The Extraordinary Stories of Claribel Alegría

The Extraordinary Stories of Claribel Alegría

Escape and Tyrannicide

The extraordinary stories of Claribel Alegría.


Poet and journalist Claribel Alegría passed away on January 25. The following is a review by Chuck Wachtel of two her books, co-written with her husband and translator Darwin Flakoll.

Because the extraordinary stories in these two books are true, they were first told clandestinely and to a very small audience: Claribel Alegría, a Salvadoran poet who lives in Managua, and her husband, the writer and translator Darwin Flakoll, who died in the spring of 1995. The first, Tunnel to Canto Grande, gathers together the accounts of the members of Peru’s Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) who spent more than two years digging a tunnel into the Miguel Castro y Castro Penitentiary, a modern, high-security, “escape-proof” prison outside Lima known as Canto Grande (Big Rock), and freed 48 political prisoners. The second, Death of Sonzoza, relates the story of the assassination of the third and last member of the tyrannical Somoza dynasty, in 1980, as told by the survivors of the commando team who carried it out. Though their outcomes are now history, these stories occurred in secrecy, and if their first narrators were to tell them publicly, it would endanger their lives and freedom.

These first-person accounts braided together by Alegría and Flakoll are at once romances of liberation struggle and the testimonies of ordinary people. Within them are tales of love, jealousy, boredom, barbecues, arguments over “what one should wear,” backaches, sprained ankles and happy reunions; within them are people not entirely unlike the gentle civilians who air their conflicts in the public court of Oprah Winfrey. Yet they are also people willing to forgo the pleasures of civilian life and devote all their energy—at great risk—to achieve ends that are real, in their most immediate terms, and symbolic in what they tell the world.

Reading from within the context of our relentless, in-focused lives inside the cave of market/campaign culture, it was difficult at first not to endow these narratives with the distance from actuality we so freely lend to fiction or ancient history. For the most part, significant news accounts of recent history, once brought into the current environment of our public language, become, like advertising, the medium of persuasion: There seem to be no human facts at their centers. I found myself reading these books and thinking: These stories are compelling and believable, and, what’s more, the people who inhabit and narrate them are plausible, singular, dynamic beings… This must be fiction. What else could it be?

Although both narratives occur in the context of a half-century of struggle in Latin America, from Cuba to Chiapas, other contexts kept arising to complicate my sense of them. Reading Death of Somoza, a story of unapologetic tyrannicide, brought to mind two vastly dissimilar events in the recent history of this hemisphere: the capture of Adolf Eichmann by Israeli volunteers in Argentina in 1960; and the 1989 invasion of Panama, at a cost of countless civilian lives, ostensibly to bring a single criminal to justice. It is impossible to read Tunnel to Canto Grande and not compare it to The Great Escape, the 1962 John Sturges film based on an account by Paul Brickhill, an RAF pilot who’d been a prisoner in the German POW camp where the escape took place.

The first of three escape tunnels dug by members of MRTA at Canto Grande began inside the prison, as did the tunnel in the movie. When “Jaime,” one of the imprisoned MRTA members, was released, he and members of the MRTA directorate concluded it would never be possible to tunnel out. “There is no record of who experienced the flash of illumination that inverted the terms of the problem: ‘If the compañeros can’t dig their way out of Canto Grande, why don’t we dig our way in and bring them out? ’

This was in mid-1987, when a number of MRTA members who’d recently been arrested for political activity, or had been transferred from other, less secure prisons, were inside Canto Grande. The first problem to solve was finding a safe house within tunneling distance of the prison, and moving in tenants with a plausible reason for being there. Next, they had to invent systems for bringing in and hiding diggers and tools, and carrying out the tons of dirt that had to be transported and dumped in secrecy. Then came the problems of plotting the tunnel’s course with little ground-surface reference, of shoring up the walls and ceiling, breaking up and removing enormous subterranean boulders, and doing it all quietly. Ventilation became increasingly difficult as the tunnel lengthened. Respiratory and skin ailments became more and more common. Progress was painfully slow. Add to these the inevitable social problems: Two diggers fell in love with the “wife” of the couple who maintained the safe house. Arguments arose.

Three years elapsed from the time planning began until July 9, 1990, when “Antonio,” one of the diggers, felt the earth cave in over his head. He threw himself backward so as not to be buried, but the quantity of earth coming down was small. “I inched forward and found myself looking up at a dim round light…. I began to realize I was looking up at the sky. It was 6:30, twilight time, and the light was dim.” The tunnelers had broken ground inside the prison.

