Monday, December 25, 2006

Making connections in Lima, Peru

I went to Peru for business reasons but also made a couple of personal connections. The photo is with a former high school teacher of mine, Paul Lammermeier, who has been in Peru for 19 years, most of that running homes for adolescent boys who have been either abandoned by their families or kicked out of the house.

Cindy and I had started contributing to Paul's project a couple of years ago when we heard about it through the alumni magazine of my high school, St. Ignatius in Cleveland. I hadn't seen Paul since 1967, when he gave me an 85 in American History. So it was great to see his project in Lima firsthand. Contributions from alumni of Cincinnati St. Xavier, where Paul taught for 14 years, and St. Ignatius, have allowed him to get two homes up and running.

I spent an evening talking with a half-dozen of the boys about their interests, their favorite school subjects, what they might be thinking about for a career and answering their questions about the U.S. It was a lot of fun, and it was clear that the boys are like a family, like brothers, who like and support each other. One of the boys pictured had spoken only Quechua until he was 12. Spanish is his second language. He's now at the university studying French and German as well as Spanish and English, and he is quite good at all of them.

I also had a chance to catch up with Jesse Hardman, who is doing the same fellowship I am but at a university in Lima. He's been working on some interesting projects with radio journalists outside of Lima. He and I went together to call on the business editor of El Comercio, the country's largest and most influential daily newspaper. We also chatted up Raul Vargas, a nationally known radio journalist (his show reaches 2 million people daily) when we ran into him at Lima's equivalent of the Billy Goat Tavern. This is Jesse with Raul.

Jesse is working with a blind journalist on developing a blog site for blind people that would include news and information that they might not be able to get anywhere else. There is software available in some libraries that translates web text into audio. Jesse is a native of Minnesota who was a correspondent for National Public Radio in Chicago for four years. However, to prove the theory that everyone must pass through Ohio in his career, he is a graduate of Kenyon College in Gambier.

For some reason, journalists have been interviewing me. The photo at left is from a 5-minute interview at Channel 19 in Lima. The host was interested in finding out about a seminar I was doing on the art of interviewing, and we talked a little about the ethics and behavior of journalists, particularly television journalists, when interviewing ordinary people on the street.
In this other photo, a staff member from the National Association of Peruvian Journalists is interviewing me for their daily web newsletter. He wanted to know about some of the differences between how journalists do things in the U.S. and Latin America. The practices are really not that different. Journalists in Latin America just have less money and time to devote to investigative journalism.

One big difference is on the business side. There is incredibly low readership and circulation for daily papers, partly from the lack of public education and from a tradition of newspapers appealing to the elite. Lima is a city of more than 8 million people, and its leading newspaper, El Comercio, has a circulation of about 150,000. In a city that size in the U.S., the circulation might be five or six times that.

El Deber, based in Santa Cruz in Bolivia, is the country's largest circulation paper, but it has daily circulation of only 30,000 and Sunday of 50,000. In a similar size city in the U.S. (1.3 million), the circulation would be expected to be at least five times that.

I got to meet the 91-year-old former publisher of El Comercio, Alejandro Miro Quesada Garland, whose family founded the paper in 1835. El Comercio was shut down for six years from 1974 to 1980 by the military dictator of the time.

El Comercio's offices, built in 1924, have much of the elegance of a bank from that era. The two-story lobby is lit by a stained glass skylight, and the newsroom is the only one I've ever seen with a coffered ceiling and chandelier.

Lima has a weekly business journal, La Semana Economica, that is similar in many respects to business papers in the U.S. I gave a workshop one morning to nine of their editorial staff on how to humanize technical and economic stories. They were a lively group with lots of questions.

Seventy people showed up for the workshop on interviewing at the National Journalists Association, and it was also a very lively session with lots of interactivity.

Christmas in Santa Cruz

The Christmas decorations started going up in October, and the retailers started advertising that month. Bolivians like Saint Nick, Santa Claus, the reindeer, and the Christmas music that comes from America, a lot of it with Spanish lyrics applied.
(Photo of Gina's sister, mom, aunt, and niece)

Santa Cruz residents have their own traditions as well, some of which I got a taste of. On Christmas eve, one of the reporters from El Nuevo Dia newspaper, where I had given a series of workshops, called me and invited me to have dinner with her and her family. Mom, sister, brother, aunt, cousin, niece. The event started at 9:30 p.m. and we sat around talking while the 6-year-old niece started opening presents. Beer, wine, cigarettes, lots of stories. At midnight, everyone in the neighborhood started shooting off bottle rockets and firecrackers for about 15 minutes, and then we went in to have dinner.

