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Gómez, the Shame of America

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Gómez, the Shame of America is the prison diary of José Rafael Pocaterra. Pocaterra was a journalist, writer, and political activist who lived in Venezuela in the first half of the 20th century and fought against the dictatorships of Cipriano Castro and Juan Vicente Gómez. During that period, he spent several years in the infamous prison of La Rotunda.

La Rotunda was the prison where Gómez put his political dissidents and personal enemies. The conditions were abhorrent. Diphtheria and tuberculosis ran wild, the prisoners were deprived of medicine and food and kept in cells without windows, their movements restricted by 75-pound leg irons. Those who survived were, by order of Gómez, murdered with arsenic. Yet it is also in La Rotunda that Pocaterra meets the military with whom he would later organize the opposition to the regime. This book was written on little papers hidden in matchboxes and smuggled out of the prison to New York, where Pocaterra hoped his testimony would stir up international support for the opposition, and bring down the dictatorship.

Yet The Shame of America is more than a prison diary. Pocaterra was an experienced activist, an excellent political pamphleteer, and a keen observer of human nature and politics. Believing he would not survive the horrors of La Rotunda, he wrote this book as his legacy, and it could be read as a guidebook for young activists. We invite the reader to look through his attempt to hide, in the typical Venezuelan humor and lightheartedness, his own courage and skills, and find a most human, intelligent, and strong example to follow.

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Porras Bello was among these survivors. This was already very inconsiderate of him and by way of aggravating his offense and in spite of the seventy-five pound grillos he was obliged to drag about with him, this hardened reprobate managed to break the rules of the establishment. He actually supplied remedies and food to those who were ill. He also washed their sores and nursed their attacks of fever, to say nothing of securing, by some trick known only to himself, certain comforts from Governor Mediana, from whom it was as difficult to obtain a dose of bicarbonate as an ounce of pure radium. During the influenza epidemic, when practically all the prisoners were ill, Bello, ruffian that he was, connived with Arevalo his accomplice to attend to the washing of the seventy-odd bedpans of his companions. Such criminals always find acolytes to aid them in executing their misdeeds.

All at once I caught sight of an extraordinary figure crossing the courtyard. Is it a lunatic or a man in fancy dress? He wears a bath-robe and his black, curly hair falls to his waist. The bar of his grillos is so heavy that he drags them along on a little wagon the wheels of which are made out of spools of thread. He stops for a moment, bows pleasantly to the group of men warming themselves in the sun and raises his head. Now I recognize him. He is Román Delgado-Chalbaud.

Delgado-Chalbaud was arrested on May 17, 1913. At that time he was President of the Compagnie de Navigation Fluviale et Côtière. One hundred and fifty-seven other men were arrested at the same time. Fifty-seven were thrown into the dungeons of the fortresses of Puerto Cabello and San Carlos, fifty remained at La Rotunda; others were freed one by one after having been confined for periods ranging from three to six years. At the time of which I am now writing seven were still alive and at La Rotunda, Román Delgado-Chalbaud, the famous preacher Father D. Antonio Luis-Mendoza, the lawyer Nestor Luis Pérez, and Colonels M. Delgado-Chalbaud, Carlos Iru and Ramon Parraga. 

Vidas Oscuras
Roman Delgado-Chalbaud

Román Delgado-Chalbaud

The last named officer was paralyzed but nevertheless chained with a pair of grillos. Those worn by the Delgado-Chalbaud brothers and the aged General Avelino Uzcategui, who had been locked up about the same time on account of the personal dislike of Gómez, weighed eighty-five pounds apiece. The former governor, Luis Duarte Cacique, had tortured these prisoners by shutting them up naked in cells of which the pavement was daily flooded to a depth of several inches. Double curtains were nailed over the doors so that neither light nor air could get in and for years they were kept on a starvation diet. The only way they managed to survive was thanks to the self-sacrifice of their companions who passed them some of their own scanty supply of food.

This was done in spite of the cruel watchfulness of the jailors, all convicted criminals who had been specially chosen from the lowest class of convicts. One of the most notorious of these wardens was a culi, a Hindu who had escaped from one of the islands of the Antilles near Trinidad and whose ferocious instincts had appeared after he had been betrayed by a woman. When asked why he was in prison he always gave the same answer: “Woman deceive me. I kill woman. I kill son. I kill mother of woman. I kill dog. I kill cat. I not kill parrot because it fly away.”

This was the type of man who was put in charge of the prisoners imprisoned for political offenses.

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