By Adriana Gamondes
Midnight, our sons and daughters
Were cut down and taken from us
Hear their heartbeats
We hear their heartbeats
Mothers of the Disappeared ( U2, on YouTube)
I recently experienced a brain freeze after reading the report of a lawsuit filed against government health authorities in Chile on behalf of a vaccine injured child:
Last week a mother filed a US$4 million lawsuit against the government for neurological damage allegedly suffered by her son as a result of state-approved flu vaccines with high mercury content.
Sandra Ormazabal says her son Sebastian Ruiz has a language disorder, food allergies and intestinal dysbiosis (mercury poisoning) as a result of vaccines administered by health authorities. She said the vaccines contain a dangerous neurotoxin - thimerosal (ethyl mercury) - in doses higher than permitted by international agencies.
Ormazabal’s attorney Linda Troncoso said the lawsuit was filed against the Ministry of Health and the Institute of Public Health after tests of sample vaccines confirmed unsafe mercury levels.
“Sebastian is not an isolated case,” said his mother, author of ‘The Silence of My Son,’ a book documenting her son’s health problems. “There are other children who have disorders resulting from mercury poisoning.”
The news struck me in a personal way. For anyone unfamiliar with South America’s not-so-distant history, the full irony that citizens in Chile can file vaccine injury suits against their health authorities but that we in the US cannot may not be immediately apparent.
I’m not particularly equipped to give a crash course, but here’s a quick overview: “Operation Condor” was a US Cold War era covert campaign to remove perceived leftist or pro-labor democratic governments in South and Central America and replace them with US-approved military dictatorships. On September 11th, 1973, democratically elected Chilean president Salvador Allende was deposed via a US-conceived and backed military coup headed by General Augusto Pinochet, thereby destroying the longest standing democracy in South or Central American history. With Allende dead, Pinochet ordered the murders and “disappearances” of roughly 30,000 “opponents” of the regime between 1973 and 1990, when Pinochet was himself removed from office by referendum.
And of course the New York Times and mainstream media in general reported with gross inaccuracy—if they reported at all— on this and other human rights catastrophes throughout South and Central America during those nations’ similar reigns of terror. Stories of women flayed and hung from trees; of infants swung into rocks by their heels; of the assassinations of priests and nuns; killings covered up as suicides; massacres in public squares; people bound and thrown live from airplanes into the sea; torture, mass graves and the utter absence of justice for the murdered and missing. Because the dictatorships were “client states” erected to protect a breed of American and international business interest in these countries, anyone murdered by the state—even nuns, even children— were mischaracterized as undeserving of justice, as having been terrorists or “radicals”, as having done or been something wrong according to the few, thin, emotionally devoid back page reports of abuses that emerged in the American press in that era. It’s all nearly identical to the way that mainstream media now censors abuses, mischaracterizes victims and protects business interests on behalf of another, more modern version of the “client state”—the global pharmaceutical industry.
What’s interesting about Allende’s political career, in light of both the current epidemic as well as the Santiago Times’ mention of mass Hepatitis A vaccinations in northern Chile (as a response to the region’s sewage problem), is that Allende was a medical doctor and had written a book on fighting disease among the poor through changes in living conditions, not primarily through medical means. I have no idea whether his niece, novelist Isabel Allende (“House of the Spirits”), drew influence from her uncle when she wrote about the possibility of vaccine-induced seizures and mental disorders in “Of Love and Shadows”, her 1986 novel on political violence and disappearances in an unnamed South American country.
It’s this that Chile recovered from in order to reassert a constitution and personal liberties which give citizens the right to civil action for a child injured by vaccines. But where did this symptom of suppression go to if Chileans no longer suffer from it, at least in this instance? It seems to have come home. But home is anywhere individual rights and tort protections are composting, because the profit interests in question never had allegiance to any country, ideology or population. The “banana republic” is now anyone injured by a vaccine in the US. The third world is us.
Unfortunately for South America, the epidemic didn’t remain at “home” in the Northern Hemisphere. Vaccines exported to many South and Central American countries are mostly thimerisol-containing. The vaccine schedules of some nations are merging with North America’s— at the same time that neurotoxic facilitators like pesticide exposure and atmospheric mercury rise worldwide.
In the face of a spreading epidemic, it may be small comfort to citizens of other countries if they’re able to access justice in the case of vaccine injuries. But most of the countries impacted by Operation Condor still struggle over whether to bring their own military traitors to justice, so justice itself is no small thing in the final analysis. And it’s not a small thing if civil action has a potent influence on government vaccine policies in any country which has seen an explosion of rates. Would rates of autism predictably go down in countries which allowed citizens access to civil litigation for vaccine injuries? There’s an “environmental factor” I’d like to see at work.
