Rodrigo Cornejo sat alone in a waiting room wondering if the psychiatrist was making any progress with his son. He had given up trying to hear what his boy was saying to the doctor on the other side of the door. Even with his hearing aid turned up all the way, it was futile.
Brendan was Rodrigo’s only child – his miracle child because of how late in life his deceased wife had given birth to him. Rodrigo was old enough to be Brendan’s grandfather, and had brought him up in a very indulgent, grandfatherly way. Brendan had never been discouraged from following his heart. While his friends entered university making “practical” decisions about what to study, Brendan unflinchingly pursued his passion – history. But Brendan’s passion for history and for Ecuador (where he had done research for a doctorate) seemed to have somehow displaced his sanity.
It was Saturday. Dr. Bueno rarely granted weekend appointments, but he had found the urgency and formality with which the old man had pleaded for an appointment very moving.
Brendan sat in front of Dr. Bueno on an old couch holding a globe on his lap.
“Ecuador is this little country here in South America – right at the equator,” Brendan said as he pointed to it on the globe with his long slender finger. “As you can see, it is many times smaller than Ontario.”
Dr. Bueno, an immigrant to Canada from the Philippines, was a very well read man with broad interests. He knew where Ecuador was and couldn’t help feeling annoyed that Brendan would point it out for him on a globe.
“On the Pacific coast we have La Costa,” Brendan explained “a tropical area that is extremely fertile. To the east we have El Oriente – largely tropical rainforest and very sparsely populated. In between La Costa and El Oriente is a mountainous region known as La Sierra. The mountains are, of course, the Andes. The population is split approximately in half between La Sierra and La Costa.”
Brendan looked up with a sweet, apologetic expression on his young face.
“I don’t mean to sound like a textbook but this is very relevant background information I assure you.”
“Oh, don’t apologize,” said Dr. Bueno. “Please continue.”
Despite feeling a little annoyed, Dr. Bueno was enjoying this patient. It was nice to have a break from the parade of compulsive gamblers he had been treating lately.
Brendan continued to talk as if he were prepping the psychiatrist for a history exam.
“United Fruit arrived in Tenguel, which is in La Costa, in 1936 to grow bananas. By that time, a major revolt by workers in Costa Rica had taught the company not to rely on brutality alone. Ecuador’s elite were quite divided during this period, and the Liberal faction had to at least pretend to be on the side of the poor, especially against foreigners. The other faction of the elite was the Conservatives who were basically supported by the Church and the large landowners of La Sierra. The Liberals were mainly backed by the growing class of merchants and financiers based in La Costa. You could think of it as, more or less, a standoff between Feudalists and Capitalists… May I borrow that pen?”
“Certainly,” said Bueno. He handed Brendan a pen he had been holding but not making notes with as he intended. Brendan used the pen to point to the globe again.
“Tenguel would be approximately here. Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, is right here. See how close they are? Today you can travel from Guayaquil to Tenguel by car in under 2 hours. In 1940, it took a full day. Geography – dense forests, drastic changes in elevation and climate over very short distances – led to isolation which drove cultural and political differences. Today, the legacy of that isolation is still apparent. The people of La Sierra (Seranos) are easily identified by their distinctive accents and idioms and they are widely regarded are more formal and reserved that the fast talking, blunt, and supposedly more street wise people of the La Costa – Costenos. Think of how far you can travel in Canada without noticing any difference in the way people talk.”
“I see,” said Dr. Bueno,” but where do you fit yourself into this history that you describe?”
“My parents were originally from the La Sierra, but I’ve never been there. My father came to La Costa – to the Tenguel plantation in 1938 – and worked in and around that area until the day he died.”
Dr. Bueno raised his eyebrows. “Isn’t your father the man sitting in the waiting room?”
“Thankfully, no,” answered Brendan.
“I see. Tell me about your father then.”
“I wish I had been kinder to him,” Brendan sighed, “more appreciative and understanding of the sacrifices he made. If he had been like my mother I wouldn’t have these regrets. I often wished my mother had been my father. Her strength was wasted. That was one of our weaknesses – our inability to see women as equals in the struggle.”
