Mirta Ojito

Dancing around the hard truth

In a talk in New York this week, the Cuban writer Leonardo Padura noted that though Americans went through a cha-cha-cha craze in the 1950s, they never did learn the correct name of the Cuban rhythm. They called it the “cha-cha,” dropping the last “cha.”

Perhaps it didn’t matter, as they kept the clubs humming and the musicians employed.

On the other hand, perhaps it does. It stands to explain how little real interest Americans have in Latin America. If you can say “Dos Equis, por favor,” do you really need to know anything else about Mexico? Or Venezuela? Or Cuba, for that matter?

Of course, you do. For when countries in Latin America sneeze, you can be certain that some cities in the United States will catch a cold. The State Department reports that visa requests from Venezuelans have doubled in the last few years, and that was before the unfolding street protests, which have caused the deaths of at least 16 people.

Beyond the social cost, there are economic and geopolitical concerns as well: Venezuela is one of the five largest oil suppliers to the United States. An even more authoritarian government in Venezuela — empowered by the quashing of a student-led revolt — could hinder the steady march toward democracy and stability in Latin America, while granting Cuba and its aging leaders a political victory in the region, which would, in turn, increase their sphere of influence.

It’s been reported that Venezuelans took to the streets because they were tired of the long lines for food, rising prices and the unprecedented crime wave sweeping the country. Simply put, people are disenchanted with the government of Nicolás Maduro, who was elected with a slight and questionable majority — 1.49 percent margin — less than a year ago, after the death of his mentor, Hugo Chávez.

But Francisco Toro, the founder of the political website Caracas Chronicles, revealed in a column in The New York Times on Tuesday that the protest began with the sexual assault of a first-year university student in the city of San Cristóbal, in the Andean region.

On Feb. 4, he wrote, a group of students gathered to protest the way the authorities had responded to the sexual assault. They took to the streets demanding that the state do what it’s supposed to: protect its citizens from continued and gratuitous violence (24,763 people were killed last year, according to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, a nongovernmental group).

Instead, the police sprayed the students with tear gas and arrested two of them. That was the beginning of almost daily protests that have since spread throughout the country and show no signs of abating.

Maduro, of course, has blamed the United States for fomenting unrest. President Obama has shown concern but has said, essentially, that this is an issue for Venezuelans to resolve among themselves. Obama urged Maduro to listen to his people’s demands and address them. Vigilance is one thing; interference is another.

An even better development is the crucial role the press and social media have played in telling the world what’s going on in Venezuela. Maduro and his people recently quoted diplomatic cables allegedly sent from the American Embassy in Caracas to the State Department to show a pattern of U.S. interference in the country. But The New York Times showed that the cables were old, and the content was misunderstood or misrepresented.

It seems impossible for the Venezuelan government to let go of the U.S.-is-to-blame-for- all-that-ails-Latin-America narrative just like it has been impossible for Cuba to let go of the embargo-is-to-blame-for-all-that-ails-Cuba narrative for more than 50 years. Maduro is just learning from his political mentors.

This time, the United States is not making things easier for Maduro. Cuba has an actual embargo still in place, enacted at a different time, a time when a U.S. president could order an embargo against an island because he feared communism spreading; a time when a reporter for The New York Times could invent a myth after a three-hour interview in the Sierra Maestra mountains.

In his book The Man who Invented Fidel, published in 2006, journalist Anthony DePalma explains the dynamics of the Herbert Matthews “interview” of a young Fidel Castro this way: “Matthews had already signaled a willingness to believe in Castro. His questions during the interview had been straightforward and even gentle, not intended to cross up Castro or catch him in contradictions.”

Journalists would be foolish to fall into that trap again, and so would the U.S. government. No one dances the “cha-cha” anymore, but true fans of the rhythm would do well to remember that third syllable.