Escape to Freedom
(Published by Parade on March 7, 1982)
August 20, a year and a half ago, was not like every day for me.
I woke up early at the embassy. I could not shave well. I had a brand new suit, a blue tie. There was no
time for breakfast—a plane was waiting.
Downstairs, I kissed the cheek of the ambassadress, Virginia, the lady who had hidden me for 20 days.
Then I kissed my wife and my children.
"You cannot take anything with you," somebody said.
"Let me have my papers,” I said. "Just my papers.”
I was not nervous, and my children were not crying. Marcelita looked at me, in silence. Diego also looked
at me, as if he had something against me, and Claudia smiled, as always, when she is with her father.
Only my wife looked sad, because Marcela could well understand what was happening to us.
Then the driver came in and my family disappeared. I went to the ambassador's car. I began to smoke. I
did not look back. It was sunny out and my eyes ached. I had not seen the sun in three weeks.
The city was almost empty. Not only because it was the weekend, but also because there were soldier,
two at each comer, holding machine gun —everywhere.
Those are my streets. I know them well. I was born in La Paz. The city was clean this morning, but black
spots—on the pavement, against the walls—told me of anonymous Bolivians killed hours before.
Virginia took me to the VIP room. A man with a pleasant smile kissed Virginia's hand. He looked me with
the eyes of a fish. "Follow me," he said.
I whispered thanks to Virginia and walked into a big, beautiful, painted airplane.
I was leaving Bolivia because I could not live anymore without my human rights in the Coca Kingdom.
Gen. Luis Garcia Meza Tejada seized power on July 17, 1980. Since that day, the country has been run
by the military and a few industrialists and businessmen who seem intent only on making a fortune from
the cocaine trade. Money has no ideology.
Authorities in 1981 were talking about there being a $525 billion annual cocaine business—illegal, of
course—in the U.S., with Bolivia becoming the source of a S17.5 billion annual "coca industry."
This drug has put our country in the hands—hands trained by U.S. military personnel and holding U.S.
weapons—of a ring of cocaine smugglers.
"Sit here," said the man with the smile and the fishy eyes. "Don't worry. We are handling this."
I sat down and looked out the window. At last, the plane began to move.
I smiled then, for the first time. I was going to make it. They had not caught me this Saturday as they had
a few yean before. And they would not torture me. Nor would they put a machine gun against my guts
and blow them up.
I am going away, I smiled. I have saved my skin.
"Your attention, please. We have been notified about a bomb aboard the plane," a voice said.
Again I was among those in green uniforms. For three hours, I smoked, paced the floors and watched the
other passengers open their bags and coats at the door for the soldiers. When three people were left, I
began a silent prayer.
I had no passport, no papers, and no luggage. The soldiers were searching each person at the door, as
fast as they could. This is it, I told myself. Now I have had it. Damn. I am going to die. Oh, God.
I have nothing to do with the Coca Kings. They know me, but I do not know them. I fear them because
they are the law in Bolivia. They want my head because my words began to stir feelings among my
countrymen. That is why they hate me.
They have sent-me to jail and exile, telling me my words meant my children's torture and death. For three
years, I kept silence. But then I published. Again.
For what? To be hunted again. To hide and tremble for my family.
They burned my books, you know. My friends write and tell me: "Nobody can find your books anymore. It
is as if you were dead already."
The man with the eyes of a fish returned. "Don't worry," he said. “Be ready."
He took me again through the soldiers, having me pose as someone's missing husband. I took the same
seat as before. This time the plane took off and I knew I was never to come back. I had nothing but a $5
bill my wife had hidden in my new jacket. I did not know if I would see my family again.
There are no human rights in Bolivia, no freedom of the press. There is a perennial campaign to destroy
educational institutions. Among 5 million people without any means to defend themselves, a small, well-
organized group of delinquent enjoys the protection of the military government.
Coca is now our most important raw material and Bolivians can hope for nothing but another 100 years
of solitude, misery, torture and hunger.
One would think I was as well-known as Fidel Castro, as dangerous as Che Guevara or as daring as
Carlos the Jackal for me to seek political asylum in the way I did. But I am almost unknown in my country.
I was not a politician. I am quiet. I love the silence of good libraries. When I cross a street, I look three
limes each way and, if possible, I hold my wife's hand before crossing. My only weapons are words.
So why did I have to hide at an embassy in La Paz a year and a half ago?
Because of a sentence I wrote for a newspaper five years ago: “The true cause of the Bolivian crisis is
corruption at high government levels." This sentence cost me five days in jail, a month of exile in Lima
and three years of silence.
Could I stay in Bolivia after those three years?
Of course. There was just a small price to pay: Do not think, talk or write. Do not hope. Do not ask for
freedom—you do not need it.
Here, in the United States, I am a worker. My salary puts me between the poor and truly poor. If I was
somebody to three friends in La Paz, I am nobody to these millions who look through me as if I were
made of crystal. But I am lucky. I made it.
I have a job in New York. My family watches for my arrival at home, as they once did in La Paz. I can see
the three smiling faces of the children in the window. It took almost a year and the help of hundreds of
people, but they are here. I have Iived a third of my life in foreign countries. I am 43 now, and I grow tired
of being a rolling stone. Sometimes I would like to have a bed of my own, you know. Something my family
and I could regard as ours, a place in the sun.
But then I return home at 6 a.m. from my job and talk to my wife, and we find ourselves so naked, so
weak, so uncertain about our future, we end up laughing, and our children come to the bed and ask:
"What's the matter? What?”
We chase them back' to their own beds.
But we are happy here. Because we are together, and nobody can arrest me and kill me after forcing me
to eat dung, or hit me until my genitals explode and I die as a pig or a frog.
That's why we laugh, my wife and I, when I come home at six o’clock in the morning.
Thirty years later…
Marcela, my wife, is a professional teaching at Arlington Public Schools.
Marcela, my daughter, is a lawyer working in San Francisco. She has two kids.
Diego, My son, is a political theory professor in Texas. He published two books.
Claudia, my daughter, is a computer/communications professional, working in Oakland.
My twelve books compete with 13 billion books offered by Amazon.com and the world’s network of digital
I visited La Paz seven years ago. At 75, I cannot travel there again.
Four successful stories and one writer lost in the digital universe forever.
Not bad, eh?