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  • Latin American Cancer Poetry:Medicine, Political Violence and Collective Memory
  • Daniel A. Romero Suarez

Growth is a crucial aspect of the configuration of cancer. At the cellular level, the disease presents itself as an overgrowth of cells. Routinely, the immune system has enough self-regulatory mechanisms to eliminate abnormal elements promptly. However, some cellular mutations spiral out of control since human immunology is not infallible. A malignant neoplasm is formed when cells that have not matured correctly begin to reproduce endlessly (Nuland 209). The demand for nutrients increases exponentially, and after some resistance from the patient, “the masses of cancer cells kill the gradually sickening person after feasting on the nutrients that were to have sustained him” (212).

From a socioeconomic perspective, cancer is a disease driven by modern economic growth. Macroeconomic progress has, indeed, increased the funding of biomedical research towards the development of new drugs and treatments. Yet the same economic variables that enabled the advancement of bioscience and the rise in life expectancy have also generated social changes that harm the general health of the population and increase the frequency of habits associated with cancer:

The economies of Latin America and the Caribbean are growing rapidly, and the standard of living is increasing. Such growth is accompanied by increases in sedentary lifestyle, unhealthy dietary habits, smoking, alcohol consumption, environmental carcinogenic pollutants, sun exposure, urbanization, and population ageing.

(Goss 391) [End Page 292]

Cancer risk factors are usually seen as the result of a person’s decision-making. However, the self-focused view of risk factors ignores the large number of people who cannot avoid living in polluted environments or engaging in abusive work relationships that endanger their health. Whether due to economic activities such as mining or industrial agriculture, or just for living in highly contaminated cities, Latin American communities have been exposed to carcinogens without adequate protection for decades.

While the implementation of neoliberal policies coincided with the increase in economic inequality and cancer mortality in Latin America, those economic reforms also coexisted with periods of political violence. Although diverse in nature and varying in length, the region experienced bloody periods during which armed groups reduced the value of human life drastically to adhere to cruel leaders’ ideological ambitions. In the last third of the 20th century, Latin American countries were governed by dictatorships whose missions were to annihilate any trace of communism. For instance, Augusto Pinochet ruled Chile for seventeen years (1973–1990) during which he persecuted dissidents ruthlessly. In Peru, Alberto Fujimori’s administration (1990–2000) became a dictatorship after the first year, when he dissolved the congress with the Armed Forces’ support, organization that was pursuing left-wing militants.

Latin American cancer poetry is a mechanism of collective memory that, through the depiction of neoplastic patients, reconstructs the recent history of authoritarianism and socioeconomic precarity that affected the Latin American region since the 1970s. In their works, patient-writers have developed critical resistance to biomedicine, and to states’ discourses on recent political violence and the precarity produced by neoliberalism. In contrast to the cancer narrative that dominates Western medicine—which constructs the tumor as an opportunity to show personal strength in the face of adversity—Latin American poetry roots the neoplasm in the recent memories of how neoliberal, usually authoritarian, governments imposed new understandings of medicine. The cases of Chile and Peru show the foundational ambiguity of contemporary medicine: while scientific advances improve diagnoses and treatments, at the same time, the medical institution collaborated with governments to carry out political persecution, torture, forced disappearances and assassinations. [End Page 293]

When Medicine Causes Damage: The Role of Doctors and Medicine in Chile and Peru

Doctors were an unwelcome social group for the interests of Pinochet’s dictatorship. In past decades, Chilean healthcare had been influenced by the social medicine model promoted by Salvador Allende, both in his role as head of the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Social Assistance, and in the presidency of the southern country. In parallel, Ernesto “Che” Guevara (1928–1967) immortalized the socialist, revolutionary physician paradigm. In opposition, conservative doctors were harsh critics of Allende’s administration (1970–1937):

In 1970, [Allende] was elected President, with a platform of nationalization...