My Prescience

Shining Path
Shining Path

Following my fortune telling regarding the fate of French immigrant policy, I discovered that my otherworldly ability to see into the future soldiers on. Five years ago, in a post I titled “Shine On, You Crazy Diamond,” I asserted that Peru’s Shining Path guerillas, though proclaimed to be on their last legs, were most assuredly not. I attempted to query this but no publications were interested. Within the last week, multiple news organizations have begun to report on the Shining Path’s resurgency.

What’s the point that I’m trying to make? Just this: I see all, I know all.

My Fantasy News Organization

Sheer “citizen journalism,” though it has its place, is insufficient to the demands of a new way of doing journalism. It has also so far proven to be largely untenable economically. Corporate journalism is too consolidated and shareholder concerns have robbed it of its mission. At this point ad-driven lust for the “local” is a symptom of this wide-spread disease.

What’s needed is a way to use adaptive professional journalists, who can utilize the new suite of communications technologies, in conjunction with old-fashioned story sense, to both break news and do good enterprise work. Yeah, there’s Politico and Iraqslogger, the latter being subscription-only now. But honestly, these are the very subjects that established media organizations already do to death, to the expense of so many other important areas of coverage and neglected stories. And plus, they both bore me. The only outfit I can think of that is doing anything close to what I am conceiving is Alive in Baghdad (with their Alive in Mexico outfit, both getting hammered financially now) and, to a lesser degree, Chris Albritton’s Back to Iraq.

The difference in the organization I would create would be how it was constructed and what it was modeled on. I would build an organization that would look like a general-news, non-tech version of ReadWriteWeb, CenterNetworks or TechCrunch. It would be a lean, mobile organization, full of people who were devoted to employing social media tools in the service of old-fashioned news gathering. Each organization member would be a combination of field producer, reporter, editor, anchor and web producer. No room for passengers. The revenue model would combine advertising sales with content licensing.

Headquartered in Central America, the Latin American News Bureau would take that region as its focus and area of coverage. Thanks to the War in Iraq and the War on Terror, along with the Greatest Hits mentality of too much of corporate-owned media, LatAm is now the most underreported place in the world. Thanks to Bono and Brad Pitt, even Africa, the perennial red-headed step child of the news media, gets more coverage than Latin America, and Central America gets the least of all. But the area sure does not lack for stories. There are sea changes happening in the politics of the area and in the religious life of the region and neither has been covered to the depth they deserve in the American media.

There’s a need, there’s room, there’s the technology and there’s a model for a new kind of news organization.

Additionally: If I were “drafting” some “players” in this fantasy league, I’d choose Clark Boyd of PRI’s The World, Marshall Kirkpatrick of ReadWriteWeb and Jon Dube of Cyberjournalist to start.

Update: In addition to Alive in Baghdad & Alive in Mexico, another example of this sort of shenanigans is New Correspondent.

Generation C


The Universidad Central “Marta Abeu” de las Villas in Cuba is known by the nickname “Che University.” It is a bastion of true believers, dedicated to the revitalization of The Revolution. Believers they may be, but they are a new generation. Across Latin America and in fact the world, communism is hip again. And Cuba’s one-time revolutionary sweetheart, Che Guevara, is the face of Communism’s global brand.

What does that mean, to be a Communist in a world of no Soviet Union? With China as capitalist as France? What does it mean to be a young Communist with virtually nothing in common with the preceding generations? To be undaunted by the obstacles with which life tends to temper “purity” of ideals? To be in awe of the generations that came before you and yet embarrassed or contemptuous of their failures?

These days, when you read about Latin American Communism and its related political philosophies, you usually read about “the two leftisms.” In recent articles in the Miami Herald and Foreign Affairs, of these two Mexico’s Castañeda wrote, “One is modern, open-minded, reformist and internationalist, and it springs, paradoxically, from the hard-core left of the past. The other, born of the great tradition of Latin American populism, is nationalist, strident and close-minded. The first is well aware of its past mistakes (as well as those of its erstwhile role models in Cuba and the Soviet Union) and has changed accordingly. The second, unfortunately, has not.”

