I heard this story from Jean Goff during an informal gathering at a mutual friend’s apartment. We were sitting around eating appetizers and drinking wine, and in the background, CNN was broadcasting a story about Ben Ali of Tunisia, who had just been convicted in absentia of killing protestors during the Arab Spring. There were the usual joint rumblings of disapproval, then one of the people there wondered jokingly whether Ben Ali was allowed to take his harem with him, since he’d been exiled to Saudi Arabia.
“He didn’t have a harem. His wife was as power hungry as he was,” said Kerym, an acquaintance of mine I didn’t know very well, but liked.
He looked angry, but I wasn’t sure if it was over Ben Ali’s situation or over the crack about his harem. He muttered something and asked our host to turn off the television. Though Kerym’s father is Tunisian, this was the first time I’d heard him voice any attachment to the place.
“One despot saving another,” I said, trying to give him some support. “You know he lives in the same town where Idi Amin lived. Ben Ali’s got his gold, his wife, and a life of luxury after torturing, killing, and stealing from his own people.”
“It’s not that simple,” said Kerym. “Maybe because Ben Ali had somewhere to go, he went more quietly. King Abdullah may have saved some lives.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said, probably more upset that my attempt to support Kerym had failed than because he disagreed with me. “You’re fine with him just living out his days like a Kennedy?”
“I think Kerym is right,” said Jean. “You know, my aunt met Miguel Zadurnino. She was a journalist and in the late eighties she went to Hawaii to interview him.”
“I’m not sure who that is,” I said.
“He was the president of Quordoba from the early fifties until 1981, when he was deposed,” said Jean. “Of course, he was just a puppet, Alberto Machano held all of the power. My aunt really wanted to interview Machano, but he had died pretty soon after they got to Hawaii.”
She continued, “My aunt was a lefty, and most of the magazines she wrote for were on that side of the political aisle. All of her friends were angry that the U.S. had given Machano and Zadurnino a free home, but she said it was for the best. Zadurnino and Machano had a history of using the military to squash dissent, and if they had nowhere to go, a lot of people probably would have been killed. She said that people who were obsessed with punishing dictators cared more about those at the top of the food chain than those at the bottom. They didn’t care about what kinds of consequences regular people had to face when despots got ousted by force.”
“Your aunt is a smart woman,” said Kerym.
I asked Jean what happened with Zadurnino. She couldn’t give us the whole story because her aunt had told it to her years after the event, and by that time she had forgotten a lot of the details. But she told us what she could and, to the best of my recollection, this is how it went:
Sofi Virtanen, Jean’s aunt, had been pitching the idea to interview Zadurnino for years, but, probably because Quordoba was such a small country, there hadn’t been much interest. Finally, in 1987, a magazine called The Courier bought the story; they had planned to use it as part of a series on politics in the Caribbean. It took a long time to work out the details with the magazine and the state department, so Sofi didn’t actually fly out to Hawaii until the spring of 1988. After she checked into her hotel, she called her government contact, and he arranged a ride to the estate where Zadurnino was living. Apparently, their communication wasn’t great, because when the car arrived, it was driven by an armed guard. When she talked to the state department guy later, he explained that there were still a number of people who were unhappy about Zadurnino getting free room and board from the U.S. government, and though the risk of violence against a visiting reporter was small, it was still smart to take some basic precautions.
During the drive from the hotel, Sofi tried to ask the guard some questions about working for Zadurnino, but he was quite curt, and she quickly gave up. When they got to the estate, the guard spoke into the car radio in a language unfamiliar to Sofi, the electric gate opened, and it locked behind them.
Zadurnino lived in a sort of compound in Manoa, on a two acre lot on what was then the very northern edge of the suburb. The lot was enclosed by rows of monkey pod and cook pine trees and a steel fence with two electric gates. If you stood at the edge of the grounds and faced northwest, you’d see the barracks on your left, a garden directly ahead, and to your right, a small bungalow with wide eaves, brightly colored trim, and a large semi-enclosed porch with koa furniture. This was where Zadurnino and his wife lived.
