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Our Hand in Latin America

In 1979, a small group of plotters with access to the legal archives of Brazil began covertly photocopying files that chronicled–by date, place, victim, and torturer–a reign of terror from which their country was just beginning to emerge.

They copied over a million pages, the case histories of hundreds of victims. And in 1985 they brought out, with no prior notice whatsoever, the book Brasil: Nunca Mais, a record of the depredations. By restoring truth, this brave act helped redeem Brazil. And with the military that had seized power in 1964 now hovering ominously over a new civilian government, there was this sea change: never again could a torturer smugly tell his victim, “Go ahead and scream–no one will ever hear you,” entirely confident that no one would.

So delicate was the Brasil: Nunca Mais project that at publication only two persons allowed themselves to be publicly identified with it. One was the project’s personal sponsor, the archbishop of Sao Paulo, Paulo Evaristo Cardinal Arns (the other was a Presbyterian minister, Jaime Wright, whose brother had been tortured and murdered). The pope did not appreciate Cardinal Arns’s efforts. The Vatican later divided Arns’s vast archdiocese into five, giving Arns the richest, most conservative areas while placing conservative prelates over everyone else. “Liberation theology,” as understood today in Rome, is not tolerated by the Vatican in Latin America.

“You have some of the most full-hearted people anywhere working in the Latin American church,” author Lawrence Weschler was telling us. “The tragedy is that John Paul cannot see the similarities. When Arns was trying to do things the Vatican felt were too radical he’d say, ‘I’m not at all committing apostasy. I’m doing in Brazil what the Holy Father does in his native Poland.'”

Weschler knows firsthand the effects of the pope’s moral authority in Poland, where Weschler (yearning for “somewhere where politics mattered”) first visited shortly after Ronald Reagan’s 1981 inauguration. Over the years Weschler has chronicled the Polish drama in several New Yorker articles and a 1982 book.

“But in fact,” said Weschler, “the Holy Father is just decimating the church in Brazil. . . . One of the great ironies is that Arns is one of the cardinals who engineered John Paul’s ascension [in 1978]. He brought Latin American cardinals around to the idea of a non-Italian pope.”

Weschler was in Chicago last week in connection with his new book, A Miracle, a Universe: Settling Accounts With Torturers, his accounts of Brazil’s and Uruguay’s spiritual transitions back to democracy. He told us that nobody wants to read about torture, a problem he hopes he’s solved by telling tales that are genuinely thrilling, like the Nunca Mais intrigue.

The critical light in which Weschler holds the pope falls on the American people as well. “You can’t understand what’s going on in Eastern Europe unless you understand what’s going on in Latin America,” Weschler insists, but thinks that few Americans see Latin America any more clearly than John Paul.

“In Eastern Europe there’s no doubt the liberation from the yoke of Communism is enormously exhilarating, but those countries have huge problems. To some extent they’ve been sold a bill of goods,” Weschler told us. “It might be that Communism at root is fatally flawed and is more horrible than the thing it’s trying to address. But the thing it tries to address is pretty horrible, as the people in Eastern Europe are going to find out. . . . Ryszard Kapuscinski, a Polish writer, said, ‘We’ll become like Latin America. There will be a polarization of wealth. Intellectuals will loosen themselves from society. There will be a hovering intellectual cloud and we will enter cycles of democracy and populism and demagogic totalitarianism.'”

Weschler said, “Real existing capitalism is not just Sweden, West Germany, and Japan. It’s also the Philippines, Brazil, and Mexico. While the Poles are told if they sacrifice they’ll be Sweden in a few years, it’s much more likely they’ll be Mexico in a few years. Some will do very well in Poland. Others, like shipyard workers, stand to do very badly. And the International Monetary Fund will be in there saying you have to cut back. These are the kinds of shock tranistions Latin Americans know about.

“There’s been the trope of the East German workers looking at the luxury motorcycles in West Berlin emporiums. The subtext was that if they were West Germans they would have this cycle. A: Most West Germans can’t afford it. B: The Turkish guest workers can’t afford it. C: Nobody in Brazil can afford it.”

Last year, Brazil held its first elections since the military coup of 1964, Chile its first since the coup of ’73. Compared to all the good news from Eastern Europe, coverage was almost nonexistent. And so far as Weschler could see, “not a single mention was made of U.S. involvement in the coups that brought about the dictatorships just ending. Conversely, hardly ever, when Hungary and Czechoslovakia were mentioned, was there a failure to mention the Soviet invasions of ’56 and ’68.”

