La Plaza

News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: culture

The week in Latin America: Meet Cuba's Scrabble man

Fidel babani cuban scrabble jewish

Here are stories that made headlines this week in Latin America, and highlights from our coverage of the region by Times reporters and your blogger here at La Plaza:

Guatemala may vote for former general on Sunday

A rocky run-up to a presidential election, which saw the president's wife denied her bid for a candidacy, ends when voters go to polls Sunday in Guatemala. The front-runner is Otto Perez Molina, a right-wing former general who is implicated in the extrajudicial killing of a bishop as an officer during the country's civil war.

Disqualified candidate Sandra Torres had to divorce her husband, President Alvaro Colom, in order to attempt to keep the presidency for Guatemala's left, but courts eventually ruled her ineligible to be a candidate. Since then, the left-wing has been unable to rally around another figure.

Perez Molina's popularity is his based largely on his "mano dura" platform -- an "iron fist" against the Mara Salvatrucha gang and the Zetas, the Mexican cartel invading and controlling territory along Guatemala's border with Mexico. Guatemala, with one of the highest homicide rates in the world, has only barely begun to probe human-rights atrocities during the civil war. Four former soldiers were recently sentenced to 6,000 years for a massacre in 1982.

Investigation expands in Monterrey casino case

It was textbook political theater this week in Monterrey when Mayor Fernando Larrazabal said he would put it up to a citizen's vote whether he should step down over a growing corruption scandal tied to the tragic Casino Royale firebombing by suspected Zetas (link in Spanish).

Larrazabal -- whose brother tried to argue he was a cheese-seller and not collecting illicit cash at casinos -- was abandoned by the National Action Party leadership in Mexico City, who suggested he step down after the videos. He said he'd consult the people of Monterrey about his political future, and Saturday announced he would hold on to his job.

Meanwhile, the federal investigation into the casino fire has expanded and focus is turning to ties between drug gangs and police in Monterrey, said Atty. Gen. Marisela Morales in an exclusive interview with Times correspondents Tracy Wilkinson and Ken Ellingwood. "This is most serious in what is happening," Morales said. "Frequently police are at the service of organized crime, especially local police."

A 'believer' of Scrabble and Jewish identity in Cuba

The gradual opening up of Cuban society to U.S. trade and tourism is benefiting people with two passions that at first might not seem naturally related: Scrabble, and Cuban Jewish history. At least, that's how Fidel Babani sees it. He's a fixture of both Cuba's nascent Scrabble-playing community as well as its tiny but reinvigorating Jewish community. 

Babani sounds like a fascinating figure in this profile by Times correspondent Tracy Wilkinson, who was recently in Havana. He's a former military bodyguard to none other than Fidel Castro. "Greater opening — here and in the U.S. — will benefit us in every sense," Babani said.

Peña Nieto moves into position

While Mexico's main leftist and conservative parties have yet to settle on a candidate for next year's presidential elections, the resurgent Institutional Revolutionary Party appeared closer to naming Enrique Peña Nieto, governor of the state of Mexico, as its candidate.

Top party figures attended the governor's opulent and congratulatory state-of-the-state address on Monday, his last in Toluca. Peña Nieto said, in a highly cited phrase: "Mexico has a clear project."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City 

Photo: Fidel Babani sits at a Jewish community center in Havana. Credit: Tracy Wilkinson / Los Angeles Times

The week in Latin America: Allende suicide confirmed

Allende archive suicide

Here are stories that made top headlines in Latin America this week, and highlights from our coverage of the region by Times reporters and your blogger here at La Plaza:


Salvador Allende's death confirmed as suicide

Nearly four decades after the violent military coup in Chile, results of a judge-ordered autopsy on the remains of ousted President Salvador Allende confirmed that he killed himself and was not slain by soldiers attacking La Moneda, the presidential palace, on Sept. 11, 1973.

The inquest results, which were received with "great peace" by Allende's survivors, put to rest a significant historical mystery of the 20th century and a lingering wound on the Chilean national psyche. Allende was the first democratically elected socialist in Latin America, but his presidency was cut short by the coup that brought to power the brutal U.S.-backed dictatorship in Chile under Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

The death of Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda, shortly after the coup, is also being investigated in Chile, as well as hundreds of other deaths presumed to be tied to the dictatorship.


