A portrait of Brazilian journalist Sylvia Colombo
Journalist and correspondent for Folha de S.Paulo for Latin America, Sylvia Colombo. Photo: Rocco/Courtesy

Sylvia Colombo: "What bothers me about this 'Latin America' thing is that it leads to simplification. You have to go to places and listen to the people"

In her new book, which will be released on Thursday by the publisher Rocco, the correspondent for Latin America at Folha de S. Paulo focuses on what has changed in the region since the 2019 protests. Sylvia talked to LABS about it, and a lot more

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Almost every day, around 5 am, the Folha de S. Paulo‘s correspondent for Latin America for over five years, Sylvia Colombo, goes out to swim or run. After she swam or ran – and I’m obviously still waking up – I follow her posts on social media. Sometimes, she appears running in the streets of Buenos Aires (Argentina), sometimes in Caracas (Venezuela), Santiago (Chile), Lima (Peru), or any other place where she materializes herself. It is also common to see photos of her submerged in swimming pools in all these places.

This almost omnipresence of Sylva in the region reminds me of the South American rivers – the largest and most important are those that do not recognize borders. The Juruá River, for example, emerges in Peru but flows into the Brazilian River Solimões. Japurá-Caquetá, on the other hand, brings in its name the denominations it receives in the two countries it passes through, Brazil and Colombia. In the end, they are all Latin American, like the stories of Sylvia, who recognizes the differences of each affluent but understands that, in a way, this continent is a single riverbed.

Sylvia in one of her submerged Instagram appearances. In this photo, she was “trying on” an outfit like the one worn by swimmer Michael Phelps. Photo: Eduardo Knapp

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“Sylvia is already there!”

I met Sylvia Colombo in 2012 when I lived as a freelance correspondent and worked for Clarín‘s Portuguese version in Buenos Aires, and I came across her afterward on many occasions. In 2016, Folha de S. Paulo would no longer have temporary correspondents in the Argentine capital. So when Sylvia arrived to play that role, there was a buzz about whether she was there to stay. She stayed, and it was good for all of us correspondents.

Every time we were woken up by news that happened in neighboring countries, we looked for each other. We knew about the newsrooms’ willingness to cover it on the spot, but also about our financial limitations. We rarely made it out of Buenos Aires, and we ended up using the phone. Sometime later, someone would say: “Sylvia is already there.” Today I know that to be where the news happened was a personal and professional challenge for Sylvia.

While we were doing what we could with the sources we had in hand, Sylvia would appeared on Instagram interviewing, for example, Guaidó (Juan Guaidó, a lawmaker who, in 2019, declared himself Venezuela’s rightful interim leader in opposition to Nicolás Maduro and was recognised by dozens of foreign governments). This is Sylvia Colombo of America…

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Dissolving dystopias – and understanding Sylvia Colombo’s new book

I interviewed Sylvia on a Sunday at noon, after she had already gone out to swim. The main topic: her new book, O Ano da Cólera (or The Year of Cholera, not yet translated to English), in which she looks at what happened before and during the COVID-19 pandemic in five Latin American countries, but not only that.

The cover of Sylvia’s new book. Image: Rocco.

We talked about how Brazil often turns only to itself and to the North (of the world), paying little attention to “the neighborhood.” And about how it is necessary to break this paradigm, valuing the local intelligence’s latinidad. Historian with two decades of experience, Sylvia seeks this shift in perspective. It is what Sylvia calls a kind of “apolitical activism” in journalism. The time frame she traces (2019 -2020) in her book summarizes the recent history of a continent in full transformation. It is a portrait of a butterfly coming out of the cocoon, something that happens only from time to time in the region.

Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity:

LABS – Many experienced journalists end up becoming correspondents. The most desired posts are in Europe or the United States. You chose Latin America …

Sylvia Colombo – I had this relationship with Latin America long before I worked with journalism. I studied History at USP [The University of São Paulo]. In the second year, I fell in love with the subject. […] When I joined journalism, I started with cultural journalism. At that time, Latin America was a left-out topic, much more than it is today. Then I went to be a correspondent in London. When I was there, I followed the whole process and controversy that involved the extradition of Chilean General Augusto Pinochet. In other words, Latin America was always present […]. I was editor of Folha Ilustrada [Folha de S.Paulo’s entertainment/culture section] for many years, and although it was very rewarding, I was tired. That’s when I thought: “I got here, now I want to do what I like”. That was when the possibility of being a correspondent in Buenos Aires came out.

I spent some time [there]. [Then] I won a scholarship to study in Michigan (U.S.), but I went [there] thinking about Latin America and, when I returned to São Paulo, I started to do international coverage in the region with more intensity. I covered Colombia’s peace process from Bogotá for three months. It was when I raised the issue in the newspaper that I wanted to return to Buenos Aires with my feet on the ground.

In the book, you say that your historian side wants to see “common phenomena” in the region, but your journalist side separates them by country. It seems that the journalist won [this battle]. The book is divided into five countries. After all, what is common in the region?