The issue is becoming critical in any case. Though I can’t substantiate the claim, one activist in Argentina reported the rate of autism in the district of Buenos Aires was nearing a quarter million cases among children, which might be felt by some in that country as a sort of tragic revisitation.
In Argentina, my husband’s place of birth, Operation Condor manifested as a one-sided “Dirty War”, which took place between 1976 and 1981. An identical number of people were murdered by the Argentine military junta as in Chile, but in a quarter of the time. Argentina was the first country in South America to seek justice against the junta’s leaders, with criminal proceedings ongoing against former military dictator General Jorge Videla and collaborators.
Argentina suffered added atrocities, such as the theft of children. And here’s where the irony gets personal: I can’t even fathom how unreal our twins’ slow regressions must have been for my husband’s family, for his parents especially. They’d escaped one child-snatching regime, then saw both their children pass safely from another. They thought everyone got out— only to watch as two from the next generation were torn away in little pieces.
Because of Operation Condor, because then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger gave the now declassified “green light" for the Argentine junta to commence the killing and kidnapping of “domestic subversives”—including “dangerous” types such as trade unionists, journalists, Jews, students, homosexuals, women, children, conservative constitutionalists, religious humanitarians and liberals alike—my husband and his family lost their country.
When my husband was five, soldiers of the coup came to his home in Buenos Aires on a round of searches and “interviews”. At the time, my father in law was a relatively well known television writer, filmmaker and author. He and my mother in law had been outspoken regarding their unionist leanings, despair over the coup and sympathies for the cause of indigenous groups in Argentina. But their family was now on “the list” and the visit by the military wasn’t the occasion to make a case for humanity. Innocent people were being “disappeared”, their children taken and secretly adopted by members of the military elite. For the same purpose, pregnant women were being detained and then executed once they gave birth. The adoptions were part of a campaign of “societal reprogramming”, though the public had no way of knowing this initially; it was first believed the children were being killed along with their parents.
At 6’2”, with a booming voice, my father in law was hardly the profile of a hippy dissident. He’d also been to military school and “spoke soldier”. During the military “interview”, he was able to keep the visitors calm, until they demanded the usual token of capitulation— information on the family’s friends and associates. Though his time in the military academy had little relevance to his life and work until then, he found a last use for it—as an act of insurrection and a joke. He handed the soldiers an address book which contained only long-ago contacts from military school—many by then higher-ups in the armed forces. And then the family packed up what they could and left the country while it could still be done. Fifteen years later, my father in law returned to Buenos Aires and ran into colleagues and friends from “the old days”. Each would say to the other, “But I thought you were dead” by way of greeting.
My husband’s family relocated to Venezuela, one of the few remaining Democracies on the continent, but always a corrupt and unstable one, where rogue members of the military might grab young men and adolescent boys off the street, either forcibly inducting them into the army or throwing them in prison without trial if they refused. His two best friends since childhood were also refugees of sorts from “Operation Condor”, one from Uruguay, the other from Chile. They grew up like everyone else in their gang of student friends—living, studying, going to parties and looking over their shoulders.
An interesting thing happens when everyone experiences trauma in common instead of in isolation: no one has a name for it. No one goes to therapy for it; there’s no diagnosis and no corresponding blockbuster antidepressant for a state of mind everyone else shares. The isolating horror of first hand loss and injustice is the same the world over, though. Whether your child is ripped from your arms by men with guns, or gradually sinks into the black water of autism, if no one around you will help because they’ve been led to believe your misfortune signifies something intrinsically wrong with your family, you’re going to be living in hell no matter where you are.
But as long as experiences are limited to a chronic series of near misses and a moderate number of acute life-and-death crises, people carry on surprisingly well, probably due to either mass consensus or shared dissociation. It’s how most of the world lives: posttraumatic stress disorder is just “Monday” or “last week”.
I imagine that kind of experience catches up with most, usually once they believe they’re out from under imminent threat and can start to recap. After finishing architecture school, my husband came to Los Angeles to work for a firm and was sponsored for citizenship. We met, married, and after a few years, decided to have children. And then he started getting nervous. He couldn’t put his finger on it. He was always pretty much the definition of well adjusted, able to talk about anything, but this didn’t have words.
