Prisoner of Hope

tatiana de la tierra

Tuluá, Valle del Cauca, Colombia. The prisoner always wears khaki. Two armed guards are positioned nearby, twenty-four-seven. But apart from the attire and the security, little else falls within the norm for Gustavo Álvarez Gardeazábal, an original thinker and a popular novelist and politician, openly gay, who celebrated his 55th birthday stripped of his liberty.

“I have not killed anybody or stolen anything,” he protested when the warrant was issued for his arrest on May 4, 1999. “But it seems that I have to pay with suffering and punishment far greater than if I had done that.”

His crime? In 1992, Gardeazábal received two checks from bank accounts that were later traced to Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela from the Cali Cartel. Lured by the promise of light sentencing, the cocaine kingpin turned himself in to authorities in 1995. The Supreme Court found Gardeazábal’s explanation—that the checks were received as payment for the sale of a bronze sculpture from his personal collection—unbelievable. With the testimony of a paid informant, prosecutors asserted that Gardeazábal’s successful campaign for mayor of Tuluá in 1993 was financed by drug money. In a decision rendered on November 29, 2000, more than six months after his arrest, Gardeazábal was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison. In addition, he has to repay the 12 million pesos at today’s equivalent 1992 value of approximately $30,000, and he is prohibited from ever running for public office again.

Gardeazábal was governor of Valle del Cauca at the time of his arrest. He was jailed for over five months without a trial and supporters wrote letters to the Supreme Court on his behalf. But the ruling against him was final.

The prisoner sleeps an average of four-and-a-half hours each night, as he has done for most of his life. He awakes at 5:30 a.m. By 7:30, he has read the dailies, exercised, showered and shaved, and prepared his customary morning brews, fresh coffee and orange juice.

Public opinion has been consistently in Gardeazábal’s favor. No one seems to believe he is guilty of illicit enrichment, but all acknowledge that his imprisonment is representative of the Colombian state of affairs. Enrique Córdoba is a Colombian journalist in Miami and director of Cita Con Caracol, a live radio program that features Latin American culture that serves to inform and unite the Colombian community. Of Gardeazábal’s sentence he says, “Jail is part of the political game in Colombia. I am sorry that a man so clean and honest would be in such a situation. He should not be in prison.” One of his fans put it another way: “That is Colombia: the crooks in the street and Gardeazábal in jail.”

Various members of the Senate and Congress considered the verdict “deplorable,” “lamentable,” and “sad.” Annuziata Campa, his Italian translator, said, “I am shocked that a man so honest and upstanding, a famous Colombian writer, is imprisoned for a lie.” Héctor Abad Facioline, a columnist for the magazine Cambio, wrote about the fate of Colombian writers who opted to stay in the country rather than flee abroad. “Look at what happened to Gardeazábal, a talented writer who succumbed to politics. Beaten and demolished, he became the scapegoat of cruel and unjust justice.”

If you’re not Colombian, you’ve probably never heard of Gardeazábal, one of the country’s foremost contemporary writers, a man with a tongue as acid as his pen, a politician renowned for being incorruptible. If you’re not Colombian, you probably haven’t read the book that immortalized him, Cóndores no entierran todos los días (1972), required reading of all school children, arguably the most widely read (and most pirated) Colombian book, rivaling García Marquez’ Cien años de soledad. If you’re not Colombian, you might think there’s a catch—if he’s so honorable, why is he imprisoned?

Every nation gives birth to loud-mouthed, truth-speaking, justice-seeking rebel-rousers. Sometimes they are mere gadflies, easily dismissible. In exceptional cases, they are perceived as a threat to the oligarchy. Sooner or later, they are silenced, sometimes forever.

The National Penitentiary Institute determined that the prisoner would be held at the Simón Bolivar Police School, which is located in Tuluá. The Police School is in a wooded area and is encircled by a tall metallic fence with barbed wire. The prisoner occupies a tiny house on the grounds of the Police School; this space was previously used to store brooms and broken chairs. The room is now crammed with a bed, a stationary bicycle, a desk and chair, reading and writing materials, personal toiletries, a hot plate, and a television set affixed to the concrete wall. There is also a bathroom and, in the rear, an outdoor patio.

