Non-fiction articles
Apollo 11 has links to Latin America

Everyone recognizes that the Apollo 11 flight was a gigantic scientific success, but less known is that the lunar flight was a big boost for the political standing of the United States. In fact, the government specifically targeted the Third World for a massive public relations campaign.

At the time, July 1969, worldwide television links did not exist. There were networks in Latin America, but these did not receive signals from the United States. Washington officials wanted to make sure that all of Latin America witnessed the moon landing.

The officials took a big chance. Had the Apollo 11 mission been a disaster, most of the world would be watching. As it turned out, even a life-long communist cheered the landing.

I happened to be in Venezuela in 1969. I remember spending an oppressively hot day at the new Maracaibo airport that was nothing more than a concrete runway and a 6-by-10-foot shed. The airport would not go into service for six months more. But U.S. Air Force pilots received permission to land there.

The strip now is called La Chinita International Airport. When I was there, we thought the perfect name would be Downtown Hades. At 235 feet elevation, with a bright blue, cloudless tropical sky and blistering heat, we few reporters huddled in the shadow of the hut.

The new airport certainly was needed because the older airport closer to the Venezuelan city was the scene of a major passenger jet disaster four months earlier. The cause was an over-optimistic airline pilot, an overweight Viasa aircraft, a short runway and the blistering heat.

We were awaiting the arrival of two U.S. C-130 Hercules aircraft that were carrying the satellite station that would connect Latin American television to the United States for the first time. After the first craft landed, the pilot provided wind and weather information to his colleagues who arrived about 20 minutes later.

The cargo was among many that the U.S. government was distributing throughout the world to make sure live coverage of the moon landing was broadly available even in places with lagging technology.

Two weeks later just before noon July 16 my wife, Sharon, and I were standing among many Venezuelans on the sidewalk in front of the U.S. Centro Venezolano-Americano cultural center in the Las Mercedes sector of Caracas. Center workers had wheeled a cart and television set to the front door for all to see the Apollo 11 liftoff.

Their reaction may sound like a cliché, but the spectators expressed shock that the  Saturn V rocket took off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at exactly the time officials had set. Venezuelans are as blasé about exact time as are Costa Ricans.

Four days later the entire staff of the English-language Daily Journal in Caracas huddled in the newsroom in the black and white light of a television. I had purchased a bottle of scotch to celebrate the landing or to ease my pain if something went wrong.

The landing was slick with Neil Armstrong and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin putting the craft where the landing had been planned. My wife was especially pleased because she had worked on creating the trainer for the lunar module. As Armstrong made his giant leap for mankind, I cracked open the bottle. Someone produced a stack of those little conical paper cups used at water fountains, and the entire staff, mostly Venezuelans, joined in a toast.

The employees who worked in the printing department of the daily newspaper were refugees from Spain who had battled unsuccessfully the forces of Francisco Franco along with the Spanish government, communists, anarchists and union members. The work force maintained its military hierarchy. The Linotype operator known as Don Victor was the sergeant. Everyone else deferred to him even though some workers were already the second generation.

We wondered how an avowed leftist would react to the great success of the capitalistic United States. Don Victor stood up, summoned the office boy, gave him a wad of cash and sent him scurrying to buy yet another bottle of scotch.

Coincidentally, today, the Cinco de Julio, is Venezuelan Independence Day, marking the decision in 1811 to cut links with the Spanish crown. With the situation deteriorating in the country every day, I often wonder how my fellow workers have faired. Certainly they do not work at the newspaper. The Daily Journal folded in 2008 after circulation plunged from 20,000 to 1,000 a day and despite becoming an ally of President Hugo Chávez.

The newspaper has an impressive legacy because hundreds of U.S., Latin American and European newspeople worked there since its start in 1945 and added foreign experience and understanding to their resumes. In fact, A.M. Costa Rica continues that tradition.

Published in A.M. Costa Rica July 5, 2019.

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All news articles on this website copyright 2018 and 2019 by James J. Brodell  and/or used with permission from Consultantes Río Colorado S.A.