Advanced Search
Alma Guillermoprieto
Alma Guillermoprieto
Looking for History: Dispatches from Latin America
ISBN: 0375420940
Looking for History: Dispatches from Latin America
Since Alma Guillermoprieto became The New Yorker's Latin American correspondent a decade ago, she has emerged as the most informed and admired writer on her part of the world. In these superb pieces of reportage and analysis she anatomizes a region we are intimately linked with yet sadly ignorant of.

She writes in depth about three countries that are in deep difficulty: Cuba, to which she returned after many years a place in an exhausting holding pattern, waiting for Castro's departure yet anxious about what may replace him. Colombia, in which she has spent several years and which is fatally splintered among the government, the left-wing guerrillas who control large sections of the country, thanks in part to money from the drug trade, and the right-wing paramilitaries. Mexico, where she lives, which is beset by the uprising in Chiapas (where she encounters the legendary masked leader, Marcos) and by the corruption of the government, yet emerging for the first time into some kind of real democracy.

Finally, she gives us the stories of Eva Perón and so of Argentina; Che Guevara and so of the aborted Marxist revolution in Latin America; and Mario Vargas Llosa, the great Peruvian novelist who in 1990 lost the battle for the presidency to Alberto Fujimori.

Looking for History is personal reportage that is infused with the author's unique understanding of a world that she is a part of, but that she can also stand apart from and sympathetically observe.
—from the publisher

Looking for History: Dispatches from Latin America
Program Air Date: June 24, 2001

BRIAN LAMB, HOST:Alma Guillermoprieto, what is "Looking for History" all about?
Ms. ALMA GUILLERMOPRIETO, AUTHOR, "LOOKING FOR HISTORY:" It's a book of essays that I've written over the last six years about the countries that matter most to me, and also the countries that the United States is deeply involved in, or has been deeply involved with or is about to become deeply enmeshed with. Essentially, that's what it is.
LAMB: What's the derivation or the origin of Guillermoprieto?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: My great-great-great--I may be missing a great there--grandfather was called Guillermo Prieto, and he was a very popular poet in his day, and a journalist and a member of President Juarez's Cabinet. And he saved Juarez's life once, w--which is what all the schoolchildren learn. He threw himself in front of the firing squad and said (Spanish spoken), `Brave people don't assassinate.' And so the soldiers, being romantics themselves, listened to this and didn't assassinate Juarez.
LAMB: And--and when was this?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: This was in 1857. And ever since then, some of the family has carried his first and last name as our last name. It's cumbersome. It wasn't my idea, but...
LAMB: Where were you born?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I was born in Mexico City.
LAMB: And why is it you speak almost perfect English?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Because when I was six years old, I was taken to Los Angeles, and I spent the next five years living there as a little girl. And then we returned, my mother and I, to Mexico, and I lived there until I went to live in New York. So, you know, I always say that I'm a Mexican, but if I had to be a citizen of anywhere else, I'd be a citizen of Manhattan. I--I feel very much a New Yorker.
LAMB: Where'd you go to school?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I went to school at a school that doesn't exist anymore. It was called the Walden School, so you can guess a lot of things from it by the name, right? We were allowed to smoke in the classroom. We all wore blue jeans and sandals. We...
LAMB: Where was it?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: It was right off Central Park West, on the Upper West Side. And it was, you know, the ultimate kind of model for the progressive school. I was very happy there.
LAMB: And what--what--was that your college or your high school?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: That was my high school. And then because partly, I think, this was such a progressive place, you know, I didn't go to college. I couldn't be bothered with that. So I didn't go to college.
LAMB: Why did you get into writing?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Because--because I was lucky. Because I was really lucky. A friend of my mother's--an old friend of my mother's had a publication about Latin America in London. It was w--well-known and well-regarded, the Latin American Newsletters. And when all hell broke loose in Nicaragua, nobody knew where Nicaragua was, nobody knew how to pronounce that, nobody knew how to spell that. And I happened to speak English, and I happened to know John Retty, who was the editor of Latin American Newsletters, and he said would I go. And I said, `Of course.' And that's how it started. And the next day, I was writing for The Guardian for the very same reason. Nobody in London at The Guardian had any correspondent anywhere near Nicaragua. And from there, it was The Washington Post. I spent four years in Central America covering the various conflicts there.
LAMB: Are you an opinionist or are you a journalist?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I'm a writer. I'm a writer who does a lot of reporting. I really learned the trade, first at The Guardian, but a lot at The Washington Post. You know, I--I--I covered the Central America beat for The Post as a stringer, and then I came up there, I worked on the Metro desk. I--I learned the--the sort of tools of reporting. I'm an efficient, good, professional reporter. But I also write. And so what I try to do is write about places that I know that I care about intensely and write about them in a way that conveys the fact that I care. I--I don't pretend to write a report, you know, I--I write an essay, I write something that--that has cost me some emotion and that I hope will transmit some emotion. But I write it with the facts.
LAMB: This book has a number of articles in from the past that you've written. Where were they originally published?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: About half of them come out of The New Yorker, which is the place that I have written most for over the last 10 years. And about half of them come from The New York Review of Books, which is another publication that I feel very great admiration for. I feel very lucky to write for both of them. And they are both publications that will let a writer kind of run with a topic, and that's a lot of fun. And I hope it's fun for the reader as well.
LAMB: I want to pull a name out of the middle of your book that I wanted to ask you about, because it seemed to have a lot of personal background. Is it Alaide (pronounced ah-laid) Foppa (pronounced fah-pah)?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Alaide (pronounced Ah-ly-ee-day) Foppa (pronounced fah-pah). Alaide Foppa.
LAMB: Close.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: It was--that was close, that was good, yes.
LAMB: What--who was she, or who is she?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Oh, where to start. Alaide Foppa was one of the founders of the feminist movement in Mexico. She was also a--a very well-brought-up and genteel lady who was born in Argentina and then, I think, arrived in Guatemala at a very early age and then had to move to Mexico when there was a coup against the president of Guatemala that was sponsored by the CIA back in 1954. You may remember that. And she was also a very good friend of my mother's, again. And she then became very influenced perhaps by her revolutionary children, her--her two sons and her two daughters. And when her sons were--one was kidnapped and the other was murdered in Guatemala--they had joined the guerrilla movement in Guatemala--she felt the need to go down as a courier apparently with some letters. And she was also captured by the government, and she became one of those people who were classified as disappeared. Do you know what that means? That means when you're never heard from again. And so she was never heard from again. She was in her 60s. And it was a very strange and awful destiny for someone like that to meet. So, yeah, I--I think about her from time to time.
LAMB: How much of that goes on in Latin America today?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I think that one of the things that we can really all feel very happy about is that the human rights situation in Latin America has improved enormously over the last 10 years, enormously, enormously. But the level or horror that some of us had to cover as reporters working in Latin America was pretty hard to describe at points. And it has changed. There is a difference, largely thanks to human rights activists in this country and in Europe who put pressure on governments and--and made them see that it was not in their best interest to go around murdering people recklessly and torturing them.

