Alma Guillermoprieto

Alma Guillermoprieto"I think that the temptation to feel that your entire life has been wasted must be very great for a lot of Cubans."

Alma Guillermoprieto was born Mexico, raised in Mexico and the United States, lived in Colombia, Brazil, Central America, and she now makes her home in Mexico City. She has been writing about Latin America for over 25 years, frequently for The New Yorker, for whom she is essentially Latin American correspondent, and also other English and Spanish publications. She is the author of Looking for History and The Heart That Bleeds (which are compilations of her writings for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books) and Samba, which describes the year she spent with impoverished carnival-makers in Rio de Janeiro. Her most recent book is Dancing with Cuba. She has received a number of fellowships, among them a Mac Arthur and a 2005 Nieman, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Dancing with Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution describes her decision in 1970 as a young dancer to leave New York City and to take a job teaching at Cuba’s National School of Dance. For six months, she worked in mirrorless studios (it was considered more revolutionary); her poorly trained yet ardent students worked without them but dreamt of greatness and more.

Alma Guillermoprieto opines about her experience in Cuba, "The fact that I am temperamentally so unsuited to understand that country made my time there infinitely more difficult, but I think it made for a better book; any number of people have gone all swoony about Cuba, and I couldn’t. But I tried so hard! So I think I learned a lot, in the course of all that effort, and I observed a lot, and it may be that the text has some edge as a result. That’s what I hoped for, at any rate."

As our conversation below shows, Senora Guillermoprieto is savvy, warm hearted and keen observer and thinker and conceivably fills in some blanks in understanding Cuba and points South.

Robert Birnbaum: How did you come to write Dancing with Cuba?

Alma Guillermoprieto: A lot of memoir writing has to do with growing old. Suddenly you are walking down the street and you think, “Jesus Christ, I’m nearly dead. Or on the other side of the hill towards being dead and what did I make of my life?” And, ”Where did it all go so differently from what I expected.” Because nobody’s life goes the way they expected it to go, I think. So I think that’s what came up. Looking back and trying to make sense of what had landed me in this weird place, I really thought this was a sort of turning point. Maybe not the turning point—there are so many. But a big turning point. And then the more I walked and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this was also a story. And that it had a beginning, middle, and an end.

RB: You mention in the acknowledgements that Robert Gottlieb encouraged you. The way you phrased it suggested that you were not inclined to write it. And that he goaded or prodded you.

AG: Yes, he did. Not this specific story. He didn’t really know what I was writing. But he had told me for a long time that I should write a memoir. Of course he is a big memoir fan. No surprise. But for some reason he thought that it would be interesting to have me tell—he basically thought of it as telling stories in my own voice.

RB: But he’s not your editor—

AG: He’s been my editor for a long time.

RB: Really. Even though he is not at the house that you publish out of?

AG: Yes, he is.

RB: Pantheon?

AG: They are both Random House, so he has a right—when he left Knopf for the New Yorker it was understood that he could come in at any point and edit any book that he was interested in. Which he does. That’s his life—that’s his breathing. The day he can’t do that he’ll be in very bad shape.

RB: He still writes a dance column for the New York Observer.

AG: That’s right. And he wrote, just recently, this wonderfully concise little book about Balanchine.

RB: And you were encouraged to write this book in Spanish.

AG: Not by Bob. In fact it drove him completely insane—

RB: [laughs]

AG: —that I was writing something he couldn’t look at. I was encouraged to write this in Spanish by my translator, Esther Allen. Who I think did an amazing job.

RB: Why did she want you to write in Spanish even though you are quite facile and competent in English?

AG: Because she is very committed to foreign literature and she feels very strongly that people should be writing in their own language and that English should not be such a dominant language. And she loves to translate. And so she hounded me for a few years. It was actually a few years between the time that I decided this would be a story and the time I actually sat down to write it. In the process, I always felt I should write this in Spanish—otherwise the memory wouldn’t be legitimate.

RB: Has Dancing with Cuba been published outside the U.S.?

