In March 2009, the former television journalist Mauricio Funes became the first leftist to win the presidency of El Salvador. ‘Now it’s the turn of the aggrieved,’ Funes said, addressing hundreds of thousands of red-clad supporters. ‘Now it’s the opportunity of the excluded.’ He was paraphrasing the poet Roque Dalton, one of the patron saints of the Latin American left.
It had been 17 years since the Salvadoran left had had cause to celebrate. In February 1992 the rebel commander Joaquín Villalobos had addressed a similarly ecstatic crowd in San Salvador’s central plaza. The war was over; the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, or FMLN, had forced the government to negotiate a settlement. The victory was far from complete. The right was still in power, 70,000 people had died and economic reform hadn’t been mentioned in the final peace deal. But disappointment could wait. As Funes would last year, Villalobos spoke of reconciliation and unity. He acknowledged that the FMLN had made mistakes, and that he had too. And as Funes would, he cited Roque Dalton, quoting ‘Poema de amor’, Dalton’s ode to his countrymen, ‘the ones who do-anything, sell-anything, eat-anything … the sad ones, the saddest in the world’. The young commander’s words were greeted with astonishment. Villalobos was one of the war’s heroes: he was charismatic, adored by his troops, a strategist of legendary brilliance. But among the mistakes he was acknowledging was his role in the murder of Roque Dalton.
Dalton joined the FMLN in December 1973. On 10 May 1975, he was killed by his comrades. The stories vary: he was injected with a sedative because his executioners could not bring themselves to shoot him with his eyes open; he was given poison, for the same reason; he was stood against a wall and shot in the back by a firing squad; he was shot in the back of the head, a joke dying on his lips. In almost every version – and there are more – his killers could not bear to look him in the eye.
Born in 1935, the illegitimate son of a Salvadoran nurse and a wealthy American businessman, Dalton liked to boast that he was a descendant of the Dalton brothers, outlaws of the Wild West, though he wasn’t. In the words of his biographer Luis Alvarenga, Dalton wanted to ‘make a poem of his life, and a way of living out of poetry’. The delight he took in mythologising his own life would be matched by the eagerness of others to believe the myths, to embroider and recraft them. The same would be true of his death. Dalton became a Communist, so the story goes, after interviewing Diego Rivera. The painter asked how old he was. Dalton replied that he was 18. Rivera asked if he had read Marx, and when Dalton responded that he hadn’t, Rivera told him he had spent 18 years as an imbecile. By the time Dalton turned 24, he had visited the Soviet Union, joined the Communist Party and been thrown in jail for the first time. The next year, charged with rebellion and sedition, he received his first death sentence. That time a coup saved his life. The dictator of the moment was deposed and political prisoners freed, but the climate did not improve. Dalton spent 1961 in Mexico and 1962 in Cuba.
Back in San Salvador two years later, aware that the police were looking for him again, Dalton broke the rules of life underground and, as he put it in his autobiographical novel Poor Little Poet That I Was, ‘exercised my right to go out and drink a beer’. The police found him on a bar stool and ‘disappeared’ him in a provincial jail in the town of Cojutepeque. One night, an earthquake damaged the wall of his cell, and over the next few weeks, using chicken bones and a spoon, he dug his way to freedom. The escape would become an essential part of his myth: the revolutionary the dictatorship couldn’t kill, the trickster poet favoured by the gods. Before he escaped, though, Dalton had been taken from his cell to a luxurious house, where he was interrogated by a CIA agent. The military planned to kill him, the American told him, but he had come to offer him a way out. ‘It won’t be just any life,’ he promised, ‘but a life with all the possibilities, with your wife and children, far from this country, in Mexico, for example, where we have every resource available, in France, in Chile, in England. You should live like a writer, like a scholar, not like a criminal. Why die now, like a fool?’ Dalton wasn’t swayed, and after several nights the American tried a final ruse. The CIA, he promised, would use its operatives in the Salvadoran Communist Party to spread the word that Dalton had co-operated. ‘We’ll tell them that before dying you tried to save your skin … You won’t go down in history as a hero but as a traitor.’ Dalton was shaken, but he didn’t talk, and soon afterwards he escaped from his cell. He took the American’s threat seriously enough to tell and retell the story of his interrogation. He wrote about it (‘they told me they would kill me the next day/and smear my red ghost with all the shit of the law’), and he told it to the Salvadoran novelist Manlio Argueta, to the Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal, and to the American poet Nina Serrano, whom he met in Havana in 1968.
Dalton fled to Mexico City, and then to Prague, where he met the leaders of the various guerrilla movements that were beginning to form all over Latin America, inspired by the Cuban Revolution and the desire to destroy the US-funded military dictatorships spanning the continent: the Tupamaros from Uruguay, the Sandinistas from Nicaragua, the Guatemalan Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias. By 1966, he was convinced that change would come to El Salvador only through armed struggle, which put him at odds with the increasingly staid and highly bureaucratic Salvadoran Communist Party. Two years later, Dalton had quit the Party and returned to Havana.