Comic Book Classics 15
El Cuarto Reich by José Palomo
José Palomo Fuentes (1943 – ) wrote his satirical comic-strip El Cuarto Reich (The Fourth Reich) in exile. A successful cartoonist in his native Chile, he was forced to leave his homeland after the 1973 coup that brought Augusto Pinochet’s junta to power. He was right to flee. Cartoonists had become politicised by the Chilean experience in a way that was hardly comparable elsewhere. Sure, the US had the underground commix trying to exercise their constitutional right to say the word ‘fuck’ and show some genitals in their comics, but in Chile they were caught in a propaganda war. A war that turned brutal after the generals took over.
Jose Palomo, co-founder of the humour magazine La Chiva (The Nanny Goat) left for Mexico where he still lives. There he used his art to take revenge on Pinochet and his regime (and the wider problems of Latin American poverty, underdevelopment, dictatorship and US imperialism). El Cuarto Reich is his savage, bitter riposte to the forces of reaction. It is set in an imaginary (archetypal?) Latin American republic and includes all social classes. At the top, there is the dwarf-like dictator (a thinly disguised Pinochet) and his functionaries. The press corps (there to field easy questions) are part of a controlled and pliant media. There are soldiers, secret policemen, riot squads, and shanty towns. Endless shanty towns filled with the poor and destitute.
Doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, does it? The humour, however, is there in every strip; dark, satirical, graveyard humour, punctuated with the allusions, exaggerations and vulgarity that all great graphic satire carries inside.
In El Cuarto Reich we have torturers and secret policemen in gaberdine coats, their pockets always dangling an electrode plug, in case they have to torture somebody on the go. They all wear T-shirts emblazoned with telling English language slogans: ‘Status Quo Loyal Force’, ‘Fort Bragg North Carolaina’ and ‘Fort Benning Columbia Georgia’ are the most common. It is common knowledge South of the border that Fort Bragg is where the School of The Americas is based. This particular school trains foreign army personnel in counterinsurgency techniques including torture. Torture and psychological warfare manuals from Fort Bragg have been used by right-wing military juntas throughout the region.
The dwellers of the shanty towns are also present in numbers. The shanties are dilapidated, full of flea-bitten dogs, crumbling schools, sewage pipes leaving rivers of filth running through the streets. Above there is always a police helicopter, watching. Hunger is commonplace. In fact the capitalist system demands its presence. According to the Neoliberal economists who stalked the continent some decades ago, poverty is needed to drive wages down and encourage investment. Poverty in Latin America was a requirement of economic policy. As one of the poor people observes, cookery books are subversive texts in the Fourth Reich.
There are other characters to be found in this land. The rich widow in her stretch limo, lecturing her chauffeur on the moral depravity of the poor, the dictator’s wife (the Primera Lady), trying to cover up an ugly reality with pretty flowers, the combi buses, belching out smoke, the children asking questions in school (and you shouldn’t ask questions in the Fourth Reich), the riot police ready to crush the demonstrators that gather in the main square.
As I write, there are riots going on in Egypt and the Arab world clamours for democracy. They could do worse than look across the water, at nations with two hundred years worth of experience of resisting dictatorship, most of whom have left the days of military dictatorship behind. In any event, I hope your Fourth Reichs are swept away by history, that only the works of satirists like Palomo remain to prove they ever existed.