Only the Cubans who have lived there for the last forty-six years really know Cuba. It takes those forty-six years of endurance and subtle interpretation of the winds of change and also closeness to the gossip of the revolution, to have some sense of what is going on.

AG: Yeah, it has been published in Spanish—in the language in which it was written.

RB: Was it retranslated?

AG: It amounted to a kind of—not a retranslation exactly, but by the time we finished editing the book in English there had been a lot of minor changes on every page that I had to go back and make sure appeared in the original Spanish. It wasn’t really translating. It was cleaning up—collating.

RB: This is essentially a six-month period in your life. To say it’s a memoir—well it’s memoiristic.

AG: I know.

RB: I really love the stance that you take in the book about memoirs—you question the veracity of dialogues and the memories.

AG: On the one hand I made those dialogues up. On the other hand I am convinced inside me, that I didn’t. Thirty years later I wrote down what people said. I am convinced of that, the memories are so vivid. On the other hand nobody’s memory is reliable. When I went back to Cuba one time looking for some of my lead characters—and there is a character who plays a very significant role—whose memory was the most painful to me.

RB: Who was that?

AG: One of the boy dancers.

RB: The gay one?

AG: Well—

RB: —the allegedly gay one?

AG: The allegedly gay one, yeah. And they didn’t remember him. I couldn’t believe it. They didn’t remember him. And so, whose memory is reliable?

RB: Who knows Cuba?

AG: Who knows Cuba?

RB: Who is a reliable commentator?

AG: I think only the Cubans who have lived there for the last forty-six years really know Cuba. It takes those forty-six years of endurance and subtle interpretation of the winds of change and also closeness to the gossip of the revolution to have some sense of what is going on. I think there is an interesting memoir that has just come out—I haven’t read it—Mirta Ojito from the New York Times. I really want to read hers because to me that is an ideal position in that she lived through the revolution as a young as a revolutionary and then she left. And she is recognizes that the Revolution is part of her Cubanness.

RB: What about Renaldo Arenas’s memoir, Before Night Falls?

AG: Yeah but it’s more [about] Renaldo Arenas than Cuba. Although to the degree that he is so immensely Cuban, then it’s valid too. I mean anything is valid that anybody writes. It’s valid in terms of their own memory. In terms of finding out about Cuba, it’s a rare experience. There’s also Ramon de la Pena who wrote a nice memoir about being a Peter Pan child.

RB: There was also Carlos Eire’s—

AG: Waiting for Snow in Havana—which I haven’t read because I was so disgusted with the title and I was so unpleased with my own title. And I felt jealous and competitive (both books came out at the same time).

RB: [laughs]

AG: But I will read it.

RB: The Peter Pan stories are quite interesting. There was a book on the Operation Peter Pan [Operation Pedro Pan: The Untold Exodus of 14,048 Cuban Children by Yvonne Conde]—

AG: There has been a lot of writing about that. Those kids had a particular need to look back and look at the rupture, their own ruptures.

RB: There seems to be a disconnect between the cyclical and trendy fascination with Cuba and the fact that every body seems to have an opinion, many people have an opinion, which are heartfelt I guess, but also they are convinced that they have—

AG: —the opinion. Yeah, yeah.

RB: Not the least of those are the crazy Cuban exiles. Who think they know Cuba better than anyone—because they are Cuban.

AG: Right. And of course they do know Cuba better than anyone else. Up ‘til 1959. They are the keepers of that memory. And I don’t think they are exclusively the rich Cubans. There are some middle class and even poor Cubans who are the keepers of that pre-1959 memory. But somehow bridging those two memories is very difficult. People who can bridge those two memories are all dying off. Because like Fidel they are getting quite old. So I am concerned; if I were an anthropologist and not a reporter I would do oral histories—like mad—of what it was to live the transition. From prerevolution to revolution.

RB: As an (irrelevant) aside, a group of serious and well-regarded writers have died recently (Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow, Hunter Thompson, Larry Brown, Will Eisner) in the U.S. And Cabrera Infante, the great Cuban exile writer—I guess he can be called an exile—

GuillermoprietoAG: Yeah, unhappily.

