by Bill Gasperini
For me CUSLAR was almost more important than Rural Sociology at Cornell. I chose that major after doing volunteer social work in Brazil on an exchange program in 1975-77 that was similar to the Peace Corps. I was so overwhelmed by the extent of poverty and underdevelopment, to say nothing of living in a country under a military dictatorship; all of it led me to ask many questions.
Some of those questions arose at Cornell, where my studies focused mostly on the theoretical, and I felt my only use for it was to enter academia. But I had a calling for journalism, so I turned down an offer to head into grad school at the University of Wisconsin after graduation in 1980.
Those Monday afternoon meetings in Anabel Taylor Hall to discuss Latin America were the highlight of each week. CUSLAR really became the center of my social life as we mounted film showings, had a table at noontime with petitions to sign, hosted speakers and also shared many a spirited Saturday night party with Andean musicians at the Red Barn!
These events were mostly organized by Chilean exiles who were a living example of the horrors in Latin America at that time, many had been tortured during the Sept 1973 Chilean coup (the “other 9/11”) and had relocated to Ithaca or other Northeast communities.
Our focus at CUSLAR was almost entirely on the Nicaraguan revolution and El Salvador, and I credit the group with helping propel me on my career as a foreign news correspondent starting in Central America in 1984 after a few years of teaching in a Spanish-bilingual school in Oakland, CA. (My roommate in California was Mark Hansen, who served as CUSLAR coordinator during my 2nd year at Cornell; he has lived for decades in Singapore.)
From a base in Managua I roamed throughout the region from Mexico to Colombia. El Salvador was my 2nd biggest news story, especially during the 1989 guerrilla offensive straight into the heart of the capital city San Salvador. It was extremely dangerous; another journalist was killed just a few feet away from me. But I accepted the risk on the premise that someone had to tell the story in hopes that the violence might one day stop.
After the Sandinistas lost the elections in January 1990 I covered the disarmament of the Contras and realized that the news “story” in Nicaragua was coming to an end. Of course this is no comment on the importance of events there, but everything changed when Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait that summer.
By that time I was working for CBS News primarily as a radio reporter, and in early 1991 they sent me to the Persian Gulf to cover the war there. Eventually I ended up in Russia due to dramatic events in Moscow also that year was based there for 16 more years, covering stories in scores of countries and in locales as far away as the North Pole and Antarctica.
Apart from a return to Mexico and Nicaragua in 2008, my direct links to Latin America were over in 1991, but not my interest; I keep up with events as much as I can from Boston, where I’ve lived since 2007 working for an animal welfare agency and also as an online editor.