Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Authentic Colombian Hero

Even if you don't judge him South America's greatest writer, there's no denying that his life lived with joy and principle is the stuff of modern legend for a country, and continent.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Authentic Colombian Hero
Anita de Hoyos

BOGOTA - He is the hero. Or was. The great founding legend, and not because he was a great writer. Indeed, Gabriel García Márquez's literary merit may be questioned, and it wouldn't make a difference. One may consider his rhetoric suspect, or his biblical lyricism tiresome; or you may even find that the famous musicality of his sentences dilute the power of the stories.

One might even, reluctantly, qualify other writers of the Latin American Boom, like Julio Cortázar or Mario Vargas Llosa, as easier to read or more effective. None of that matters, because Gabo's fame goes beyond the merely literary, and the deluded utterances of critics cannot lessen his mythical stature.

García Márquez's real glory is that he did not need to be the world's greatest writer. Perhaps people will be reading him in 500 years' time, alongside Cervantes, assuming Cervantes will be read then and there is still a planet on which to read. But again, it is of little importance.

For beside his work proudly rides García Márquez's life, that uncertain exercise wherein he accompanied us and which he fulfilled with an honorable intensity that has won him our admiration and affection. Most evidently, Gabo enjoyed the elemental and prodigious fact of living on this planet, and accepted the adventure, with all its richness and limitations, on which he embarked without reticence. "That life we love with such insatiable passion."

Mortality's promise

Being an honest man, he was ready to pay the price. He knew that "love is infected with the germs of death, but all was love." Hence, he was not impressed by immortality and its promises. He became a millionaire, enjoyed the company of powerful people, drank fine wine and sailed on 200-foot yachts.

Still, he somehow never fell into the vices of "snappy dressing," which he laughed at very loudly like they do in Barranquilla. He was no cheap arriviste who would ape his wealthy acquaintances. And no traitor. Gabo knew himself to be made of the same stuff as we are, and the privilege of a superior brain was no excuse for him to become an aristocratic marquis, unlike some.

He was always "on this side, the poor side, wherein lies a trail of the yellowed leaves of countless years of our misfortunes and elusive moments of joy." He liked this side, our side. He knew it because he was born there and quite simply, never left. Yes, he wanted to triumph, he strove and he did triumph. But when all is said and done he simply accepted his fate - which had blessed him with the rare gift of being in the right place at the right time.

He was lucky to arrive in time to fill a niche that had to be urgently filled, or remain a void, inevitably leaving us with more yellowed leaves of regret. It is worth asking: What would we have been without García Márquez? What would have happened to Colombia, a provincial and impoverished country, governed by a violent caste of vulgarians that despises anything remotely Colombian? Would we have swallowed the tale that to think is churlish and all we are good for is to be "runners." Would we have found the necessary emotional resources to feel we were participating in world history? How many more years would we have waited to imagine that this part of the world is ours and we deserved to become our own masters?

Gabo in 1984 at the height of his fame (mangostar)

Many forget - or simply don't know - what Colombia was like in the 1950s, when Gabo was not yet famous and worked as a journalist. One might do well to recall the 300,000 dead of a 10-year civil war - the Violencia - cities growing out of control, and the hordes of barefoot, ragtag children the rich liked to describe in a very French way, as gamines. It was a country where 35% of people were illiterate. To travel to the coast you had to take a plane - there were no highways. If young people from good families wanted jeans, they had to buy them in the United States, as they were not sold in any store here nor made in any factory.

Misery, fear and hypocrisy; these were the cornerstones of a deformed society. In a setting of horror - where people had their throats not slit but cut wide open or were "minced" - grew a generation of people paralyzed by the terrible tales told furtively in kitchens. That is where fugitives exchanged tales of woe in a "rustic" Spanish mocked by their masters, for whom "linguistic purity" was a point of honor.

All this may sound old, faded, even pedantic. But in its time, it was heroic. Fidel Castro was not always a political mummy being preserved by a regime of voracious bureaucrats. Colombian guerrillas were not always discredited. Handing our lands to foreigners was not always the fashion. And above all, we did not always assume that to be part of the world we would have to eat the same junk as others. That is the truth.

