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THE LAST HOUR OF CARIDAD MERCADER

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HAVANA, Jun 26 2007 (IPS) - I recently visited the little-known Pantin cemetery in Paris where in a remote corner lies the grave of one of the most peculiar, mysterious, and dark figures of the 20th century, Caridad del Rio Hernandez, writes Leonardo Padura Fuentes, a Cuban writer and journalist whose novels have been translated into a ten languages. Caridad experienced her apotheosis on August 20, 1940 in the remote neighborhood of Coyoacan in Mexico City, when one of her sons Ramon Mercader del Rio, assassinated communist leader Leon Trotsky on the orders of the communist leader Joseph Stalin. The 30-year contract for the burial plot expired in 2005 and unless it is renewed soon her and her son-in-law\’s remains will be removed and placed in an urn. The author said \”he could not tell me who paid for the initial contract, but I saw in his eyes he knew the answer, which I already did: the embassy of a country that no longer exists. Like that country, which Caridad del Rio worked for and killed her son for, her tomb is destined to disappear, as there are histories and cadavers that no one wants to be around.\”

Crowded with Indian chestnuts and Japanese cherry trees, the most impressive part of Pantin may be the enormous stretches of graves of soldiers and civilian victims of the world wars. The small headstones placed on the ground are modest and covered with mold. It is an image similar to that in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Sergeant Ryan, though with a French flag flying above them.

If I paid a visit recently to the Pantin cemetery, it is because in a remote corner is the grave of one of the most peculiar, mysterious, and dark figures of the 20th century. Though it may mean nothing to most of the world, with the help of a computer and an attendant in charge of the locations and destinies of the dead of Pantin, the name Caridad del Rio Hernandez soon brought me to a section, a row, a tomb, and most important, a worrisome question that the employee, with a certain anticipation that he cannot hide, asks everyone who asks about the tomb: Are you a relation? For years the employee has asked this of visitors to this particular tomb but no one has answered yes, and one of the reasons, it would seem, is that no one wants to be related to this Caridad del Rio Hernandez, known also as Caridad Mercader in her time.

According to the granite wall of the tomb that she shares with her son-in-law Jacques Dudouyt, Caridad del Rio was born in Cuba in 1892 and died in Paris in 1975. In those years the woman who lies in the ground at Pantin forced her own destiny until she was brought into one of the most strange and sordid and strange events in the history of the 20th century. Her apotheosis came on August 20, 1940 in the remote neighborhood of Coyoacan in Mexico City, when one of her sons Ramon Mercader del Rio, assassinated communist leader Leon Trotsky on the orders of the communist leader Joseph Stalin.

Caridad del Rio not only trained her son in hatred and put him in contact with the officials of the shady Soviet NKVD charged with planning and carrying out the assassination; she also encouraged and pushed him in his mission right up until the evening of August 20 when, inside the car with the architect of the plan, she saw Ramon Mercader enter Trotsky’s house and so the sewers of 20th century history.

Spanish by birth (at the time Cuba was still a colony of Spain), Catalonian by education, French in taste, Soviet by nationality, Caridad del Rio performed a service that day that would win her the Order of Lenin from the hands of Kalinin, head of the Soviet state, and until her death the gratitude of the country for which she turned her son into one of the most transcendent if little known criminals in history.

Based in Paris since the 1940s, where she presumably continued working for the Soviet spy apparatus, not even the death of Stalin, the fall of Beria, or the thaw of Krushchev affected her status or the salary for life which allowed her to live comfortably in the French capital. In contrast to so many other purged or jailed agents, Caridad del Rio had the privilege of seeing how the gratitude of her employers weathered the ideological and political contortions of Soviet history and remained silent but steady until this heroine of the USSR breathed her last breath under the photo of Stalin that hung on a wall in her room, and the Soviet embassy took care of her funeral and burial in a plot in Pantin.

In life Caridad was more fortunate than her son. Ramon Mercader, who died three years after her, would be silently buried in the Kuntsevo cemetery (very close to the famous dacha where Stalin planned and ordered the assassination of Trotsky and so many others) without an inscription of his name. Until a few years ago he was Ramon Ivanovich Lopez, anonymous hero of the USSR. In contrast, Caridad del Rio was buried as herself, and various family members and a few functionaries of the Soviet embassy attended her funeral.

But history has been through a real turnaround, and now Ramon, whose name has been engraved along the lower border of the marble tombstone, which even includes his portrait, receives flowers from secret and nostalgic admirers of his useless act of homicide. The tomb of Caridad, in contrast, is an exhibit of the sadness of death and oblivion. Worse yet, according to a disappointed cemetery employee, the fate of the tomb is itself uncertain.

As I left the cemetery the attendant’s odd question echoed within me and I went back to the office to ask why he had asked if I was a relation of Caridad del Rio. The worker reluctantly answered that the 30-year contract for the use of the plot expired October 28, 2005, and unless it is renewed by this October 28, her and her son-in-law’s remains will be removed and placed in an urn. He said he could not tell me who paid for the initial contract, but I saw in his eyes that he knew the answer, which I already did: the embassy of a country that no longer exists. Like that country, which Caridad del Rio worked for and killed her son for, her tomb is destined to disappear, as there are histories and cadavers that no one wants to be around. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

 
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