DORAL, Fla. — It's a Friday lunchtime at the U.S. Southern Command in Doral — and the smell of popcorn wafts through the Pentagon's hub for military operations in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Men and women in battle fatigues and combat boots file into a state-of-the-art seminar room, snacks in hand, and settle in for two hours of revolutionary bloodbath and romance — a screening of "Lost City," Andy Garcia's Hollywood homage to Havana, circa 1959.
Call it Western Hemisphere Culture 101.
The screening is part of a project pioneered by Southcom's commander, Navy Adm. James Stavridis, for the 1,200 or so U.S. military personnel and civilians assigned to his headquarters.
The goal is "sensible and sensitive engagement" with the nations of the region, says Stavridis, a four-star admiral with a doctorate from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
He took charge of Southcom nine months ago, and arrived with a reading list of novels and historical books he hands out to Southcom staffers to encourage Latin American literacy.
"If you don't understand the impact of the conquistadors, and if you don't understand the impact of poverty, and if you don't understand the impact of the Catholic Church, how can you forge appropriate policies that work?" he said.
So he has staff members running a "Cultural Understanding Initiative," fundamentally a crash course in Latin American and Caribbean history and culture.
A centerpiece is the now 37-item recommended reading list that ranges from Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "Chronicle of a Death Foretold" to "Bitter Fruit," about the 1954 CIA coup in Guatemala.
Stavridis started to compile it at the Pentagon, preparing for this post, while serving as senior military assistant to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld — and it has been tweaked and refined across the months with staff input.
About one-third of the headquarters' staff members speak another language. Now the program has set a goal — 60 percent proficiency — in Spanish or Portuguese or French, the languages of the region.
They've acquired Rosetta Stone licenses for at-desk learning and hired tutors for face-to-face practice.
Civilian employee Helen Colby, a New Yorker who moved to South Florida two decades ago, has signed up for "Survival Spanish" at the Southcom Garrison, a facility that handles logistics such as transportation and housing.
The twice-a-week course teaches "body parts, colors, numbers, elementary stuff," said Colby, 57. "It's great. I've lived here quite a while, but I don't speak Spanish."
When the weather cools, Stavridis also plans to stage a potluck meal for 1,000 — giving soldiers, sailors and other Southcom staff members a taste of the cuisines of the Americas.
Moreover, Colby said, the movies and books offer a human, at times intimate, look at a region that, while close, is still remote to many Americans in the military.
"A lot of our soldiers, service members, get sent here from Paducah or North Carolina or Washington state — and the big focus is on the Middle East," she said. "I don't know if there's a whole lot of knowledge about Latin America."
By one estimate, more than 1,000 people throughout Southcom got to watch "Lost City," which at one point juxtaposes over-the-top dance numbers at the fictional El Tropico nightclub with Cuban secret police blowing out the brains of a young activist on his knees during an interrogation.
Most watched the film through closed-circuit feeds piped into monitors in Southcom offices. But about 100 saw it on a Jumbotron, munching popcorn in a conference room where the region's ambassadors sometimes meet.
The military time clock read 13:02 in Miami, 11:01 in Managua and 14:02 in Montevideo when Andy Garcia, playing an El Tropico impresario, spurns an offer by Dustin Hoffman, playing the mobster Meyer Lansky, to put craps tables into the club.
Afterward, a panel presided over a group discussion that was off-limits to The Miami Herald, to encourage candor about Cuban politics, a sensitive South Florida topic.
Earlier films have included "Motorcycle Diaries," on the formative years of a young Che Guevara; "Maria Full of Grace," made by a California filmmaker and focusing on a pregnant Colombian woman working as a cocaine mule, and "City of God," set in a favela, or slum, in Rio de Janeiro.
The next movie, in September, is called "Sonar no cuesta nada," or "Ton of Luck" in English, and revolves around a Colombian anti-insurgent battalion's unlikely adventure in the jungles.
Said Stavridis: "We're trying to help people understand the culture of the region. To understand literature, to understand film and to speak the languages is to understand the sea that we swim in."
_About 1,400 people work at Southcom and its affiliates in South Florida.
_The Pentagon outpost organizes and supervises military and humanitarian relief operations across 32 nations south of the U.S. border.
_Its turf stretches across 14.5 million square miles throughout the Caribbean, Central America and South America — but not Mexico.
_Previously headquartered in Panama, Southcom came to Miami in September 1997, ahead of the transfer of the Panama Canal to the government of Panama.
_It's now commanded by Adm. James Stavridis, the first Navy officer after a succession of Army and Marine generals.
(c) 2007, The Miami Herald.
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