Soldaderas in the Mexican Military: Myth and History – Elizabeth Salas

SoldaderasThere is a saying that behind every great man is a great woman. Truth can be found in that statement, and I would also add that sometimes great women can stand alone. One definition of mythology is that it is a widespread belief or assumption that has grown up around someone or something. Regarding the Mexican female soldier known historically as the “Soldadera”, this is undeniably true. Their role in history of often obfuscated or unknown outside of Mexico. However, in Mexican history, they earned a well-deserved place that cannot be overlooked. But when exploring history, it is imperative to separate fact from fiction, and that is exactly what author Elizabeth Salas has done here in this book that examines the Soldadera and her role in Mexican society.

The cover of the book is suggestive and captures one’s attention, but for good reason. This strong image is not a myth, but an accurate portrayal of the role accepted by women who decided to pick up arms in defense of their families and country. And to understand the emergence of the Soldadera, Salas revisits Mexican history and the dominance of the Spanish empire. Uprisings against the Spaniards had a significant impact on the morale among subjugated classes of people. Women played crucial roles in the revolts and paid heavy prices. As Salas discusses, one such revolt occurred in 1611-1612 when pure and mixed Africans marched against injustice. These early struggles helped set the stage for the Soldaderas who later proved themselves at home and on the battlefield. Because the number of Soldaderas was extensive, Salas focuses on a select few to serve as examples. Among this group of women is Manuela Oxaca Quinn (1897-1980), mother of the late film star Anthony Quinn (1915-2001). Their stories are not intended to be all inclusive of all aspects of the Soldadera’s life, and for other women, the experience could have been vastly different depending on the circumstances surrounding their existence. But what we do learn from these women is that the Soldadera was unique and destined to become a fixture in Mexican history.

Salas moves through the book in a chronological order, and as the Mexican Revolution approaches, the role of the Soldadera becomes more pronounced and the pace of the book increases, as well as the suspense. Further, the Soldaderas also participated in other military campaigns that required their effort. As the author explains:

“Soldaderas served as part of Gen. Antonio López Santa Anna’s 1835–1838 campaign into Texas, the Mexican War of 1846–1848, the Three Years’ War of 1857–1860, and the French Intervention of 1862–1867” 

The Soldaderas gained status and reputations for courage but there was also a dark side to their life in Mexico. Salas also discusses the dangers that existed towards women who were caught on the battlefield or forcibly taken during raids by enemy factions. The Soldadera was sometimes born out of necessity and conditioned to protect herself and other women as much as possible. Frankly, what is revealed in the book would be described today as genocide and sex trafficking. Bandits were plenty and pillaging had become an art form. The women knew that marauders at the door did come with good intentions, and if the men could not protect them, they needed to take up arms. And that is one reason Soldaderas were born. Others sought protection of male soldiers with high rank. The author provides sufficient evidence to prove that the term Soldadera is not a monolithic term. Each woman had their own story, but they were unified in the willingness to fight and defend.

In addition to taking up arms, the women were still required to take care of the home. And the Soldadera also excelled in this regard. What we see are women who had multiple tasks that required extensive physical and mental stamina, but also had to face the threat of abduction, assault, and death in combat. Life could be short and brutally hard. Today, Mexico continues to grapple with the issue of femicide, and as the book shows, that threat also existed centuries ago during the era of the Soldaderas. However, there are bright moments in the book and the feats accomplished by the Soldaderas will leave readers speechless. Daring, cunning and devoted to their causes, the Soldaderas rose to the occasion when needed. But if that is the case, why are they never mentioned in history books? Well, in Mexico they are known but even there, the role of the Soldadera is not always a black and white issue, but one that has many shades of grey. Chicanas today are aware of the Soldaderas’ significance but live in an era far removed from the 1800s, and desire to reinvent the image of the Mexican woman. In fact, Salas points out that:

“There has been a concern among many Chicanas about the appropriateness of the soldadera image as a symbol of the Mexican woman. This issue is important to Chicanas because they want to anchor themselves in Mexican culture while expanding their personal horizons beyond that of wife, mother, and defender of La Raza.” 

The Soldaderas are an integral part of Mexican history, but Chicanas today are right to be concerned about their image. The life that existed for Soldaderas is different from modern times and the image of roving bandits and outlaws has become archived material. And though there is no need for the Soldadera today, we can still learn from their lives and experiences. But to do that, separating myth from reality is the first step. Highly recommended.


The 1989 Coup d’Étát in Paraguay: The End of a Long Dictatorship, 1954–1989 (Latin America at War Book 11) – Antonio Luis Sapienza

paraguayIn the Colombian capital of Bogotá, protests which began on April 28 have increased and has resulted injuries to more than eight hundred people. The demonstrations are the result of public frustration with the country’s economic crisis that has been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic.  The country has a long history of social unrest and what is taking place today is a scene common across Latin America, a region familiar with political and social unrest.  The issues that have plagued Latin American nations have been compounded the by tyranny of right-wing dictators that solidified their power in the wake of World War II.   On May 4, 1954, the Commander-In-Chief of the Paraguayan Army, Alfredo Stroessner (1912-2006), led a coup d’état that placed him in power of the small South American nation for more than thirty years.  In 1989, he was removed in another coup d’état  that return a sense of democracy to the country.  Author Antonio Luis Sapienza is a native of Paraguay and here he recalls the reign of Stroessner and its impact on his nation.

Personally, I have always wanted to visit Paraguay. I have seen Argentina, Chile and Brazil and will surely make a return to South America post-Covid 19.  But how many of us are even aware of Paraguay? The nation is landlocked and largely unknown to the rest of the world. In fact, the late Anthony Bourdain (1956-2018) perfectly explained the country’s place in the world with this quote:

“For most people, Paraguay is an empty space on the map of Latin America: a country of only 6 million, where a vast percentage of the land is steaming hot jungle or a huge scrub desert known simply as the Chaco. Only a few large cities offer a respite from the oppressive heat.”

