Reading Between the Lines/Leyendo Entre Lineas

Text: Francisco Collazo
Washington, D.C. & New York photos: Francisco Collazo
Havana Photos: Brayan Collazo
[vease abajo para la version en espanol]
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There are certain political events that continue to preoccupy me
, though I don’t really know why.

The letter sent to US Senator Daschle with Anthrax. The Oliver North scandal and the Nicaraguan contras. Fujimori and Vladimiro Lenin Montesinos in Peru. Carlos Andres Perez, former president of Venezuela, accused of theft and corruption. The firing squad execution of a Cuban general. Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez and his alleged treason and narcotrafficking. The Abu Ghraib prison scandal. And the most recent: the dismissal of 12 Cabinet level ministers in Cuba, including Felipe Roque y Carlos Lage, both key ministers in the Cuban government, one, the minister of foreign relations, the other, vice-president of the Congress.

Common threads can be seen in each of these cases, whether it’s the destructive capacity of the acts, the manipulation of the press with respect to minimizing or misconstruing the events, and the circumstances through which the public comes to learn of them. All of these were events that were difficult to just sweep under the rug.

Although little has been given in terms of information or details regarding what occurred this week in Havana, I can’t help but think the development is one of profound seriousness and with serious political implications, particularly considering it occurred after the announcement that possible conversations between Cuba and the US could occur.

I’ll admit that I’m not a political expert. I’m not an intelligence agent. But I’ve lived through plenty of significant events in modern Latin American and world history, and as a result, I’ve learned how to read between lines rather well.

I have profound doubts about the relative silence of the foreign press about what occurred in Cuba this week, the lack of details or interest, especially when we consider the extremely sophisticated intelligence available at every level: radio satellites, secret missions, infiltration, misinformation, and other methods of high–and not so high–technology. Perhaps this is the reason Barack Obama sent a personal letter to the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev instead of an e-mail. Perhaps it’s also why, years ago, when Fidel Castro was asked what would happen to the Revolution when he died, he responded with all seriousness, “You should ask the CIA that question; I’m sure they have the answer.”

Really, it’s difficult for an ordinary person, a consumer of mass media, to decipher the reality within the news if they’re not using all the information and events they’ve accumulated in their lives in order to interpret events. For example, according to international news, I believed that communism and socialism had disappeared with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. This whole system had disappeared as rapidly as it had appeared. But it wasn’t that way. Venezuela, Bolivia, and even Ecuador, are on the road to socialism. The news tried to convince me that the arms race and the fear of nuclear attacks ended with the Cold War, but that hasn’t been the case either. North Korea and Iran appear to have active nuclear plans, and the politics of fear is alive again.

On more than one occasion I’ve had to read between the lines as a news consumer to read what hasn’t been written: the stock market is actually dropping when we’re being told it’s rising; the days forecast as sunny end rainy and cloudy; the promises of a free digital camera turn out to be false.

Today, with this news, an old proverb came to mind: The fish starts to rot at the head. And this fish has been the Cuban ministers removed from their posts. If it’s the case that enemy intelligence succeeded in penetrating the ministers of Cuba, this will have been a blessing to close the breach and reaffirm the government’s position, namely: that the US is a constant threat, an opportunist, a traitor, and untrustworthy.

The more attacks, the more obstacles, the better; it allows a country to define its politics and portray itself as overcoming challenges, which would not have been possible otherwise. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were a surprise attack but were transformative at the same time. The emotional response of many Americans was “Respond with force once and for all.” But in spite of the sobriety and impact of the moment as the nation endured a sad and difficult phase, some investors celebrated because the attacks signaled that the machinery of war would kickstart the arms industry. I thought that, ethically speaking, this attitude was out of step with what the rest of the population thought.

I truly hope that all of these tactical movements made on the part of the Cuban government haven’t been the result of a Cuban counter-intelligence operation due to some sort of infiltration. This would send a signal to the government of Havana, and to Cuba, that the government of Washington hasn’t changed its foreign policy with respect to Cuba. If this is the case, the possibility that both parties will sit down at the negotiations table will be unlikely.

