Gabriel García Márquez, whose absence will continue to be mourned for a very long time and whose depth of vision and compassion – not to mention his words – will continue to be celebrated long after that, was not just someone who thought deeply and wrote eloquently about the human condition. He was also actively engaged in doing something about it. He ardently espoused socialism but vehemently criticised purported ‘socialist’ regimes who let dogmas override the real lives of real people. He spoke of the possibility of communities and nations forging their own solutions and imagining their own ways of life,in Our Own Brand of Socialism– a 1983 interview with his friend, the writer and diplomat Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, for The New Left Review.
Exerpts from that conversation:
Can we look over the way your political ideas have developed? Your father is a Conservative…. In Colombia, we say being a Conservative or Liberal depends on what your father is, but yours obviously didn’t influence your politics at all because you opted for the left very early on. Was this political stance a reaction against your family?
Not against my family as such, because, you must remember that although my father is a Conservative, my grandfather, the Colonel, was a liberal. My political ideas probably came from him to begin with because, instead of telling me fairy tales when I was young, he would regale me with horrifying accounts of the last civil war that free-thinkers and anti-clerics waged against the Conservative government. My grandfather also told me about the massacre of the banana workers which took place in Antarctica the year I was born. So, you see, my family influenced me towards rebellion rather than towards upholding the established order.
Do you remember where and when you read your first political texts?
In my secondary school in Zipaquirá. It was full of teachers who’d been taught by a Marxist in the Teachers’ Training College under President López’s leftist government in the thirties. The algebra teacher would give us classes on historical materialism during break, the chemistry teacher would tell us about the class struggle. When I left that icy prison I’d no idea where north and south were but I did have two very strong convictions. One was that good novels must be a poetic transposition of reality, and the other was that mankind’s immediate future lay in socialism.
Did you ever belong to the Communist Party?
I belonged to a cell for a short time when I was twenty but I don’t remember doing anything of interest. I was more of a sympathizer than a real militant. Since then, my relationship with the Communists has had many ups and downs. We’ve often been at loggerheads because every time I adopt a stance they don’t like their newspapers really have a go at me. But I’ve never publicly condemned them, even at the worst moments.
You and I travelled around East Germany together in 1957 and in spite of the fact we’d pinned our hopes on socialism, we did not like what we saw. Did that trip alter your political conviction?
It did affect my political ideas quite decisively. If you think back, I put my impressions of that trip on record at that time in a series of articles for a Bogotá magazine. The articles were pirated and published some twenty years later – not, I imagine, out of any journalistic or political interest, but to show up the supposed contradictions in my personal political development.
Were there any contradictions?
No, there were not. I made the book legal and included it in volumes of my complete works which are sold in popular editionson every street corner in Colombia. I haven’t changed a single word. What’s more, I think an explanation of the origins of the current Polish crisis is to be found in those articles which the dogmatists of the time said were paid by the United States. The amusing thing is that those dogmatists today, twenty-four years later, we ensconced in the comfortable armchairs of the bourgeois political and financial establishment, while history is proving me right.
And what did you think of the so-called People’s Democracies?
The central premise of those articles is that the People’s Democracies were not authentically socialist nor would they ever be if they followed the path they were on, because the system did not recognize the specific conditions prevailing in each country. It was a system imposed from the outside by the Soviet Union through dogmatic, unimaginative local Communist Parties whose sole thought was to enforce the Soviet Model in a society where it did not fit.
Let’s move on to another of our shared experiences – our days in Prensa Latina, the Cuban News agency. You and I both resigned when the old Cuban Communist Party began taking over from many of the institutions of the Revolution. Do you think we made the right decision? Or do you think it was just a hiccup in a long process which we failed to see as such?