And, of course, the situation has improved fo--for us, for the journalists as well. The c--Committee to Protect Journalists has been very effective, also, in lobbying in that same way. You know, journalists are not getting killed in quite the same way they were 10 years ago. That's way down. Colombia is one of the countries which is still a problem for journalists.
LAMB: Do you have a favorite of all your essays?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: You--you know, I'm kind of fond of the story I wrote about Fidel Castro and Pope John Paul II when the pope goes to visit Fidel in Havana. That happened, I guess, in January two years ago, was it? It's hard--no, it must have been three years ago because I'll tell you what happened in the course of that visit. It was supposed to be a kind of triumphal moment for Fidel. He had orchestrated very much to call the world's attention to Cuba, to its plight and to the pope's declaration against the US economic embargo of Cuba. And thousands of journalists went down to Cuba for that meeting. And do you remember what happened?
LAMB: I do, very much, yeah.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Monica Lewinsky happened.
LAMB: Right in the middle.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: And everybody left Cuba, and Fidel was left alone with the co--the pope, which was good company, but I don't think it was quite what he expected. Anyway, that story was written with that visit as the central point, but it was also the occasion--the opportunity for me to go back to a place that I knew relatively well and hadn't been back to for many years. And--and so it is a little bit of a walk down memory lane, the--the revolutionary Cuba I remembered, the sad, dismal place I saw, the perplexity of Cubans themselves about their own future, about what their leader was doing with this man, this Catholic, when they had been brought up to believe that all religion was a form of evil. It was an interesting moment. It was very interesting for me. I had a good time there, despite myself. And I enjoyed writing about it. So I--I'm fond of that story.
LAMB: What has been Fidel Castro's impact on the people of Cuba?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Oh. Well, whenever anybody is in power for 40 years, the impact i--is--is so--it--it takes place on so many levels. You know, it's an impact on how you say good morning in school to the teacher. It's an impact on how you stand in line for your rations for 40 years, week after week, to get the groceries that you will eat. It's an impact on how you see your s--place in the world as well. I--I think that for so many Cubans, Fidel was a source of--of pride in being Cuban, certainly during the first 10 years of the revolution; perhaps even during the first 20. You know, if you were a Cuba, you were somebody. You weren't some Honduran lost in the middle of history without a role to play. You might be in a very small island, in a very small country, but you were a challenge to the greatest power in the world. You could feel proud of that. I think that had enormous weight.

But then, you know, it's 20 years, and then it's 30, and then it's 40, and my God, you're still standing in line for rations and you still can't get enough soap or toilet paper, and your whole life has been spent under the revolution. I think that the temptation to feel that your entire life has been wasted must be very great for a lot of Cubans.
LAMB: Why have--I don't know what modifier I want to use--but let's say so many American journalists have gone down there over the years and fallen in love with Fidel Castro?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Because he is enormously charismatic. I mean, we all know better than to fall in love, but we all fall in love. He was a very beautiful man physically. He had enormous presence, he had enormous command. He had these, you know, beautiful hands that he gestured with. He had that funny, silvery, papery voice that didn't seem threatening. And he was speaking for truth and justice. I mean, you know, what could be wrong with that?
LAMB: Was he?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: He certainly thought so.
LAMB: Do you think he was?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Yes, I think he was speaking for truth and justice. The only problem is, he didn't know how to bring it about. And I think that he committed a mistake that is not his alone. I think in Latin America over the centuries, we have had an enormous fondness and weakness for heroes, the kind of hero who gets killed, the kind of hero who is willing to give his life for a cause. And that's the only kind of people we trust. And Fidel showed that he was willing to give his life for a cause and that--to that degree, he--he was absolute and he was absolutely sincere. And that's our--our weakness. I--now, you know, as I get older, I tend to like the kind of small hero much more. I keep saying th--the one who works out sewage problems; the one who thinks about how to improve the fat content in milk and get it distributed on time. But that's not very exciting.
LAMB: Let me ask you about some of the other people you write about. Subcomandante Marcos.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Yes, another charismatic leader.
LAMB: Where--where is he?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: S--see, we're very good at producing this kind of person. He's back in Chiapas. I think he's probably back in Chiapas trying to figure out his fate.
LAMB: Where is Chiapas?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Chiapas is in the southernmost part of Mexico. And Mexico, as you travel down it from the US border, gets progressively more beautiful and progressively poorer. And Chiapas is about as beautiful and as poor as you can get. It has very high hills, not quite mountains. It has great big rivers. It produces some very significant portion of the national electricity in its dams. And it has, I think, the largest population of indigenous people in Mexico, the Maya Indians and--and their various language groups. There's seven, eight, nine language--Maya language groups spoken in Chiapas.

