Fernando Garavito, man of letters, dies in exile

It’s hard to trace things to their origin. But had I not met exiled Colombian journalist Fernando Garavito in early 2004, I don’t know that I would have chosen to work, professionally, as a defender of freedom of expression.

And Fernando and I wouldn’t have met had he stuck to safer topics. As it was, his 2002 biography, Álvaro Uribe, El Señor de las Sombras, that drew connections between then-presidential candidate Álvaro Uribe Velez and Colombia’s drug cartels and paramilitary groups, led to death threats and his eventual exile to the United States with the help of CPJ’s Journalist Assistance program.

When I met Fernando, I was a recent college graduate who had stumbled into writing bilingual features on immigrant issues for the Santa Fe New Mexican. On a snowy January morning, the Spanish-language editor had invited me to attend a talk given by Fernando, newly arrived in Santa Fe from Maine, and beginning to contribute to the paper. When his interpreter didn’t appear, I volunteered to translate. I remember his talk distinctly. He discussed the political situation in Colombia, and the political and business interests that exerted control on the media. When he described how his own reporting and commentary had provoked death threats, I was aghast. Our media was controlled by corporate interests as was our politics, but I couldn’t remember a reporter threatened with death for reporting on it.

After that talk I became involved with New Mexico’s PEN chapter, which, along with the Lannan Foundation and the Coalition of Cities of Asylum, had helped to get Fernando and his family settled in Santa Fe. I witnessed firsthand the community support and solidarity required to ease the transition to exile, and the struggle of a high-profile journalist forced to reinvent himself in a foreign land. Through PEN New Mexico, I was given the opportunity to translate some of Fernando’s political essays. So began my work as a translator, work I continue to this day. Translating such hard-hitting political and social commentary opened my eyes to the critical role of translators in amplifying critical voices from around the world.

Two years after first meeting Fernando in Santa Fe, I was in New York, working as an intern in PEN American Center’s Freedom to Write Program and assisting other cases of persecuted writers. When I went to interview for my first “real” human rights job at the Committee to Protect Journalists, I found out that CPJ’s Journalist Assistance program had been instrumental in getting him safely out of Colombia and to the United States. It seemed Fernando was destined to be a presence in my career each step of the way.

On October 28, as Fernando was driving back to Santa Fe from Marfa, Texas, he died in a car crash. He was in Texas participating in a writing residency to complete his book written in memory of his wife, Priscilla, who passed away suddenly in 2007. I was shocked to read the news–how could someone who had evaded death threats, then fought to create a life and continue his career in exile, fall victim to something as senseless as a car crash?

Fernando will be remembered for his critical work as a journalist in Colombia and for the lives he touched in his adopted home of New Mexico. Exile was not easy. Finding his voice in English was particularly fraught for Fernando, though he found opportunities to use his native tongue in New Mexico, embarking on graduate studies in Spanish literature, contributing an award-winning column to the Spanish-language weekly La Voz, and even teaching Spanish-language kindergarteners at Santa Fe public schools.

Reading through Fernando’s obituary in the Colombian newsweekly Semana, I realized how little I really knew of this man’s achievements as a public intellectual and man of letters in his home country. In addition to being a renowned and award-winning literary journalist and social commentator, author of two columns for the national daily El Espectador, Fernando was a literature professor, a diplomat deployed to Portugal and Germany, a published poet, and a cultural animator, responsible for the launch of a mobile train museum, which traveled through the Colombian countryside for four years. For me, Fernando was the first of many individuals I would meet who chose to speak up, despite devastating consequences. I am grateful to Fernando who, through his own struggles as a critical journalist in Colombia and subsequent exile in New Mexico, inspired me to become an advocate for freedom of expression.

We know that nothing in our surroundings works as it should: not ideas not power not money not future not history not liberty not culture, not politics not the family not the environment not our management of nature not the way we manage ourselves. Somewhere there is structural fault that corrupts everything. Therefore, the writer, who is not definitely convinced he is Alice or that he is living in Wonderland, poses a question. And I believe that, wherever he may be, by the single act of questioning, of questioning himself, the writer begins at that very moment to be desolate, a broken word in exile.

–Fernando Garavito, from “Let’s Give Word to the Word” presented on May 28, 2004, at a Lannan Reading and Conversation on Exile, Writing, and Cultural Freedom. The full text is available as a PDF here.