Readers familiar with Latin America will easily recall the names of other dictators whom Stroessner appears to be a clone of.  As I read through the story, I began to think of Augusto José Ramón Pinochet Ugarte (1915-2006) in Chile, Juan Domingo Perón (1895-1974) in Argentina and Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina (1891-1961) in the Dominican Republic.  Of course, they are only a few of dictators that seized power across the globe during the 1950s, 1950s and 1970s.  Stroessner rises through the ranks of the military and seizes the moment to gain control of the government.  And it is soon clear that he is another despot seduced by power and lacking the skills needed to bring true democracy to Paraguay.  The people could not have known then that they would live under his rule for more than three decades.  Sapienza discusses Stroessner’s reign and the events that led to his removal in 1989 in this short but direct book that provides an excellent summation of the many aspects of revolution.

It is true that Stroessner did bring some positive changes to Paraguay, in the form of public services and economic agreements with neighboring countries. But the general also had a dark side and made no secret of his right-wing leanings.  During World War II and after Nazi Germany’s defeat, former Third Reich officials found a home on the continent where they could reside in relative peace without the threat of extradition back to Germany.  Paraguay was  one of several countries that accepted former Nazis and the author drives home the point with this reference:

“In 1959, a controversial decree gave Paraguayan citizenship to Josef Mengele, the Nazi SS medical doctor who worked at Auschwitz-Birkenau and conducted inhuman experiments using Jewish prisoners.” 

Mengele never faced justice at Nuremberg and lived until age sixty-seven.   On February 9, 1979, he died after suffering a stroke while swimming near the municipality of Bertioga in São Paulo, Brazil.  Undoubtedly, other former officials escaped and lived quietly across the continent. And even here in the United States, former Nazi officials were welcomed and utilized as the Cold War heated up.  In Asunción, Stroessner ruled the nation with an iron fist while he sat on the throne surrounded by his immediate family and on occasion several mistresses.  As the mid-1970s approached, human rights campaigns began to focus highly on Latin America.  The missing persons  and murders that occurred in Argentina and other nations due to Operation Condor, had caused the world to take notice.  In Paraguay, dissention was brewing and another general began to set his sights on Stroessner’s seat.  Like the president, General Andres Rodriguez (1923-1997) has risen through the ranks in the military. But unlike Stroessner, he did not share the same view of power. And while Rodriguez had his own dark past which is discussed in the book, he was the man who gained the support of those who supported change in Paraguay.  Sapienza provides a biographical sketch of Rodriguez, allowing the reader to see how and why he played such a major role in the events of 1989.

As the coup approaches, readers can feel the apprehension in the story.  Incredibly, everyone but the president seems to be aware that something is brewing.  But the arrogance common to dictators who believe they will always be in power takes hold.  Stroessner may have believed that no one would ever take his place but as Sapienza explains, the country was ready to move on from his regime.  Rodriguez had his own reign, but it did not last nearly as long and he did allow democratic elections while in office, a process that continues to this day.  However, the country will never forget the tyranny of Alfredo Stroessner and his regime that held Paraguay in a vice grip for too many years.   This is the story of his rise and fall on a continent that continues to go through revolution.


Fantasy Island: Colonialism, Exploitation, and the Betrayal of Puerto Rico – Ed Morales

MoralesThose of us who have traveled to Puerto Rico and have seen the island outside of San Juan, known why it is called the island of enchantment.  There is no one word explanation for Puerto Rico and I firmly believe that it is a place you have to see to truly understand.  Several years have passed since my last visit to the island but upon resolution of Covid-19, I do plan on returning to the place that holds a special place in my heart.  Hurricane Maria arrived in Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, and the devastation was nothing short catastrophic.  The storm’s wake revealed the underlying infrastructure in dire need of upgrade that was unable to cope with the hurricane’s power.  The electrical grid began to collapse, roads became blocked and residents had to rely on each other to survive each day.  Currently, the island is still recovering from the storm’s effects and the Trump Administration’s response to the storm is seen by many as subpar.  Some might call that a euphemism but I always refrain from coming as political in any posts.  Further, a political discussion can be found within the pages of this incredible book that explains clearly and thoroughly what went wrong with Puerto Rico from the moment the United States launched its invasion in 1989.  And I believe that the book will leave you with a very different view of the island’s problems and a range of emotions about how it reached its current state.

The book is not a history of the island itself but it does provide valuable information on important events in the island’s history. Readers who are in search of an explanation of Puerto Rico’s history should read Rudolph Adams Van Middeldyk’s The History of Puerto Rico: From the Spanish Discovery to the American Occupation, which provides a concise discussion of its origins and development.  The book is tainted only by the author’s bigoted views towards the end.  And if you feel the need to go back even further in time, Irving Rouse wrote a phenomenal account of the island’s original natives called The Tainos: The Rise and Fall of the People who Greeted Columbus.  The story here begins after Puerto Rico is invaded by the U.S. Military.  Puerto Ricans could not have imagined at the time that the occupation would last to this very day.  In 1917, Congress enacted a piece of legislation that permanently changed the history of Puerto Rico.  Three years prior, the Puerto Rican House of Delegates demanded independence and in 1917, a bipartisan bill in Congress called the Jones Act was passed. As relayed by the author, one of its key components was that:

“The Jones Act also provided for the triple-tax exemption from the sale of government bonds that helped create the current debt crisis. This was the crucial moment that presaged the future debt crisis: the exemption meant that no federal, local, or state taxes could be collected on the bonds, making them more attractive than those issued by the vast majority of US municipalities.” 