And it was here that seven years ago, Subcomandante Marcos became known because he led this great Indian rebellion that--it was the shot that was not heard around the world, or the unshot that was heard around the world, because there really wasn't much of a battle, even though they called themselves the Zapatista National Liberation Army. They didn't have guns. They didn't know how to take on the army. And so there was a cease-fire 12 days after that small battle began and ended, and ever since then for the last six or seven years, I think Subcomandante Marcos and his community of rebels have been trying to figure out what comes next.
LAMB: Have you met him, by the way?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Oh, yes, I talked to him at great length--at great length one evening, at greater length than I might have liked, because I was falling asleep by the end of it because...
LAMB: Wh--where did you do this?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: ...I don't have his capacity to stay awake all night. This was in--about seven hours further south from San Cristobal, which is a very beautiful town that is sort of the center for these Maya communities. It was in a place--it wasn't La Ralidad, which is where he tends to hang out lately. Where was it? It was called Prado Paqial. It was just a very, very small village and it had a school building. And what was really sad about that school building is that it wasn't occupied by students because there were never any teachers for these kids who--who lived in about as great a misery as you can find in Latin America.

I remember very clearly--we spent two days there--I spent almost three days there waiting for Subcomandante Marcos to show up, much the same way one waits for Fidel to show up for the interview; it never happens. But in his case, Marcos showed up. He showed up at 1:00 in the morning.
LAMB: How old is he?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: He must be 42 now, so seven years ago, he was in his mid-30s. Yeah, he was a youngish guy.
LAMB: What's he like?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: He's--well, I can't tell you what he looks like because, of course, he wears this ski mask over his head and his face all the time. And so all you can see are his eyes, which happen to be very beautiful. I--I'm sure he knows that and so, you know--otherwise...
LAMB: Why does he wear the mask?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Well, if they weren't so beautiful, maybe he'd wear the mask around his mouth, you know. But he wears it around the eyes to set off these eyes, which are nice, and so that nobody would recognize him and place him. Why didn't he want anybody to recognize him or place him? It now occurs to me that probably because if he were recognized and placed by the intelligence services, then he would be placed in the middle of a very traditional orthodox guerrilla movement that existed in Mexico from 19--from the mid-'70s on and which the Zapatista National Liberation Army grew out of. And I think probably Marcos realized that this would not generate more sympathy for the Maya cause, but would rather make people a little distrustful of him. So he covered up his identity with a mask. And, anyway, we love masks, you know, because it's theatrical.
LAMB: So how important is he to Mexico?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I think he was very important. I think that when he first stepped out of--to the front of this movement and said this is why we're fighting and this is who we are and you, the rest of Mexicans, have been acting as if we were a rich and powerful country and you've been going on a spending spree and you've been flirting with the First World. But here we are, and we're dirt poor and this is a dirt-poor country. And there is 10 million of us Indians and you are not paying attention. I think that was terribly important for Mexico to hear. I think he did something quite wonderful, in a way.
LAMB: What's he doing now?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: He's trying to figure out how not to fade from the limelight. You know, Mexicans felt very good about saying, yes, we have an Indian population. Yes, we love you. Yes, we want to support you. Yes, we will come out on the streets and march for you and we don't want you killed. But, again, it's this problem of time. And I think it's also a problem of our increasingly shorter attention spans. You know, one, two, three, four, five years go by and then Marcos gets a little boring. And, well, we've heard enough about the Indians already; let's change the subject. And so now that he had his very important visit to Mexico City after seven years of hiding in this little village in--in the former Lacondon jungle and addressing Congress.
LAMB: Did he take his mask off?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: No. And--and he didn't address Congress. One of the militant women from the Zapatistas addressed Congress. And it was a very powerful and moving speech.
LAMB: When did he do this?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: This was two months--this was in February. It was towards the end of February that they came to Mexico City. And then two weeks later, I think, they were all exhausted by this monster that ex--exhausts and devours us all, a city of 20 million people. They were fading from the first page, from the front page of the newspapers even then. And they decided to go back to Chiapas. And--and that's where they are now. I think there will be peace negotiations between the Zapatistas and the government, and I think the outcome will be of some benefit to the Maya communities. It won't solve all the problems. They're very difficult problems. And then what happens to Marcos, I don't know. It's a good question. He writes very well. Maybe he'll become a reporter.
LAMB: I--I want to ask you about a couple of statistics. I--I think I read that you said there are about 95 million people in Mexico.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: That's right. Close to 100 million, according to the latest census.
LAMB: And about 45 million of them are poverty-stricken, if that's the word, but they're...
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: They fall below the official poverty level by Mexican standards, which are not US standards. What does that mean, you want to know?
LAMB: Well, the--one more statistic. I think I probably read this wrong. That only 3 million people pay taxes?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Only--let's see, you do the math for me. If only 10 percent after many years of trying to reform taxes--at this stage, according to the latest report, which was put out by the Mexican government early this year, 10 percent of the entire population, their taxes cover the entire government budget--everything.
LAMB: So that's 10 million people.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: That's 10 million people. That sounds high to me.
LAMB: Yeah, because there is a statistic where you said they've gone from 2 to 3 million people who paid all the taxes.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Yeah, I remember that. And that was about seven years ago, so it seems high to me that it would have gone up by so much. It may be that the figure of 10 percent includes the value-added tax. I think that's probably what accounts for that.
LAMB: And everybody pays that. (Graphic on screen) For More Information Pantheon Books 299 Park Avenue New York, NY 10171
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: And--and--well, everybody who can afford a certain kind of manufacturing products pays that.
LAMB: Well...
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: So the s--the--no matter how you balance it out, the figure is still very, very small. A very large country with very poor people with a government on a very small budget.
LAMB: W--if--if you're meeting an American for the first time and you sense early on that they know nothing about Mexico--and how often does that happen?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Oh, every time I come to this country, there's one or two.
LAMB: But you--you sense that they want to know?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Mm-hmm. What do I...
LAMB: What do you tell them about Mexico that they should know? I mean, right up front?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Oh, well, I tell them that we don't have a military regime, which a lot of people seem to think that we do. I tell them that we just have had elections last year and that for the first time in more than 70 years, there is a president who is not from the official party. There is--the official party is now in opposition. I tell them that we watch a lot of TV and a lot of US programming, and that we're probably more familiar with the United States than most people in the United States are with us. You know, we wear Nikes and Gap and go to Hollywood movies and eat at McDonald's and get our cars fixed at something--this is all after NAFTA--I always forget--Midas? Yes.
LAMB: Midas muffler.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Midas muffler. That's where we go. So I think we know a lot more about this culture. And, of course, millions of us cross the border to work in US homes and gardens and factories and carpentry shops and restaurants, and if you go to a restaurant pretty much anywhere in the United States, the chances are that the dishes will be washed by a Mexican. So...
LAMB: You--do--you write a lot about other places besides Mexico. We can come back to Mexico, but you've got some--again, some personal stories. You--you lead off the book with, I guess you would say, Eva (pronounced Ava) Peron, Eva (pronounced Eva) Peron...
LAMB: Evita.
LAMB: Why do you lead your book off with Eva...
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Actually, that was just chronology. Is it? Am I--am I right?
LAMB: Little Eva?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Yeah. No, I--she was something, wasn't she?
LAMB: Who was she?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: She was something. She was a self-made woman. And I think that a large part of her attraction is that she invented herself. And we're always very admiring of and maybe even jealous of women who invent themselves, who go from brunette to blonde, as she did; who go from dirt poor back in the sticks, a country girl, to gold lame, you know, on the arm of some tuxedoed person in France. She's at a cocktail reception in France in that gold lame dress.
LAMB: That's not Juan Peron?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: That's not Juan Peron? No, it's not, no. It's her escort for the evening i--in France somewhere. She--she was the most influential woman in Latin America, probably, and she was the wife of Juan Peron, who rose to power in Argentina in the '40s and became the--the first of the great populists of Argentina.
LAMB: And you tell us that she died on July the 26th, 1952, and she was 33 years old.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Mm-hmm. And like...
LAMB: And she was all that and only 33?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: And only 33. And she didn't even start until she was 19, which is when she first met Juan Peron. She was in a hurry. I think that like so many of our heroes, she courted death. Eventually she knew she was going to die when she found out that she had cancer. She didn't want to have an operation because she said she was too busy. And when she died, of course, she became a myth, because if you're going to be a myth or want to be a myth, you'd better die young. And she did. And she was beautiful. She was young. She was powerful. And she had the kind of personality that really projects itself into history. She took, you know, lice-infested young street children back to the presidential palace with her and bathed them herself. She would take off her diamonds and give them to poor people. She would also, at a reception with very wealthy people full of diamonds, would hint that she very much would like the diamond necklace that one of the guests was wearing. So it worked both ways.