Gustavo Álvarez Gardeazábal was born in Tuluá in 1945, a child of La Violencia, the grisly civil war that lasted a decade and claimed hundreds of thousands of victims. Tuluá was an epicenter of violence and vengeance between liberals and conservatives and Gardeazábal witnessed the intricacies of war, first-hand, as he grew up. He was four years old when the first cadaver hit the pavement in town.

La Violencia and his own physical frailties partnered Gardeazábal with death. It’s not surprising, then, that when he studied literature at Universidad del Valle in Cali his thesis examined the Colombian novels that emerged from La Violencia. Or that Cóndores, his second novel, takes place in Tuluá and brings La Violencia to life through fleshed-out characters that were surely inspired by his family and neighbors in the small town. The novel made headlines—it sold out in two hours—and became an eternal bestseller.

But it was the possibility of his own death that spurned Gardeazábal to write. He came close to dying numerous times, beginning in infancy, and has lived with a weak immune system and serious renal and stomach maladies. In an essay published in the literary journal Índice in 1973, Gardeazábal wrote, “If my health permits and if my twenty-seven years of existence are prolonged much more, it’s possible that in the years to come I will write something that will perdure. Ojalá.” Gardeazábal began writing in earnest at nineteen and never stopped. Hailed as the next García Márquez early in his writing life, he considered that the mission of a contemporary novelist should be to “highlight the painful part of our existence. If a novelist is not a critic of society, then he is a publicist.”

The Supreme Court granted permission for the prisoner to receive an award in detention. On September 26, 2000, the prisoner was decorated with the Order of the Flying Geese, the highest honor bestowed by Universidad de Santa Rosa, the country’s only agrarian university. The private ceremony took place at the Police School Library. The prisoner identified with the Flying Geese in his acceptance speech. He said, “On the day that Kafka opens the door to the cage, if I haven’t vanished in captivity, this goose will only know the warmth of a sun tinged with lies.”

Gardeazál has published 14 novels and has won his share of literary awards. Several of his books have been translated into other languages. Cóndores was made into a movie, Man of Principle, The Condor, directed by Francisco Norden (1984). Another of his novels, El divino, became a Colombian soap opera. Gardeazábal’s books are regional—five of them are about Tuluá—and they are based on real Colombian events and characters. To read his books is to know Colombian history.

But aside from actually representing people and places, Gardeazábal transgresses storytelling and uses his craft to ridicule and critique society. In Bazaar of the Idiots, a spoof on religion, sinners are blessed with divine powers; the super-endowed “idiots” perform miracles with their sexual prowess. Los sordos ya no hablan takes place in Armero, Tolima, just before the Volcán del Nevado del Ruiz erupted and erased Armero off the map, entombing over 30,000. Had officials and residents heeded warnings, which Gardeazábal published in vain before the eruption, the effects of the disaster could have been greatly diminished. El titiritero is based on events that took place in 1971 at Universidad del Valle (and copies of the book were burned in protest in front of the University’s library). El divino enmeshes drug dealers with the church and features a gay protagonist. Homosexuals inhabit Gardeazábals novels naturally, and this is in itself taboo, in Colombian literature.

In the early seventies, during a time of great academic and political upheaval, the long-haired gay iconoclast became a professor of literature at Universidad del Valle. While the official class roster was limited to thirty students, his lectures filled auditoriums. For years, he was a man of literature, organizing conferences and traveling to universities in the U.S. and Mexico for speaking engagements. But he was unable to stomach the politics and in 1980, in protest of a new law that prohibited university professors from expressing political views, he resigned forever from academia. “I would rather sell potatoes in the market in Tuluá than ever teach again in Colombia,” he declared.