Another high-profile corruption case fails in Mexico

An operation targeting officials in Michoacan collapses. Jorge Hank Rhon walks free in Tijuana. Now, the ex-mayor of Cancun is the latest high-profile corruption suspect to be released in Mexico after authorities failed to build a solid case against him, reports The Times.

Gregorio Sanchez, arrested in May, 2010, walked free on Wednesday, but was ordered to wear a tracking bracelet while prosecutors attempt to build another set of charges. Sanchez was campaigning for governor of the state of Quintana Roo at the time of his arrest on suspicion of cartel ties. Supporters claim he was targeted for political reasons, an allegation also raised against the similar failed cases in Tijuana and Michoacan.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration announced in Washington this week a "surgical strike" against La Familia cartel operations north of the border, with 1,985 arrests. The 20-month investigation "stripped La Familia of its manpower" in the U.S., authorities said. La Familia is based in Michoacan.


Buenos Aires mayoral election heading to runoff

The capital of Argentina looks to remain a center-right counterweight against the leftist-populist government of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner after mayoral election results in Buenos Aires.

A runoff is scheduled for July 31 between conservative incumbent Mauricio Macri, who won 47% of the vote on July 10, and leftist Fernandez ally Daniel Filmus, who won about 28%. The election results left one rock-pop singer in "disgust," a comment that exposed deep social and class rifts in Buenos Aires.

Fernandez seeks to be re-elected in October.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: An archive image shows the body of Chilean President Salvador Allende being removed from the presidential palace in Santiago on Sept. 11, 1973. Credit:

'Disgusted' by half of Buenos Aires, singer reveals social rifts in Argentina election column

Mauricio Macri election result

"Half of Buenos Aires disgusts me," a well-known singer announced in a newspaper column in Argentina last week (link in Spanish). "I've been feeling this way for a while."

The writer, Fito Paez, has sparked a political controversy with the essay published in the paper Pagina 12. Paez was referring to results of the mayoral election on July 10, in which incumbent Mauricio Macri of the center-right opposition won 47% of the vote, signaling -- in Paez's tough opinion -- a capital almost half-full with selfish and superficial people.

Not everyone agreed, of course.

"Here, half the porteños [Buenos Aires residents] continue trying to solve the world from tables at bars, taxis, stupefying themselves with prophets from the void dressed like family television entertainers because 'people like having a good time,' or showing up to any public event for the chance of appearing in a photo in a trendy magazine," Paez wrote. Half "are bothered by any notion tied to human rights ... or spend the day tweeting stupidities that no one cares about."

Paez, obviously, had been supporting Daniel Filmus, the center-left candidate from President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner's ruling populist coalition. Filmus came in second in the voting in Buenos Aires, which first elected Macri mayor in 2007. A runoff between the two is scheduled for July 31.

The Paez column has turned into a political tussle of its own (an automated translation is here), exposing lingering social and class rifts in Argentina. Buenos Aires is seen by many as a bastion of the elite, out of touch and indifferent to provincial Argentines, who make up the bulk of the Kirchner coalition base. The widow president is preparing a run for reelection in October.

In a bit of political dissonance, an advisor to the conservative Macri notched up the rhetoric on Paez by characterizing the rock-pop balladeer as "fascist" for stereotyping a good sum of his neighbors. Being called a fascist is not to be taken lightly in a country still healing wounds from its past military dictatorship. Critics also accused Paez of hypocrisy. So concerned with the poor, they huffed, and he lives in the capital's exclusive Recoleta district?

The papers have been brimming with articles on the column. Macri supporters reacted with indignation at the offenses lobbed by the singer, a native of the neighboring Santa Fe province. "It's fascists against fascists," quipped a correspondent for a Peruvian daily. 

"Fito Paez I love disgusting you," one person wrote on Twitter. "I was terrorized by the thought of sharing your tastes or ideas." (Kirchner's official Twitter account was copied on the note, for apparent emphasis.) 

Paez has lain low since the controversy erupted. But Kirchner supporters are coming to his aid in the news media. Writer Andres Rivera said Paez's words were "appropriate and moderate," adding ominously that the election results confirm for him that "Buenos Aires is crossing into fascism."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Buenos Aires mayoral candidate Mauricio Macri celebrates election results on July 10. Credit:

The week in Latin America: Peru's African legacy

Susana baca times

Here are stories that made top headlines in Latin America this week, and highlights from our coverage of the region by Times reporters and your blogger here at La Plaza:

Significant court ruling in Mexico

In Mexico, the Supreme Court ruled that human-rights abuse claims against the military must be tried in civilian courts and no longer in closed-door military tribunals.