The traditional dishes are a kind of multi-meat soup, which is very tasty, baked turkey with a rice and date and nut stuffing, asparagus and pureed potatoes, as well as corn on the cob, with the cobs cut into small pieces. Dinner went on till about 1:30 a.m., at which time we all piled into two cars and headed over to an uncle's house, which happens to be right across the street from my condo building. There were about 30 people there, drinking and listening to music, with folks in their 60s down to teenagers. Christmas is all about getting together with members of your extended family. I stayed until about 3:30 a.m., and the party was going strong when I left. I'm known as a wimp, a pendejo, for not staying up late.

Today's edition of El Deber described different Christmas traditions and dishes in a half-dozen regions of the country. So you're getting a very superficial picture here. The local electric company has a big light display that goes up a couple weeks before Christmas and creates a traffic jam every night as the kids come to play games, get their picture taken with Santa and eat sweets.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

1 million people say yes

Eight hundred thousand people gathered in the square a couple blocks from me Dec. 15 for a cabildo, a town meeting. They were demanding that the government respect autonomy for this part of the country and respect a law that says each item of the new constitution requires two-thirds approval by the constitutional assembly. The top photo is from El Deber, the bottom from El Nuevo Dia. (My apartment is just outside of the upper right of the top picture.) El Deber did a detailed map with estimates of crowd density at various points to come up with the figure of 800,000. Cabildos in other regions brought the total to more than a million. People started gathering in force around 3:30, the music got going around 4:30, the speeches started around 5:30 and the big moment came at 7:30.

The prefect for the department of Santa Cruz asked the crowd for their approval on two questions, to which they replied yes to each, and the meeting was over. Except for the music and dancing.
The headline in El Nuevo Dia pronounced the event a ¡Cabildazo! You add “azo“ to anything to mean that it´s a big honkin' thing. A great goal in soccer is not just a gol but a golazo.
There were three other cabildos in departments that also want autonomy and respect for the two-thirds vote. These four departments represent about half the country and are referred to as the half-moon because that's what they look like on the map.

The violence

There have been peaceful hunger strikes throughout the eastern half-moon of the country for a couple of weeks to protest the government´s policies. Here are some in the main square of Santa Cruz Dec. 9.

It's kind of the reverse of what we're used to. The hunger strikers are generally white or mestizo and prosperous. They tend to be business people protesting actions taken by the indigenous majority, which is controlling the governnment for the first time in Bolivia´s history. The president made some veiled threats earlier in the week, calling on the army to be prepared to defend the unity of the country against secessionist groups trying to divide Bolivia (code for the half-moon region).

As it happened, the army didn´t try to stop the demonstrations (cabildos), but members of the president´s political party did. They set up roadblocks on a main highway to prevent people from outlying areas from reaching the cabildo in Santa Cruz.
(The photo of the blockade of burning tires is from El Deber. The photo of the injured journalist is from El Nuevo Dia.) They stoned buses carrying people headed for the cabildo and sent five journalists to the hospital with severe head injuries. The trouble started when one of the buses broke through the first line of the blockade, and the blockaders started pelting it with rocks. After three hours of rock throwing, 90 people on both sides were injured. One man lost an eye. One of the buses was burned. Several press vehicles were destroyed. Eventually the buses went through. They were parked in my neighborhood this morning, with most of their windows knocked out. (Photos of the buses are mine.)

(The photo of the rock-throwers is from El Nuevo Dia)
Unfortunately, those who back the cabildos and autonomy went on their own rampage in several towns and burned the headquarters of the ruling party, the president's party, whom they deemed responsible for the violence in San Julian.
Last week a pro-government crowd in La Paz, which is the heart of the president's power base, set upon some anti-government hunger strikers who were in a church.
The mob wanted to kill one of the hunger strikers, a prominent novelist. They tossed a stick of dynamite into the room where the hunger strikers were located. Fortunately, someone was able to yank the fuse before it exploded. The hunger strikers barely escaped and went into hiding. (In retaliation for the rock attacks, supporters of autonomy burned MAS headquarters in San Ramon, photo from El Deber)
The night of the cabildos, I saw the president on TV, and he was very conciliatory toward the demonstrators, which seemed a statesmanlike thing to do. He was not talking about sending in the army or confrontation. He used the word dialogue a couple of times. Maybe this difficult period in Bolivia's history will be worked out without much violence.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Get used to the differences

I am getting used to the fact that answering your cellphone is the No. 1 priority in life here. You answer and make calls even when you're marching for solidarity, as this woman was.