Essentially the Jones Act, with its restriction of foreign vessels near Puerto Rican shores, placed the island under the yoke of U.S. business interests which enjoyed exemption from income tax on all levels. The corporations now had no other goal but to reap as many profits as possible while Puerto Ricans suffered in the most difficult of ways.  And although U.S. Citizenship was granted to Puerto Ricans born after 1917, they are still legally restricted from freedoms that mainland Americans are granted at birth.  The exclusion of Puerto Rico from Chapter 9 Bankruptcy protection further sealed its fate as debt continued to climb, immune to restructuring under bankruptcy protection.  These key pieces of legislation are critical to understanding how Puerto Rico was set up to fail.  These things did not go without notice and nationalism began to rise on the island. It eventually gave way to the discussion on complete independence or statehood, a conversation that continues today.

Morales takes us down memory lane to bear witness to the growing independence movement under figures such as Pedro Abizu Campos (1891-1965) whose struggle for Puerto Rican independence is well-known and documented.  I do recommend that readers pick up Armando Pacheo Matos’s Biography of Dr. Ramón Emeterio Betances Alacan: Father of the Puerto Rican Motherland, a good read on the leader of the Lares uprising. Here the discussion focuses on the leaders who represented the Boricuas in search of true freedom.  Others who struck a more conciliatory tone with Washington are also discussed such as Luis Muñoz Marín (1898-1980), whose name was given to the San Juan International Airport. Marin’s father, Luis Muñoz Rivera (1859-1916) is also discussed but took a slightly different approach than his son.  Regardless, both remained committed to a Puerto Rico left to manage its own affairs.

Washington is never far away in the story and as financial interests increased on the island largely through the passage of Section 936 of the Internal Revenue Tax Code which gave corporations a glaring loophole to exploit the island even further while keeping the profits safely on mainland soil.  Hauntingly, Congress never seems to know what to do with Puerto Rico.  As Morales points out, the inability or refusal of Washington to actually fix Puerto Rico’s financial issues, is based in large part on racist beliefs and monetary gain.  The island has been seen as a land mass of inferior people who should be dependent upon the graces of its U.S. overseer. The attitude is immoral, condescending and as we see in the book, tragic for it placed Puerto in an unwinnable position. And unlike Greece and Argentina which had the option of turning to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Puerto Rico has no such option, leaving creditors salivating at the thought of recouping millions of dollars in foreign debt on the island.

Readers may be surprised to learn of the decisions taken by several presidential administrations.  No single administration deserves all of the blame for the current state of Puerto Rico. However, the mistakes made along the way are clearly evident in the book.  Yes, Donald Trump is central part of the story but so are Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.  Conservatism and Liberalism clash and neither produces the desired effect for the people of Puerto Rico, except for those in positions of power eager to remain in the good graces of Washington.  Morales does not shy away from calling them out and this part of the story is just as shocking as the actions by the U.S. Government in 1917 and later. Their actions, compounded by the formation of the Corporación del Fondo de Interés Apremiante (COFINA) and the Fiscal Oversight and Management Board (FOMB), only served to deepen the issues. And even the passing of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act comes under scrutiny for its insufficient tools to actually help the people of Puerto Rico.  In the wake of Hurricane Maria, the Puerto Rican Electric Power Authority (PREPA) came into focus as the horrendous state of the island’s power grid came to the surface.  A discussion on the issue is included, showing the precarious state of the islands infrastructure still in dire need of complete overhaul and how nepotism creeped into the discussion of the restoration of the power grid.

There is far more to be found in the book than what I have discussed here. The story is simply unbelievable at times but the harsh reality of the exploitation employed by the United States against a small island that remains in an uncertain states.  The question America needs to ask itself is what are we going to do with Puerto Rico? Its status as a commonwealth continues to keep it in limbo with a bleak financial outlook and restrictions not enforced on those born on the mainland. Whether Puerto Rico will eventually become a state or become independent remains to be seen but there are growing calls for action to be taken. And if in fact Donald Trump is no longer president in 2021, then it will be up to Joe Biden to take the ball and run with it.  For the people of Puerto Rico, the president may change but the island’s problems do not and they can no longer afford to wait for Washington to truly help their island the way it helps the states in the union.  Action is needed and the Puerto Rican people are mobilizing in the goal of one day living in a truly self-sufficient Puerto Rico.  Highly recommended.

“Puerto Rico is, then, in a privileged position by virtue of our growing skepticism of the American Dream, one that was never really granted to us, that grows ever new tentacles of corruption, where human bodies are just vessels for capital expansion, feeding on themselves and betraying sacred human trusts. By being both on the inside of pseudo-citizenship and outside of sovereignty, Puerto Ricans have a unique incentive to explore new ways to get free.” – Ed Morales

ASIN : B07M77X12S

Departing at Dawn: A Novel of Argentina’s Dirty War – Gloria Lisé

LiseOn March 24, 1976, Army Commander General Jorge Videla launched a successful coup against the government of Isabel Peron. The coup marked an end the reign of the Peronist party, universally known from the era of former President Juan Perón (1895-1974) and wife Eva (1919-1952). For many Argentines, the departure of Isabel Peron was a sign that perhaps the country would truly be on the road to democracy. In fact, Berta observes the occurrences and remarks: 

“Thus, on this morning, nobody was feeling sorry for Isabelita; the “Female Fool”’s game of playing President had ended. Both the “Old Man” and his minister for social welfare, the so-called “Wizard,” were gone. The horizon was clearing. It seemed that Peronism had finally come to an end and that from now on to call yourself a Peronist would be to say a bad word.”

In the wake of the coup, a dictatorship seized control of the country and embarked on a campaign of mass terror against those deemed to be enemies of the state.  Murders, kidnappings and disappearance instilled fear across the country as no one knew who might be next.  It is estimated that at least thirty-thousand people were murdered between 1976 and 1983. The true number may never be known.  Each year in the capitol of Buenos Aires, relatives of those who disappeared gather in the Playo de Mayo to remind the public of dark moments in Argentine history.  The campaign against those on the left and others considered subversive, was an extension of the plan known as Operation Condor, initiated by the administration of former Chilean President Augusto Pinochet (1915-2006). Survivors of wave of terror now referred to as the “dirty war” carry with them deep scars from their experiences at the hands of the right-wing government.  Gloria Lisé was fifteen years old at the time of the coup and later turned her memories of the era into this book originally titled Viene ClareandoIt is not an autobiography but a short novel of a story that certainly comes from many dark truths. 