Firstly, this sounds a bit like gibberish to me. Secondly, the Latin American left does not consist solely of these two groups. There is a third group, the new generation I spoke of that everyone will ignore to their peril. They are, like kids around the world, global, plugged in, cross-culturally comfortable and with all the strengths and weaknesses of a data-driven, consumer-savvy, media generation. Cuba’s “Generation Y” of Communism (“Generation C” as it were) is supported by anti-American, anti-imperialist sympathizers from Brazil, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Bolivia, Ecuador and Europe. Castro’s need for tourist dollars, and Communism’s hip factor, create a constant stream of information flowing both ways. Cuban kids may not have the internet, but their Brazilian and Swedish visitors do.

My personal experience of the global nature of Communism’s Generation Y happened when I went to interview Salvador Sanchez Cerén, the then-General Coordinator of El Salvador’s FMLN, at the party’s San Salvador headquarters during the last election there. In the courtyard out back I sat under the bougainvillea with Mexicans, Brazilians, Ecuadorians, Swedes and Americans, overwhelmingly young, all starry-eyed. They all believed, as their Cuban compadres do, in the Revolution.

Whereas the Cuban students at Che U cannot be considered wired, since, after all Cuba is one of the only countries in the world to have absolutely no public access to the Internet, their visitors and fans from other countries certainly are. This next generation of leftists, in Latin America especially, communicate with the same wide-open electronic abandon as any other kids. What effect this more globally-connected aspect of their development will have remains to be seen.

As to why you should care about this group of Cuban kids and their foreign friends, that’s a softball.

Latin America is left again. It may be the sons (Lula, Chavez, Morales) of the fathers (Ortega) and grandfathers (Castro) who have momentum now. But the direction, texture and success of this new wave of revolutions will depend on the kids. There is a great feeling of anticipation riding on what is considered by many to be the imminent death of Castro. But whether the island opens up (unlikely) or continues Communist, struggling under the less charismatic guidance of Raul, sooner or later these kids are going to see their opportunity come. My belief is that it is more likely to be sooner than later.

I had the opportunity to hang out during that same trip Central American trip with a friend of mine from high school. He was from one of the wealthy “oligarchic” families of El Salvador. He took great pains to tell me how the past was past and he even hired a former rebel. But at dinner his mother explained how their driver/bodyguard was part of a death squad in the war. He was right to kill them, she explained. The look on her face gave me the creeps for a month. I realized then that nothing had changed from the 80s. The same carnivorous princelings were in charge of the country and the same rage that turned kids into killers was lurking around the outskirts of the shanty towns.

Why should we care? Because it’s not over.

Resurgence of Leftism in Latin America

Last year, I queried a host of “news” magazines on a story regarding the resurgence of leftism in Latin America. (See below.) Well, needless to say, since it wasn’t Iraq, it wasn’t news. In March I saw this op-ed in the New York Times on–wait for it…–the resurgence of leftism in Latin America. Man, you can’t get anything past the mainstream media (for longer than a year or so).

I imagine that a few more months and we’ll see articles on the shift to evangelical Protestantism from Catholicism in Latin America and on the economic effects of remittances on developing countries.

The Gangs of El Salvador

(A version of this story originally appeared in Newsweek.)

“Did Weaz tell you about Bullet?” Eddie asked, leaning back in the twilight of one of San Salvador’s ten thousand run-down patios. “He died. He got shot. By a rival gang.”

Gang shootings are common in once war-torn El Salvador. But what makes Bullet’s situation even more unfortunate is that he no longer belonged to any gang. He worked for Homies Unidos, one of the few organizations that offer help to Salvadorans who want to transition out of gang life. The attitude in El Salvador, however, is “once a gang member, always a gang member.” Former gang members must deal with the ire of gangs, the police and “la sombra negra” (“the black shadow”), a vigilante group that is a descendent of El Salvador’s rightist death squads.

Eddie left El Salvador when he was 14 years old, sent north by his mother to fend for himself in L.A. He had been pressed into service by the Salvadoran armed force to fight the guerilla insurgency. He got to L.A. with only one skill: he knew how to handle a gun. He hooked up with the at that time primarily Mexican gang, Calle Dieciocho, (“18th Street”). Central Americans, especially Salvadorans, were swelling the gang’s membership. But things started to change for Eddie when he got out of a Mexican jail, one of his many stays in stir, both in the U.S. and south of the border.

