Alma Guillermoprieto
Alma Guillermoprieto; drawing by David Levine


What phase of development has Latin America entered right now? What place does it occupy in “the march of history,” with respect to the rest of the world? Octavio Paz puzzled over that question in an exquisitely writ-ten passage of his book on Sor Juana, the Baroque convent poet.* And he concluded that, for reasons peculiar to Hispanic life, no answer can be given. “Our history has never been a march, in any of the accepted meanings or variations of that word: the straight line of the evolutionists, the zigzag of the dialecticians, the circle of the neo-Platonists.” The history has been, instead, “a discontinuous process made of leaps and falls.”

In Paz’s interpretation, the Hispanic world has always consisted of several different civilizations superimposed on one another, with each civilization jostling against each of the others. And the consequences, for anyone trying to identify the stages of development, can only be exasperating. “Again and again we Spaniards and Hispano-Americans rub our eyes and ask ourselves: What time is it in the history of the world? Our time never coincides with everyone else’s. We are always ahead or behind.”

The title of Alma Guillermoprieto’s book, Looking for History: Dispatches from Latin America, expresses something of that same Hispanic bafflement. In the last few years, writers from various places around the world other than Latin America have demonstrated, in their own book titles, a serene confidence in their ability to identify history’s direction and even its pace. Francis Fukuyama could write his self-assured The End of History and the Last Man because, from his American perspective, the collapse of communism plainly demonstrated that liberal democracy was history’s ultimate end, and the forward march was indisputable.

A few years later the writer Eva Hoffman returned to the Eastern Europe of her childhood, took a look around, and rebutted Fukuyama’s interpretation in a book called Exit into History—though Hoffman’s refutation consisted mostly in showing that, from an Eastern European perspective, Fukuyama’s “end” could more accurately be called a beginning. History’s progress remained visible, either way. But Guillermoprieto’s Looking for History proposes no such conclusion, or even rebuttal—only a search. And the distinctly Latin American flavor of her book is evident even in its title.

A generation ago, many thoughtful and serious people on the left imagined that Latin America had taken its place in history’s march forward, and might even be at its head. The Cuban revolution radiated an air of success, and the heroic figures of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro led many people to suppose that Cuba’s triumphs were destined to spread across Latin America and to Africa and, in time, perhaps, to everywhere else. Guillermoprieto’s Looking for History includes an essay about Che called “The Harsh Angel,” commenting on the recent biographies of him by Jon Lee Anderson and Jorge G. Castañeda. And it is striking that, of all the essays in her book—there are seventeen, adapted from her pieces in these pages and The New Yorker—“The Harsh Angel” is easily the most emotional and even intimate.

Guillermoprieto reminds us that Che’s example inspired middle-class young people all over Latin America to abandon their lives of privilege and to join the left-wing guerrilla armies, in whose ranks they were slaughtered by the tens of thousands. She recalls that one of her friends, and her friend’s brother, and even her friend’s mother were among those people. Usually Guillermoprieto writes as an objective and neutral observer, faithfully reporting on Latin American events for the English-speaking world. But in the essay on Che, she slips into the possessive pronoun “our,” as if the subject has intensified the sense of her own Latin American identity. “So many of our leaders have been so corrupt,” she says, “and the range of allowed and possible public activity has been so narrow, and injustice has cried out so piercingly to the heavens, that only a hero could answer the call, and only a heroic mode of life could seem worthy.” But her final judgment of Che is icy:

He was an artist of scorn, heaping it on the sanctimonious, the officiously bureaucratic, the unimaginatively conformist, who whispered eagerly that the way things were was the best way that could be arranged. He was a living banner, determined to renounce all the temptations of power and to change the world by example. And he was a fanatic, consumed by restlessness and a frighteningly abstract hatred, who in the end recognized only one moral value as supreme: the willingness to be slaughtered for a cause.

