Saturday, 28 February 2009

Las Marieposas

I hope this will become more than a ramble among thoughts and words and through the lives of others I will find out more about the person I have become and have been.

Throughout my knowledge of their lives, my aunties lit wax lights on a bed of oil, in supplication for blessings. My recollection is that they were called "marieposas" although I never knew the spelling and I believed the English translation was "light to Mary." Earlier in the evening I discovered that Las Marieposas is the Spanish for the Butterflies, and my only previous association with a place of butterflies was on a tour of Corfu, in a valley filled with Butterflies in their tens of thousands.

It was not until late last year that I caught the final part of a showing of the film, "In the time of the Butterflies," and immediately added to my list of DVD's to hire before I die. The title refers to three sisters who were murdered by former Dominican Dictator Trujillo in 1960 and who were known for their opposition activities as Las Marieposas.

The DVD arrived on Saturday and later that evening, already a little angry sad after another pathetic and contemptible performance and insult to fifty thousand loyalty stretched fans from Newcastle Football club, (we lost 2.0 at home again, despite a fit Michael Owen), I decided to view the film as a consolation and immediately regretted because of the pain and frustration experienced. (OK so I have a masochistic streak and sometimes enjoy the suffering but not in this instance).

The film is based on the book by Julia Alvarez. Her parents escaped the murderous tyranny of the three decades of Trujillo dictatorship in Dominica between 1930 and 1960. The film is a tribute to the three remarkable sisters who were murdered on his instructions after they had visited their husband in prison, in 1960 on the assumption that it would reduce the threat to his rule. It is said that this had the opposite consequence igniting the country against the man and the regime and he was assassinated six month later, but also separately alleged as a consequence of the US intervention with the provision of arms.

The film is a fictionalised account of their lives and I have no knowledge how accurate was the book, although some detailed research is likely to have occurred before the lives and the deaths of the three sisters became a United Nations symbol of the abuse against women with International recognition on the fatal day when they were beaten and strangled to death.

Why have they been singled out from the thousands who were tortured and murdered during the 30 years regime of a man originally trained as a Marine by the Americans? It is said that he slaughtered 17000 Haitians, who share the Island, over a territorial claim. At the end of the film there is a note that 30000 political opponents, and anyone who stood in his way, were killed, about one day. However, that he survived for so long indicates the US approach that whatever his domestic activities, creating one of the major personal fortunes in the world by subverting incoming funds and a personal nationalization of land and business, he was their man in the fight against communism, as he was to the church of Rome, although towards the final years, the church condemned the continuing atrocities and it appears that individual priests became associated with rebel activity.

Finding out the extent to which the film mirrored the lives of the three sisters, (the fourth was not murdered with the others, survived, and acts a custodian of the museum in their honour), led me to one official site and several internet histories.

The family appears to have established themselves during the last years of direct American involvement before Trujillo came to power. Their father owned farming land, a shop, coffee mill, meat market and rice factory in a town of Santiago called Tambroi, The film portrays the family as living a rural existence, but having influence with the local governor, and being part of the society which attended "court" functions. The four daughters, whose births spread from 1924 to 1936 attended a Catholic boarding school, three at the same time and some went on to university education, married men who actively opposed the regime and had families.

The eldest Patria Mercedes was born 27th February 1924 and did not attend the boarding social until she was 14, (1938) so that the film view that the girls had to fight to be educated appears valid, although parental concern about their welfare away from home was understandable as they would have become aware of the growing network of spies and informants, and the repressive nature of the regime. Patria (fatherland) appeared destined to become a nun but married at the age of 17 to a farmer and had four children, one of who died before the age of one year. A mother and devout Catholic her concern is said to have been for the future of her and other children in the country.

Born two years later on March 12th Minerva Argentina was 12 years when she commenced her education, but was already home schooled and is said to have been able to recite French verse at seven years. She remained in education throughout World War II and went to the University of at Santa Domingo when she met her future husband and a political activist. Her left political interest went beyond her homeland and she is said to have been a great admirer of Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution. She had two children. Maria Teresa was the youngest, born in 1936, therefore attended the school after her sisters, attended the Liceo de San Francisco de Macoris where she studied Mathematics which she continuing at the university, and then marrying and engineer in 1958 and giving birth to a son a year before her murder. She appears to have thrown herself wholeheartedly into active political work during her short adult life also marrying a political activist.