Historians, anthropologists, etc., need to generalize to study [a topic]. They do some clipping; that’s what I meant. What bothers me about this “Latin American” thing is that it leads to simplification and, in some cases, superficial analysis. It is very common to hear “because Latin America is like this or that because it doesn’t work” as if it were an entity. And sometimes, people use that term to talk about a negative thing. For example, we never use “Europe” to talk about something in a country or another. So they say, “Latin America is a mess,” and I ask myself, “is Europe all organized?”.

Despite the different contexts, from France to Spain, you never hear “Europe is a mess.” It is always this thing of talking about Latin America as a place that didn’t work. A place where democracy is imperfect, an imperfect place from the point of view of political maturity. And, that’s why you [as a journalist] have to go to the places and listen to the people there. I defend a mixed perspective. Obviously, my historian’s background is on everything and is also behind my way of thinking. But in the academic world, a lot of work is done with generalizations that can lead to in-depth analysis, but [also] can lead to simplifications such as, for example, “Latin America is hopeless.”

But in journalism and the world, in general, there is a Manichaean look that always oscillates between the “good and the bad,” without any middle-ground …

I can see this “wave” thing. Is it possible to make this generalization? For example, is Alberto Fernández in Argentina, a leftist president? Can this be considered a wave? Or that Luis Arce‘s return to Bolivia is a wave across the region? And where do we put the president-elect in Ecuador, Guilhermo Lasso? And Peru, between the election of an underdog and Keiko Fujimori [daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori]?

This wave thing helps only to a certain extent in understanding Latin America, but eventually, it only gets in the way. That is why I call for people to look at each country individually.

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The first country covered in the book is Chile and the protests [from 2019 on] that led to a lot of violence. You say that the dictatorship was an “open wound” in the country. Do you see progress in cauterizing this wound? Chile is, after all, still a very conservative place …

Of all the turmoils in the book, Chile is the country that has so far been resolving things more democratically. How to make a center-right president who was against a new constitution yield to the pressure of the streets? He called the referendum and encouraged people to vote. And now, despite postponements due to the pandemic, the election of the Constituent Assembly will be held. I see a process of maturation there, although you can make a lot of criticisms of President Sebastián Piñera, such as, for example, the violent way in which he initially repressed the demonstrations. In general, in my opinion, Chile is a country that is seeking the right path. We do not yet know which Constitution will come out of it, but the quest is legitimate.

When you are not on the road or in São Paulo, you spend most of your time in Buenos Aires. Recently, we followed the tension between the two governments (Brazil and Argentina), which are important and historical trading partners. And there is a new phenomenon: the attack on Argentina as a kind of a “new Venezuela.” In your view, what are the reasons for these attacks on Argentina? Why create a new narrative where Argentina is the failure of the continent?

The fight between Bolsonaro and Fernández is a rhetorical one, where they seek to get along well with their internal constituencies. From the point of view of bilateral trade, the relationship is, in fact, improving. There are, therefore, two relationships: the rhetorical one between both presidents, and another that is the reality of commerce, and the industry that, for better or worse, is having a resumption, even with the adverse effects of the pandemic. This new Bolsonarism discourse takes a ride on this cultural rivalry between the two countries and associates it with the political issue.

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Another country that you analyze is Uruguay. Among the progressists, it is reputed to be a moderate country with a humanist tendency, a kind of utopia. You also bring the fact that it is a historically secular country. Mujica became a symbol of the left, but the current president does not follow this line, nor is he exactly a conservative. After all, is Uruguay a good example?

Uruguay has a different political background, and this reflects in a kind of institutional abundance. I witnessed these two years of unrest in Chile, Bolivia, and Ecuador, and when I arrived in Uruguay to cover the presidential election, everything was incredibly calm. It was a huge contrast. Tabaré Vásquez himself brought La Calle Pou into Fernández’s inauguration in Argentina. The smooth transition is a symbol of institutionality that gives hope for a better coexistence in society. I think it is a country that is moving towards an even more equitable social fabric.

In the book’s prologue, you make some updates and mentions some general issues. Regarding democracy, you raise the issue of tyrannical governments. Today, with your experience, are you more like Steven Levitsky, who believes that the Latino wants to vote for strengthening democratic systems or sees authoritarian setbacks as a real threat on the continent?

I’m with Levitsky. First, because Latin American countries fought for their independence. All countries became Republics. There was, respecting the differences in the processes, a choice. It is true that in Brazil, the Republic came with a military coup, but the system was not changed despite the nefarious experience between 1964 and 1985. Some call for dictatorship, but this is not a consensus. It is a minority.

There has never been a pro-dictatorship consensus in the countries of the region. Dictatorships were tragedies experienced by these countries. These are historical traumas. I agree with Levitsky when he says that the thought for the future is optimistic. We cannot fall into the commonplace that Latin America is a failure.

Translated by Fabiane Ziolla Menezes