But she was intense. She--she was fully alive. And so I think she became one of the great myths--well, we know she became one of the great myths. Madonna was besotted with her and fought hard to play her in the movie. So I--I think one of the things that we do is produce heroes, not only for our own consumption, but certainly for world consumption. El Chez was a world figure, you know. El Chez is still being worn on T-shirts around the world. And--and he's become a sort of logo.
LAMB: But at the end of your piece on Eva Peron, y--you write about Juan Peron's second wife. And, first of all, how long was he--how long was he in power in Argentina?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Oh, let's see. He's overthrown in '44, and then he--God, I'm so bad on dates. You shouldn't ask me this, because I always get the dates backwards.
LAMB: But it doesn't matter so much. He came back again, though.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Well, he came back again 20 years later. He came back in 1973. I think he's deposed the last time in 1954, and he comes back in 1973. So that's almost 20 years. And the--by then, Eva, of course, is long gone--long dead. She died while he was still in power, and he was overthrown shortly thereafter, partly because she gave him the energy that he needed to--to stay in power and to fend off the plots and counterplots. And when he came back, he was married for a second time, yes, to Isabelita.
LAMB: But in that--midst of all that, what I want you to talk about is what they did with the Peron--Eva Peron's body.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: They preserved it. Juan Peron had a very famous embalmer brought in from--from Spain. And the body apparently was a masterpiece of embalming. The--the hair--well, what happened immediately before Eva died, you have to remember, is that she decided that red nails would not look good on a corpse, and so at the very last minute, she asked to have her red manicure changed to a natural manicure, which she felt would just be more tasteful. And she was right, of course. And then she was embalmed. She was beautifully combed. Her hair was bleached one last time and combed. And she was preserved. And then the body--after Peron was overthrown, the body got taken to Europe.

And the--the great authority on this is Tomas Eloy Martinez, the novelist, who's written two novels. One was called "The Novel of Peron," and the other one was called "Saint Evita." And in it, he chronicles the embalmed body's wanderings from Italy to Spain to Amsterdam and then back to Spain again when the Argentine military decides it can no longer control Argentina. They want Peron to come back. And as a peace offering, they say, here, have the body. And so the corpse was returned in Madrid to Juan Peron.

