The mystery surrounding the 1981 death of President Jaime Roldós persists in Ecuador. It is the focus of a new documentary that is prompting national conversation and soul-searching, though the film hasn’t yet had broad public release.
The documentary opened both Quito and Guayaquil editions of the “Encounters with Other Cinema” (EDOC) film festival. In Guayaquil, back to back screenings packed the 340-seat MAAC auditorium. The crowd included many who has participated in the research process for the film; the filmmakers; and Jaime Roldos’ three children, who were 10, 16 and 17 when both their parents died in the suspicious plane crash.
The film was directed by Manolo Sarmiento and produced by Lisandra Rivera. They drew on 80 hours of interviews, archival footage and deep documentary research. Worth noting is the obvious trust they developed with the Roldós children in particular Santiago, and new interviews and documents they revealed showing a connection between Ecuador’s military at the time and the Operation Condor military dictatorships in the ‘Southern Cone’ region.
Roldós was the first president elected after Ecuador’s “return to democracy” in 1979. His fledgling democratic hold on power was still somewhat shaky: the military let him govern, but considered themselves the true caretakers of Ecuador. Roldós antagonized his party and its populist leader Assad Bucarám 20 days into his term by refusing to carry out their agenda while in power. Instead, he took upon himself the task of being a moral compass in Latin America, which in the late 1970s was a continent dominated by military dictatorships with lax respect for human rights. Although he was elected as a member of a populist coalition party, with a right-wing vice-president, he was a left-wing political being and decided to govern that way.
His willingness to antagonize neighbouring military governments did not sit well with his own generals, who paid friendly visits to Argentina, deep into its own Dirty War, and wanted to maintain the continental relations what would keep them well stocked with military equipment and advisors.
Although Roldos’ presidency in Ecuador was short and his popularity was on a downturn in the weeks before his death, the documentary rescues some of Roldós’ forgotten legacy: his foreign policy. In one scene at an international summit in Colombia, El Salvador’s Napoleón Duarte (US-backed dictator who came to power with the coup that set off the Salvadoran Civil War) accuses Roldós of being young and inexperienced. Roldós retorts: “I may be inexperienced, but my government perches on a mountain of popular votes, while yours is perched on a mountain of corpses.” At the Guayaquil screening, the crowd cheered.
The filmmakers interview Roldos’ ambassador to Peru, who suggests that a war on Ecuador’s southern border that destabilized Roldos was prompted by Peru’s military, without knowledge of Peru’s president. The war with Peru forced Roldós to invest millions in arms-buying, and the cuts to other services prompted popular protests and opposition. The film suggests this may have been intentional, and part of a plan that culminated in the sabotage of the presidents plane (the day before he was about to fire his general, Raúl Sorroza).
The film was created with a wide range of grants, including one in 2006 from Amsterdam’s IDFA Bertha Fund, and support from Ecuadors national government (the Guayaquil screenings were free). It will be shown again again in Guayaquil on May 24 at 8 p.m., at the MAAC auditorium on the Malecón.
“Silence and forgetting are part of the country’s historical memory” (Interview with the filmmaker)
The Death of Roldós combats the fissures of silence (report on the Quito EDOC screening)
“A simbiotic relationship between audience and filmmaker” (report on the Guayaquil EDOC screening)
The Death of Roldós moves audiences in the barrios (narrative report on the doc’s free screenings at a community centre in a neighbourhood named after the ex-President)
Roldós was to fire Sorroza and (vice-president) Hurtado named him Minister of Defense (News coverage)