Late night in Buenos Aires

"Although with poetry we cannot take power, we cannot make the revolution, poetry itself is a great warrior against the alienation that Che Guevara speaks about." Interview. Español

Arturo Desimone Miguel Martínez Naón
18 January 2017

Miguel Martínez Naón is a poet and editor, as well as an actor and journalist. A political militant since his childhood, he has been involved in many social battles in Argentina. He is also a US citizen: he was born in 1976 to Argentine exiled parents in Palo Alto, California. But he and his parents soon moved to Mexico, and in 1984 he reached his true homeland, when such a return became possible thanks to the reestablishment of democracy.

Arturo Desimone: Because of your parents’ exile from Argentina, you were born in the campus of Stanford University, a cradle of North American counterculture in the 1970s, and yet you are Argentine, a leftist Argentine nationalist. How did these extraordinary circumstances come about? Have you retained any memories of the icons of North American counterculture?

Miguel Martínez Naón: Well, first of all, allow me to clarify: rather than “a leftist Argentine nationalist”, which is a term that could generate some confusion, I am a Peronist. And this means that, in this historical era, I am committed to Kirchnerismo. I am a Kirchnerist, which entails supporting and taking part in a great mass-movement which not only includes the flagship of Peronism, but also the causes of Socialism and Communism, and several progressive popular movements, with a profoundly Latin-Americanist perspective. Logically, this period emerged with the ascent of Néstor Kirchner to the presidency on May, 25, 2003, and continued under Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s leadership. It has been 12 years of very important battles won on the social front.

My parents went into exile in 1975, they were persecuted by the AAA (the Argentinian Anti-Communist Alliance, an intelligence and assassination agency established in the 1970s by Isabela Martínez Perón in collusion with the military which later overthrew her and established their own dictatorship). Both my parents were left-wing Peronists. They were artists, not soldiers: my late father was a theater director, my mother an actress and textile artist. Unlike some of their comrades, they were not in the armed wing of Peronism, the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP)). I went back to the US in 2001 and in 2004, and I was then able to learn more about that 1060s subversive culture (or indeed, more accurately, counterculture), but I have never perceived it as anything other than a series of museum pieces from a movement of the past. While we are currently seeing a resurgence of that counterculture, its manifestations are quite often anachronistic and I would even say decadent. I believe that the political climate in the US today is an even more hostile context than it was back then.

While we are currently seeing a resurgence of that counterculture, its manifestations are quite often anachronistic and I would even say decadent.

AD: I know you are a passionate appreciator of the Argentine poet and political activist Juan Gelman. I have even listened to you reciting his poems by heart, on certain occasions, in the late night of Buenos Aires. What place does Gelman, the poet and the activist, fill in your life as a literary publisher and an activist?

MMN: Beyond any doubt, Juan Gelman remains one of the greatest exponents of Argentine and Latin American poetry. I began learning about his work and enjoying him as a child. My parents would recite his poems and quote him and, from hearing it so often, I began to learn some of his works by heart. Thelyrics of some of the songs played by the Cedrón Quartet (a tango orchestra from Buenos Aires) are also his. I would steal his verses and adapt them for the stage. I would also carry his books in my back-pack in my political activities, when I became involved with the HIJOS movement at the turn of the 1990s. Gelman’s poetry also fed me, because I would earn my living by reciting his poems on the urban buses and passing around a hat afterwards for donations.

I carry Gelman in my blood. One way or another, he has always influenced me and my life experience, and not only as a poet -  also as an activist. I have always recommended my young friends to read Juan Gelman’s Counter-Defeat: Montoneros and the Lost Revolution, a book of conversations with Roberto Mero about his experience as a guerrilla fighter inside the leadership of the Montoneros guerrilla organization. An excellent read.

AD: When Gelman died in 2014, the government of President Cristina Kirchner declared four days of national mourning. Where were you in those days? Does such a ‘holiday’ for mourning prove that Argentina has changed its way of treating both the poets and those who resisted dictatorship?

MMN:  That very night I was at the house of a girlfriend of mine, and when we heard the news, we felt very, very sad… Then she asked me to recite some poems of his, and she filmed it. The next day, we showed the recording to our good friends. That night we drank a lot of wine and toasted to him. The day after, despite how it weighed upon us, I was moved to find his face on the front page of every newspaper. That came to prove that there had been a real change, a shift in attitudes.

