A popular anti-war chant that often greeted President Lyndon Johnson in many US cities at the peak of the Vietnam War in 1967-68 was, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” The Johnson administration had lost count by then, of course. But the dead were mounting in another theatre of war as well – Central America, more specifically Guatemala – though, being non-American dead, these remained largely off-limits for the liberal American imagination. Successive US presidents had Guatemalan blood on their hands, Democrats no less than GOP warriors, John Kennedy as much as Ronald Reagan.
The Johnson-era CIA had the back of the brutal Julio Montenegro regime that presided over the murder of countless Guatemalans, including a poet who was not thirty-one yet. Otto Rene Castillo (1936-67) had some months previously abandoned his original role of chief of propaganda and education of the Guatemalan FAR (Rebel Armed Forces) and had plunged into guerrilla war himself, operating in the Sierra de las Minas mountains. There, he was picked up by the Guatemalan armed forces’ special battalion on March 19, 1967, brought to the army’s barracks in Zapaca, tortured endlessly for four days and nights, and then burnt alive – probably on 23 March. In British India, Bhagat Singh and his comrades – Rajguru and Sukhdev – had been hanged on the same day 36 years ago.
Like Bhagat Singh, Castillo also had no illusions about what awaited him in the end. In ‘Let’s go, Country’, he had made that quite plain:
Let’s go country, I will go with you.
I will descend the depths you claim for me.
I will drink of your bitter chalices,
I will remain blind that you may see,
I will remain voiceless that you may sing.
I will die that you may live,
so your flaming face appears
in every flower born of my bones.
That is the way it must be, unquestionably.
Now I am tired of carrying your tears with me.
Now I want to walk with you, in lightning step.
Go with you on your journey, because I am a man
of the people, born in October to confront the world.
The poet of course knew that he had to make his voice heard as long as he lived:
So that the path doesn’t cry for me,
So I don’t bleed through the words,
For your face the soul’s frontier
born in my hands:
To say you have grown transparent
in the bitter bones of my voice
Ten Years of Spring
Born to middle-class parents in April 1936, Castillo had been politically awakened early on. His adolescent years coincided with Guatemala’s brief democratic interregnum (1944-1954) – the ‘Ten Years of Spring’ in a country which was laid waste by repression, terror and grinding poverty for most of its colonised, and even post-colonial, existence.
The change was brought about by the liberal upsurge that unseated the dictator general Jorge Ubico in June 1944. A military junta, led by Juan Federico Ponce Vaides, took the dictator’s place briefly but, when it sought to broadly continue the same oppressive regime, it was swiftly swept away by an uprising led by another army officer, Jacobo Arbenz, on October 20, 1944. Guatemala then had its first open democratic elections where a liberal university professor, Juan Arevalo, was elected president.
A period of limited, but positive, reforms – mainly in the areas of political freedom and the spread of literacy – followed. While at school, Castillo was elected president of the students’ union and he joined the Workers’ Party of Guatemala at age 17. In 1954, however, the Guatemalan spring was abruptly ended as an army junta led by Carlos Armas, mentored, trained and financed by the CIA, overthrew the democratically-elected Arbenz government. Arbenz had incurred the wrath of the US administration by the wide-ranging agrarian reforms it had instituted, in the process seriously antagonising the powerful US multinational, United Fruit Company, whose stranglehold over the Guatemalan economy was the stuff of legend.
President Eisenhower was convinced that the tiny central American country (about one-hundredth the size of the USA) was marching ‘decisively towards communism’ and he tasked the CIA with removing Arbenz from power at any cost. The CIA’s was a no-holds-barred campaign. Unmarked aeroplanes kept bombing the country’s capital off and on and a mercenary force – armed to the teeth with sophisticated weapons – kept assaulting the small standing army, even as fake ‘Guatemalan radio stations’, all based out of the US, blared strident and false anti-Arbenz propaganda 24×7, demoralising the citizens progressively.