A semicircular drive led from Loulu Place through the first gate, passed the barracks, curved in front of the garden, and, after passing the Zadurninos’ house, led through the second gate back out to Loulu. The Zadurninos were attended by a small staff—three guards, a chef, and a personal assistant who handled correspondence and errands. The employees stayed at the barracks while on duty, but none of them lived on the estate. Neither the chef nor the assistant worked full time. And they didn’t come from Quordoba with the Zadurninos. Because of safety concerns, the Zadurninos rarely left the grounds.
Driving very slowly, the car passed the barracks and stopped at the garden where Zadurnino was waiting for Sofi to arrive. The guard got out, saluted Zadurnino, opened the door for Sofi, then shouldered his rifle and walked quickly across the lawn to the barracks. Sofi didn’t see him, or any of the other guards, for the rest of the afternoon.
Zadurnino greeted her, and they took a tour of the garden. It was quite large. Two perpendicular paths lined with box woods crossed it, with a small banyan tree in the center. The rest was devoted to oyster plants, rainbow ferns, and orchids. There was a statue of Machano front and center the light greenish gray color of limestone. When Sofi got close to it, she saw that it was made of papier mache, and that the right shoulder had gotten wet and started to disintegrate. Zadurnino told her he’d sculpted it himself as a small protest. He claimed that the people of Quordoba had wanted to donate money to Honolulu for a statue of “the great general,” but protests in the U.S. had stopped the state department from allowing the city to accept the funds. He remarked at that point that Americans are so used to living in comfort that they simply want everyone to be nice, and their dislike of Machano had nothing to do with politics, but was held only because they believed he was not a “nice man.”
Machano’s house had originally stood where the garden lay. After Machano died, the state department official in charge of overseeing Zadurnino’s exile offered the house to him, but Zadurnino refused. He told Sofi he couldn’t bear the thought of anyone else living in his friend’s house, so he’d asked to have it torn down.
After the tour, they walked over to Zadurnino’s bungalow and sat on the porch. From there they had a spectacular view of the Manoa cliff, a tall volcanic ridge covered in lush greenery, rising up behind the garden. Zadurnino’s assistant brought them each a gin and tonic, and Sofi began the interview.
At this point when Sofi had originally told the story to Jean, she brought up the banality of evil; an idea originally put forth by the philosopher, Hannah Arendt. Sofi pointed out that people always get Arendt’s intentions wrong. They believe she meant to minimize the crimes of Eichmann and the others, but that wasn’t it. She never meant to diminish what they had done, but only to say that when you met them in person and talked to them, they seemed rather dull-witted and conventional. Zadurnino was no different. Sofi found him to be an unremarkable person, and if she had seen him at a grocery store or movie theater without knowing who he was, he would not have made much of an impression on her.
He was soft spoken, very polite, but a bit supercilious; someone who felt that explaining himself was beneath him. He was somewhat evasive as well, but Sofi marked that he seemed not to care whether the evasions were convincing—it was just his way of dismissing her questions as irrelevant.
They talked for about two hours. Sofi tried to ask him some tough questions, but did not receive any real answers. Zadurnino then said he was tired and had to get ready for dinner. Sofi asked for permission to take a few photographs. Zadurnino refused. He told her to wait by the barracks for the car, then went into his house without saying goodbye. It was the only point during her visit that he was not the model of courtesy.
Sofi crossed the broad lawn to the barracks and stood near the gate. A few minutes later, it opened, though the car still stood by the garden where it had dropped her off. A short, somewhat rounded man in his late forties walked through, looked at her with surprise, around him as if someone were playing a prank on him, then finally extended his hand to shake Sofi’s. His name was Mike Saito and he was Zadurnino’s chef. Sofi asked him how much he knew about Zadurnino’s history. He smiled sadly and admitted it was the only job he could get at the moment. There was a food poisoning scandal at the restaurant where he’d been employed. He was forced to resign and no one else would hire him.
Sofi asked him how he liked working for Zadurnino. Saito told her that he was reluctant to take the job at first, but that Zadurnino always treated him with kindness. In fact, one day he had come to work rather distraught because his oldest boy had fallen and broken his arm. On that day, Zadurnino himself made them lunch and told him to go home to his family. Zadurnino was, in fact, an excellent cook; he’d learned from one of his family’s servants growing up. He just simply didn’t like to do it.
