The Case That Changed
Dr. Joel Filartiga and I met through our mutual friend Roberto
Thomson, the editor of ABC Color, Paraguay’s largest newspaper.
Roberto had agreed to publish an article of mine about the Jesuit
Missions of Paraguay, in four consecutive Sunday Supplements. After
reading the first installment, Filartiga stopped by the office in
Asuncion to check out the rest of the essay. And, in a burst of
generosity and creativity, on the spot he drew pen and ink drawings
for the remaining three episodes.
But it was not
until two years later that I first saw Filartigas artistic contributions,
when in 1975 I returned to Paraguay to continue my dissertation
research on Dr. Francia, the controversial George Washington figure
of Paraguayan independence. Through our long discussions of world
events, Paraguayan politics and history, Joel and I discovered a
shared philosophy of life and grew to become close friends. He drew
illustrations for each chapter of my book, graphically capturing
their central themes. At his rural clinic in Ybycui, I came to admire
his philanthropic work with the peasants. There I grew to love the
whole Filartiga family, and developed an independent friendship
with Joelito, Joel’s sixteen year old son.
During this time,
we set into motion plans for Filartiga to come to UCLA, to show
his art and draw attention to conditions in Paraguay. Joel’s January
1976 trip was a great success, his speeches and exhibitions expanding
to other institutions throughout southern California.
Just six weeks
after Filartiga’s return to Paraguay, Joelito was tortured to death
by the police of General Alfredo Stroessner. By then, I had received
my Ph.D. degree in Latin American history from UCLA and was preparing
to return to Paraguay as an Organization of American States post
doctoral fellow to conduct further historical research.
At the behest
of my friends, I arrived in Paraguay to live in the Filartigas’
home. For the next seven months I shared their terror, agonies and
degradation. As a trained historian, I happened to be on the scene
before, during and after what turned out to be an historical event.
As Dr. Filartiga years later ironically observed: “It was almost
like you won the lottery--backwards.” It is only because of these
improbable circumstances that it has been possible to write Breaking
Silence from the vantage point of a participant-observer.
murder, the Filartigas did not buckle under to the fear and misdirected
shame that is characteristic of human rights victims, not unlike
those of child sexual abuse and domestic violence. Contrary to the
reasonable expectations of the dictatorship, they refused to go
along with the official cover up and discreetly bury Joelito. Instead,
breaking the silence of human rights victims, the Filartigas did
everything in their power to reveal the truth.
in Paraguay in 1976, I joined the Filartigas in their cause, tapping
into the network of media, political and other influential people
I had built as a graduate student researching my doctoral dissertation
in Paraguay. My semi-official status at the U.S. Embassy as a Fulbright-Hays
scholar had accorded me wide ranging access, both within the American
community as well as among Paraguayan intellectuals and politicians.
Also, my historical
work on Dr. Francia attracted quite a bit of attention. The Instituto
de Investigaciones Históricas Dr. José Gaspar de Francia gave me
the honor of becoming its only non-Paraguayan member. Even before
I had completed the final version of Paraguay’s Autonomous Revolution
1810-1840, it had been translated and published in three lengthy
installments in Estudios Paraguayos, the academic journal of the
Catholic University. Its first Spanish edition came out a few months
Because of this
I was regularly invited to give newspaper interviews and lectures
on Paraguayan history. The public exposure created the opportunity
to form personal relationships with a number of influential people,
some of whom later greatly contributed to the Filartigas’ struggle;
from Congressman Domingo Laino, the leader of Paraguay’s largest
opposition political party, to Colonel Robert LaSala, the disaffected
Green Beret Vietnam veteran serving as a U.S. military advisor to
the Paraguayan Army.
As I helped investigate
the murky circumstances of Joelito’s death, I began collecting primary
and secondary source materials on the Caso Filartiga, an undertaking
I continued after returning to the States, throughout the following
years of organizing, and again later during the late 1980’s and
1990’s as I conducted the research for Breaking Silence.
Over these years
I maintained contact with the Filártigas, and worked with human
rights activists and Non Governmental Organizations supporting the
family’s pursuit of justice in Paraguay and the United States. Along
the way I conducted scores of interviews and follow-ups with the
principals, amounting to well over one hundred hours of taped recordings.
All were transcribed, and when necessary translated into English.
This material was then catalogued, according to subject matter,
and transferred onto computerized note cards. Finally, the information
was printed onto thousands of cross-referenced note cards.
source information integrated into this data base includes private
correspondence, diaries, journals, and contemporary chronicles of
events, both written and tape recorded; documentation from various
human rights, legal advocacy and Latin American support organizations;
internal documents from the files of the Anti-Smuggling Unit of
the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service; previously classified
U.S. Department of State cables, obtained under the Freedom of Information
Act; Congressional letters of support and inquiry to the Government
of Paraguay, the INS, the Department of State, and the U.S. Embassy
and Consulate in Paraguay; as well as official court documents and
trial transcripts from the legal proceedings in both Paraguay and
the United States.
will become publicly accessible in a university law library or other
appropriate institution, as well as the Paraguayan Archivos de Horror,
as the formerly secret records of General Stroessner’s police state
have come to be known.
Silence research archive amounts to some 12,000 pages of documentation,
from which 87 Thematic Chronologies were compiled and, in turn,
distilled into a 178 page Master Chronology.
from secondary sources--such as newspaper and magazine articles--I
have used exact quotations for all references.
In writing the
dialogue I have employed primary sources, relying upon the recorded
interviews or contemporary records of at least one of the participants,
and as often as possible used their exact words.
Because a tape
recorder was not running at all times, the dialogues are necessarily
neither literal nor precise verbatim exchanges, but rather substantively
In a few cases
I have disguised the identities of people who--even today--could
be harmed should their participation become known, by changing names
and other identifying facts; and to this end, in one instance I
melded two people into a composite character.
By the methodological
standard of the professional historian, Breaking Silence is an unusual
documentary presentation. I feel secure characterizing it as a work
of dramatic nonfiction.
personal, moral, political and legal significance of Breaking Silence
should be gauged from the point of view of the Filartiga family’s
tragedy, as it grew from yet another routine torture murder by a
tin horn dictator in the middle of South America to acquire the
landmark status of U.S. legal precedent, and from which hundreds
of torture survivors have benefited. The overall historical integrity
of this saga should be judged from the perspective of a painstakingly
documented account of that family’s defiance to oppression,
resulting in what Dr. Filartiga calls, “a touch of justice.”
©2004 Richard A. White