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February 07, 2023  |  permalink

My First Fiction: “El Libertador”

The International Republican Institute — founded in 1983 to “link people with their governments, guide politicians to be responsive to citizens, and motivate people to engage in the political process” outside the United States — recently published an “Anthology for a Future of Tech-Enabled Democracy” in partnership with the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI).

As part of this effort, I was commissioned along with Arizona State University futurist Brian David Johnson and acclaimed science-fiction author Madeline Ashby to contribute short stories inspired by the former’s “threatcasting” methodology. My fledgling attempt at fiction, “El Libertador” is published below, along with a short introduction by IRI. I hope you enjoy.


Across Latin America, “colectivos truchos” refer to the informal buses that are both a nuisance for elected officials and a necessity for millions of inhabitants who cannot afford a private car or access public transportation. They are a symbol for the ordinary people made outlaws for the crime of being stuck outside the official system. This story tells the tale of two different realities: one where technology is used to oppress and marginalize vulnerable refugees, to the benefit of the state, and another where the same technology is applied to lift refugees up, to provide public services and legal status. As you read the story, remember that technology itself can be neutral. How it’s applied is the real determinate of its harm or help. Consider the below as you read the story:

• What systems or applications of technology have you seen that have been implemented in a way that oppresses or harms marginalized groups? What norms need to change to encourage a different application of that technology?

• How can different groups – civil society, the private sector, government officials, citizens – lobby for environments where guardrails are set in place to promote the democratic use of technology?

• When you look at the future of democracy, what technologies give you hope and what technologies raise concerns? Why?

• What responsibility do the creators of these technologies have to build tools that strengthen democracy?

Esperanza wakes with a start. Dead stop. Simply being motionless is enough to shock her awake, given how rare it is. By now, she’s used to being lulled to sleep by Javier, her neighbor, their driver, their leader, and the gentle lurch of their colectivo trucho through Buenos Aires’ gridlock, which had been terrible even before the Eye and had only grown worse. The steady tug on her consciousness until passing out reliably shortened the hours-long commute to something more manageable — from her standpoint, at least, if not her family’s. But that shortcut has just been cut short.
She clambers to her feet, half-expecting the worst, but Javier is still at the wheel, looking over from the driver’s seat. “Are you alright?”

“I’m getting there. What is it?” she asks, taking in their surroundings or, at least, their surroundings beyond the bus. The street is dark, lit only by their headlights, the next-closest vehicles, and emergency lights reflected in the sky.

“A checkpoint,” he warily replies.

This is a first. She knows from her neighbors that the southern outskirts are no-go, but she’s been able to avoid them on this route. Are the Nuevo Monteneros even real? she wonders, and not for the first time. Growing up, if it were late enough, her grandfather would scare her with stories of the Monteneros, kidnappers and bank robbers lurking in the barrios of Asunción, first fighting for, and then against Romero, who was an Argentine army general and politician. But nothing makes sense now that the lie is circulating that she and her neighbors, fellow refugees, supposedly want to overthrow the government. We’re here because the Cerrado burned. But the checkpoint was real enough.

The bus starts to shake and sway, breaking her out of her reverie. Javier curses, pounding on the steering wheel. “We’re stuck,” she says, but Javier’s already turned off the bus’s ignition, and the vehicle is silent for the first time in hours.

As she climbs down from the back, she can hear the hum of traffic all around them, and a din from up the street. She listens closer. Something more than that — shouting, chanting.

She pushes her way to the front of the bus, and Javier sees her coming. “They’re not letting us through,” she says.

“How do you know it’s us?” he asks. “Just listen,” she replies. He falls silent, squinting down the darkened street.

The shouting becomes clearer: “¡No pasarán! ¡No pasarán!” “They shall not pass!”

The rifles and armored vehicles don’t scare her, but the scanners do. Her face. The Eye. El ojo que ve a través de ti, “the eye that sees through you,” the facial recognition necessary to root out the Nuevo Monteneros, or so they’d been told.

