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Bloodying the ‘Good Neighborhood’ : CHILDREN OF CAIN, Violence and the Violent in Latin America <i> By Tina Rosenberg</i> , <i> (William Morrow: $25; 394 pp.) </i>

<i> Wilentz is the author of "The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier" (Simon & Schuster). </i>

When you visit places where oppression is the rule, two kinds of images stick out in your mind as emblematic: One is personal and private, the other political, public.

I have not forgotten two old Burmese gentlemen holding hands under a parasol in Maymyo and lamenting together the absolute fact that they never will be allowed by their government to travel, and to see England, the land of their dreams. Nor have I forgotten the long cortege of military vehicles rolling up the Burmese hills to put down the Karen rebellion along the borders.

I have not forgotten the young man in distant, dusty Jean-Rabel, Haiti, who wanted only to dance and who laughed and shushed me and turned his head away when I asked him about a massacre there. Nor have I forgotten the sermons of the young priest who is now the president of Haiti, nor the inaugurations of the various puppets who preceded him.

To begin to fathom dictatorship, it is important to understand not only Julius Caesar but First Citizen, Second Citizen and Third Citizen as well. To begin to put the pieces of the hierarchy together, you must know the king and the king’s men, and, equally, his subjects and their advocates.

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Tina Rosenberg understands this; most journalists do, if pressed. Rosenberg is not remarkable in what she sets out to do: “This book,” she says in an introduction that does not begin to do her book justice, “attempts to illuminate violence through the true stories of six people in Latin America.” It is Rosenberg’s execution of that little idea, her intelligent eye, her sense of the absurd, her unfailing courage and perseverance, and, most important, her empathy and compassion that bring “Children of Cain” to life and start to lead North American readers down the hard path toward understanding Latin America.

Rosenberg’s not too surprising conclusion about violence in Latin America is that its roots lie in a stormy, exploitative and racist colonial past that has been played out in a stormy, racist and exploitative present, in which a very few rich families control the lives and livelihoods of a huge number of the very poor, their fellow citizens. Along the way, Rosenberg often points out, the very wealthy United States always has been counted on to finance the bad guys.

Big deal, one may say. Yet it is not too often that a journalist with Rosenberg’s mainstream credentials (the New Republic, the Atlantic Monthly, a MacArthur fellowship) is so clear about the roots of violence and repression in the cultures to our south. And this clarity is further focused by Rosenberg’s presentation of both sides--the empowered and the powerless appear in each of these essays--in a way that is not really even-handed or even-tempered (that is not objective, as North American journalists like to say), but that remains, nonetheless, honest and just. Honesty and objectivity are two very different birds.

Each chapter is a small masterpiece of observation and narrative, although the section on the Nicaraguan revolution lacks the depth of the other chapters and one wonders at the Sandinistas being included in this checkered company. Only the honest judge in Medellin, Colombia, who must indict the world’s biggest cocaine trafficker, seems at all the moral equivalent of Luis Carrion, the former Sandinista interior minister who agonizes over every divergence from his original altruism.

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Then there is the seemingly upright Argentine sailor who turns out to have been a military informer among the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and who becomes, as well, a murderer and torturer who likes to take his prisoners out to dinner. There is the charming, funny, lit-up Javier, who is a dedicated member of Peru’s robot-like Shining Path.

There is the Qaddafi Gang in San Salvador, a bunch of rich people, some of them death-squad members, whose name comes from the first two words of this brilliant saying: Cada fin de semana nos emborrachamos (Every weekend we get drunk). And, in Chile, the small businessman, originally a supporter of Allende, who gave up his idealism and “slept” through the cruelest years of the Pinochet dictatorship, making more money than he ever dreamed was possible.

Although Rosenberg’s overall analysis is pedestrian, if not naive (simply put: Disparities in wealth create situations of violence, period), her apercus in each country more than make up for her analytic commonplaces, especially in the clear-headed yet endlessly entertaining piece on Peru’s Shining Path ( Sendero Luminoso ). As though it were my own experience, I will remember the Shining Path’s Javier, who wants to come see Rosenberg in the United States:

“ ‘Seriously,’ he said. ‘I’d love to visit. Isn’t there an American people crying out for revolution?’

