The Ugly American: : A Rhodes Scholar Goes South
Gringo: A Coming-of-Age in Latin America
Chesa Boudin, Scribner, 2009
Chesa Boudin is the biological son of two terrorists and was raised by another pair of terrorists. He was 14 months old when his birth parents, ex–Weather Underground members Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, took part in a 1981 Brinks truck robbery in which they were complicit in the murder of two police officers and a security guard. Sentenced to prison, Boudin and Gilbert delivered Chesa (whose name is Swahili for “dancing feet”) into the arms of William Ayres and Bernadine Dohrn, erstwhile Weathermen who earned unlikely prominence in the 2008 presidential campaign due to Ayres’s association with Barack Obama.
If Boudin never mentioned his parents’ or foster parents’ radical pasts (or their contemporary political views, which remain extreme) in his new book, Gringo, a log of time he has intermittently spent in Latin America over the past decade, it would be unfair to burden him with this inherited freight. But far from avoiding the legacy of his parents, Boudin embraces it. It is impossible to understand him, the author says, without understanding the strong impression that their politics made on his own.
After winning a Rhodes Scholarship in 2002, Boudin, one of the most outspoken antiwar activists at Yale University, gave a front-page interview to the New York Times. “My parents were all dedicated to fighting U.S. imperialism around the world,” he said. “I’m dedicated to the same thing.” Given such a commitment, it is hardly a surprise that Gringo is a postmodern version of the travelogues in which leftists of an earlier generation touted the glories of the Soviet Union, Communist China, the Cuban revolution, and other man-made horror shows. The only difference is that Boudin lacks the literary and imaginative gifts that André Gide, Lincoln Steffens, C. Wright Mills, and other of these earlier writers, however debased their political illusions, possessed. (On page 3, for instance, Boudin breaks what surely must be the cardinal rule of travel writing, saying that he set off on his Latin American journey “to find myself.”)
Boudin can’t decide whether he wants to write a political treatise, a journalistic account of his wanderings, or a literary memoir, and those familiar with the region will see in Gringo a tepid imitation of Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries. Indeed, Boudin explicitly compares his South American trek to that of the voguish Argentinean.
Boudin’s journeys take him across the continent, from studies at the University of Santiago to the chic streets of Buenos Aires. Aside from a brief stint working as a translator in the administration of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, the author takes only rare breaks from his “political tourism,” to interview a union leader here or a community activist there. Latin Americans, in his view, fall into two categories: the poor masses supportive of the “revolutionary” policies he favors, and the middle and upper classes, depicted here as nefarious and solely concerned with guarding their privilege. None are represented as individuals with unique aspirations and viewpoints.
Instead, Boudin patronizes his subjects. “Kindness and sympathy were often apparent in their eyes and smiles,” he writes of poor bus passengers in Guatemala. Of sweatshops (“one of the faces of neoliberalism that defined the economic landscape I was traveling through”), Boudin observes that the factories “provided jobs, but they didn’t look like the kind of place I could imagine working in.” There are few places in Guatemala where this Ivy League travel writer “could imagine working in.” Such observations are unleavened by economic literacy; distinctions between the developed and undeveloped world are left unexplored here.
It does not occur to Boudin that his subjects might view any chance to work as a blessing. Being an opponent of “neoliberalism” and its attendant afflictions, the author would rob the Latin American poor of what few choices they currently have. (The degree to which the neoliberal record beats Boudin’s own socialist prescriptions, and what he lauds as the “practical idealism” of William Ayres and Bernadine Dohrn, absolutely escapes him.)
Boudin’s neat social categorizations routinely betray him. Note the shock he experiences when he finds that the poor Guatemalan family he’s living with doesn’t seem especially interested in the plight of his parents, whose story he explains over dinner. (“If I thought having parents in prison was going to give me street credibility in San Andres, the distraught look that passed between my hosts dispelled that misconception immediately.”) Boudin plows forward with his hosts, uttering a string of clarifying nouns to humanize his family: “Bebé, padres, crimen, tres muertos, politico, negros, imperialismo, Nueva York.”
