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Friday, Aug. 12, 2011

'Don Quixote' is alive and legal in Argentina


TUCUMáN, Argentina — It may come as a surprise to many, but "Don Quixote" is still alive, and in a most unlikely place. He lives in Tucumán, my hometown in northern Argentina.

He is Carlos Duguech. He does not dress in body armor but rather, despite usually scorching temperatures, in suit and tie. He carries bundles of papers, some of them legal sheaves enabling him to persecute and enrage his enemies.

Fortunately, his enemies are also civil, decent and honorable. He is of medium height with a narrow face, short beard, an aquiline nose and penetrating green-blue eyes. They are serious, determined eyes.

Although he is not a lawyer himself, his legal knowledge is encyclopedic and probably greater than that of any lawyer, something he uses to full advantage when suing miscreants. He works as a director in a construction company but — to his wife's dismay — he will sideline any activity to pursue his obsessions.

What identifies him most is not his physical traits; it is his devotion to fight for unjust causes. There is a wonderful phrase in Spanish that defines him: "Defensor de pobres, menores y ausentes" (Advocate for the poor, the children and the absent.)

His defeats leave him undaunted. He strenuously protested when the Argentine government awarded a medal of honor to General Augusto Pinochet, Chile's dictator, sending dozens of letters to the Argentine authorities. His appeals were denied and General Pinochet received his decoration.

He then made a special motion to forbid use of the medal on the grounds that Pinochet had helped the British against the Argentines during the Malvinas/Falklands war. His motion was denied.

When Pinochet died, he presented a motion to the authorities to have Pinochet's family return his medal. That motion was denied. "This is not the end of this story," he later told me.

A recent incident shows him at his best. For a long time, it had been a source of irritation to Tucumánians that, on the side of Government House there was a 12-story apartment building whose adjacent wall was covered with the logo of an international soft drink company. To Tucumánians, it looked as if that company owned the city government. Although irritated, common citizens were unable to do anything about it.

I live in New York and visit my family in Tucumán at least once a year. During one of my visits, I was walking with Duguech when I noticed that the logo cheapened not only Government House next to it but all of the surrounding area. I couldn't help commenting to my friend how that huge logo belittled the whole area.

"Don't worry," he told me, "very soon it will not be there."

"Who is going to erase it?" I asked, laughing in disbelief.

"I will."

I laughed again, but he didn't seem annoyed. I didn't mention it at the time, but I wondered why he thought he would succeed where even government officials had failed. How would he defeat one of the most powerful soft drink companies in the world?

On a subsequent visit to my hometown, I no longer saw the logo. The huge wall was painted in white. Surprised, I called my friend and asked what had happened.

"Didn't I tell you that I would erase it?" he said proudly.

He gave me some of the details of the operation. He had contacted architects and government officials at City Hall who agreed with him, but had been unable to force the company to remove it. There were very powerful interests behind the logo which occupied the city's best space, they explained.

In spite of that, this Don Quixote presented several legal complaints to the authorities, to no avail. Yet, he continued his fight undaunted. After nine months of unrelenting struggle ("just like a pregnancy," he told me), he found a legal loophole and was able to obtain a municipal decree ordering the company to expunge the offending logo.

After many defeats, this was clearly a major achievement for my friend. I could only ask him, "Why do you continue fighting all these mostly lost causes which are so costly, take so much of your energy, and don't give you any financial gain?"

He looked at me sadly and responded, "Because if I don't do it, I get sick."

Cesar Chelala, M.D., is an international public health consultant and writer.


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