Economic sanctions added to the country’s woes, and finally, in June 1954, Arbenz decided that it was not worth Guatemala’s while resisting ‘the giant of the north’. To avoid a bloodbath, he resigned, and the American puppet, Armas, was installed in his place. Amid wild celebrations in Washington, CIA director Allen Dulles said the coup was “a victory of democracy over communism”. Guatemala’s long dark night had returned.
Castillo seeks refuge in neighbouring El Salvador
The reign of terror that followed forced many political dissidents out of Guatemala. Castillo, all of 18 years old, sought refuge in neighbouring El Salvador, where he had a very hard time earning a living, variously as a labourer, a salesman and a clerk. He also joined a law programme at the University of San Salvador, where he soon made his mark as a poet, organising a vibrant literary circle around which many gifted left-leaning students rallied soon. He made friends with many prominent student activists and intellectuals including the young poet Roque Dalton, joined the El Salvador Communist Party, wrote prolifically and earned the prestigious Central American Poetry Prize in 1955.
The young Guatemalan had found his bearings in a world where exploitation, tyranny and unfreedoms of all kinds devastated human lives daily. He would stay true to his dream of an open, free, equal society for the rest of his years. His reputation as a poet grew steadily. In 1956, he shared with Dalton the University of El Salvador’s poetry prize for a collaborative effort – Two Fists of Earth – that commemorated the lives of two indigenous American heroes. In the same year, the University of San Carlos, Guatemala, named Castillo for its Autonomia Prize. He popularised Cesar Vallejo, Pablo Neruda, Nazim Hikmet and Miguel Hernandez in Central America. In 1957, he travelled to Budapest where, at the World Youth Festival, he was awarded the International Prize for Poetry.
- He would stay true to his dream of an open, free, equal society for the rest of his years.
Through all this, Castillo never doubted that his work lay in the country he had been born into – Guatemala, poor, oppressed, scarred by horrible inequities and far from free. After Armas died in 1957, Castillo returned to his home country and joined the Law and Social Sciences programme of the University of San Carlos.
He was an outstanding student and won a university scholarship in 1959 which secured for him entry to the Leipzig University in what then was the German Democratic Republic. He obtained a Master’s in Literature, moved to Berlin where he joined a course on documentary film making, travelled across Europe and made many friends. He felt his intellectual horizons broadening significantly on account of the new experiences and friendships. He married while in GDR and had two children. It was a fulfilling life, also comfortable, but his heart ached for Guatemala, his very own Guatemala, as witness that memorable poem, ‘In the waters of the Elba’, which begins on a note of calm contemplation of a lovely autumn’s day by the river:
It’s a blue
beside the Elba,
in the autumnest
autumn of them all.
Under my feet
so much height,
and so much sky in them still.
Above me, the trees
in the space left
by the leaves,
now taken by the wind …..
But sadness assails him swiftly, also a sense of loneliness, which is not any less overpowering for being somewhat vague, indeterminate:
A boat crosses
and from its heavy
length of smoke
one knows the sailors too
One’s country turns kind and sweet
if one begins the remembering
adding the truth of being alone
to the truth of being away.
But in a musty cafe
where night does not arrive
the suffering continues
the same as always.
And one understands
that a country is bitter
if it’s a prison
where man arrives
only to sadden the landscape….
Castillo traverses many miles through his memory’s landscape, now with tenderness, now with hope, but always a hint of the deep sadness that wells within him shows through the lines. And he recognises clearly that his destiny lies in Guatemala, the land of the four volcanoes, of the deep lakes and the shallow rivers, the two seas, and the immense woodlands that have lain still for aeons :
It’s autumn’s afternoon
beside the Elba,
and at the edge of the day
begins the night.
One understands, then,
that all who walk
carry the end of their journey
on their brow.
And I get up, not from the bench
beside the water’s dark face,
in whose eyes this afternoon
I saw my sadness.
I get up, I say, from my own soul,
where you are always
country of deer
and you will never burn out
if anywhere exists
the small tenderness of a blood
that raises its arms in search
of your soul,
mother my land.
