The Rio Rosa Crisis
by Robert Wexelblatt


In those days the Alarcon palace was still in family hands. Don Feliz had graciously offered it for the emergency conference. We had to stand about in its well-lit reception hall. The space was elegant and formal, with high bookshelves, seats and couches covered in maroon leather, several small French tables and a heavy sideboard on which coffee and maté tea had been laid with two salvers heaped with pastries. As I recall, the pastries were good, but the coffee and tea were not.

The two contingents took up opposite sides of the hall and equally opposed attitudes. My deputy, Romero, did a splendid job of affecting nonchalance, lounging against the bookshelf with his arms crossed as he chatted to me about football. This was gotten up to discompose our opposite numbers. Calderon, whom I had known since before the Cretaceous period, stood stiffly. With his one thick eyebrow beetling fiercely he vouchsafed only a single formal nod. His second, a protégée of the president who later rose to be vice president herself, looked like Garbo in the first reel of Ninotchka. If there really were to be a war, I remember thinking, I hoped not to encounter her. This was Señora Isabel Furtado, of course; however, among ourselves we called her Isabel Fuegado because, icy as she was, she looked as if she'd just swallowed fire. Señor Furtado was a figure of some curiosity and not a little pity. Our respective entourages, like good infantry, marched to the measure set by their officers. My lot ate up the pastries like mad and talked of the World Cup, Calderon's looked as if they were auditioning for the wax museum under the label, "a herd of functionaries with outraged honor." None of this posturing mattered in the least.

We all were aware that on the other side of a pair of double doors the die was being cast. The two presidents, dismissing all reasonable objections, insisted on meeting alone. Nothing could have made us more anxious. That buttoned up Calderon looked as if he might fly off in all directions at any moment. Incidentally, Calderon liked to let it be said he was descended from the great playwright but of course it was nonsense. He was vain but he was no fool and not a man to trust to the caprice of a popularly elected female, not even the formidable Marta Mayol. As for me, I felt exactly the same. Aldon Gomez-Ruano--and God help you if you left out either the Ruano or the Gomez--was inexperienced, impulsive, and, worst of all, an orator. As you may recall, he initiated the crisis during his inaugural address when, à la Mirabeau, he was apparently carried away by his own eloquence and claimed every hectare of the Rio Rosa delta. This region had been left happily in dispute for well over a century. People had made their accommodations and its unregulated, lightly taxed people flourished. Both nations tacitly shared in the profits. The crisis was maddeningly unnecessary. It hardly helped that Mayol should respond by instantly sending in a battalion of crack troops without even filing a demarche. Calderon must have been terribly put out to have been ignored. I expect that to him this was a real opportunity to show what a diplomat of intelligence and firmness could accomplish. I myself felt the same way.

So, picture the scene. Nothing more awkward. Were we enemies or not? Would we and our compatriots be trying to kill each other in a few hours? The pastries were soon gone. It gave my people satisfaction to have gobbled them all up, as if they had been the hectares of the Rio Rosa delta.

We cooled our heels like that for two hours. I can tell you we were like rubber bands being stretched a little tauter during every one of those one hundred and twenty minutes. We were all dying to listen at the doors but, in such a mob, who could dare?


That, gentle reader, was intended to tickle your interest. I am a scholar and have never attempted to write for the popular taste; however, I do know it is advisable to begin, like Homer, in medias res.

I say "gentle reader" though I am by no means certain that you exist. I rather doubt it. I have had decades in which to write up the notes of my interview with the late statesman, Don Alvaro Barrios, whose reconstructed words I have just set down. I had two reasons for not doing so. The first was a concern for my career. The primum mobile of all young academics, and most old ones for that matter, is the fear of appearing a fool, a purely negative motive that may preserve us from imbecile excesses but which also narrows our horizons. The result is that in our country respectable historiography conforms to established prejudices, such as that the past must be regarded as a serious matter, its major actors accorded dignity, and the causes of events offered up as rational. Violators of these axioms, the debunkers and farceurs, may be widely read and even believed in private; however, they seldom win promotion and never an endowed chair. Your academic historian is no mere chronicler; his job is to make sense of events, and the more profound the sense appears the better. My second reason was an apprehension that the wily old diplomat was amusing himself by pulling the leg of an over-earnest tyro. Will I try to put this piece before the public? Would anyone consent to publish it? My gardener replies to all but the most practical questions by saying Quién sabe? That phrase sums up the wisdom of the people, who never expect an answer or fully credit the ones they do receive.

Why return at this late date to my yellow notes? For one thing, I no longer fear being called gullible. I have become a professor emeritus; that is to say, magister superfluus. My reputation is a settled matter or, should it be shattered, I no longer care. I imagine Don Alvaro must have felt the same way and, if that is so, why shouldn't he speak the truth? At the end of a life of prevarication and careerism, frankness might feel like just the thing.