Every day, except for Sundays, the prisoner works in the Police School Library in exchange for a reduction in his sentence. Initially, the library’s collection of books was boxed up in storage, as the library had been damaged in an earthquake in January of 1999. He unboxed the books and began to put them in order, at first by himself, and later with the assistance of a librarian. He contacted influential friends and raised funds to construct a new library in the middle of the garrison; the building was completed in January of 2001. The library, which had 1,700 books when he began, now holds more than 3,000 titles. The prisoner is working on building the collection to 5,000 titles; he is soliciting book donations from friends and fans and plans to contribute titles from his personal library.

His lover, his father, and his friends tried to dissuade him from becoming a politician. But Gardeazábal, in addition to books, had been writing columns in newspapers and magazines in Colombia for decades, and he wanted to do more than bitch on paper. He wanted to make a difference and to show that politics need not be played dirty. Residents of Tuluá were ready for such a proposal from a man who was not allied with any of the major parties and who had been speaking his political mind for years. They were fed up, and they welcomed a change. Journalist Enrique Córdoba considers that Gardeazábal’s successful campaigns were “the result of a people frustrated with a corrupt system.”

During his first campaign for mayor of Tuluá in 1988, his opponent, Ramón Elías Giraldo, tried to smear him by pinning his homosexuality against him. But Gardeazábal turned the tables with his infamous quote: “I rule with my head, not my ass.”

Gardeazábal was the only openly gay elected official in Colombia’s history. When the Colombian Constitution was being revised in 1991, he campaigned for a seat in the decision-making Constitutional Assembly. He didn’t get the seat but his gay rights clause “For the right to intimacy” was incorporated into the revised Constitution. Gays in Colombia and abroad have looked up to Gardeazábal for his brazen attitude, but he has never belonged to any gay organization or participated in gay marches. “I don’t patronize politicking or proselytizing on the basis of homosexuality,” he once declared. “The only way that homosexuals will be respected in society is by respecting others and by not assaulting people with protuberant marches or unnecessary celebrations such as the foolish gay pride, which is the product of marketing.”

The prisoner planted a miniature jungle in the patio. Orchids of every color, from lavender to rust, bloom under his care. Birds and bugs inhabit the space, along with shrubs, fruit trees, ferns, and vines. Plants have taken root in the cracks of the walls.

Twice-elected mayor of Tuluá, Gardeazábal governed with the creativity and seriousness of his writings. He organized events that brought the community together—inner tube races down the Tuluá River, mountain walks, communal road pavings and street cleanings. He provided zany entertainment, such as a male bikini contest judged by celebrities. He communicated with his constituents via columns published in local papers and a radio show that was broadcast on Saturdays. He spoke out about the gays who were tortured and killed, their cadavers dumped into the Cauca River. He set up programs to support agricultural workers and showed up in the fields where they labored.

He rallied against any sign of U.S. meddling into Colombian affairs. In a 1992 article in the Dallas Morning News, Gardeazábal complained that the Drug Enforcement Agency was trying to provoke a war between the Cali and Medellin cocaine cartels. In late December of 1993, after 150 U.S. troops landed on Colombia’s Pacific Coast, allegedly on a humanitarian mission to build a school and a clinic in the poor region, Gardeazábal ordered the town hall flag flown at half-staff “until the invaders leave.” After reports that U.S. military planes had been spotted flying over Barranquilla and Cartagena, Gardeazábal claimed that U.S. troops brought “enough weapons to seize half of Colombia.” In a January 1994 article in Newsday, Gardeazábal was said to have alerted Colombians to the danger of a U.S. military operation. “In this time of peace, American soldiers are provoking the drug dealers and the guerillas. If a soldier gets killed, that could lead to a U.S. invasion.”
The prisoner writes every day, into the night, on a portable Compaq Presario laptop that is connected to an HP Deskyet 340 printer. The National Penitentiary Institute has authorized him to write a book a year in exchange for a reduction in his sentence. During the first year and a half in captivity, the prisoner wrote and commercially published two books. Prisionero de la esperanza (Grijalbo, 2000) is a collection of political essays. La novela colombiana, entre la verdad y la mentira (Plaza y Janés, 2000) examines key works of Colombian literature and asserts that the country’s novelists have had to resort to fiction in order to speak the truth. He has also written and locally published two extended essays and a work of fiction. Currently, he is writing Se llamaba el país vallecaucano.