After everything, history has taught us something basic and fundamental: we’ve learned that we’ve learned nothing. We’re still speaking the languages of Babel.

**


Hay ciertas maniobras politicas o eventos que me llegan a preocupar personalmente
y no se por que.

La carta enviada a Senador estadounidense Daschle con Antrax. Los escandalos de Oliver North y los contras de Nicaragua. Fujimori y Vladimiro Lenin Montesinos del Peru. Carlos Andres Perez, ex-presidente de Venezuela, acusado y destituido por robo y corrupcion. La ejecucion por fusilamiento del General de Division Cubano. Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez por su alegada traicion y narcotrafico. El escandalo de la prision de Abu Ghraib. Y el mas reciente: los cambios de 12 ministros, incluyendo Felipe Roque y Carlos Lage, ambos ministros claves en el gobierno de Cuba; el uno, ministro de relaciones exteriors, el otro, Vice presidente del consejo de estado.

En cada uno de los casos, hubo elementos muy particulares, ya sea la capacidad destructiva de los eventos de los involucrados, la manipulacion por parte de la prensa en darle voz oficial minimizando los eventos en su comienzo, y las circunstancias en que todo estos aparecen en los medios de comunicacion. Todos fueron hechos muy dificiles de barrer bajo la alfombra.

Aunque no se ha dicho mucho en terminos de informacion y detalles de los sucesos ocurridos en La Habana, no dejo de pensar que es un suceso de tremenda gravedad y magnitud politica, especialmente despues de que se anunciara posibles conversaciones entre los gobiernos de Cuba y de los Estados Unidos.

Debo confesar que no soy un experto en material politica, no un agente cubierto o estoy haciendo el trabajo de radio-bemba. He vivido a traves de muchos eventos significativos en la americalatina y el mundo que me han dado cierta habilidad de poder atar los cabos para llegar al obillo, o mas bien, leer entre lineas.

Tengo inmensas dudas en el silencio de los medios extranjeros de prensa; la falta de detalles e interes, estan un poco oscuro, especialmente cuando se cuenta con una tecnologia de espionaje extremadamente sofisticada a todos los niveles: satelites de escuchas, misiones secretas, infiltracion, desinformacion y otros metodos de alta y no tan alta tecnologia. Quizas esta fue una de las razones la cual Barack Obama envio una carta personal al presidente de Rusia Dmitry Medvedev en vez de un e-mail; quizas tambien cuando en anos pasados durante una entrevista le preguntaron a Fidel Castro que pasara con la revolucion cuando el muera. Fidel le respondio con toda seriedad: “Eso debes preguntarselo a la CIA, que estoy seguro que ellos tienen la respuesta.”

Realmente es dificil para una persona ordinaria, consumidor de los medios masivos de comunicacion decifrar la realidad dentro de las noticias si no usas toda la informacion y eventos disponibles durante tu vida para interpretar los eventos. Por ejemplo segun los medios noticiosos internacionales yo crei que el comunismo y el socialismo se habia derrumbado con el muro de Berlin y la desintegracion de la Union Sovietica. Todo este sistema habia desaparecido tan rapido como aparecio. Pero no fue asi. Venezuela, Bolivia, y Ecuador estan en camino al socialismo! Me convencieron que con la terminacion de la guerra fria, se reducirian la carrera armamentista y el miedo a un ataque nuclear seria una cosa del pasado y tampoco ha sido asi. Corea Norte e Iran estan haciendo noticia de primera plana y la politica de miedo esta de nuevo vivita y coleando.

En mas de una ocasion como consumidor de noticia he tenido que permitirme leer entre lineas lo que no se ha escrito: la bolsa de valores que baja cuando nos dicen que suben, los dias que se pronostican soliados y terminan lluviosos y nublados, las promesas de una camera digital “gratis” con la compra de esto o lo otro.

