On Roque Dalton

Jose G. Perez jgperez at netzero.net
Tue Aug 12 02:19:22 MDT 2003

Richard Harris asks "Who is Roque Dalton?"

Roque Dalton was a Salvadoran poet and revolutionary who formed part of
the ERP, one of the Salvadoran guerrilla groups, from 1973-1975. He was
assassinated in cold blood by ERP members acting on orders of the ERP
leadership because he had political differences. 

The order was given by Joaquín Villalobos, who later came to be well
known as head of the ERP, then became a social democrat, and is now,
fresh from Oxford University, an adviser on "conflict resolution" to
Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, who, quite strikingly, uses the same
methods for settling his disagreements with revolutionaries that
Villalobos did.

Roque Dalton García was born on May 14, 1935. His mother was a nurse who
treated an American that had been wounded in a fight, one of the members
of the outlaw Dalton gang who took his gains from bank robbery in Kansas
and settled in El Salvador where he became an owner of coffee
plantations, which is another kind of robbery. His birth certificate was
issued in his mother's name only; he had to grow up with the stigma of
being "illegitimate."

Dalton was famous as a raconteur, as a womanizer and as someone who
liked to drink too much. A very serious high level memorial meeting for
him in Havana is famously remembered for the talk given by one of his
countless close friends: "You know, Roque would not have been caught
dead at an event like this, he'd be in the bar on the corner getting

Then again, it is one of those stories that sounds too true to be true,
and his whole life was like that. His biographers admit it is hard to
separate fact from legend, the actual events from the way he
reconstructed them and wove them into his story telling, both verbal and
written. He was witty and self-mocking, qualities which prevented his
poetry from the grandiloquence and bombast which afflicts too much of
Latin American political and social poetry. 

This is what priest, poet and Sandinista minister Ernesto Cardenal had
to say about him: "I remember a laughing Roque Dalton. Skinny, pale, his
bones sticking out, big-nosed like me, and always laughing. I don't know
why I always remember you laughing, Roque Dalton. A laughing
revolutionary. Not that revolutionaries are particularly serious, not at
all, but he was a revolutionary that laughed all the time. First of all
he laughed at himself. He laughed at silly little things about El
Salvador and was forever talking about it, because he really loved his
'Tom Thumb' country. Naturally he laughed at the Salvadoran bourgeoisie
and would make us all laugh. He would laugh at the Jesuits with whom he
had studied and in whose school he had 'lost his faith' (he would also
laugh at this expression) to join the Communist Party, and he'd also
laugh at things about the Party. (Still it was his Party.)"

Perhaps he laughed so much because he had so often made a fool of fate.
The death sentence handed down by his comrades in 1975 was not his first
one. Dalton had been condemned to death twice before. From 1957 until
around 1970, he was a member of the Communist Party. In 1960 he was
arrested and sentenced to death, a tribute, he would later sardonically
write, that was quite exaggerated given his modest revolutionary

"He has formed red cells among workers, students and peasants, inciting
these last particularly to protest and to employ violence against the
landowners," part of the official charges read.

However, the military dictator, one Colonel Lemus, was overthrown, some
say one day, others say four days, before his appointment with the
firing squad. He went into exile, first to Mexico in 1961, and then to
Cuba in 1962, where so many Latin American intellectuals of that
generation took refuge to escape the wave of repression unleashed by the
"gorillas" (Latin American military dictatorships) who were scared out
of their wits by the Cuban revolution.

In 1965 he returned to El Salvador, was arrested, tortured and again
sentenced to death. An earthquake destroyed a wall of his prison and he
was able to make his way through the rubble and got away by joining a
religious procession being held to celebrate the Day of Christ the King.
His party comrades helped him leave the country. 

He returned to Cuba, and months later went on to Prague as the
Salvadoran CP's representative to the theoretical magazine of the
pro-Moscow Communist Parties, Problems of Peace and Socialism. 

He returned to Cuba in the late 1960's and won the 1969 Casa de las
Americas prize for poetry. All told he wrote 18 books of poetry, an
extraordinary amount for a man murdered before he was 40.

Those were years of great turbulence and debates in the Latin American
left. In the wake of Che's death and the failure of guerrilla movements
in various countries, most of the traditional CP's in Latin America cast
off a certain leftist coloration that some had taken on in the 1960's
under the influence of the Cuban Revolution. 

At the same time, those who were looking to the armed struggle
re-evaluated their theses, including those who had previously been in
the CP's, like Roque Dalton, even though for many leaders of those
organizations the recognition of armed struggle had only been lip
service, and sending people to do military training in Cuba simply a way
to get some bothersome hot-heads out of the way.

If the Olive Green springtime of the Cuban revolution in many cases
brought new life to those parties, the long gray twilight of Soviet
socialism under Brezhnev seemed to drain them of every ounce of

In El Salvador the rupture in the CP appears to have been especially
bitter and sudden. It was provoked by the decision of the majority of
the leadership to support the Salvadoran government in the brief "soccer
war" against Honduras 1n 1969. Former CP General Secretary Salvador
Cayetano Carpio, known later as Commander Marcial, and many others broke
with the CP then, and Dalton may have been among them. At any rate,
Dalton is said to have tried to join the Salvadoran FPL, the guerrilla
group founded by Marcial, but Marcial --who knew Roque well from their
years together in the party-- told Roque his role was as a revolutionary
poet and a writer, not a combatant.