She has no reason to be afraid, but she also has no standing to not be afraid. The column of colectivos truchos waits, boxed in, while cars creep forward on both sides.

“Stay behind me,” Javier says. “If anyone asks about your status, give them this,” he adds, adjusting his mirrored sunglasses. “I’ll tell them we’re a team.”

“You seem prepared,” she says.

“This isn’t the first time we’ve been stopped,” he replies.

“No, but never like this. You’re acting like you’ve done this before,” she says.

Javier hesitates. “I have,” he finally says.

Of course. It wasn’t the first time. The government, with its scanners, its checkpoints, and its guns, must have stopped the bus before. She shouldn’t be surprised, but she is. “Who’s driving when they do?” she asks. “Do you stop the bus?”

“I do,” Javier says.

“So you’ve already gone through this.”

“More times than I can count,” he replies.

“What happens then?”


That summer — how many years ago was it now? Four? Five? — she and Emilio had waded across the Paraná, a river running through central South America. Waded. It was that low. She’d never forgotten the lights of the ships downriver, a string of lights vanishing into the distance, even without knowing at the time about the grain rotting in their holds. That summer had been hard enough. The drought, the fires, the flood of distant cousins arriving in Asunción, she’d had nothing left in the cupboard to feed her new brood from the countryside.

By then smuggling yourself across the border wasn’t even a secret. The government wanted you to leave, wanted you to be their neighbors’ problem. She had been added to a WhatsApp group with a dozen others — no one even trying to hide their names — and paid Javier with a collective tap of their digital wallets. Somewhere, maybe, the border patrol shrugged. We weren’t their problem anymore, she thought at the time. “Revenge migration,” her husband called it.

Emilio had gone first, and she and the kids had followed a few hours later. She was surprised at how easy it was, just walking up to the riverbank, stepping over to the other side, and then marching through the tall grasses of the chaco, following the lights of the faraway ships.

They landed in Nuevo Pilar, or that’s what they jokingly called the barrio named for both the Paraguayan city nearest the crossing and the gated community on the northern edge of Buenos Aires their predecessors had commandeered, building their homes on what had previously been golf clubs and polo fields. Emilio was lucky. As an engineer whose training carried some pull across the river, he’d found work upgrading the new neighborhood to federal standards. Adding public toilets, storm sewers, and LED streetlights bristling with cameras and bulges hiding other sensors across the neighborhood. “SAURON,” they were stamped, beneath the logo of a flaming eye.

Esperanza hadn’t found any work. Being an undocumented teacher qualified her for little more than off-the-books childcare for families— in the center of the city, in neighborhoods such as “Palermo Soho” and “Palermo Hollywood,” far from Nuevo Pilar. And so her odysseys began, the walk to a bus to a train to another train to a walk, for two or three hours each way. Ever so slowly, her body learned to catnap to the cadence of the trains, feeling secure only when in motion.

The soldiers start shouting again. “Avanzar! Avanzar!” Javier turns the key again and the bus shudders to a start. Glancing out the window, she can see them directing traffic, waving on the cars, sending the colectivos truchos toward an exit ramp where passengers await their turn for interrogation. So much for liberation, Esperanza thinks. It’s one thing to spend each day under the glare of the unblinking Eye and— to be turned away from jobs, from the health clinic, from riding official buses — as an illegally arrived non-entity. It’s another to prove yourself a non-threat when the state is chasing phantom Nuevo Monteneros.

She reaches for her bag. “What are you doing?” Javier asks.

“I’ve got to get my ID,” she answers.

“Keep your head down,” Javier replies. “And don’t move.”

He slows the bus gradually before pulling to the side of the road, right in front of the soldiers. The door is still closed, but he leans out the window, gesturing. The soldiers gesture back, but the shouting continues.

She glances out front. The line of colectivos truchos stretches further than she’d thought — a line of twenty, thirty vehicles — but they’re all motionless, blocking oncoming traffic. The drivers have gotten out, maybe to buy time, maybe to smoke a cigarette. Or to face the same interrogation that’s about to happen to her and her neighbors.