But the immediate occasion of this little tract is the new book by my former colleague, and would-be successor, Bastiano Rivera. At 642 pages, The Crisis of Rio Rosa purports to be a comprehensive account of the episode, absolutely the last word. In one sense, what I am writing here is a bad review of Rivera; in another, it is an alternative to him. I am wielding Occam's razor to slice through his dense pages, Alexander's sword to cut his snarled speculations. Rivera will be insulted to have his painstaking work belittled as speculation. Any historian would be. And yet, if one is not beguiled by his multitudinous footnotes, speculating is plainly what Rivera has done. His book is laden with phrases that give the game away, viz.: "it seems plausible that" (12); "one may reasonably conclude" (14); "almost certainly" (35); "the most convincing [alternatively, most persuasive, most obvious, clearest] explanation is" (29); "the evidence overwhelmingly suggests" (11)--what does it mean to "overwhelmingly suggest"? He is likewise fond of "without a doubt" (19) which invariably means there is doubt. Above all, Rivera spreads the modifiers "probable" and "probably" with the abandon of a farmer casting seed (144 when I lost count). Rivera sets great store by probability, like a quantum physicist trying to pin down an electron. The book is really a wonder of weightless construction, piling supposition on presumption until the edifice looks persuasively ponderous, made of brick rather than air. It certainly accords with the axioms of seriousness, dignity, and reason; that is, it reads like a job application. Rivera wants my old chair. No doubt it was reading Rivera, less convincing with every page, that induced me to reconsider the plausibility of my old interview with Alvaro Barrios.

There is one further consideration. Don Alvaro is dead; all the principals are. No one can be harmed by this story, excepting a few undistinguished descendants whose pride may be bruised but who are too obscure to make much trouble.


Don Alvaro consented to see me in his home, in his study. After rising to welcome me courteously, he seated himself behind the rampart of a solid mahogany desk. Señor Barrios still looked like an ambassador, sleek, courtly, with a sharp eye and well-combed gray hair. I remember being struck that he wore a tie and a vest. Since retiring he had put on a little weight, which I thought at the time added to his gravitas. He had also grown a short beard. This neatly trimmed van dyke took my fancy, as if it marked both a strengthening of independence and a relaxation of official restraint. Perhaps because the beard was still new, he touched it often, sometimes rubbing, at others stroking it. The study itself was not what I had expected. On the walls hung a few landscapes, views of the campo, the sierra, the beach at Miraflores. There was only one low bookcase and a two-drawer filing cabinet made of oak. I had expected the room to be a sort of museum, crowded with souvenirs of his long service, its walls covered with signed photographs, that sort of thing. It was difficult to decide if the space had been stripped for action or stripped of it.

Don Alvaro's politeness gratified me. When I expressed my thanks for his agreeing to give me his time he quoted a seemingly self-deprecating line of the sort favored by the securely famous. "It is better to treat the young with respect than the old because you never know what the former may become while with the latter it is only too obvious." Don Alvaro made me believe he liked me, that I was capable of entering into his feelings even if I could have no notion of the tightropes he had traversed. I basked in this confidence at the time but now I suspect that it was just the habit of the good diplomatist, the tactic of getting others on your side by reckoning how best to flatter their vanity.

We spoke first of the nation. Don Alvaro seemed to have little love for his countrymen--love, I mean, of the unconditional kind. I think what he loved best were empty landscapes full of wildness and possibility. While he extolled every bit of progress our nation had achieved, he added mordantly that ours was a history of two steps forward and one back. "Our progressives leave their footprints on the shore, then the tide of idiocy and corruption rises once again and erases most of them." Patriotism being much in fashion at that time, I asked him about it. Don Alvaro observed that in his experience patriotism was a licentious noun, promiscuous as the women of the Barandango district. As for himself, he said he felt as Camus did. "Camus?" I asked, puzzled. "The great unhappy man wrote that he loved his country too much to be a nationalist."

I do not believe Don Alvaro had become cynical in his retirement. Cynics are, for the most part, disappointed idealists who swing from expecting too much from reality to expecting too little. He had always been the sort of man who begins with facts rather than dreams, which is why he was found indispensable and placed in important positions by so many varied administrations. Don Alvaro had no ideology and so no regard for purity. He desired for his country what most of his fellow citizens did, at least when they are not deluded by grandiose harangues or temporary enthusiasms: prosperity, the rule of law, the flourishing of culture, good relations with neighbors, social stability. Of the socialist regime that appointed him ambassador to the Soviet Union--or of that unhappy country to which he was accredited--he aphoristically observed: "No good society can be perfect and no perfect society can be good." I could well believe that the old man's life of subtlety and equivocation might have left him with a yearning to engage in a little bluntness, especially with the young.

It was evident that Don Alvaro was enjoying our interview. He stretched his arms, yawned and smiled on me at once, and offered liberal disbursements from his trove of wisdom. He even retailed a few polished anecdotes which I expect were usually reserved for dinner parties. I laughed in the right places and took notes. The old man was keenly conscious of my pencil flying across the legal pad; he watched it as he spoke. A few years of retirement had perhaps made him nostalgic for this sort of attention, though it was a pale simulacrum of his salad days before the press. We were flattering each other.