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“ ‘I don’t think you’ll get a visa,’ I said.

“ ‘Nothing is impossible for him who dares to scale the heights,’ yelled Javier (echoing a favorite Sendero quote from Mao that Rosenberg mentions on and off during the chapter) as the cab pulled away.”

Rosenberg decides to find a judge who will help her help Gladys Meneses, a young, tubercular Peruvian woman whose property has been stolen away from her. Rosenberg writes: “By seven-thirty in the morning the courthouse was already filled with people engaged in the national pastime of waiting in long lines to talk to bored-looking men sitting behind manual typewriters.” Gladys’ story--a tale of ignorance, passivity, acceptance, resignation before authority, and unremitting poverty and abuse--goes a long way, as Rosenberg knows it will, toward explaining why Shining Path has gained such wide support throughout Peru.

So does her description of the immaculately kept Canto Grande prison quarters of the Sendero women. “The Shining Trench of Combat,” Sendero calls the prison’s Sendero women’s block, Pavilion 1A. Pavilion 1A “is a model for life after the victory of the People’s War,” Rosenberg writes, “a tiny liberated zone inside Peru’s maximum-security prison.” There, she says, “you could eat off the floor.” The main room is festive, decorated with red streamers and revolutionary banners like a Chinese Communist ballet; the cement dining table is covered with a clean cloth, and the breakfast that Rosenberg is served is hearty, tasty peasant fare. Compared with Gladys’ level of existence in the provinces, Sendero’s prisoners are living the good life. The Shining Path may lead to prison, but there, you can eat, and instead of exploitation, there is solidarity.

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In the chapter on Nicaragua--entitled “The Triumph,” after Nicaraguans’ nickname for the Sandinista revolution--Rosenberg condescendingly disavows revolution as a means to change society and give a modicum of political power to the average Latin American. Yet the rest of her chapters--and, in fact, this chapter, too--show that Latin American countries have had few, if any, other choices during this century.

The U.S.-approved 1989 elections in El Salvador, which succeeded in bringing the party of the death squads to power, had little to do with installing democracy there, Rosenberg concedes, even if U.S. Ambassador William Walker termed the violent election a “civic fiesta.” “As in most Latin American countries,” Rosenberg writes, “the ability to vote did not make the country into a democracy. . . . Justice was for sale, unions were repressed, and bureaucrats slammed doors in the faces of the poor.” As one of her rich Salvadoran acquaintances says: “The question isn’t whether people are ready for democracy. It’s whether democracy is a good thing.”

Rosenberg unobtrusively weaves the history of each country she studies into her chapters, and the reader emerges feeling as if he or she understands a great deal more about our southern neighbors. Her stated theme of violence is forgotten in the stunning detail of her first-person narration, yet the violence is never far from the surface.

More important, though, Rosenberg gives us a sense of how these countries are run today, and of how a life lived there must feel, from the aerobics classes in San Salvador and the magical palimpsests that the Managuans use as addresses (“two blocks south and half a block toward the lake from where the big tree used to be”), to the three teen-age cousins of Sendero’s Javier, “watching a Venezuelan soap opera on TV and painting one another’s nails.”

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There is not a dull page in this book, and not a preaching page either, which is a great achievement for a North American reporter in Latin America. One may not find here a definitive explanation for the deaths, the disappearances, the tortures that occur in these countries; one may not find a common political thread that ties together the drug lords of Medellin, for example, and the guerrilla leaders and death squads of El Salvador or the intellectuals of the Sandinista revolution or the navy officers of Argentina.

But what one finds, with all its flaws and virtues, is humanity--from the remote altiplano of Peru to the discos of the Zona Rosa in downtown San Salvador. That common thread goes far in embroidering for us a sampler of the painful history that has brought us to this painful present moment, and that binds together every American, whether below, above or between the tropic latitudes. For this primer of our shared past and present, we should be grateful.

BOOKMARK For an excerpt from “Children of Cain,"see the Opinion section, Page 2.


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