Alma Guillermoprieto is a frequent contributor to The New York Review, often writing on Latin America. She is the author of Dancing with Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution, among other books.
 (May 2016)

Cuba: The Big Change

President Obama with Cuban President Raúl Castro at a baseball game between the Cuban national team and the Tampa Bay Rays, Havana, March 2016
The stock phrase being used in the press is that this is “the first visit by a sitting US president in eighty-eight years,” but of course that’s not the point. It’s the first visit since the Cuban Revolution, the first since the Bay of Pigs, the first since Fidel brought in the nuclear missiles that made the world freeze in fear of imminent nuclear annihilation in 1962, the first since the United States imposed fifty years of diplomatic and commercial isolation on an island with a population of eleven million.

Mexico: The War on Journalists

Photojournalist Rubén Espinosa in Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico, January 20, 2014

Given the almost complete lack of trust under which law enforcement authorities labor everywhere in Mexico, it is not surprising that the Mexico City District Attorney’s preliminary conclusion, that Rubén Espinosa and his friend, the activist Nadia Vera, were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time when they were murdered July 31, was met with general hoots of rage and derision.

Guzmán: The Buried Truth

A Mexican federal police officer inspecting Chapo Guzmán's escape tunnel, July 16, 2016

Chapo Guzmán’s jailbreak is arguably the greatest pie-in-the-face embarrassment any Mexican government has ever had to deal with. But as the country’s highest officials try to recover face, serious questions continue to pile up—including claims that he was captured last year by US agents disguised as Mexican marines.

Mexico: Making the Dogs Dance

The end of the nearly one-mile tunnel through which drug kingpin Joaquín Guzmán Loera escaped, Almoloya de Juárez, Mexico, July 12, 2015

Within a few hours of his relaxed escape from Mexico’s highest security prison, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, better known as “el Chapo,” was back on Twitter. “Never say never,” the world’s most wanted drug trafficker cried. He thanked his collaborators, praised his sons, and made rude references to President Enrique Pena Nieto: “And you, @EPN, don’t call me a delinquent again, because I give people jobs, not like your piddling cheap government.”

Mexico: The Murder of the Young

Demonstrators marching from the teachers’ college in Ayotzinapa to the center of Chilpancingo, the capital of Guerrero state, Mexico, to attend a memorial mass for the forty-three abducted students, October 2014
Everyone knows what happened; no one understands why. On September 26, forty-three students were abducted in one of the poorest states in the Mexican republic, from one of its very poorest public vocational schools—an all-male teachers’ college. This is by no means the largest or even necessarily the most horrifying mass killing to have taken place in Mexico in recent years, but it is the most known: we know the perpetrators (the local police and the local drug gangs), the victims (forty-three young men whose pictures are now everywhere), and their families, stoic hard workers—campesinos, many of them—who have refused to back down from their demand that their missing children be returned to them alive.

Mexico: ‘We Are Not Sheep to Be Killed’

Relatives of the forty-three kidnapped students attending an outdoor mass in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico, October 27, 2014

The horrific kidnapping of forty-three boys has created a crisis of a different order for the Mexican state. By rights the Ayotzinapa parents should all go mad, faced with the uncertainty, systematic mistreatment by the authorities, and sheer horror of contemplating how their children may have been killed.

The Best World Cup Ever!

Colombia's James Rodriguez (10) and Pablo Armero, to his left, dancing with teammates after a goal against Ivory Coast, June 19, 2014

This is the best World Cup ever! There will no doubt be Scrooges on the sidelines contesting this solid fact, because this is soccer, but even skeptics must be mourning the end of the first stage of the cup, as each of the eight groups has now settled who’s in first place, who’s in second, and who is at the airport, ticket in hand, forlornly waiting for the long trip home.

The Kingpin at Rest

 Joaquín Guzmán Loera after his arrest, Mexico City, Mexico, February 22, 2014

In the end the best-known, and possibly even the most powerful of Mexico’s many, many drug traffickers was pretty much where he’d always been: in his home state of Sinaloa. His capture was so easy one wonders if he was tired of the hard life, needing relief from the pressure of transporting thousands of tons of drugs and the daily agony of deciding whom to kill.

Chavismo: The Crack Up?

 Former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez (right) with television presenter Mario Silva on the set of La Hojilla in Caracas, November 24, 2007

Sometime in the three months since Hugo Chávez was pronounced dead, his favorite television mouthpiece, a broadcaster called Mario Silva, delivered himself of his sorrow regarding Venezuela in the course of a highly private conversation. It was a riveting aria: fifty-three minutes in which Silva told of coup plots, death threats, power struggles within the heart of chavismo. Astonishingly, Mario Silva’s complaint was sung not to a friend or colleague, not to a Venezuelan official or source but to Aramis Palacios, a lieutenant colonel of Cuba’s G2 intelligence directorate, and we know what was said because someone—a spy for the opposition? secret agent Palacios himself?—has made an audio recording of this conversation available to the Venezuelan opposition.

