September 25, 2007

Tunnel to Canto Grande: The Story of the Most Daring Prison Escape in Latin American History by Claribel Alegria and Darwin Flakoll, Curbstone Press, 1996, 193 pp., $12.95 (paper). On July 9, 1990, 48 political prison- ers from the Ttipac Amaru Revo- lutionary Movement (MRTA)-- including the group's leader Victor Polay Campo-escaped from the Canto Grande penitentiary through a 330-yard tunnel that their com- paheros on the outside had dug into the prison compound. Six weeks after the escape, Nicaraguan poet Claribel Alegrfa and her husband Darwin Flakoll spent a week with the guerrillas in a secret safe house. They came away with 55 hours of tape, which they cobbled together into this fast-paced, insider's account of the escapade. The escape was quite a feat. The MRTA bought a plot of vacant land on the outskirts of the prison, built a house on it, and then began the Herculean task of excavating a tun- nel through the boulder-strewn, compacted earth. The tunnel was not a primitive rabbit hole; it had a ventilation system, lighting, and a stuccoed roof and timber frame to prevent cave-ins. A team of dig- gers--15 at its peak-took almost three years to accomplish the task. The flip side of the story concerns how the prisoners-including Polay in the maximum-security pavilion-- could so easily elude their captors once the tunnel broke through the surface. The authors detail how the tight security procedures which had been followed when Canto Grande first opened in 1986 unravelled as a result of budget constraints, over- crowding and corruption. Alegria and Flakoll are unapolo- getically sympathetic to the MRTA. At times, their earnestness gives a schmaltzy quality to the story that can be off-putting. Nonetheless, the book is a gripping pageturner replete with close calls, personal conflicts, and a dramatic denouement. America/Ambricas: Myth in the Making of U.S. Policy Toward Latin America by Eldon Kenworthy, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995, 189 pp., $35.00 (cloth), $14.95 (paper). In this fascinating study, Eldon Kenworthy uses a highly original and effective mixture of approaches to provide fresh insights into the forces that shape U.S.-Latin American relations. Focusing on the "founding" myths that have always underpinned the assertion of U.S. hegemony in the hemisphere, Kenworthy looks at four recurrent ideas that form the basis of what he considers to be the "America/ Americas Myth." The first of these ideas, ignoring all evidence of indigenous culture, is that the western hemisphere was a blank slate on which God wrote a page of human history with Europeans as central protagonists. The second is that "freedom" and "progress" and, more recently, "democracy" are linked to advances in material well-being, and are all outcomes of the heroic intervention of these European actors and their descendents. The third idea is that the civilizing project began and still excels in the United States and that the country must, therefore, be the vanguard of the region, and by extension, of the entire world. The last concept-a negative one-is that the advances in civilization brought about under U.S. leadership necessarily provoke the emnity of the old world, which may endanger the hemisphere's security. Having set out the elements cen- tral to the construction of the myth, Kenworthy goes on to demonstrate how these ideas are promoted, sus- tained and reinforced to the point that they come to shape relations in the hemisphere. To do this, he looks at an intriguing array of sources including political cartoons and editorials in the mainstream media, political speeches and press brief- ings, State Department documents, and congressional testimony. In Kenworthy's analysis, these sources constitute a kind of "adver- tising" that promotes U.S. foreign- policy goals based on the four founding elements of the myth. He uses Reagan's policy towards Nicaragua to illustrate the role of the myth in the formulation of poli- cy. Thus, the heart of the book is devoted to a case study focusing on the efforts of the Reagan adminis- tration to win support for the contra war-both in Congress and among the general population. Kenworthy breaks new ground by applying semiotics to explore the hidden strategies, manipulation, and control of public opinion that are necessary to sustain U.S. hegemony in Latin America. In a remarkable achievement, Kenworthy manages to make discourse theory-so often presented by others in a manner both arid and incomprehensible-at once meaningful and accessible.


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