A journalist’s bumpy ride through four decades of global events

Whether eluding Haiti gunmen, being set up by Hugo Chávez, or spending time with a grateful couple who were part of the French Resistance, the Monitor’s diplomacy writer, Howard LaFranchi, is himself a story that's rich with history and an understanding of global culture.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Howard LaFranchi (left) with Moscow correspondent Fred Weir in Boston, Sept. 18, 2019.

Howard LaFranchi’s job is to report on the ever-changing relationships between the United States and other nations. Under the Trump administration, Howard told me, we are “at a moment of a once-in-a-century-or-so shift in the world order.”

But his reporting on global shifts is informed by shoe-leather reporting – talking to real people, not just diplomats – on nearly every continent. Howard’s been chased by gun-toting soldiers or thugs from Iraq to Haiti. He’s been inspired by Indian girls taking control of their village. And he’s rubbed elbows with Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez – although that didn’t quite go as planned.

Howard joined the Monitor in 1982 and has been the Monitor's diplomacy correspondent in Washington since 2001. He was the Monitor's Paris bureau chief from 1989 to 1994 and our Latin America correspondent in Mexico City from 1994 to 2001. He also covered the Iraq War during visits to the Monitor's Baghdad bureau.

In excerpts from our interview, you’ll see that Howard’s ability to understand multiple languages and cultures has brought him closer to many stories, and in one case may have helped him avoid certain peril.

You have reported from conflict zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, and covered natural disasters in Haiti and Puerto Rico. In such disparate places, is there a common framework or perspective that you bring to your work that helps you get the deeper story? And once on the ground, how do you approach the story?

I start from the basis that whatever the story, it’s about people – and therefore the human spirit – maybe suffering, maybe mourning, maybe overcoming, maybe discovering new strengths, maybe rejoicing. But the people are out there to tell that story, and that’s the story I’m there to tell. I aim to get the facts from authorities, leaders, other actors – and use that to build the story that the people will tell.

Read more stories by and about Howard LaFranchi:

From Ukraine to Syria, is America’s ‘beacon’ dimming?
India rising: Can a giant democracy become an economic colossus?
‘Hope to move forward’: One refugee’s story of resolve
From the archives: D-Day according to my French Resistance family
Who is Putin? Even to Russians, a mystery

Did you ever feel in danger, and how did you handle that? 

There have been some moments – being shot at by gunmen chasing our car as we tried to escape an embattled Sadr City (Baghdad), and encountering a group of mostly very young FARC fighters in Colombia (the young fighters often being the most dangerous because they’re the least disciplined). But the scariest moment in my career was hands down encountering a truckload of AK-47-armed Chimères gang members in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The U.S. had just removed President Aristide from the country, and his boys were furious – and hunting down Americans. How did I handle it? I spoke French. It’s not so easy to keep your wits about you when you’ve been thrown to the ground from a car and have two AK-47s in your face. But there was also an angel in that tense scene, I swear. Say what you want, but for me, that angel led me to say things that I would not have thought were wise to say. But it got me and my very fearful cab driver out of it. A more detailed account of Howard’s encounter with the Chimères was published in the Monitor in 2004.

The word “trust” has been popping up in many of your interviews since President Donald Trump announced his decision to remove U.S. protection for Kurdish forces in Syria. From a historical perspective, how important has trust been in our relationship with our allies, and will the effects be long-lasting?

That trust wasn’t built easily over the World War II years, but it was forged in global calamity and has endured since. I saw it challenged in the run-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003, but the wounds healed.

That trust is being shaken in a different way now. It’s not just that the West’s leader is tiring of that role, but that leader is sowing confusion by acting unilaterally and in some cases identifying more closely with leaders (in North Korea and Russia, for example) that before were seen either as adversaries or as not part of the Western club. This is new, and I don’t think this time it’s just superficial wounds. There will be permanent impact.

During the 75th anniversary of the Normandy invasion, we republished a wonderful piece you wrote in 1984 called “Allies.” Can you briefly retell that story and how it might relate to “trust”?

The basis of the piece was an experience I had watching an American movie, “The Longest Day,” with a very dear French family led by a couple who had been in the French Resistance. If I had been received like a son in their home, it was in part because of their gratitude for the American boys who 40 years earlier had saved their way of life. I’d say it was gratitude as much as it was trust.

You had an encounter with Hugo Chávez, the now-departed leader of Venezuela. What was the background to that meeting, and what was the outcome?

I had been promised an interview with President Chávez – but only if I accompanied him on one of his Sunday trips out to las provincias. In the end, I was ushered into the president’s hours-long radio show for only a few minutes – allowing him to tout over the radio that he had a reporter from the very respected Christian Science Monitor traveling with him. The intent was to let listeners know that he was well viewed in some quarters of America. In the end, I felt a little used by the propaganda setup. I was allowed to listen to a bit more of his rant – and then ushered out of the makeshift studio. I recall being told that an interview might take place on our way to the next event, but it never happened.

You recently wrote a magazine cover story, “India rising.” As you traveled through that country, what surprised you most?

The well-educated and friendly youth population. They are not protectionists; they want to be part of the world – and they want India to be an international player.

You highlighted the fact that India stands on the threshold of becoming an economic colossus. What’s standing in its way?

As we explained in the story, being a democracy may slow India’s rise to a global power – the government can’t just order major economic and social change as, say, the Chinese government could. In the end, as Indians explained, their future will be built with greater social consensus. But three factors – a huge and inefficient agricultural sector, low female labor participation, and heavy state involvement in the economy – are holding India back.

You’ve lived in France and Mexico as a correspondent. What kind of impact did that have on your family?

Exposure to different cultures, languages, ways of life has made our kids citizens of the world. They all speak Spanish, two of them use Spanish in their work, and the third expects to be able to use Spanish as he moves up in his career. For all three, it’s not just Mexico; it’s “Mexico Querido” (Dearest Mexico). It’s home.

Of all the assignments you’ve had, is there one or two that you would look back on as the most memorable?

That would be impossible to say, but an inadequate answer would have to start off by saying it would be about the people I’ve met along the way who have affirmed faith in human dignity. The teenage girls who took over their village in India and made it a better place for all its residents; the fathers in a remote Colombian village who stood up and said “no” when FARC guerrillas wanted to take their sons to fight for them – and in many cases paid with their lives; covering the 50th anniversary of D-Day on the Normandy beaches and standing in awe of the group of old-guy veterans before me who as young Rangers had scaled the Pointe du Hoc to toss grenades into Nazi bunkers and save France; and the privilege of working with Allan Enwiya, a young Iraqi American-music-lover-turned-interpreter who risked his life, and ultimately lost it, translating for us correspondents so the Monitor could get the story.

Is there anything that would surprise our readers about Howard LaFranchi?

I don’t know about readers, but my Red Sox-loving story editor can’t get over the fact that this California boy who grew up a San Francisco Giants fan is now a Yankees fan.

Truly shocking!

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