Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Y los cuentos, cuentos son:

...after Calderon de la Barca.

As the figures for tsunami casualties climb, it is slowly becoming clear to people that there will never be an accurate count. In fact, thinking that there can ever be accurate counts for events like this is a fantasy.

As rational beings, we know that such a figure exists - the number of casualties, even if changing, is still a "countable set." However, the logistics of providing an absolutely accurate count quickly become unreasonable. Even in highly controlled situations, like voting for political office, an absolute count is extremely difficult. That is why such counts, to be understood and used for decisions, must have statistical qualifiers attached.

When dealing with situations where we are relying on eyewitness accounts, or even historical/oral accounts the unreliability of absolute numbers is well known. When dealing with emotionally or politically charged issues, this effect is even more pronounced. In fact, history itself can be changed.

In 1928, a strike at the United Fruit Company facilities in the city of Cienaga, Colombia, turned violent when Colombian forces tried to disperse the crowd. Shots were fired, and several strikers were killed. Accounts of the incident from the points of view of the strike leader, Alberto Castrillon, and the commander Cortes Vargas varied widely (as might be expected), and differed again from the later accounts of investigative lawyer Jorge Eliecer Gaitan and media reporters.

Casualty estimates ranged from single to double digits. The exact number of casualties became an issue, and the government was accused of trying to hide the real number.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez' father spoke of the United Fruit strike and riot before Colombian Congress in 1929, and must have spoken of it at home, because it made enough of an impression on the author for an event based on it to appear in his book "One Hundred Years of Solitude." In that story, the fictional town of Macondo loses over three thousand citizens to bullets and truncheons. Garcia Marquez amplifies the Cienaga incident into the Macondo massacre to make several points - to emphasize the military's brutality, to emphasize the influence the foreign company had on the government, to single out the surviving characters' roles in the town's history, and perhaps, to point out that accounts are unreliable and at some level are all fictional.

The crowning event is that at some point in the 1970's, this subject again came up before the Colombian Congress, and in sworn testimony that entered the public record, the number of casualties in the real Cienaga incident (not fictional Macondo), was stated as "over three thousand."

This was later corrected, but the damage had been done. For many people, this mistake became a government admission that several thousand had died in the Cienaga event.

Fiction had changed history. And only because a combination of emotion, writing talent, and confusion came together at a particular moment.

For this case there is a trail, but for how many other events has this happened without someone noticing? Not simply numbers of casualties, but perhaps the details of the events themselves.

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