Reporting from Forgotten Latin America

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: No matter what the audience numbers for that radio station in Boston, China's role as an emerging power in the world guarantees that Washington is paying attention to it. Not so for Latin American. The region to our south routinely feels ignored by the United States. In early 2001, then President George W. Bush vowed to give Latin American more attention.

George W. Bush: Some look south and see problems. Not me, I look south and see opportunities and potential. When I travel to Quebec in April and meet with other hemispheric leaders of the Summit of Americas, I look forward to doing this. I look forward to discussing how we can build a century of the Americas.

Werman: Then 9/11 happened and Latin America went back to the back burner of American foreign policy. Well, just as the Bush administration was turning its attention to Afghanistan and the fight against terrorism, one young reporter was keenly focused on Latin America. Gerry Hadden has moved to Mexico City in 2000 to take a job as NPR's correspondent for Mexico, Latin America and Haiti. He has a new book out called Never The Hope Itself: Love and Ghosts in Latin American and Haiti. Gerry Hadden joins us from Barcelona where he's now The World's Europe correspondent. Let's start talking first about why you wrote this book. Was it to shine a light on this part of the world that was often ignored during the last 10 years?

Gerry Hadden: Yeah, that's exactly what I set out to do, and in fact, initially the book in its first draft was geopolitical analysis of this incredible change that happened on 9/11. I mean we went from as we just heard, George Bush declaring the century of the Americas, and then of course, 9/11 happened and that just wiped Latin America right off the radar. So that was the book I set out to write. And then after two agents looked at it and both said to me, but where are you in the story? I basically went back to the beginning and it became the memoir that it is now.

Werman: Right, I mean your stories are so personal and descriptions so vivid that one almost forgets what the geopolitical context is, but it's always there. I mean you described something that surprised me -- a scene in your book takes us into a bar in Mexico City and there were people cheering when they watched the news reports over and over again of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center. Why was there cheering?

Hadden: That was the scene in a bar that was really sort of depressing to me and it saddened me. I don't think you know, the majority of Mexicans were out on the street you know, celebrating as if it was you know [speaking Spanish], their independence day. But there was at this time this underlying current of ha, now it's your turn to take it in the chin. And it really surprised me because I had spent Sept. 11th itself and several days afterward in Columbia where the people had been you know, nothing but kind to me about what had happened, and when they found out I was American they would stop me on the street and tell me their stories. The manager of my hotel realized there was an American at the hotel and he slipped a personal note under my door. So you know, the contrast in getting back to Mexico was hurtful.

Werman: Now as a young reporter in Mexico City, Gerry, did you find yourself really having to struggle to kind of sell stories to your editors back in Washington? I mean is that why for example, you allowed yourself to get electrocuted in the streets of Mexico City? It's a game, explain this to our listeners because it's not your regular carnival game.

Hadden: Okay, here's how you play. This guy walks into a bar and he's got this electronic thing you know, strapped to his chest, basically a giant battery with two cables coming off of it, each one attached to a small electric rod. You clasp one rod in each hand and this guy turns on this little battery. And then he starts upping the voltage. And the game is to see how long you can hang on. You know, I wasn't able to hang on very long. I got to the point where you know, I just felt like this boa constrictor crushing my chest you know, and my elbows just locked. And I managed to drop the rods. But it was, it was an exciting time and you get swept up in you know, Fox had just won...

Werman: Vicente Fox.

Hadden: And I was pretty much at that point ready to do any story that I could find you know, it was just a time of celebration and in some weird way, shocking myself in that bar was a way of celebrating as well.

Werman: Back to what happened over the last 10 years though in Latin America, you write the cost of American inattention in the western hemisphere had become the leitmotif of what stories could get on air. So in your time reporting in Latin America, Gerry, where did you think that inattention had the biggest consequences?

Hadden: I think it had the biggest consequences for the relationship between Mexico and the United States. The big issues that didn't get addressed obviously, were illegal immigration, some form of orderly guest worker program for Mexicans. The other big issue is you know, the fight against you know, drug trafficking. That's taken on an entirely new dimension because of you know, this virtual war that's going on in Mexico.

Werman: I mean as a young reporter arriving in this first kind of foreign posting, was there ever a moment, Gerry, where you regretted the decision?

Hadden: No, I never regretted it. I mean I had been sort of mentally planning to take a very divergent path, which was to go off and do a 3-year Buddhist meditation retreat. And there were times when I was out in the field when I thought wow, you know, this is tough and wouldn't I be nice and comfortable leading the contemplative life? But I wouldn't say that I really had any serious regrets at all. In fact, it was a fantastic job. I'd do it all over again.

Werman: Before we let you go, Gerry, you mentioned that you were planning to be a Buddhist monk before you moved to Mexico City to report. I'm just wondering if you can share a mantra to keep us calm in this crazy world?

Hadden: Well, a full life lived is a life in which you allow you know, the things that hurt you to come into your life and into your heart as much as you allow the positive things. So, there is a way that we can be braver and confront stressful situations and tragedies in this world without losing hope. That's not really a Buddhist mantra, in fact, it sounds more like a Hallmark card, but you caught me off guard.

Werman: We'll take it. Gerry Hadden, his new book is called Never The Hope Itself: Love and Ghosts in Latin America and Haiti. Very good to speak with you, Gerry, thanks a lot.

Hadden: Thanks for having me on, Marco.