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Friday, March 20, 2020

Love In The Time Of Cholera–Magical Realism, Socialism, And The Corona Virus

Bill Farley had made his way through Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ impossibly unreadable book, Love in the Time of Cholera when he lived in Ecuador a number of years ago.  Encouraged by friends who had never given up the Cuban socialist dream and who were tucked away in Ambato, a small city in the Andean Valley where he was staying, he plowed through it. 

Ambato, if remembered at all was remembered for the 1949 earthquake which nearly completely destroyed it.  At the time of Farley's residence there, the town had been reconstructed with a generous grant from UNESCO.  The UN body had been persuaded by the influential Latin America lobby in its ruling Secretariat, to support Ecuador's left-leaning government which had consistently fought United States interests in the region, and which had joined with Cuba and Peru to form the People’s Anti-Imperialist Alliance (La Alianza Anti-Imperialista del Pueblo, AIP).  The AIP was applauded around the world, keynoted by a particularly impassioned address to the General Assembly by Philippe Mwamba, the UN Ambassador from the Congo.
“Let the reconstruction of the great city of Ambato”, he said, “stand as a tribute to the solidarity of likeminded, socialist nations and a defiant ‘No’ to the capitalist, imperialist ambitions of the United States and its European lackeys. The ugly behemoth of the North will be forced by the enlightened people of the Third World, to go back to the sinkhole from which it came, never again to threaten, abuse, and exploit the loving peoples of Africa and Latin America”.
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After the Ambassador’s fiery speech, Ambato became known as ‘the beacon of progress’ and the bulwark against Yankee imperialism.  By the time Farley, a Harvard botanist on sabbatical, arrived in the city to study the rare Andean juniper, the city had returned to its unremarkable roots, further impoverished by a line of mayors and governors who, following the lead of successive socialist Presidents, had drained government coffers, lost the few private sector investments it had managed to attract, and turned into as failed mini-state.  It was run by politicians who had no interest in Ecuador’s socialist past, and no stake in transparent governance;and who were quite happy to live out their lives as grandees, wealthy landowners, and successful investors.

At the time of Farley’s visit, the town had been struck by an epidemic of cholera.  Municipal authorities who had depleted public resources by years of giveaway programs soon found themselves without the resources to repair the city’s water and sewage infrastructure, and old iron pipes, cracked and leaking could no longer assure either a potable water supply or effective human waste disposal.  The indigenous population, a significant minority in the city and long ignored by European governance, suffered the most with morbidity and mortality rates of epidemic proportions.

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Cholera is a poor man’s disease, so the first Indian deaths went unnoticed by city officials who lived comfortably in large haciendas in the valley and served by safe, reinforced, independent deep tube wells and equally well-constructed septic tanks.  After a while the state and the Presidential Palace took note, and some desultory efforts to control the epidemic were begun.  “It will run its course”, said the Mayor, “No need to panic”; and so it did.  By the time Farley had arrived, cholera had departed and the city appeared no worse for wear.

Farley was urged to read Marquez’ book not only because of its literary and political significance – Garcia Marquez was a life-long socialist and close friend of Fidel Castro of Cuba and Marcos Perez Jimenez of Venezuela, as well as other world leaders of the left, becoming increasingly influential in socialist politics as his fame grew – but because he, Farley, was taking up residence in Ambato, the former earthquake city more recently infamous for its thousands of cholera deaths.

The book, however, was little if not simply political cant expressed in the metaphor of Magical Realism.  Cholera had nothing to do with the story, a tangled melodramatic love affair between Florentino and Fermina.  As the ship on which they are sailing reaches its last port, Fermina sees people she knows and frets that if they see her with Florentino, and it will cause scandal. Florentino orders the Captain to raise the yellow flag of cholera, which he does. There remain no passengers on aboard but Fermina, Florentino, the Captain, and his lover. No port will allow them to dock because of the supposed cholera outbreak aboard, and they are forever exiled to cruise the river.