In another essay Guillermoprieto describes the dying Evita Perón of Argentina, who said in her autobiography (or at least was said to have said, by her ghost writer), “Fanaticism turns life into a permanent and heroic process of dying; but it is the only way that life can defeat death.” That was Che’s idea, exactly.


Fidel Castro strikes Guillermoprieto as a different kind of leader entirely, but that is not to say he is any saner than Che. In Cuba almost four years ago, at the time of the Pope’s visit, Guillermoprieto caught sight of Castro on late-night television giving a live press conference. The conference began at nine in the evening and the Maximum Leader talked on and on. The journalists got in barely a word. By 3:30 in the morning he was still going strong. The performance seemed lunatic. On the other hand, this outlandish personality of his has always displayed traits that, in Guillermoprieto’s analysis, do have their dark enchantments—“a Spanish-inspired vision of what dignity consists of,” shaped by “twinned obsessions with virility and with being condemned by the gods to the loser’s fate.” It is a heroic personality, which is to say, rigid and doomed.

She describes the poverty and social disasters that have come of this man’s dictatorship, the suppression of the Catholic religion (lifted somewhat, as she records, on the occasion of the Pope’s visit), the tinselly degradation that accompanies Cuban sex tourism. Guillermoprieto expresses in her understated and sometimes even humorous way her compassion for the victims of Cuba’s many calamities—the young prostitute and her loyal boyfriend in Havana, the idealistic provincial doctor who was jailed for speaking up about some concealed cases of cholera, the doctor’s bereft wife. But Guillermoprieto’s most touching sympathy goes out to the people in Cuba who, in their innocence, still somehow cling to their belief in Castro and his revolution.

It is heartbreaking to read about one of Guillermoprieto’s stalwart Fidelista friends, a middle-aged black man from a dirt-poor family, who, thanks to the revolution, has climbed the social ladder and “is now fluent in two useless languages—Russian and Bulgarian,” and finds himself launched into modern life with “a degree in a useless discipline—Marxist economics.” Cuba has somehow ended up with more than its share of people like that, venerable Quixotes in the grip of strange and antique ideas, knocked about by the inevitable lurches of a giant windmill, yet incapable of being roused out of what she calls their “dream-like trance.”

In recent decades Latin America has produced quite a lot of people who, unlike those faithful and pathetic Fidelistas, have somehow mustered the strength to snap out of their political trances—whether the trances have been Marxist, populist, or nationalist in inspiration. Guillermoprieto presents the example of Mario Vargas Llosa, who has himself told the tale both in fiction (for example, The Real History of Alejandro Mayta) and in his memoir, A Fish in the Water, of running for president of Peru in 1990. Vargas Llosa recalls in that memoir how, as a young man, he used to pore over Jean-Paul Sartre’s magazine Les Temps Modernes, which arrived in the mail from Paris, and how, with French philosophical ideas racing through his head, he, too, dreamed the revolutionary dream. Guillermoprieto observes that in those years Vargas Llosa was driven by his own vision of personal dignity, which he conceived in a very Peruvian spirit of social rancor—the rancor of someone who grew up in a layered social system of economic classes and skin-tone sub-sub-groups, in which his father came from one minuscule group and his mother from a slightly higher one, and the war of group against group was bred into his bones.

But what happened to Vargas Llosa’s rancorous dignity when, waking from his left-wing sleep, he set out to rescue his country from guerrillas and populists? He adopted a doctrine of free-market democracy. And Guillermoprieto concludes that, in running for president in the dazzle of those newer ideas, Vargas Llosa somehow lost sight of every bitter truth about the business and social kingpins of Peru that he had so brilliantly recorded in his novels. His campaign went down to defeat, crushed by the populist demagoguery of Alberto Fujimori, and Vargas Llosa’s awakening did Peru no good at all.

