Singer Chavela Vargas 'had the public at her feet'

Chavela vargas lima peru 2002MEXICO CITY -- It is almost pointless to be sad about the passing of Chavela Vargas. Her entire life, through song, was about transcending and challenging death.

The singer, who passed away Sunday in Cuernavaca, lived to be 93, surviving many contemporaries from decades ago when Vargas wore men’s clothes, smoked, and carried a pistol in macho-bound Mexico.

Then she disappeared. For a few foggy years in the last century, when Vargas stayed away from the capital's cabarets and fell under the spell of alcohol in a forgotten town in the state of Morelos, she had become a ghostly myth. Many people actually thought she had died.

After the reflourishing of her career -- starting in 1991 at the Coyoacan district cabaret El Habito, but marked for U.S. audiences by her performance of "La Llorona" in the 2002 film "Frida" -- Vargas through her performances seemed to be gamely singing her way around death.

It was always a fair match, always a matter of courtly struggle against a respected rival.

In her songs, in that uniquely Latin American way of romancing melancholy, Vargas would channel the long echoes of sorrow and pain that accompany any life as long as hers, armor against its end. Few details are known about her famous affairs, but we didn't really need them. Her songs about love and loss evoked countless shivers and heavy hearts, countless borracheras -- enthusiastically sorrowful drinking sessions.

For that, audiences and listeners across Mexico, the Americas and Spain would sometimes find themselves under a surprising state of rapture in the presence of her voice. It was pleading and raspy, yet always remarkably controlled.

On Monday night, throngs of Vargas devotees filled Plaza Garibaldi near downtown Mexico City to be near her casket for a few hours and participate in a customary Mexican ritual that's become familiar after the passings of Carlos Fuentes and Carlos Monsivais: a public mourning session.

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In tribute, Mexico fondly remembers writer Carlos Fuentes

Carlos Fuentes tribute
MEXICO CITY — Mexicans bade farewell Wednesday to iconic novelist Carlos Fuentes, whose death a day earlier leaves a significant gap in the nation’s literary scene and civic discourse.

At a ceremony in Mexico City's majestic Fine Arts Palace, Fuentes was hailed as a most Mexican man of letters whose writings gained worldwide respect while helping his compatriots see themselves more clearly.

"It would be difficult to understand ourselves without Carlos Fuentes," said Consuelo Saizar, president of Mexico's culture and arts council. "His books form part of the Mexican cultural landscape.... He fine-tuned our gaze and taught us to spell 'nation.' "

President Felipe Calderon, First Lady Margarita Zavala, Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard and prominent writers and artists were present as Fuentes’ casket was carried into the domed, century-old cultural center, an emblem of Mexican identity in the heart of the capital.

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Nicaragua's Tomas Borge, Sandinista founder and enforcer, dies


MEXICO CITY -- Tomas Borge, last living founder of the Sandinista movement and one of its most hard-line enforcers, has died. He was 81.

In Nicaragua, the government of President Daniel Ortega made the announcement, saying Borge died Monday night in a military hospital in Managua. No cause of death was given, but Borge has been sick for some time, suffering pneumonia and other ailments.

Ortega declared three days of mourning for Borge. (The link is in Spanish.)

In the early 1960s, Borge helped create the leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front, a guerrilla movement that overthrew the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in 1979. The Sandinistas then installed themselves in government, creating an often-harsh pro-Cuba system that swiftly earned the ire of the administration of President Ronald Reagan.

The United States spent millions of dollars to build and arm the Contra forces that unsuccessfully fought to oust the Sandinistas. Ortega and his allies lost power in an election in 1990. Ortega, a previous president, returned to the presidency in 2007 and was reelected last year.

Through the 1980s, Borge was considered the most rigid member of the nine comandantes who ruled Nicaragua. He was known for his heavy-handed repression of dissidents and opposition figures, especially in the Roman Catholic Church and among the Miskito Indians on Nicaragua's Atlantic coast. He repeatedly shuttered or punished the opposition press.

But he was also a spellbinding orator who commanded the loyalty of his troops.

"They accuse me of having a hard hand, but people closest to me know that is not the nature of my heart," he once said.

Borge's influence had faded in recent years, though he was one of the few early Sandinistas who remained allied with the erratic Ortega. Borge served as ambassador to Peru before his death.


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Photo: An August 2010 file photo shows Tomas Borge in Managua. Credit: Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.


Ben-Zion Netanyahu, father of Israeli prime minister, dies at 102

The father of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, historian Ben-Zion Netanyahu, died early Monday in his Jerusalem home at age 102
JERUSALEM -- The man said to have had the most profound influence on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his father, historian Ben-Zion Netanyahu, died early Monday in his Jerusalem home at age 102.

