Knight Center
Knight Center


"I'm going to miss the Amazon": Simon Romero of The New York Times, as he says goodbye to Latin America

The photos on Simon Romero’s Instagram account are microcosms of the places and people has has written about in the region for more than a decade. Views of abandoned swimming pools in Henry Ford’s long-forgotten town in the Amazon, of a fisherman banked along the Río de la Plata in Buenos Aires, or artists “pimping” the carts of trash collectors in Rio and guanacos in Patagonia.

As a correspondent for the New York Times in Latin America for 12 years, Romero has become known for his stories that at once provide an overview of the political and social landscapes, while giving detailed profiles of the people within them.

After more than a decade, the journalist is leaving as head of the paper’s Brazil bureau in Rio de Janeiro to return to his home state of New Mexico to cover immigration for The Times as the issue becomes even more relevant in light of President Donald Trump’s latest actions.

Before becoming the head of the Brazil office, where he has reported for the last six years, Romero was responsible for the newspaper’s Andean bureau based in Caracas, Venezuela. He first started working at The Times in 1999 as a stringer in Brazil after working for various other publications in the U.S. and Latin America.

Romero has received the Maria Moors Cabot Prize at Columbia University in New York City (2015) and the Robert Spiers Benjamin Award from the Overseas Press Club of America (2014) for his reporting in Latin America.

In an interview with the Knight Center, the journalist presented an optimistic view of the countries in which he has lived in recent years. “The portrayal of Latin America as a simmering cauldron of problems doesn’t coincide with the region I’ve had the privilege of covering,” he said. Romero also said he would dearly miss covering Amazonia, a place he visited several times on “magical” journeys. “Sometimes I fear that the Amazon I know could get transformed beyond recognition as it grows more connected to the global economy.”

Romero, who will remain in Brazil until June, will be replaced by another journalist – The Times currently is undergoing an open selection process. In addition to the Amazon, the correspondent said he will miss the opportunity to buy Piauí magazine on the stands, to live in Brazil, to interview “so many fascinating people” and “learning something new every single day.”

Knight Center: Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re going to do in the States?

Simon Romero: I’ll be covering immigration together with other reporters from the National Desk and our bureau in Washington. I’m hoping to travel around the United States to report on this immensely important subject at a time when the federal government is targeting millions of people for deportation. I view this as one of the most important stories of our time. The timing of the move is important professionally, given the need for fact-based journalism in the country at a time when fake news ventures are flourishing. We’ll [me and my family] be based in New Mexico, the state where I was born and raised, so we’re looking forward to exploring more of the American Southwest.

KC: What is journalism like in Latin America? What is hard and difficult about working as a journalist in the region?

SR: I find it thrilling to work as a journalist in Latin America. As a kid growing up in northern New Mexico, I always felt a cultural and linguistic connection to the region. I attended public schools and I’ll never forget my high school history class in Las Vegas, N.M., where I had a teacher who explained the complex legacies of the Mexican-American War and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. In university, at Harvard, I studied Latin American history and literature, savoring books like “The War of the End of the World” by Mario Vargas Llosa, and I spent an eye-opening year at the University of São Paulo, learning Portuguese, exploring Brazil and meeting fascinating people who remain close friends to this day.

I was lured back to Latin America when I started working as a journalist and since then it’s been an incredible adventure. Of course, there are the well-known challenges involved in covering certain stories. The threats of violent crime or kidnapping are especially present in places like Venezuela and parts of Colombia, Peru or even Brazil. But working in Latin America can also be very different, say, than covering parts of the Middle East or a country like China. When you speak the languages in Latin America, you can get close to the people you interview. It’s hard to generalize, and there are important exceptions, but I find much of the region remarkably open in terms of interviewing people in power or the people who elect them. When it comes to world capitals, Brasília is relatively relaxed and accessible for journalists. And there’s nothing like going deep into the interior for stories. Some of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had were in places without any hotels or creature comforts. I remember being welcomed into the home of a very humble yet generous family in Tinaco, on the plains of northern Venezuela, or sleeping in a hammock in the home of ribeirinhos in the Brazilian Amazon who survive by hunting the giant pirarucu fish. I relished doing those stories.

KC: In more than ten years as a correspondent in Latin America, what was the most difficult story to cover, and why?

SR: This is a tough question. Some stories involve challenges like hostility from government sources or threats from powerful figures I’ve covered. There are the risks of climbing to glaciers in the Andes, trekking through a blizzard to a Chinese research base in Antarctica or going on patrol with a Special Operations squad in the favelas of Manaus. But one of the most heart-wrenching experiences I had was covering the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. I was one of the first journalists to make it to Port-au-Prince the morning after the quake, and the scenes of death and destruction were overwhelming.