Boudin is further dismayed when the host family evinces indifference toward his lectures about the long history of American crimes against the people of Latin America. “Their silence at first puzzled me,” Boudin observes, expressing the bewilderment of a sheltered ideologue. “Why weren’t they as eager as I to criticize imperialism in general and United States foreign policy in Latin America in particular?” Obviously, they’re suffering from false consciousness. Contrast the noble if naive Guatemalan poor to his “middle-class” hostess in Chile, who “regularly insulted” her domestic help and “lectured me about how silly the communists and rabble-rousers were to have gotten in the way of what she regarded as Pinochet’s solid economic plans.”
Toward the middle of the book, Boudin heads to Venezuela, having grown tired of Brazil, where the “moderation” and relatively pro-American foreign policy of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva disappoints him. Boudin expected Lula to be more of a radical. His lack of revolutionary zeal and seeming adherence to the “Washington consensus” that Boudin so despises stood in stark contrast to that of neighboring President Hugo Chavez, whose “Bolivarian Revolution” promised to be the New Jerusalem, much as Stalin’s Russia and Castro’s Cuba were for earlier generations of political pilgrims.
Once in Caracas, Boudin starts living the life he had always dreamed of as a revolutionary. His first encounter with Chavez occurs at a massive rally with thousands of red-shirted Chavistas where the self-appointed heir to the Bolivarian Revolution appears onstage alongside a who’s who of the international, anti-American Left: Nicaraguan strongman Daniel Ortega, Marxist intellectual Tariq Ali, actor Danny Glover, conspiracy theorist and sometime congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, as well as lesser figures like the president of the Cuban National Assembly. Using his gringo connections, Boudin quickly earns himself a perch in the presidential mansion working as a translator for senior Chavez officials. Now in the entourage of a bona fide populist revolutionary, Boudin can finally emulate, albeit in nonviolent fashion, his biological and adoptive parents. He begins signing e-mails “in the belly of the revolution.” He hangs with other gringos of the “politically progressive expat scene in Caracas.” When he returns to Oxford to complete a thesis on Venezuela, he finds himself having to defend the authoritarian ruler from peers skeptical of his demagoguery and thuggish tactics. Boudin characterizes his role as “play[ing] my small part in defending a democratic alternative,” even though Chavez has deployed a series of undemocratic means to preserve his place in power.
Boudin’s worshipful depiction of Chavez is aided by a series of unsupported claims. More than once he airs the baseless theory that the Bush administration supported a military coup against Chavez in 2002. He heaps scorn upon the United States for centuries of meddling in Latin America and distorts its current involvement in the region as wholly malign. Yet the following sentence is his only comment about Chavez’s support for the FARC, a Marxist terrorist group that has waged a guerilla war in Colombia since the 1960s: “Ecuador and Colombia had a border spat that Chavez got involved in.”
In his sole mildly critical passage about Chavez, Boudin writes of a Venezuelan friend who confided that she had been “told who to vote for in the party nomination process, not as a suggestion but as an order from above.” This Boudin sweeps aside as sounding “more like old-school Chicago machine politics than revolutionary participatory democracy.” But even the seediest Chicago solon didn’t shut down independent television and radio stations, spew anti-Semitism, jail opponents, or establish a parallel security apparatus loyal only to him. All have been hallmarks of Chavez’s reign, but are never mentioned in Boudin’s account.
Meanwhile, the author has nothing but contempt for Colombia’s Álvaro Uribe, the most promising leader in Latin America. Elected president in 2002, Uribe salvaged the country by working with the United States on an aggressive counterinsurgency fight against the FARC, which has plagued Colombia with kidnapping and murder for 45 years. Naturally, Boudin detests Uribe for his alliance with the United States and his decision to crack down on the FARC, laying blame for the country’s violence entirely at his feet. Boudin strongly supports the democratic will of Latin American peoples when they elect Chavez, but not in the case of Uribe, whom he depicts as a borderline fascist and American stooge, despite the fact that the Colombian president has consistently posted higher approval ratings than any other leader on the continent, soaring above 90 percent last summer after he ordered the successful rescue of 15 FARC-held hostages.