“Where is your mother?”
“She passed away shortly after my father died.”
“How did you arrive in here Canada?”
“I can’t explain that without explaining the history.”
“Very well,” replied Dr. Bueno as he leaned back in his chair. He listened carefully to what Brendan said but also observed him closely. Underneath the energy and enthusiasm with which Brendan spoke were signs of exhaustion – from the exertion of staying in character Bueno assumed.
“As I was saying, various factors contributed to United Fruit using more carrots than sticks with its workers in Ecuador. The Liberals were led by a guy named Jose Maria Velasco Ibarra. He was elected President of Ecuador five different times – and overthrown four times. Only once did he serve his full term in office. He was a rousing speaker who made the poor believe that he was on their side. People argue (excessively in my view) about Velasco’s sincerity but the bottom line was that United Fruit could not trust a government led by someone like him. Velasco’s rhetoric, sincere or not, generated excitement and expectations among the poor – that was dangerous.
“Some workers will tell you that Tenguel was a paradise under United Fruit. It angered me, as a young man, when some of the older folks said nice things about the company even though I understood why they did. Before United Fruit arrived, Tenguel was a Cacoa plantation. Ecuador had a Cacao driven export boom between the years 1880 to 1920 thanks to increased demand for chocolate in the USA and Europe. The working conditions on the Cacao plantations were inhuman. Workers had to literally bow in the presence of their bosses and were regularly beaten – all that on top of being overworked and impoverished. The punishment that was dished out to workers was often deliberately random in order to increase their state of fear. The beatings were necessary (from the point of view of the bosses) to impose discipline. It wasn’t enough of a threat to withhold wages because workers could offset losses by farming little plots of land.
“It was understandable that people who remembered the Cacao days would think that working for United Fruit was a blessing. Under United Fruit beatings were rare, and you didn’t have to bow in the boss’ presence. That alone was a major improvement.”
“Sorry to interrupt,” said Dr. Bueno,” but do you remember anything about the Cacao boom years?” The only reason he asked was to see if Brendan’s answer would be consistent.
“Of course not,” answered Brendan, “I was born in Tenguel sometime in 1940 shortly after my father was hired by United Fruit.”
“Sometime in 1940? You don’t know your exact date of birth?”
“No. It’s embarrassing but record keeping was very poor and remained so for decades after I was born. It sometimes took years to receive a birth certificate that was often riddled with errors. My mother never received birth or death certificates for two of her children who died as infants. She never even applied for them.”
“So you are now sixty eighth years old?”
“Probably, but I could possibly be 69.”
“You look like you’re in your mid twenties,” said Dr. Bueno.
“Thank you. That’s very kind,” Brendan said beaming with pride at what he regarded as a compliment.
“And your English is flawless.”
“I learned quickly.”
“I’m not seeing how any of what you talked about explains what you are doing in Canada.”
“It will become clear to you. I promise. A few decades of relatively good times followed after United Fruit set up shop in Tenguel. I can’t stress enough that when I say ‘good times’ that I am speaking in very relative terms.
“Unlike most Ecuadorians at the time, Tenguel’s workers had access to electricity and clean water. The streets were cleaned and houses painted regularly. The company paid workers ‘family wages’ and sold them food (including pasteurized milk) at cost because family men were considered the most reliable workers. The company hospital was top notch by local standards. They also sponsored sports and social clubs for the workers. The clubs were what many people remembered most fondly about the so called good times.
“My mother got involved with the clubs organizing dances and beauty pageants. She became very well known. My father, in contrast, never said much to anyone.
“As isolated as it was, Tenguel eventually felt the impact of the labor movement that was on the move throughout the country. Before 1929 there were only 4 labor unions in Ecuador. In 1939 there were almost 70. By the time I was seven years old United Fruit felt threatened enough to respond by establishing two labor unions in Tenguel. The unions engaged in phony battles with each other over who would make ‘demands’ of the company.