“I found out in jail there was a new gang. And I gotta tell you, I was kinda proud.” The gang was M.S., for Mara Salvatrucha (“Salvadoran Swarm”). “But then when I got out I found out they were supposed to be my enemies. Now I gotta go kill my own people, again? It was like I never left El Salvador.”

When the Chapultepec Accords were signed in 1992, putting an end to the armed conflict between the leftist rebels and rightist government, the INS began deporting convicted gang members back to their countries of origin, including El Salvador. With guns for sale by demobbed military and guerillas, turned-out cops and unemployed death squads killers, and with a group of alienated gang members back in Salvador, the situation was ripe for an explosion of gang activity. Salvadoran arms, a bi-national culture of the gun, and American know-how contributed to an eruption of violence that most Salvadorans consider the number one issue of their lives.

“It’s my personal opinion that (the gangs) didn’t exist before the deportations,” said Milton Andaluz, a San Francisco gang unit officer of Salvadoran ancestry. “They were scattered. The deportations brought them together.”

Andaluz’s skepticism about the utility of deportations seems common among law enforcement.

“Deportations are not the answer,” said Officer Jason Lee, a gang specialist and public relations officer with the LAPD. “These guys sometimes come right back. Sometimes in just a few days they’ll be on the street again.”

The Salvadoran gangs, both in the U.S. and El Salvador, are a case study in hemispheric interdependency. Without the civil war, there would never have been enough guns for the level of gang violence that plagues the country. Without the deportations there would never have been the model and the experience.

“We just tryin’ to work, tryin’ to keep it cool,” said Eddie, who has devoted his life to the difficult task of finding hope. “We’re just waiting for a better future, man, for something to happen, and it’s going to be nice. These kids, they might change and we’re all gonna live happily, man.”

With almost twenty years away in the States and less than five back, in some ways Eddie is more of an American than a Salvadoran. But he got a job, kicked heroin, found a wife to love, had a child and joined Homies. It’s not OK. But it’s better. What Eddie and Weaz and their compatriots hope to offer “las maras” is an antidote to the gang ethos: respect. And what he has to say about how to achieve it speaks to the highly polarized country in general, not just to gangsters.

“Stop hating, man. You gotta forgive people.”

Shine On, You Crazy Diamond

Has there been a resurgence of Peru’s homegrown Marxist nutjobs, the Shining Path?

The Peruvian army recently captured the number #2 honcho of the remaining guerillas, Jaime Zuniga. But while Peruvian leaders may characterize this as the “last stand” of the Shining Path, evidence suggests it may not be. With virtually nothing done on the economic front by the Peruvian government since they put Guzman in jail (and a couple of thousand other Sendero members), the Path is getting antsy again. In the last two years some say 400 criminal acts, including the 2002 bombing near the US embassy in Lima that killed 10 and the taking of 71 Argentine oil workers hostage, are a result of Shining Path activities.

Some analysts believe (the poison phrase of journalism but it’s what I got now…) that the fairly weak-in-numbers Shining Path (perhaps in the hundreds of members) has partnered up with Columbia’s FARC, which has 18K members and plenty of dope money. Considering the ostrich-like way the government has acted regarding the root source of insurrection, you have to wonder if SP isn’t simply going to build and build again.

Guzman is in a weird Magneto-esque prison built for him but some say he is still able to get his message out to the folks in the field. Important to remember that this was one murder-lovin’ bunch — an entire army of sociopaths, so it’s particularly nasty the idea that the Khmer Rouge of the Western Hemisphere is on a comeback trail.

The Evangelical Wave in Latin America – An Internal Revolution

In Latin America the big movement these days is not oligarch vs. communist or state religion vs. liberation theology but rather evangelical vs. Catholic. The evangelical movement is huge and continues to gain ground in Central America.

In Central America as a whole, the percentage of Protestants is on average 16%, up from virtually nothing 20 years ago. That’s a total of about 82 million out of a total population of 513 million. In Guatemala, the most Protestant of the historically Catholic countries of Central America, the percentage is much higher, 35% of all Guatemalans are Protestant. The growth rate of evangelicalism in Latin America is on the order of 10% per year. Worldwide there has been a greater than 6,500% increase in evangelicalism, from 73 million in 1970 to 480 million in the mid-90s. That’s giving Islam a run for its money and is beating the stuffing out of Catholicism, which has increased in the same time frame only 40%.