The sunny weather in the study became a bit overcast when I came to the Rio Rosa crisis. There was, of course, an official story. In fact, it is likely that Don Alvaro had himself invented it. He regarded me more appraisingly than he had before, the way a rancher might size up a bull calf to decide whether it should be castrated. He stroked his beard and then something peculiar happened. He winked at me.

This wink was disturbing and ambiguous. It has tormented me for years and does so now. What did it signify? That I was to take what he was about to tell me as a wild jeu d'esprit? That he had decided to give me a privileged peek behind the discreetly closed doors of history? Was his wink a sign of confidence and favor, as if to say, "Here, boy, I'll give you a story that will make your career," or, as seems more likely, was it a way of conveying that we both knew I could never make use such a story? Or, again, was it no more than a vulgar gesture, the mind's contemptuous acknowledgment of the body, the thing that slips on banana peels?


The origin of the Rio Rosa crisis did not lie in colonial maps, he said, not even in Gomez-Ruano's notorious peroration or Mayol's belligerent response, though at the time that's what most of us believed. Of course, as always, some claimed to see in the crisis the work of our large friend to the north, a conspiracy to weaken one regime, or both, to sell arms, to make one of the other of us what is politely called a client state, to foment a proxy war for its own ends. Others thought it was a tangled plot of the oil and fruit interests. Well, and so forth and so on. I always wonder at these people who find diabolical conspiracies behind everything. I spent decades at the nostrils of power, so to speak, and what I found was less careful planning than desperate improvisation, little world-mastering intelligence but plenty of inefficiency and muddle. "If these gringos are as smart as you say," I used to taunt my colleagues," why don't you join them?" I'm sure there were plenty of memoranda proclaiming the existence of these wheels within wheels. Someday, I predict, one of your colleagues will dig them up and believe in them. Well, as it happens, there really was a conspiracy, though not one of that sort. No, not at all.

The origin of the Rio Rosa crisis lay twenty years earlier when two of those talented young people we are always sending up north to procure doctorates met in Boston. Two homesick graduate students. They found each other at a public lecture on something or other--Magic Realism or Palma's Tradiciones Peruanas or the peccadilloes of the CIA. They met, went out afterwards, no doubt argued ferociously, relishing the Spanish in which they did it. They drank, they speechified, they went to bed. So far, a commonplace little romance. Up there, you see, they were virtually compatriots, not citizens of two nations but what are indiscriminately called Hispanics. The young people became quite attached; however, there were obstacles. The girl was already married and the boy engaged, the spouse and the Intended both waiting back home in respectable celibacy. The young man was Aldon Gomez-Ruano and the young woman Marta Mayol.

I knew nothing of this at the time, let alone that they had gone on meeting secretly at intervals for all those years in obscure resorts, second-class hotels, on Italian beaches and Swiss glaciers, egging each other on in their ambitions, perhaps loving but certainly lusting after one another.

When those double doors in the Alarcon Palace finally opened I chanced to be standing just beside them. I caught no more than a glimpse, you understand, a tiny gesture, a furtive look, the end of a whisper, a hand misplaced, something that astounded me and led me to question what had been going on in those inner chambers for two hours. Did it matter that the idea was absurd? Not in the least. As soon as such a notion grips the mind its absurdity diminishes. It turns from a whimsy into an explanation and at last an hypothesis.

I drew my trusty Romero aside and, without explaining why, instructed him to slip inside and make a careful examination, particularly of the bedrooms. He was to speak to no one but me. I had his report within an hour, during the celebration that followed the issuing of the joint communiqué.


-Did you ever confront Ruano?

-About a week later, yes. After the story of the negotiations was well established. His Excellency was not well pleased but he didn't bother to deny it. He appealed to me as a man. He babbled about this grand passion, the difficulty of seeing one another before the election and the impossibility afterwards, and so forth and so on.

-And you?

-Oh, I? Naturally, I was horrified but just as naturally amused.

-He wasn't concerned you'd tell?

-Actually, he said something rather piquant on that score, something I think will interest you.


-He said, "Don Alvaro, five hundred years ago such a story would not only be believed but relished. It would be turned into a great poem or at least a popular ballad. Nowadays we are beyond such childishness; nowadays we know better. We know that history is propelled in accord with profound substructures, by world-historical forces, by political calculation and, above all, economics. It is entirely credible," he said, "that Marta and I tussled over the delta's oil, its fish and its port, but not that we tussled in bed."

-I see.

-Yes, I can see you see. So there was no war because there was never going to be one. However, the good feelings that issued from the happy solution to the crisis--all the details of which were also worked out in advance by those two excellent adulterers--brought our countries closer. Trade picked up, military budgets were cut, and so forth and so on. You know the story, I'm sure. Incidentally, if you should care to check you'll find that the number of state visits, for consultations and the signing of agreements, also increased.

Don Alvaro made a wry face at me. He raised an eyebrow meaningfully, but there was no second wink. If so, I should have been certain that he was teasing me. He knitted his long fingers over his chest, leaned back in his big rolling chair and added nothing further, certainly not the obvious, And do you suppose anybody would believe you, my boy?


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