjugate their detractors. History has seen its share of dictators from the right and from the left. Both have oppressed the people whom they were supposed to look after.
Gabo, like many Latin-American intellectuals, suffered the bad habit of criticizing right-wing dictators, while ignoring the human-rights abuses of left-wing dictators. While bitterly opposing General Augusto Pinochet of Chile, he befriended Fidel Castro of Cuba.
It is morally unethical to choose sides when deciding which dictator to embrace. One who is honest to his/her ideals must oppose both types of dictators, as both have robbed their people of the right to choose their own destinies. Therefore, Gabo’s critics are justified in their criticism of him for his double-standard.
Those Cuban-Americans who have harshly criticized Gabo for his immense lack of judgment in befriending Fidel Castro cannot be ignored. Fidel came to power by force in 1959 and ruled Cuba with an iron fist until turning over the reins of power, without holding elections, to his brother Raul in 2008. Food shortages, low wages, absence of labor unions, high prostitution rate, and constant harassment and mysterious deaths or long prison sentences of dissidents have been the law of the land during the reign of the Castro brothers. The long-suffering Cubans have not seen a “Cuba Libre” in over sixty years!
It is difficult to ignore the fact that the same abuses that molded Gabo’s political views during the Banana Massacre in 1928 are the same ones that the Castro brothers are guilty of.
When Jorge Ramos, the controversial news anchor for Univision, asked Gabo to explain his friendship with Fidel Castro, it was Gabo’s wife Mercedes who responded for both. She indicated that “We have known him [Fidel] for a long time.” “He’s our friend; it’s too late to change now.”
It is never too late to change in the pursuit of justice.
CONSTRIBUTIONS TO HUMANITY
Gabo became the first Colombian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982, and the first South American to do so since Pablo Neruda in 1971.
“One Hundred Years of Solitude,” his most famous novel, has been translated into more than 25 languages, and sold more than 50 million copies. Pablo Neruda described the novel as “the greatest revelation in the Spanish language since Don Quijote of Cervantes.” The Spanish Royal Academy, the final authority of the Spanish language, issued a special edition of the novel during its 40th anniversary – a feat done for just one other book, Cervantes’ “Don Quijote.”
Heads of states and famous writers mourned Gabo’s death. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said “A thousand years of loneliness and sadness for the death of the greatest Colombian of all time!” President Barack Obama stated “With the passing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the world has lost one of its greatest visionary writers.” Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa, who feuded with Gabo in the past, admitted that “A great man has died, one whose works gave the literature of our language great reach and prestige.” And British novelist Ian McEwan explained that “one would really have to go back to Dickens to find a writer of the highest literary quality who commanded such extraordinary power over whole populations.”
One can understand Gabo’s political views by studying how he acquired them. Some may agree with them, while others may object to them. Everyone has the right to his/her opinions in the “free” world of ideas. But, understanding and agreeing are two different things. Those who praise him and those who criticize Gabo may understand how he acquired his left-wing views, while disagreeing on how to judge him.
On the other hand, it is impossible to justify Gabo’s criticism of right-wing dictators and his solidarity with left-wing totalitarian dictators like Fidel Castro. Often, loyalty and friendship are incompatible with ethically-consistent demeanor. When the two do not intersect, one must choose the right path, the road less traveled. Gabo chose the wrong path, the easier path.
In conclusion, if we are to assess Gabo on the three aspects of his life – his political views, ethical behavior, and contributions to humanity – there is little doubt that his literary contributions were enormous and long lasting. They surpassed his political views and moral compass. He was a giant in the literary world, and he brought long-denied recognition to the men and women of letters of Latin America.