RB: In the U.S. there was scant attention.

AG: Yes, it was shocking.

RB: Well, were you shocked?

AG: Yeah, I was.

RB: What was his visibility in this country?

AG: I thought it was much higher than the attention given to his death. I really was shocked but what do I know? It was at the same time that Esther [Allen] had organized this weeklong event on foreign literature, and I am sure there was attention paid to it at that PEN event.

RB: Did you notice how much attention was paid to Infante’s passing outside the U.S.?

AG: You mean in Cuba?

RB: Sure and the rest of Latin America.

AG: Cubans officially paid no attention. No, I didn’t actually look at what [attention] was being paid. But in countries that have a very, very strong literary tradition—in Mexico and Peru, Colombia, Argentina—yeah his death was a significant event. He was a significant writer. [pauses] He really was spoiled by frivolity, but a significant writer.

RB: I remember seeing you and he and a large group of—there was a conference of writers of this hemisphere sponsored by the New York Review of Books in Miami in ‘94 or ‘95—I was struck by his commanding almost regal presence. He was sitting in the hotel lobby and it was almost papal in the way he was approached by others.

AG: [laughs] Yes.

RB: His expression was so fierce but he was quite a joker.

AG: I guess what I mean by frivolity is that—

RB: —he enjoyed a good [or any] pun—

AG: —more than he should have allowed on the page. It was very distracting rather than conducive to something. And I think he considered it his language—which is a very Cuban thing to do, to confuse ornateness with language. He was a nice man. He was a serious intellectual and he was a deeply sad man. I think towards the end that he might have just wanted to outlive Fidel. It was like a bet. And he lost that bet.

RB: It’s interesting how one becomes desensitized when reading memoirs. I take it for granted that someone is pouring out their deep, heartfelt, perhaps secret, things and then, for example, I think I know you better than I should have any right to—

AG: This is the problem with writing a memoir You are exposing yourself to that, and that’s what made me so hesitant for so long. I really wonder about myself, “Why the hell did I do that since I am a deeply private person? Why did I do this?” And I tried to go around the various sides of it, but in the end, for a narrator, story will win out. If you have a story to tell, you tell it. And there is something compulsive about that. Because good stories aren’t so easy to come by. I just knew that this was a good story.

RB: Was there a choice—perhaps another story?

AG: No I didn’t feel that at all. I felt that those six months, and still do, with their beginning, their middle, their end, and with the confluence of my own kind of angst and the tremendous turning point in the history of the Revolution—it made my own story legitimate in some way. It made it easier to tell this huge story about the crisis in the Cuban Revolution. I couldn’t stay away from it. And also, writers are wily by nature, and so you think you are getting the whole thing but in fact you are getting what the writer saw fit to put and edit on a page. And if it wasn’t shapely it didn’t get put on the page.

RB: I wonder if people who don’t write understand that part of it?

AG: I don’t think people who aren’t writers understand technique. Or time.

RB: Or that form of storytelling. I, once every few years, update or rewrite whatever stands for my brief bio. And it’s so much fun.

AG: [laughs]

RB: The more times I do it the more fun I have and the less seriously I take it and more I understand and perhaps convey the understanding it’s more or less as accurate as—

AG: Going on stage.

RB: Yeah.

AG: I think it is exactly as accurate as going on stage, in fact.

RB: So you find yourself pondering notions of certainty, as you grow older?

AG: Oh, of course, I think that’s why so few people continue to be flaming revolutionaries—

RB: [laughs]

AG: —as they grow older. And it all has to do with this question of certainty. And of course committed lifelong revolutionaries get very worried about this because that’s when the great falling away starts. And that’s why Brecht has this famous poem about, “There are those who serve a day and those are good. And there are those who serve a year and those are very good and those who serve their whole life, they are the ones we cannot do with out”—I’m translating roughly. And there is a lot to be said for that too. A commitment that takes you from the beginning to the end of your life—I’ve just spent a couple of hours with Paul Farmer [the subject of Pulitzer Prize–winner Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World] recently. And the guy’s level of commitment makes me so ashamed. And those are the people we can’t live without.