That was the part of the trip that Sofi remembered most clearly, because it gave her a little insight into the whole matter. People like Zadurnino exploit our best natures, the part of us that wants to see the good in people. It’s a blind part, willing to express an intimate kindness reserved for a friend to a callous man who committed unjustified acts against a thousand strangers.
After Jean finished her story, Kerym and I followed her into the kitchen where she was getting a glass of wine.
“Is there any way I could read the interview?” Kerym asked.
“Well, I don’t think it was ever published,” said Jean. “She recorded it on a little dictaphone and I vaguely remember her telling me that when her editor heard it, he passed. But I’ll see what I can dig up.”
A couple of weeks later, Kerym and I both got an email from Jean. It read:
Okay, so Sofi was never the most organized person. She recorded over a big chunk of the interview, I guess she thought it wasn’t worth much, especially if it was never going to see print. But I did manage to get a few pages of it typed up for you. It’s attached. The other attached file is a timeline Sofi had as part of her research. I’m not sure where it came from, but I thought you might be interested.
The following are the texts from those two files. I’m not a historian, so I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the timeline, but I included it to give some context to the interview. What survives from the interview is presented exactly as Jean sent it to me, and, though editorializing was tempting, without comment.
Abbreviated 20th Century Timeline for Quordoba:
1898: End of the Spanish-American War. Quordoba had been disputed territory between France and Spain, but at the end of the war both countries relinquish claims to the island. Quordoba gains nominal independence.
1898-1902: First U.S. occupation during which the national constitution is written granting voting rights to male property owners.
1905: First elections; President Ullo takes power for a five year term.
1910: President Ullo is re-elected. The sugar, coffee, and tobacco plantation systems concentrate the island’s wealth into the hands of a small number of landowners including several U.S. corporations. In Cenevezo, Quordoba’s largest city, cigarette factories and sugar refineries are built.
1914-1918: World War I – Quordoba nominally sides with the Allies, but sends no troops.
1919: The Florida Keys hurricane destroys large numbers of homes in Cenevezo and Isabela de las Islas, the island’s third largest city, as well as in northern rural areas. The government provides little relief to those affected, and a series of small rebellions by sugar cane workers and fishermen is put down by the military with the help of U.S. forces. 1,100 people are killed.
1919-1925: Second U.S. occupation.
1929: The U.S. stock market crash carries serious consequences for the Quordoban economy. Unrest begins again, first in urban areas, then along the northern coast where fishermen are unable to sell their hauls.
1933: A rebellion of factory workers, fishermen, and ranch workers effectively takes control of Isabela de las Islas. General Echeverro declares martial law and the military takes over the government. Under President Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy, the U.S. gives financial and diplomatic aid to Echeverro’s government.
1934: The rebellion in Isabela is put down, the city retaken by the Quordoban army, and leaders of the rebellion are executed by firing squad. More than 3,000 are killed in the fighting, mostly young men.
1939-1945: World War II– The Quordoban navy actively works with Allies to protect shipments of oil from Venezuela. The nation’s military receives large amounts of aid from the United States and expands its reach through civilian life, including the acquisition of cattle ranches and sugar and coffee plantations.
1949: General Echeverro dies. A coordinated rebellion in Cenevezo, Molando, and Isabela de las Islas attempts to expel government troops from the three cities. The U.S. intervenes again and puts down the rebellion with the aid of General Alberto Machano and the Quordoban army. The insurrection leaves 4,500 rebels and 1,000 government troops dead. An estimated 8,000 rebels are subsequently arrested and executed.
1951: General Machano, with U.S. backing, is installed as military leader of Quordoba, which has officially been under martial law since 1933, with the condition that free elections be held within a year.
1952: Machano’s favorite candidate, Miguel Zadurnino, wins the presidency in an election many believe was rigged by ballot stuffing and intimidation by soldiers in civilian clothing.
1962: The four largest independent newspapers in Quordoba, two headquartered in Cenevezo, and one each in Molando and Isabela de las Islas, are raided in what became known as La Noche Eterna de los Periódicos (the endless night of the newspapers). The managing editors of each disappear and captured reporters are taken into the countryside and shot. With the government tightly controlling the flow of information, organized dissent hits a nadir that lasts a decade.
1978: A growing, nonviolent resistance movement begins on the northern coast led by fishermen and sugar cane workers on strike. Amid long-standing accusations of human rights abuses, the Carter administration distances itself from Quordoba.
