Just as an embassy is foreign soil, Miami Airport feels like a chunk of Latin America transplanted on gigantic rafts to South Florida. All you hear is Spanish - it smells of airplane and sweet cafe cubano, served in tiny demitasses from standup bars manned by no-nonsense women who call you cariño and hand you the frothy coffee without asking what you want. The concourses are choked with people: rich Cuban exiles festooned with gold chains, Amerindian Peruvians with cardboard boxes for luggage, Dominican friars with long brown robes. If you were to squint you could almost see three masted ships in a harbor instead of the 747’s on the tarmac, pilgrims streaming onto them, their staffs adorned with scallop shells.
The briefcase bounces against my side, heavy with the documents. At four in the afternoon I have already had two, maybe three glasses of dark, molasses scented jamaican rum - neat, for my jitters. I run my fingers through my hair and my scalp feels slightly numb. The afternoon sunshine slants though the plate glass windows haloing the gate agent, a lovely tall blonde. I hand her my ticket and finesse an upgrade to first on charm and experience.
I sit in the terminal, briefcase on my lap and am immediately seized by paranoia as two swarthy gentlemen in dark suits -no hand luggage, no briefcases - sit straight across from me. They are almost central casting perfect, pencil thin moustaches reeking of Chilean secret police. This is going to be a long flight.
- “Where are you off to next Miguelito?” - Susan said sleepily, propped up on one elbow, her hair mussed, squinting at me through the smoke of my cigarette.
- “Santiago de Chile” - I exhaled
- “Really?” - she said sitting up on the bed, suddenly alert and awake
- “Yep, first trip there”
- “Hold on” - she said going to the dresser and opening her briefcase.
I stared at her naked, perfect behind and her look of concentration in the mirror as she rifled through papers. As she stood there she brought her left foot to rest on her right knee, a bit of unconscious ballet that she also does when doing dishes, unsettling when clothed, now enough to send me off to fight Trojans.
She came back to the bed carrying a glossy prom picture, a boy in a powder blue tux, pirate shirt black-edged ruffles peeking over his vest, a droopy velvet bow tie under a strong jaw, smirking full lips, deep set dark sleepy eyes, shaggy mop of hair, a handsome boy.
- “This is Rodrigo Andres Rojas De Negri” - she said tapping the photo
- “Don’t you think he is a bit too young even for you?” - I smirked back
- “Pay attention!” - she punched my arm, hard, and I realized she was serious, her eyes shining, all playfulness gone..
- Rodrigo is one of my pro-bono cases.
Susan had landed a job at a white shoe law firm down on Wall Street after clerking for First Circuit, a clerkship she had gotten on the strength of her law review article even though it was an inflammatory leftist screed about something or another. I was convinced that the firm had hired her just to try to counterbalance their reactionary ways, at least in the public’s eye. She had, amazingly, managed to do only pro-bono work for them.
- “Rodrigo was a Chilean national but a permanent resident of the US. He grew up in the states and had not been down to Chile for eleven years” - Susan continued, sitting cross-legged on the bed, still naked, staring straight at me - “Last year he went down to Santiago to visit family, so while he’s there friends ask him to tag along to a demonstration and he goes with this other girl, Carmen Quintana.”
- “I can already tell this is going to end badly” - I interrupted
- “Shut up and listen. When they get there they are intercepted by military police and some plainclothes cops, most likely secret police, who start interrogating them and then beating them up. After a while the cops leave and they think that they are going to be all right, maybe the cops just wanted to scare them, but then they see the cops coming back with jerry cans of gasoline. They are hurt and stunned so they don’t get up as the cops start dousing them in gasoline and then light them on fire. The cops dumped them in a ditch, Carmen survived to tell the tale, but Rodrigo died.”
- “Oh my god, that’s horrible. Fucking Pinochet.”
-”The family is trying to get a criminal case going in Chile but they keep getting stonewalled, so they have asked us to sue the Pinochet regime in the US. There is a problem though...”
- “There’s this guy, Hector, he’s a human rights lawyer at the Archbishop’s office in Santiago; we keep trying to send him documents but they never get there. We know they are being intercepted.”
I know better that to ask her why she doesn’t just fax them down. This is 1986 and Santiago De Chile, a city of four million souls is being served by, count them, seven local phone companies. Getting a voice call to go through takes the better part of a day, getting a fax through would require divine intervention.
- “Could you carry the documents down for us?”
I work for a computer company and travel frequently to Latin America, a week out of three on the road. I know the place, life is cheap down there. My colleagues and I, native or naturalized citizens like me, feel protected by the eagle on the passport and the fancy embassies, and yet, mistakes happen, people disappear, get thrown off airplanes without parachutes.
- “I’m not sure I feel comfortable doing that” - I blurted and immediately regretted it.
- “What about all your talk about commitment? You and Jose used to make fun of the kids in CISPES, about how they would crumble if anybody asked them to go actually fight? Shit, you celebrated with Jose and the rest of your cronies when the Sandinistas assassinated Somoza in Paraguay. Here is an opportunity to do something. Was that all posturing and bullshit?” - She was now up and angry, putting on her robe, tying the sash with determined finality.
I started to open my mouth to defend myself, but much to my dismay realized she maybe was right. In college when I met Susan, we were all full of revolutionary fervor, me mostly out of rebellion against my parents’ virulent anti-communism, but also because I loved the passion of those late nights, fueled by cheap rum, Gitanes and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. We were a loose cabal of Latin American boys, anglo girls, bearded graduate students, reformed eurotrash, neo-hippies and stoners. We would sit in drafty apartments on furniture liberated from dorm basements, go through the news from Latin America, get in wild loud arguments, and pair off in ever changing combinations, we were revolutionaries to the core right? Not just politics, but everything. These trysts with Susan in her New York apartment whenever I passed through town were an extension of those nights.