Chavismo After Chávez

 Nicolás Maduro campaigning with a painting of Hugo Chávez, Catia la mar, Venezuela, April 9, 2013

From one moment to the next it wasn’t so funny anymore: Nicolás Maduro Moros, the late Hugo Chávez’s chosen successor, had gone on the campaign trail with the full backing of the chavista state, chavista judicial system, and chavista coffers. Everyone, possibly including the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles Radonski himself, expected him to win an easy victory. Yet on April 14, according to the officially impartial but unashamedly chavista electoral council, Maduro scraped out a tiny victory. Or perhaps he lost. And then chavismo collapsed into a scary collective insanity.

The Last Caudillo

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in Montevideo, Uruguay, December, 2009

Hugo Chávez was not the first president to fail, or to remain popular while failing. But it was his Peronist brand of popularity that so many found disturbing; the passion with which his name was roared at enormous public gatherings, the hatred he brought forth in his followers when he denounced the imperialists, the sharks, the would-be assassins of Venezuela, the traitors, the sneaking cowards who dared to disagree with him. And now we see the desperate weeping of millions of Venezuelans who feel that they have lost not a president or a politician or a great leader but something else: a father, a savior, a protector and soother of the orphan who lives in fright inside us all.

Mexico: Risking Life for Truth

A Mexican soldier helping to destroy a marijuana plantation near Culiacán, Sinaloa, February 2009
Let us say that you are a Mexican reporter working for peanuts at a local television station somewhere in the provinces—the state of Durango, for example—and that one day you get a friendly invitation from a powerful drug-trafficking group. Imagine that it is the Zetas, and that thanks to their efforts in your city several dozen people have recently perished in various unspeakable ways, while justice turned a blind eye. Among the dead is one of your colleagues. Now consider the invitation, which is to a press conference to be held punctually on the following Friday, at a not particularly out of the way spot just outside of town. You were, perhaps, considering going instead to a movie? Keep in mind, the invitation notes, that attendance will be taken by the Zetas.

Drugs: The Rebellion in Cartagena

President Obama with the Colombian singer Shakira and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in Cartagena, where he was attending the Summit of the Americas, at which leaders openly discussed the legalization of drugs for the first time, April 15,2012
A couple of decades ago, perhaps, a discussion of the war on drugs declared by Richard Nixon back in 1973 could reasonably have centered on whether eradication of narcotic-producing crops and the violent extermination of drug-trafficking groups was the way to rescue the young and vulnerable from the threat of addiction. It was the existence of addicts, after all, and the desire to avoid creating more of them, that justified the entire notion of drug prohibition. But the startling, unprogrammed, and rebellious discussion about drugs that took place among hemispheric leaders in April at a summit in Cartagena, Colombia, barely mentioned addiction, because it’s too late for that.

An End to the War on Drugs?

Natalia Andres Lopez and another relative mourn on the coffin containing the body of her cousin Elmer Constantino Castro Andrés at an Air Force base in Guatemala City, March 21, 2012. The remains of eleven Guatemalan citizens were repatriated from Mexico, part of 193 bodies found in the northern Mexico state of Tamaulipas in April 2011. Mexican authorities believe the dead were mostly migrants kidnapped from buses and killed by the Zetas drug cartel.

As a normally pro-forma gathering of hemispheric leaders gets under way in Cartagena, Colombia, this weekend, Latin America could instead be approaching its declaration of independence from the United States. For the first time, the region might come out against a US policy. The immediate cause is the War on Drugs. Unimpeachable allies of the United States, like Costa Rican president Laura Chinchilla, and Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos, who is the meeting’s host, have expressed their support for legalization of the drug trade. And, as is not infrequently the case in matters concerning Washington’s home hemisphere, the US has been caught unaware.

Merce Cunningham & the Impossible

Merce Cunningham (back center) at his dance studio on Third Avenue, New York City, 1970
Halfway through the first section of RainForest, the work that Merce Cunningham choreographed for his splendid company in 1968, the character initially played by Merce sits peaceably downstage left, while the character originally danced by Barbara Lloyd Dilley leans against him in a position of luxurious repose, her head on …

Après Merce

Merce Cunningham and Catherine Kerr performing Duets (1980)

Those of us who were privileged to study with Merce Cunningham at whatever point in his long career will cherish forever the physical challenges he posed for a dancer. Followers like myself also loved his senseless determination to make every piece new, even if it meant losing audience members unwilling to work that hard for the payoff. We loved Merce’s courage: he showed up for work when he was exhausted, when he was injured, when he was suffering, and he always danced full-out. But in an extraordinary act of artistic self-immolation, the creator of some of the twentieth century’s most moving dance works decided in his final years that the Merce Cunningham Dance Company should have a last world tour after his death—and then shut down. Whether he should have been allowed by his board to torch everything he worked so killingly hard to create will be debated for a long time, along with the question of why he did it.