People conducting meetings will stop to take calls, leaving the others around the table to listen to them describe where they are and what they´re doing. A journalist who was addressing a group of 20 colleagues, exhorting them to the highest ethical standards, stopped his speech to answer his cellphone and conduct a 60-second conversation in which he said yes a lot and then promised to call back. People regularly take calls during business lunches and dinners, not always bothering to leave the table. Cell phones ring a lot in movie theaters, and people of course answer them and carry on loud conversations because the movie makes it so hard for them to hear the caller.

Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees

There is a huge market here for second-hand clothing from the U.S., to the point that the government wants to stop it from coming in. It hurts local clothing manufacturers. You see people walking down the street with shirts that say stuff like, Washington County Girls Softball Dad. Mostly you see New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox ball caps.
In La Paz I saw a guy with a Cleveland Indians hooded sweatshirt. He had no idea that the Indians were a sports team or what Cleveland might be. It was just a cheap sweatshirt in good condition. A guy in an internet cafe I was patronizing there was wearing a Baltimore Orioles cap, and after the second day that I mentioned Baltimore was my hometown, he changed to a Yankees cap. I decided not to say anything. In this photo taken in La Paz, you can see caps for the Minnesota Twins, Detroit Tigers, Chicago Cubs and U. of Miami Hurricanes, among others.
Very little from the West Coast. It must all go to Mexico.

What stuff costs

Labor and food are very cheap here, so it´s easy to have a three- or four-course dinner in a nice restaurant for $5 to $7. A cup of coffee in the university cafeteria is 13 cents, a lunch with breaded beef or chicken, rice, potatoes and salad is 60 cents. To go to a first-run movie in a U.S. style stadium-seating multiplex costs $3.25. Popcorn will cost you about 60 cents.

A DVD of a recent movie, pirated of course, is $1.25, and cheaper if you buy five. There are little stands on every street corner. Piracy is completely accepted and institutionalized. University professors shamelessly copy parts of books to create compilations of readings for their students, who couldn´t possibly afford to buy books at the cover price from the publisher.

A three- or four-bedroom house that would cost $400,00 or $500,000 in Baltimore costs about $70,000 to $100,000 here. A construction worker makes less than $1 an hour, maybe about $150 a month, so you can see why a $6-an-hour job in the U.S. looks pretty attractive.

To bribe a local official for quick issue of a passport costs $200 to $500. Otherwise you have to get in line with the other poor slobs and wait three days for service, which will get you a slip of paper telling you to come back on a specific date in six weeks. Lots of people prefer to pay the bribe. Or you can pay someone for a preferred spot in line. Today´s paper says that a place among the first 50 in line can be yours for about $25.
Monster SUVs cost about what they would in the U.S.

What time does it start

Movies start pretty much on time. Plane schedules are just as reliable and predictable as they are in the U.S. However, if you´re booked on an international flight with a Bolivian carrier it might be canceled for lack of jet fuel. It has to do with the government being involved in decisions about such things as what gets produced, diesel or jet fuel.

And as for when events start, I foolishly arrive when things are advertised and find that no one is around, not even the people who are supposed to take your money or let you in. Faculty members who invite me to stuff and specify a time don´t show themselves until 30 to 45 minutes after the advertised start. Evening classes nominally start at 7 p.m. and go till 9:30, but the buses that bring in a lot of the students often don´t arrive until after 7, and you have to get a snack, chat with your friends and catch up.

When I´m giving a workshop for professionals, a typical courtesy to attendees is not to start until 30 minutes after the advertised time.

At several public events I´ve attended, a roomful of people will delay the program 30, 40, 60 minutes to wait for some honored guest to show up and welcome the audience. There is always a cellphone exchange that goes on, and we´re assured that the important person is on his way or just five minutes away.

