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The Madrinega Missiles: Is it a true story?

At the Howard Zinn Book Fair this past December 3rd, the question I was asked most often about my book was, “Is it a true story?”  The Zinn crowd is big on history, so many people asked me – in what was clearly a sort of litmus test -- if The Madrinega Missiles is fiction.  My answer was and is a qualified Yes, but not really. It is a spy thriller that is nonetheless a thoroughly researched work based on the geopolitical events and forces, both revolutionary and reactionary, that drove the headlines emerging from Central America at the time.   


While the story admittedly has a certain slant, I have depicted U.S. foreign policy in Latin America accurately, if untactfully.  It is historical fact for example, that the U.S. has supported repressive regimes and sought to assassinate emerging foreign leaders who are perceived as posing a threat, real or imagined, to U.S. interests. The motives and internal political discussions and concerns of the guerillas likewise receive no sugar coating, especially their ruthlessness in using violence when the need arises, their pre-occupation with the likelihood of some action on their part triggering American armed intervention, as well as their collective determination to maintain an opportunistic frame of mind, manifesting itself in the form of an eagerness to exploit and propagandize even those events that represent setbacks.  Neither side emerges with clean hands. 


Madrinega, although a fictional country, is based on the culture and the evolution, political and otherwise, of many nations in Latin America.  A former Spanish colony, with generations of Spanish overseers mixing with the indigenous population, its modern iteration reflects a blend of Spanish, Honduran, Cuban, and native cultures.  It was at one time a left-leaning democratic republic, but its government was overthrown in a CIA coup during the Eisenhower years, as was Guatemala’s;  most references to cuisine in the book originate from Honduras; the fear instilled in the population by the Secret Police conjure ghosts of los desaparecidos of El Salvador and particularly the victims of the DINA of Chile under Pinochet.  Many of the names of Madrinega’s villages and cities, including its capital, Valmonte, are derived directly from Spanish words. Others, like the village of Panactatlan, reflect the construction of words of the original, purely indigenous culture.  And as it has throughout Latin America, the influence of the United States has also left its mark. 


While The Madrinega Missiles has an unapologetically political vein, it is primarily a story about people struggling for the freedom of self-determination wrapped in the context of a spy thriller.  Its length is due in part to a deliberate effort to not merely tell a story, but to develop the ensemble of characters along the way, only one of whom is African-American.  Leighton is an American agent with a specific mission that is directly opposed to one of the guerillas’ immediate objectives, but as an educated, aware human being, he is neither blind nor unsympathetic to the armed indigenous movement he encounters up close and personal in Madrinega.  The story is in part a chronicle of his escalating inner conflict and how he ultimately resolves it as he, in the words of his superior Miller, does harm in the midst of doing good.  


For me, the greatest test at Howard Ziin was the reaction of an older woman from El Salvador who approached my table and asked me about the book.  Her eyes lit up as I described an African-American agent’s effort to infiltrate a guerilla movement fighting to topple a repressive regime, who wrestles with an inner conflict as the beautiful guerilla leader Zorrita, believing him to be a journalist, seeks to indoctrinate him while he is working to undermine her cause.  The basic theme of the story seemed to ring true for her.  She did not need cajoling or salesmanship – she bought the book on the spot. 


While The Madrinega Missiles is presented to readers as a fictional spy thriller, as I wrote it, the deeper I got into the story, it became less and less a creature of my imagination and more a three-dimensional being with its own texture, brought to life by the emerging personalities of the individual characters in the story – some of whom I have known in life, with minor artistic changes.  By the end, I felt I was not writing fiction at all, but rather chronicling events that had already happened.  I had become not an author but merely a scribe. 


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