Heroes of the Revolution: Cuban Ingenuity Keeps American Classics Running

SOUTH OF HAVANA, CUBA –The white ’57 Dodge convertible has perfect banana yellow underpanels with tall matching fins, even though its passenger compartment is all but gutted, save for the steering wheel.

The driver sits on a small wooden crate as he steers past fields of trees fruiting mangos as well as avocados.

He pulls into a cluttered yard with a tin-roofed shed and two small cinder block houses.

Ducks, chickens, and goats all make a racket, as children, followed by adults, come out to see who has arrived. All one can see of Alfredo, the breadwinner for both households, is his slate blue overall legs and sneakers. His back presses not against a dolly but against dirt as he works under the red body and fins of a four-door ’56 Dodge, which was built three years before Fidel Castro came to power.

Alfredo, 33, has been working on cars since he was eleven. His first job, of course, was in a state-owned shop, as by then all private enterprise on the island had long ended.

But things had begun to change by the time Alfredo turned twenty-three, when he began working for himself abajo del agua, or illegally under the water. Although he remains submerged, Alfredo has clients among some of the most discerning classic-car owners in Cuba. Some people like to go fishing. “I like fixing cars,” he explains, “and I like it when my customers are satisfied.”

Cars spanning the decades from the Great Depression to the Cuban Revolution await his care. In the yard is a black ’36 Chevy with skinny whitewall tires, broad running boards, and huge, round, free-standing headlights.

Beneath the barn’s falling roof is a ’49 Dodge convertible, its bench seats restored with creamy buttermilk leather smuggled to the island from Mexico. Next to the Dodge is a ’52 Chevy adorned with a shiny chrome swan. Both later models are painted only with sky blue primer.

Since Castro’s takeover in 1959, Cubans have managed to keep such vehicles running against all odds. Entirely cut off from trade with the United States and living on a communist-run island that prohibited, until recently, nearly all private economic transactions, Cubans have not enjoyed easy access to any consumer goods, let alone American automotive parts. The mechanics who have found ways past that handicap are among the most ingenious people anywhere. Take Alfredo. He compared American and Soviet engine blocks when looking for parts for the former Moscow planners were apparently so impressed by the innovations coming out of Detroit at the dawn of the industry’s golden age that they began copying the designs, and Alfredo discovered that many old Soviet trucks had engine blocks similar to those on many old American cars.

The pistons of a Soviet GAZ-51 truck, for one, are interchangeable with those of many early-fifties Chryslers.

“I learned this myself,” says Alfredo. “I took out each part and studied it, -he adds, holding up two matching pistons, one Russian and one American.”

Alfredo runs his operation like a prohibition-era moonshine still, and his example is now spreading like dandelions across the island. The soil has only been moistened by recent economic reforms. Although the Cuban Communist Party remains firmly in control of the country’s political affairs, Castro finally began loosening the reins over economic transactions in 1989, and then relaxed them more in 1993 following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Throughout the 1990s, dollars have slowly inundated the island, and anyone who can manage to attain them no easy task can now buy everything from disposable diapers to spark plugs.

The economic reforms have been accompanied, too, by a dramatic increase in state corruption, as Cubans pilfer government stockpiles like never before. Diesel fuel, which costs thirty-five U.S. cents per gallon in a legal, government-regulated transaction, can cost as little as five cents a gallon on the black market. While the profiteers risk possible incarceration, their cost for the stolen fuel is nearly zero. In this way, one can now buy anything from sheet metal to GAZ-51 parts dirt cheap. Of course, while widening informal economic transactions only make it easier to restore vintage automobiles, the pace of change overall raises many questions about the future of an island that has lived with a command economy for nearly four decades.

But to try and voice an answer would be dangerous, a risk most Cubans would still rather avoid. “You can swim safely if you keep your mouth closed,” explained another mechanic, Delfín Matos Ortíz. “But if you open your mouth, you may only drink in some water and drown.”

Unlike Alfredo, Ortíz operates legally and pays taxes. He has no choice because he is far better known. As early as 1962 it was apparent to Ortíz, a former shipbuilder, that Cubans would have to fabricate their own engine parts to keep their American cars running. He spent six months painstakingly testing the metal composition of piston rings and taught himself how to make them. Today Ortíz, a great-grandfather, is still doing what he has done for decades, skillfully crafting piston rings for old American engines.

“Every problem has a solution,” he says. “I feel best when I am doing challenging work.” As his wife joyfully serves tea, Ortíz displays some rusted iron tubes and, next to them, several shiny new rings that are tagged for different clients. How does he get from old iron pipes to those? “Well,” he says, “it took me some work to figure it out.”

Back in 1962, just months before the United States and the Soviet Union nearly went to war over the Cuban missile crisis, it became clear that the island and its northern neighbor were no longer going to trade goods. Could Cubans make their own piston rings? Ortíz decided to try. He brought some original rings to a few nearby university friends, who tested their chemical composition while he made ring molds, first out of wood and then out of metal. Relying on the same grapevine that is essential to everyone on the island, Ortíz made deals for equipment and materials. “There was a nickel and chrome factory,” says Ortíz. “They needed seals. I needed nickel.”

It took him about six months before he finally started producing rings that held up under pressure. Word of his craft spread fast. By 1964, Ortíz was producing engine rings for many people, although some were having trouble installing them. So he printed up a single-spaced, two-sided instruction sheet. Ortíz doesn’t just make piston rings for cars. He has made them for all sorts of gasoline-powered engines, and his reputation is so impeccable that his services were once requested by Castro himself. Regardless of what one might think of his strategic vision, the now gray-haired Communist leader has always been an incurable micro-manager, often intervening personally to make even the most mundane decisions. Back in early 1991 at a Politburo meeting, Castro learned that an old gasoline-powered generator in a Havana hospital had long been idle because its rings were shot. “What can we do?” he demanded. A Politburo member from Ortíz’s hometown of Santiago de Cuba told him about the mechanic and his skills.

The Communist Party flew him to Havana. “I spent three months on it,” he says. Though not paid for his time, Ortíz ate and slept at the hospital. It was a job, he adds with a self-effacing grin. “I did it.” Since then, Ortíz has been back in Santiago, quietly going about his business while living with his wife near their five grandchildren and two great- grandchildren. He is not sure what their future will be or what kind of political and economic system they will live under. But he doesn’t expect his own life to change. “As long as there are old cars here, I’ll continue making parts for them,” he says.

A generation younger, Edis de la Torre is among the few people willing to talk openly about politics, and that may be because he remains loyal to the Communist Party and its revolutionary ideals. “In the United States,” he notes, “the [vintage] cars would belong to rich people.” De la Torre has restored many vehicles for his family’s personal use, and he belongs to a community that transcends politics. What binds them is the enthusiasm they share for their automobiles and the common hurdles they have each needed to clear. “We are in solidarity with each other,” De la Torre says. But how do you keep the old cars running without easy access to anything? “No single place to buy parts exists,” he says while slowly shaking his head. There has not been one in Cuba since the early Sixties. “Instead I have had to find them through the grapevine.”

Fellow car owners, mechanics, government workers, party officials, and others have all helped De la Torre obtain parts for every vehicle he has maintained since La Revolución. Choosing models that he thought might last, De la Torre has owned five American classics, one Renault, and Russian motorcycle. When I met him, he was working on his latest, a ’52 Ford. But instead of selling this one after restoring it, as he has the rest, De la Torre is planning to drive a taxi.

This will be a new undertaking, since he has resigned from his abysmally low-paying government job. The Ford was owned by only one other man, De la Torre adds proudly, an architect who bought it back in ’52 directly from the dealer.

De la Torre has just finished the sky blue body, and it looks smooth. The six-cylinder engine, too, sounds clean. The block is original, as is the green vinyl rear bench seat, and the -FoMoCo- markings are still imprinted on the master cylinder. The wiper motors are also factory issue, working off suction generated by the carburetor. But appearances are deceiving. De la Torre points out that the carburetor was made by Ford in Argentina, the twelve-volt battery in Mexico, and the generator in the former Soviet Union.