Showing up

When you show up unannounced in someone´s office, the top executive is very likely to see you and treat you as if he or she has all the time in the world. People are very gracious. Cold calling in this way has a very high success rate. By contrast, it´s sometimes hard to set up appointments over the telephone far in advance. Leaving messages and sending e-mails is not nearly as effective as just showing up. Or if you have someone who knows the person call, you´re in. It´s an important courtesy to see people introduced by friends.

People are much more polite and gracious here and really take the time to get to know you. That´s a subject in itself.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Taking to the streets

A couple thousand university students and sympathizers marched today from the Christ plaza near my apartment to the center of Santa Cruz to protest the government´s running roughshod over the law in rewriting the Constitution. That grievance is tied up with other grievances, in which the people out here (green flags are for the city and department of Santa Cruz) want more independence from the central government. One of the signs accuses President Evo Morales of being a dictator.

Things are starting to get violent. About 1,000 of the anti-government protesters are staging a hunger strike. A couple of the prominent hunger strikers, who were in a church in La Paz, which is pro-government territory on the other side of the country, were set upon Tuesday by a pro-government mob that tossed a couple of sticks of dynamite into the room where they were staging their protest. Depending on which newspaper you read, the dynamite´s fuse was either not lit or extinguished before it could explode.

The mob was after a prominent novelist among the hunger-strikers and threatened to kill him. All escaped, but the hunger-strikers accused the government of pulling police protection to allow the mob to have its way. The mob tore up parts of the church and burned up the belongings the hunger-strikers left behind.

It may have been retaliation. A few days previously, a group of university students here in Santa Cruz trashed the party headquarters of the government´s ruling party.

Living on the brink

A newspaper editor told me that Bolivians are accustomed to living on the brink of the abyss and that they push things to extremes, up until the last possible moment. He says that the way they conduct politics and the way they drive is exactly the same -- apparently reckless but always leaving themselves a tiny margin for error so they can swerve away from danger at the last moment. Not always, though.

One of the city´s three dailies carried a four-paragraph item about a bus sailing over a 1,300 foot precipice with 52 people aboard, killing 50. (The other two dailies didn´t mention it. Maybe because it was just a bus. Maybe because it was just over the border in Peru. A plane crash that killed 50 would be in all three papers, I would think.) Seems the bus driver was trying to pass another bus and missed the curve.

Friday, December 01, 2006

So what is it that you're doing there

Basically what I'm doing is teaching journalism and leadership skills to students and professionals. Here I'm giving a seminar on journalism ethics to students at the largest public university in Santa Cruz. The students invited me over to their newsroom afterwards to interview me for their online newspaper.
A few days later I gave a workshop on sales techniques to the advertising staff of a weekly business publication. And the day after that, I met with about 15 editors at a daily newspaper to coach them on how to hold people accountable and give effective critiques. So I'm doing a variety of presentations.

For the most part, I set up these workshops myself by calling up the editors or news directors and offering my services, which are attractively priced -- free. It's rare that something doesn't come out of one of these queries. And so far, everyone has asked me to come back. Must be the accent.
In January, I will be teaching an intensive four-week course at the Evangelical University in how to start and run your own media business (print, radio program, TV program, web site). It's a mix of journalism content and business content.

General strike

Kids on bikes took over the city today. Regional and local government leaders in more than half the country called for a "paro," or stoppage, of all work and commercial activity to protest against the president's policies, which are characterized by his opponents as high-handed and anti-democratic.
What you don't see in this photo is what's remarkable. It's high noon on a Friday, and traffic on the Avenida Monsenor Rivero is nearly always three solid lanes of cars, taxis and microbuses. The lack of traffic lights makes it very difficult to cross this street, even on Sundays and national holidays. But today, everything was closed.
There are huge disagreements about policies involving land reform and local autonomy, as well as the process for writing a new constitution. The divide is described in terms of geography, race, class, income and occupation -- east vs. west, middle and upper class vs. lower class, white vs. indigenous, business people vs. government bureaucrats. The debate is quite shrill. One of the symbolic centers of the battle is two blocks from my apartment, where the Pro-Santa Cruz Committee's headquarters are located. (They're in the group identified with the east, businesspeople, whites, and higher incomes.) Lots of TV cameras around.