The biggest and most impressive of Latin America’s efforts to shake off the old revolutionary somnolence has taken place in tiny steps over many years in Mexico, as described in several of Guillermoprieto’s dispatches, which amount to almost half the book. The ruling party in Mexico for the last seven decades, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI, was always an authoritarian organization in the corporatist mode—an organization that aspired to mobilize Mexico’s population into column-like social structures, reaching downward to the humblest of the poor and upward to the super-rich. The PRI was at times a violent party, and over the years those column-like social structures became more and more corrupt. Still, the party never lapsed into the totalitarian extravagances of a Communist or fascist movement. And, as Guillermoprieto shows, by the 1980s the PRI, racing to keep up with reality, launched its own campaign for liberal reform—first under the pressure of some dissidents who broke away in 1987, and then through several policies enacted by Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who was Mexico’s president from 1988 to 1994.


Guillermoprieto reminds us that Salinas tried to push the economy forward by privatizing a few aspects of the moribund state system. He appointed a number of idealistic and even left-wing people to administer social programs. Those were genuine efforts to drag Mexico into the modern world, but they were not successful. Salinas’s administration never seemed truly legitimate to many Mexicans—he had ascended to the presidency only by virtue of what appeared to be a grotesque computer manipulation of the electoral returns. In the atmosphere of fraud and dishonesty that surrounded the PRI, his economic reforms were guaranteed to leak away into an ever-growing puddle of corruption.

Privatization meant theft. And the combination of political illegitimacy and failed reforms combusted finally into a series of bizarre and criminal events during the 1990s, of the sort that Suetonius might have recognized. There was the murder of Luis Donaldo Colosio, Salinas’s anointed successor in the PRI; the murder of Salinas’s ex-brother-in-law, the secretary- general of the PRI; the arrest and conviction (on tainted evidence, Guillermoprieto says) of the president’s brother, Raúl Salinas, for having masterminded the murder of the secretary-general; the suicide of the secretary-general’s brother; the digging up of a skeleton, which was said to be the remains of the secretary-general’s murderer but was actually someone else entirely, whose bones had been planted on Raúl Salinas’s farm at the behest of a fortuneteller who, as Guillermoprieto discovered, was a former leader of a PRI street mob. Raúl Salinas was meanwhile discovered to have salted away some $80 million in Swiss banks. The cardinal of Guadalajara was murdered in a blaze of gunfire at the Guadalajara airport. And President Salinas himself, after stepping down from office, launched a cranky hunger strike in order to protest his treatment at the hands of a vengeful press.

Guillermoprieto’s account of those several weird occurrences is careful and detailed and even good-humored, given the gruesome nature of what she describes. The fog of criminal conspiracy lies thick across those events, though, and neither she nor anyone else has been able to penetrate it sufficiently to identify with certainty who was trying to murder whom, and with what diabolical purpose in mind. But about the larger meaning of those murky crimes, Guillermoprieto is entirely clear. The crimes and conspiracies were cracks running down the façade of the old revolutionary political culture in Mexico. And in the summer of 2000, the ancient house of the PRI finally collapsed, at least at the level of a presidential election.

Guillermoprieto describes the winner of that election, Vicente Fox, as a sympathetic figure, a sort of Pedro Infante, the Mexican singing-cowboy star of the 1940s, “macho on the outside but with a cream-puff center.” During the electoral campaign, a large number of Mexicans saw Fox in that light, and perhaps still do, in spite of his many recent setbacks. Then again, Fox in his campaign against the PRI instilled a genuine fear in quite a few other Mexicans, including what seemed to be a large majority of Mexico’s intellectuals.