Perhaps Americans are not moved by the suffering of Latin Americans because we spot behind it not the visages of evil Soviets but our own pleasant faces. Weschler’s book mentions the helpful roles played by Ambassador Lincoln Gordon and military attache Vernon Walters in the Brazilian generals’ coup of 1964. He reports that George Bush’s new ambassador to Brazil, Richard Melton, was identified by a former political prisoner as the consular official who interrogated him in a Recife jail in 1968 shortly after he’d been tortured there. This charge, which stirred up considerable opposition inside Brazil to Melton’s appointment, “was never aired by the major U.S. media,” Weschler comments.

And he told us that the authors of Brasil: Nunca Mais interpreted the Brazilian generals’ “doctrine of national security” as an American export given a native spin. Weschler writes that 80 percent of the senior officers in the “core group” of Brazil’s first military government had been trained in the U.S. Notions of an enemy within, which did damage enough to American society in the 50s, did much worse abroad.

Weschler doesn’t belabor the American hand in Latin America, but we said we sensed that it disgusted him.

“I guess what’s disgusting is the unconsciousness of it,” Weschler said. “I hold we’re a democracy. Oliver North doesn’t do these things. Henry Kissinger doesn’t do these things. We do these things. Reagan’s forgetfulness is a perfect token of the American body politic as a whole.

“There’s this wonderful quote of George Kennan,” said Weschler. It’s in Weschler’s book: “We have about 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population. . . . In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment.”

What Kennan was describing in his 1948 State Department memo, Weschler observed, was a world on which the United States sat much as ruling cliques sat on the third world. “It’s not useful to think of the USA as the contiguous states of the United States,” Weschler told us. “America is also those people who shop in Miami. El Salvadorans who shop in Miami have more in common with us than they do with El Salvador.

“To some extent, the doctrine of national security is the concoction benefiting all these ‘Americans.’ It preserves that 6.3 percent no matter where it happens to be. To the extent it’s based on torture we should be aware of it and try to decide if we want to live lives based on that.”

But as Weschler said, tell journalists to take Latin America seriously and their eyes glaze over. “The Brazilian election was a cliff-hanger,” he said. “Latin America’s largest democracy came within a hair of electing the head of the Workers’ Party–Luis Inacio da Silva, ‘Lula,’ he’s every bit as interesting and charismatic as Lech Walesa. They’re the same age, have parallel careers. . . . Lula was jailed, there was a period when he seemed washed up, repression seemed to have worked, but he became head of his party. In December 1989, the same days Havel had 400,000 people in rallies in Prague, Lula had a million in Sao Paulo and Rio.

“Walesa came to the United States in November and got blanket coverage. Lula came three months earlier and wasn’t mentioned anywhere.”

The Story That Wrote Itself

Just a coincidence. . .

Skyline April 19: “Terry and Walt Rucker say it was their Christian faith that led them to become foster parents and take a 5-year-old AIDS-infected child into their Ravenswood home.”

Chicago Tribune, April 20: “For Walt and Terry Rucker, it is a matter of faith. Their Christian beliefs drew them to Moody Church on the Near North Side. The same beliefs drew them to a 5-year-old AIDS-infected child they have taken into their home in the Ravenswood neighborhood.”

Skyline: “Now, ironically, the Ruckers’ own Evangelical church has refused to admit the boy into a children’s Sunday School class.”

Tribune: “But now the Evangelical church has banned the boy from its Sunday school classes.”

Skyline complained to the Tribune. “Those paragraphs were written before I saw the Skyline story,” Tribune reporter Marja Mills told us. “I think it is two reporters absolutely writing the logical lead.”

Cultivating Field’s

For carnal heat in a family publication you can’t beat a newpaper writing about a department store. The Sun-Times devoted five of the first nine pages of last Friday’s paper to the historic news that British interests had sold Marshall Field’s to Minnesota interests. That’s more space than the same paper gave the hostage release and Earth Day combined three days later. And there was no news! The message implicit in every blissful paragraph was this: nothing’s going to change; Field’s is wonderful now and it’ll stay wonderful.

But perhaps in the months ahead, those five pages will thrive and multiply and turn magically into advertising.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.