Cinco de Mayo

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On this day, May 5, 2000, Gino Bartali died in Florence, Italy. Bartali, July 18, 1914 – May 5, 2000, was a world champion cyclist. That enough makes him famous, right? But, during WWII, Bartali used his fame as a champion cyclist to carry messages and documents to the Italian Resistance. Bartali all over northern Italy, from Florence through Tuscany, Umbria, and Marche, sometimes traveling as far as Rome, all the while wearing the racing jersey emblazoned with his name. Neither the Fascist police nor the German troops ever stopped the cultural icon for fear of upsetting the Italian people. Most of this was unknown until recently.

When Nissim died in 2000, his sons found from his diaries from WWII with the recollection of how Bartali had used his fame to help. Giorgio Nissim, a Jewish accountant from Pisa, who had also been part of the Assissi Underground worked with Bartlai. Nissim and the Catholic Oblati Friars of Lucca would forge the documents and photographs of those they were helping, then Bartali would to leave for Florence while pretending to train, ride his bicycle to the convent in which Jews were hiding, collect their photographs and ride back to Nissim. Bartali also used his visible and movements to learn about raids on safe houses and report back to the Underground.

At one point, Bartali was even brought into Villa Triste by the authorities in Florence. The Italian RSS official Mario Carità questioned Bartali and threatened his life. Bartali simply answered, “I do what I feel [in my heart].” And Bartali continued working with the Assisi Underground. In 1943, he led Jewish refugees towards the Swiss Alps himself. He cycled, pulling a wagon with a secret compartment, telling patrols it was just part of his weight training. In December 2010, it also emerged that Bartali had hidden a Jewish family in his cellar and, by doing so, had saved their lives.

In 2013, Yad Vashem awarded Gino Bartali the honor Righteous Among the Nations. Bartali never spoke of his heroic deeds but, later in life, Bartali simply told his son Andrea that “One does these things and then that’s that.”

I suppose the added irony, and my fascination with Bartali is the juxtaposition of Bartali with the story of Giovanni Palatucci, the so-called Italian Schindler. Palatucci was given credit for decades for using his position in the police department of Fiume to save hundreds of Jews in WWII. In fact, it turns out that most of that story was fabricated and, worse, it’s probably that Palatucci may have participated in the deportation of Italian Jews. 412 of the 570 Jews living in Fiume were deported to Auschwitz, a higher percentage than in any Italian city. Bartali and Palatucci, another example of the irony of history that reminds me of the Zen adage that, “Those who know, don’t say, those who don’t say, know.”


On this day, May 5, 2002, Hugo Banzer died.  Hugo Banzer Suárez (May 10, 1926 – May 5, 2002) was a Bolivian politician, military general and twice President of Bolivia… first from 1971 to 1978 as dictator; and then again from 1997 to 2001 as constitutional President.

While scholars debate the United States and Brazilian involvement in the Banzer’s 1971 coup d’état, it is apparent that significant clandestine financial & advisory assistance was provided to Banzer by the Nixon administration.  As a result, on August 18, 1971, General Banzer, led a successful military uprising in Santa Cruz de la Sierra.  Democratically-elected President Juan José Torres was forced to take refuge in Argentina, where five years later he was kidnapped and assassinated by right-wing death squads associated with the Videla government and with the knowledge if not encouragement of Hugo Banzer.  The murder of the democratically elected president is part of a string of anti-democratic coups and assassinations supported by the US government including, but certainly not limited to, Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh (1953), Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz (1954), South Vietnamese President Ngô Đình Diệm (1963), João Belchior Marques Goulart (1964), Bolivian President Juan José Torres (1971), and Chilean President Salvador Allende (1973). In Latin America, these covert operations by US agents to eliminate leftist politicians and support right-wing dictatorships are collectively known as Operation Condor.

Human rights groups believe that during Hugo Banzer’s 1971-78 tenure (known as the Banzerato) several thousand Bolivians fled seeking asylum in other countries, more than 3,000 political opponents were arrested, at least 200 political opponents were killed, and many, many more Bolivians were tortured.  In the basement of the Ministry of the Interior or “the horror chambers” around 2,000 political prisoners were held and tortured during the 1971-1978 military rule.  Many others, as happened elsewhere in Latin America, simply disappeared. Ironically, another coup d’état, removed Hugo Banzer Suárez from dictatorship on July 21, 1978.


Yes, today is Cinco de Mayo, the anniversary of the Mexican Army’s victory over the French Empire at the Battle of Puebla, under the leadership of General Ignacio Zaragoza. While national celebrations are beneficial for social cohesion, particularly when the celebrations recognize a military victory over a foreign power, on this Cinco de Mayo, perhaps we ought to meditate on our individual choices. May 5th, a day in history highlighting the enormous capacity that each person has to be a force for good, or evil, in our world. Are we heroes like Bartali? Paranoid authoritarians like Banzer, or do we sit on the sidelines of history like Palatucci, playing both sides in the face of evil in the world.

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