“What good will an ID do you now?” Javier asks.

No forged biometrics will help this time. Que el Ojo vea tu alma – the Eye sees your soul – the President’s supporters like to say. A hush falls over the cabin as she and the other passengers silently open chat windows on their Metaverse spex phones and other devices to tell loved ones and caregivers, I am here, I may not be shortly. Following their lead, she messages the girls’ teacher, as so many on the bus are doing, and then Emilio. The colectivo trucho has been stopped. Javier’s acting weird. I’m scared. I love you.

Behind them, she hears the engine of another colectivo trucho begin to rev, its once mothballed Mercedes engine roaring in fury.

It’s Emilio’s bitterness she remembers most clearly from that time, and his refrain: We should have gone to Brazil. But they hadn’t. They chose Argentina, partly because of its self-styled populist president, and partly due to the stories relatives told them of Buenos Aires. Esperanza’s great uncle’s neighborhood, Barrio 31, had been a model for turning former slums into proper neighborhoods. They’d heard stories of Argentina granting its inhabitants dignity, regardless of where they were from or what papers they possessed.

What her great uncle hadn’t mentioned, because he was too steeped in memories to notice, is that Barrio 31 had also become ground zero for the government’s campaign to provide better services, with a catch. Services were only for citizens, and “citizen” was defined as someone with the proper paperwork as verified by their retina or cheekbones as the keystone of their identity.

The chief enabler, if not the culprit? The Eye and its creator, Sauron, a , as a lover of Borges, the willful misreading pained her soul.) A year after they’d settled in Nuevo Pilar, along with 200,000 others, the government declared the advent of the national ID program, also known as Verdad.

This was cyber-populism: Another world is possible, but only for those born here. Everyone else had six months to prepare for a future with no healthcare, no public transport, and no access to government services of any kind. If the government couldn’t expel migrants like Esperanza and her family, it would internally exile them.

At first, they and their neighbors in Nuevo Pilar panicked. How will we get to work without the trains? How will we live??? But as the countdown continued, it was their neighbor Javier, el alcalde, “the mayor,” who suggested they do what slum residents have always done. Do it themselves.

He was the one who procured an ancient Mercedes from some cousin in Cordoba and dubbed it El Libertador, complete with Simon Bolivar brandishing a drone zapper spray-painted on the sides. Javier published schedules in Signal groups. He laundered payments through micro-crypto exchanges in Caymans. As the deadline approached, the Nuevo Pilar Transportation Company (as he laughingly called it) was ready for business. And then Buenos Aires exploded, literally.
The first bomb sprayed Tesla shrapnel across an outdoor café in Palermo Soho before igniting the electric car’s batteries, creating a 3,500-degree blaze that immolated the evidence. Using the Eye, as the entire system had come to be called, to retroactively surveil the Tesla’s movements, the authorities laid the blame at the feet of the Nuevos Monteneros which, in lieu of a manifesto, published step-by-step augmented reality instructions for sawing down the streetlights housing the Eye. The group’s origins and motivations were fervently debated in a thousand Signal group chats.

The cyclic revving of the colectivo trucho behind it drew the attention of both El Libertador’s passengers and soldiers alike. Through the rear window, even Esperanza could see the driver drenched in sweat, fists clenched on the wheel. As a trio of young recruits approached, weapons raised. She could see his face spasm in — what? panic? rage? — and his hand plunge forward on the gearshift, causing the vehicle to lurch toward the freeway.

“They’re going to hijack us!” someone screams.

“They’re going to run them over,” another says.

The soldiers raise their weapons to the sky, firing a volley as they step away from the lip of the road.

“What do they think they’re doing?” Javier shouts. “They’ll hit us.”

The next moment was as terrifying as it was predictable. The tearing sound of indiscriminate, fully automatic weapons fire in the general direction of the other bus, which slammed into a sedan and pinballed into another lane of traffic before coming to a halt as an entire platoon converged on the shredded colectivo trucho and the carnage within.