In the 1990s, Gelman would have lingered in oblivion and died forgotten and unrecognized. We owe much to the paradigm-shifts that occurred during the government of Cristina Kirchner. Her government accompanied and dignified the great artists of our country, not only the poets. The Ministry of Culture (nonexistent in Argentina prior to 2003) distinguished great artists like folk-singer Leonardo Favio, novelist Maria Elena Walsh, pop-singer Luis Alberto Spinetta, poet Alberto Szpunberg. The Ministry even published a collection of poetry books, which was named after Juan Gelman, including 80 major Argentine authors. These editions were then distributed in schools. All this is miles apart from what the current mis-government of president Macri (elected in November 2015) is doing: Macri is destroying all this legacy. The books have disappeared. No one knows where they are.

In the 1990s, Gelman would have lingered in oblivion and died forgotten and unrecognized. We owe much to the paradigm-shifts that occurred during the government of Cristina Kirchner. 

AD: You have marched in demonstrations alongside the May Plaza Mothers, who today are being persecuted by the government. Before then, you were involved with HIJOS. You are friends with the children of poets and writers who were assassinated or disappeared under the military Junta. Can you tell us one or two great moments you have witnessed in these movements?

MMN: I experienced many a great moment as a member of HIJOS. To keep it short, I would say that there are two fundamentally important things to note: first, it was a place where we could meet and talk about what was happening to us. Not only were there children of the disappeared there, there were also children of people who had been murdered, of imprisoned “subversives” and, obviously, children of exiles – which is why I was there. We were able to look into each others’ eyes, hug and keep each other company. This was crucial at the time.

The 1990s were brutal, we suffered hard from repression, from marginalization. We were persecuted and stigmatized. But thanks to our efforts outwards, we were able to make visible the scope of impunity (this was the time when Carlos Menem declared an “amnesty” for the culprits of state terror under the military Junta). We did it by way of the escrache, an action consisting in gathering in front of the house of a former state-terrorist (all of them had been granted unconditional liberty), summon the neighbours to come out, block the street, and publicly denounce the executioners and torturers. Our slogan was: ‘’If there is no justice, there is escrache’.’ Escrache is a word from Lunfardo (the immigrant dialect of Buenos Aires) that means precisely this: to denounce, to repudiate.

Obviously, it was not easy to do. We almost always ended up in the police station. There were always comrades who got wounded.

AD: In a 1963 interview given by Ernesto Guevara in Algiers, the Argentine-Cuban guerrilla leader summed up his view of Socialism: “I am not interested in economic Socialism without a Communist ethics. We are fighting misery, but we are fighting alienation at the same time. One of the main goals of Marxism is to do away with interest, with the private self-interest and profit factor as a psychological driver. Marx was as concerned about economics as about its repercussion in the human spirit and the end result of this repercussion, which has to do with consciousness. So, if Communism is unconcerned with consciousness, it then becomes a method for distributing goods, but will never be a revolutionary ethics’’ (from the interview with Jean Daniel, L’Express, 1963). What would be the relation between what Guevara says and poetry, between political (often violent) polarization and the power of poetry to oppose regimes, be they neo-liberal or any other form of abusive authority (such as Stalinism)? Do the works of great politically-engaged poets (Szpunberg, Gelman, Vallejo, Violeta Parra, Elvira Hernandez, to name but a few), as well as that of the politically un-involved, or even those who harbor right-wing points of view, function as a force to counter the alienation Guevara is aiming at? Or are we to draw a firm distinction between the alienation the Romantics are fighting and the alienation fought by the Marxists?

Naón: So many questions! Yes, poetry is always the counter-force to such alienation, regardless of who writes it. I can cite this poem by Gelman:

“With this poem you will not take power’’, he says

‘’With these verses you will not make the Revolution’’, he says

‘’Not even with a thousand verses will you make the Revolution’’, he says

He sits at the table and writes

This is only a fragment of that great poem of his, Confidences.

Although we shall never be able to seize political power with poetry, nor make the revolution, poetry is however in itself a mighty warrior against that form of alienation that El Che was talking about.

