Friday, May 23, 2008

Juan Gabriel Vásquez: The Informers

Alastair Sooke reviews Juan Gabriel Vásquez' The Informers.
Colombia is not well known here as a theatre of the Second World War, but its wartime years form the backdrop for Juan Gabriel Vásquez's new novel. An absorbing afterword, which should have been printed at the beginning, fills us in on some of the history.

After war broke out, the American government panicked that National Socialism would spread through Latin America. It was especially jumpy about important strategic zones such as the Panama Canal and neighbouring countries, particularly Colombia.

In 1941, Eduardo Santos, the Colombian president, agreed a series of accords with the US, including the building of military bases on the Caribbean coast and the implementation of a "blacklist" drawn up by the Americans that July.

According to Vásquez, the objective of the "Proclaimed List of Certain Blocked Nationals" was "to prevent the economic and commercial activity of persons and companies opposed to US defence policies" - put simply, to block Axis funds in Latin America, and elsewhere.

By May 1942, 630 Colombians supposedly sympathetic towards the Third Reich were on the list, their assets frozen. Inevitably there were injustices: the US embassy blacklisted some citizens on the basis of little more than rumour and prejudice whipped up by a network of self-interested informers.

After a German submarine sank a Colombian schooner two years later, the new president, Alfonso López Pumarejo, opened detention centres for blacklisted citizens, confining many German exiles to a luxury hotel in the small city of Fusagasugá, two hours from Colombia's capital, Bogotá.
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