The main character is Berta, whose is close to Atilio Sandoval, a target of the right-wing government. He is eventually murdered at the Tucumán Federation of Sugar Cane Workers.  Berta soon realizes that she must get out of the city. Her mother decides to send her to stay with her relatives, the Rojas del Pino family from which her late father descends. While avoiding the authorities she comes to learn about her distant relatives with whom she has very little connection.  As she explains early in the book, her father’s mother did not have a welcoming attitude to her son’s children with a woman she did not approve of.  We soon meet Tristán Nepomuceno,  Tristán Clímaco, Tristán Javier and her aunt, Avelina.  Berta recalls her experiences with several of them while she remains hidden from sight.  Her mother Amalia sends her letters but is very clear on what she should and should not do. Argentina is in crisis and everyone knows that death lurks around the corner. 

As the story progresses, Berta’s paternal family comes to life leaving readers with many anecdotes about life in an Argentine city.   Readers from North America may be surprised at some things in the book. However, after having visited Argentina several times and being able to truly experience Argentine culture, there are many things in the book that hit home. In their small town life is simple for most who only wish to survive each day.  But as to be expected, some language in the book is coarse and Argentines are not known to hold their tongues.  The story vividly captures daily life in the wake of a coup that stunned an entire nation.  

The story is actually told from two points of view; Bertha gives a firsthand account in some chapters and in others, the author writes about Bertha and her plight.  It is an interesting approach with two narrators showing us life under dictatorship.  Time soon begins to run out and after receiving another letter from home in which her mother advises that Berta’s friend Trinidad has disappeared, it becomes hauntingly clear that it is just a matter of time before Berta joins her.  Her next destination is Spain and mom pulls strings within the family to make it happen.  And after following vital instructions, she soon learns that yes, she will be departing a dawn. 

Readers familiar with Argentine history will readily recall many things in the book.  It is not intended to be a full account of the Dirty War but rather a small snippet of the hell that existed in Argentina after Perón’s removal.  In the years that followed, multiple dictatorships would assume power and waves of corruption continued to plague Argentine society as the people struggled to establish true democracy.  And while the nation currently has its share of issues, there is hope that it will one day achieve the democratic processes unavailable to Berta and others who lost their lives in the country they loved.  Berta gives a quote that addresses the crisis that sums up the story: 

“During those days, Argentina was like an unfinished poem somebody was keeping in a bottle, for later.”


Biography of Dr. Ramón Emeterio Betances Alacan: Father of the Puerto Rican Motherland – Armando Pacheco Matos

BatancesOn May 12, 1898, the United States Military invaded the island of Puerto Rico, the Caribbean island once under the control of the Spanish Empire.  The occupation by the United States ended hopes of an independent Puerto Rico, the dream of Dr. Ramón Emeterio Betances Alacan (1827-1898) whom author Armando Pacheco Matos calls the “Father of the Puerto Rican Motherland”.  Betances died in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France on September 16, 1898, and did not live to see what would become of the island he loved.  Had he lived, he would have been appalled at the annexation of Puerto Rico by the United States and its designation as a commonwealth. Betances’ goal from the start was complete independence of Puerto Rico from the bruality of the Spanish empire.  Today, his name is rarely mentioned but if we want to have a discussion about Puerto Rico’s history, he must be part of the conversation. To understand why, it is necessary to read this book which captures Betances’ life and how it impacted the history and culture of Puerto Rico.

Readers who are looking for a thorough discussion of Puerto Rico’s history will not find it here.  But I do recommend Rudolph Adams Van Middeldyk’s The History of Puerto Rico: From the Spanish Discovery to the American Occupation which I found to be the perfect go ot source to learn how Puerto Rico went from a Spanish colony to a United States commonwealth.  The focus here is strictly on Betances’ life and I found the author’s work to be highly informative and the subject of this book highly underrated.  In fact, as readers will see in the book, Betances was critical to the development of Puerto Rican pride and also the history of the Dominican Republic.  He proved to be invaluable to former President Gregorio Luperón (1839-1897).  His contributions to Dominican society are duly noted and highlight his belief in true independence not just for Puerto Rico but any nation under imperialist rule.

The book is not very long but it is packed with a wealth of information and the story moves quickly.  And although it may not be an “extensive” biography, it is just what is needed to understand who Betances was. And this is where the author succeeds.  We learn about Betances’ childhood, the ramifications of his African ancestry and how his travels abroad helped form the foundation for the actions he would take later in his life.  To say that he was multi-dimensional would be an understatement.  As a polyglot, he took command of several languages and used his medical training to improve the quality of life of all Puerto Ricans and impoverished people.  His love for the Antilles is on full display as Puerto Rico contends with two foreign nations determined to take control of the island of enchantment.

Betances had formed critical alliances as his revolutionary activity increased and some of those individuals also appear in the story such as Segundo Ruiz Belvis (1829-1867), Lola Rodríguez de Tió (1843-1924) and Eugenio María de Hostos (1839-1903).  Tió may be known to some readers as the writer of the original Puerto Rican anthem.  Dr. Betances also had many people he admired and their names which will be familiar to nearly every reader provide further insight into where Betances sought inspiration as he continued to develop into the revolutionary he would later become.

While the book is a biography, the crux is El Grito De Lares (The Cry of Lares) that occurred on September 23, 1868.  The uprising against the Spanish and its aftermath are critical events in Betances’ story as readers will see. Today, we know with hindsight that independence did not come about because of the uprising.  But it did have other effects and remains to this day, one of the most significant acts of resistance against the Spanish empire that decimated the Americas through genocide and disease.  And Betances is forever linked with Lares, the city in which his vision for freedom was put into action.

