Notes From a Latin Lover

Notes From a Latin Lover


Civil wars do not start overnight. You do not simply wake up one morning in what has been a peaceful country only to discover organized armed forces trying to destroy each other. One of the great insights of genuine conservatism (not the vulgar market fundamentalism that tries to pass for sound political philosophy today) is that human beings have a strong yearning for order and stability, and will put up with unfairness, even gross injustices, rather than risk violent chaos. Even when civil wars seem to emerge suddenly into the world news–as in, say, Sierra Leone in the nineties or Sri Lanka the previous decade–closer inspection invariably reveals many years of groundwork, of deteriorating economies, weakening governments, ethnic or social discrimination, of a cycle of earlier riots, vicious repression, attempted or successful coups, revenge.

Civil wars are rare as well. What is surprising about the world today is not how many there are but how few. In the early 1990s, people on both the left and the right warned that some combination of globalization and its disruptive changes, worsening unemployment and inequality, the rise of ethnicity and the end of the cold war international system meant that killing of the sort taking place in the Balkans, say, or Somalia, was likely to spread widely. Yet there is no pandemic. There are a half-dozen or so conflicts in Africa (a continent of fifty-odd nations), and a few more in south and central Asia. And Latin America, which was ripped during the 1980s by violence in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Peru and by an earlier dirty war in Argentina, is basically peaceful. Except for Colombia.

We are lucky to have an on-the-spot look at the war there from one of the best and most experienced Latin American correspondents around, Alma Guillermoprieto, as part of her important and topical new book, Looking for History. She includes a brief but touching description of a “lively and doll-eyed” young guerrilla named Claudia, whom Guillermoprieto met in San Vicente del Caguán, the small town on the edge of the rainforest in southern Colombia that is the main base for the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The FARC, in existence since 1964, is the largest left-wing insurgency in recent Latin American history and is the main target of $1.3 billion in American aid to the government, most of it military.

Guillermoprieto notices that Claudia “had taken to bumping up against me and squeezing me…with a persistence I was beginning to find alarming until I thought to ask how old she was. ‘Seventeen,’ she answered. And how long had it been since she’d seen her mother? ‘Four…no, five years,’ she said.”

Claudia is one of the 2 million Colombians already displaced by the growing civil war. Something has gone dramatically wrong in a country when a 12-year-old has to leave her mother and join a guerrilla army. Soon fifty American-made helicopters will join the Colombian military that is already trying to kill her.

Guillermoprieto is an indispensable corrective to the cool and fragmented mainstream reporting from Colombia, which, following the conventions of the genre, does indeed set down some of the facts. We do learn, approximately, of the rising number of political deaths (some 6,000 last year), the deepening economic crisis (20 percent unemployment) and the surface area of coca plants supposedly eradicated.

But we miss many of the human truths. Colombia is not a chess game in which various armed forces move around a map, advancing and retreating. Nor is it an intellectual debate, in which bureaucrats from the US government and Washington Post editorial writers (the Post favors American intervention) cleverly score points. It is a terrible civil war, one that is getting worse. It did not start quickly, and it will not end quickly, and before it does, many 17-year-old girls will die.

Guillermoprieto started off her American journalistic career at the Post, where she (along with Raymond Bonner of the New York Times) courageously reported on the 1981 El Mozote massacre in El Salvador, in which the American-backed army slaughtered nearly 1,000 people. The Reagan Administration denied the killings for years. Then she went off to write one of the great books about how poor people in the Third World live. Samba (1990) is her dazzling account of a year spent with Mangueira, one of the samba “schools” in a slum of Rio de Janeiro, preparing for the fierce music and dance competition that takes place at Carnaval. You learn about more than just the contest, interesting as that is; you get to know fascinating people and are introduced to an entire way of life.

Since then, Guillermoprieto, thoroughly bilingual and bicultural, has reported from all over Latin America for The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker. Looking for History is the second collection of her articles, following The Heart That Bleeds (1994). This time around, she deals almost exclusively with Colombia, Cuba and Mexico.

Her firsthand reporting on Colombia could not be more timely. One of Bill Clinton’s most evil legacies is Plan Colombia, the military assistance program that will fail in its purported aim–to reduce the drug problem in North America–but that is already adding to the violence farther south [see Marc Cooper, “Plan Colombia,” March 19].

Arguably her most valuable work is based on her visits to territory held by the left-wing FARC. Back in 1986, she met the reclusive FARC leader Manuel Marulanda, whose nickname is Tirofijo, or “Sureshot,” in a remote spot in the Andean foothills, and last year she visited the group’s present main base in San Vicente.

