Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

EL SALVADOR: Tribute to Late Poet Marred by Sons’ Accusations

Edgardo Ayala

SAN SALVADOR, May 7 2010 (IPS) - As the 35th anniversary of Salvadoran poet and revolutionary Roque Dalton’s death approaches, his sons allege that two of his killers are currently working for the governments of El Salvador and Mexico, respectively, and have demanded their dismissal.

As well as being one of El Salvador’s most celebrated poets, Roque Dalton was also a committed political activist and a member of the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP), a leftist guerrilla organisation, in the 1970s.

On May 10, 1975, Dalton was gunned down by his own ERP comrades-in-arms, four days before his 40th birthday. His execution was ordered by the ERP leadership, which accused him of insubordination and of working for the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

It was subsequently determined that the accusation that he was a CIA collaborator was false.

The whereabouts of his remains are still unknown.

This week, the poet’s sons, filmmaker Jorge Dalton and journalist Juan José Dalton, called on Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes to fire Jorge Meléndez, the director of Civil Protection in the Ministry of the Interior, whom they allege to be one of their father’s killers.

The Dalton brothers have publicly dissociated themselves from the tributes that the government is preparing to mark the renowned poet’s death and have even demanded that Funes and his administration refrain from using their father’s name.

They also sent a letter to Mexican President Felipe Calderón, urging him to dismiss counter-drug trafficking advisor Joaquín Villalobos, another former ERP guerrilla implicated in Roque Dalton’s killing.

This is the first anniversary of Dalton’s death to take place with the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) in power in El Salvador. The FMLN was formed in 1980 by the ERP and four other leftist guerrilla organisations, and fought against U.S.-backed government forces in a bloody civil war brought to an end by the peace agreements signed in 1992.

Once the armed conflict ended, the FMLN became an official political party and finally succeeded in winning the country’s presidency in 2009.

Juan José Dalton said that it is an “immense” contradiction for the government to be organising tributes to their father’s memory while one of the men who ordered his execution is a government official.

“We are not going to permit tributes to Roque Dalton when there is this ethical incongruity of the presence within the government of one of the men implicated in my father’s death,” he told IPS.

The Dalton brothers also called on the government and the FMLN to investigate the whereabouts of their father’s remains, to uncover the truth about the events surrounding his execution, and to issue a public apology to his family and to the people of El Salvador.

Funes, who took office as the country’s first leftist president on Jun. 1, 2009, responded by saying that the cultural legacy of the “rebel poet” no longer belongs only to his family, although he stressed at the same time that he respects them and shares their sorrow.

“Roque Dalton belongs to the Salvadoran people,” said Funes, a former journalist. “He is the essence of our cultural expression, and as such he forms part of the heritage of the Salvadoran people.”

He added that he has no plans to dismiss Meléndez — known as Comandante Jonás in the ERP — because this would violate his right to the presumption of innocence, and there has been no investigation that proves him guilty of Dalton’s murder.

“What the president said is extremely hurtful,” said Juan José Dalton.

Dalton, still the best-known and most widely admired Salvadoran poet of all times, gained renown in the 1960s as part of an unprecedented generation of Latin American writers that included Julio Cortázar and Juan Gelman of Argentina, Mario Benedetti and Eduardo Galeano of Uruguay, and Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez.

Dalton’s active opposition to the military dictatorship in El Salvador at the time landed him in prison in 1960. He went into exile upon his release, first to Mexico, and later Havana and Prague.

In 1973 he returned to El Salvador clandestinely and joined the ranks of the ERP.

In 1993, while working as a correspondent for IPS and different Latin American publications, Juan José Dalton interviewed Joaquín Villalobos, one of the top leaders of the ERP and subsequently the FMLN. During the interview, Villalobos confessed to Juan José that he, as well as Meléndez, had taken part in the decision to execute the journalist’s father.

“It was a terrible mistake,” said Villalobos in the interview carried by IPS, the Mexican newspaper Excelsior, and many other Latin American publications.

Earlier this week, the online newsmagazine ContraPunto — whose editor-in-chief is Juan José Dalton — published an interview with Meléndez, who spoke about the poet’s death and expressed his pride in having formed part of the ERP leadership.

“I don’t remember Dalton’s murder, what I remember is a political trial,” said Meléndez, adding later that Dalton’s death was a matter of “a person who died as a result of a political trial, a political trial within a guerrilla organisation.

“When the truth needs to be told, I will tell it myself, I have that right (…) I was there and I know what happened, I have my interpretation and I must tell my own truth,” said Meléndez.

As far as the Dalton brothers are concerned, this is tantamount to a confession of his participation in the murder.

“We don’t know where my father’s remains are, and there isn’t a single monument to his memory in this country,” stressed Juan José Dalton. “Writers have come here, like (Portuguese Nobel laureate) José Saramago, (Uruguayan writer) Eduardo Galeano, and (Cuban) singer/songwriter Silvio Rodíguez, and they ask where Roque Dalton’s grave is,” he added.

He insists that his family has testimony from former ERP guerrillas which confirms that Villalobos and Meléndez both formed part of the commando group that executed the writer.

Meanwhile, in their letter to the Mexican president, the Dalton brothers told Calderón that his counter-drug advisor Villalobos was not fit for that position because he lacks the necessary ethics, given his direct participation in Roque Dalton’s murder.

“My father lived in Mexico. That is where he published his first book, ‘La ventana en el rostro’, and we have been treated warmly by the Mexican people. The Mexican public should know that within their country’s government there is an official who was involved in a horrific crime,” said Juan José Dalton.

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