As I read through the book, I did notice that there is not much information on his wife Simplicia Isolina Jiménez Carlo, who appears mainly towards the end, in particular after Betances’ death in France from where she sends out a vital letter to secure financial assistance.  However, there is not much else we can learn about her as she is not frequently mentioned in the story. Whether that is because there is a lack of information about her life or that the author chose to focus mainly Betances himself, I do not know for sure.  It does not appear that the couple had any children and there is no mention of the same here.  And I am sure that there ae some parts of his life that may be lost to history.  However, the author does provide the names of other writings by Betances for further reading, including a snippet of the late doctor’s Ten Commandments of Free Men.

Having finished the book, I do feel that there are some gaps in the story and long periods of Betances’ life could have been explored further.   However, Matos has still provded an important and incredible story.  My only wish is that the book would have been much longer as I felt that I was still learning who Dr. Betances really was even as it ended. And I am certain that there is far more to his legacy than what we see in the book. But if you are looking for a solid introduction to one of Puerto Rico’s greatest heroes, this is the book for you.


Operation Condor: The History of the Notorious Intelligence Operations Supported by the United States to Combat Communists across South America – Charles River Editors

CondorHistory has many dark secrets that some have wished remained hidden from the official record so that the history that has been portrayed remains sanitized and above reproach.  But it is also said that what you do in the dark always comes to light.  In the wake of the coup that saw the overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende (1908-1973) on September 11, 1973, the country was placed in a vice grip by his successor, Augusto Pinochet (1915-2006), who commenced a program of retribution against enemies, activist and those “suspected” of being part of the opposition to the new government.  His regime was marred by human rights violations for which he was arrested by British Police in England on October 17, 1998.  Pinochet was extradited back to his native Chile but never stood trial for his actions.  He died on December 10, 2006 of congestive heart failure and pulmonary edema. His death marked the end of legal action to bring him to justice but it did not stop the prosecution of others who were complicit in the horrific actions that took place in the aftermath of the coup.  Researchers continued to investigate Pinochet’s actions and those of fellow dictators in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.  During one such expedition in Paraguay, a trove of documents were uncovered that shed light on a joint program created by several neighboring countries to track down those deemed enemies of the state with the purpose of execution.  The program is known as Operation Condor and here Charles River Editors provides a concise summary of how and why the program came into existence.

For those who are unfamiliar with Operation Condor, the book’s contents may come as a significant shock.  I think readers may benefit from also taking a look at Peter Kornbluh’s ‘The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability‘, which provides a detailed explanation of Pinochet’s rise to power and the crimes against humanity that occurred under his reign.   It is not necessary to read that book in order to enjoy this one but Kornbluh’s book is complemented by what is found here.  And while Kornbluh’s book focuses mainly on Pinochet, this book is centered on Operation Condor itself.   To set the stage for the gritty details of the operation, the author explains the dictatorships that were found in the nations that formed Operation Condor.  A brief explanation of the regimes of Argentina’s  Juan Perón (1895-1974) and Paraguay’s Alfredo Stroessner (1912-2006) and provided as examples.  The two rulers are just a sample of the many dictatorships that became common to Latin American during the 1960s and 1970s as the term “the disappeared” became part of the Latin American lexicon.

This book is dark and the descriptions of actions carried out by operatives of the program may be tough for some readers to accept.  The actions of American operative Michael Townley and the Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”) are also discussed and sheds light on a very dark time in United States foreign policy as Washington courted and accepted right-wing tyrants determined to keep their nations classified as banana republics. Power, greed and violence were the trifecta that spread fear and mayhem across several continents as political opponents and voices against the government were murdered in cold blood sometimes on foreign soil.  Pinochet remained firmly at the center and his intelligence apparatus Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (“DINA”) served as nucleus for the death sowed as operatives spared no expense or destination to carry out acts of violence.   The attacks were brazen and shocking, and caused Washington to finally take notice.  Undoubtedly, there are many more secrets buried in files locked tightly away in the archives of several countries.  But the truth about Operation Condor remains public for the world to see.

We have heard the saying that the past is prologue.  Latin America has been plagued by dictatorships, fraudulent elections, corruption and murder.  It remains to be seen if the region that is full of beautiful scenery, people and cultures will move forward and correct the wrongs that have been done in the past. As it does, it remains critical to remember the dark legacy of Augusto Pinochet and Operation Condor.


Iran Contra: Reagan’s Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power – Malcolm Byrne

contra1I still remember the video footage taken during the live testimony of Lt. Col. Oliver North (Ret.), as Congress sought to unravel  interconnected covert operations that revolved around Iran, Israel and Nicaragua. North appeared on television in full military dress, earing the sympathy and admiration of a large segment of American citizens.  There were some who felt he should have been incarcerated and that his actions were a dishonor to the very uniform he had on.   Regrettably, his testimony did little to help fully understand what had really taken place.  And even my father who follows politics and news religiously did not fully understand what had taken place.  What was clear, is that the administration of President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) had engaged in questionable and possibly illegal activities that sent shockwaves of panic through Reagan’s cabinet and raised alarm bells on Capitol Hill.  As more information came to light, the media began to call it the Iran-Contra scandal and even today, it is still known by that description.  It remains one of the darkest moments of Reagan’s time in office.  Author Malcolm Byrne revisits the Iran-Contra scandal to tell the full truth about how and why it developed, and the actions of a president abusing the powers of the Oval Office. 

If you have decided to read this book, I am sure that there is a good chance that you are already familiar with the Iran-Contra scandal. But even if you are not, the story will still be of interest and easy to follow. The story begins by revisiting the events of October 5, 1986, when a C-123 plane carrying arms for the contras fighting the Sandinista government is shot down while over Nicaraguan airspace.  Several days later, a revelation on Iranian television sent Washington in panic mode.  Nearly everyone began to question the actions of Reagan and his cabinet.  The full story was carefully hidden from the public through omissions and in some cases, deception.   Here we have the whole account and Byrne take us on quite a ride as he peels back the layers of obfuscation employed by key officials close to the President.