She is unsentimental about the FARC, pointing out that it raises funds by kidnapping civilians, a clear violation of international humanitarian law. The guerrillas also freely admitted to her that they are connected to drug production but insisted that they do not grow or traffic coca themselves, only “tax” the people who do in the areas they control.

Colombian small farmers plant coca to survive economically, not because they want to poison Americans, Guillermoprieto asserts. “Colombia had found what most developing countries lack,” she writes, “a cheap crop that can produce levels of employment, return on investment, and national growth that only industrial goods normally provide.” World prices for other primary commodities–like coffee, Colombia’s other major export–continue to stagnate, a grim fact of life in the Third World that the cheerleaders for globalization usually ignore. She also emphasizes that drug production is by no means limited to areas controlled by the FARC or the ELN (National Liberation Army), a different (and sometimes rival) left-wing group. The right-wing paramilitares–who have been growing in recent years and who, according to Human Rights Watch and other monitoring groups, are responsible for three-quarters of all human rights violations in Colombia–are much more deeply implicated in the drug trade, getting significant financial support from the smaller and more numerous trafficking networks that replaced the infamous Medellín and Cali cartels of the 1980s. Yet Plan Colombia’s coca defoliation efforts so far have concentrated on the FARC areas in the south, not in rightist-controlled territory elsewhere.

Probably Guillermoprieto’s most important point is one invariably left out of the pro-Plan Colombia editorials and State Department briefings: that the FARC did try to advance its cause peacefully, back in the 1980s, forming a legal party called the Unión Patriótica. The group ran candidates in mayoral elections in 1988, winning in eighteen locales. “Thirteen of these mayors were subsequently assassinated, often after having been forced to resign,” she reports. “No one has ever been charged with these murders, but it is widely assumed that members of the military, which has historically operated more or less independently of the chief executive, and sometimes at loggerheads with it, played a role.”

She continues with an understated but quite astonishing summary: “By 1992, 3,500 UP militants and leaders of the legal party, including two presidential candidates, had been assassinated (although only a handful of those murders have ever been brought to trial). The guerrillas had lost nearly all of their urban, better-educated, politically minded leaders.” Even so, as she reports, the FARC has not turned into a fanatical messianic movement like the Khmer Rouge, nor is it enslaved in a cult of personality, like Peru’s Shining Path, now thankfully in decline after years of spreading terror in the Andean highlands.

Colombia’s president, Andrés Pastrana, apparently recognizes that the guerrillas have deep roots in parts of rural Colombia, and he has been making what Guillermoprieto (and other observers as well) regard as genuine efforts to negotiate. But Colombia’s central government is weak, and the right-wing paramilitares, with the collusion of key elements of the army and police, are undercutting his efforts by invading and terrorizing areas in which the left has support, and by murdering more labor leaders and human rights activists. The government did in fact recently stage a raid on a northern paramilitary stronghold, Montería, seeking information on the largest right-wing paramilitary army, the United Self-Defense Forces, but the move will do little to slow the rapid growth of the armed right. (Up-to-date information is available at

Guillermoprieto is hopeful that Colombia’s worsening polarization might be slowed by a massive grassroots movement for negotiations. In October 1999, a nationwide march for peace attracted 5 million people–a significant showing in any country, but in a country of 40 million, astounding.

Plan Colombia will add to the killing, however. Last August, President Clinton waived human rights requirements in American law so he could disburse the aid–because he knew the Colombian military could not otherwise qualify. The psychological impact will be even greater than the money, significant as that is to a Third World army. Colombia’s generals and colonels understand exactly what they are being tacitly told: Crush the left-wing guerrillas by any means, pretend to move against the right-wing paramilitares, and America will look the other way.

Colombia could be on the road to an even more bloody reprise of El Salvador. There, several billion dollars in US aid promoted a twelve-year war in which 75,000 people died, including Archbishop Oscar Romero, other Salvadoran priests and American nuns murdered by right-wing death squads. Yet the Salvadoran government could not defeat the guerrillas and had to reach a negotiated settlement in 1992. Without American dollars, the war would have ended much sooner.

Guillermoprieto’s reporting on Cuba is also gloomy, but for very different reasons. The island’s impressive and undeniable advances in social welfare are stained by the fact that its leader is a tiresome and sometimes vicious megalomaniac. She reminds us of the disgusting Ochoa trial of 1989, a tropical repeat performance of Stalin’s 1930s Moscow show trials. (Fidel Castro almost certainly ordered a general and national hero named Arnaldo Ochoa framed and then executed for drug trafficking, possibly in part because Castro feared Ochoa’s popularity–and he televised the trial.) After the brave human rights activist Elisardo Sánchez gave an American reporter details about the show trial’s aftermath, he was sentenced to three and a half years in prison, where he joined hundreds of other political prisoners; Guillermoprieto suggests that Castro cynically uses them to bargain with the outside world.