RB: Is it something pathological that some people care more than others about other people?

And also writers are wily by nature and so you think you are getting the whole thing, but in fact you are getting what the writer saw fit to put and edit on a page. And if it wasn’t shapely it didn’t get put on the page.

AG: [laughs] But who’s got the pathological problem? [continues laughing]

RB: Let’s not make a value judgment about the pathology. Is there a correlate to fanatical religious right in this country, in other countries, that you are familiar with—besides neo-Nazis?

AG: I’m trying to follow your leap of logic.

RB: I’m looking to understand or identify how human beings line up in concerns about social justice.

AG: Oh. I don’t know about that. There is a difference between societies who don’t conceive of the individual as part of the group and societies that do. And Latin American societies who do, for example, or I guess, though I have never been, to African societies who do see the individual as part of a group. They are stronger in many ways and also weaker. I used to go to a pilgrimage site called Chalma on a very regular basis—week after week for periods of time—and I’d take the bus to get there and the bus to go back. And they were always packed because it’s the second largest pilgrimage site in the [western] hemisphere, and one of the largest in the world.

RB: What’s the first?

AG: Guadalupe. The shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe. You would stand in line for forty-five minutes to get on the bus because the families who went on the pilgrimage could not stand to sit separately from each other for a one and a half hour ride. And so there would be incredible negotiating and seat changing and shifting packets over.

RB: I don’t take you as being religious.

AG: I wasn’t going to pray. I just had to go to Chalma every week—not because I was visiting the shrine. Anyway, the point was that they could not bear to sit away from each other for an hour and a half because it endangered them. That’s how close they felt committed to their community. So there are individuals and individuals within communities, but it’s always within a restricted group. Those individuals within communities would one day rise up and bonk Protestants on the head; I have no doubt of it.

RB: I noted that impulse when I was watching that Colombian movie, Maria Full of Grace. Do you know the movie?

AG: Yeah, lovely.

RB: As Maria is packing to leave, her mother is clearly feeling deeply distressed that she is leaving (ostensibly to another town for a new job). We take it for granted that the nuclear family becomes dispersed and families become far flung—that it’s okay.

AG: Also when your mother is seventy-five years old, you’ll pack her away to a nursing home because she is too much trouble. There are downsides and upsides to all of this.

RB: What’s the upside?

AG: Upside of what?

RB: This mobility and a less-reverential view of family ties.

AG: Infinite potential for living the individual life with a greater range of experience and experiment and choice.

RB: If I may, that seems hollow and false. If would be wonderful if that were true in this country—

AG: —and tolerance

RB: What tolerance?

AG: That has to do with other phenomena that have been going in this country particularly. If you compare it to Europe, then that argument—

RB: So you comment on the U.S. for any international newspaper or magazine?

AG: Never. Because the only thing that really interests me is Latin America. The only thing that really interests me. And when I am writing about Latin America I like to pretend that the United States doesn’t exist. I like to pretend that we are independent countries. That we are free to make our own decisions. It’s just an arbitrary thing.

RB: I was thinking of Jose Marti, who was a great commentator on the United States for Latin America. And Francisco Goldman thinks he was the great nineteenth-century American writer—

AG: I disagree with him on that. I wouldn’t want to put Jose Marti against Mark Twain. Never. There are monuments and monuments. Even though I am very American—not Americanized, but American.

RB: As in U.S. American or hemispheric American?

AG: As in New Yorker. As in hemispheric but also as a New Yorker—which I do feel very strongly I am. Even though I feel all of the country doesn’t interest me enough to make things happen inside me that I want to write about. Which is a very narcissistic thing to say. I am completely aware of that. I am a very narcissistic writer.

RB: [pauses] In a sense there is no difference between you being a New Yorker and being someone who lives in Mexico City.

AG: Right.

RB: You either are from the cities or the rest of a country.

AG: Being in New York was my first experience of that.