The ruling presents a test to Mexico's fledgling civilian justice system, still in dire need of reform, as well as President Felipe Calderon's military-led strategy against organized crime. Abuse claims against Mexico's armed forces have skyrocketed since soldiers and marines were dispatched to the streets in 2006 to combat the country's drug cartels.

Searching for the missing children of El Salvador

Times correspondent Ken Ellingwood was recently in El Salvador, where he reported a profile of an organization, named Pro-Busqueda, which uses the modern tools of social media as well as "old–fashioned grunt work" to locate missing children from El Salvador's brutal civil war.

Read the story here

Excavating Afro-Peruvian history

From Peru, Times correspondent Tracy Wilkinson offers a look at an acclaimed singer who is seeking to reclaim and celebrate the country's rich history of African migration and culture.

One such icon of the Afro-Peruvian past, says singer Susana Baca, is the instrument known as the cajon, or box, which Baca has incorporated into her records. "A lot of people saw this as the music of the slaves," she explains. "They were ashamed of it."

Gun scandal grows in the United States

With wide implications for Mexico and its conflict against organized crime, the Fast and Furious gun-running scandal continued to reverberate north of the border. This week, the federal government imposed a tougher rule for the reporting of semiautomatic weapon sales in border states.

Revelations from the scandal, in which deadly weapons were knowingly "walked" into Mexico by U.S. agents, confirm that the United States government has been essentially arming both sides of the drug war in Mexico.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Peruvian singer Susana Baca, left, in the village of Santa Barbara, Peru. Credit: Giancarlo Aponte, For The Times

A senseless end for Facundo Cabral, and shame in Guatemala

Facundo cabral bellas artes poster

The brutality and senselessness of armed conflicts in Latin America -- guerrillas, cartels, paramilitaries -- can often seem to know no boundaries. In shootouts and massacres, civilians and migrants usually make up the bulk of the victims, no matter the era.

Facundo Cabral, the folk singer from Argentina who was killed in Guatemala City on Saturday by gunfire reportedly not intended for him, was as civilian and migratory as you can get in Latin America.

Cabral was eighth-born to a poor family in Buenos Aires in 1937, and later grew up in the far southern tip of Argentina, the province of Tierra del Fuego. He ran away from home at age 9 with the intent of making it back to the capital and seeking a meeting with then-President Juan Peron. The boy, gone for four months, had heard Peron "gave jobs to the poor" (links in Spanish).

His singing career took off in 1970 with an international hit, "No soy de aquí, ni soy de allá," or "I'm Not From Here, and Not from There." In spoken verse that precedes one famous video recording of the song, Cabral says, "I am not liberty, but I am he who provokes it." Cabral's greatest hit has been recorded some 700 times and in 27 languages.

After the rise of the military junta in Argentina, the singer went into exile for a time in Mexico. By 1996, he was designated a United Nations "Worldwide Messenger of Peace." Cabral, 74, toured and performed actively across the region, which is what took him for a planned series of concerts in Central America beginning last week.

He performed in Guatemala City on Tuesday and in the city of Quetzaltenango on Thursday. Early on Saturday morning, while riding to the airport, the vehicle Cabral rode in was ambushed in what authorities suspect was an organized-crime hit intended for his promoter Henry Farina, a Nicaraguan.

As of Tuesday, police in Guatemala have arrested two men in connection to the attack. Cabral's body arrived to a stricken Argentina Tuesday, carried by a Mexican air force jet.

Mourning and a sense of national shame have taken hold among many in the troubled Central American nation where the beloved folk singer died. His killing was seen as yet another senseless death in a country with one of the worst crises of violence and impunity in the region. Mexican drug cartels, pushing south, are invading territory and threatening entire governments.

Artists, performers and human rights activists have reacted with regret and soul-searching in recent days. In a letter to a newspaper, the Guatemalan singer Ricardo Arjona wrote: "As a Guatemalan, I deeply regret the impact this news will generate among international opinion. As a friend and colleague, I will lament the absence of Facundo forever."