“As a boy, I used to make my little friends laugh with my impersonation of the company’s favorite unionist. I’d stand on the same spot in the plaza where he made his speeches and wave my arms about exactly like he did as he denounced the company. Of course I didn’t know he was a phony. I just thought the way he carried on was funny. I noticed that my mother laughed a strange, bitter laugh when she watched him speak.
“By the time I was about 16 years old, the mid 1950s, the phony union evolved into a real one as leaders who were not company stooges were finally elected. Unfortunately, by that time, Panama Disease began to ravage Tenguel’s banana crops. United Fruit began firing workers and selling land off like crazy. By 1960, almost all the workers were fired.
“Getting fired meant getting banished from Tenguel. Where were you to go? How would you live? The fired workers began taking over Tenguel as a way to survive. United Fruit moved to have them evicted. The battle for workers’ rights became a struggle for land reform.”
“You were involved with leading this struggle I take it?” said Dr. Bueno.
“I was part of it. My father and I were fired in 1956. Along with several others we took over some poor quality land on the outskirts of Tenguel. My old man, timid as he was, got dragged into battle as did so many others like him. My mother would have done more, could have done more, but the men kept women in the dark and locked them out of decision making.”
“Brendan. You’re in Canada. You are a Canadian – twenty six years old according to the information I have. Your father is sitting out there in the waiting room – very much alive.”
The psychiatrist’s tone was firm but not exasperated. He wanted to see how Brendan would respond if he was suddenly challenged in a very direct manner.
Dr. Bueno’s words bounced ineffectually off Brendan.
“If you understood the historical narrative that I’m trying to share with you then you’d know that everything you just said is false,” Brendan replied.
“Ecuadorian history has nothing to do with it,” Dr. Bueno said calmly. “No country’s history – not Ecuador’s nor Ethiopia’s – can turn you into a sixty eight year old former plantation worker. You’re a graduate student who a spent a few months in Ecuador doing research for a book. That’s it. That is the reality.”
“I respectfully disagree,” Brendan shrugged. “It’s sad that you won’t hear me out. I was getting to the heart of the matter – and my name is Segundo, not Brendan.”
“Keep going then,” said Bueno with a slight nod.
“It’s important to know that we were hardly the first people to do battle with United Fruit over land. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s peasants fought and won land claims against them – mainly for land that bordered Tenguel. They got help from labor unions in Guayaquil and from activists who seemed to drop out of the sky to come live with them and help them.
“They learned how to work the system and when our turn came to fight for land we learned quickly from them. Basically, United Fruit was over confident about the connections it had at the national level. President Velasco Ibarra himself once promised them that he would evict the peasants, but nothing happened. The local officials were poor people who identified with the peasants – and who knows what Velasco really cared about.
“Anyway, we learned from others and quickly became quite organized – even cocky at times. A few police showed up once and told us that we had an hour to vacate the land. I’ll never forget the look on their faces face when we said to them that they had ten minutes to leave the land. They slithered away quietly and were not seen again.
“By 1960 United Fruit tired of this farcical battle for our small piece of low quality land. They sent their lawyers down to formally surrender but we quibbled about every word in the document that awarded us the land. They got so frustrated that they finally just let me sit at a desk and type it out myself. That’s one of my fondest memories – typing out the document while the lawyers watched.”
“That’s quite an uplifting story,” remarked Bueno.
“Yes,” sighed Brendan, “but unfortunately that isn’t where it ends. During the mid 1960s the Cavendish banana was introduced into Tenguel. It was resistant to Panama Disease and required less, but higher quality land than the Michel Gros banana. United Fruit began outsourcing their production to local capitalists – scumbags like Rodrigo Cornejo. The small plots owned by peasants became irrelevant to them.”
“Why do you feel justified in calling your father a scumbag?”
“Rodrigo Cornejo is not my father,” Brendan scoffed.
“Then who, in your opinion, is the elderly gentleman in the waiting room?”
“He is Rodrigo Cornejo, but you should try to talk him out of it.”
“What do you mean?” asked Dr. Bueno.