RB: Didn’t you live in L.A.?

AG: When I was very young. I don’t consider that an educational experience. New York really was. And New York—yes there is a huge difference. In Latin America, you may increasingly find a few Colombians, a few Argentines, maybe a Brazilian or two, but you certainly don’t find Ghanaians and Thais and Egyptians, Japanese. That incredible world mix that New York is. And that extraordinary capacity for tolerance that New York has.

RB: I saw Spike Lee’s 25th Hour recently and he reprises this racist montage that he did in Do The Right Thing—when one of the characters spews out all the racial cultural insults and epitaphs on every nationality and ethnicity.

AG: Yeah, but in the end he [the character] will get on the same subway and stand in line and buy a sandwich from a guy and very rarely take that hostility unless you happen to be a New York cop to the degree of doing vicious and violent harm to another.

RB: As we were talking before the tape started rolling, I asked you if you missed Mexico City and you said very much. Given a choice, where . . . do you feel like you want to be rooted or do you prefer the peripatetic life.

AG: I am pretty strongly rooted in Latin America, but am uprooted enough. Once you have been uprooted there is no going back. So I am uprooted enough to always feel that one part of me is missing, no matter where I am. But that is the contemporary wanderer’s—I don’t know if it’s a curse—sign. I am not alone in that at all.

RB: I think not. Is there comfort in that?

Alma GuillermoprietoAG: No [laughs].

RB: Are there big stories that you are obsessed with or thinking about?

AG: In Latin America right now? I have processed for my own purposes two big concerns enough at least for the moment, so I am in the casting about period. I spent a lot of time writing stories about how modernity and specifically U.S.-imported modernity, affects Latin America—and poor Latin Americans specifically, [their] sense of themselves; of who they are and how much they are worth. And I spent a lot of time thinking about why people become violent and what the consequences of that violence—idealistic violence, revolutionary violence—are. So for the moment I have finished thinking about that. Maybe I’ll come back to it.

RB: Are there still revolutionaries?

AG: No, I think it’s hard in the twenty-first century to believe unconditionally in anything. Relativism has really taken over. And disillusionment—I don’t think really there is an ideology that explains our world right now. And also every one says the revolutions failed. I am not sure that they failed that completely. Revolutions—the Cuban Revolutions say, and even the Nicaraguan Revolution proved competent at redistributing wealth but completely incompetent at generating it. And as long as that problem isn’t solved—

RB: What about the Mexican Revolution?

AG: It wasn’t resolved in favor of the two poorest factions. It was resolved in favor of the big ranch owners from the North.

RB: Would you even say it was a revolution?

AG: Oh absolutely. It was an enormous revolution, but revolutions don’t necessarily have to wind up Marxist. And the Mexican Revolution clearly didn’t. It overturned the country in any number of ways.

RB: When people denigrate or devalue the various revolutions—the Soviet, the Chinese, the Central American ones—where do they think these societies would have been with out them?

AG: That’s an interesting question to ask of Cuba right now and compare it, to, say, to the Dominican Republic and to Puerto Rico—you don’t get a 100 percent answer either way.

RB: Puerto Rico is troubling. There is very little agriculture. People don’t grow much any more. Which is terrible. And an incredible lack of concern for basic environmental cleanliness. People just throw garbage every where.

AG: Yeah, that’s throughout Latin America. When I got to Ciudad Juaraez to do this story on the horrible massacres of women that were taking place there, I was horrified and shocked by that;but what I hadn’t expected was [that] there is this desert that comes right up to the border, right up to the border, and you look across the river, and on the other side of the border there are patches of green—irrigated green growing this and that—and on this side there is just tumbleweed and on every little spike bits of refuse. It was horrifying. There is something else you said, something about Puerto Rico has enormous agricultural potential. One of Fidel’s tragedies was that he thought Cuba had enormous agricultural potential, and in the 1970s he realized, as I as a gardener realized, that in fact what you can grow in the tropics is a very limited and fragile range of things, and none of them are very profitable. Sugarcane.