Day of the 40,000 Dead

Members of Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity lighting candles in memory of more than forty thousands victims of violence at Angel Square, Mexico City, October 31, 2011.

In Mexico, the dearly beloved who are no longer in this world receive special dispensation to return to us once a year. To celebrate this miracle, we bring flowers to an elaborate, colorful altar, make a path with marigold petals to show them the way, sing to them, pamper them with offerings of their favorite foods, and generally laugh with them at death and other things. In certain parts of the country, the Day of the Dead, and the altar-building events that lead up to it, are a bigger deal than Christmas. This November 2nd has turned out slightly different from the preceding ones, however: as the number of fatalities in the current wave of narcowar violence approaches 40,000, a growing number of people have decided that these dead, too, should be remembered, although their killing is hardly a cause for celebration.

In the New Gangland of El Salvador

Suspected gang members being held by the police, San Salvador, August 2005
I’m back in El Salvador for the first time in thirty years, and I don’t recognize a thing. There are smooth highways from the airport up to San Salvador, the capital, and even at this late hour, along the stretch of dunes dividing the road from the Pacific Ocean, there are cheerful stands at which customers have parked to buy coconuts and típico foods. But I remember a pitted two-lane road, a merciless sun that picked out every detail on the taut skin of corpses, a hole in the sandy ground, the glaring news that four women from the United States, three of them nuns, had just been unearthed from that shallow pit.

The High Art of the Tamale

Pan de muerto, described by Diana Kennedy in Oaxaca al Gusto as ‘the semisweet yeast rolls of various sizes made for the Day of the Dead, All Saints and All Souls.’ Kennedy writes, ‘Each one is supposed to represent the soul of a departed family member or friend. The faces illustrated here were just a few of the hundreds being made by Señora Clementina Baños when I visited her one year at the end of October.’
Diana Kennedy was born in England some several decades ago (she does not like to be precise about such things) and grew up high-spirited, feisty, and no-nonsense. In 1957 she came to Mexico with her soon-to-be husband, and then she really fell in love—with her new life and with a universe of flavors, colors, textures, shapes, and aromas several light-years removed from her own. How could she have resisted? She was coming from the drab kitchens of postwar England, and in Mexico City just a short walk through any neighborhood market was enough to make her swoon: armfuls of blossoms the color of gold, the smoky perfume of dried chiles gusting through the corridors …

The Murderers of Mexico

Mausoleums with windows, air conditioning, and upstairs rooms for visiting mourners, built for rich traffickers from the state of Sinaloa who were killed in the Mexican drug war, Culiacán, July 5, 2009
How to write about Mexico’s drug war? There are only a limited number of ways that readers can be reminded of the desperate acts of human sacrifice that go on every day in this country, or of the by now calamitous statistics: the nearly 28,000 people who have been killed in drug-related battles or assassinations since President Felipe Calderón took power almost four years ago, the thousands of kidnappings, the wanton acts of rape and torture, the growing number of orphaned children.

A Quiet Shift in Mexico’s Drug War

Mexican soldiers, members of a special anti-narcotics brigade, uproot marijuana plants in the La Puntas zone in Sinaloa State in western Mexico, August 14, 1995

Without the rest of the world paying much attention, the tortured relations between drug traffickers and the rest of the Mexican population have taken a significant turn. Following a series of hair-raising events over the past few weeks, it appears that the government of Felipe Calderón may be preparing to replace its aggressive military campaign against the drug trade with a rather different policy—opening the door to a previously unthinkable debate about legalizing drugs. Either that, or the administration is losing its bearings at an even faster rate than we had supposed.

Maradona and Me

Fans in Querétaro, Mexico watching the World Cup, June 27, 2010

In January 1986, I became the South American bureau chief for a US magazine. It was not a happy marriage, and from the beginning I showed that I was not up to the job. A few weeks into my assignment, my editor phoned me. “We have a great story for you!” he burbled. I said that was wonderful. “We’re going to put you on the cover!” he exclaimed further, and I said that was wonderful too. Bursting with excitement, he said, “It’s Maradona!” There was a pause, and then I asked, “Where is that?” The silence that followed between us was to be never ending.