Cuba has survived economically since the collapse of the Soviet Union partly from increased tourism, which has now far surpassed sugar as a foreign exchange earner. But not just run-of-the-mill tourism. Guillermoprieto explains, without sensationalizing, that “the island has become an established part of the world sex tour circuit.” The revolutionary government has become a de facto pimp, because “how [else] could Havana hope to compete with the likes of Martinique, Santo Domingo, Curaçao, or Cancún? Not on the basis of its shabby hotels, limited food supply, or terrible flight connections, certainly.”

The tone of Guillermoprieto’s reporting suggests she is personally disappointed. She respects Cubans who are still loyal to the revolution, and she is careful to make a distinction between their genuine idealism and power-madness at the top. But she notes that consumerism is growing, encouraged by tourists and visiting exiles bearing gifts. Consumptionism is a real force all over the world, one the left has historically gravely underestimated (and often too harshly dismissed). But it may have special potential here, as a safe outlet for human expression in a country whose one-party state stifles independent grassroots organization and cultural freedom.

Guillermoprieto then turns to Mexico, and finishes her remarkable book with optimism. She portrays a defining epoch in Mexican history, which opened with the Zapatista uprising on New Year’s Day 1994 and reached one culmination in the July 2000 election of the first opposition president in the country’s modern history, Vicente Fox.

Once again, Guillermoprieto has done her legwork, visiting the Zapatista home area in the southern state of Chiapas and interviewing Subcomandante Marcos sitting in a car in the middle of the night. She provides a much needed revisionist view of the Zapatistas, recognizing their importance without romanticizing them. She starts off with some genuine globalist analysis, not the unreflective cheerleading in the mainstream press, by pointing out that the collapse of the world coffee price in 1989 increased human misery among the small growers in Chiapas, aiding the insurrection (the same kind of economic pressure that induces some rural Colombians to turn to coca).

But she points out that the first reports that the Zapatistas constituted a huge avenging army of the poor were greatly exaggerated; “it turned out that they had no military strength and were in reality an armed pressure group.” The Zapatistas survived because the Mexican public was tiring of the ruling party, the PRI (the oxymoronic Institutional Revolutionary Party), and would not have tolerated a military crackdown.

In early 1993, The Economist said that the PRI president, Carlos Salinas, “has a claim to be hailed as one of the great men of the 20th century,” an honor the magazine conferred for his supposed courage in trying to impose market fundamentalism on Mexico. This judgment, typical of the mainstream world press at the time, was already more than a little starry-eyed; Salinas had almost certainly stolen the 1988 election. In time, though, this hero had to flee Mexico. Guillermoprieto reports that he had become “the person most deeply hated by most Mexicans,” because of his links to corruption, drug trafficking and possibly murder, and because of his responsibility for the catastrophic collapse of the Mexican economy following the devaluation of the peso at the end of 1994 (which required a US bailout of nearly $50 billion).

Guillermoprieto does describe this economic debacle, but she might have devoted even more attention to it. “Transparency” is one of the buzzwords of market fundamentalism, the idea that governments and businesses should provide a free flow of information so people can make informed decisions. What actually happened was that the Mexican government, Wall Street and the US Treasury Department essentially cheated the Mexican people out of a free election in August 1994 by holding back key information about the deteriorating economy until after the ruling party’s candidate had won. Then, too late, Mexico devalued, causing $5 billion in investment to leave within days, triggering a serious depression and making necessary a bailout of the (just privatized) banking system that is costing the Mexican people proportionally much more than the S&L rescue did here.

Mexico’s story does have a happier tenor, at least for now. Vicente Fox, a maverick from the right who is nonetheless not afraid to listen to his high-ranking leftist advisers, seems set to consolidate democracy. The old ruling party is still reeling, having just lost a gubernatorial election in Yucatán, one of its former strongholds. Guillermoprieto credits the left’s standard-bearer, the honest and courageous Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, with making change possible by breaking with the ruling party and then continuing the fight for democracy even after being robbed of the presidency in the 1988 election. Millions of Cuauhtémoc’s supporters, seeing he would fall short this time around, cast strategic votes for Fox.

During one of Guillermoprieto’s visits to the Zapatista base area in southern Mexico, some of the campesinos, or rural poor people, reversed roles and asked her: “Were there many campesinos in this city I wrote for, New York? I informed them that in truth, there were very few left. That was too bad, one of them said–they had wanted to send their regards. ‘But in any case,’ [one] added, ‘please convey our very best greetings to the people you know in that place.'”

Fortunately, the lives of Guillermoprieto’s campesino friends in Mexico are improving, however slowly, without real civil war; genuine land reform is even coming to Chiapas. The friends Guillermoprieto has in Colombia are not as lucky.

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