Return to Guatemala
In 1964, as Guatemala seemed poised to enter another brief interregnum of peace, Castillo returned once again to his homeland. He soon became active in the Workers’ Party, founded The Experimental Theatre of the Capital City Municipality where new dramatic idioms were explored for giving voice to the country’s marginalised indigenous populations.
The political tide turned once again, however and Castillo was arrested for ‘unlawful activities’. He fled to Europe again, travelled around restlessly, always straining at the leash of his forced exile from the country whose call he seldom stopped hearing, loud and insistent. Meanwhile in July 1966, the Revolutionary Party, a political formation of liberal reform, managed to win the national elections promising the restoration of democracy and the rule of law.
Encouraged by this development, the young poet hurried back home to Guatemala and was put in charge of the Workers’ Party’s Propaganda and Education wing. It did not take long, though, for the hope for a humane future for Guatemala to be dashed. True to hallowed US tradition, president Johnson felt called upon to “save Guatemala from communist barbarism” and the US dramatically expanded its military mission in the country in a matter of a few weeks.
American military ‘advisers’ descended on Guatemala in their droves; the country’s relatively small army was ‘modernised’ and trained in extensive ‘counterinsurgency operations’; left-wing resisters were arrested, tortured, killed or “disappeared” at will and all dissidence was snuffed out. An all-out campaign against leftist, pro-democracy guerrilla forces such as the FAR was unleashed. Realising that all ‘legal’ means of resistance were out of bounds for him, Otto Rene Castillo embraced the only option left open for him – fight to the death against tyranny and injustice.
It is often said that, for Castillo, poetry came second to his communist activism, that he was bent on fighting the system, rather than using his pen to critique it. Castillo himself came close to saying something like that not infrequently. The point, however, is this: Castillo, in the original Marxist tradition of the unity of thought and praxis, sought to be the whole man – nothing more, nothing less.
For him, poetry did not begin where he laid down his rifle; both were intermeshed in his life like air and water. In the context of life in Guatemala, he did not, indeed he could not, opt for one or the other. He was capable of sublime passion, searing anger, supreme tenderness and monumental disdain all at the same time. Let his own lines tell the unforgettable story of the life of this great young poet.
It’s six o’clock in the evening
on the last day
of the bitterest August of my life
and yet I write
these wounded lines
to say goodbye to you.
Loneliness surrounds me still
with all its weapons.
But it does not matter,
for I am still left
with a little moon
in the blind ocean
of the night
when the winds of dawn blow in your face
From the sea’s arm to the arm of the wind they look for me
to break the tolerance of dusk in my mouth.
The sacrifice of being man accompanies me,
keeps me from going down to the place where treason’s born,
where the fool chained his heart to the shadow, denying you.
‘Before the scales, tomorrow’
And when the enthusiastic
story of our time
who are yet to be born
but who announce themselves already
with more generous faces,
it is we who will come out ahead there–
we, who suffered the most from this time
of my country
will be interrogated
by the simplest
of our people.
They will be asked
what they did
when their nation died out
like a sweet fire,
small and alone….
“What did you do when the poor
suffered, when tenderness
burnt out of them?”
of my sweet country,
you will not be able to answer.
A vulture of silence
will eat your gut.
Your own misery
will peck at your soul.
And you will be mute in your shame.
The most beautiful thing
for those who have fought a whole life
is to come to the end and say:
We believed in the people and life,
and life and the people
never let us down.
And so they are won for the people.
And so the infinite example is born…..
Then the people open their deepest rivers
and they enter those waters for ever.
And so they are, distant fires,
living, creating the heart
Being apolitical, Castillo learned early, was not an option for a man living in the Americas, unless he chose to be ‘mute in (his) shame’. He was proud of his ‘ancestry’ – the ancestry of the Guatemalan October – and he never once let down the people who opened their deepest rivers for their poet.
Anjan Basu is based out of Bangalore and is a commentator, translator and literary critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org