While he is a self-taught mechanic, Julio, a 65-year-old grandfather, is a trained professional who got is start even before the Cuban revolution.

Just one month after D-Day in World War II, Julio, then only twelve, got his first job working in a car repair shop. He later became an electric motor specialist in his brother’s shop, which remained open for a time even after Castro took power. But by 1967, Castro launched a revolutionary offensive that nationalized nearly all remaining private property: It forced his brother’s shop to close. After that, Julio went to work for the state as an electrician.

Today, he knocks on doors as an unlicensed freelance mechanic, doing far more than just wiring for a growing number of car owners here and there in Havana. And he is revered by many for the patience he brings to each job. When we talk, Julio has just finished rebuilding the transmission of a ’48 Buick. It has a relatively small, straight-eight engine that Julio has also tuned.

Julio hopes to one day open his own repair shop. But only dollars are taken for taxes and rent. “Sure, I would like to open a shop,” he says. “But I don’t have the means to do it.” Julio, like De la Torre, is a taciturn man. Each is the kind of guy who avoids trouble. That’s the only way most people survive in cities like Havana, where the Communist Party, though giving them more room to roam, still tries to rein people in as if they were horses.

But elsewhere in Cuba, even right outside Havana, people like the Fernández brothers are already running loose. Oh, and they love speed. Alberto, the second-oldest and clearly the “alpha dog” of his siblings, peels out in the middle of a two-lane highway and then does fishtails in a teal ’58 Ford Thunderbird convertible, just to show off. It has a dual exhaust and a loud, bubbling V-8. It’s scary to watch him weave around opposing lanes of traffic especially since he’s just downed a few beers.

Finally, he gets off the road and turns off the ignition. He takes another can of beer, shakes it up, and sprays it. The Fernández brothers don’t bother about appearances. Take their Ford, a mean-looking T-bird with its convertible top long gone, revealing a rusted metal frame. Nor does it have any frills. No taillights, no headlights, not even a grille. No wipers. And inside? Nope, no dash.

There is little above the sheet metal floor but a makeshift seat. In fact, the T-bird’s only aesthetic distinction is its original chrome spoked wheels. Another original part that is long since gone is the double-barrel American carburetor. Alberto says that he and his brothers have installed a more efficient Soviet carburetor in the Thunderbird to save on gasoline. But they keep the American one safely oiled and stored and sometimes still install it for special occasions.

For racing, Alberto says, grinning. Sometimes we challenge them, sometimes they challenge us.

He adds without irony: “Yeah, for money.”

Frank Smyth, a freelance journalist who has also served as an investigative consultant for Human Rights Watch as well as Amnesty International, is a contributor to Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know, edited by Roy Gutman and David Rieff.

Letter from Havana: Gays, Catholics, and Transvestites in the New Cuba

Che Guevara would have been puzzled by the joy of this past Christmas in Cuba, the first time this traditionally Catholic island has officially celebrated the holiday since the revolution. But Christmas isn’t the only thing that might confuse Che as 1999 begins, marking the 40th anniversary of the Cuban revolution.

Imagine him walking into, say, the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) No. 12, a Communist Party meeting hall in central Havana. Back in the old days — meaning anytime while Cuba’s economy was still being subsidized by the Soviet Union — he might have found party loyalists gathered beneath its stucco arches discussing what it would take for an aspiring individual to become a truly selfless communist or what Che called “The New Man.”

There was certainly a new man down at CDR No. 12 one sweaty Friday night last year. Calling herself “Dianna,” she wore a retrograde, psychedelic multicolored dress with gold glitter while waving a plastic fan by her face to keep her blue mascara from running. Her dark hair was tied up in a bun with a gaudy plastic ornament, at the center of which was a rose. Dianna, one of 12 contestants waiting to perform in a transvestite lip-syncing competition — now held at CDR No. 12 twice a year — fretted back stage behind a curtain made of plastic sheets painted black.

Facing the stage, wooden benches were filled with people of all ages and genders. Behind the curtain and backstage area, families with children perched atop what remained of the CDR’s crumbling rear wall and nearby falling buildings. Everyone waved whenever a BBC camerawoman panned them. Organizers of the event tested the sound system, briefly playing a song by Pat Benatar in Spanish. The festive mood was intensified by warm rum sold in plastic cups.

“This doesn’t have any political significance,” explained “El Rey” (The King), the master of ceremonies. A big, bearded man wearing a long-sleeve, ultramarine shirt, he declined to further identify himself. “This is a natural development that has finally come,” he went on. “Everything has its moment.”

But it wasn’t long ago — certainly within the last five years — that Cuban Communist Party officials harassed, arrested and even imprisoned transvestites and homosexuals, whom they considered “social deviants” who do society no good. Not any more. With nearly all Cubans fuming about their declining standard of living, the party needs to release lots of steam. Today nonconformists from cross-dressers to Catholics are embraced by party officials — the first ruling Communists anywhere to celebrate Christmas. Catholics and gays are even allowed to evangelize, as long as they do not allow themselves to become platforms for dissent.

What constitutes dissent in a country still under the strict control of the Communist Party is far from clear. But it is obvious that Cuba is changing dramatically. On any given day, La Epoca, the largest dollar store in Havana, is packed with people perusing everything from American brand-name hair coloring to disposable diapers. Everyone on the island either has dollars or wants them. Not unlike the wild market forces that were unleashed in Russia following the breakup of the Soviet Union, supply and demand in Cuba are already rushing to meet.

They don’t always do so respectably. Stimulated by rising demand, mainly from foreigners, prostitution has become commonplace. Cuba is now second only to Southeast Asia as a sex tourism destination. To advertise their services, some professionals wear huge platform heels, even on the beach. More than a few there and elsewhere look like teenagers. In Old Havana, near the Malecon, Havana’s seaside boulevard, I saw one girl, maybe 14, sporting bright green Spandex; she stood wantonly near two uniformed Cuban police.

The island is reaching a new equilibrium as it metamorphoses into a service economy while the productive capacity of the state steadily wanes. Take the island’s brain drain. Though the government makes available no relevant statistics, many of the country’s top professionals have left in recent years, while others have stayed but found other livelihoods. I met a Cuban nuclear physicist and his wife, a doctor, in Bogotá. In Cuba, I rented rooms from families led by a former mechanical engineer and a chemistry professor.

Many students, too, are leaving school as the steady exodus from traditional employment continues. People who can leave the island usually go. Anyone who wants to fly must first collect enough bribe money to negotiate an exit visa. Far more Cubans have paddled out on makeshift wooden rafts. Nearly every Cuban one meets has a relative in Florida, New Jersey or elsewhere in the United States. Most Cubans at least know of someone, too, who died at sea.

Among those who make it, many send back remittances to family members left behind. In 1997, a United Nations study estimated that they totaled around $800 million a year. Most of the dollars that reach the island eventually wind up in state stores like La Epoca. So far the government has maintained its monopoly on foreign consumer goods, and their sales to Cubans earn more for the state now than even foreign sales of the island’s main commodity, sugar.

Lots of state goods, materials and other resources, however, are also flowing away from Cuba. Shadowy street hustlers sell boxes of quality Cohiba cigars (or sometimes only harsh imitations) for far less than they would cost in government stores. Diesel fuel, which costs 35 cents a liter in a legal transaction with a government supplier, can be bought on the black market for as little as five cents a liter.

Across the island, Cubans are pilfering government stockpiles like never before. “They know what’s going on,” said one source who has dealt with party officials. “How could anyone not see it?”

But Fidel Castro’s regime is one that, in the past, did not tolerate corruption. Back in the 1980s, Castro even privately lambasted the Nicaraguan Sandinistas for taking with their own hands from what became widely know as their ” piñata.” Today in Cuba, though Castro still discourages Communist Party members from conspicuous consumption, an unknown number of officials have their own hands inside Cuba’s piñata, which is anything on the island owned by the state. Every day Cubans steal more such candy, while all such theft is only the system’s loss. As long as most of the dollars, however, still eventually find their way to stores like La Epoca, party officials don’t seem to care.