Now, here is an idiosyncrasy of Latin American politics that Guillermoprieto, quite uncharacteristically, fails to bring into focus. In one country after another in other parts of the world during this last dozen revolutionary years, the intellectuals have had a large role in overthrowing old authoritarian systems and building up new democracies. But in Mexico, only a handful of well-known intellectuals, led by Jorge Castañeda, Che’s biographer, endorsed Fox’s insurgency against the PRI (and Fox, after his victory, returned the favor by appointing Castañeda foreign minister). Among other well-known intellectuals, more than a few refrained from making any endorsements at all. A good many intellectuals were enthusiastic about a third-party candidate and even about a fourth-party candidate—though it was obvious to any politically sophisticated person that in the election of 2000, supporting any candidate other than Fox was bound to increase the possibility of the PRI’s remaining in power for another six years.

Guillermoprieto celebrates a brave and persistent human rights leader in Mexico, Sergio Aguayo, but the unsuspecting reader might not realize that even Aguayo chose to endorse one of Fox’s minor electoral rivals, Gilberto Rincón Gallardo, who ran a Ralph Nader–like campaign on the left. Guillermoprieto explains that Fox appreciates the talents of women, and has appointed an unusually large number to high positions; but she neglects to mention that during the election, Mexico’s leading feminists lined up in favor of Fox’s opponents. (The editor of Mexico’s principal feminist journal frankly preferred the PRI to Fox, though otherwise she detested the PRI.) And why did most of the intellectuals and the human rights campaigners and the feminists stay away from Fox, when it was obvious that he and he alone had any chance of overthrowing the corrupt old PRI?

Partly it was because Fox’s party, National Action, traces its roots back to Franco sympathizers (though not to the outright fascists) of the 1930s. Fox and a good many of his partisans are products of what used to be the extreme right—though the extreme right in Mexico, a large portion of it anyway, has in recent years managed to drag itself into the modern, democratic world, a capital event for Latin America.

Mexican intellectuals, on the other hand, are, many of them, products of the radical left from the days of Che and the Cuban revolution. The leftists, too, have undergone a democratic evolution. But evolutions move slowly sometimes, and when the intellectuals looked at Fox during his electoral campaign, they kept expecting to see the fascist past; and now and then, as could have been predicted, a few pieces of the past did come fluttering by. Fox made a habit on the stump of shouting a scary old slogan from the fanatical right-wing Cristero movement of the 1920s: “If I advance, follow me! If I hold back, push me! If I retreat, kill me!” That did not reassure anyone on the left. Fox waved the banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which is a right-wing symbol in Mexico. Left-wing intellectuals cringed.

Then, too, Fox is a rough-and-ready business executive, a former president of Coca-Cola in Mexico, and not a cultivated man—whereas the leaders of the PRI, say what you will, tend to be culturally sophisticated. (Raúl Salinas, to cite a notable example, is famous for his refined literary enthusiasms.) On cultural grounds alone, the intellectuals, some of them at least, tended to be frightened of Fox. Thus Mexico, almost unique in the world in this respect, ended up undergoing a democratic transition in which, at the climactic moment, the intellectuals, except for a handful, played only a secondary role.

Still, the old system did get overthrown in the 2000 election, and even some of Fox’s bitterest left-wing opponents were thrilled to see it happen. The transition to the Fox administration was, as Guillermoprieto observes, “the most cheerful hiatus anyone can remember.” (Even the intellectuals seem to have reconciled themselves to the new order—perhaps in some degree because the victorious Fox has handed out well-paid diplomatic posts to low-paid writers.) And since Mexico is the largest of all the Spanish-speaking countries, and Mexico City is a capital of culture, you might suppose that now, at last, the Hispanic world would fall in with the march of history, that the detour into Cuban caudillo-worship and other Marxist and populist delusions of recent decades would at last come to an end, and that the hour of democratic modernity would begin to chime in Latin America, just as in other parts of the world.


But then, what are we to make of an event as strange as the continuing Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, along Mexico’s southern border? The Zapatistas are sometimes described as an Indian-rights pressure group, which is a description that would fit nicely into a panorama of modern democratic activity. Perhaps that is what the Zapatistas will prove to be, if Fox has any success in negotiating with them and in demonstrating the value of his new law on Indian rights—though it must be said that, so far, there is no sign of progress in those negotiations. Guillermoprieto’s experience of the Zapatistas leads her, in any case, to express a skepticism about the movement and its ability to adapt to new and better circumstances.