The next chapter of this story I find almost impossible to believe; on the other hand, I have no reason to distrust what my friend Tomas Eloy Martinez has investigated. The next chapter is that Peron's second wife, Maria Savil--M--Maria Estela Isabelita, as she was known--Peron--who was a former cabaret dancer, and who didn't look like a former cabaret dancer. She looked like a former school marm. It was very strange. But she was a former cabaret dancer. And she did have a kind of addiction to spiritual advisers and sorcerers. And so when Peron married her, he also ended up marrying, in a way, Isabelita's spiritual adviser who was a warlock called Jose Lopez Rega. And Lopez Rega lived with them in Madrid. And he and Isabelita decided that the thing to do was to have Isabelita, Peron's second wife, lie on top of the coffin of Evita while Lopez Rega performed a ritual that would transmute Evita's soul into Isabelita's body. I don't think it worked because Isabelita never had a shred of Evita's magnetism, charm, passion, commitment.

But when Peron and Isabelita returned to Buenos Aires, the end of the story is Peron died shortly after he became president. Isabelita, who had run for vice president on Peron's ticket, became the president of Argentina and Lopez Rega, the warlock, became the real Rasputin. And I--I use that comparison very advisedly because he ruled in a fiendish manner. He set up the death squads, and Isabelita had Evita brought back to Argentina where she was finally buried.
LAMB: But there's a little ca--caveat on that one. In 1987, you say vandals broke open the tomb and ordered to saw off...
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Peron's hands.
LAMB: ...his hands.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: His hands. They were not buried together. Juan Peron, I think in the end, had become a little resentful of Eva. She was so popular. She was so much more loved than he was. And he never wanted to be buried in the same tomb with her. So she was buried in her family crypt; he was buried in his own crypt. And one of the great mysteries is why someone would--it--it was--you know, it's not just any tomb, there were marble blocks. It's part of a monument--and take out the body and saw off the dead man's hands and then put the body back in. Why would somebody do that? It's been speculated that because the fingerprints on the hands were the identifying mechanisms, the--the password, as it were, for the secret bank accounts that the Perons had in Switzerland. That's, you know, one guess.
LAMB: How much of your time do you spend in Mexico City?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I spend most of my time in Mexico City. I also spend a lot of time outside of Mexico City in a very small town where I--I really learn more about what's happening in--in the Mexico profundo, let's say. One of the things that I find out is happening is that everybody's leaving for the United States.
LAMB: How?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Any way they can get here.
LAMB: Why?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Why? Because the most that somebody in Mexico City will get paid for a job in construction is 100 pesos a day.
LAMB: Which transmits to?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: $10--$9 and change a day. And you come here and I don't even know what you get for washing dishes, but it's not $9 a day. And so people will--you know, it works like a chain. Somebody will come from Village X and then they'll send for the brother and then they'll send for the sister and then they'll send for the brother-in-law and then they'll send for the wife of the brother-in-law. Everybody sharing a very small house or an apartment, working in shifts and sending money back to the family.
LAMB: Is this good for the United States?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I--I don't feel qualified to answer that question. What I wonder is what would happen in California, say, if all the Mexicans left from one day to the next?
LAMB: Is it...
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Who--who would do what Americans like to call the dirty work? I don't think Mexicans see it as dirty work at all. They see it as a good honest living. And they see it as doing work that nobody else wants and they see it as keeping their families alive and improving their future, the future of their children which they see as a fundamental duty.
LAMB: Why do you--you said earlier that you didn't go to college. D--by the way, do you think you missed anything?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Yeah. Sure. I missed four years of having--well, I probably would have had to work while I went to college, but still, it's four years, I think, of freedom. Four years when you get to learn for the pure pleasure of it. Four years of--of thinking about ideas, about what other people did, of admiring, you know, the people who came before us and created the world we know. I miss that very much. I think it would have--I think I made a silly mistake. Yes.
LAMB: But how did you get places like the New York Review of Books and The New Yorker magazine and others to appreciate your writing? I mean, where did you teach yourself how to write?
LAMB: You have any help along the way?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I read a lot. I read a lot. And both of my parents, I think, would have wanted to be writers. It's funny how one ends up doing the things that--that parents--perhaps, the--the dreams that parents couldn't fulfill. I know that my mother would have been beyond herself to have had a story published in--in The New Yorker. So...
LAMB: Are they gone, both of them?
LAMB: And what did they do for a living?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: They--they worked in public relations in--in--in Mexico, mostly here. My mother worked in the States sometimes as a secretary and then, you know, she put herself through college and worked in--in social programs around NYU mostly and then moved back to Mexico where she worked a--administering a kind of arts and culture program for the Social Security Institute. So she was a big reader. She loved to read. I love to read. I--I grew up reading.
LAMB: You read better in English or in Spanish?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I think both. I really think that I'm a bilingual reader.
LAMB: How about a thinker?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I don't know. I'm trying to find that out. You know, I write a food column now in--in Spanish for a monthly magazine in Mexico and I--I started doing that partly because I love food and I love everything involved with food. I love the fun of it. I love restaurants. I love cooking, although I don't cook very much. I love kitchens. But also because I thought it would be a good way to try to work on Spanish again and--and to pick up my language where I left off and--and try to see if I had an instrument there. You know, a language is an instrument. And so I've been working on that, kind of polishing it and honing it and seeing what will happen to it. I like it. It--it certainly comes from a different place. Talking in one language and talking in another, I--I think inevitably, produce two different personalities, as far as I've seen in other people. I assume it does the same for me.
LAMB: Have you ever checked yourself to see what language you dream in?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Yeah. And in fact, I dream in whatever language I'm living in. So that, you know, after six months of being in the States, I started dreaming in English again. And when I moved back to Mexico, after a few months, I started dreaming in Spanish again.
LAMB: Now of all the pieces you read in front of an American audience, which one's gotten the most reaction?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I think i--it--in very different ways. I wrote a series--well, I wrote a couple of stories for The New Yorker way back when about the modernization of Mexico under NAFTA. And it was a story ostensibly about mariachis and the death of mariachi music in Mexico, and a lot of people responded to that because what do you know about Mexico? You know that there are mariachis there, right? And maybe you've even gone there as a tourist and you've been in Gadi Baldi Plaza, and you've had a few tequilas and whooped it up and--and listened to mariachi music. You never did that? It's fun. You should.
LAMB: I like mariachi music, but what happened to it? Is it gone?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Yes, it's going. It's going because--first of all, pop music from the States is taking over more and more and more. I think the great Mexican cuisine is dying because there are fast foods now competing, because there are supermarkets, and supermarkets can't afford to keep in stock a lot of these very perishable products that are used for fine Mexican cooking. Women are working and real Mexican cooking requires enormous amounts of time. So the story was about all those changes and what it meant to be Mexican and what it meant to be modern and if you could feel Mexican and feel modern at the same time, which I think is a debate that we have with ourselves constantly and haven't solved by any means. So that was a story that got a lot of response and that people tend to remember. And then last year I did, for The New York Review of Books, a series of three articles about Colombia. And...
LAMB: Some of that's in here?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: They're all in there. Yeah.
LAMB: You know, that's actually what I wanted to ask you about next, was the--the Colombia stories.
LAMB: And first of all, have you seen the recent figures on how much foreign aid goes to Colombia?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Yeah. I think for fiscal year 2000, 2001, a billion has already been allocated out of the $3 billion plus.
LAMB: So it puts it right up there near--right after Israel and Egypt and...
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: That's exactly where it puts it, yeah, in the second place.
LAMB: ...Jordan. Yeah. In that...
LAMB: Why? Why do we give that much money to Colombia?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Because when you don't know what to do about a problem, you throw money at it, I think, is one of the good reasons. Because the money was there. Because I think probably the Clinton administration thought that it would look good and that nobody in their right mind would say, `Well, don't give money to a drug war. The drug war is a a big problem.' I think it's a disaster, but that's my opinion.
LAMB: Who is Rosa?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Rosa was the name I gave a woman I met just after she had been detained. I was lucky enough to find out that she was being held, not in prison. She was being detained prior to her trial. She was a woman, maybe a little younger than me, who started out as a revolutionary and ended up as a right-wing paramilitary, and who was happy to tell me how the paramilitaries butchered people in order to keep the revolutionaries away. And to me, she was a way of understanding the terrible mess that Colombia has become, the--the enormous difficulty of trying to understand it, the enormous difficulty of trying to live in the middle of this series of intertwined conflicts that here in the United States is called a war, as if there were only one war, and--and how to keep your balance and place yourself and be a participant in that history.