It would be foolish to flag this trend as a sign of Castro’s imminent fall. Now 72, he looks more and more like a stubborn old commander in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel who outlasts everyone. Castro’s old enemy, voluble Miami expatriate Jorge Mas Canosa, died last year.

Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine how the new equilibrium could be self-sustaining over time. The rank corruption that allows it to take place is steadily eroding the social gains of the revolution along with the legitimacy of the state. Despite whatever other criticism one might have of the revolution, Cuba under Castro did succeed like few other developing countries in promoting health services, raising literacy rates and educating its population. Castro also, for better or worse, nationalized private property and produced a society without anyone who was either extremely rich or poor.

Today, however, the quality of all basic services provided by the state, except for those catering to tourists, is declining. At the same time, the underground spread of market forces is only watering criminal syndicates of all kinds that are just beginning to sprout. Meanwhile, the Communist Party has been slow to respond to new challenges like taxation as well as free-market regulation and law enforcement control. New kinds of transactions now occur daily, like the sale of cocaine. Once unheard of on the street in Cuba, it is now available on the Malecon like nearly everything else.

Beneath the veneer of a communist system, the basest kind of capitalist decadence is spreading like mold. Everyone in Cuba, of course, can see it, and the Communist Party youth, especially, has even begun denouncing the fungus out loud. Young Communists often invoke Che, whose memory and example are still widely admired, while promoting a particularly Communist kind of moral revival. They decry the rising rate of prostitution, which they blame on individuals making poor moral choices. Apparently few of these youthful idealists have been to Havana’s Museum of the Revolution, which blames the prostitution that flourished before Castro’s takeover on capitalist decadence and the harsh choices it forced upon young Cuban women.

Che’s New Man was not expected to go for prostitution. But he wasn’t expected to look like Dianna, either. Though she won the last two lip-syncing contests back to back, some of her detractors claim that she had an unfair advantage. At both competitions, Dianna’s supporters, many of whom she knows from the hospital where she is being treated for AIDS, dominated the audience. The detractors say that their raucous applause may have unduly influenced the judges. Nonsense, says Dianna, CDR No. 12’s reigning queen.

Frank Smyth, a freelance journalist who has also served as an investigative consultant for Human Rights Watch as well as Amnesty International, is a contributor to Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know, edited by Roy Gutman and David Rieff.

Silent Struggle

Original article can be found here.

Last week’s missile attack against Sudan also struck Americans like a bolt from the blue. Who knew where Sudan was on the map, let alone that it was a bitter enemy of the U.S.? Actually, the strikes were the culmination of a long struggle within the Clinton administration about how to deal with that nation’s radical regime.

Part of the problem is that the National Islamic Front (NIF), which took over Sudan in a 1989 coup, is insecure about its hold on power. To bolster its position, the NIF has tried to expand Islam regionally, backing radical Islamist (and even fundamentalist Christian) groups against most of its neighbors. At the same time, the NIF has collaborated with Osama Bin Ladin to provide sanctuary as well as training to radical Islamist groups operating worldwide.

In 1993, the Clinton administration put Sudan on the list of nations that sponsor terrorism. Since then, though, officials have quarreled over how much more they should do. Career State Department officials, led by Undersecretary of State Thomas R. Pickering, have argued that dialogue and diplomacy are the best way to change the NIF. But political appointees, led by Assistant Secretary of State Susan E. Rice (formerly with the National Security Council), have countered that the NIF will only respond to force.

Even before the East Africa bombings, the administration was moving toward Rice’s line. After Sudan had expelled Bin Ladin in May 1996, in response to Saudi and American pressure, Pickering argued that it was time to re-open the American Embassy in Khartoum, Sudan (The embassy had been closed since February 1996 because of terrorism fears). But NSC officials, including Rice, thought it should stay shut. In September 1997, while Rice was on maternity leave, Pickering tried what one diplomat calls a “squeeze play.” Without White House authorization, Pickering told his subordinates to leak to the press that the administration would soon reopen the embassy. But a week later, after the news had been reported in both The Washington Post and The New York Times, Rice’s allies at the NSC got the announcement over-ruled. “Albright called Pickering and told him to call the reporters back,” recounts another seventh-floor official.

So the U.S. mission to Sudan remained in Nairobi — bin Laden’s eventual target. And it soon became the site of the largest CIA station in East Africa — a station that coordinates a sophisticated eavesdropping network aimed at Sudan with the cooperation of bordering countries like Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Uganda, which form a coalition of frontline states against the NIF.

The United States’ goal has not merely been to gather information. For at least two years, the Clinton administration has been trying to undermine, if not overthrow, the NIF regime. ‘We want to compel change in how Sudan is governed,” one White House adviser told me in May. Toward that end, the adviser added, last year, the administration promised the anti-NIF states $20 million in nonlethal aid. According to a high level participant, the administration recently sent an interagency team to Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda to explore “humanitarian, development, political, diplomatic, military, and intelligence options.”

The United States’ interest in undermining the NIF is due to more than the regime’s support of Bin Ladin. One of the NIF’s closest foreign allies has been Iraq. According to a former Sudanese army captain who defected to rebel forces, up to 60 Iraqi military specialists rotate through Sudan every six months.

Why is this significant? The ex-captain said some of the Iraqis were involved in some kind of munitions development at the Military Industries Corporation in Khartoum. And Sudanese opposition leaders have long claimed Iraq was helping Sudan develop chemical weapons at installations in Khartoum. They further charge that Sudan has stored chemical weapons for Iraq at a military complex south of Khartoum.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials say soil samples collected outside the pharmaceutical factory targeted in the strike contained traces of a chemical that is an ingredient of VX nerve agent and lacks any known industrial application. Furthermore, The New York Times reported that Iraq bought medicines from the factory and that, according to U.S. officials, one of the leaders of Iraq’s chemical weapons program had close ties to senior Sudanese officials there. Finally, non-American officials told the Times that Iraqi technicians frequently visited another, more heavily guarded factory in Khartoum also suspected of producing chemical weapons.

Of course, these are still allegations. Some of the Sudanese opposition’s other claims — like the story that Iraqis who hijacked a plane to London in 1996 were involved in the chemical weapons program — are clearly preposterous; the hijackers were draft-dodgers. Nor is the evidence cited by U.S. officials necessarily irrefutable. For instance, a British engineer who, until 1996, worked as a manager at the factory targeted in the strike recently told the London Observer that the factory “just does not lend itself to the manufacture of chemical weapons.”

Still, Iraq and Sudan are clearly up to something. Just consider the Sudanese foreign minister’s first reaction to the U.S. strikes: he flew to Baghdad. ”

San Jorge’s Struggle: Guatemalan Village Blocks Resort

Original title: “San Jorge’s Struggle: A Guatemalan Village Blocks a Planned Luxury Resort”

When Jorge found me, I was having coffee with a friend in the lakeside town of Panajachel, Guatemala. Jorge was panting, having peddled a fast mile on his bike from the nearby village of San Jorge de la Laguna or “Saint George by the Lake.” “Hurry, they’re going to hurt people,” he pleaded. Four days into a tense land dispute and occupation, the military had finally arrived. There are ten Mayan villages around Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan, a clear blue basin ringed by mountains including twin giant volcanoes and one lava-induced dwarf. In several villages, people’s first language is Tzhutuhul. In San Jorge and the others it is Cachiquel. The women, especially, from both groups still wear tipica clothing. The general designs and colors are specific to each group, while the patterns and images within them are unique to each village.

I collected my foreign press credential and cassette recorder, while my friend, Michael, a photographer, dusted off his 35mm camera — I didn’t want to cover the situation alone. We drove quickly to San Jorge. Descending a winding dirt road, we came upon two mismatched sides preparing to clash. About 50 armed military police confronted about an equal number of unarmed San Jorge villagers comprised of women, children, and men. Each side was arranged in three lines. The first rows of each were faced off like two touch football teams in a scrimmage. The first line of police wore solid dark blue uniforms and white helmets and wielded black truncheons. The first line of villagers, all women, wore dark red and black smocks known as guipils, embroidered with violet, pink and red flowers around the neck. The guipils were tucked into long black skirts with silver glitter and matching red trim.