She has made her way into the Lancandón jungle of Chiapas more than once, and has interviewed Subcomandante Marcos there, and she has chatted with the Mayan rank and file of Marcos’s Zapatista National Liberation Army. She shows that the Zapatista movement got its start in the Guevarist aspirations of the 1960s—in this case, in a Maoist splinter group in Mexico, which sent its militants into the jungle where, after many years and political flipflops, they sparked an uprising. Marcos himself began his revolutionary career as a philosophy student and young professor reading the Parisian Marxists, just like Vargas Llosa.

It’s true that, after their insurrection got going, the Zapatistas veered into something less than full-scale guerrilla violence. They moderated their goals, too, and came out for a version of Indian autonomy instead of a Cuban-style revolution. From under his mask, Marcos is a charming man, a witty writer at moments, clever and flirtatious with women. Guillermoprieto finds him amusing.

But there is something extremely odd about Marcos leading a jungle uprising while composing disquisitions on postmodernist themes and e-mailing them to the world. The collected letters he has published exhibit, in Guillermoprieto’s view, “an intense, self-involved romanticism.” Talking to him in his Chiapas hideaway, she came to believe that “he too was a utopian, dealing in closed universes, good and evil,” “a hip Anabaptist with a gun.” It’s hard to imagine what the Mayan Zapatistas must think of him. A Zapatista asks Guillermoprieto if there are many campesinos in New York. Another says in broken Spanish (a large number of Zapatistas speak one or another of the Mayan languages, and little or no Spanish), “We don’t know where the government is, or what its palace is like.” As Guillermoprieto makes plain, those people, many of them at least, have hardly any idea of modern politics. Zapatista rhetoric can make the situation in Chiapas seem fairly simple. But the actual complexities are vast. She gives a masterful summary:

For one thing, the Zapatistas are not an army and it appears unlikely that they will become one in the foreseeable future. For another, the Mayan people of Chiapas are as divided—or pluralistic—as the rest of Mexico, in this case between Catholics and members of evangelical Protestant sects, between different language groups, between pro- and anti-Zapatistas, between the traditionalist elders and the young people who are traveling in increasing numbers to the United States to look for work and, lastly, between communities that have become heavily infiltrated by the drug trade and those that have refused to collaborate. Conceivably, if the Zapatista leadership recognized these realities in its language, it would open the way for a more useful view of its future, and the future of its support communities. But this would involve making what appears to be an intolerable admission: that Marcos does not speak for all 10 million of Mexico’s indigenous people, and not even for all of the Maya in Chiapas.

If the Zapatistas seem unable to adapt to modern realities, what are we to make of a far more serious guerrilla insurgency, the one in Colombia? Guillermoprieto lived for a while in Bogotá, and back in 1986 she spent three days trekking on foot and horseback into the guerrilla zone to interview the revolutionary leaders. She returned to the Colombian wilds more recently to speak to them again, all of which has given her an unusually deep experience of the Colombian war. Her dispatches are not reassuring. In the jungles of Colombia, there are no philosophy professors in love with Parisian Marxism who might find themselves yielding someday to newer and better ideas. The guerrilla leaders in Colombia appear to be men of little knowledge, no curiosity, and no intellectual interests. After talking with one of them, she writes, “I could not shake off the impression of having been submerged in someone’s delirium.”

Many a person in the wilds of Putomayo and other remote zones of Colombia has never been out of the jungle and has never seen a city. How can people from those regions possibly know how to evaluate the collapse of communism in other parts of the world? How can they recognize that today is no longer the time of Che? They seem unable to do this. And so the young men and even the young women—some 30 percent of the Colombian guerrillas are women, Guillermoprieto says—and even the little children march off to war.