He’d even figured out that, wow, he’d lived in danger most of his life and there was actually a name for it here. He was making a rational account. I knew what he’d been through—aside from his family’s escape from Argentina, he’d been held at gunpoint as a teen in Venezuela; strip searched and threatened at military checkpoints for no particular reason; had an abbreviated sense of smell from the number of times his university had been tear-gassed. He’d seen students strafed from helicopters, had even endured a minor kidnapping incident when soldiers requisitioned him and his family jeep to make arrests and he had no idea if he’d be released. Then on February 27th, 1989, 3,000 people were killed during the “Caracazo” massacre in Caracas, literally at my husband’s doorstep. Like something out of Garcia Marquez, within weeks of the event, people seemed to forget the gravity of it. At the time, all that lingered were arguments about the number of casualties.
My husband had a decidedly un-melodramatic way of dealing with this history. He joked about an alter-ego known as “Paco the PTSD boy”. A little while after we were married, we were installing cable in a rented house and caught part of an afterschool special—the story of Paco, the orphan mule guide who leads two white children to safety through the Mexican desert. It was filled with rip-roaring pseudo-positive racial stereotypes that had him laughing himself sick. Paco was silent and instinctual and his saucer-like eyes had “seen things…terrible things”. Paco knew to duck when the banditos lurched through the cacti. Paco knew the way of the mountain lion, the scorpion and the rabid dog. My husband started making reservations under the name Paco. When UPS would knock at the door, or gang patrol choppers were buzzing over our neighborhood in Venice, he’d say in his best orphan mule guide voice, “They have come for Paco”.
But now he really was unsettled. He was frankly anxious during my entire pregnancy, especially considering that it was with twins. Granted, by five months I looked like I could blow at any minute and I made everyone anxious.
After the children were born a healthy, strapping 7 Lbs each and we brought them home, my husband stopped sleeping. He would stay up all night, night after night, just watching me sleep with our newborn son and daughter, jumping up to bring them to me if they woke to nurse. I was so exhausted myself that I was barely aware of what he was going through. After six days of this, he couldn’t stay awake anymore and began sleepwalking. I woke up in the middle of the night to find him wandering around the room cradling a pillow in his arms, trying to swaddle it in a receiving blanket. I asked him what he was doing and he said, “We have to get out of here. They’re coming for the babies. We have to get them ready”. I asked who was coming for the twins and he said, “The Germans”.
I thought he’d been watching too many Discovery Channel episodes on WWII. I realized what was going on and tried to reason with him. I wasn’t that worried—he didn’t drink, take drugs or talk crazy, and it was a family joke that he’d had a few harmless sleepwalking episodes as a kid. I suggested to him that he was sleepwalking from being overtired, that none of this was real, that there probably weren’t too many Nazis in our area. He half laughed, then his voice broke and he said plaintively, “I know but I can’t wake up!”
I’m not sure he did wake up. I don’t think he was ever really sleeping. He’s still not entirely convinced that this was an actual moment of “prescience”, but the sleepwalking vision—which looks more and more like a case of déjà vu in retrospect— was eerily on the mark. As it turned out, something did take our children. It wasn’t Nazis or Argentine generals or Augusto Pinochet, or even some aimlessly aggressive Caribbean oligarchy with a bizarre draft. It wasn’t part of a violent authoritarian Cold War conspiracy; just a conglomerate of corrupt industry, academic and regulatory authorities which would go to any length to cover up their own cataclysmic scientific incompetence with depraved indifference—while engaging in a bit of disaster capitalism along the way since there’s always money to be made from misery. I sometimes think of this as “la junta médica”.
My husband explains that Spanish as a language doesn’t really lend itself to innovation the way American English does, but he could care less if “la junta medica” is linguistic bastardization. Shakespeare didn’t have the bomb; Cervantes didn’t have the epidemic. New horrors require new language to describe them and nothing could be more bastardized than industry science these days.
On May 26th, I’ll be joining the American Rally for Personal Rights and marching for vaccination choice in Chicago in honor of our children, who we believe are among millions of vaccine and environmentally injured “Autistas Deseparecidos”. I’m tempted to wear a blank mask and a white headscarf like Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, demanding the return of my children or an admission of how they were taken to begin with. I want to see the return of justice. I’d like the generals to go to jail.
In the end, I won’t borrow the symbols because I didn’t live that history, I married it. But I was there when our children became a chapter and more than history connects us: we all have the same nightmares now.
We brought our twins—healthy, talking, meeting milestones— to the pediatrician one day and they were “disappeared”. Anyone who tries to help us get them back risks being put on trial for it. And now we can’t wake up. I don’t think we were ever really sleeping. See you at the rally.
Dedicado a nuestra nueva sobrina, que no va a desaparecer.
Adriana Gamondes lives in Massachusetts with her husband and recovering twins.