It was advice Dalton could not follow. He is said to have trained in
Cuba with the Guatemalan militants who later became the nucleus of the
EGP, the guerrilla army of the poor, and to have been in contact with
and possibly interested in joining the FSLN, but that, too, did not
happen. Those were hard years for the Sandinistas, and the differences
that would later emerge as three separate public organizations were
already gestating.

He "had problems" (as they say in Cuba) at Casa de las Americas and
moved on to Prensa Latina, the press agency, and Radio Habana. In 1973
he returned to El Salvador to help organize the ERP, having undergone
plastic surgery by the same team that altered Che's features before he
went to Bolivia. 

In 1975, differences emerged in the ERP: Villalobos and his followers
insisted on a short-term insurrectional strategy; Dalton advocated
linking up with the emerging unions and mass organizations. His
execution led to a split in the ERP and the founding of another
politico-military organization, the National Resistance.

Roque Dalton made friends wherever he went, and the works of Latin
American writers and artists and intellectuals and revolutionaries of
his generation are littered with tributes to him. He was intimately tied
in with the young troubadours of the Movimiento Nueva Trova, and
inspired two of the most outstanding (at least in my view) works by
artists of the movement, Noel Nicola's "Cuando Vuelvas Luna Llena"
(which I believe is actually a poem by Dalton set to music) and the very
well known "Unicornio" by Silvio Rodríguez.

Unicornio is an extraordinarily beautiful and haunting work,
overwhelming in its feeling of love and longing. I remember Sara
Gonzalez performing it in New York around 1979 or 1980 --it was the
first time I had heard it-- and it left me, and the Cuban friends I had
gone to the concert with, stunned. Later, at a private party in
Brooklyn, Sara sang it again, and it brought tears to many eyes.

It is a very simple story, of a lost blue unicorn which the singer left
grazing and it disappeared. He doesn't know whether it went away or got
lost. With an indigo horn it would catch a song; its gift was knowing
how to share it. This was the only blue unicorn the singer had, but even
if he had two, he would only want that one. If anyone has news, please
let him know. 

The feeling of the piece is entirely lost in that recounting, but some
idea of what it was about is needed for what follows.

Silvio wrote this about the song, I think it was on the cover of the

*  *  *


The song with which this work concludes has given me, in this last year,
a lot of surprises and pleasures. Wherever I played it, it unleashed a
furious obsession with letting me know where my lost unicorn was.

I began receiving letters, telegrams, messages. Pictures, books,
stickers, post cards and drawings of all kinds of unicorns appeared.

I even received news from where I know no unicorn would go to graze, not
just mine, but any unicorn.

It is strange, but some people see things that are not there, or what is
worse: they cannot see the things that really exist.

By the way, I want to acknowledge publicly having received a very
legitimate report. It all began with a very dear friend I had, a
Salvadoran named Roque Dalton, who in addition to having been a
magnificent poet was a great revolutionary, a commitment that led to his
death when he was an underground combatant.

The thing is, Roque had several children, among them Roquito --who for
some time has been in prison and whose fate is unknown-- and Juan José,
who, skinny and young as he is, was a guerrilla fighter, was wounded,
captured and tortured. I ran into him a short while ago and he told me
that there, in the mountains of El Salvador, a blue unicorn with a horn
trotted alongside the valiant troops of the poor.

I want to express my thanks for the tenderness, the support, the hope of
all those who, in recent times, have tried to help me in the search for
what has gone missing. But now I want to tell you that I am almost,
almost at peace. And if you want, you can stop sending me news. Because
I finally know where my unicorn grazes, and in such fields, no love is
ever lost.

*  *  *

Finally, because this is a Marxism list, a poem by Roque Dalton on that
very subject (my translation follows):


«El marxismo-leninismo es una piedra
para romperle la cabeza al imperialismo
y a la burguesía.»

«No. El marxismo-leninismo es la goma elástica
con que se arroja esa piedra.»

«No, no. El marxismo-leninismo es la idea
que mueve el brazo
que a su vez acciona la goma elástica
de la honda que arroja esa piedra.»

«El marxismo-leninismo es la espada
para cortar las manos del imperialismo.»

«Qué va! El marxismo-leninismo es la teoría
de hacerle la manicure al imperialismo
mientras se busca la oportunidad de amarrarle las manos.»

¿Qué voy a hacer si me he pasado la vida
leyendo el marxismo-leninismo
y al crecer olvidé
que tengo los bolsillos llenos de piedras
y una honda en el bolsillo de atrás
y que muy bien me podría conseguir una espada
y que no soportaría estar cinco minutos
en un Salón de Belleza?

* * *


“Marxism-Leninism is a rock
with which to break the head of imperialism
and the bourgeoisie.”

“No. Marxism-Leninism is the rubber band
with which that rock is launched.”

“No. No. Marxism-Leninism is the idea
that moves the arm
that in turn pulls on the rubber band
with which the rock is launched.”

“Marxism-Leninism is the sword
to cut off the hands of imperialism.”

“No way! Marxism-Leninism is the theory
of doing a manicure on imperialism
while waiting for an opportunity to tie its hands.”

What am I to do if I have spent my life
Reading Marxism-Leninism
And when I grew up I forgot
That my pockets are full of stones
And I have a slingshot in my back pocket
And that I could easily get a sword
And that I could not stand even five minutes,
In a Beauty Salon?

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