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March 30, 2010

Letter from a Correspondent

Reporting from Latin America often seems proof of the adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Governments come and go with alarming frequency, but no matter who leads them or what political or economic policies they pursue, stability remains elusive. Since just the start of this decade, seven elected South Amer- ican heads of state have been toppled in popular uprisings or coups—a level of turbulence not experienced since the seventies, when I first came to the region.

In such circumstances, when institutions are not reliable, people have no choice but to depend on each other. Latin Americans pride themselves on their calor humano, or human warmth, and that has always seemed to me both a logical and an admirable response to the disorder that surrounds them. If the administration isn't working or works only for a privileged few, trust your fam- ily and friends, the thinking goes, and if a stranger seems sympathetic, well, be kind to him too because he's in the same bind.

Time and time again over the years, first as a Newsweek reporter and since 1984 as a correspondent for The New York Times, I have benefited from that generosity. If a government functionary or military officer won't cooperate or wants to do you harm, there is almost always someone who knows a way to get around the situation and will step in (out of earshot) to intercede. It doesn't matter whether you are in Castro's Cuba or Pinochet's Chile, the reaction is always the same: How can I get back at "them" by helping you?

Politically, South America has gone through three distinct cycles since I first visited Brazil in 1972. At that time a military dictatorship was in power there, and I can still recall my shock at seeing the walls of airports covered with posters of wanted "terrorists," many of them simply college students my age opposed to the loss of their society's democratic rights. Within a couple of years, Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay had succumbed to the same phenomenon—the armed forces violently seizing power in the name of national security. Thousands were killed or jailed or forced into exile, and paranoia was rampant.

By the mid-eighties, though, those dictatorships were crumbling and giving way to democratic civilian rule. With Washington and Wall Street pushing, one country after another embarked on that same path in the nineties, a time marked by privatization, deregulation, floating currencies, budget surpluses, and an end to four-digit inflation.

But the gap between rich and poor has failed to close, and now the pendulum seems to be swinging left. Hugo Chávez took power in Venezuela in February 1999, and since then voters in Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Uruguay, and Bolivia have all elected candidates who in one fashion or another reject the Washington consensus.

Yet the deep skepticism of leaders and institutions remains. So does the inclination to try and carve out a satisfying private space independent of the chaotic public arena, and it is that aspect of life that offers some of the richest pickings for journalists. Frustrated by failures in the political realm, Latin Americans pour their enormous creative energies into sports and culture, most notably soccer, music, film, literature, and the visual arts.

Originally, one of the attractions for me in reporting from this continent was that even in the seventies a traveler could visit wilderness regions that were as yet largely untouched. I thought nothing of telling my bosses back in New York that I'd be dropping out of touch for two or three weeks. Nowadays, of course, no place is beyond the reach of modern communications. The material quality of peoples' existences has improved as a result of such advances, and that is wonderful. But life here has also become more like life elsewhere. On a trip to Marabá in the Brazilian Amazon in 1999, my first there in more than 15 years, I was surprised to see Anaheim Mighty Ducks hockey jerseys on sale at a local market alongside shirts of Brazilian soccer teams.

That's the real challenge in South America today: how to become part of the larger world and yet preserve the cultures and identities that make the continent so fascinating to visitors from the outside.