May 2017        

Rodolfo Jorge Walsh: An Argentine-Irish rebel in Cuba

Tomás Mac Síomóin

Che Guevara was not the only Argentine-Irish rebel to join the Cuban Revolution. Rodolfo Jorge Walsh, the fortieth anniversary of whose murder by the then Argentine dictatorship occurred on the 25th of March last, shared this honour. His contribution may have saved Cuba from counter-revolutionary turmoil, or worse.
     Dialling his story back to 1961, coded messages from the United States to Guatemala, where CIA-backed mercenaries were in training, were intercepted by Cuban intelligence. One of these messages named the time of their proposed invasion of Cuba and the exact landing-place, Playa Girón. The Nobel Prize-winning Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez claimed that this message was deciphered by Rodolfo Jorge Walsh, a revolutionary writer and journalist who had come to Cuba to offer his talents to the revolution there.
     Along with García, Walsh was one of the founders of Prensa Latina in Havana and became head of the Special Services section of that famous news agency. Fidel Castro was duly informed about the CIA’s intentions and positioned his forces to crush this assault on Cuban sovereignty.
     The unobstructed survival of the Cuban Revolution may well have hinged on knowledge gleaned by Walsh that enabled the Cuban revolutionary command to know exactly where the counter-revolutionary force planned to establish their beachhead. Reinforcements of soldiers and materials would have arrived there, a US-recognised counter-revolutionary government established, and war waged on the Revolution. But, thanks to the skill of Rodolfo Walsh, this scenario never unfolded . . .
     While Che traced his Irish roots to eighteenth-century Galway, Walsh traced his to a nineteenth-century emigration from the post-famine midlands to rural Argentina. He was born in 1927 to a fervently Catholic family and received his early education at an Irish missionary school. Both his parents were of Irish origin, his mother being a Gahan. Argentine characters named O’Hara, Carmody, Delaney, Mulally, Kiernan, Mulligan, Murtagh etc. appear in his fiction, for example in his novella Irlandeses Detrás de un Gato.
     However, his prowess as an investigative journalist and writer of fiction ensured that his voice transcended the country’s Irish diaspora (“a world in itself, inside the wider Argentina,” as he described it). His minutely informed defence of the Palestinian cause was especially notable in forming Latin-American opinion regarding the Palestinian national struggle.
     Before joining the Cuban Revolution, Walsh had become an essential reference of Latin-American journalism for his searing exposures of social injustice in Argentina. His novel Operación Masacre (1957) pioneered the art of presenting facts and real events in the form of fiction. It is a no-holds-barred account of a police massacre in a rubbish dump of a group of ordinary workers, based on the author’s rigorous and detailed investigation of the facts of the case, and the subsequent cover-up.
     Walsh said that the horror he uncovered then changed his life for ever. The publication of Operación Masacre in 1957 predates by nine years Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Anglophone literary critics, ignoring non-English-language literature, have described the latter as “the first non-fiction novel,” an honour that rightly belongs to Rodolfo Walsh’s pioneering work.
     Subsequent writers, such as Gabriel García Márquez, exploited the literary possibilities presented by Walsh’s approach. As García and Walsh had worked together for Prensa Latina in Havana, it has been suggested that the latter’s Operación Masacre may well have been a model for the former’s award-winning One Hundred Year of Solitude (1967), which also ended in a massacre of workers.
     After his Cuban stint Walsh went on to play a central role in the fight against the military dictatorship in his native Argentina. In 1976 he founded the Agencia de Noticias Clandestinas (Clandestine News Agency), a news medium of the Intelligence and Information Section of the Montoneros, an armed resistance group dedicated to the overthrow of the dictatorship. He called the agency ANCLA, Spanish for “anchor,” to make the dictatorship fear that its workings, as revealed by ANCLA, may have emanated from a non-existent secret revolutionary cell in their own navy.
     As ANCLA published material that the dictatorship wanted hidden, its contributors and distributors were marked down by the authorities for torture and “disappearance.” This was the fate of Rodolfo Walsh. He died just over forty years ago in Buenos Aires at the hands of the regime’s torturers. He had been wounded and captured after being ambushed by a dictatorship patrol. His body was never recovered.
     Rodolfo Walsh was forever enthused by the revolutionary possibilities of writing, whether journalistic or fictional. “Since the beginnings of the bourgeoisie, fiction played an important subversive role which, in these times, is no longer the case. But there must be many ways by which it can do so again . . . to realise that you have a weapon, the typewriter . . . depending on how you handle it, which can be a fan or a pistol—and you can use that machine to achieve tangible results . . . With typewriters and paper you can move people to an incalculable extent.”
     This passage is the key to understanding Rodolfo Walsh’s revolutionary praxis, a call to arms for radical journalists everywhere.

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