of my country
will be interrogated
by the simplest
of our people.
They will be asked
what they did
when their nation died out
like a sweet fire
small and alone.
SOME of us may be familiar with these verses from a poem titled “Apolitical Intellectuals” by Otto Rene Castillo. Fifty years ago, in March 1967, when he had barely crossed thirty years of age, this Guatemalan poet, a revolutionary and a guerilla fighter, was ambushed and captured along with another member of the guerrilla group, Nora Paiz and 13 local campesinos. They were brutally tortured for several days, and then burned alive by the CIA backed Guatemalan dictatorship’s army troops. In his life, as in his death, Otto René Castillo remained a committed revolutionary. He lies in unjust oblivion, perhaps owing to the fact that he died so young! His fiftieth death anniversary, on March 23, coinciding with the martyrdom day of revolutionaries Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, and Sukhdev, is an opportune moment to recall his exemplary life and works.
Born in 1936, in Quezaltenango, Guatemala, Otto René Castillo lived his infancy and adolescence in the democratic decade in Guatemala after the dictatorship of Gen. Ubico was brought down by means of a liberal revolution in 1944. He became politically active during his student days and was president of the post-Primary Students’ Association, as well as a member of the Guatemalan Workers Party. During these days of student activism, he was introduced to revolutionary literature that talked of social concerns, and the problems of an enslaved Central America.
When the liberal Jacobo Arbenz government was brought down by a US-backed coup in 1954, 18-year-old Otto had to flee the country. Arbenz, a progressive military officer, had won one of Guatemala’s few genuinely democratic elections in 1951. His policy of land reform challenged the rule of the domestic oligarchy and the all-powerful US multinational United Fruit Company. His push for progressive change had started getting considerable sympathy throughout Latin America, and this invited a deep hostility from the imperial master in Washington, putting Arbenz in conflict with the US State Department and the CIA that finally brought down his government.
It may be recalled that it was in this Central American nation that Che’s Latin American road trip had culminated, and it was this coup, so notorious in the annals of US interventions in Latin America, that had galvanised young Che Guevara decisively. In October 1953, he had set sail for Panama with a small group of companions from the Ecuadorian port of Guayaquil. For a couple of months, Che travelled through Costa Rica and Nicaragua before arriving in Guatemala City on Christmas Eve, 1953, and it was from this dramatic moment in 1954 that Che emerged as a dedicated revolutionary.
The 1954 coup installed a brutal right-wing regime in Guatemala and decades of bloody repression. Otto Rene Castillo, along with a large group of revolutionaries, took to exile in the neighbouring El Salvador, hoping that the proximity to their own country would help them continue their struggle effectively. In exile, his life as an emigrant was hard and poor. He worked as a labourer, and took up odd jobs as a salesman and clerk. At the same time, he wrote intense revolutionary poems that, despite being works of a youthful expression, attracted attention in the cultural circles of El Salvador.
He also joined the University to study Law and there he founded the University Literary Circle, a vibrant literary group. It is during those days he met Roque Dalton, the young militant poet from El Salvador. The Literary Circle became a platform to bring together young artists and intellectuals and actively held conferences, recitals and panel discussions. He also became a member of the Communist Party of El Salvador. His bohemian life style was often frowned upon. In 1955, he was awarded the Central American Poetry Prize of the University. Roque Dalton, the famous revolutionary poet from El Salvador, later recalled that this opened the doors of the Salvadoran press for Rene Castillo, which despite its traditional reactionary character, admitted his poetry marked by its unmistakable militant quality, embodying the passion and clarity and beauty of the living world, and the world of possibility and future:
But I don't shut up and I don't die.
and fight, maddening
those who rule my country.
For if I live
and if I fight
I contribute to the dawn.
The debates in the University’s Literary Circle centred around questions of art’s social and revolutionary responsibility in a continent exploited for centuries. Otto Rene Castillo became the most powerful voice of “La generación comprometida,” a vibrant group of socially committed writers. Following the Guatemalan master Miguel Angel Asturias, the motto of the group was “the poet is a moral conduct,” that is, the poet must write as sh/e thinks, live as sh/e writes, and commit her/himself to the liberation of the people. In 1956, Otto and Roque Dalton won the contest of the University of El Salvador for their joint entry, “Dos puños por la tierra (Two Fists by the Land), where they exalted two indigenous heroes: Atanasio Tzul and Anastasio Aquino, from Guatemala and El Salvador respectively. This award gave them local prestige as students and journalists.
Many Salvadorans started reading Cesar Vallejo, Nazim Hikmet and Miguel Hernandez thanks to Otto’s efforts in popularising these poets. Many gravitated towards the Communist Party of El Salvador thanks to his efforts. In the mean time, he was getting famous for his poetry: in 1956, he won the Autonomia Prize from the University of San Carlos Guatemala, for the poem, “Country, Let’s Go For a Walk!” The recognition for his poetic work moved beyond Latin America and in 1957, the World Democratic Youth Federation awarded him the International Prize for Poetry in Budapest.
In 1957 the US backed president Castillo Armas died. Although repression would continue for many more years, the death of the dictator allowed the return of several exiles and Otto also moved back to Guatemalato and contributed to the ongoing revolutionary process. He enrolled in the Law and Social Sciences programme at the Faculty of Law of the San Carlos University of Guatemala which had been one of the focal points of resistance to the dictatorship of Castillo Armas. The Faculty published a magazine called Lanzas y Letras (Lances and Letters), which became an important mouthpiece for the concerns expressed by Guatemalan intellectuals.
Otto Rene Castillo was also an outstanding student, and the University rewarded him for his scholarly accomplishments by giving him the “Filadelfo Salazar” Excellence Award with a scholarship to study at the GDR. He travelled to Germany in 1958 to study Germanistics at the Karl Marx University of Leipzig, and was soon absorbing the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959. In 1962, he left his German literature course and joined a group created in Berlin by the Dutch moviemaker Joris Ivens, who was teaching techniques of documentary film-making to Latin American youngsters, with the purpose of filming armed struggles of their countries.
In 1964, Otto returned to Guatemala where he once again started working on the cultural front as well as in the clandestine activities of the Guatemalan Workers Party. In 1965 he was arrested as he was preparing to make a documentary on the FAR (Revolutionary Armed Forces). After release, he once again had to go into exile and started working now on the international front travelling to Cuba, Algeria, Germany, Austria, Cyprus, Hungary as Guatemala’s representative on the Preparatory Committee of the World Youth Festival. But his heart was in the revolutionary process of his people and he came back to Guatemala to join the armed struggle in 1967. This is where he was picked up, along with his partner Nora Paiz. Between March 19-23, cries full of pain were heard in the Army Base at Zapaca. They had sprayed naphtha on his body and then lit it up with a match. Otto’s words remain with fifty years after his physical disappearance:
The most beautiful thing
for those who have fought a whole life
is to come to the end and say;
we believed in people and life,
and life and the people
never let us down.