Behind the women were a group of children. Even the tiniest girls also wore matching guipils and skirts. Behind the children were a group of men, most of them old and also wearing matching shirts and pants (by then the younger men had abandoned the scene so as not to be perceived as provoking violence). The old men were gathered around a flat green plank bier with sanded round handles. On top of it sat a motionless figure, a plaster statue of San Jorge. After the Conquest, San Jorge villagers had merged their own spiritual deity with that of Saint George the Dragon Slayer, one of many Christian deities forced upon the Maya people. San Jorge’s ancestors accepted this icon and today, he is considered their modern-day spiritual guide. This plaster figure held a lance that looked and felt like it was a solid piece of silver. Elders from the village told me that the original conquistadores had brought the lance from Spain.

Behind the first row of helmeted police with truncheons stood another row of fewer men, more spread out. Each held either a tear gas grenade launcher or an Israeli galil automatic rifle. Behind them another row of police, each holding a leash to a dog.

As we entered the scene, the Sergeant-in-command gave an order. The first line of police raised their truncheons, dogs barked, and soldiers wrapped index fingers around rifle triggers. The women held their line and sealed it by shuffling themselves closer together. Only a few of the children behind them began to cry. The elder men behind them reached down and raised San Jorge by his bier. The Sergeant turned to look at us, the only witnesses to the confrontation that was about to occur. Michael and I approached calmly and extended our hands. I gave the Sergeant my press credential and told him that my friend was a photographer working for me. He looked the credential over before giving it back. Then he ordered his men at ease. Everyone, including the dogs, found a spot in the shade. Two hours later, after it became apparent to the Sergeant that we weren’t leaving, he ordered his men to withdraw.

Several days later the military returned and attacked at dawn. First they threw rocks, and then fired tear gas and moved in with truncheons. Dozens of people, including women, children, and young teenage boys, were injured, many with gaping head wounds. Sixty-seven villagers, all adult men, were arrested. Soldiers tied each prisoner’s hands behind his back and then together in groups of six or seven. One young soldier carrying a galil rifle taunted one of the prisoners. He accused him of being a leftist guerrilla, claiming to recognize him from a firefight in the mountains. The prisoners were loaded onto army boats on Lake Atitlan and then ferried a short distance to Panajachel — a partly successful attempt to avoid waiting television cameras, which by mid-day, had gathered in San Jorge’s square. In Panajachel, the prisoners were loaded onto old yellow school buses and taken to the municipal prison in nearby Solola.

This confrontation took place in 1992 — the quincentenary year of Columbus’ arrival. Two weeks later, all 67 prisoners were released. There were lucky, as they could have “disappeared.” Human rights groups accuse the military in Guatemala of forcibly “disappearing” up to 40,000 victims, and killing as many as 100,000 more in the course of its 30-year counterinsurgency against leftist guerrillas. In this case, however, hundreds of witnesses including dozens of foreigners saw the military detain San Jorge’s men. It was reported by the local press. I wrote a story about it for the Christian Science Monitor. Rather than attract more attention, the military eventually freed them all.

Since then, the villagers of San Jorge have continued to hold their ground. Theirs’ is a struggle over land, but not for growing food. The disputed area is approximately 200 acres of gently rising slopes between the shoreline of Lake Atitlan and the foothills holding the mountainside village of San Jorge. The land is too sandy to be fertile. Instead, this conflict pitches property rights and ventured capital against the survival of this village. Two wealthy brothers from Guatemala City, Luis and Carlos Saravia Camacho, are trying to build a hotel luxury resort between the village and the lake; the community is resolved to resist them.

San Jorge is no idyllic place, clinging to its past. Members of almost every one of its families work in some form of wage labor. Most families are also dependent on Lake Atitlan’s tourist trade. But tourism around the lake has attracted more backpackers than tour buses so far. At present, there are only several large hotels and dozens of smaller hostels, mostly in nearby Panajachel. San Jorge, by comparison, is undeveloped.

The Camacho brothers want that to change and they hold legal title to the shoreline property between the lake and the village. But the community of San Jorge says they have “a historical right” to the same land, which they communally share, because their ancestors founded the village before the Conquest. The Camacho brothers bought the shoreline property in 1975 from Domingo Fuentes, a man who neither lived nor worked on the land. His parents acquired title to the land in the late 1800s — during the coffee boom that swept much of the Central American isthmus. During this period, Creole governments forcibly broke up land collectively held by indigenous communities and issued new titles to recent European immigrants. The changes created landowning oligarchies among the immigrants while greatly reducing the indigenous population’s farmland.

If the Camacho brothers succeed in building their resort, they boast that it will be one of the largest in Central America. Any such endeavor would forever change San Jorge as well as other communities on the lake. Indeed tourism, in different ways, works in favor of both sides in this dispute. The idea that a five-star resort could attract upscale clients is the foreseen demand driving the Camacho brothers’ plan. The proximity of San Jorge to Panajachel — which has the largest foreign presence of any highland Guatemalan village — is what deters the military from using force to control the villagers.

Another option would be to offer the community “carrots.” In 1992, the Camacho brothers offered to expand a school, improve electrical lines, and install sewers if the villagers would relinquish their claim to the land. The community said no. Since then the situation has evolved into stalemate. By 1995, the villagers had built a flat board structure in the middle of the road, which serves as the headquarters of San Jorge’s volunteer fire brigade and first aid clinic. This ramshackle structure also doubles as a classroom for literacy and multi-purpose community center. It blocks all access to the terrain between San Jorge and the lake. So far no one has tried to remove it.

Can this village survive? The Camacho brothers are in no hurry to break ground. The combination of bad press over human rights abuses along with rising common crime has kept a lid on tourism in Guatemala. Recent attacks like the January 1998 rape of five students from St. Mary’s College in Maryland will continue to keep all but the most unconventional tourists away. Someday, however, the memories of this and other attacks will fade and the Camacho brothers will again try to develop their planned resort. The community again will resist them.

The physical wounds from their first battle have healed. In fact the only permanent loss was to San Jorge himself. In the confusion of the dawn attack, the military stole his silver lance. Does this worry the community? “No,” one elder says, “San Jorge draws his strength from the people, and the people draw their strength from him.”

Eritrean Run

Squeezing the nearest hand-hold, my right knuckles turned red from friction with the passenger door while my left hand clung to the handle of a 10-gallon water jug secured behind my bench. Our driver and translator, Kelata Abraham, honked each time he approached a blind mountain curve. This road of dirt and loose rocks was cut into the largely treeless highlands of central Eritrea, once a part of Ethiopia on the African Home. We were in a 6-cylinder, 4-door Toyota Land Cruiser equipped with a reserve diesel tank whose gauge was conveniently roof-mounted alongside an altimeter. Its needle read 2,200 meters (7,200 ft). Outside my window was a shoulderless drop-off whose end I couldn’t see.

We were on a day trip just outside the Eritrean capital of Asmara, before setting out on our main journey — a 200-mile run, first through the highlands and then down into its desert plains all the way to Eritrea’s western border with Sudan. As freelance journalists, our goal was to find and interview Sudanese guerrillas who had just opened up a new front there against Sudan’s regime.

The product of an Islamic revolution, it is backed now by both Iran and Iraq. En shala, Arabic for God willing, we’d return safely.

My partner, Dan Connel, even with his grizzled moustache and thinning hair, looks and acts much younger than his 52 years. He has been covering wars here for the BBC, The Washington Post and others since 1976. Lengthy time away from home, however, led to family tensions including the painful estrangement of his youngest daughter. But before we left Asmara, Dan received a letter addressed “Dear Daddy,” in which his daughter wrote that she just had a baby girl. “Now I’ve got them both to celebrate,” he gushed, showing faint spider webs around hazel eyes.