KC: How do you evaluate the transparency of authorities and access to public information in Brazil and in other Latin American countries?

SR: Brazil is relatively open for obtaining public information. Of course, no country is a paradise when it comes to this kind of reporting, but Brazil’s Information Access Law of 2012, which guarantees access to an array of government information, was a big step. Now, this doesn’t mean that officials always hew to the law in each branch of government. For instance, I experienced a lot of resistance from local governments when I wrote about the so-called super salaries enjoyed by some Brazilian public employees. But reporting on such subjects in Brazil is much easier than in Venezuela, where obtaining public information can be an incredibly vexing process. Other countries in the region like Chile and Uruguay have made strides in making government information more transparent and accessible.

KC: How do you see freedom of expression and the press in Latin American countries right now?

SR: Sadly, attacks on journalists and freedom of expression remain common around Latin America. In Brazil, away from big cities like São Paulo and Rio, there are the cases of targeted killings of journalists like Gleydson Carvalho and Djalma Santos da Conceição. The rhetoric of some politicians doesn’t help to solve this problem. Just this month, in February, Romero Jucá, the leader of President Michel Temer’s government in the Brazilian Congress, compared journalists who cover political corruption to Nazis and executioners of the French Revolution. Of course, the demonization of journalists isn’t unique to Latin America. It’s something we’re seeing at the highest levels of power in the United States, as well.

KC: What did you learn during those years as a correspondent in Latin America that you will take to your new mission covering immigration in the U.S.?

SR: One of the most important things I’ve learned in my assignments is that Latin America has a great deal to teach the rest of the world. Huge problems persist in the region, to be sure, but when you take the long view, Latin America as a whole has made astounding progress on so many fronts in recent decades. Look at Peru, which has boomed after its harrowing experiences with the Shining Path and economic disarray. Bolivia, one of the region’s poorest countries, has thrived economically over the past decade. Or tolerant, stable, pioneering Uruguay. Brazil is a much more prosperous country than the one I encountered when I first lived in São Paulo in 1990. Then there’s intraregional trade, with Latin American countries forging much stronger economic ties with one another. Peace has also broken out across Latin America, with one guerilla war after another finally coming to an end. These are crucial accomplishments in a world where so much seems uncertain today. I’m not saying everything is rosy – far from it, and I’ve written many stories about human rights abuses, economic injustice and corruption – but the portrayal of Latin America as a simmering cauldron of problems doesn’t coincide with the region I’ve had the privilege of covering.

KC: What will you miss from your time as a journalist in Latin America?

Simon Romero em uma viagem de reportagem na Amazônia (foto de cortesia)

SR: Whoa, where to begin? There’s so much I love about this job, from living in Brazil to interviewing so many fascinating people to learning something new every single day. But one thing I’ll miss dearly is covering Amazonia. I made it to the Amazon dozens of times, and while each reporting trip has been magical, I feel like I barely scratched the surface. I took my family recently to Alter do Chão, Santarém and Fordlândia, the jungle city in ruins described in a book by the historian Greg Grandin, and it was incredible. Sometimes I fear that the Amazon I know could get transformed beyond recognition as it grows more connected to the global economy. But I’ve tried to transmit some of my fascination and awe into my stories about the Amazon.

KC: In your opinion, what do people in the United States not understand about Latin America?

SR: It depends who you talk to. There are some people in the United States who are very well-informed about Latin America and some who aren’t. Millions and millions of people in the country are connected to Latin America through family ties and immigration. But there’s also a great deal of ignorance and bigotry in relation to Latin America. Some of this sentiment is rooted in history; some is more recent. It might help for people to keep an open mind about how Latin America can be a place of solutions and lessons in how to live with dignity and resilience and creativity in the face of immense challenges.

KC: You have followed the Brazilian press since the 1990s. What evaluation, criticism and praise would you make of its coverage?

SR: I have huge admiration for the Brazilian media. I remember learning Portuguese partly by reading Folha de S. Paulo and O Estado de S. Paulo every morning. There’s a tradition of sublime reporting in Brazil going back to Euclides da Cunha and his coverage of the War of Canudos. As in other countries, the traditional media in Brazil is coming under financial strain and the pressures of polarization. That’s tough to witness. But it’s great to see the emergence of new online ventures like Agência Pública, Aos Fatos, the Intercept Brasil or Poder360, especially as Brazil faces its own challenges in the realm of fake news. One thing I’ll miss is buying the new edition of Piauí every month at my local newsstand in Rio. The magazine is a treasure of amazing reporting. It should be cherished.


View more of Simon Romero’s coverage of Latin America for The New York Times.



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