The Mission of Father Maciel

Pope John Paul II blessing Father Marcial Maciel at the Vatican, November 30, 2004
Of all the terrible sexual scandals the hierarchs in the Vatican find themselves tangled in, none is likely to do more institutional damage than the astounding and still unfolding story of the Mexican priest Marcial Maciel. The crimes committed against children by other priests and bishops may provoke rage, but …

¡Viva México!

Mexico's Cuauhtémoc Blanco celebrating after scoring during the World Cup soccer match between France and Mexico at Peter Mokaba Stadium, Polokwane, South Africa, June 17, 2010

Wasn’t that a good game! I think it may be the first time in history that Mexico actually has a real team, with three bright young players—Javier Hernández, Giovani Dos Santos, and Carlos Vela—who were on the team that won the under-17 World Cup in 2005. This bunch doesn’t seem to carry the weight of defeatism that has burdened previous teams in every single World Cup Mexico has qualified for, and they’re in top physical condition. By the end of the first half, they’d thoroughly tired out the panting French.

What is that Monkey Doing Behind the Rowboat?

Delfín Hasta el Fin, Little Wendy Sulca, and La Tigresa del Oriente, the stars of an Andean YouTube video

It may be that Latin America is the last great reservoir of innocent art. Or at least, one could happily arrive at that conclusion after watching a video on YouTube, “En tus tierras bailaré” (“In Your Lands Someday I’ll Dance”) that has gone way over the million-hit mark. It features three of the hottest video stars in the Andes: La Tigresa del Oriente (The Tigress of the East), Little Wendy Sulca, and Delfín Hasta el Fin, a name I declare myself incompetent to translate, though “All the Way with the Dauphin” is a start. La Tigresa, Little Wendy, and the Delfín were brought together virtually for this video, and among its many marvels is a joyful, if not proficient, use of technology.

Death Comes for the Archbishop

Members of Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romeo’s congregation gathering around his body after he was gunned down during Mass, San Salvador, March 24, 1980
I was in Managua, Nicaragua, thirty years ago, recovering from dengue fever, when my editor at The Guardian called from London to say that I should get on the next plane to San Salvador: the archbishop of El Salvador had been gunned down while saying Mass. I remember laughing at …

Father Maciel, John Paul II, and the Vatican Sex Crisis

Pope John Paul II blesses Father Marcial Maciel, November 2004

Of all the terrible sexual scandals the hierarchs in the Vatican find themselves tangled in, none is likely to do as much institutional damage as the astounding and still unfolding story of the Mexican priest Marcial Maciel. The crimes committed against children by other priests and bishops may provoke rage, but they also make one want to look away. With Father Maciel, on the other hand, one can hardly tear oneself from the ghastly drama as it unfolds, page by page, revelation by revelation, in the Mexican press.

Remembering Romero: The Murder that Ruptured El Salvador

Archbishop Romero surrounded by nuns, shortly after being gunned down at Mass, El Salvador, March 24, 1980 (Eulalio Pérez)
I was in Managua, Nicaragua, thirty years ago, recovering from dengue fever, when my editor at The Guardian called from London to say that I should get on the next plane to San Salvador: the Archbishop of El Salvador had been gunned down while saying Mass. I remember laughing at the impossibility of this too literary story—Murder in the Cathedral; of course it wasn’t true!—and then feeling sick. Óscar Arnulfo Romero, a self-effacing, not particularly articulate, stubborn man, who insisted every day on decrying the violence and terror that ruled his country, was, after all, the hierarch of the Catholic Church in El Salvador. He had all the weight of the Vatican behind him, and the natural respect of even the most right-wing zealot for such a holy office. And then there was the act itself: murder at the most sacred moment of the Catholic Mass. Who, in such a Catholic country, would dare to violate the transubstantiation of Christ’s body?

Bolivia’s Parched Future

For whatever reason—global warming seems to be one—Bolivia’s Chacaltaya glacier, whose runoff provided water for the contiguous cities of La Paz and El Alto for centuries, is now gone. Glaciers reconstitute themselves, if at all, outside the span of human time: we will not see so much ice shimmer again above the harsh brown altiplano, the highland plateau where two thirds of all Bolivians live. Other glaciers in the Bolivian Andes—like the Illimani, so beautiful to look at—are also melting, and in all likelihood will disappear before 2040.

A Lost World on the Map

About two thirds of the way through Cave, City, and Eagle’s Nest, a new book of descriptions and interpretations of a sixteenth-century indigenous painting from central Mexico, the historian of religion Vincent James Stanzione describes at some length a four-day voyage of initiation in the mid-1990s, on which he accompanied …