RB: Coffee?

AG: You have to have mountains for coffee.

RB: Tobacco?

AG: Tobacco. Sugarcane. Papaya. Basically tropical fruits whose handling is very delicate.

RB: The ten million pound harvest, reminiscent of the Soviet five-year plans, was an astounding failure.

AG: Of course, that’s where they got it from—they got it from the Soviets, but they got, or Fidel got it, because in Cuba it’s never they, it’s always Fidel—he got it from his desperate, desperate desire not only not to be a colony of the United States but not to be a colony of the Soviets. He was a true patriot in that sense.

RB: There was an irony that you noted in your piece on the Pope’s visit to Cuba, that Cubans were dismissive and contemptuous towards the Russians who were generous and supportive and yet fascinated with and enamored of the United States which was always plotting [at least the government] great harm to Cuba.

AG: This to me is an astonishing thing. Thirty years of Soviet occupation or however many—from 1961 to ’89—twenty-eight years? Of essentially Soviet occupation. Running the military, deciding economic policies by and large. But also providing what little wherewithal there was. [It] didn’t only generate a mild distaste for the Soviets. You don’t see blini served anywhere, no nostalgic passion for Russian movies. It’s all about the United States—U.S. movies, about Hollywood, about U.S. music.

RB: The singular totem of the Soviet presence in Cuba was the horrific embassy building that they built. It could be in the top five of the ugliest buildings in the world.

Once you have been uprooted there is no going back. So I am uprooted enough to always feel that one part of me is missing, no matter where I am.

AG: You have to include the U.S. embassy in that rank too, right?

RB: Yeah, I guess.

AG: [laughs]

RB: The U.S. embassy is tucked in—the Soviet building is exposed. There is nothing around it. It just hits you in the eyes.

AG: Absolutely. Yeah it is a totem. Have you been? It’s such a beautiful place.

RB: I took on a fascination for Cuba early on in my life—perhaps adolescent rebelliousness. These bearded guys overthrowing a dictator—

AG: [laughs]

RB: I was admiring of the beatniks and getting into jazz and stuff and then on television there’s Fidel and Che.

AG: Of course. There’s never been anything more charismatic.

RB: And secondarily, I am amused by the intermittent discovery and fascination that Americans have with Cuba most recently displayed by the great popularity of the Buena Vista Social Club. An island of ten million people gets so much attention and so much mystery and—

AG: —it’s exotica, ninety miles from shore. And it’s revolution ninety miles from shore, which is— I categorize revolutionary fascination as exotica. It’s still exotic because it’s nothing that will ever apply to your life. It’s something like an impossible dream. And that’s what makes it so powerful. And it’s an impossible dream that also moves idealistic things in you. It’s more powerful than say Greta Garbo or whatever. But it has this same element of pure charisma. Just for the record of the irony of the fact the beards were so powerful as a symbol of rebellion and right after things kind of got in to shape in 1961, Cubans were forbidden to grow beards. Except for about six people in the whole country, starting with Fidel. And there has always been something about the uses of Cuba. It has always been useful to the United States as a repository for fantasies.

RB: What about the rest of Latin America?

AB: It’s doesn’t have that same power as a repository of fantasies. Except maybe Brazil— for the same sexual reasons. And Mexico because—

RB: Brazil and Cuba have the same kind of Afro-Christian religious rites—

AG: I don’t know that religion has so much to do with it as sex. I swear to God even the African religious ceremonies that came of over to Cuba and to Brazil with their whole kind of going into a trance and ecstasy the resonance of that for quite Protestant observers from the United States is very sexual—therefore exotic. Those two concepts are so intimately tied up. Che’s sexual charisma, Fidel’s sexual charisma.

RB: Had the Cuban literary tradition made any impact on the rest of Latin America?

AG: Absolutely. The Cuban culture, which was of very high level, had an enormous impact. Carpentier has been an enormously influential writer. Wilfredo Lam was an extraordinarily influential painter. Cuban music—even Cuban classical music has always impact.