Facing one's own shallowness is always sobering especially getting caught out that way. And, there was always Susan’s perfect back to consider in the equation, so I followed her to where she was banging things in the kitchen getting coffee ready.
- “Ok, I’ll do it, even if just to prove to you I am not a total sell-out.” - I said kissing her neck just behind the ear.
She just turned around and opened her robe before pulling me close.
The crest of the Andes lays below us like a serpent basking in the sun, the plane starts to descend towards an unseen Santiago, shrouded in smog trapped against the mountains by the winds off the Pacific Ocean. The plane is already descending as I wake a headache and sour taste in my mouth not quite overpowering the sudden rush of adrenalin at the thought of going through customs. My seatmate for the flight, an ex-marine improbably called Joe is already up. He looks fresh and ready, blond and clean shaven, no trace of hangover. We have bonded during the twelve hour flight over pisco sours and trying to seduce the stewardesses - two road warriors concocting tall tales to pass the time. He told me he works for a jet fuel distribution company, but yet he has a whiff of CIA cockiness about him. Maybe it’s just a Marine thing.
After we land he gets up before me and hands my briefcase from the overhead compartment so he can take his own out.
- “Miguel, what the hell are you carrying in that thing, rocks?”
- “I got that portable computer in it.”
- “Jeez, you are going to get a hernia carrying that thing. So listen, I’ll meet you at the hotel bar tonight after curfew. Ok?” - Joe and I are staying at the San Cristobal, apparently this is where everybody with an expense account stays - “Remember, 9pm, off the street, back at the hotel - the military have absolutely no sense of humor about it.”
- “I’ll be there, good luck with your clients today.”
Joe takes off as I heft the briefcase, its weight a continual reminder of what I am doing. Santiago Airport customs is a vast gray granite clad open space, reverberating with PA announcements. When I arrive at the checkpoint the customs agent looks at my passport and checks the visa and just as I think he is going to wave me off he asks me to open the briefcase. I immediately start sweating as I tremulously open the briefcase. He examines the contents as I liquefy in my suit. After a few agonizing minutes he goes to talk with another guard at a desk behind him, looks like some sort of supervisor. I eye the guards flanking the exits, automatic weapons at the ready, and more milling about the slow moving customs lines.
- “Señor Rodriguez, do you have an import permit for that piece of equipment?” - says the supervisor startling me.
I thought I would pass out right then and there, it’s the fucking computer they are concerned about, not the papers. They have never seen anything like it, we had just put it on the market.
- “No” - I manage to get out once I get my wind back - “see, I am not leaving it in Chile, it is a computer, a portable computer. I will use it for my work here and then take it back with me.”
They let me go after much ooing and ahhing over the computer as I demonstrate it to them.
As soon as I am out of the terminal I look for a payphone to call the lawyer and arrange to meet him for lunch near my company’s office.
Hector the lawyer is a presence - a big guy with a broad smile. In a city full of quiet, polite, grey people he stands out like a poppy in the desert. The restaurant, which had been discreetly and elegantly muted before is now dominated by his lusty swagger.
- “Miguel, Miguel, Miguel, you have no idea what this means to us. We have been trying to nail those sons of bitches for years and now they have gone too far and maybe, just maybe we have some leverage!”
I am trying to become invisible. I had picked a table near the kitchen with a clear view of the front door of the restaurant guided by a half remembered spy story, something about sight-lines and exit strategies. But here is Hector, practically asking to be gunned down in daylight. Every car that passes by the plate glass window in front looks suspicious to me. The ride over had been a bizarre weaving through a city dominated by concertina wire barriers surrounding government buildings, trash barrel fires at checkpoints manned by soldiers full of indolent swagger leaning against armored personnel carriers.
- “Miguel, let me get us a good bottle of wine, not that swill we send you up to the states. I know the owner here and he has a small vineyard up in Colchagua, best Malbecs in the region. And some fresh Carpaccio eh? Local beef, not that Argentinian crap from starving pampa cows. So tell me, where are the documents? The documents, listen to me! Never mind the documents, tell me all about Susan, she has that low sexy voice, you wouldn’t have a picture would you?”
- “No, no picture, sorry Hector. She is beautiful, I promise. Malbec and Carpaccio sounds perfect.”
- “Susan! That girl has some fire in her belly, you’re a lucky man.”
I can’t wait any longer, I look around the restaurant yet again and hand him the package like it’s radioactive.
- “Ah, here it is, I can’t count the number of times that we tried to get the faxes to go through, what a joke! The Junta claimed Allende and the socialists were going to ruin the country and look at us now, a 1930’s telecomms infrastructure because nobody will invest here, bah! Even the Spanish have stopped investing.”
- “Hector, tell me, aren’t you afraid to talk like that? In a restaurant? Where everybody can hear you?”
- “The archbishop’s office provides some protection but...I am afraid. Can’t let the fear control me though. We have become zombies in this country, it is intolerable. As a Catholic and a human being, I must be true to my beliefs. I can’t sit by when cops are setting kids on fire in the street and call myself a Catholic? Can I? Can you?”
- “I am an atheist, the Jesuits in high school beat all religion out of me. I wish I had your faith.”
- “But Miguel, you are human, that is all it takes, faith in humanity. You have faith. You brought me these” - he said patting the packet of papers on the table - “You believe things can get better.”
- “It wasn’t my idea, Susan shamed me into it.”
- “Well, whatever the reason, here you are. That counts for something, right?” - Hector smiled.
The restaurant owner arrived bearing a dusty bottle of wine and two plates of translucent lemon cured beef. He and Hector got lost in an argument about vintages and I stared out the window. For the first time in days I was calm.