On January 1, 1998, Gardeazábal stepped into office as Governor of Valle del Cauca after receiving and unprecedented 700,000 votes. He inherited the serious problems of his state: steep fiscal debt, a massive migration of people from the country to the city, and escalating war between various armed groups. Occupying nearly 9,000 square miles, el Valle spans the Pacific lowlands to the western Andean mountain range and the upper Cauca River. Agriculture is the backbone of el Valle; the region is a leading producer of sugar, rice, tobacco, and coffee. Gardeazábal worked to strengthen and revamp the state’s industry. He imposed austere economic measures to confront the state’s debt and launched a cultural program to support the arts.

But Gardeazábal’s greatest challenge was war and he approached it like no government official ever had—with dialogue. Twenty days into office, he ventured into the mountains to meet with leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). “The dialogue has centered on the war, to evaluate it and to try to understand the basis of the problems . . . We have not spoken of peace because to do so would be to construct a pedestal of fanciful lies.” But as Governor, Gardeazábal was not authorized to negotiate with the guerillas. And the FARC refused to speak with President Samper’s administration, which they denounced as illegitimate because the presidency was allegedly financed with drug money.
Even though top officials in Bogotá did not vest Gardeazábal with the authority to negotiate peace, the dialogues continued. He met with key players: Manuel “Tirofijo” Marulanda from the FARC; Carlos Castaño from the paramilitary United Self-Defense Groups; and leaders from the National Liberation Army. “To end the war it is necessary to give everyone a piece of the peace pie. We cannot afford to repeat the mistake of distributing it only among the traditional owners and a few others who want to try it.”

Peace was his daily bread and impossible as it seemed, he tried to make it happen. He signed peace pacts, joined the National Committee for Peace, participated in peace conferences, and never stopped trying to reach agreements via direct dialogue.

It is the year 2001 and Gardeazábal is imprisoned, wringing his hands and biting his tongue. Everything he tried to avoid—U.S. intervention, massacres, kidnappings, millions of refugees, child warriors, the intensification of war—is blossoming before his eyes on the television screen in his tiny room. Plan Colombia, an aggressive military operation against leftist insurgents and the “war on drugs,” is underway. The U.S. has pledged 1.3 billion dollars in support of Plan Colombia. Most of this aid is destined for weapons, ammunition, military equipment and training, and the fumigation of coca fields.

“Plan Colombia is a foolish proposal that has been conceived for war and not for peace,” Gardeazábal emphatically tells a visitor. “The gringos use it as an excuse to combat drugs when they are incapable of combating drug consumption in the U.S. Combating drugs will not end the war in Colombia because that is not the only cause of the war.”

It’s ironic that Gardeazábal should be so consumed with war, when all he ever wanted was to live in tranquility in the countryside. “I always had two dreams—to have a little farm where I could raise my geese and my dogs, and to be able to afford to buy and maintain a racehorse.”

But there were other dreams as well: peace, justice, and liberty. There is still time. He is, after all, a Prisoner of Hope.

The prisoner has a support group in town, Friends of Gardeazábal. The group is coordinated by William Peña, who is also the prisoner’s personal assistant and works out of the prisoner’s mother’s home in Tuluá. The prisoner does not have direct access to the Internet, but he can have messages delivered to him via his assistant ( Friends of Gardezábal publish periodic updates on the prisoner’s status and submits requests for visits with the prisoner to the Police School garrison. If approved, visitors must pass through three security checkpoints.

The prisoner receives visitors in the orchid garden.

15 de febrero de 2001, buffalo, nueva york

Originally published:

de la tierra, tatiana. “Prisoner of Hope: Gustavo Álvarez Gardeazábal.” El Andar Spring 2001: 50-53.

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