everything about this case is fishy

everything about this case is fishy

IAB-interloper Nadra Rahman found herself listening to a chilling tale of abduction, murder, and corruption when she attended The Galindez Case: The Kidnapping of A Columbia University Professor and Trujillo yesterday at the International Affairs Building at 6 pm. The speakers were lawyer and author Stuart McKeever, Ambassador Bernado Vega of the Dominican Republic, and Dr. Ramona Hernandez of CUNY. Topics of conversation included libraries and sharks.

On March 12, 1956, Jesús de Galindez, a doctoral student and professor at Columbia University, simply vanished. It was, not coincidentally, only 11 days after he had presented his dissertation, a critical analysis of the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo and his rule. Though his body was never found, it is all but certain that Galindez was kidnapped and killed by Trujillo, a man obsessed with maintaining his image. The case remains a source of interest for many, including the Dominican diaspora, largely due to the dearth of publicly available information: how was Galindez kidnapped? What exactly happened to him? And what did the U.S. government know about it all? These questions have inspired five books and multiple movies, permeating certain sectors of Dominican pop culture.

So why another book? Stuart McKeever’s El Rapto de Galindez y su importancia en las relaciones entre Washington y Trujillo (The Kidnapping of Galindez and its importance in relations between Washington and Trujillo) is certainly not the first of its kind, but it is perhaps the most definitive. It is the product of 35 years of research, kernels of truth culled from thousands of pages of documents, all obtained from the Justice and State Departments through the Freedom of Information Act.

McKeever’s interest in the case started, apparently, in 1982 while he was researching another case at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. While he was there, a librarian told him that the Justice Department had announced there was “one case we will never turn over”: the Galindez case. His interest piqued by this portentous statement, McKeever’s task only got more difficult. Both at courthouses and at the National Archives, he was told that the CIA would be notified if the (Galindez-related) files he requested were pulled. At this, the person beside me gasped. Besides that, whatever information was available was extremely limited. As a result, his only sources of information were peripheral, and the journey McKeever took to the truth was circuitous and meandering. It was only in March 2012, through the Freedom of Information Act, that he uncovered over 10,000 pages of internal documents—which he then had to parse.

McKeever’s book follows a credo: “Everything is connected until proven otherwise.” In the fantastical story of Galindez, this has proven to be a successful tack, for his disappearance did not occur in a vacuum. The uncovered documents reveal a Galindez who was at the center of revolutionary activities—he was not just an academic, but a Basque separatist, a friend of various Latin American exiled groups in New York, and perhaps most surprisingly, an FBI informant. He told the FBI, for example, about Fidel Castro’s fundraising efforts in New York. Galindez was also deeply paranoid; according to his thesis supervisor, he would drop off the chapters of his thesis with a friend as he wrote them. As it turns out, this paranoia was warranted, especially because Galindez had access to a great deal of information and power over a number of lives; upon his disappearance, the FBI took away records from his home that apparently put 400 lives at stake. It is clear, then, that Galindez was not an ordinary man.

And his kidnapping was not an ordinary one either. In the story that McKeever wove, the FBI, CIA, and NYPD were involved, both as investigators and kidnappers. An American pilot, later found dead, was implicated. Rings of Latin American priest-informants, Trujillo-sanctioned murders disguised as suicides, and shark-infested waters played a part, as did family grudges and dismissed court cases. It was, in McKeever’s words, a “labyrinth, topsy-turvy story.”

Ambassador Bernardo Vega de Boyrie strove to contextualize all this through the lens of American-Dominican relations through the years. It can be summed up as such: nothing really happened as a result of the Galindez case, although it galvanized many people. President Eisenhower, as a previous president of Columbia, was particularly moved by the case, but that did nothing to change the tense situation in Latin America, and the fear that an overthrow of Trujillo would lead to a second Cuba—never mind Trujillo’s countless and heinous acts of cruelty and violence. Dr. Ramona Hernández likely spoke for many when she said he was “boiling in hell.”

McKeever proved to be an interesting character, and many of the questions from the audience were about his research process. He urged any researchers to “not quit on it,” “be nice to each other,” and “elevate your care for each other,” which are nice messages to hear during midterms. More perplexingly, he encouraged us to “go to the Underground Railroad in [our] minds.” It’s a tall order, but okay. It was more interesting to learn about McKeever’s publishing story, fascinating in that it was almost as difficult as the research. His novel went from a “too academic” text with too many footnotes to a pop-history novel to a self-published book (upon his agent’s death) to finally, a translated version of his original academic treatise. It is a tale of perseverance almost, but not quite, as compelling as the real life mystery that inspired it.

Overall, the lecture was a glimpse into an odd and overlooked bit of Columbia history, although it was a bit difficult to follow without prior knowledge of the case, perhaps due to the excitement of the speakers and the familiarity of the audience with the material. Then again, when Ambassador Vega tried to assert that Galindez was the only Columbia professor to be killed for his political activism, he was hushed by another panelist—so maybe it’s not so odd after all. Whatever the case, it might be fruitful to return to the text, Galindez’s dissertation, that sparked it all: Ambassador Vega claimed that when he first read it, while wearing sunglasses, a dark coat, and gloves, the “scales fell” from his eyes. Give it a try—see if it’s worth being thrown off a cliff and fed to sharks.

Image via white-shark-diving.com