1981: Mass demonstrations erupt across the country in response to Machano and Zadurnino’s refusal to consider land distribution reforms. The list of grievances against the government grows, violence erupts in the three major cities, and the military retreats. Machano orders airstrikes in the cities, but the general of the Quordoban air corps refuses to carry out the order. On advice from the state department, President Reagan offers Machano and Zadurnino safe haven in the U.S. if they leave Quordoba peacefully. Machano dies shortly after taking up residence at the estate in Hawaii.
1992: Miguel Zadurnino dies. His wife, Irena, who never appeared in public after Miguel was deposed, dies a year later.
1979-1999: Under a center right government, stability is restored, but few economic reforms are implemented. High disparities between the wealthy and the poor continue, and in rural areas, worsen. Quordoba reestablishes close relations with the United States.
Virtanen: Your home is in a beautiful setting. Do you like living in Hawaii?
Zadurnino: Well, it can be a bit dull at times. I miss Alberto, but he’s been gone for six years now. I suppose I haven’t adjusted very well to his absence. I’ve started building model ships. It helps pass the time. Wait for a moment. (There was a pause here of about 30 sec.—J.) Here, this is a galleon of the type the Spanish used to protect their silver cargo from Dutch and English raiders.
Virtanen: It’s lovely.
Zadurnino: Many hours of work went into it.
Virtanen: I suppose this house is not the level of luxury you’re used to.
Zadurnino: That’s a misconception. We lived quite frugally, Irena and I, while I was president. Alberto as well. He grew up poor and needed very little in the way of material comfort. Yes, he had a large house, but that was because the people of the country expected it. You know they loved him. He’s no Ferdinand Marcos. Yes, when one leads the military of a nation, one acquires some wealth, naturally, but it never meant much to him, or to me.
Virtanen: What about those who say the austere lifestyle was a front and that in private there was a steady supply of expensive wine, scotch, brandy, and women flowing through both the general’s house and the presidential palace?
Zadurnino (laughing): Well now, my house was hardly a palace. Large, yes, but again, the people expect that from their leaders. Could you imagine Ronald Reagan driving around in a Volkswagen? He’d look ridiculous.
Virtanen: But what about the women, and the expensive alcohol?
Zadurnino: I have been faithful to Irena since we were married. Do you think I’d have the respect of the people if I were some sort of philanderer?
Virtanen: What about General Machano?
Zadurnino: I think this obsession you Americans hold for sordid sexuality is not healthy. You all seem much too curious about what other people are doing. And for a nation that is supposedly so free, you are awfully judgmental. Sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but I have been living here for quite some time now, and I’m not blind.
Virtanen: It’s more a question of honesty than of sexuality.
(There was another long pause here—J.)
Zadurnino: We all live by mythologies. Your question is rooted in such a mythology and not in reality. That mythology is that strong democratic leaders crave wealth, material luxury, and excess in pleasure, that we do not love the people, that we are self-indulgent. Communists, on the other hand, live simply, do not crave wealth, are not interested in luxury, but love the people. Let me ask you this, do you think Mikhail Gorbachev lives simply? That his house is not luxurious, that he doesn’t eat fine food, wear fine clothes, and bed women other than his wife? See, mythologies can be dangerous things, they make you believe what you want to, not what is real.
Virtanen: Okay, let’s move on to something else. There have been some people, including a group of émigrés from Quordoba, who have been urging the U.S. government to send you back to stand trial. What would you say to them?
Zadurnino: I would say, the current government has a large grudge against me, as they did against Alberto, and their resentment against us runs very deep. When you run a country, you will inevitably have to make decisions that make some people unhappy. These malcontents cannot see the big picture, cannot understand the concept of the greater good, and unfortunately, they are now in power. But they do not have the respect of the people. Their government will not last. I will return to Quordoba when Ozamiz is no longer president. Then you will see that I still have that respect. But the way things are today, I could never receive a fair trial. President Reagan understands that, and I am confident that he will allow me to stay here until Ozamiz is gone.
Virtanen: Do you believe that if you were allowed to run for president today, you would win?
Zadurnino: Well, I don’t like to think in hypotheticals, but yes, it’s likely I would.
Virtanen: Even without General Machano’s backing?