“I mean that you could write a lengthy book about the destructive delusions of the Ecuadorian upper class.”
“Do you call him a scumbag because he is rich?”
“No, of course not. No one can choose who their parents are, what social economic status they are born into, or the assumptions that are driven into their brains as children. Rodrigo Cornejo is a scum bag because he murdered my father.”
“That’s a very serious allegation,” Bueno said gravely.
“There was military coup in Ecuador in 1963. It was helped along significantly by the CIA. If you’ve read Philip Agee’s book…”
“I have,” burst in Dr. Bueno as if to say “please don’t summarize the book for me.”
“Okay. Well, shortly after the coup many of us were rounded up by the army. My father and I, and several others, were kidnapped by soldiers. They took us to some nearby property owned by Rodrigo Cornejo and put us in a swimming pool. We stood there all night with water up to our necks while soldiers sat on lawn chairs aiming their guns at us. Rodrigo Cornejo came by a few times to gawk at us. His servants, many of them children, brought the soldiers food and drink.”
“My father and I, actually most of us, were eventually let go. The few men they kept, who were not even the most political, we never saw again. My father took ill the day after he was set free and soon died.”
The grief in Brendan’s eyes as he recounted this was so genuine that Dr. Bueno could not help but offer his condolences.
“I’m very sorry to hear that,” Bueno said, “but how do you know that Rodrigo Cornejo had any choice but to cooperate with the army?”
“We already knew him well. For a few years he had been buying off the local officials who used to support us and using his employees to harass us and damage our crops.
“The Ecuadorian military tried to other tactics besides repression to beat down what they saw as the threat of Communism. The army and the rich were horrified by the example of Cuba. Hence the era of so called land reform began. The military abolished the remaining feudal era land laws. By 1966 we had elected governments back. In 1968 Velasco was elected for the fifth time, and overthrown in 1972 for the final time. The military stepped aside again in 1979. Actually the first four years of the second military government don’t compare badly at all with many of the elected governments. There were some members of the military that had reformist ideas, but by 1976 they were pushed aside.”
Brendan stopped talking. He looked down at the globe then he smiled as if mocking himself.
“What is it?” asked Bueno.
“I was just thinking that while we were winning battles the ground was shifting under our feet – in favor of the rich – and we weren’t aware of it. During the ‘land reform’ period we were gradually stripped of our land. The rich were winning, but they too were unaware of how limited their victories were, of how the battlefield was shifting. We became better organized, less isolated even as we were losing. “
Brendan set the globe down on the floor and picked up a thick binder that was net to him on the sofa. It contained mainly hand written notes and some decayed, yellow clippings from Ecuadorian newspapers.
“Is that your thesis?”
“An academic writes a thesis. A person like me tells a story. These pages contain everything I remember about our battles that can possibly shed any light on it, everything I remember people saying that is of any relevance to it. My goal is to rescue people like my parents from the oblivion to which historians condemn them.”
“How can you achieve such an ambitious objective without honesty?”
“I am honest.”
“No you aren’t. You deny who you are. How can such deceit not contaminate your work? And who will publish it?”
“It will be ruthlessly honest, and Rodrigo Cornejo will get it published,” remarked Brendan – clearly untroubled by Dr. Bueno’s assertions. “Most of his ill gotten fortune will be spent publishing my story, donating to Ecuadorian labor organizations and to groups like CONAIE that represent indigenous peoples.”
“Why would he not just have you committed? You’re making that easy for him if you keep claiming to be something you are not.”
“Believe what you like about me, but Rodrigo Cornejo will do as I demand because he believes that I am his only son; because his ‘miracle child’ taught him something about the value of human life that he never realized before; and because very deep down he wants to make amends. Besides, his ex-wives, relatives and disgruntled business associates will eventually get his money if he doesn’t spend it. That is why he basically fled to Canada decades ago. I’ve reminded him of that often.”
“Is this vengeance satisfying to you?”
“Not completely, that is why I agreed to see you. I want you to rehabilitate him.”