To be politically significant, it is not as vitally important for poetry to be committed to social issues, as it is for the poet to be committed to his or her people. I am sick and tired of assemblies of poets who believe that by reading their poems, they are actually doing something revolutionary. This is pure alienation too, pure ego cooling down their consciences. What is worthwhile, however, is for the poet to be present in all the social mobilizations, next to the workers, the excluded, the activists. If you go to a place where people are dying from hunger, then of course they do not want a poem by Gelman: they want bread, they need jobs. And if the poet does not care about this, then he can stay at home and calmly write his complete works. But the thing is not to be an impostor, is it not?

To be politically significant, it is not as vitally important for poetry to be committed to social issues, as it is for the poet to be committed to his or her people. 

AD: In your role as a publisher, would you publish a writer who is not politically involved, who is not left-wing, who is not a progressive? That is, would you publish an author whose aesthetics may be interesting or even radical, but whose politics are similar to those of (for example) Jorge Luis Borges?

Naón: Of course I would. The publishing house I work for, Lamás Médula, does not have a defined political line, we are just a wonderful team of friends and comrades who value literature. I am only in charge of one specific collection, the publishing house is much larger.

Personally, I believe that literature in general, and poetry in particular (I mean, obviously, good literature and good poetry) is in itself revolutionary. Any true work of art is, whoever the author may be. If we manage to put the books in the hands of kids who are beginning to get interested in poetry, then we are already doing a small revolutionary act – something that will always be poles apart from the interests of fascism and the Right.

AD: Both the anti-Peronist, genocidal military Junta, and Peronism itself (as Rodolfo Walsh criticized in his book The Satanowsky Case), had strong anti-semitic currents. Perón allowed the Nazis to enjoy safe refuge in Argentina through an open-borders policy. He did the same with the Jews (so much so, that Argentina today is home to the third largest Jewish community in the world), in connivance with the Lebanese, Syrian and German immigrant communities. Does this represent some sort of a conflict for you, as a descendant of Jewish immigrants and a Peronist? Can these two identities be reconciled?

Naón: Well, since I do not profess Judaism, I do not feel directly identified with it. But let us proceed step by step: in the first place, Marcos Satanoswky was murdered in 1957, under the dictatorship of Pedro Eugenio Aramburu, which had overthrown Perón in 1955. This was a bloodthirsty dictatorship that outlawed Peronism and executed many people. Rodolfo Walsh was himself a Peronist. What you said about Perón with regard to the Nazis is absolutely untrue: it echoes the misinformation campaign that the Yankees and the British conducted to undermine both him and Evita. While it is undoubtedly true that some Nazis managed to enter the country, most of them lived in hiding in the South and they did not enjoy Perón’s support -- unlike the Jewish community. These were defaming campaigns, just as the ones conducted today by the Clarín media holding against the previous governments of Néstor and Cristina Kirchner.

I do not have an identity conflict because, in the first place, I am an atheist; secondly, because very many Jews were and are active today within Peronism. As a matter of fact, our most recent military dictatorship, that of 1976, orchestrated the disappearance of thousands of Peronist Jews.

AD: You are a United States citizen, by reason of exile. With Trump as the new president (and, before him, Obama and Clinton), the situation of the refugees in the US has become increasingly complicated. What would you say to US citizens about their new president? Did you yourself vote for Trump, or for Hillary, at the embassy?

Naón: The time that I spent in the United States (I mean, as a grown-up, for soon after my birth my parents moved on to Mexico), from 2004 to 2007, I joined a left-wing party called Socialism and Liberation and was also a member of the ANSWER (Act Now Against War and End Racism) coalition. So, I became acquainted with the immigrants’ problems. In fact, I participated in the historic ‘’One day without immigrants” demonstration on May 1st, 2006. I have never voted, neither here nor there. I have no clear message to give them. I am disheartened with the outcome, just as with what is happening here under Macri. I still find it hard to believe that US citizens would commit mass suicide in this way, by choosing such sinister representatives. What is happening in the US has to do with the fact that the vote there is not a legal obligation, so that there is a culture of intellectual emptiness, a disdain for debate and political participation. Most, not all, have a burnt conscience. And the role of the media is key to shaping that culture.

 I still find it hard to believe that US citizens would commit mass suicide in this way, by choosing such sinister representatives.

Here in Argentina, unfortunately, we are also governed by idiots, by puppets of a macabre international system. But we can respond with a very strong social movement. We have the means to resist.


A previous version of this interview was published by the blog Drunken Boat:


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