This woman--you know, by rights, I should have been horrified by her and I was. She--she always said that she didn't participate directly in any of the political violence. She had never murdered anyone. But I think a lot of her role was to--in her community work with the villages and--and the campesinos, the peasants was to justify these massacres and to say that this was the only way to fight for justice in Colombia. I was horrified, but at the same time, I could understand her perplexity at having been born the child of war, which she was, and--and not finding any path for herself, any way to be in the world that didn't involve violence.
LAMB: There--there is one scene that got my attention when you ta--talked about her being tortured and somebody using pliers and pulling off her teeth.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: A--actually, if--if you want to be specific about it, what they did was they took the pliers and they broke off her teeth so that they--they were all broken at the root. They weren't pulled out, but broken. And that's why she could have caps put on them. And that's why she showed me that all of her teeth had caps.
LAMB: Why were they doing that?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: And then they jumped on her stomach. And then they made her stand all night while she was bleeding and then they let her go. They would...
LAMB: Who was doing that to her?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Well, this is the interesting thing. She was kidnapped at the time that she was still working with the left-wing guerrillas. And apparently, they had invaded--the guerrillas and the campesinos that the guerrillas were organizing had invaded a ranch owned by somebody with close ties to the paramilitary. And this was a bad mistake. In Colombia, you should always try to find out who you're kidnapping and--or whose land you're invading, because if you're kidnapping a drug trafficker or if you're invading a paramilitary's land, then you're in for real trouble.
LAMB: Let me stop because I'm a little confused. What's a right-wing guerrilla?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Right-wing guerrilla is a paramilitary.
LAMB: What's a paramilitary?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: A paramilitary is somebody who fights the left-wing guerrillas.
LAMB: What's a left-wing guerrilla?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: A left-wing guerrilla is somebody who belongs to an organization that by now is 30 or 40 years old. There are several guerrilla groups in Colombia, not just one. And they more or less adhere to a Maoist or a traditional Cuban approach to revolution, which is that you have a--a guerrilla group and then the whole country spontaneously rises up and then you have socialists. The right-wing paramilitaries also use weapons, also live in the mountains, but they're trying to fight the left-wing guerrillas.
LAMB: Who are--who--who are they fighting for?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Well, they're fighting very often in alliance with the government army or with sectors of the government army.
LAMB: Who are we funding?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: The United States is providing military assistance to the government army and to the government police force, which also is closely allied, in many cases, in many specific areas of the country, with the right-wing paramilitary.
LAMB: Just for talking purposes, do the left wing and the right wing mili--guerrillas all make the same amount of money, in the end?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Probably the right-wing paramilitaries have better salaries at this stage because they're--the organization is smaller. Where do they get the money for these salaries, you might well ask? Well, the way that most of them get money is from taxes that they levy on the drug traffickers who transport coca leaf through the territories that they control.
LAMB: How do they levy those taxes?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Through agreements. They say, we will provide protection for you to transport this truckload of coca leaf or this speedboat load of coca paste and we will see to it that if the army interferes with you, we interfere with the army or simply we will provide security so that you travel through an army-free zone or a government vigilance free zone.
LAMB: Are these...
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: And in exchange for this, you, the drug traffickers, will pay us, the guerrillas, or us, the paramilitaries, I believe it's 5 percent of the value of what you are transporting, which that's a...
LAMB: And we are funding the military which also is helping to fund the paramilitary?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Which very often provides--according to Human Rights Watch, according to various NGOs and according to general knowledge, very often the military will provide, for example, intelligence. `In this village, there are X, Y and Z families who collaborate with the left-wing guerrillas. Why don't you go get them?'
LAMB: Who's funding the left?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: The left is being funded primarily by the drug traffickers who provide this tax money and that's why the guerrillas in Colombia, unlike the guerrillas anywhere else in Latin America, have been able to survive for 40 years because they have a hard solid source of income.
LAMB: So why do you say we're doing the wrong thing?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Well, because it seems to me that you're a little confused by this panorama that I've just tried to explain as simply as possible, and you should be because it's a confusing panorama, because there are no absolutes. There are no good and bad sides. There's not even one war with two sides to it. There--and it's not a civil war. It is a series of conflicts, festering conflicts, 40-year-old conflicts that nobody understands, that nobody can find the little thread that will untie it to and it seems to me that throwing money at a conflict like this is probably useless and very possibly dangerous.
LAMB: And how far into all this did you travel to and where did you go?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I've known Colombia for a l--many years now. I first went there in 1973. I went back there in 1986. I lived there for four years from 1988 to 9--1988 to 1992, which was at the height of the drug violence. And in '86, I actually took a very remarkable and beautiful journey to the guerrilla's base camp, which, as it turned out, after these five miserable strenuous, arduous days, partly on foot and partly on horseback, it turns out we'd only traveled 80 miles from the capital, which gives you an idea of--of how difficult it is. You know, you have a guerrilla group that won't advance on the capital, but that had its permanent home base less than 100 miles away. That's where we went to. It was in the foothills of the Amazon Basin.
LAMB: Why would they let you go there?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Because at that time, they were interested in getting some press attention and so three of us went. I actually was a hanger-on. There were two Colombian journalists who had bargained for this trip for a year and then I showed up and said, `Hi, I'm Newsweek. I'm Newsweek.' I was working for Newsweek at the time. `Can I tag along on this trip?' And the guerrillas said, `Yes. You know, we could use some US attention as well.' And as it happened, the story never ran because nobody thought Colombia was very interesting for years. I don't think, you know, two years ago, it--anybody really knew where Colombia was on the map. So that story never ran, even though I was able to interview the man who even then was the world's oldest living guerrilla and his sidekick for the--the co-founders of the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces.
LAMB: What was his name?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: The founder and the kind of intellectual leader was named Jacobo Arenas. He's since died. And the man who is still the leader of the FARC, and who is still around today and who now really is the world's oldest living guerrilla, because I think he's 70, is a man whose pseudonym is Manuel Marulanda Velez and whose nickname that he's known by is Tirofijo, which means sure shot.
LAMB: Do the Colombians, by the way, use the drugs themselves down there?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Increasingly, yes, because one of the things that the drug trade has done--and this is a problem not only in Colombia, but in Buenos Aires and in Rio and in Mexico--is to make drugs available possibly even below cost outside of high schools and outside of junior high schools, middle schools, and even in some places, outside of grade schools to--to get themselves a local market. So, yes, drugs are increasingly being used.
LAMB: How many American either troops or aides are all--are on the scene down there in Colombia?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I--I couldn't tell you the latest figures. There are no troops, according to the aid packages--it has been formulated. The aid will go primarily in weapons and equipment for the military and the police and some for the justice system, which is desperate. The justice system really needs shoring up. Judges get assassinated in Colombia routinely and they don't even have a bulletproof vest. But most of the money is going for guns and radar equipment, stuff like that. And there are contract employees of both the State Department and the Pentagon who provide military advice, supervision and I think the ceiling on that is 500, but I'm not sure. That's a hard ceiling.
LAMB: Now we'd better close off on Rosa. We didn't finish the story on Rosa.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: So where did--where did Rosa end up? All right. So Rosa is working for the left-wing guerrillas and she and her friends have invaded the ranch and the ranch belongs to a paramilitary, that is a right-wing guerrilla, and this man is very annoyed and to express his annoyance, he has Rosa kidnapped and brought to him and tortured. And while he is there, he has somebody called a gordo, the fat man, do all these atrocious things to her. And perhaps, Rosa speculated with me, because she didn't talk and didn't give any information about her comrades, in the end, these right-wing paramilitaries admired her courage, which also happens among all of these kind of gung ho, you know, people with guns. And they let her go.