I think our decision to leave Prensa Latina was correct. If we’d stayed on, with our views, we’d have ended up being slung out with one of those labels on our forehead – ‘counter-revolutionary’, ‘imperialist lackey’ and so on – that the dogmatists of the day used to stick on you. What I did, if you remember, was to remove myself to the sidelines. I watched the evolution of the Cuban process closely and carefully while I wrote my books and film scripts in Mexico. My view is that although the Revolution took a difficult and sometimes contradictory course after the initial stormy upheavals, it still offers the prospect of a social order which is more democratic, more just and more suited to our needs.
Are you sure? Don’t the same causes produce the same effects? If Cuba adopts the Soviet system as a model (one-party states, democratic centralism, government controlled unions, security organisations, exercising a tight control over the population), won’t this ‘just, democratic order’ be as difficult to achieve there as it is in the Soviet Union? Aren’t you afraid of this?
The problem with this analysis is its point of departure. You start from the premise that Cuba is a Soviet satellite and I do not believe it is. I think that the Cuban Revolution has been in a state of emergency for twenty years thanks to the hostility and incomprehension of the United States, who will not tolerate an alternative system of government ninety miles off the Florida coast. This is not the fault of the Soviet Union, without whose assistance (whatever its motives and aims may be), the Cuban Revolution would not exist today. When hostility persists, the situation in Cuba can only be judged in terms of a state of emergency which forces them to act defensively and outside their natural historical, geographical and cultural sphere.
Fidel Castro supported Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia of interest. When the situation returns to normal, we can discuss again. In 1968 (with certain reservations it is true),what position did you take?
I made a public protest at the time and would do the same again should the same situation arise. The only difference between my position and Fidel Castro’s (we don’t see eye to eye on everything) is that he ended up justifying Soviet intervention and I never would. However, the analysis he made in his speech on the internal situation of the People’s Democracies was much more critical and forceful than the one I made in the articles we were talking about a moment ago. In any case, the future of Latin America is not and never will be played out in Hungary, Poland or Czechoslovakia, but in Latin America itself. To think anything else is a European obsession; and some of tour political questions smack of that obsession.
In the seventies after the Soviet poet Heberto Padilla’s famous ‘self-criticism’, some of your friends, myself included, distanced ourselves from the Cuban regime. You didn’t. You didn’t sign the telegram of protest we sent, you went back to Cuba and became a friend of Fidel. What made you adopt a much more favourable attitude towards the Cuban regime?
Better information about what really happened, and a mature political outlook, which made it possible for me to view the situation with more calm, patience and human understanding.
A great many writers in Latin America besides yourself talk of socialism (Marxist-Leninist) as a desirable alternative. Don’t you think this is rather[an] ‘old-fashioned’ socialism somehow? Socialism is no longer a generous abstraction but a rather unattractive reality. Do you agree? After what has happened in Poland nobody can believe that the working class is in power in those countries. Can you see a third option for our continent between decadent capitalism and decadent ‘socialism’?
I don’t believe in one third option. I believe there are many alternatives – perhaps even as many alternatives as there are countries in our Americas, including the United States. I am convinced that we have to find our own solutions. We can benefit, wherever possible, from what other continents have achieved in their long turbulent histories but we must not go on copying from them mechanically as we have done until now. This is how we can eventually achieve our own brand of socialism.
Talking of other options, what role do you see Mitterrand’s government playing in Latin America?
At a lunch in Mexico recently, President Mitterrand asked a group of writers “What do you expect from France?” Their reply provoked a discussion which veered towards who was the principal enemy of whom. The Europeans at the table, convinced that they were on the brink of some new Yalta-style carve-up of the world, said their principal enemy was the Soviet Union. We Latin Americans said our principal enemy was the United States. I answered the President’s question (the same one you are asking now) by saying, “Since we each have our own Enemy Number One, what we need in Latin America is a Friend Number One. Socialist France can be that friend.”
Do you believe that democracy as it exists in the developed capitalist countries is possible in the Third World?
Democracy in the developed world is a product of theirown development and not the other way round. To try and implant it in its raw state in countries (likes those of Latin America) with, quote, different cultures is as mimetic and unrealistic as trying to implant the Soviet system there.
So you think democracy is a kind of luxury for rich countries?Remember that democracy carries with it the defence of human rights for which you fought so….