Although prior knowledge of the events that gave way to the scandal is not necessary, I do believe that it will help if the reader has some prior knowledge of the political climate of Central America and the Middle East during the time period in which the scandal took place.  In fact, the histories of Nicaragua, Honduras, Israel, El Salvador an Iran are all relevant to the information that Byrne is presenting to the reader.   The fear of a communist expansion under the thumb of the Soviet Union, continued to shape U.S. foreign policy following World War II.  The rise of left-leaning and popular figures across Latin America had caused Washington to pay close attention and subvert several governments through the Central Intelligence Agency.  Central America became the next battle ground and as Byrne shows, Reagan intended to pull out all of the stops.

There are many acronyms in the book due to the complexity of Washington’s design with regards to intelligence and foreign policy.  Several departments play a role in the story and Byrne keeps track of them all, keeping the story flowing smoothly.  Chapters one through twelve alternate between Iran and Nicaragua. It was a good decision by the author, for it allows the reader to focus one part of the story before going to the next and then back again.  The two tracks eventually merge but not before Byrne provides a ton of staggering and shocking information.  When the tracks do merge, the book takes another turn as Reagan’s cabinet goes into damage control and the full weight of Congress comes down on his administration.

The hearings and testimony are summarized here so readers should not expect full transcripts but only snippets of the most critical statements.   In fact, the section regarding the hearings and prosecutions by the Department of Justice do not make up a large portion of the book.  The majority is devoted to the developments in Central American and the Middle East.  But that in no way diminishes the importance of the later chapters and they are just as surprising as the rest of the book.

One section in the book that caught my attention was the discussion about Reagan’s health.  Putting aside the attempted assassination in 1981, there were other health issues that arose during his presidency that caused many to question whether he was fit for office.  His actions and later testimony provide evidence that the conditions he later suffered from, had began to manifest as early as the 1980s. Byrne does not give Reagan a pass because of this but is equally mystified at how he was able to function.  He also makes a compelling point regarding Reagan’s mental state and his interactions with subordinates. It is certainly food for thought about the 40th President of the United States.

America has always said that it does not negotiate with terrorist.   On the surface it sounds tough and gives off the impression that the United States can take as hardline of a stance as anyone else.  However,  the events described in this book, challenge that position and Byrne’s research shows that negotiation became as common as public denials.  For many Americans, the scandal is an afterthought.  Reagan died in 2004 and the suriving members from his cabinet who are still alive had faded out of the public light, well into their later years in age.  However, I do believe that the story is still important in light of the recent events regarding the administration of Donald J. Trump.  Impeachment and investigations are two words that give rise to fear and concern but the founding fathers knew early on that such a system of governing was needed if the United States would truly be a democracy.  Future presidents may also want to read this book so that they too are never accused of abuse of power.

This account of the Iran-Contra scandal lays it all out for the reader to digest. It is an incredible and unnerving story about the very dark side of United States foreign policy.  Highly recommended.

ISBN-10: 0700625909
ISBN-13: 978-0700625901

Weakness and Deceit: America and El Salvador’s Dirty War – Raymond Bonner

BonnerFor the first time in a long time, I found myself emotional and angry as I finished this book about the relationship between the United States and the military dictatorship in El Salvador during the small Central American nation’s civil war in the 1980s.  I had expected the book to be a tough read and contain many facts that would be both uncomfortable and upsetting.  But I admit that I was not prepared for what I learned.  This is not the first book I have read or reviewed regarding  El Salvador.  There are many  other books that are very good but take different approaches to the subject matter.  It might be fair to say that the other books were a primer for what I was to learn here in this mind-blowing and deeply troubling book by Raymond Bonner, a former Marine who served in Vietnam and current staff writer for the New York Times.

Younger Americans will most likely have no recollection of the civil war that claimed the lives of thousands of El Salvadorans.   A friend of mine was born in El Salvador and has told me the story of her family’s departure from the country as government troops surrounding their town.  They found refuge in New York before making a home in New Jersey.  Although she has never spoken in too much detail about El Salvador, I am sure there are many memories that she has kept to herself from a time in her youth where death was certain but life was not.   Those who are old enough to remember the war in El Salvador and the actions both the Carter and Reagan Administrations, will find this book to be a thorough account of what really did happen as America became more entrenched in the affairs of Central America.

To help the reader understand politics in El Salvador, Bonner provides a brief history of the nation, including the settlement of the Pipil Indians and the Spanish colonization which has had long term effects on El Salvadoran society.  Coffee became a prized possession and still remains on the nation’s top exports.  The plantations, known to the locals as “fincas“, became a hot commodity and later actions by the wealthy upper class backed by ruling officials, set the stage for the adversarial relationship between the peasants and the Government that late reached deadly proportions.  The 1932 massacre or “matanza“, is discussed as well, so that readers can understand the long history of repression.

On October 15, 1979, President General Carlos Humberto Romero Mena (1924-2017) was overthrown in a military backed coup that marked a turning point for El Salvador and set the country down a dark path that still reverberates today.  At this point in the book, the pace picks up considerably.  The administration of Jimmy Carter found itself unsure on how to proceed with El Salvador, a nation of no strategic importance for the United States.  Fears of a left-leaning administration permeated the in Washington resulting in policy mistakes that later came back to haunt the United States.  Through Bonner’s work we can see how the mistakes developed but more importantly, why.  Relying on now declassified cables, other documents released to the public and his time in the country, a clearer picture of what did and did not happen has begun to take shape.  And it is a deeply troubling picture of ineptitude and complicity.   Or some might simply call it weakness.