Minerva Mirabal is said to have been the first of the sisters to become involved in the underground movements to overthrow the government. She made friends at the school with someone whose relatives had been arrested, tortured, and killed by Trujillo's men. Even as a young girl, Minerva was very rebellious, and based her actions on her own judgements of right versus wrong. Minerva, a patriotic liberal, understood politics and aspired to study law. In the 1940's, she met Pericles Franco Ornes, the founder of the Popular Socialist Party. He was a known anti-trujillista and had been jailed various times for his political activities. Other influences on Minerva's growing anti-Trujillo sentiments included leftist literature and the illegally intercepted radio stations from Cuba and Venezuela that objectively discussed the political situation in the Dominican Republic

The family confrontation with the dictator does not appear to have emerged until 1949 when the youngest was only 13 years. The family received an invitation delivered by the local commander to attend a social function with the President, but left before him because of the weather conditions which so angered the man that he had their father arrested and imprisoned, and two daughters were arrested and questioned about their political activities. The film suggests that the dictator had lecherous designs on Minerva and that her open opposition to him and his regime attracted and to an extent protected her from subsequent summary execution. To me the fact that the two sisters were questioned about the political activities indicates that perhaps the invitation was a set up to get them away from the area where they had influence and support.

The nature of the regime and the man came again came to the fore in their lives, in the early 1950's, when they were arrested because it was said that their father had not bought a book about the President. It is suggested that the President, already aware that this girl was a threat to him, used the issue as an excuse to remind her and her family of his power. He is also reported to have intervened next when during Minerva's study of law at the university after she wrote a paper on basic human rights and the Dominican situation. This suggests that the teachers were required to draw the attention of the dictatorship to the views and activities of the students

(Of course this is something which all governments do. They have sympathetic supporters monitoring students, on the look out for those who can be recruited into the fold and those who are potential enemies. This is understandable. At present families of those murdered in our most recent terrorist activity are demanding explanations why two of the four bombers who had come to the attention of the authorities at one point were not then closely monitored. Personally I can understand the concern of the families and the political opportunism of others, but the route they appear to want the government to take, is to introduce the psychological screening of all children at the age of 5 years and then 11, and perhaps at 18 before entry into university education. Perhaps also before marriage and before entering any government financed employment at national or local level. Then there would have to a comprehensive surveillance system for everyone else, especially those who could be influenced against the state, such as at the present time all Muslims, and all other young people who might carry knives or become part of gun using gangs, in addition to everyone who has committed any kind of offence, or has received help for a psychological condition, or has become addicted, and with a higher level for those who have been to prison or in specialist psychiatric institution. Hang on isn't that what Hitler, Stalin, Chairman Mao did? Perhaps the surveillance should also be extended to any form of behaviour which deviates from a norm decided by the media from to time perhaps by a telephone/text in vote with Simon Cowell and Alan Sugar adjudicating? You think I am kidding?)

The President did try and prevent the further university education of Minerva but she was able to graduate in 1957, thus spanning the period of my own secondary education, the reading of the war crimes trials, going to work as a clerk and hating every second of the experience, although I had taken the decision to leave school and to take the position. At one level Minerva and I were already following the core approach of Rashnamurti, listening to our inner voice and Catholic originated conscience to what was right and what was wrong. Because I lacked academic and social self confidence, I knew I would be lucky to pass the five Ordinary level subjects that I had sat, and had taken the first available job which was not dependent on the results, except that passing would bring some immediate monetary improvement. I had been right because I only scrapped through. With hindsight of course my position would have been very different if the schools had understood about dyslexia, or I had lived in the era of being able to use word processes and the internet.