They won’t be coming back; she thinks as the soldiers retreat to their truck. But then the sound of sirens erupts from the median, and a cadre of federal police appear. Someone behind her curses, and someone else wonders aloud whether this is it. They pull up alongside and give Javier a shout. A low, tense exchange ensues. Within moments, the bus begins to move.

“We’ll catch up with the others,” he tells her.

She looks away from the window to him. “What did you do?” she asks.

“I told them it was our fault. That we were fleeing for our lives, and if they’d just let us pass, we’d give them a cut of the fares.”

The police are already climbing back into their car. “We better get out of here,” Javier says. He turns on the engine, accelerates onto the shoulder, and races ahead.

[Six months later.]

Esperanza wakes with a start. Dead stop. We’re there. Groggily opening her eyes, she’s been sick for days in the mountains, she spies Christ the Redeemer of the Andes above the pass. It isn’t the size of the statue that stuns her, but the equally large avatar of President Zúñiga, serene and smiling in augmented reality, strategically depicted on his side of the border, welcoming her to Chile. The last time she’d seen a clip of him on social media, he’d referred to her situation and his neighbor’s “crisis” of migration, as Argentinian officials had characterized it, as a “gift.”

El Libertador’s engine wheezes in the high altitude as they inch toward the border agents processing migrants. This is our last ride, she thinks, and her first since witnessing the massacre at the checkpoint. Within days, the soldiers had been replaced with private contractors, and not long after that the government crackdown became a media blackout.

But a rumor circulated in the Signal groups, one that seemed too much to hope for: flush with lithium riches and cursed with an aging population, Zúñiga’s government had dared his neighbors to throw the border wide open — and out of spite, Argentina took him up on it. There was a catch, of course. Only those willing to climb the pass were allowed to cross. It had taken Esperanza, Emilio, and a handful of their neighbors, led by Javier, of course, months to save for fuel and spare parts for the trip.

As Chilean agents step on and off the bus, she looks at Javier, eyes wide and mouth agape. “I’m so scared,” she mouths.

“Don’t be,” he mouths back. “This is what they expect. They’re going to let us through.”

The next hour is a blur. She watches Javier interact with agents and their augmented reality system with an ease she finds both confounding and terrifying. He hands over their photocopied passports and IDs on their phones, in addition to documentation of their face and voice, plus biometrics. She flinches as an agent holds the scanner to her eye — she notices the light is green, rather than the blood red of Sauron’s.

After Chile’s new constitution nationalized the country’s booming lithium mining industry, global firms swooped in to build battery plants and manufacturing facilities, transforming Santiago into South America’s Detroit and Silicon Valley all at once.

Perhaps to assuage his socialist guilt (and reassure his democratic allies), Zúñiga announced the policy of Nueva vida nuevo comienzo, “New Life, New Beginning,” for undocumented arrivals, the fruits of which are presented to Esperanza in short order by the guards. They include a new digital ID card, with her encoded biometrics, offering free access to public transport, to work, or to start a business. Her weathered passport, upgraded with a one-year “nomad visa” stamp linked to her ID card. And, as an agent patiently explains, a “homecoming gift” of 100,000 pesos in an account also linked to her ID. And last of all, she was now entitled to vote, though not for Zúñiga or anyone else, but for how best to allocate federal spending in whatever community she settled.

A few hours later, El Libertador climbs the last incline, a thousand feet above the valley floor. The air is thin and pure and cold. They round a rocky corner and Esperanza sees it: the sign marking the official border of her new country. She wipes the sweat from her brow and peers at the augmented reality text floating above the border posts:

You have made it to Chile. Welcome to your new life.

A single thought consumes her.

We can start over.

Posted by Greg Lindsay  |  Categories:  |  Comments

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Greg Lindsay is a generalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is a 2022-2023 urban tech fellow at Cornell Tech’s Jacobs Institute, where he leads The Metaverse Metropolis — a new initiative exploring the implications of augmented reality at urban scale. He is also a senior fellow of MIT’s Future Urban Collectives Lab, a senior advisor to Climate Alpha, and a non-resident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Strategy Initiative.

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