RB: Other than, or even Ernesto Lecuono you don’t see it much of it performed here.

AG: But I think he had an influence on Cole Porter and on Gershwin. It’s amazing this island which then was an island of four million people. It was six million in 1970—so a poor island of four or five million people had this enormous cultural impact¬—is really an extraordinary thing.

RB: I was reading a history of the eighteenth-century Americas and it made a point of pointing out that the three most influential cities in the Americas were Havana, Mexico City and Lima. They had opera houses and such. People in the north were still living in caves. [both laugh]

AG: It was a renaissance hemisphere from south of the border, which at that time was not the Rio Grande. It was a renaissance colony shaped by that sense of potential, and gold and glitter.

RB: It’s kind of odd that Cubans have with the Argentines a reputation for arrogance in Latin America. The Cubans were referred to as the “Jews of the Caribbean.”

AG: I never heard that.

RB: I first heard it in Puerto Rico—which experienced an influx of Cubans in the early ‘60s. I never understood if it was referential to an attitude or to the diasporic fate of the Cubans.

AG: The Cubans we knew after the revolution who traveled to Latin America thought they had the secret, true virtue. That was not a Cuban quality. The Nicaraguans felt the same way after their Triumph.

RB: One thing that might confirm a certain Cuban arrogance is Cabrerra Infante’s dismissal of salsa.

AG: [laughs] Right, right.

RB: He basically termed it junk music.

AG: Which is like the most ridiculous thing anyone ever said. Let’s think of an analogy—American blues singers listening to Eric Clapton—they would say this and they might have a point.

RB: So in the short term what do you plan?

AG: To finish here and then I am taking myself to Colombia, which for some reason I am incredibly attached to.

RB: Is that nation the biggest tragedy in Latin America?

AG: Yeah it is—I don’t know— there is a [lot of] competition.

RB: You did a story on young [teenaged] murderers in Colombia, yes?

AG: Yes. One is in Looking for History and one is in The Heart That Bleeds. I have written quite a lot about Colombia. I don’t know that it’s the biggest tragedy but at the moment it is a tragedy that is a direct consequence of yet another war by the United States—called the drug war, which rather than seeking to solve the problem seeks to stomp it down. The United States in this case has paid with no deaths, and Colombia has paid with maybe forty thousand deaths. It’s a ridiculous situation. It’s obscene and it’s a result of the United States’s extraordinary willingness to export its problems somewhere else. And not to do the sensible thing, which is, legalize gradually drug consumption. Anyway I am going to Colombia and do a few stories out of there and out of Brazil.

RB: There is no natural end to out conversation but I did want to ask you about Nicaragua. Is any one paying attention to the aftermath?

AG: No.

RB: Is that the typical U.S. pattern—something flares up, there is a response then indifference, not even benign—

AG: It’s an indifference except, for example, the Bush Administration decides that the Nicaraguan Army which is still led largely by former Sandinistas is a threat to U.S. security and they won’t sell them their something or other missiles. This is one of the reasons revolutionary movements are so extraordinarily powerful to young men and women, to a degree, in countries from Iran to Mexico to Nicaragua. You live a completely marginal life. Live in miserable conditions. You are worth shit in the eyes of those that matter. And all of sudden you have a revolution and your life has meaning and you are important. And you’ll take any risk for that sensation.

RB: I was in Nicaragua in mid-1989 and was really impressed with how wonderful the people are—gentle and generous.

AG: Yeah, amazing.

RB: Which gets me to the unresolved question, how is it that some people care and others, perhaps many people don’t? Where does that come from? It’s not training is it? Ideology?

AG: I think it is training, to a degree. It’s the way you are brought up. Also, Nicaragua was, it no longer is, a predominantly Campesino country and Campesino peasant culture has that gentleness, and that kind of sly wit and patience. There is a reason why so many of us fell in love with Nicaragua. It’s irresistible. It’s a really extraordinary country.

© 2005 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing

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  • George Peternel

    Alma’s memoir of the short period of time she spent in Cuba reminds me that it is so easy to destroy, and so hard to build.