We did not always live in a state of apocalyptic desperation where speaking about the future meant first shutting our eyes. There used to be another paradigm. We used to think that being part of the world was to set out and seek happiness, in a state of solidarity. We used to think of corrupt individuals and gangsters as criminals. We used to believe in a world where everything was a possibility for all. That was the dream pursued by García Márquez.

Whether or not one shares his political ideas, one must recognize his consistency, his determination to fight for a Latin America that was fairer, freer, more conscious. For the skeptics or those with a poor memory - and they are often the same people - here are some reminders: the Alternative review, the Firmes political movement, the San Antonio de los Baños film school, Cambio magazine, the New Journalism School. These were all enormous ventures to which Gabo not only committed his name, but also his work and money. The money was irretrievably lost, because none was a business venture. We needn't reflect much on where his Nobel laurels ended up or the fortune his talent earned him, nor try and fathom the tremendous extra work he was taking on.

What was lost

So one wonders, how did this prodigious creature manage to write his novels? Where did he find the hours to sit and write page after page, with that legendary discipline and a grit befitting a forced laborer. How could this literary beast focus on his own work when he was devoting the best of his energies to awakening others through the humble path of education? How on earth did he avert a collapse?

The answer is, perhaps he did not. He may have simply collapsed. Any sensible critic (whoever they may be) would agree: after Autumn of the Patriarch, there was a decline; and while Love in the Time of Cholera and The General in His Labyrinth maintain decorous standards, nothing he wrote after 1975 justifies the Nobel Prize. Which doesn't mean much when you think of all the people to whom they have given a Nobel Prize. Or it can mean a lot, if Gabo did indeed perform a writer's most generous act, namely to sacrifice his work.

An excellent writer then, who stops writing like a genius because he wants time to do political work: they say it happened to André Malraux, and was the end of him. In Gabo's case it would be a bold, even naive proposition, and impossible to prove. We would like to believe however that at some point, García Márquez decided it was more urgent to educate his readers than write admirable novels. It is refreshing to have had a writer so affectionate toward his public, in this grey time of ours when Colombian authors are increasingly prudent and comfortable, with their pretty little liberal ideas, self-absorbed and contemptuous of their readers.

The greatest of them all was the only one who dared to be politically incorrect and to subvert reality to the very end with more than just words. He should have inspired a little more integrity in others.

What about earning a living you may ask? It is easier being a communist when you're a millionaire! Some might say that the publishing world is a merciless supermarket selling stolen talents at rock-bottom prices, and that to sell a thousand novels these days you have to prove you're a child with acute judgement. Sure, your fears are yours, and one can understand that intellectuals have economic problems. Those who live off words have always suffered under tyrannical masters. There is a reason why we are this way, and were before as we shall be in the future. The problem is not new and has no solution, which makes García Márquez's attitude more valuable.

Now, forget all that and let us speak of the myth, now that the man is dead. We said at the start - and reaffirm - that Gabriel García Márquez is the hero. Or at least was. And we said this because the only thing we do quickly in Colombia is to forget - within reason - and Gabo suffered the same fate as Simón Bolívar. Both became symbols for the communist guerrilas and the socialist regimes of Cuba and Venezuela. This shared fate with the Liberator - a coincidence that inspired The General in His Labyrinth - assured Gabo his own Evil Hour: earning him his compatriots' envy and exile.

Yet, they will not take him down from his pedestal, like our venerable Bolívar who will remain in his public square, demanding freedom or death. Dressed in his white linen suit, installed in our memories, Gabo will follow us too, shouting out in capital letters that being Colombian is more than sharing a country with Pablo Escobar - that the guavas and fried fish, the gaity of our carnivals, the sight of the son of a telegraph operator winning the Nobel Prize can give hope to a whole nation.

This is the gift given us by Gabo's stubborn heroism: the certainty that what we have is a part of the universal patrimony. For that we shall miss him, because nobody else will tell us so forcefully about the possibilities within our destiny. And for that, in this time of mourning, we should also leap for joy, because the time of our fulfillment began with him, and has yet to end.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!