I am not talking about democratic principles but democratic forms.
Incidentally what is the result of your long battle for human rights in terms of success and failure?
It’s very difficult to measure. There are no precise or immediate results with work like mine in the field of human rights. They often come when you’re least expecting them and through a combination of factors in which it is impossible to assess the part played by your own particular action. This work is a lesson in humility for a famous writer like me, who is used to success.
Which of all the actions you’ve undertaken has given you the most satisfaction?
The action which gave me the most immediate personal satisfaction was the one I undertook just before the Sandinist victory in Nicaragua. Tomás Borge, who is now the Interior Minister, asked me to think up a good way of putting pressure on Somoza to allow his wife and seven-year-old daughter to leave the Colombian Embassy in Managua where they had asked for asylum. The dictator was refusing them a safe conduct, because they were the family of no less person than the last surviving founder-member of the Sandinist Front. Tomás Borge and I turned the problem over the several hours until we came up with a useful point – the little girl had once had a kidney infection. We asked a doctor how her present conditions would affect this, and his answer gave us the argument we were looking for. Less than forty-eight hours later, mother and daughter were in Mexico, thanks to a safe conduct granted on humanitarian, not political, grounds.
My most discouraging case, on the other hand, was when I helped free two English bankers who’d been kidnapped by guerrillas in El Salvador in 1979. Their names were Ian Massie and Michael Chaterton, and they were going to be executed within forty-eight hours because no agreement had been reached between the two parties. General Omar Torrijos telephoned me on behalf of the kidnapped men’s families and asked me to help save them. I relayed the message to the guerrillas through the numerous intermediaries and it arrived in time. I promised to arrange for the ransom negotiations to resume immediately, and they agreed. Then I asked Graham Greene, who lives in Antibes, to make the contacts on the English side. The negotiations between the guerrillas and the bank lasted for four months. It had been agreed that neither Graham Greene nor I would take any part in the actual negotiations but, whenever there was a hitch, one side or the other would get in contact with me to try and get the talks going again. The bankers were freed but neither Graham Greene nor myself received a single word of thanks. It wasn’t very important, of course, but I was rather surprised. After a lot of thought, I came up with an explanation – Greene and I had arranged things so well that the English must have thought we were in cahoots with the guerrillas.
Many people look on you as sort of roving ambassador in the Caribbean – a goodwill ambassador, of course. You’re a personal friend of Castro but also of Torrijos in Panama, of Carlos Andrés Pérez in Venezuela, of Alfonso López Michelson in Colombia, of the Sandinists in Nicaragua… You are a privileged interlocutor to all of them. What motivates you to adopt this role?
The three figures you mention were in power at the same time – a very crucial time for the Caribbean. It was a very fortunate co-incidence, and a great pity that they could not have co-operated as they did for longer. There was a moment when the three of them, working with Castro and a President like Jimmy Carter in the United States, could, without a doubt, have put this area of conflict on the right track. There was a continuous, very positive dialogue taking place among them. I not only witnessed it but helped in it whenever I could. I think that Central America and the Caribbean (for me they are one and the same thing and I don’t understand why they are called two different things) have reached a stage of development and a point in their history when they are ready to break out their traditional stagnation; but I also believe that the United States will frustrate any such attempt because it means giving up very old and important privileges. For all his limitations, Carter was the best party to this dialogue the Caribbean has had in the last few years and the fact that his Presidency coincided with that of Torrijos, Carlos Andrés Pérez and López Michelsen was very important indeed. It was this particular situation and conviction which encouraged me to get involved, however modestly. My role was simply that of an unofficial intermediary in a process which would have gone a lot further had it not been for the catastrophic election of an American President who represented diametrically opposite interests. Torrijos used to say that my work was ‘secret diplomacy’, and he often said in public that I had a way of making bad news seem like good. I never knew if this was a reproach or a compliment.
What type of government would you like to see in your own country?
Any government which would make the poor happy. Just think of it!