Our first stop was an old plantation decorated with rows of violet bougainvilleas, a flowering tree whose limbs grow like vines. Today, they ring farms and vineyards throughout Eritrea — a legacy of the Italians who colonized it back in 1889. Later the Italians tried to expand south into neighboring Ethiopia. Sipping tea under an old log-and-bougainvillea canopy, I contemplated my own maternal roots and link to this region. My great-grandfather, Theodore Mussano, had served here as a non-commissioned officer in the Italian army. He was one of the few Italians to survive the 1896 Battle of Adua, a decisive campaign which checked Italy’s reach on the African Horn until the time of Mussolini.

Next we visited Zagher, a village where Dan is nothing short of a walking legend. Some of his old friends invited us into their home, shooing away two donkeys from the sitting logs on the dirt floor. We were treated to bitter home-brewed beer and a spread of shuro, a chickpea sauce spiced with fiery berbere, served communally over injerra, a flat, sponge-like bread, which is this area’s staple. Respecting decorum, we ate with our right hands, as the left is reserved for a less sanitary chore.

Eritrea, which only became an independent nation in 1993, is itself a mélange of the region’s cultures. The Tigrinya people and language dominate, although Arabic, especially in the lowlands near Sudan, is also widely spoken. Spiritually, the population is about equally divided between Eastern Orthodox Christians and Sunni Muslims. There is also a small minority who, like Kelata, are Catholic, converted first by Spanish Jesuits and later the Italians. These differences came clear during our journey. Seeing our white faces, children in the highlands repeatedly yelled “Italiani” to get our attention, while in the lowlands they playfully shouted “Khawagia”, the local Arabic word for white people.

A flat tire in Asmara delayed our departure for Sudan. But the Kumho 16-inch, all-terrain steel-belted radials still had almost an inch of tread. Kelata checked their air pressure, and made sure the diesel tanks were topped off. Our rented 1994 Land Cruiser had an appropriate Sandstone finish embellished with red sport stripes. Despite 53,657 kilometers, its ignition timing and compression sounded perfect. So did its cassette deck. Kelata brought Tigrinya ballads as well as some hybrids of traditional melodies with rock.

Security was a concern. In addition to the civil war in Sudan, Eritrea was fighting its own guerrillas, a small but very dangerous group known as Islamic Jihad or Islamic Holy War. But so far it had been limited to isolated acts of terrorism and assassinations, and, even among Muslims, seems to have little support. One reason is that Eritreans, Muslims and Christians alike just finished waging a 30-year war for independence against Ethiopia, leaving Eritreans everywhere with an uncanny sense of national pride. Take Asmara. It is both the cleanest and safest capital I’ve visited on five continents. Nonetheless, Islamic Jihad was still active in the lowlands, suspected of planting large land mines on rural roads, which had killed dozens of people.

While the road out of Asmara was paved, there was little if any shoulder, even as we climbed to 2,800 meters (9,240 ft). When there was a guardrail, it was only a series of white cement squares, each just a few feet high, and spaced out with almost a car length between them. Adding to the challenge, oncoming vehicles, especially large Fiat trucks, tended to hug the middle of the road, while mountain goats herded by mongrel dogs and Tigrinya shepherds often appeared as well without warning.

The terrain looked dusty and dry, even though it was the end of the highland’s rainy season. Topsoil here had little to cling to with most of the trees either cut down for firewood or otherwise destroyed during the war. Reminding us of it, about every hour we passed the rusted carcass of a tank. The more mangled ones had clearly been blown apart by large mines, while others looked like they had simply broken down and been abandoned by their Ethiopian drivers. Models included Soviet T-54s, and M-48s designed by Chrysler.

Each superpower had backed Ethiopia at different times against the Eritrean guerrillas, as what was an intense struggle between local forces was only part of a larger contest for them. The United States armed Ethiopia until 1977, when its new government turned east toward the Soviet Union. Regardless, the Eritrean guerrillas fought each foreign-backed regime with equal vigor.

Meanwhile, neighboring Somalia, which had been a Soviet ally, flipped in the opposite direction. At the same time, Sudan stayed in the American camp — until 1989 when its Islamic revolutionaries seized power.

Blacktop soon changed to dirt and rocks. Softer coil springs made this ’94 Land Cruiser a serious improvement over the durable, but spine-jolting ’70s and ’80s models that I had endured covering wars in Central America. Though the Land Cruiser’s oversized radiator can make it hard to get the heater fired up in winter, here — where temperatures can climb as high as 115 degrees Fahrenheit — our temperature gauge stayed well below the medium mark.

Descending to 800 meters (2,640 ft), we began to pass mountains of meteor-size boulders cracked from once-solid rock by the sun. Yet, Dan remarked that he had never seen the surrounding plains look so green. Abundant rainfall had made the brush and even some grass flush with color, while acacia trees, whose limbs branch out in a natural canopy, were also blooming. Dan had been here back in late 1984, when Ethiopia, then including Eritrea, suffered the worst famine in memory.

We stopped for the night in Keren, a small city settled between two jagged rows of mountains that open up into the desert. Kelata took us to see a giant baobab tree where, 141 years ago, Italian Franciscans had made a shrine. During World War II, according to legend, Italian soldiers who were under attack from British planes took refuge inside the tree and Survived. But many on both sides of this battle did not. Near the shrine today is a cemetery for British soldiers still maintained by the United Kingdom. Back in 1935, Mussolini reversed the defeat at Adua to finally annex Ethiopia along with Eritrea, with Italian forces staying in both until being driven out by the British in 1941. (The winning allies later made Ethiopia and Eritrea one state). According to the British Cemetery book, “the most bloody and decisive battle, took place here at Keren.”

The graves were adorned with freshly planted flowers, with a caretaker just finishing for the day. I gravitated to one, that of Captain H.S. Frost of the Cheshire Regiment, who, at 27, died on the battle’s last day. His headstone read: “Greater Love Hath No Man Than This. That a Man Lay Down His Life for Friends.” I wondered if this was an embellishment granted gratuitously to fallen officers. But only a few men, officers and enlisted men alike, had any such inscription. Next to Frost were I. Ulrich and S. Wajnsztejn, “pioneers” in the same unit. Engraved into each of their headstones was a Star of David.

More heat followed the dawn. Most of the riverbeds were dry, as they only have water during and right after a rain. But in a few places their banks were overgrown with tall palm trees, a green oasis in a dusty sea. We still had to stop often for passing herds of goats as well as sheep, and several times for camel trains loaded with firewood and led by bearded men wearing thin, white cotton jebel alias, one-piece mountain covers.

Islamic Jihad was still on our minds. The previous night we ran into an Eritrean doctor who is an old friend of Dan’s. He told us about two recently captured Jihad fighters. One he described as a young, impressionable lad who left his pastoral life here to move to Sudan’s urban capital of Khartoum where he was introduced to revolutionary Islamic ideas. But since his father had supported the Eritrean struggle, Eritrean officials saw him as a good kid under bad influence, and eventually let him go. The other one, however, admitted to being with jihad for six years. “He had a knife and a gun,” said the doctor, who had removed a bullet from his chest before turning him over to authorities from Asmara. “He told me that he shot Christians, but that he only used his knife to cut the throats of Muslims who failed to support their Holy War.”

The next morning for breakfast we had an egg, bean and onion dish, served with injerra and shai, Arabic for tea, with lots of sugar. On the way out of town, a young woman asked us for a ride. Selam, as I’ll call her, wore plastic gold shoes and a red-flowered dress with long sleeves, along with a green-print scarf covering her hair. She is an elementary school teacher. After she climbed in, one of her pupils, a beaming girl, ran up to hand us a clear plastic bottle of mineral water. Selam, who speaks Arabic as well as English, thanked her in Tigrinya. Shy at first, Selam displayed a delightful sense of humor. She told me that she had relatives living in Sudan. But mostly we played games with language and guffawed together when a redheaded bird perched on the back of a grazing goat.

Later we approached a deep riverbed, where a crowd of people and vehicles had gathered. Selam, to avoid giving the wrong impression, re-arranged her scarf to also cover the sides of her face and neck. It had rained heavily several days before, with the flood washing out the packed dirt, which had made a passageway through this depression. (Its bridge had been knocked out long ago.) A group of men pushed first a truck and then a bus through successfully. Once the way was clear, the Land Cruiser’s 4-wheel drive low range easily conquered this slippery challenge.