Hoy con esta noticia tengo que admitir que me viene a la mente un viejo proverbio que dice: El pez se empieza a pudrir por su cabeza. Y este pez ha sido los ministros cubanos removidos de sus puestos. Si el hecho ha sido que la inteligencia enemiga logro hacer un trabajo de penetracion en los ministros de Cuba, este ha sido una bendicion para cerrar la brecha y re-afirmar su posicion. Para el gobierno de Cuba, los Estados Unidos son una amenaza constante, oportunista, traicionero, y no confiable.

Mientras mas ataques y mas obstaculos, mucho mejor porque se libran mas batallas, porque se vencen mas obstaculos y se define la politica a tomar que si no fuera por estos eventos jamas tomarian forma. Septiembre 11, 2001 fue un ataque sorpresa y un hecho transformativo a la vez. La respuesta emocional de la mayoria fue “responder con fuerza de una vez y por toda.” Sin embargo, a pesar de su seriedad e impacto aprendi que mientras la nacion pasaba por una etapa triste y dificil, inversionistas celebraron los eventos del 11 de Septiembre por lo que esto significaba para la industria armamentista. No podria negar que pense que eticamente esta actitud estaba fuera de tono con lo que el resto de la populacion pensaba. a la misma vez seria imposible la political actual en el mundo arabe sin los eventos de ese dia.

Realmente espero que toda esta movida tactica por parte del gobierno de Cuba no halla sido la respuesta al trabajo de contra-inteligencia de la seguridad Cubana tras el hallazgo de una infiltracion. la cual seria un hecho bochornoso de admitir publicamente. Por otra parte este hecho enviaria una senal al gobierno de la Habana, a Cuba, que el gobierno de Washington no ha cambiado su politica exterior en cuanto a Cuba se refiere. De ser este el caso, las posibilidades de sentarse a la mesa de negociaciones en terminos amistosos y con respeto serian nulas y bien lejos de la realidad.

Despues de todo yo digo tomates, tu me dices tomato, yo digo patata y tu me dices potato. La historia nos ha dicho que algo basico y fundamental esta perdido, hemos aprendido que no hemos aprendidos. Todavia hablamos las lenguas de Babel.

The Meaning of Barack in Brazil

Text & Photos: Julie Schwietert Collazo

A few weeks before I arrived in Brazil, Francisco and I watched a fantastic short documentary, “The Obama Samba*.”

From the synopsis of the documentary:

“At least eight candidates across [Brazil] have chosen to identify themselves with the U.S. presidential hopeful. Using names that sound like welterweight champions, there is the “Brazilian Obama,” and the “Obama of the Savannah.” Outside of Rio, in the region known as the Baixada, or “Lowlands,” there is Claudio Henrique, also known as the ‘Obama of the Baixada.’

Hoping to become the first black mayor of his hometown of Belford Roxo, Henrique sees the senator from Illinois as an inspiration, who has been able to break boundaries and overcome obstacles — many of which stand in Henrique’s way.”

I won’t ruin the fascinating story by telling you how it ends– you’ve got to see it yourself.

What I will say is that I can now confirm first-hand just how profound an impression President Obama has made on many Brazilians.

There are some, like artist Francisco Brennand, who display their political admiration proudly even though they couldn’t vote for Obama.

This banner hangs on the old ceramic factory Brennand bought in 1971 and which now serves as a repository and museum for the vast collection of his own ceramics. I took the photo today while visiting with Brennand.

And then there are entrepreneurs who see the value of Brand Obama… this is the second bar I’ve seen sporting a new name. Formerly “Bar Brahma” (named after one of Brazil’s beers), Brazilians can now down a cold one at “BARack OBrAhMA.”

*(the producer of “The Obama Samba” also co-produced the compelling documentary “The Judge and the General,” which is a must-see for anyone interested in Chilean history, human rights, and social justice.)

At Last!