Born Ben-Zion Milikovsky in Warsaw in 1910, the elder Netanyahu emigrated with his family to Palestine in 1920. He and his wife, Tzila, were married in 1944, during his studies in Palestine, then under the British Mandate. They had three sons.

The family moved to the United States, where he pursued his academic work, becoming a historian of renown and specializing in research of medieval Spanish Jewry and the roots of the Spanish Inquisition.

He also pursued his Zionist passion, working closely with Zionism's prominent Revisionist leader, Zeev Jabotinsky, as his personal secretary in the United States during World War II. The Revisionist movement was uncompromising in its political positions and differed sharply from the socialist Zionists of the early 20th century. Netanyahu opposed the United Nations' 1947 Partition Plan.

After the foundation of Israel, the family returned to the fledgling state. Despite Netanyahu's acclaimed work, Israeli academia did not embrace the scholar, whose right-wing beliefs went against the grain of the prevalent socialist hegemony, and he continued his scholarship with various American universities until becoming a professor emeritus at Cornell University.

The Netanyahus lived between the United States and Israel until their final return to Israel in 1976, after their son, Yoni, was killed during an Israeli commando operation to rescue hostages on an Air France flight hijacked to Entebbe, Uganda. Benjamin Netanyahu delivered the news to his parents.

"The longest, most difficult journey of my life," he later said. "Since then, our family changed drastically."

Ben-Zion Netanyahu was eulogized by many as a great scholar, intellectual and ideologue of unwavering principles. Israeli Education Minister Gideon Saar said Ben-Zion Netanyahu was a "Zionist in every fiber of his being" and a man who saw with "clear sobriety the dangers facing our people."

Many attribute the prime minister's deep convictions and flair for history to his father's unwavering beliefs. "Benjamin Netanyahu was raised on uncompromising Zionism," Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin told Israel Radio.

Condolences to the Netanyahu family came from across the political spectrum, and opposition parties have withdrawn no-confidence motions and bills calling to dissolve parliament and move to early elections out of respect for the week of mourning.

Netanyahu will be buried in Jerusalem later today. He is survived by his sons, the prime minister and Ido Netanyahu, a physician, author and playwright.

[For the Record, April 30, 11:34 a.m.: An earlier version of this post said Benjamin Netanyahu had traveled from Israel to the U.S. to tell his parents about his brother's death. He actually traveled within the U.S. to reach his parents.]


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-- Batsheva Sobelman

Photo: Ben-Zion Netanyahu. Credit: Lior Mizrahi / Getty Images

Artist Elizabeth Catlett remembered; dead at 96 in Mexico

"Red Cross Woman (Nurse)"
REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- Elizabeth Catlett, a U.S.-born artist who directly confronted the injustices faced by African Americans and celebrated black identity and culture through her work, has died in her longtime home in Mexico.

Catlett, who died Monday, had lived in Mexico since 1946. She spent most of her years here as an exile from the United States, which in 1962 tagged her an "undesirable alien" after she became a Mexican citizen. Her U.S. citizenship was eventually reinstated in 2002.

A sculptor and printmaker, she had recently begun to gain international renown for her long body of work.

Read the L.A. Times obituary on Elizabeth Catlett here.

"Confident that art could foster social change, Catlett confronted the most disturbing injustices against African Americans, including lynchings and beatings," says The Times article written by Mary Rourke and Valerie J. Nelson. "One of her best-known sculptures, 'Target' (1970), was created after police shot a Black Panther; it shows a black man's head framed by a rifle sight."

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Fidel Castro's older sister dies


REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- The older sister of Cuban leaders Fidel and Raul Castro has died, news reports from Havana and Miami say. Angela Castro was 88.

She is the first of the seven Castro siblings to die and, as the Associated Press put it, her death suggests the "looming mortality" of her more famous brothers.

The Miami-based website quoted another sister, Juanita, who lives in Miami, as saying Angela died Tuesday morning, quietly, in a Havana clinic where she had been in declining health for some time. There was to be a funeral on Thursday, the website said.

As of this writing, there has been no mention of the Castro family loss in Cuba's state-controlled media nor an announcement from Fidel or Raul.

Fidel, who upon serious illness handed the government over to Raul nearly six years ago, is 85. Raul is 80.


