Alma Guillermoprieto, who writes regularly for The New York Review about Latin America, is the author of Dancing with Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution, among other books. She delivered the 2018 Robert B. Silvers Lecture at the New York Public Library. (February 2019)
Castro is gone from the scene at the moment when he could have been useful. Outwardly a highly cultured man with exquisite manners, he had the inner constitution of a bully. In defeat he always hit back harder, because it was simply not in him to back down.
The fatal idea of holding a plebiscite to ratify the peace agreement between the FARC and the government was President Santos’s alone, and he stuck to it against strenuous opposition from his advisers. The referendum he designed to guarantee the peace agreement’s permanence proved its undoing. He had stated earlier that there was no plan B, and we now learn that he wasn’t kidding. The question is what comes now.
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.
When I was a child there was always a nanny. My parents were broke more often than not—breakfast and supper might frequently be a bread roll and black coffee—but there was always a nanny, and no matter how sporadically we paid her, she never left: it was the order of things. Carmela fed me breakfast when my parents weren’t around. She took me with her wherever she went: to market, to shop for the day’s meal; to the shoe repair shop; to the park, where we sat on a bench to watch the pigeons while I clung to her, blurting questions; and even to faraway Xochimilco, where she had relatives, and where, on a dusty road in the middle of cornfields and narrow canals, I saw my first funeral—a quavering chant in the air, a dozen mourners, the men in straw cowboy hats, the women wrapped in rebozos, everyone holding a flower or a candle in the late-afternoon light, and at the center, a small white coffin bearing the angelito, the dead child.
From its first issue in 1963, Robert Silvers was either co-editor with Barbara Epstein or, after her death in 2006, editor of The New York Review. Bob worked almost to the very end of his life, which would be no surprise to those who knew him well, including those who have written these brief memoirs.
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.
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.
On the day he was killed, Mexican journalist Javier Valdez had just come from a meeting with the Riodoce newspaper staff about his security situation; he should leave Sinaloa, at least for a while, everyone agreed. He was intercepted by gunmen on his way home.
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.
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.