On January 21, 1980, Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) took office as the 40th President of the United States and as Bonner show, events in El Salvador took an even darker turn that might cause some readers to revolt in disgust.  I warn readers that the book is not for the faint at heart and what is revealed during the administration of Ronald Reagan forced me to question all that I knew about El Salvador.  To be clear, there are no happy endings here but instead, the dark truth about events in El Salvador including the murders of Archbishop Oscar Romero (1917-1980) and churchwomen Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan in December, 1980.   The heinous act was portrayed in the 1986 film ‘Salvador‘ by Oliver Stone, starring James Woods and Jim Belushi.  in 1989, the film ‘Romero‘ was released starring the late Raul Julia (1940-1994) as the late Archbishop Romero. Both films are powerful but there is far more to the story as told here.

It goes without saying that on all sides there were multiple players and it was no different in Washington and San Salvador.  The actions of the military commanders are horrific but what I found to  be even more disturbing as I read through the book, were the actions of many in Washington, including elected officials, cabinet members and officials in the State Department.  Misrepresentations and outright lies to the American public and Congress, coupled with covert plans to sent military aid to El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, which became ground zero in Washington’s battle against the left in Central America.  These actions are what would be called deceit.  That deception resulted in repeated tragedies that claimed the lives of thousands of people through failed U.S. policy that failed to fully understand El Salvador, Central America and the truth about the influence of communism.   The red scare was alive and well and Washington’s justifications for its actions are misguided and repulsive.   In the book, the paranoia surrounding it is eerily reminiscent of the mantra endorsed by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy (1907-1957).  Bonner provides snippets of public states and cables to drive home the message so that it is loud and clear.

Surprisingly, to date there has never been a full investigation into Washington’s actions in El Salvador.  And as the gangs MS-13 and Barrio 18 (composed of a significant number of deportees from the United States) continue to tear the country apart, investigations into individuals of prior administrations are almost certain to never happen.  Many in Washington have made it a point to forget El Salvador but for the its people, the memories of the civil war will never fade.  This is their story, told by Raymond Bonner, of hope and disappointment, supplemented by death and terror under a military backed by America and determined to maintain its grip by any means necessary.


The History of Puerto Rico: From the Spanish Discovery to the American Occupation – Rudolph Adams Van Middeldyk


91zChcroMlL._SR500,500_If you have visited the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, then you know very well why it is called the “Island of Enchantment”.   It has a mystical feel to it and attracts thousands of tourist everyday.   The presence of the United States is found across the island, reminding the visitor of the territory’s status as a commonwealth.  Regardless, Old San Juan is like a step back in time several hundred years earlier as European explorers under the command of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) make their way to the new world.  The history of Puerto Rico is often misunderstood or unknown.  The American occupation and the  events that followed still ring fresh in the minds of Puerto Ricans both on the island and across the continental United States.  But for a large number of people, the history of Puerto Rico prior to American intervention is often a mystery.  This book by Rudolph Adams Van Middeldyk addresses that very topic, providing a true history of how Puerto Rico came into existence and why it ended up in the possession of the United States.

The story begins in 1493 as Columbus and his entourage makes another journey to the Caribbean at the service of the Spanish monarchy.  Gold, spices and human labor are on the list of items to obtain as Spain seeks to expand its global influence.  However, Columbus had bigger plans and does not stay on the island long. In fact, he is only mentioned early in the story before departing for Hispaniola where he would establish Santo Domingo.  Other figures take prominence such as Juan Ponce de León (1474-1521), whom the town in the southern part of the island is named after.  There are many players active in the story, each with their own agenda and claim to a stake in a part of the new territory.  Ponce establishes a capital named Capárra from which he served the Spanish Government.  But his tenure is short lived as Columbus’ son Diego (1479-1526) embraces chicanery and Ponce decides to continue exploring resulting in his discovery of new territory that he names Florida.

Ponce’s actions are literally the tip of the iceberg.  As the new settlers move in, the fate of the island population is sealed.  Murder, rape, pillage disease mixed into a deadly brew that systematically erased the native population, some of which had already been enslaved and sent to Europe. Here we learn of the tragic story of the Boriquén population which does not exist today.  They are often referred to as the Tainos, which apparently is a name that might have been given to them by the Europeans.  The Caribs are also mentioned in the book providing a better understanding of their culture and the clash between the natives and the explorers.   The natives do stand idly by  waiting to be extinguished. Revolts take place and the author details them in the book.

Spain had become alarmed by what was happening to the native population and dispatched the Jerome Friars to attend to the island. Ordinances were passed to protect the natives’ lives and prevent their eradication but too much had taken place for too long. When the Friars arrived, the island was split in two with capitals in the north and south.  The southern capital of San German and its dark fate are discussed here in depth.  Visitors to modern day San German will take high interest in this part of the book.   Needless to say, it is quite a story and shows how close Puerto Rico came to being under the rule of several different empires.

Similar to the West Indies and South America, the French, British and Dutch empires all make an appearance as they steal territory from one another in an attempt at world domination.  The story of the British is perhaps the most famous and as an American, it is entrenched in the history of the place I call home. However, the focus here is on Puerto Rico and the number of foreign invasions are simply mind-boggling.  And it is a near miracle the the island eventually became a commonwealth of the United States and not territory of a number of nations.  The author discusses in detail each invasion for the reader to digest.

In September, 2017, Hurricane Maria barreled through the Caribbean and damaged Puerto Rico extensively.  Hurricanes are nothing new for the region and the number of those that have occurred over the past several hundred years are staggering.  Middeldyk provides a timeline for the major hurricanes that took place after the founding of Puerto Rico up until the time of U.S. intervention.  History truly does have a way of repeating itself.

Towards the end of the book, I did feel as if the author had strayed a bit off topic.  He asserts his own beliefs about the characteristics of some groups which could be viewed as prejudiced.  I did feel as if he made several judgments which were quite broad and unfounded.  However, the book was published in 1903, a time in which diversity and acceptance were nearly unheard of.   I do believe that the book has enough value to be of interest without that part included.  But we do not have the ability to go back in time and change his mind.

