Book Reviews: Terrorists
See No Evil By Isabel Vincent (Reed Books Canada, 212 pages, $19.99)
Wrong Time, Wrong Place By Caroline Mallan (Key Porter Books, 244 pages, $27.95)
It was an image so unexpected that the Canadian psyche seemed instinctively to reject it. The news photograph from Brazil in December, 1989, showed a pair of suspects in police custody following the spectacular kidnapping of a wealthy São Paulo businessman. What stunned Canadians were the identities of the neatly dressed pair, arrested along with eight other members of a left-wing gang: 30-year-old Christine Lamont of Langley, B.C., and David Spencer, 26, a Moncton native. The Canadians were, like the other kidnappers, convicted, and they were sentenced to 28-year prison terms. Their plight set in motion a stubborn effort by family members, supporters and the Canadian government to get them out of Brazilian prisons and back home. So far, those efforts have failed. Now, two books by journalists who covered the story argue that the campaign deserved to founder. The reason, the authors argue, is one that many Canadians for a long time seemed unwilling to consider: far from being innocents abroad who became the unwitting pawns of terrorists, Lamont and Spencer were, in all probability, guilty of the crimes of which they were convicted.
The accounts by Isabel Vincent, a Rio de Janeiro-based correspondent for the Toronto Globe and Mail, and Caroline Mallan, a journalist who covered the story for The Toronto Star, travel over much the same ground - and make similar judgments. Both conclude that Lamont and Spencer were most likely dedicated revolutionaries who played active roles in the kidnapping of retail magnate Abílio Diniz. Diniz was freed after police trapped the kidnappers in the house where they were holding him - a house rented by Lamont and Spencer. The authors reject as implausible the couple's claim that they were unaware of Diniz's presence. And they are critical of the publicity machine organized by Lamont's parents, Marilyn and Keith Lamont, which succeeded in persuading many journalists, for a while at least, of the couple's innocence. Lamont and Spencer were portrayed, writes Vincent, as "pathetic victims of some corrupt banana republic justice system."
Both authors depict Lamont and Spencer as directionless young adults in search of a moral crusade. Spencer, a university dropout, met Lamont, a student at Vancouver's Simon Fraser University, during the mid-1980s. They worked as volunteers at an alternative radio station in the city and flirted with revolutionary politics. Soon, the pair were committed supporters of leftist rebels in the bitter civil war then raging in the Central American nation of El Salvador, and had started to forge links with Latin American revolutionaries. By early 1989, they were ready to make a deeper commitment: armed with false passports, they headed for the Nicaraguan capital of Managua, then a haven for international terrorists under Nicaragua's Marxist Sandinista government.
Were Lamont and Spencer, who spoke sketchy Spanish, really working as translators for a Salvadoran news service during their six months in Managua? Though neither can prove it, both reporters suspect that the two were really in training as terrorists. Their ultimate mission: to raise money for left-wing causes by kidnapping rich Brazilians and holding them for ransom.
The couple left for Brazil in June, 1989, and by the end of the year were lodged in Brazilian jails. Their period in Managua would come back to haunt them four years later. An explosion in a Managua garage laid bare a secret cache of guerrilla arms - as well as documents that included the Canadian couple's original passports and items of false identification. Also found in the bunker: a list of potential kidnap victims that included Diniz's name.
The two books reveal the surprising extent to which Canadian officials in Ottawa and Brazil strove to ensure that Lamont and Spencer received preferential treatment in prison. And despite the hard line taken in public by then-External Affairs Minister Barbara McDougall - who refused to request expulsion of the Canadians under a rarely used Brazilian law - the officials worked tirelessly behind the scenes to achieve their release by another route. That campaign backfired disastrously in 1993 when the Brazilian press learned of a Canadian lobbying effort to persuade Brazilian politicians to back a prisoner-exchange treaty. Under the treaty, the imprisoned couple could have returned to Canada to serve shortened sentences. In the face of outraged Brazilian public opinion, Brazilian presidents have so far refused to sign the treaty.
Although both books lack literary polish and read at times like extended newspaper articles, they tell a gripping tale. Of the two, Mallan brings to her work a superior wealth of information: her detailed account of Diniz's captivity seems to show that Lamont and Spencer acted as full-fledged members of the kidnap gang. By contrast, Vincent frequently is more concerned with berating those Canadians who assumed the Brazilian justice system to be hopelessly corrupt and Lamont and Spencer therefore innocent. That judgment, writes Vincent, "demonstrated just how racist and xenophobic Canadians can be." Despite the bitterness engendered by the affair, Mallan suggests that Brazil probably would be glad to get rid of Lamont and Spencer. Someday, she suggests, Brazil's president will quietly sign the Canada-Brazil prisoner-exchange treaty and send the notorious Canadians home.
Maclean's April 24, 1995