Fans gathered before the National Palace in Guatemala City on Saturday, expressing further shock, sadness and anger. One sign held by a mourner read: "Sorry to the world for the assassination of Facundo." Guatemalans want peace and justice, the gathered said in signs, "not just for Facundo Cabral but for the future of our children."

President Alvaro Colom has declared three days of national mourning.

In what would be one of his final concerts in Guatemala City on Tuesday, Cabral told his audience: "I have given you my thanks. I will thank them in Quetzaltenango. And after that, whatever God wishes, because he knows what he does."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Image: A 1973 poster for a Facundo Cabral concert at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City. Credit: El Pueblo de Tierra.

A giant 'Christ of the Pacific' statue is erected in Peru

Alan Garcia Christ Pacifico Peru

The outgoing president of Peru, Alan Garcia, is bringing a gargantuan statue of Jesus to a hill overlooking the capital, Lima.

The "Christ of the Pacific" monument, set to be inaugurated later this month on the Morro Solar hill in southern Lima, is a 120-foot structure featuring a white statue of Jesus that is 72 feet tall. The statue,  made of resin, has its arms outstretched, resembling the world-famous Christ the Redeemer statue overlooking Rio de Janeiro.

According to reports, Garcia described the project as a personal dream and a "gift" to Peru before he leaves office in late July. "I want it to be a figure that blesses Peru and protects Lima," the president said (links in Spanish). 

The monument has sparked controversy, with opponents accusing Garcia of having a conflict of interest because he co-funded the project with an organization that holds contracts with Peru's government, reports said. President-elect Ollanta Humala, who assumes office on July 28, has suggested he supports the project, saying it will improve the city's panorama.

But Peruvians appeared split over the new addition to Lima's landscape, with some questioning the wisdom of using a religious symbol and others doubting the president's sincerity. "A monument as great as his humility," said one online commenter at El Comercio.

"Christ of the Pacific" is set to be inaugurated June 29.

Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Peruvian President Alan Garcia oversees final preparations for the Christ of the Pacific monument in Lima on June 19. Credit: Government of Peru

Mexico remembers writer Carlos Monsivais, one year later

Monsi house 1

The photo above shows the front gate of the longtime home of Carlos Monsivais, the celebrated Mexican author who died a year ago Sunday at the age of 72. Read our June 20, 2010, La Plaza post on his death as well as the obituary in The Times.

Well-regarded in his barrio, Monsivais lived for many years on Calzada San Simon in the San Simon Ticumac neighborhood of south-central Mexico City, near the famous Portales market. He worked there for many years, surrounded by piles of books, pop memorabilia and, famously, his cats (link in Spanish).

La Plaza shot these photos on Calzada San Simon in the days after the author's death.

Neighbors posted signs of regards and affection for "Monsi," as the author of "Days to Remember" and "Apocalipstick" was called. The messages in Spanish are heartwarming and often florid, a worthy homage to the writer who once poetically described the Mexico City subway as a primal human battleground for oxygen.

Monsivais was remembered once again by friends and colleagues during a memorial on Sunday at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in downtown Mexico City (link in Spanish). The writer Elena Poniatowska, a lifelong friend, said at the memorial that in the past year Monsivais' death has been an ever-present void in the intellectual life of Mexico, "a horrible loss."

"Monsi went directly to the essence of things," she said. "His implacable fortitude, his critical intelligence ... transformed him into a defender of civil rights, into the intellectual who most knew and best knew how to protest the violation of human rights, and the citizen who best denounced the enormous ineptitude and rampant greed of the politicians who govern us."

More photos below.

Continue reading »

Who is winning the drug war's publicity battle?

El equipo the team series mexico televisa

There's a drug war going on in Mexico with serious tangibles -- nearly 40,000 dead, communities ravaged, armed soldiers and protests in the streets. But there's also a less tangible struggle being fought alongside it, a publicity war.

The Mexican government under conservative President Felipe Calderon has taken steps in recent weeks to respond to public discontent with the military-led campaign against drug cartels. In late May, his top national security spokesman, Alejandro Piore, began writing a special blog on the president's website seeking to counter "Ten myths about the fight for security" (link in Spanish).

Also in May came "The Team," or "El Equipo," a television drama that sought to depict in a positive light the men and women of the federal police, which has been beefed up under Calderon's anticrime drive. The project (produced by the media conglomerate Televisa) was panned by the press, performed weakly in the ratings, and has come under attack by Calderon's political foes for alleged misuse of federal police funds and property, including U.S. helicopters acquired by Mexico under the aid package known as the Merida Initiative (link in Spanish).

