I was introduced to Alma Guillemoprieto‘s fascinating book The Heart That Bleeds (1995) by Daniel Alarcon from his list “Ten Powerful Books from the Latin American Canon” in the P.S. section of his novel Lost City Radio. It is a series of dispatches that Guillemoprieto wrote for the New Yorker in the late 80s and early 90s on different situations in several Latin American countries. It is dated in that all of the dispatches are from 1989 to 1993, but she is a compelling storyteller and resourceful reporter that weaves history, and culture into her dispatches that remain worthwhile accounts of Latin America.
Since I am planning to visit Peru this summer I wanted to read up on Peru’s recent history, so I started with the dispatches from Lima in 1990 and 1993 first instead of reading the book in strict chronological order. The dispatch from Lima in 1990 is a fascinating analysis of Mario Vargas Llosa’s loss to upstart second generation Japanese Peruvian Akinori Fujimori in the presidential election. Of course, the men’s fate has changed significantly since then where Llosa won the Nobel Prize for literature and Fujimori is serving a prison sentence. The dispatch from 1993 chronicles Fujimori’s brutal response to the escalating violence by the Shining Path terrorist group and their defeat by capturing their leader Guzman. Later in 1996 MRTA seized the ambassador to Japan’s residence and held the occupants captive for 126 days before Fujimori sent in armed forces on a raid in which the hostages were freed and no MRTA members survived. Then in 2000 Fujimori fled to Japan during a corruption scandal. At the time I wondered why Japan allowed him sanctuary and it seems his handling of the hostage crisis was enough for the Japanese government to offer him sanctuary. In 2005 he was arrested in Chile and extradited to Peru and in 2007 he was convicted of ordering illegal search and seizure and sentenced for 6 years in prison. In 2009 he was convicted of human rights violations and sentenced for 25 years and also for embezzlement and given a 7 1/2 year sentence.
I chose to read the Panama dispatch from 1992 next since it is the only Latin American country I have visited so far. This dispatch from Panama City was about Bush’s first visit since the US invasion and arrest of Manuel Noriega in 1989 and the instability of the country at that time. It discussed the history of 21 years between Omar Torrijo’s rise and Noriega’s fall. Torrijos did much to further the standard if living in panama by rewriting banking laws so that it resembled Switzerland. He solved the Panama Canal Treaty and reduced unemployment, illiteracy, and child mortality rates. However, he played arbitrarily with press freedoms and citizen’s rights and was indirectly or directly responsible for 90 political deaths. As of 2010, Panama has recovered to become the second most competitive economy in Latin America and has plans to expand the Panama Canal assuring prosperity for years to come.
I was interested to see what Guillemoprieto had to say about Nicaragua as well since I recently read Salman Rushdie’s book about the country, The Jaguar’s Smile. Thus, I read the dispatch from Managua in 1990. This recounts when Daniel Ortega lost the election for the Sandinistas to figurehead Violeta Chamorro (widow of murdered newspaper editor Pedro Joaquin Chamorro). However, Ortega would return to power in 2006 and was recently reelected in 2011 as well. Today Nicaragua still relies heavily on remittances form Nicaraguans living abroad, but has emerged as a location for the emigration of retirees from North America and Europe.
Mexico is on my short list of countries to visit and is the birthplace of the author, so the next sections I read were the two dispatched from Mexico City. The first dispatch from 1990 is a moving chronicle of the connection between garbage pickers and the Mexico’s political machine. The second article from 1992 discusses the importance of Mariachi bands and music to the society and culture of Mexico. There was an economic collapse in 1994 and then 2000 the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) lost its first election in 71 years to Vincente Fox from PAN (National Action Party) and Mexico is widely considered a upper-middle income country today.
Colombia had its share of troubles in the 80s and 90s and therefore gets three dispatches: 1989, 1991, and 1993. The first from Bogotá in 1989 analyzes the rising conflict between drug cartels and the government that supports extradition to the US and resulted in an escalation of bombs murders, and chaos. The next dispatch from Medellin in 1991 discussed the rising violence of drug cartels, young punks fulfilling murder contracts, and neighborhood death squads getting rid of the punks for peace and safety. The last dispatch was from Bogotá in 1993 and analyzed how the end of the “Drug War” approach by the Clinton administration affected Columbia. The infamous Pablo Escobar surrenders and then escapes, and later is killed in a raid. There is a national scandal as one of the country’s most popular soccer players Hiurga is jailed for his part in a kidnapping. Between 2002 and 2006 homicides were halved and kidnappings decreased. It seems that since 2010 the violence in Columbia has decreased significantly increasing tourism to Columbia.
Argentina is one of the Latin countries that I know something about since I read Thomas Martinez’s excellent novel, Peron, in college. This dispatch is from 1991 in Buenos Aires and focuses on the transitional Peronist president, Carlos Menem, who allows a freer press than previous known. And Guillemoprieto fleshes out how this affects the society and culture of contemporary Argentina. She touches on the drug trafficking and corruption that surrounds Menem’s administration and discusses the legacy of the Dirty War, in which 9,000 died or were disappeared-a common fate in Latin America of the 80s and 90s. Menem would serve until 1997 and Argentina has survived a massive economic collapse in the mid 90s, and has a female President in Christina Fernanadez Kircher who was recently reelected to second term in 2011.
After this I read the two dispatched from Rio that discuss the culture and politics of Brazil in 1991 and 1993. These are two of her more interesting dispatches since they both give illuminating reflections of the culture and society of Brazil as well as the politics of that time. The first dispatch investigates the Umbanda Afro religion in Rio and mediates on the recent election of Fernando Collor as President. It is impossible to talk about Brazil without mentioning the poverty, drugs, and violence, but also the beauty and passion of the people. The second dispatch is also reveals a lot about Brazilians by examining the massive popularity of telenovelas and the disconnect between life and fantasy that was exposed in the murder of a TV starlet that stole the headlines from the impeachment of the corrupt Fernando Collor. Today Brazil is one of the fastest growing economies in the world after Lula De Silva was ushered in and provided political stability to the country.
The final dispatch that I read was from La Paz, Bolivia in 1992. It has been politically and economically unstable for some time and has been targeted in the past as having produced as much as 1/3 of the coca fro all the cocaine produced in the 90s. Guillemoprieto focuses on the connections between industries like mining and cocoa farming in relation to politics and Bolivia’s future.
All in all, a fascinating look back at a region struggling with history and the future.