Colombia’s Marxist guerrillas, who control large portions of the country, are opposed not only by the Colombian army but by the so-called self-defense committees or autodefensas, the right-wingers, and those people are the most brutal of all. Guillermoprieto tells us that the Marxist guerrillas refer to the kidnappings that provide them with ransom money as detenciones, which sounds bad enough. But the autodefensas, with sinister euphemism, describe their widely applied policy of massacres as “multiple military objectives.”

The United States has now blithely stepped into this tropical catastrophe, offering huge quantities of military aid in the name of combating drugs. Guillermoprieto makes clear her doubts about American policy and what she regards as its naiveté (though she also holds out a faint hope that foreign involvement in Colombia’s war may pull the guerrillas out of their provinciality and ignorance). But her theme is Latin America, not the United States and its delusions. And what she shows about Colombia’s war is positively terrifying: a chronic, large-scale guerrilla conflict commanded by people who are sunk in delirium, funded in the hundreds of millions of dollars a year by drug addicts from the United States, drawing on endless supplies of human cannon fodder from the wretched villages of the jungle, at war against brutal and ignorant right-wingers, who are themselves crazed by a spirit of vengeance.


Alma Guillermoprieto is Mexican, the descendant of a nineteenth-century poet named Guillermo Prieto, whose combined first and surname the family chose to adopt, in honor of his local renown. Guillermo Prieto lived from 1818 to 1897 and was among the first generation of Latin American romantics. His great inspiration was to take the medieval ballads of Spanish tradition and adapt them to Mexican village scenes, using a village slang and the tongue-twisting sounds of Indian place names. He wanted to construct a distinctly Mexican poetry, huge in ambition, folksy in appearance. Prieto could be compared to Longfellow in those respects, and even in the rhythmic strum of his melodies.

Longfellow could be quaint and coy, and so could Prieto. Still, Prieto knew how to work up a sharp ire against Mexico’s historic oppressor (namely, France, in the age of Napoleon III). He wrote some sly, amorous poems that a Puritan like Longfellow could never have dreamed of. Prieto composed at least one masterpiece, a verse legend of the Spanish Inquisition called “El Callejón del Muerto,” which, in its spine-tingling creepiness, is worthy of Hawthorne. And he created a verse landscape of nineteenth-century Mexican characters—the jealous and cruel campesinos, their long-suffering and sharp-tongued wives, the dandies on horseback with handsome scars and flashing swords, the masked and seductive lovers, the penniless fiesta-goers, the fiery girlfriends clutching daggers, and sundry pious Catholic parishioners and unhappy fallen women whom you could never mistake for New England farmers.

If you keep these portraits of Guillermo Prieto in mind, you may notice a special artfulness in Alma Guillermoprieto. For she, too, knows how to capture, with an economy of strokes, the main features of one person after another—the traits that account for Che Guevara, and for Eva Perón’s cult of death, Vargas Llosa’s insecurities and rancors, Castro’s obsession with rigidity and defeat, Subcomandante Marcos’s flashy seductiveness, the murderous vengeance-seeking of Colombian guerrillas and anti-guerrillas, and the pathos of the uneducated campesinos in Chiapas and Putomayo. Guillermoprieto knows how to bring a mischievous and even a sensual touch to her portraits. The twists and turns of Latin American masculinity never seem to escape her. And she, too, knows how to arrange her portraits into a larger landscape.

In some ways her talents rise above her distinguished ancestor’s. Guillermo Prieto, the poet, took an obvious pleasure in filling his compositions with crowd-pleasing phrases, and for a modern reader these were his downfall. But nothing of the sort intrudes into the dispatches of Alma Guillermoprieto, the journalist—no striving for extreme effects, no fakery to attract the reader’s admiration, no reaching for rhetorical heights. She makes no effort to enlist the readers into some doctrinal or ideological cause. Her journalism is artful, but it is never less than pure.

This Issue

October 18, 2001