The lionization of Marquez and the rise of other Latin authors writing in the same genre came and went along with the region’s gradual liberation from socialist governance – the books of Marquez and Isabel Allende created a fantastical, impossible world which matched Argentinian Peronism.  The operatic figure of Eva Peron and her swashbuckling, Rudolph Valentino look-alike husband, were not comic aberrations from the norm, but the best expression of a universal misconception that the European diaspora in South America had created a new, bright, magical, and totally enviable world.

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Farley’s first lover in Ambato was, ironically an Argentine woman who was a refugee from Jorge Videla’s post-Peron Dirty War, a member of the violent political underground who had escaped ‘disappearance’ and had made it across the border to Bolivia and then finally to Ambato – a place where she felt that the Argentine Secret Police would never find her.   She had been a trained epidemiologist in Buenos Aires but had long been disgraced by Videla’s regime and was forced to clean houses and take care of the children of the wealthy.  By night she became a rising star of the Resistance, which finally insisted that she leave the country and helped her to do so. 

During her time in Ambato where she established herself as a family doctor, she investigated the cholera epidemic, the history of which had been largely ignored.  There was nothing fanciful about the disease which killed people in an agonizing death within days or even hours after contracting it.  Its pathogens were virulent, fast reproducing, and mortally destructive.  Patients experience successive attacks of explosive diarrhea, and before they can dehydrate, their organs shut down, and they die.  Entire families were wiped out by the disease, infected by caring for their relatives and dying immediately.

There were no simple personal precautions to be taken, for it was the broken, crumbling, antiquated sanitation system of the city which was responsible.  No amount of handwashing or routine sanitation could stop one of the most virulent diseases on the planet. 

Ironically in Ambato, the place of her exile, Maria Elena found a renewed political purpose.  Her revolutionary, socialist zeal was restored.  Because of her investigative reporting of the horrific deaths among the Indian population of Ambato and an unbridled attack on government as an institution, the Velasco regime began proceedings to deport her.

Farley had become increasingly concerned about the ‘official’ visits to their house, the midnight phone calls, and the very conspicuous surveillance staked out day and night.  Maria Elena had revived the memory of cholera, over and subdued in the Indian settlements in the hills, forgotten by politicians ; but brought back with a vengeance to the Valley where they lived.

Cholera was not the fancy of Magical Realism, nor simply an epidemic, but a cause, a political event.
Many years later as the Corona virus spread throughout the world, Farley thought of Maria Elena.  Epidemic disease was revolutionary, and nothing could remain the same after it.  At the height of the epidemic in the United States federal, state, and municipal authorities gave shutdown orders to remain in place to protect yourself and others.  Corona is nothing like cholera – devastatingly deadly, frighteningly universal, and a scourge. 

Although Corona is relatively benign compared to cholera, malaria, dysentery, the Spanish Flu or the Plague, it is being considered as threatening and deadly.  In the face of the near total shuttering of all private sector enterprises and the loss of the jobs, savings, and security that the private sector offers in a liberal market economy, even the most committed conservatives are rethinking their criticism of government and the public sector, now the only place to turn for help and rescue.

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America will never be the same after the epidemic passes.  Although the number of deaths are likely to be low and insignificant compared with those from heart disease, cancer, and pulmonary disease, Corona is exposing the inadequacy of the private health care system, the fragility of private worker benefits, and the very fragmented, often inchoate assembly of private enterprises.  The wild Magical Realism of the socialist candidate for President, Bernie Sanders, might not be so far-fetched after all.  Whoever winds the 2020 election, he will govern a very different country than before.

After living with Maria Elena, Farley understood that there was indeed a connection between Peronism, Magical Realism, and the persistent Latin American socialism of today. Socialism is, after all, a political fantasy; and after all the promises of equality, generosity, and equitable distribution of wealth, the reality of the limitations of public finance, nationalization, and democratic populism soon sets in.  Those politicians who persist in their socialist convictions are indeed as fanciful as Fermina and Florentino. 

It is no surprise that socialism and Magical Realism persist in Latin America; no surprise that both have been in decline and of marginal interest, and no surprise that this particular political infection will spread to the United States….but given our history, not for long. 

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