At breakfast today, during a conversation Mamacita Linda was having with our maid Vasilia, I learned that the Spanish word “romero” means Rosemary, the herb. I didn’t know that before. Mamacita Linda has been bothered for a while by a minor discomfort in her ear and our maid Vasilia suggested some natural concoction with “romero” would help ease the discomfort.

I didn’t know “romero” means Rosemary so you can imagine the surprised look I got from the two of them when I blurted out “If I ever have another son – which I’m not – I’d want to call him Romero.” They looked at me all puzzled so I added “After Bishop Romero.”

More puzzled looks.

I was surprised neither my wife nor our maid knew anything about Bishop Romero. It’s not polite to talk about girls’ ages but both Vasilia and Mamacita Linda are old enough to remember when poverty and social injustice were far more obvious in Latin America than today.

When you have 3 little ones, you live in the moment, the experience of 3 little kids is just so overwhelming. So on the rare occasions we discuss life before marriage and kids, it feels almost foreign, like a previous life. I explained to Mamacita Linda and Vasilia how I used to fly shrimp larvae from a shrimp farm in the Florida Keys to Honduras many moons ago and got to know Central America a little bit. Even though I didn’t know him well, I attended a few meetings with the late Ambassador White who spoke out against social injustice and the geopolitical forces that perpetuated it in Central America for too long.

Neither Vasilia nor Mamacita Linda knew much about the complicated history of El Salvador but our conversation quickly turned to Peru. Not unlike El Salvador, the latter part of the 20th century was a very tough chapter in the history of Peru, with hyperinflation and the Shining Path terrorism. Mamacita Linda talked about how the Shining Path terrorism wasn’t felt too badly here in Cusco but she remembers as a kid seeing the reports about car bombs in Lima on TV.

“It was bad in Lima”.

There’s no such thing as a lesser evil or trauma when it comes to kids living in a world marred by violence but when Vasilia finally spoke up, her story was much more personal. Growing up in the country she didn’t experience Shining Path terrorism over the TV but very personally. Her parents would hide out behind the house whenever the Shining Path guerillas came to town, or at least hide the kids. The guerillas would come and take whatever they’d want and terrorize the town. Fortunately Vasilia and her family all lived through it. Her grandfather wasn’t so lucky, one day the Shining Path guerillas came to town, took Vasilia’s grandfather away and he was never seen again.

To the average tourist or casual observer there isn’t much history of terrorism in Peru nowadays but for those who were affected the wounds are still there.

If you enjoy living in Latin America… Thank Ambassador Bob White.

Life in Peru has been good to me. I don’t regret for a minute leaving corporate America to spend time with Patricia here in Cusco. I’ve been able to travel, meet a lot of great people, learn a new culture and work on things I enjoy.

There are many sides to Peru and the country still faces a lot of difficult issues, such as poverty, corporate culture and environmental protections. That said, the country is safe, has a free and open society and a generally functional democracy. Today there are great opportunities in Peru, both in life and business.

Life in Peru hasn’t always been this good. In the decades of the Cold War most of Latin America was governed by ruthless dictators and torn by civil war. Basic human rights were violated by security forces, guerillas and paramilitaries alike.

I had the good fortune of meeting one man who dedicated his life and career to promoting human rights and a de-militarization of foreign policy in Latin America, Ambassador Bob White. I met Ambassador White at a conference on Cuba policy when I was in the air cargo business in Florida – thinking at the time at some point the US would normalize relations with Cuba and we could fly there.

It’s certainly not my place to tell Ambassador White’s story, but here are some links that are worth visiting:

The ambassador’s tale
Center for International Policy

During his work in foreign service, Ambassador White was one of the first to question US ties to Operation Condor and he worked tirelessly to bring to justice Salvadoran soldiers who murdered four American clergywomen in El Salvador in 1980. The women were killed only a day after being Ambassador White’s dinner guests at his residence.

Site where Northamerican churchwomen were dumped in El Salvador

Site where Northamerican churchwomen were dumped in El Salvador

Today half of Peru’s population is less than 26 years old and I am often surprised that many of them seem unaware or indifferent to Latin America’s recent history. I teach kids who have no bigger worry than getting a new cellphone or MP3 player. Yet were it not for people like Ambassador White who took a principled stand, life in Latin America today would not be what it is. While there is still a lot of work to be done, I am thankful Peru has great opportunities going forward.

Ambassador Robert White

Ambassador Robert White

NB: Since 1990 Ambassador White has been President of the Center for International Policy, which advocates a responsible foreign policy and supports many Latin American causes.

NB: See the original photo used above on Flickr.

Ward Welvaert