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108: Cuchillo de Palo (2010) is a documentary by Renate Costa which tells the story of her gay uncle Rodolfo who died under mysterious circumstances after being named in one of Stroessner’s lists of homosexuals. The film follows her journey as she tries to understand who her uncle was and why her father cannot accept the truth.
The Stroessner Era
In May 1954, the commander in chief of the armed forces and veteran of the Chaco War, General Alfredo Stroessner, overthrew the government of Federico Chaves in a military coup. He would go on to become the longest-serving head of state in Latin American history using a system of oppression, institutionalized corruption, nationalist ideology, and US support to remain in power. His campaign of repression started off almost immediately. In 1955, just six months after Stroessner’s inauguration, a colony of Ukrainians, Poles, and Byelorussians who had fled to Paraguay from the terrors of Stalin’s purges and Nazi occupation was brutally repressed for supposed communist influence.
The colony, Fram, was a peaceful and thriving community, but they were also an easy target because they spoke Russian and received mail from the USSR even though many of these settlers were anticommunist. In the end, 400 were arrested (practically the whole male population of Fram). Between 1965 and 1975, Stroessner also “pacified” the Ache people of Eastern Paraguay and entered into a campaign of rapid deforestation.
Nearly 50% of the population died from epidemics or were kidnapped which led to accusations of genocide for the Paraguayan government. Anytime groups threatened his power, they were eliminated. The Christian Peasant Leagues (LAC) was a cooperative movement among small farmers that rose up in the 1960s and threatened the Colorado party’s power. Repression reached a peak in April and May 1976 when the government accused the LAC of involvement in an embryonic guerrilla movement. Almost all the LACs became inoperative as over 2,500 peasants were arrested in a series of raids throughout the country and twenty leaders were killed. The tables seemed to turn when on September 16, 1980, the deposed leader of Nicaragua, Anastasio Somoza was assassinated by a small guerrilla cell of the Argentinian People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP) in Paraguay. The assassination rocked the Stroessner regime and was used to justify another wave of repression against the growing domestic opposition. The death of Somoza revealed the lack of basic security surrounding him and the ineptitude and unpopularity of the police. Dissent was becoming more popular.
In his waning years, Stroessner renewed his campaign against gays which began in 1959 with the list of 108 homosexuals. Since then, the number 108 has been used as a term of abuse in Paraguay toward homosexuals. It all started when Bernardo Aranda, a highly regarded radio professional, was murdered in what was believed to be a crime of passion by a spurned gay lover. It is widely rumored that the dictator’s own son, Gustavo Stroessner, was in a romantic relationship with Aranda and was responsible for the murder. This led to the first great repression of the Stroessner era as a list of 108 gay male “suspects” were made public. The police forced them to take part in a parade outside Las Teresas School for Girls. The aim was to show the pupils exactly who these men were as part of a cautionary tale. Later the 108 were shaved and paraded again.
Despite press reports that the person responsible for the murder had been identified, the authorities never released his name “for reasons of national security”. The Caso Palmieri was a second major homophobic roundup. In 1982, 14-year-old Mario Luis Palmieri was kidnapped from his school and killed. The police suspected gay men and over 600 gay men were arrested, interrogated, and tortured, their names were circulated in another list. In 1989, Stroessner was finally overthrown and fled to Brazil where he died in 2006. In his time, one in every 126 individuals or one in every 63 adults, was illegally or arbitrarily arrested. One in every 133 people, or one in every 67 adults, that is, 0.75 percent of the total population, was tortured.
A Distant Father
One of the most interesting relationships in the film is that of Renate Costa and her father, Pedro. He is an aging conservative though it is important to note he is not a fanatic of Stroessner. Emotionally and physically, he shuts himself off from the outside world in his workshop. Renate shows constant images of her father closing his garage door and losing himself in his work. He is representative of a time gone by that still haunts Paraguay and his inability to confront the truths of the past leaves the audience along with Renate frustrated. Right off the bat, Pedro declares that he thinks Rodolfo died from a heart attack because he was obsessed with self-medicating in order to stay young. Never mind the fact that he was found naked and left a note. Even confronted with that information, he simply says “I don’t know” but doesn’t change his mind. Several times, Pedro is confronted with the ridiculousness of his own statements but simply counters it by saying he is imperfect and quoting scripture. Talking to him is like talking to a brick wall. He remains certain that his brother was never jailed or tortured and equally certain that gay men are not men but “undefined”. Renate begs him to talk to her without quoting the bible but he is incapable of really accepting the truth or connecting with her. We hope that by the end of the film he will be able to change but he doesn’t. In their final scene together, Renate declares that she thinks they will never be able to understand each other. He says nothing to this and we understand he never will.
An Absent Uncle
Surprisingly, her uncle, whose voice is never heard, is the person Renate gains the most closure from. At the start of the film, she details how mysterious her uncle is to her. When he died, her family merely told her that he had died of sadness. She later says she only really started getting to know him when he died. She ends up becoming closer to him than her own father. One conversation, in particular, proved to be enlightening and heartwarming. After going to a drag show, Renate talks to a trans woman who knew her uncle. She tells her about how sweet her uncle was, how he took her to buy her hormones, and cries and hugs her. She even commits to talk to her more in-depth about her uncle on a later date. Renate also learns about his double life. By day he was Rodolfo Costa and by night he was Hector Torres. His secret unspoken world had been foreign to her since her family shielded her from him for fear he would corrupt her. Even though her uncle is not around to talk to her, he still remains a benevolent figure in her life. She starts to remember how after her parents divorced and her mother was ostracized, Rodolfo comforted her at a funeral. That remembrance coupled with all the new things she’s learned from the records offices and his old friends gives her the closure she never got with her dad. In the scene after their silent interaction, she narrates how she can finally leave her uncle behind. She is no longer haunted by his death. She understands.