We dropped Selam off in Tessenei, the last town before Sudan, and then went on to find our Sudanese guerrilla contacts. Later, they took us to see a group of about 25 fighters dug in behind the rocks of a ridge just over the border. Armed with Kalashnikov rifles and larger machine guns, they peered out over the open plain at a Sudanese Army outpost. Two weeks before, these same fighters had ambushed a group of Sudanese militia riding in a Toyota Land Cruiser, destroying it and killing seven. Now the guerrillas handed me binoculars to see another Toyota Land Cruiser, a white 4-door with a .50-caliber machine gun mounted in back, raising a train of dust as it raced for the safety of the outpost.

Back in Tessenei, we met with Eritrean Army officers. They told us about two anti-vehicular land mines that had recently been uncovered on rural roads — planted, they said, by Islamic Jihad. Driving off to inspect one we got a flat. After changing it, we went back to town to get it fixed. An Eritrean Army colonel joined us in the cab before we left again — only to get another flat. This time we just changed it and kept going. Then at about 45 mph we hit a football-size rock, blowing a third tire. Without an extra spare to go on, the colonel flagged down a 6-wheel Russian military truck, while Kelata stayed behind with the Land Cruiser.

The colonel took us to see one of the mines with both its pressure plate and detonator safely removed. A new one made of plastic, it had markings in French, German and Italian. While waiting for Kelata to fetch us, an 18 year-old Eritrean Army soldier, Aden, prepared a batch of spoon-standing coffee. Following tradition, she first crushed the grounds, and then boiled water over charcoal fire, before brewing the grounds several times in a smaller silver pot filtered with horse hairs to serve the three progressively less potent rounds. Later Aden showed us her less traditional side, brandishing her Kalashnikov rifle.

We left a day later after lunch — soon to be overcome by a group of Eritrean Army soldiers in, of course, a Toyota Land Cruiser. They had just discovered a land mine a few miles back on the very same road that we were traveling. We went back to inspect and photograph it. Except for the lot number, it was identical to the other mine. Although the soldiers had already disarmed it, they feared lifting the charge itself for fear that it might also be booby-trapped.

Like the villagers who pass by every few hours in crowded buses, we were lucky. The only reason that nobody hit this mine is that it must have been planted over a week ago, before the last strong rain. The shifting mud and sand had changed the course of the road, with vehicles passing now only about 100 ft away. Fortunately one of the laborers sent to repair it saw part of the mine’s pressure plate sticking out of the dirt.

In single file we walked back to our Land Cruiser, and drove on. I prayed, to no particular deity, that we wouldn’t find any more mines. Humdillylah, Thanks Be to God, we didn’t.

The Nun Who Knew Too Much: Dianna Ortiz Links This North American Man to Her Rape and Torture in Guatemala

Original article can be found here.

THEY MET last month on the set of NBC’s “Today” show. Jeanne Boylan, the forensic artist who drew the Unabomber suspect, is the expert the FBI most often hires for top-priority crimes. Dianna Ortiz is a Roman Catholic nun who says that in November 1989 in Guatemala she was kidnapped, raped and tortured in a clandestine prison. The two women worked together to compose sketches of four men who were present. But unlike most of those Boylan has drawn, one of these men, according to Ortiz, may have been working for the U.S. government.

Only 5-foot-3 with delicate features making her look much younger than 37, Ortiz, over the past six weeks, has managed to reopen wounds in this country first incurred in the 1980s over Central America. She has gained ground in her search for her assailants, which even White House officials admit may yet implicate the U.S. intelligence community.

“We’re going to let the chips fall were they may,” says Nancy Soderberg, the Clinton administration’s deputy national security advisor. “Our premise is that none of this happened on our watch. We just want to get to the facts.”

The Ortiz case once again draws America’s attention to Guatemala, where a succession of military governments have compiled the hemisphere’s worst record for brutality. Human rights organizations estimate that as many as 100,000 Guatemalans have been killed by their own government over the last four decades; torture, disappearances and massacres have been routine. Whatever one makes of Ortiz’s story, her bid for U.S. government documents on her ordeal puts to the test CIA Director John Deutch’s assertions that he will clean up the agency and tests the White House’s ability to get the answers about the relationship between U.S. intelligence officials and the D-2, Guatemala’s military intelligence service.

The Bush administration doubted Ortiz’s credibility. Last week the Clinton administration released documents about Ortiz’s case from that period. In one cable to Washington, then-ambassador Thomas F. Stroock. a newly arrived political appointee of George Bush, wrote that he did not believe her account He rejected her claim that one of her abusers, “Alejandro,” was a North American man who spoke Spanish poorly and cursed in English. Stroock questioned “the motives and timing behind the story,” writing that it may have been a “hoax” designed to influence an upcoming vote in Congress on Guatemala over U.S. military aid.

“I know something happened to her in Guatemala,” says Stroock by telephone from Wyoming. “What I don’t know is what it was.” Stroock, who met Bush at Yale, has long complained that Ortiz failed to cooperate with both U.S. and Guatemalan authorities after her ordeal. “It is one thing to be traumatized, but it’s another thing not to talk to the police.” About her story, Stroock adds, “I don’t know whether to believe her or not” But today a growing number of people m the White House, Congress and elsewhere do believe Ortiz and her story.

“I’m so stunned that there was a credibility question,” says sketch artist Boylan, who was called to work on the case of Susan Smith, the South Carolina woman who falsely claimed that her children had been abducted by a blade man but later admitted to having killed them herself. Boylan doubted Smith’s story. “It is part of my job to look for such factors,” Boylan adds, explaining that she constantly evaluates whether a subject’s emotional reactions and the details communicated are appropriate in the context of the alleged crime.” With Ortiz, she says, “I found nothing to indicate deception of any kind.”

Boylan and Ortiz worked for four days to reconstruct her memories of her abductors, Ortiz, who by then was down to 87 pounds, reacted differently to each image. “At first it took her an hour to look at Alejandro. She hyperventilated, and then passed out,” recalls Boylan. “[Later] she curled up in a ball on her bed weeping.” The two women finished the sketches last Sunday, releasing them at a press conference the next day.

Ortiz, who has broken down during many previous Press encounters, appeared stronger and more confident than in any before. “Even though I carry their faces with me, they can’t haunt me anymore,” she said in response to one reporter’s question: “They’re out there. I’m free.”

Ortiz also announced that she was suspending the vigil and fast that she had begun in front of the White House, and admitted taking some of her inspiration from Jennifer Harbury, a Harvard-educated attorney. Last year Harbury fasted in Lafayette Square to find out what the U.S. government knew about the disappearance of her leftist guerrilla husband. Twelve days later, Rep. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) revealed that a CIA-paid Guatemalan D-2 intelligence officer, Col. Julio Roberto Alpirez, was involved in his torture and extra-judicial execution.

Torricelli is one of 103 members of Congress from both parties who last week signed a letter to President Clinton backing Ortiz’s demands for an U.S. government documents related to her case and others. The next day the State Department released more than 5,800 documents related to her case and 17 other U.S. citizens who have suffered human rights abuses in Guatemala. The documents released so far about Ortiz, however, elaborate only on the Bush administration’s previous doubts about her story, not on die information she demands.

One document, from a yet unidentified agency, states: “We need to dose the loop on the issue of die ‘North American’ named by Ortiz. . . . The EMBASSY IS VERY SENSITIVE ON THIS ISSUE but it is an issue we will have to respond to publicly when the [ABC News Prime Time’] show airs.” The next paragraph and the whole next page of this document is censored for national security reasons.

The Clinton administration, while saying that so far it has found nothing on “Alejandro” has recently been sending conflicting signals about Michael Define, an American innkeeper murdered in Guatemala in June 1990 (Col. Alpirez is also implicated in that lolling). But the administration has promised to release more information about these cases and others in June. Taking a personal step, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake paid three visits to Ortiz during her Lafayette Park vigil.