And one would have thought that her reaction would be to get out of that life altogether, to listen to her parents, to move somewhere else or maybe even to become more vehemently involved with her own left-wing guerrilla cause, instead of which she crossed over to the other side. She joined the right-wing guerrillas, which is how I met her. She'd just been arrested as part of a sweep operation against them.
LAMB: You say there are 21 nations in Latin America.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Yes, if I counted right. Don't ever quote me on numbers. I have to do the count each time over again.
LAMB: Well, you didn't c--you didn't count places like Santo Domingo and all that, I...
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I think I probably did. Yes.
LAMB: Did you? Well, there are more than 21 then.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Is--are there?
LAMB: Y--y...
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: It's terrible. I always get it wrong.
LAMB: And it depends on--you know, I mean, I--I just went through all--there's probably 25 or so if you count Suriname...
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Really? Well, we don't have time to do this now, but I...
LAMB: ...and French Guinea and all...
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: ...I--I'm very nervous. I'm going to spend the rest of this program counting all the towns.
LAMB: But th--but that's not the point. The point is I wanted to ask you about--of all the countries south of us...
LAMB: ...south of the United States, which one do you think has the most promise based on what you've seen in the last several years?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I think they all do. I don't think there is a basket case among them.
LAMB: Is there one that stars out of all that?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Well, no, I--I think Mexico, for obvious reasons, should be and is tremendously important to the United States, not important enough but--but it is, you know, the United States'--What?--second largest trading partner?
LAMB: To Canada, yeah.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: After Canada. It--it shares an enormous border. It has a significant percentage of its population working here in this country, which is a--by the way, a way of providing economic stability to Mexico, which is important to the United States. There's that to be said for it, too. But you have countries like Brazil, which sometimes doesn't like to consider itself as part of Latin America, you know, saying (Spanish spoken). But they're not so different. They're--they're a part of Latin America, which is a huge country with enormous potential in terms of natural resources, human resources, creativity, just the--the sheer amount of intelligence of--of the inhabitants of a country that is so poor an--and so good at surviving.

