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Latin America Data Base: Three Decades of Journalism on the Americas

April 23, 2019

Latin America Data Base: Three Decades of Journalism on the Americas

The LAII’s Latin America Digital Beat (LADB), known for most of its existence as the Latin America Data Base, provided comprehensive coverage of Latin America and the Caribbean for more than three decades, from the mid-1980s to 2018. During this time, the news service covered many of the most important political and economic developments in the region, such as peacemaking efforts, migration, gender equity, environment and climate change, the drug trade, and economic integration.

On Thursday, April 25 at 4:00 pm, the LAII will hold a commemorative event to mark the recent closure of LADB and reflect on its years of service. LADB Editor Carlos Navarro and former LADB writers will present LADB: A Retrospective: Three Decades of Journalism in the Americas. This free and public lecture, with open reception following, will take place in the Ortega Hall Reading Room (Ortega Hall 335) at The University of New Mexico.

LADB’s three decades of journalism resulted in more than 28,000 articles, which evolved gradually into a searchable archive that allowed scholars and other researchers to track coverage of a particular topic. As the collection grew, LADB editors were able to cross-reference and link to previous, relevant articles, resulting in deeper depictions of the topic at hand. The searchable archive was especially valuable during the early days of the news service, when internet usage was relatively new and digital information not as plentiful. Today it remains a valuable resource for scholars, as the LADB’s consistently careful reporting standards and in-depth coverage allow researchers to trace how a given conflict or issue developed over time. LAII Director and political scientist William Stanley notes, “I found LADB invaluable as a research tool, tracking such issues as police civilianization, accountability for past human rights crimes, and justice-sector reforms.”

LADB editors and journalists strived for high-quality reporting, with an emphasis on more depth than is typical in daily newspaper coverage. Most articles were written by professional journalists or scholars who spent time in Latin America. In its early years, reporting staff were based at UNM and used then state-of-the-art “webcrawler” programs to aggregate Spanish language press coverage from the region as primary sources. In later years, only LADB editorial staff remained housed at UNM, with journalists reporting from Latin America on a freelance basis.

As LADB Editor Carlos Navarro notes, "Over the years, LADB provided in-depth information to readers who wanted a more complete picture of what was happening in Latin America. Our articles put information into perspective, offering background and analysis on many topics relevant to a particular country or the region as a whole."

This in-depth coverage came to be organized into three regional emphases (Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, and South America) and published as the corresponding newsletters of SourceMex, NotiCen, and NotiSur. Nicaragua, Guatemala, Peru, and Mexico were particularly well reported, but many articles had implications across the entire region or multiple countries. One example of a topic with wide relevance was the sustained effort in the 1990s by former U.S. President Bill Clinton to bring together leaders from Latin American and Caribbean countries to create a hemispheric free-trade agreement. Another example was climate change, with LADB providing coverage of regional environmental cooperation, particularly following the signing of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (known as the Rio Treaty) in 1992, the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, and the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2016.

It was not uncommon for LADB writers to address long term issues that might not seem particularly newsworthy in any given week, but that had important implications for the region.

As far back as 1988, LADB wrote how massive fires in Brazil’s Amazon Basin were both a likely consequence of climate change and a significant source of additional greenhouse gases emissions. “Scientists say that the destruction and burning of the Amazon forest are so vast that it may account for at least one-tenth of global carbon dioxide produced by human endeavors,” reported NotiSur. A year later, Notisur followed ongoing climate negotiations as Buenos Aires hosted follow-up meetings on implementing the Kyoto Protocol. As early as 2011, NotiCen reported that formerly permanent rivers had become seasonal, signaling a trend toward drought and water scarcity that is a contributing factor to Central American migration to the United States today. More recently in 2014 and 2016, Notisur addressed how warmer temperatures were threatening glaciers in Bolivia and Chile.

Covering politics and human rights was also important to LADB editors and journalists, particularly the impact of “dirty wars” of the 1970s and 1980s and subsequent peacemaking efforts in Central America and Colombia. The so-called dirty wars, which were endorsed by the US government, referred to the brutal campaigns of military leaders in South America against leftist opponents. The details of the repression were kept under wraps for many years, but LADB prioritized reporting on the human rights violations and responses as information gradually came to light.

For instance, an article in NotiSur in 2000 reported that “Repression against opponents was most brutal in Argentina, where official figures list 9,000 victims of the ‘dirty war,’ and human rights groups say 30,000 people were killed or disappeared by the military government. Hundreds of political activists, union leaders, and human-rights workers died in Brazil, more than 3,000 were killed in Chile, and hundreds more were eliminated in Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay.”

On the positive side, LADB covered the end of conflicts in Central America, including the Equipulas II agreement in 1987 which established a framework for negotiated settlements and elections, the electoral defeat of the Sandinista Front in Nicaragua in 1990 and subsequent demobilization of the so-called “Contra” insurgency, the sweeping 1992 agreement to end the war between the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front and the government of El Salvador, and the less successful 1996 agreement to end the civil war in Guatemala. These settlements, which unfolded over years of negotiations, particularly showcase the value of LADB’s sustained, detailed, and searchable news coverage.

For LADB, the peace agreement between the FARC and the Colombian government was especially significant, not only because an accord was elusive for many years, but also because the conflict of more than three decades coincided with the duration of the news service. In the November 5, 1983 edition of NotiSur, LADB reporters wrote “the national government announced that it had resumed negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The (Virgilio) Barco administration had apparently dropped its previous demand that the rebels disarm before talks could begin.” As we know now, that effort failed, but in the August 4, 2017 edition, NotiSur carried this news. “With the handover to UN inspectors of the remaining weapons in their arsenal on June 27, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionaria de Colombia (FARC) guerrillas put an end-note on the longest and costliest internal war in Latin American history.”

Faced with competition from the flood of searchable news sources and free blogs, LADB’s subscriber base eroded in recent years. Production of new articles ended in April of 2018. The over 28,000 articles covering three decades have been put into a common format with consistent headline styles and keywords, and will be maintained as a searchable database, available through UNM Libraries. The Latin American and Iberian Institute will oversee the database in perpetuity, expecting that this will be a valuable tool for political, social, and historical researchers for years to come.