Her ordeal began on November 2,1989, just days before the Berlin Wall started to crumble. Ortiz, who had come to Guatemala to teach Mayan grade-school children how to read and write, was a guest at a religious retreat in the colonial town of Antigua. From there at around 8 in the morning she disappeared. U.S. embassy officials, including Ambassador Stroock, helped anxious nuns and priests try to find her. They did after about 24 hours. Stroock later saw her briefly in Guatemala City inside the Papal Nuncio. But he did not believe the statement outlining her main claims late-distributed by the office of Guatemala’s archbishop. It “is in Spanish and not in the first person,” he wrote.

Although he offered assistance, Stroock and other U.S. officials were denied the opportunity to question Ortiz. Neither he nor any member of his staff saw the cigarette burns which she allegedly had on her chest and back. The embassy could find no witnesses nor confirm any material details of her account. These facts “seem to indicate that the stay as told is not accurate,” Stroock told his superiors in Washington.

The following week Congress was scheduled to vote on economic and military aid to Guatemala, El Salvador and other countries, a package which the Bush administration was backing. In the months before, Guatemala, especially, was overcome by a wave of violence. These attacks led some to argue that Congress should put conditions on military aid to the country.

“The old Guatemala of the early ’80s seems to have returned with a vengeance,” wrote Philip B. Heymann, a Harvard University law professor who was then directing a U.S.-funded criminal justice project in Guatemala, in a September 1989 letter to Sen. Robert Byrd. “The Senate should condition any military aid on the Guatemalan government’s investigation, prosecuted and conviction of the perpetrators of the recent political violence. The entire $9 million earmarked for such aid should be held in suspension until adequate measures are taken.”

The Bush administration disagreed, and Stroock feared that Ortiz’s case might have been fabricated to try and sway Congress. Such logic led him and other Bush administration officials to eventually doubt her completely. Sue Patterson, the embassy’s consul general, wrote in April 1992 that the case was a “big political problem for Guatemala, because everybody believes a nun more than they do the [Guatemalan government] . . . . I don’t believe [her], nor does anyone else who knows the case well.”

Ortiz, however, still bears signs of her experience, including 111 small round scars. Seen by another doctor as well as by church officials in the Papal Nuncio, Ortiz was later examined by Dr. Gelbert Gutierrez in her home town of Grants, N.M. He confirms the scars: “All over her body, second degree burns,” he says curtly between patients by telephone.

In Guatemala, the then-defense minister, Gen. Hector Gramajo, was quoted as saying that Ortiz’s scars were the result of a bizarre “lesbian love tryst” Gramajo, who has admitted his own working relationship with the CIA, said that he learned of the alleged tryst from the U.S. embassy.

Who in the embassy? ABC News reported that Lewis Amselem, then the embassy’s human rights officer, was responsible for disseminating that rumor about the alleged love tryst. Amselem later threatened to sue ABC News but never did. Recently reached for comment at his State Department office in Washington, Amselem denies he made the statement.

Ortiz tells a different stay. She was behind the religious retreat house in Antigua when she says she was abducted by armed men, who later threatened to release a hand grenade if she did not get on a public bus. It stopped in the small town of Mixco, where the men escorted her to a waiting poke car, before driving her to a secret prison. There, Ortiz says, she was raped repeatedly. Later, “I was lowered into an open pit packed with human bodies–bodies of children, women and men, some decapitated, some lying face up and caked with blood, some dead, some alive–and all swarming with rats.”

Recently Ortiz has made public one alleged detail of her ordeal that few people had heard besides her therapist, Mary Fabri, a Chicago-based clinical psychologist who is now treating Bosnian torture survivors. Fabri says that this act destroyed Ortiz’s personality. At some point, her abusers handed her what she has described as other a small machete or large knife. Says Ortiz: They “put their hands onto the handle, on top of mine . . . . I was forced to use it against another” victim. Ortiz thinks she may have killed her.

What saved Ortiz from suffering the same fate? She says Alejandro, the North American, intervened. Earlier in the experience, she says her abusers had referred to this man as their boss. Later, she says, they brought her to him. Upon realizing that Ortiz was American, Alejandro, she says, ordered his men to stop.

“He kept telling me in his broken Spanish that he was sorry about what had happened to me,” says Ortiz. “He claimed it was a case of mistaken identity,” that his men had confused Ortiz with Veronica Ortiz Hernandez, a leftist guerrilla. Alejandro, according to Ortiz, then offered to drive her in his own vehicle, a gray Suzuki four-wheel-drive, to the U.S. embassy to talk to a friend who would help her leave the country. She says agreed. But only blocks before reaching the embassy, while the Suzuki was stuck in heavy traffic, Ortiz says she jumped out and ran.

Stroock told Washington that the archbishop’s third-person statement describing her ordeal was not consistent with what “persons around Ortiz” had told him at the time. They behaved erratically, explaining as fear what Stroock suspects was disingenuousness. And “when [I] saw her, [I] was not permitted to see her alone and she said nothing me. . .

Ortiz needs no intermediaries now: “I have been consistent in my account since the beginning. The U.S. embassy was inconsistent and, in fact, deceptive.” Alice Zachmann is a youthful 70-year-old nun who is a close friend of Ortiz. She says, “If none of this had happened to Dianna, I think she’d be teaching children in Guatemala now.”

Instead Dianna Ortiz has gained exactly what some U.S. officials have always feared: credibility in Washington.


Frank Smyth, a freelance journalist, has previouslywritten about Guatemala for Outlook, the New Republic and the Wall Street Journal.

People in the Mist

Well over six feet tall, Louis Nzeyimana has long arms and legs, a strong build and high cheekbones. A veterinary scientist who worked with Rwanda’s mountain gorillas until the country imploded in April, Nzeyimana is an obvious Tutsi, like the vast majority of the 300,000 to 500,000 Rwandans killed in recent months in this Central African nation. But he’s not. He’s a Hutu, generally shorter than Tutsis, but not always. In the madness of Rwanda, Nzeyimana’s Tutsi-like features made him a marked man by his own people, as Hutu government soldiers and rampaging militia men set out to kill anyone remotely resembling a Tutsi.

He was in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, on April 6 when the country blew up with its president, Juvenal Habyarimana, shot down by Hutu extremists in a palace coup. While gunfire and screams filled the air and tens of thousands of corpses stacked the streets, Nzeyimana and his family hid inside their home for 10 days. When he finally got permission to leave the country, he had to drive through a gauntlet of roadblocks where his Tutsi looks put him at the mercy of every gun-toting soldier and goon squad. It was only a 60-mile trip to the Zairean border, but he had to go through 65 checkpoints. At each one, soldiers sticking rifles and machetes in his face demanded to see the governor’s writ of safe passage and the apartheid-like identity card that all Rwandans are required to carry.

“We had to give the identification cards every time,” says Nzeyimana, safe for now in Gloucester, England. His card, like his wife’s, is stamped “Hutu.” His trip was three days of Russian roulette, never knowing which lunatic might not buy his story. The last few roadblocks before Zaire were the most difficult, soldiers scrutinizing his papers incredulously. “I look like a Tutsi,” he admits, still shaken from the ordeal.

Nzeyiniana, who has a Ph.D in Veterinary Science, was the first Rwandan scientist hired by the Karisoke Research Center, which was set up by Dian Fossey, the American researcher, to protect Rwanda’s few remaining mountain gorillas. Fossey’s exploits, portrayed in the film Gorillas in the Mist, brought worldwide fame to the mountain gorillas of Rwanda. The gorillas became a prime adventure tourism attraction and an international cause. But the people in the rnist — just as endangered by war, poverty and starvation — were ignored. A year before Rwanda’s present crisis broke out, a dominant male silverback named Mrithi was killed during fighting between the (Hutu) Rwandan army and the (Tutsi) Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The gorilla’s death attracted headlines, but there was no mention of the fact that one out of eight people had been displaced by the civil war at that time, eight of nine Rwandans were poor and one of eight were on the verge of starving. It took a slaughter of apocalyptic proportions for Rwanda’s people to finally receive more attention than its gorillas.