Before sunrise, forty-eight MRTA members, men and women, eluded guards and, for the most part, the notice of other prisoners, and made their way to the small open shaft. From there they scrambled through the hundreds of yards of tunnel, climbed up into the safe house, then got into the trucks that brought them and the team of diggers to temporary safe houses.

On July 17, 1979, Anastasio Somoza Debayle fled Managua with his wife and mistress, two zinc coffins carrying the bodies of his father and brother, his top military and civilian aides, eight parrots and every cordoba he could plunder from the national reserves of Nicaragua’s central bank. He left behind enough money to run the country for two days, the legacy of the systematic looting that characterized his family’s forty-three-year rule.

Shortly after arriving at his mansion in Miami, he received a phone call from Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher informing him that his welcome to the United States had been withdrawn. “Once again, I was forced to confront the treachery of Jimmy Carter,” he wrote in his memoir, Nicaragua Betrayed (1980). After a brief stay on Great Exuma Island in the Bahamas, he arrived at what would be his final home, a posh neighborhood in Asunción, Paraguay.

Of the many problems facing the commando team (members of the Revolutionary Workers Party of Argentina) that would carry out his assassination on September 17, 1980, the most difficult to solve was establishing ways of keeping him under surveillance. They went for walks in his neighborhood as often as, was safely possible, and shopped where “husbands” could wait in cars and observe Somoza’s street. Surprisingly, problems of smuggling in weapons—including an RPGbazooka—and finding a safe house to live in proved easier to solve. Forty days went by before they even caught sight of him. Once they had, a more intensive surveillance began, to discover the few consistent patterns in his movements.

Next, a base of operations had to be set up along the street on which Somoza’s white Mercedes-Benz, and the red Ford Falcon that carried his personal guard, most frequently traveled. Renting a house in this affluent suburb was difficult. Landlords were wary: President Stroessner lived nearby; the army general staff building and the US. Embassy were both located there. “Julia,” one of the team members, confided to the owner of the house they wanted to rent that it was needed for a special purpose:

“I’m going to tell you the truth, Madame; but I beg you to observe the greatest discretion, because for us it is a very delicate situation…”

“Yes, yes, of course, certainly, but who is it for?”

“Very well,” I said, “it’s for Julio Iglesias who is going to film a picture here in Paraguay.”

“Uy!” she said. “I can’t be-l-ieve it! My house is going to be famous.”

I thought to myself: “It most certainly is, but not for the reason you think.”

Although Death of Somoza contains many other ironic and even darkly humorous moments, it is an utterly-and deadly-serious account of the planning, preparation and carrying out of an assassination. The commandos who freely told their story to Alegría and Flakoll spoke of the necessity of bringing a repressive tyrant to justice: Somoza had begun to fund and orchestrate the counterrevolution and had vowed to return to Nicaragua within six months. They spoke only of doing humanity a service. In Nicaragua, the day following Somoza’s death became a spontaneous holiday of rejoicing. El Nuevo Diario said: “For some, the presence in any country on earth of the bloody-handed ex-dictator, was a serious threat to our tranquility and peace. Only the physical disappearance of the genocidal tyrant could bring us relief.” That same day, Stroessner ordered the largest manhunt in Paraguayan history. He closed the borders and offered a reward of 4 million guaranís to anyone with information as to the whereabouts of the commando team, one of whom, “Santiago,” was killed by police in Asunción. (Had he lived, we would not know his real name: Hugo Irurzún.)

In The Great Escape, Paul Brickhill wrote, “I suppose it is romantic now. It wasn’t then. Life was too real, grim and earnest.” That sentiment captures the trip I took inside these books, covering the distance between the romantic and the utterly real: from reader to witness. I envisioned endless days spent scratching through dirt and breaking up boulders in a dark, badly ventilated space; weeks of waiting, filled with anxious boredom and great danger, in the hopes of gaining a glimpse of a man whose life you will endeavor to take, even at the cost of your own. I traveled into the romantic and out the other side. Then, however, I traveled back again. These are stories of people committed, at great personal cost, to reshaping history into an environment suitable for the rest of us real people. Of course, these books are romances. The spirit of their romance lies in the fact that they are true.

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