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-- Tracy Wilkinson

Photo: Cuban leaders Fidel Castro, left, and his brother Raul confer in parliament in Havana in this file photo from 2003. Credit: AFP/Getty Images


Kim Jong Il death: Heir likely to be influenced by aunt and uncle

Left photo: Jang Song Taek, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's brother-in-law,   leaves Beijing international Airport for home in this photo dated March 28, 2006. Credit: AP photo/Kyodo News  Right photo: Kim Kyong Hui at the ruling Workers' Party representatives meeting in Pyongyang, North Korea on Sept. 28, 2010, where she retained her position as department director on the Central Committee and gained a new post as a member of the committee's Political Bureau. Credit: AP Photo/Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service

Kim Jong Un, designated last year to lead the North Korean family dynasty in its third generation, may be heavily influenced by an aunt and uncle, analysts said.

Bottom photo: Kim Jong Un on Tuesday visits the body of his father, Kim Jong Il, in Pyongyang. Credit: AP PhotoIn recent years, as his health failed, longtime North Korea leader Kim Jong Il moved to cement the authority of his sister and brother-in-law as he prepared to anoint the youngest of his three sons, Kim Jong Un, still in his 20s, as the country's new leader.

PHOTOS: Kim Jong Il's body on display

Kim Jong Il was close to his younger sister, Kim Kyong Hui. Described as having a fiery and energetic temperament, she has spent years in the ruling Workers' Party. The sister was increasingly seen in public with Kim after his stroke in 2008.

"Kim Jong Il is very proud of her. She is a very attractive person to the North Koreans, as well. She is like a strong man with a strong character," Jang Sung-min, a former South Korean lawmaker who wrote a book on the North Korean leader, told The Times in 2010.

"North Korea is a Confucian country and people were concerned Kim Jong Un was too young. They need to have the older face of Kim Kyong Hui next to his," Brent Choi, a longtime North Korea analyst, said in an interview with The Times last year.

FULL COVERAGE: Kim Jong Il | 1942-2011

The uncle, Jang Song Taek, has had a long history with the levers of power in the North Korean government, fueled by luck, family connections and political acumen.

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Kim Jong Il death: Who's who in the Kim family?

Who's who in Kim Jong Il's family? Here's a primer on the Kim family, which led one of the world's most enduring dictatorships, a repressive regime that has long defied predictions of its demise. It survived from the end of World War II into the 21st century while many of its people went hungry.

Photo: Kim Il Sung in giant stadium portrait in 1995. Credit: Hyungwon Kang / Los Angeles TimesKim Il Sung, 1912-1994, was the Communist dictator who ruled North Korea for more than four decades since the end of World War II. Academics say he was plucked out of the Soviet army to run the newly liberated region after the war, and built an extravagant personality cult, lionized as a demigod. He presided over severe food shortages, growing public unrest and an increasing number of defectors to China and elsewhere.

Photo: In October, Kim Jong Il presided over a parade marking the 65th anniversary of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party. Credit: Vincent Yu / Associated PressKim Jong Il, 1942-2011, was the eldest son of Kim Il Sung. Behind the scenes, Kim had been helping to run North Korea for nearly two decades when his father died. Kim remained to the end an unrepentant communist, refusing to liberalize the economy even as his people became some of the world's poorest, with millions dying of starvation and tens of thousands imprisoned for political crimes. Kim defied and baffled world leaders with his nuclear ambition and surprise attacks on South Korea.

Photo: Kim Jong Eun, in October 2010. Credit: Vincent Yu / Associated PressKim Jong Un is the youngest son of Kim Jong Il, and Kim's chosen successor. He was almost entirely unknown to the North Korean public until September 2010, when he was named a four-star general. "Kim Jong Un has had only two years. It is not enough time to become crown prince," said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. He is likely to be overshadowed by his powerful uncle, Jang Sung Taek, who is married to Kim's younger sister.

Photo: Jang Sung Taek is the powerful brother-in-law of Kim Jong Il, and was Kim's No. 2 on North Korea's National Defense Commission, seen here in this photo taken on June 7, 2010.  Credit: Reuters/KRT via Yonhap Jang Song Taek, 65, is the uncle of Kim Jong Un, has been considered the No. 2 man in North Korea behind Kim Jong Il. Analysts speculated that the uncle and his wife might act as regents to the younger Kim. Jang has spent three decades in the ruling Workers’ Party, holding key positions in the military and secret police and running North Korea’s special economic zones. His family members also hold powerful jobs with the military. Jang was promoted in June 2010 to be vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, which was headed by Kim Jong Il.