There were so many many moments from inauguration week in Washington, D.C. that moved me to tears:

*Standing on the mall with an estimated 1-2 million people from 6 in the morning until 2 in the afternoon, sharing conversations with people from around the country and the world who couldn’t be anywhere else except here;

*Watching elderly and disabled people brave the cold and do whatever it took to make it through the inauguration pomp and circumstance;

*Listening to President Obama’s inaugural speech;

*Feeling a flood of relief as the helicopter lifted the Bushes into the sky, finally, finally signaling the end of an era;

*Watching the 40 kids and adults on the tour I was leading have transformative moments as they just took in everything around them.

But just when I thought I couldn’t cry anymore, I went back to my hotel room on the night of the inauguration and saw this on TV:

and then, Robin Roberts’ interview with Beyonce:

“I’m so proud of my country,” she says. “I’m so lucky to be alive at this [moment in] history…. He makes me want to be smarter, he makes me want to be more involved.”

Me too. At last, I finally feel that this country has been returned to the people. And now, it’s time for us all to get involved and be the change we wish to see in the world. What part will you play?

Hope, Change, and Yes, We Can… in St. Kitts

Text & Photos: Julie Schwietert Collazo

I’ve been in St. Kitts this week, a country about which I knew little before I arrived.

The trip has fit another piece into the postcolonial puzzle that I’m sure I’ll spend the rest of my life putting together and working to understand.

St. Kitts, a tiny country (68 square miles), is not without its problems, but it has been politically stable since gaining its independence in 1983. The current prime minister, Dr. Denzil Douglas, has served three terms, and is preparing to run for a fourth.

And while one can’t make the generalization that the quality of life is exceptional across the board (Can that really be said about any country, though, when one takes a long, hard look at marginalized people?), the local economy seems remarkably robust, particularly considering that the sugar industry–the country’s main source of income for decades– collapsed completely just three years ago after underperforming and draining government resources for the preceding 10 years. As is the case with the other Caribbean nations, tourism has rapidly become the island’s bread and butter.

A woman I interviewed here said that she feels optimistic about the island’s future, and it’s a sentiment that seems to be shared by many.

Today, while roaming about Basseterre, the capital, I noticed campaign signs featuring familiar words and phrases: “Hope.” “Change.” “Yes, we can!”

It seems the candidate running against Dr. Douglas has appropriated a page from the Obama playbook.

And he might just win by doing so.

“We waited up all night,” the woman told me, referring to the night of the election returns in the United States. “Everyone was in the streets, watching big TVs and cheering for Barack Obama. And when he won, well… we all just shouted and danced and wailed– it was like he was our president, too.”

“When I was 31, it was a very good year…”

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo & Julie Schwietert Collazo

As the last two weeks of 2008 spin towards history, I find myself in bitingly cold New York City, where I’m wrapped in at least two layers of clothes by day and sleeping under two comforters at night.

New York has been my home since I moved here in 1999 after graduating from college, accepting an internship, and deciding to stay. It’s a city I love for a thousand reasons at least.

But in 2008, I didn’t spend a lot of time here. It was a very good year for travel–the best yet–and now that I’m finally settling down at home for a period of more than a week, I’m sorting through the year’s (and a 250 GB hard drive’s) photos, stories, and memories.

Here are a few I wanted to share with you….

JANUARY, Cuba/South Carolina, Mexico City, Cuernavaca, Puebla, Tijuana, San Diego, Pacific Coast Highway, and San Francisco:
Francisco and I started the new year apart, he with family in Cuba and I with family in South Carolina.

We met up at our part-time home in Mexico City, made quick trips to Cuernavaca and Puebla, crossed the border, and then drove the Pacific Coast Highway before…

FEBRUARY, New York:
We practiced settling for a while in this city where we met each other and where we both feel at home. We saw a Gonzalo Rubalcaba concert, watched old buildings be demolished and observed the new contour of this city begin to take shape.

MARCH, Mexico City & New York:
A split month, half in el DF and half in New York. In DF, I’m working on an assignment. In NYC, I’m a passionate observer of my own neighborhood.