At one point, Boudin recalls a friendly conversation with the former head of Cuba’s national airline “over a mojito in a hotel lobby.” There, the apparatchik recounted the heroic legal work that Boudin’s grandfather Leonard, a legendary left-wing lawyer who defended Paul Robeson and the Church of Scientology, did on behalf of the Castro regime. That political inheritance is always in the back of his mind. Boudin seems unable to discuss his parents without justifying their crimes. The 1981 heist that left three men dead was “tragically bungled,” he writes. In his telling, the deaths of innocents were the consequence of an operation that became entangled in happenstance, not the result of deliberate choices and actions. The author leaves the impression that it was the “bungling” of the robbery that made it “tragic,” and that had things gone according to plan, the act would have been something far short of calamitous.
In some quarters, his family’s crimes provide access. He praises Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela as “one of the few places on the planet where having parents in prison in the United States for politically motivated crimes actually opened doors rather than closed them.” These crimes always provide a reference point. Relating how he became close with the children of victims of the Pinochet regime, Boudin writes, “Of course, I too have parents who paid a heavy price for their radical politics, and this common experience was undoubtedly part of what drew the three of us together in friendship.”
But it wasn’t Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert’s “radical politics” that earned them lifetime jail sentences (Boudin was released on parole in 2003). It was their complicity in a triple homicide.
Boudin describes the 9/11 terrorist attacks in similarly anodyne fashion, writing of the “arbitrary death” and “random violence” that occurred on that day, as if the murder of 3,000 American civilians was not a well-coordinated act of aggression with a specific political purpose and message. He was in Chile at the time of the terrorist attacks and one of the book’s most glowing portrayals is of Luis Vitale, a leftist historian there who praises his students for burning the American flag every July 4th. Boudin unwittingly portrays Vitale’s depravity by recounting how, on September 12, he asked Boudin, the only gringo in the room, if any of his family or friends died in the attacks. When Boudin responds in the negative, Vitale lets out a “Bien” before launching into a discourse on the depredations of the Pinochet junta and America’s criminal record in Latin America.
The day after 9/11, the author notices a poster affixed to a mural of Che Guevara alleging that the “probable perpetrators of the crime” of child hunger were “rich countries.” The rest of his dirigiste economic cogitation amounts to little more than a repetition of bullet points from Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, the best-selling bible of the antiglobalization crowd, which argues that “neoliberal” economists view disasters as opportunities to implement free market reforms. Boudin parrots Klein’s line, right down to the specious allegation that Milton Friedman wrote Pinochet’s economic policies. (In reality, Friedman met once with Pinochet for 45 minutes.) Boudin puts some of Klein’s hypotheses in the mouths of characters he encounters along his journey. The reader cannot help but wonder if these individuals actually said the things he has attributed to them.
Boudin’s reportage often drifts into the unintentionally comical. This is certainly true in terms of tone: Argentina under the rule of the left-leaning Néstor Kirchner regime, for instance, is portrayed as a land of milk and honey. (“I ate a succulent steak, and fresh pasta so perfect I might easily have been in Tuscany.”) It is also true in terms of content: in Chile, Boudin notes that the “transportation infrastructure and government regulation were both thoroughly developed” and, unlike everywhere else on the continent, “the bus service inside Santiago was, like the city’s metro system, first-rate,” but it never occurs to Boudin that Pinochet, having deterred Chile from the socialist path followed by other Latin American governments, might deserve some credit for these latter-day wonders.
Boudin possesses, in extremis, a quality afflicting much of my generation: an aptitude for shameless self-revelation coupled with an utter lack of self-awareness. “I had introduced myself as a freelance writer with a radical family background,” he writes of his meeting with a Bolivian journalist. “And it occurred to me, as on many occasions previously, that I might appear as just another rich kid without a proper job looking to make a name for himself off of Latin America.” It is in these rare moments of candid reflection that Chesa Boudin makes the critic’s work easy.