Argentina, which is tremendously sophisticated and--and productive. I don't see a--a basket case. You know, it's--it's a rich and powerful region and it's full of unmet expectations, but also of hope.
LAMB: The most vigorous democracy of all of them?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I think at this point, probably Mexico because it's just trying to figure out how this thing is done and so it's exciting right now.
LAMB: Eh, we only have a couple minutes left and I want to ask you about Che, Che Guevara. Why did you write about him?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Because he was so important to so many of us and because he was the ultimate hero who only wants to die. And because in--in my own process of thinking about Latin America, I thought it's time to write about these people who only want to die so that maybe we can exercise them and maybe we can start thinking about the people who want to live.
LAMB: Where was he from?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: He was from Argentina. He helped Fidel come to power in Cuba. He was a tremendously skillful military fighter and strategist. He died in Bolivia after a manhunt in which he and all his followers nearly starved to death and were finally killed.
LAMB: And he died in 1967.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: That's right.
LAMB: So when did he have his most--when did he have his biggest impact?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I think the moment he died. Because, again, by dying, he became a hero. And he became somebody to emulate and so many, so many, so many Latin Americans did, including my mother's friend, Alaide Foppa, think that the only way to live a worthy life was to offer their life instead of trying to live another day and do things a little bit better.
LAMB: Couple of things you mentioned, the diaries came out in 1995.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: "The Motorcycle Diaries" came out in 1995.
LAMB: Yeah. What'd you learn from those?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Well, "The Motorcycle Diaries" he wrote when he was a very young man taking his first trip from Buenos Aires, where he lived, all the way up to Venezuela, with his friend on motorcycle. I learned that this man who became so enamored with death was once a lively, funny, jokey, intellectually curious young man who really loved Latin America and who somehow at the end of that trip he became convinced that jokes were not funny. You know, I have a video where he's telling the factory workers who are laughing at something and he says, `Why are you laughing? Why are you laughing? This is serious.' S--I was intrigued by the process of losing the joyful part of himself and becoming this termagant.
LAMB: You say h--you have a couple quirky things. He refused to bathe and tie his shoelaces.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: That's right. And he was very proud of the fact that when he was still a teen-ager, his schoolmates called him (Spanish spoken), which means pig, and that's how he used to sign his letters.
LAMB: Why is he a hero?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Because he died to redeem us, you know.
LAMB: You think he did?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I think that's what he was trying to do, yes. I don't think he did, but that's what he was trying to do. He was trying to be like Christ. He was trying to offer himself up a sacrifice so that others could live a better life.
LAMB: Is he still revered today?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Yes, by many. Absolutely. I don't think that you will find that many young Latin Americans in universities who don't think that he is someone to--to admire and perhaps follow.
LAMB: When you write, where do you do it?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I write it--well, that doesn't really matter. Hotel rooms, for example, are--are good places for me to write because they're so free of associations. I have to get myself into my sort of tattyest sweat pants and--and T-shirt and I do it on a computer now, amazingly enough. I never could use a typewriter because the noise wrote me crazy--the noise drove me crazy, but I used to use a notebook. Now I use a computer because it doesn't make that much noise.
LAMB: Are you better on deadline or when you have a lot of time?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Who was it? It maybe was on your program, somebody came out, I think from The Washington Post, who had this wonderful quote: "A journalist is somebody who, when you give them more time, writes worse." Was that said right here on...
LAMB: Well, that's often said, yeah.
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: Well, I--I still laugh at it because I thought, `Well, there's a definition for me to pay attention to.'
LAMB: But are you better when you got--somebody says, `You got two hours to get this in'?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I suspect we all are, yeah. But we all dream of, you know, the great novel that we will write some day when we have time. And it's probably not happening.
LAMB: What's next for you?
Ms. GUILLERMOPRIETO: I have a horrible suspicion that Colombia is going to be next for a long time because I think it's just a mess we're involved in, all of it.
LAMB: Our guest has been Alma Guillermoprieto, and here's what her book looks like, a series of articles written over the last several years: "Looking for History." Thank you very much.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2004. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.