In remote areas of the Guatemalan highlands you will see evangelical preachers, clad in worn dungarees and blue work shirts preaching after dark at roadside open-air chapels, concrete plattes with corrugated tin roofs, supported by metal columns, holding a Bible in one hand and with the other gesturing underneath the fluorescent lights to the congregation of Mayan Indians, sitting on plank benches. The charismatic Protestantism has high-profile adherents as well, including former Guatemalan dictator and current presidential candidate, Efrain Rios Montt. But most of its devotees are the poor and dispossessed.

It indicates a dissatisfaction, but with what? I think it would be an interesting trend to explore — how has evangelicalism replaced secular philosophies of rebellion? Why the turn away from liberation theology to a theology of internal, personal, non-political salvation? How is the Catholic church responding? It would shine a light not just on Central America but on the role of religion in general among those who’ve endured too much political strife to no apparent good end. How different are the dispossessed that choose evangelicalism from those who choose fundamental Islam? Where are they the same? South America is also experiencing this growth — along with parts of Africa and East Asia.

What is it that Evangelicalism provides that is missing from the dominant religious traditions of these areas? As well as assessing the “what” and the “whys,” the article would turn on the “what now?” In other words, not only what does this change tell us about the past and present of Central America (as well as Latin America, Africa and east Asia), but what can it tell us about the future? Possible causes (these are merely avenues of investigation, not theses): A belief on the part of the practitioners that historical “faiths,” from liberation theology Catholicism to communism, have born little fruit. A desire on the part of practitioners to hitch their wagons to the dominant faith (and “work ethic”) of richer countries, specifically the US. An exhaustion, by decades of violence, that has driven people to a more internal, less political spirituality.

Centam Corruption Makes a Comeback in the Executive

Thanks to the short-sighted fixation on the Middle East by the Bush administration those creeps among our neighbors to the south who thrive in darkness have found an increasing amount of darkness in which to thrive.

It’s an Enron-style Wild On episode featuring practically every Central American leader past and present:

In late October, an association of Honduran prosecutors criticized a suspension of an investigation against former president Rafael Callejas on the misappropriation of some 20 million dollars, along with other members of his government. They created a petition, signed by 399 prosecutors.

Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolanos admitted to having received 326,000 dollars from Nicaraguan businessmen living in the United States. Central American leaders banded together on Saturday to demand the Organization of American States (OAS) stop Nicaragua’s legislature from impeaching Bolanos.

Former OAS secretary general Miguel Angel Rodriguez quit his post recently to defend himself on corruption charges dating back to his presidency of Costa Rica, 1998-2002. Costa Rica’s current president, Abel Pacheco, is also suspected of taking some 490,000 dollars from the government of Taiwan.

Guatemala’s former president, Alfonso Portillo, recently applied for a visa to work in Mexico, where he lives, beyond the reach of prosecutors who want to question him about an alleged misappropriation of 3.7 million dollars. Former Guatemalan vice president Francisco Reyes has been in jail since July for fraud, as are two former ministers, Eduardo Weymann and Byron Barrientos.

Panama’s recently installed government, under President Martin Torrijos, sought to overturn a decision by outgoing president Mireya Moscoso to exempt Hutchinson Wampoa, a Chinese company that manages the country’s two main ports, of 22.2 million dollars in taxes. Over the 50-year life of the management contract, Panama loses 1.5 billion dollars.

Post-Historical Guatemala

Guatemala is a country of left-overs – left-over cultures, left-over churches and temples, left-over wars, houses and stores made out of discarded billboards, scavenged packing crates and sheet metal, governments made of discarded ideologies. A trash heap of a country where every spot touched by human hands sprouts a deadly, ineradicable mold. It is a country of people leaning in doorways, sitting on steps, peering from windows, milling on corners, waiting for something. But long ago, in the dead of night, when no one was looking, history passed by for the last time. Now the only thing that passes is the time.

Ciudad de Guatemala is a city made up entirely of outskirts. The whole city is an approach to itself that never materializes, every road a siding road, every house an outbuilding, a city waiting for itself to show up, a city that never was and never will be in a nation that never quite was and won’t be again.

Crows flutter and perch in the hot brush on the border where Indians fry meat in black pans and all the dogs are ill and all the men are sullen and all the children dirty. Ghosts in white dresses walk barefoot down the ditches at night.