Photo: Kim Jong Nam, the eldest son of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, waves after his first-ever interview with South Korean media in Macau on June 4, 2010. Dressed in jeans and blue suede loafers, the eldest son of North Korea's leader agreed to a quick interview outside a hotel elevator in Macau, saying he has no plans to defect to Europe, a South Korean newspaper reported. Credit: AP Photo /JoongAng Sunday via JoongAng Ilbo, Shin In-seopKim Jong Nam is the eldest son of Kim Jong Il. He was widely assumed to be the heir, but fell from favor in 2001 after being arrested at Tokyo's Narita airport, trying to sneak in under a fake passport to take his son to Disneyland. Now living in Macao, the eldest son, 40, told Japanese television last year that he opposed the “hereditary succession into a third generation.” Kim Jong Nam’s own son, Kim Han Sol, 16, has posted photos of himself wearing a cross on Facebook and comments on YouTube expressing concern about the hunger in North Korea. 

Kim Jong Chol, not pictured, is the middle son of Kim Jong Il. North Korea watchers believe that both the eldest and middle sons may have jinxed their chances of being tapped as successor by too much public exposure. In the middle son's case, Kim Jong Chol was photographed attending several Eric Clapton concerts in Germany in 2006.


 Kim Jong Il death: Powerful uncle could overshadow Kim's son

Kim Jong Il death empties streets, stops trains, shuts markets

Kim Jong Il death: U.S. wary of succession struggle in North Korea

-- Barbara Demick and John M. Glionna

Photo: Kim Il Sung in giant stadium portrait in 1995. Credit: Hyungwon Kang / Los Angeles Times

Photo: In October, Kim Jong Il presided over a parade marking the 65th anniversary of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party. Credit: Vincent Yu / Associated Press

Photo: Kim Jong Un, in October 2010. Credit: Vincent Yu / Associated Press

Photo: Jang Sung Taek is the powerful brother-in-law of Kim Jong Il, and was Kim's No. 2 on North Korea's National Defense Commission, seen here in this photo taken June 7, 2010.  Credit: Reuters/KRT via Yonhap

Photo: Kim Jong Nam, the eldest son of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, waves after his first-ever interview with South Korean media in Macau on June 4, 2010. Credit: Associated Press /JoongAng Sunday via JoongAng Ilbo, Shin In-seop

Kim Jong Il death: Powerful uncle could overshadow Kim's son

Photo: Kim Jong Il's son, Kim Jong Un, in October 2010. Credit: Vincent Yu / Associated Press

REPORTING FROM SHENZHEN, CHINA -- The death of Kim Jong Il leaves his family's business -- running North Korea -- in terrible shape.

Under his leadership, North Korea lost 2 million people, about 10% of the population, to starvation. It sank ever deeper into poverty and isolation, all the more striking next to the economic miracle that is China.

His youngest son and chosen successor, Kim Jong Un, still in his 20s, has before him what appears to be the nearly impossible task of trying to rescue a failed state and perpetuate the family dynasty into its third generation.

PHOTOS: Kim Jong Il | 1942-2011

North Korea is an anachronism of a country, more so than ever at the end of a year when the world has witnessed the collapse of undemocratic regimes in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia.

"Kim Jong Il was the glue that held the system together. We don’t know how the system will respond in his absence," said Scott Snyder, Korea expert with the Council on Foreign Relations.

"Everything could potentially change," said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. "The only person who had the experience and who held the exclusive power is gone."   

North Korean media extolled Kim Jong Un on Monday as the “great successor” and the “outstanding leader of our party, army and people.” 

But it’s not so simple. The young man is likely to be overshadowed by a powerful uncle, Jang Sung Taek.

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Kim Jong Il death empties streets, stops trains, shuts markets

REPORTING FROM SEOUL -- Trains reportedly stopped running. Markets were shut down. Residents were urged to get off the streets and stay in their homes.

It is never easy to know what is going on inside North Korea. That was particularly true on this cold Monday in December, when the country was absorbing the announcement that its leader, Kim Jong Il, had died.

There were no reports of unrest. But with the country facing a transition to Kim's largely untested young son, the regime appeared to be taking no chances, quickly enacting rigid social controls, according to media reports.

PHOTOS: Kim Jong Il | 1942-2011

Usually busy streets were emptied. In Musan, a northern city across the frozen Tumen River from China, several loud siren blasts were heard soon after the announcement. Then officers and agents of the National Security Agency and the People’s Safety Ministry urged residents to return to their homes.

"They wouldn't even let the children come out of the house," a source inside the North Korean regime told the Daily NK newspaper here, adding that armed soldiers were positioned 12 feet apart across much of the town. "Citizens are being extra careful in their speech and actions."

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