Zadurnino (sighing deeply): I know a lot of people think that Alberto was the true leader of Quordoba, but that belief betrays a complete lack of understanding of our culture. It’s another mythology. You all think of the Quordoban government as one thing, a fist that rules through force. The amount of prejudice people have against us in that regard actually makes me quite sad. It used to make me angry, but I’m getting older now. And now, I’m just sad.
Virtanen: What aspects of Quordoban culture are we not understanding?
Zadurnino: Well, firstly, our civilian and military governments are entirely separate from one another, and it has been this way since 1952. In fact now, under President Ozamiz, the military plays a more active role in domestic affairs than it ever did under my presidency.
Virtanen: Quordoba was under martial law for nearly twenty years before you were elected. Are you saying that had no effect at all on the…style of government your presidency adopted?
Zadurnino: Style? We aren’t children.
Virtanen: So you’re saying your popularity, the power you held as president, was completely disconnected from General Machano’s position as head of the military?
Zadurnino: Of course it was. That is another aspect of Quordoban culture that people don’t understand. Alberto was a mulatto. I am descended from French and Spanish colonials. The people would never accept a mulatto as leader, either president or dictator.
Virtanen: Even those of mixed race themselves?
Zadurnino (laughing): Especially them! The mulattoes loved Alberto, but as a general, period.
Virtanen: Your use of the word mulatto may be taken by some to be dismissive.
Zadurnino: Miss Virtanen, again you’re showing a lack of understanding of our culture. Alberto was my friend. Do you think I’d use derogatory language to describe a friend?
Virtanen: I wouldn’t think so.
Zadurnino: In Quordoba, the word “mulatto” is not considered an insult. People use it with pride. Alberto himself was proud to call himself such.
Virtanen: I’d like to ask you about La Noche Eterna de los Periodicos. Historians and political observers generally agree this was orchestrated by General Machano and carried out by soldiers out of uniform. You say that the civilian and military governments were separate. Did Machano act without your knowledge or consent?
Zadurnino: I have full knowledge of this incident. Again, we are living by mythologies, and this particular myth is that Machano was the dictator and that he did not like the free press. That is a dangerous myth because it obscures the truth.
Virtanen: And what is the truth?
Zadurnino: The truth is that Quordoba has been a democracy since 1952, with the same freedoms as all democracies. Let me ask you this, in what countries today do you see oppression of journalistic freedoms?
Virtanen: Well, Chile, El Salvador—
Zadurnino (laughing): You’re having some fun with me, good. You must add Cuba, of course, and everyone living in darkness behind the iron curtain. That is no coincidence.
Virtanen: So your position is still that communists were responsible?
Zadurnino: That’s not my position. It is reality.
Virtanen: But the communist party was outlawed in 1953.
Zadurnino: The Nazi party was also outlawed. Does that mean there are no more Nazis?
Virtanen: The four papers that were shut down that day never reopened.
Zadurnino: That is sad. Those journalists were afraid of reprisals, and while I don’t necessarily respect their cowardice, I do understand it.
Virtanen: There was never any evidence to support that theory.
Zadurnino: But there was. A study funded by your own state department found that the journalists who were injured were shot with either .38 or .54 caliber bullets.
Virtanen: I’m sorry, but I’m not sure what significance that holds.
Zadurnino: That is because your questions are not rooted in reality. We have always had close ties with the United States, and the weapons our army uses were purchased from you. Colt pistols that fire a. 45 caliber bullet, and M1 rifles that fire a .30 caliber bullet. The reporters were shot with weapons from the Soviet Union. This has been definitely proven.
Virtanen: I’m not aware of that report.
Zadurnino: Well… the incident occurred in October 1962. With the Cuban Missile Crisis in the news, affairs in Quordoba were not of interest to the international press. We dealt with the situation without U.S. help.
Virtanen: But no one was ever charged with any crimes related to the Endless Night.
Zadurnino: Our conclusion was that the crimes were perpetrated by Cuban and Soviet agents who left the island immediately afterward.
Virtanen: Some would say the Cuban Missile Crisis gave you cover to silence voices of opposition.
Zadurnino (laughing): We are an independent nation. Global politics don’t much affect our internal policies—that is more the purview of a superpower than a small island country.