The upheaval began on April 6 when the plane carrying President Habyarimana was shot down near Kigali airport, precipitating a killing frenzy in the nation. “I was at home when it started,” says Nzeyimana. “Some friends called at midnight to say the president’s plane had been shot down. At 5 a.m. the shooting started.”

According to Belgium’s Foreign Minister, William Claes, Belgian troops saw who did it. The rocket that struck the plane came from the area of the Kanombe army base on the eastern border of Kigali airport; farther east are the Presidential Guard headquarters. The Presidential Guard was created by a group of men known, in Kinyarwanda, as the Akazu or “Little House” around the president.

President Habyarimana was a Hutu like them. But more moderate, he had agreed to share power with both Hutu opposition leaders, led by interim Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, and Tutsi RPF guerrillas. in Rwanda (and neighboring Burundi), Hutu are an 85 percent majority, while there were an estimated 800,000 Tutsi in Rwanda.

At five in the morning, a Presidential Guard unit came looking for Prime Minister Uwilingiyimana at her home. She was being guarded by 10 U.N. peacekeepers from Belgium, but it didn’t matter. Uwilingiyimana and three of the peacekeepers were found three blocks away, shot down. A Canadian general found the remaining peacekeepers at Kanombe army base, hacked to death by machete.

The vast majority of victims, however, were Tutsi. Months before the bloodbath, Radio de Milles Collines in Kigali, controlled by the Little House, had incited Hutu listeners against Tutsi: “The grave is half full, who is going to fill it up?” Such taunting fanned Hutus’ historical fear and resentment of Tutsis. Their Mwami kings had ruled over Hutus from the 16th century until this one. While Tutsi comprised the ruling class and owned most of Rwanda’s cattle, the Hutus lived under them as subsistence farmers, like serfs in Europe.

Radio propaganda also reminded Hutu listeners of how they were treated by Belgium, which governed Rwanda as a colonial protectorate from 1917 until its independence in 1962. Belgium’s policy was explicitly racist, educating only the sons of Tutsi. Because the two ethnic groups were often hard to tell apart, Belgian authorities also instituted apartheid-like identity cards that were stamped Tutsi, Hutu or Twa (pygmies, about one percent of the population), still in use today.

But by 1959, Hutus began to revolt and kill Tutsi, with bloodshed continuing for another five years. Philosopher Bertrand Russell called the overthrow and its aftermath “the most horrible and systematic massacre we have had occasion to witness since the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis.” Historian Alison Des Forges, one of the most quoted experts on Central Africa, believes that up to 20,000 Tutsis perished — a fraction of the present death toll.

Pogroms against Tutsi continued, with the worst massacres in 1990. While the Rwanda army fought the RPF guerrillas, Rwanda’s Hutu leaders directed the slaughter of a few thousand Tutsi civilians. The situation was aggravated further by the abundant supply of arms available to both sides in the war, with hardware flooding Rwanda from around the world. While Uganda armed the RPF, France backed Rwanda’s government, providing weapons, in addition to financing its ability to buy even heavier equipment from Egypt. South Africa also sold Rwanda arms. Much of the weaponry, including hand grenades and automatic rifles, was used this April when Rwanda’s present crisis began.

Within 10 minutes of the president’s plane going down, militiamen known as the Interahamwe or “Those Who Attack Together” began to set up roadblocks in Kigali, and later on all roads leading out of the capital. They slaughtered Tutsi men, women and children and anyone suspected of being one. What was the point of all this carnage? By murdering the Hutu opposition and exterminating the Tutsi as a people, the Little House sought to eliminate all their enemies and to form a pan-Hutu alliance against Tutsi. In particular, they sought to renew the war between the primarily Hutu army and the Tutsi RPF guerrillas, hoping that the Rwandan army, with French backing, would win. But France closed its embassy in Kigali the day that RPF forces began to attack the capital. Six weeks later, the RPF was in control of Kigali airport and the Kanombe army base, while Tutsi guerrillas were photographed lounging triumphantly on late President Habyarimana’s bed.

While the Little House’s plan fell short of its goal concerning the RPF, it did succeed in murdering nearly all of Rwanda’s Hutu opposition leaders along with their spouses and children, and in wiping out perhaps a quarter, perhaps half, of Rwanda’s resident Tutsi population. Even in a world accustomed to wholesale violence, the speed and brutality of Rwanda’s bloodletting has few parallels in modern times.

Beyond politics, the underlying tension that drives hatred between Hutus and Tutsis is the struggle over land. The most densely populated nation in the world, Rwanda is the size of Maryland with a population density just shy of New Jersey. Although the Parc National des Volcans, the gorillas’ habitat, is relatively small with less than 30,000 acres, its rich, black topsoil is among the most fertile in the country.

Within the park, there are about 325 mountain gorillas that sometimes travel into Zaire, with another 320 living in a park in Uganda. But all of them are crowded and live in a closed, genetic pool. And for people living around gorilla habitats, there is not one acre of land to spare. “It’s the same ecosystem,” Nzeyimana told me in Kigali in June, 1993 during a tense cease-fire in the civil war. “In the long-term, to protect the gorillas, we have to find a balance between them and people.”

Dian Fossey recognized the same problem in her autobiography, published in 1983. “The fertile soil adjacent to the park contains 780 inhabitants per square mile,” she wrote. “The people freely cross back and forth into the park to collect wood, set illegal traps for antelope [which sometimes catch gorillas by mistake, especially infants, who often die from gangrene in their wounds], collect honey from wild bee hives, graze cattle, and plant plots of potatoes and tobacco. Encroachment upon this terrain may be responsible for the mountain gorilla becoming one of the seven or so other rare species both discovered and extinct within the same century.”

But unlike Nzeyimana, Fossey’s solution was force. She helped create a team of park guards to keep people out. In addition to using them against families living around the park, Fossey also employed them as frontline troops in a heroic campaign against gorilla poachers, who sold captured infants to zoos, and murdered adults for trophies. In 1985, she was murdered for her efforts. The order came from a Little House official who had been involved in poaching, Rwandan army officers say. But while the film depicts Fossey’s murder as the product of an ongoing struggle with gorilla poachers, the fact is that she was killed after she won an outright victory. By 1984, as a result of Fossey’s efforts, the market for direct gorilla poaching had been entirely wiped out.

Dr. Nzeyimana is no fan of Fossey, who advocated force against gorilla poachers and impoverished Rwandans alike. “For many years, they tried to stop the invasion of the park by people, but it’s not possible,” he said. The best method is to educate people about conservation.”

With millions of people dead, dying or starving now, the situation has grown far more critical. But even before the present crisis, many Rwandans resented what they saw as the West’s disproportionate concern for primate preservation. “We have eight million people here,” said an aid worker a year ago in Kigali, “and all you Americans care about are those damn gorillas.” Now, desperate just to survive, Rwandans have little, if any, reason to support efforts to save the mountain gorilla.

The world, slow to act before and during the cataclysm, has lost its credibility with Rwandans, and, to a large degree, so has the Karisoke Center. Nzeyimana says it’s time for a new direction that fully takes into account the issues that created Rwanda’s crisis. To help both people and gorillas, Nzeyimana says education must replace force as a way to encourage people to stay out of the park. But to make it work, education must be coupled with incentive and human development projects. “The people must be convinced that the gorillas are a valuable resource they can count on.”

Despite his harrowing escape, Nzeyimana is anxious to return to his work in Rwanda. But after the horrors of recent months, it’s unclear what he would be returning to. The question remains whether the Karisoke Center will continue to use Nzeyimana to merely educate Rwandans, or also support his proposals for human development. “This is definitely a new area for us,” says Craig Cummings of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund that raises money for the Karisoke Center, by telephone from London. “But it is essential to the overall program.”

If there’s any lesson that can be drawn from the horrors of Rwanda, it’s that there are endangered people as well as animals and habitats. Ignoring Rwanda’s human needs will lead to more tragedy, says Nzeyimana, and the guarantee of a quick extinction for the mountain gorilla.”