If you are looking for a quick primer on the history of Puerto Rico prior to commonwealth status, then this book is a good addition. The information is straight forward and clearly presented.   And maybe after finishing the book, you will see why Puerto Ricans say “Yo soy Boricua!”

ASIN: B079R846RP

Victor: An Unfinished Song – Joan Jara

20190302_202131On January 11, 2019, Netflix released ReMastered: Massacre at the Stadium, a look back at the violent coup in September, 1973 in which President Salvador Allende (1908-1973) was overthrown by the Chilean military.  In his place, General Augusto Pinochet (1915-2006) assumed power and unleashed a reign of tyranny that lasted sixteen years and caused the deaths of thousands of Chileans.  His reign came to an end when Patricio Aylwin (1918-2016) was elected as the next President of the Republic of Chile. Pinochet was arrested in October, 1998, by British intelligence and repatriated to Chile on March 3, 2000.  He died on December 10, 2006, without having served a day in prison for the human rights violations that occurred during his time in office.  Today he is largely recognized as one of Latin America’s most infamous tyrants.  The story of his rise to power and fall are covered beautifully in Peter Kornbluh’s The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability .  His ruthlessness knew no bounds that tragic September day, and the military engaged in a purge of all perceived enemies of the new regime.  Among the endless number of victims was former activist, playwright and singer, Victor Lidio Jara Martínez  (1932-1978), known to the world as Victor Jara.

Jara’s widow Joan, is now 92 and has never ceased in her efforts to promote Victor’s legacy and find justice for his murder.  In the Netflix documentary, his brutal death and the successful lawsuit against former Chilean soldier Pablo Barrientos, take center stage in the mission to unravel Jara’s final moments at the stadium. The film is thought-provoking and I do believe there is more to his death that remains hidden.  After I finished the film, I became determined to learn as much as I could about Jara and his importance in Chilean history.  I found this book by Joan Jara, wherein she discusses the Victor she knew and her life in Chile, a place that became her home away from home.  British by birth, life took her across the Atlantic and to Santiago, where she continued to perfect her craft as a performer.  Soon she was divorced with a young daughter trying to find her purpose far away from the bustling city life in London.  Soon, a young charismatic singer crossed her path and before long, the story of Victor and Joan Jara had begun.

The beauty in this book is that Joan allows us into their home, to learn about Victor’s private life and his rise from the poverty-stricken town of Lonquén to become one of Chile’s most vocal supporters of Allende’s government.  She provides a short biography on Victor and herself, filled with anecdotes that show how the basis for their political beliefs.  As she admits, at first she had no fondness for anything communist but after witnessing the poverty and inequality in Chile and other parts of Latin America, she became more accepting of  communist ideology.  These beliefs would have far-reaching and tragic implications up until the time she fled Chile with Manuela and Amanda, her daughter with Jara.  Today, it seems unreal that someone should be physically assaulted or even murdered for political affiliation, but this was the atmosphere that existed in Chile under Allende’s administration.   Joan captures the atmosphere, recalling tense situations in which anarchy could have prevailed at the drop of a hat.  Her analysis is a prime example for anyone seeking to understand how and why the coup had formed.

Joan takes us through the development of their relationship, their new daughter and success in the theater, a place she and Victor have always called home.  Life is good and the girls are growing up nicely, but there is an undercurrent of dissent among the right-wing faction, determined to end Allende’s rule by any means necessary.   The involvement of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Allende’s downfall is well-documented.  And the further fracture of Chilean society is critically examined in A Nation of Enemies: Chile Under Pinochet by Pamela A. Constable and Arturo Valenzuela. I found myself startled as I read the book, at the revelations that it was openly assumed  by many Allende supporters that the CIA was actively working to bring down Allende.  It seems as if it was the secret that was not no secret.  Perhaps the events in Cuba, Guatemala and Vietnam had provided fuel for the suspicion.  The political turmoil that later engulfed the nation had started to build nearly the day that Allende was sworn in.  The right-wing extremists failed to get the two-thirds vote to remove him from office and it was clear to Allende’s detractors that his removal would only come through violence.  Allende was not oblivious to his precarious situation and even gave an unofficial last address to the nation in the days leading up to the coup.   Little by little, dissension grew and the stage was set for September 11, 1973.

Open contempt by opposing parties had reached toxic levels in the week leading up to the coup and the audacity exemplified by enemies is recounted here by Joan.  Some of the behavior might shock some readers. The descriptions of the brutality inflicted upon political opponents is reprehensible and as a woman states in the book, the coup taught Chileans how to hate.  Similar to the Netflix film, Joan discusses that day in detail and how she came to learn about Victor’s death, her retrieval of his remains and her actions in the wake of his untimely demise.  The story is riveting and Victor’s death silenced a voice of hope in a country that later endured a tyranny that soon spread across the continent, making its mark in places such Argentina and Uruguay under the regimes of Juan Perón and Juan María Bordaberry.  Today, the dictatorships are a dark reminder of the past and the perils of extremism.

In January, 2019, I visited Chile and it has found a place in my heart as a true gem.   It is hard to put into the words, the feeling that comes over the body upon the arrival on Chilean soil.   To many of its neighbors, Chile is the black sheep of Latin America.  But similar to its neighbors, it too has suffered through and survived its own history of military rule under right-wing dictatorship.  Victor Jara was one of many voices who spoke out and took action to transform society in the hope of correctly many of mankind’s mistakes.  His belief in his actions made him a marked man but Jara refused to abandoned his position and stood by his beliefs until the end.  Joan has kept her husband’s memory alive in both the Netflix documentary and his book about their time together and the man she simply knew as Victor and his life which truly is an unfinished song.

ISBN-10: 0747539944
ISBN-13: 978-0747539940