In the Offices of Prensa Latina, Havana, Cuba
Posted July 17, 2013
The Prensa Latina news agency was established shortly after the Cuban Revolution in 1959 at the instigation of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, an Argentine doctor who fought along side Fidel Castro to topple the American-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Guevara conceived of the new agency as an international initiative to combat the Cold War bias of Western media and enlisted writers and intellectuals from Latin America and Europe. The founders of Prensa Latina included the Argentine writer and journalist Rudolfo Walsh; the Argentine journalist Jorge Ricardo Masetti, who had covered Castro and Guevara’s guerrilla struggle in the Sierra Maestra of eastern Cuba in 1958; and the Colombian writer Gabriel García Marquez, of One Hundred Years of Solitude fame. Among the initial contributors were the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and the Guatemalan writer Miguel Ángel Asturias, whose novel about the struggle and culture of the Mayan people, Hombres de maíz, is an enduring classic of Latin American literature. In this photograph from the Prensa Latina archives documenting the first heady days of the news agency’s existence, Asturias stands in the middle of a makeshift office. He is flanked by Masetti on his left and Walsh on his right, who is holding a cigarette behind his back.
The internationalism of Prensa Latina’s founding was quickly subsumed by the geopolitics of Cold War and Cuba’s national security interests, with the failed USA invasion of Cuba in Bay of Pigs landing of April 1960 followed by the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 that brought the world to the brink of nuclear confrontation. When Castro uttered his famous dictum “within the revolution, everything; outside the revolution, nothing” in 1961, the news agency was already the official voice of the Cuban state, and its Argentine founders were trading pen and paper for armed struggle.
Masetti returned to Argentina, where he organized a rural guerrilla group, Ejército Guerrillero del Pueblo (Guerrilla Army of the People). He fought under the nom de guerre Segundo (the Second One), which alluded to his position as second in command to Che Guevara, who was primer comandante (First Commander) in organizing vanguard revolutionary forces (focos) in Latin America. In 1964, Masetti’s small group of guerrillas, which included a number of Cubans, was captured and killed in the jungles of the northeastern Argentine province of Salta. Masetti was not among them. His body has never been found and he is presumed murdered and “disappeared” by the Argentine military.
Rodolfo Walsh, like Masetti, returned to Argentina from Cuba in the early 1960s. While working at Prensa Latina he decoded secret United States cables that outlined plans for the Bay of Pigs invasion. By the early 1970s, he was working as the head of intelligence for the Montoneros, an urban guerrilla group that, at the time, was the largest armed-struggle organization in Latin America. On March 25, 1977, one year and one day after the Argentine military seized power in a coup d’état and launched a reign of state terror against the Montoneros and other revolutionary groups, Walsh was kidnapped from a Buenos Aires street. A day earlier on the anniversary of the coup, he had published an open letter to the military junta, denouncing the atrocities perpetrated by the military against the Argentine people—a letter deemed by Gabriel García Marquez a masterpiece of committed journalism. After being kidnapped, he was “disappeared” by the Argentine military, and the whereabouts of his body remain unknown.
Three years before Walsh was kidnapped, Miguel Asturias died in exile in Spain in 1974. His own denunciation of dictatorship in his novel El Señor Presidente, published in 1946, and his support of the socialist government of Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, who was elected President of Guatemala in 1950 and overthrown in a CIA-engineered coup in 1954, resulted in his banishment from his native country. Several years before Asturias’s death, his first-born son, Rodrigo, became a founding member of the Guatemalan guerrilla group ORPA, Organización Revolucionaria del Pueblo en Armas (Revolutionary Organization of the People in Arms). Rodrigo Asturias took as his nom de guerre Gaspar Ilom, a character from his father’s novel Hombres de maíz. After the peace process in the 1990s, he returned to civilian politics. He ran as a candidate for congress in the 2003 Guatemalan election, and died two years later in Guatemala City.
As a singular image, the photograph of Asturias, Masetti and Walsh from the Prensa Latina archives reveals nothing of the complex histories of its subjects, yet there is still something arresting about its casual composition. In the meeting of two generations of writers, Asturias appears to be contemplating a question by Mesetti and Walsh, who stare intently at him. There is a sadness in Asturias’s eyes, a slight weariness in his stance, that is at odds with the youthful tautness of his interlocutors. It is as if, like a literary oracle, or Janus-like figure, he is seeing the future through the burden of past dictatorships and repression, while the sentinels at his side stand on guard for a revolutionary present. In this disjuncture between what Asturias has already lived and the destinies that await Mesetti and Walsh lies the historical resonance of the photograph. As a documentary trace of the Cold War era, it records a moment in time when the anti-imperialist and national liberation struggles of the Cold War era conjoined the past, present, and future of Latin America in literature and ideology, theory and praxis.