It was at the university she met her husband Manuel (Manolo) Aurelio Tavarez Justo already opposed to the dictator as was the husband of the younger sister. It was on June 14th 1959, that the underground opposition became known to the world, but not to me, when troops from the Dominican Liberation Movement, made up of exiled Dominicans living abroad, were sent to the northern towns of Constanza, Maimón and Estero Hondo under Commander Enrique Jimenez Moya. Dubbed the Luperion Invasion, this attempt to topple the dictatorship was halted by Trujillo's army and air force, but it did ignite the flame of rebellion in the Dominican people at large, or so it said.

Luperion was the name of a political group organized for internal resistance: The 14th of June Movement. Manolo, Minerva's husband was the president of this group. A short time after the failed Luperion Invasion, the Dominican Liberation Movement organized another conspiracy which continued into 1960. On January 10, 1960, they met on a farm in Mao, Valverde belonging to Conrado Bogart. The regime apparently knew of this meeting because all who attended were arrested. Before a year was to end the three sisters had been slaughtered. They become heroines.

Their last year has special significance for me, because it was during the space of only a few months in 1959 that having failed as a Local Government Clerk and then as an Olivetti typewriter salesman I had got myself a job sending out Christmas cards at the Houseman's bookshop attached to the Pacifist weekly Peace News and became instantly involved in the direct action civil disobedience movement.

Unlike the Mirabel sisters and their husbands, I was under no threat or persecution and lived in a liberal democratic society. Our circumstances were so different. During the period when the sisters were released from prison I was serving my six months knowing I could leave at point if I wished. With weeks of my release while debated what to do next, they died.

The reason why I did what I did have previously been given as New Testament Catholicism and the reading of the War Crimes Trials reports, the effects of becoming interested in the blues, in racist persecution and the history of slavery, in work of Father Trevor Huddleston in South Africa in addition to which there was Danilo Dolci, "the Sicilian Gandhi," who I also heard speak in London and Gandhi himself in the India struggle for independence coming across a first and limited edition of Satyagraha in second hand bookshop. Another way of looking at my involvement is to say that I was a mixed up young man, uneducated, uncertain of what he believed in, lacking self confidence and unable to get a girl friend, and therefore ripe for the first group who offered personal salvation. Would I have done any of it had a girl taken me on before?

What did the action achieve for me? The consequence were positive than negative. Did the action contribute to anything other than my own future? I have since doubted that it did.

I have also considered that if born two decades ago in similar circumstances and with similar genes would I have become a Muslim suicide bomber today? I would like to think not, but who can say? My reason is the belief that the New Testament and all the other writings about ends and means and violence begetting more violence, whatever its justification, are right. I know it as others have known it and others after me will. For the individual this means passive acceptance and self sacrifice. But when confronted with harm of one upon another and I can do something, how do I cope with doing nothing or pretending there is no such problem. And if I feel that way then what is the duty of those who govern in my name and with my consent? And what is my attitude towards those who carry out the function of the state to defend and to protect?
The Minerva sisters supported armed intervention in a situation when only armed intervention and uprising could be effective in terms of immediate toppling of a regime, and his assassination subsequently appears to confirm their conviction. I never have supported violent overthrow within a democracy, and quickly came to the Annie Besant view that leadership by many of those involved in the non violent revolutionary movements was to be even more feared than the actions of democratically elected politicians.

Even though Annie Besant is said to have come to support Gandhi's viewpoint, it is not clear to me that any of his actions, directly led to Indian independence with the contribution of the sub-continent to the defence of democracy during World War II and the cost of maintaining the Empire by force the greater reasons. And what happens in every violent revolutionary, the battle for power and more bloodshed! It happened in Dominica and it is happening in Iraq.

I have also written recently about the nature of fear and courage, and the ability of the professional soldier and non combatant to overcome their fear and face the bullet. I have been in a couple of such situations in my life, although death, in all but one instance was more likely to be from a prolonged self inflicted torture of the mind. My own experiences and circumstances cannot be compared to those of Sophie Scholl and of the Mirabal sisters. What interests me next is the view of Rashnamurti on such issues as the use of violent and non violence action as a proactive measure, but also as a defence?

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