APRIL, New York, Washington, D.C.:

It’s spring in the city, one of the very best times of year for a New Yorker. But I’m getting restless. I organize a trip to Washington, D.C. for my mom’s birthday.

Francisco and I also meet fellow Matador editor and the amazingly talented photographer, Lola Akinmade. Still, there are stories all around, as there always are, no matter where we are.

MAY, Cuba:

I visit Cuba for the first time since Fidel handed power over to his brother, Raul. Of seven or so visits to Cuba since 2005, this is the most special one, filled with incredible moments.

I interview Chinese Cubans, spend hours with a Cuban musicologist, & work on a documentary about Juan Antonio Picasso.

Francisco’s son and I go to Mariel, where Francisco set off from Cuba in 1980. We visit Cojimar and Hemingway’s home. And I celebrate Mother’s Day with Francisco’s mom and the mother of his son.

JUNE, New Orleans:

Francisco and I meet up in New Orleans to volunteer with the Culinary Corps and write about New Orleans. Seeing the state of New Orleans three years after Hurricane Katrina reminds me why traveling and stories are important & why I believe so passionately in both.

JULY, Colombia:

A full month in Colombia, with the bulk of our time spent in Mompox, where we meet the coolest kids in the world and begin making plans for an after-school program for them.

We also visit Cartagena, Santa Marta, Taganga, and Barranquilla.

AUGUST, Guadalajara, Mexico:
Back home in Mexico, we also visit Guadalajara on assignment. Not only does Sally Rangel and the staff of Villa Ganz set a totally new standard for service and hospitality, we discover that Guadalajara is quite possibly the only city where we’ve enjoyed every single meal we’ve eaten in restaurants. We were also fortunate to participate in and interview others who attended the Iluminemos Mexico march for peace.

SEPTEMBER, Perote and Veracruz, Mexico:

Perote: The town that tourism forgot. Not for long, if we have anything to do with it. Along with our friend, Carmen, we toured the San Carlos prison, visited an ostrich and orchid farm, dreamed about opening a bed and breakfast in an abandoned hacienda in the middle of a corn field at the base of some mountains, and found ancient pottery sherds just littering the side of the road as we drove up into the mountains. We also happened upon a local boxing match.

We drank strong coffee and had my palm read in Veracruz.

OCTOBER, Mexico City & Oaxaca, Mexico; Guantanamo Bay, Cuba:

October was all about connection.

We met Matador member Teresita and her husband, Ibis, at our home in Mexico City, reconnected with my old friend, Arely, and her husband Ivan at an airport restaurant, and visited with weavers at their home and interviewed protesters in Oaxaca.


I also traveled to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to report about the military detention facility there.

I could have spent weeks there. In any event, I have a notebook full of stories that I’d like to write.

NOVEMBER, NYC, Washington, D.C., Chile:

NYC: To vote. Of course.

Washington, D.C.: To blog live from NPR on election night.

Chile: The press trip of a lifetime: 7 days. Santiago, Valparaiso, Punta Arenas, Torres del Paine. Cordero (lamb). But most of all… incredible people: Roberto, Francisco, Andres, Paloma, Carolina… que buenos son!

DECEMBER, Puerto Rico:
Francisco and I moved to Puerto Rico (shuttling back and forth between the island and NYC) in 2005 and left for good last December. While we had no active plans to return for a visit, our friends Wally and Marina asked us if we wanted to take care of their dogs for a couple weeks while they went on a much-needed and deserved vacation.

It was nice to see the sun every morning, to feel it on my skin, to watch as it penetrated just-rained skies and made light shows with rainbows, and to collect the grapefruit it ripened and scattered the ground with.

As visitors, we also went to places we’d never visited as residents, including the small island of Culebra and the town of Guanica, where the US invaded Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War 210 years ago.

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As I write this, I begin to realize that everything important is left out. It’s the people and the stories, and there’s a hundred folks at least. And for every person, a hundred stories.

I haven’t forgotten a single one of them. The stories are on the way….