As The Times' Ken Ellingwood wrote, "Amid sharpening divisions over Mexico's drug war, even a mediocre cop drama can be fuel on the fire." Read the entire L.A. Times article on the show here.

La Plaza tried watching the program -- with an open mind, of course -- but managed only a small dose of the writing and acting, which came close to the realm of "so bad, it's good" entertainment. "El Equipo" had an unusually short run: 15 episodes in three weeks.

Continue reading »

Abel Quezada drew the idiosyncratic soul of Mexico

Abel quezada mural los angeles times

Above: "There go some low-class people."

"I make illustrated texts," the Mexican cartoonist Abel Quezada once remarked. "People like calling them cartoons in order to define my profession, but I consider myself someone who draws. Drawing for me is a constant nervous tic."

It was a tic that for more than 50 years produced some of the most memorable political cartoons in the popular imagination of Mexico. Quezada skewered both left and right, rich and poor, and was undeterred from criticizing through his "illustrated texts" the long regime under the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

That much is known about Quezada by anyone who can point to one of his many recognizable drawings of "typical" Mexicans -- our idiosyncratic selves, for better or for worse.

An overweight man in a cowboy hat with a party pin on his jacket signifies the "PRI Deputy." A robust pointy-nosed woman in a gown and pearls symbolizes a haughty "Dame of Las Lomas." Even a journalist type pops up in Quezada's illustrations. The workhorse scribe is represented as a man so paper-thin he is tied to the ground with rope to prevent him from floating away.

Such images reappear in a far-reaching exhibit on Quezada's work, "Códice Abel Quezada," currently on view at the Museo de la Ciudad de Mexico in downtown Mexico City (links in Spanish). The exhibit, a 15-year project curated by Alfonso Morales and organized with the support of the Quezada family civil organization, breaks new ground on the artist, depicting him as a full-fledged master who also excelled in painting and mural-making.

Indeed, some of his most vivid work wasn't inspired by Mexico but rather his time spent in New York. Other wondrous Quezada pieces illustrate a fantastical metropolis named Comales that existed only in the artist's imagination.

"He had two cities, three cities -- well, maybe four, Paris was another -- that seduced him enormously," curator Morales said in an interview with La Plaza. "Comales was like the capital of the world [for Quezada], the best of the worlds that are impossible." 

"Ultimately," Morales added, "he was a fabulist."

Continue reading »

A 'Surfing Madonna' appears in San Diego

Surfing madonna daniel hernandez los angeles times 5

Where did she come from? Who made her? Will the city decide to keep her around?

Residents of a laid-back beach community in San Diego County have been gathering day after day before a striking mosaic mural that appeared unannounced on a bridge wall, guerrilla-style, without proper approval. They are curious and concerned. The "Surfing Madonna," as locals have dubbed her, is in danger of being removed by the city of Encinitas.

The mural is a 12-foot-tall representation of the Virgen de Guadalupe, the Virgin Mary image believed to have miraculously appeared before an Indian peasant named Juan Diego in 1531 in Mexico City. Guadalupe has been called the "Empress of the Americas," the patron saint of Mexico, and the "unofficial flag of Mexicans." Her image has been appropriated across popular culture and national and religious lines, and is considered a special icon for Southern California as well.

In the Encinitas mural, the Virgin Mary figure appears in her familiar flowing green robe, with her famous downward-cast eyes and slight smile. But this being Southern California, Guadalupe here is riding a white surfboard, with the image's traditional moon-bearing cherub depicted on the board's deck, as if navigating down Encinitas Boulevard and onto the breaks at Moonlight State Beach.

"Save the ocean," reads a message running down the mural's left side, in bright glass pepples.

Continue reading »

Recommended on Facebook


In Case You Missed It...

Recent News
Introducing World Now |  September 23, 2011, 8:48 am »
'Twitter terrorists' freed in Mexico, charges dropped |  September 21, 2011, 7:03 pm »
Freedom likely for Mexico's 'Twitter Terrorists' |  September 21, 2011, 11:00 am »



About the Reporters
Ken Ellingwood
Daniel Hernandez
Efrain Hernandez Jr.
Chris Kraul
Richard Marosi
Tracy Wilkinson