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  • Among the popular visages at the Sunday art market in Cali's Parque del Peñon, John F. Kennedy seems to rank second only to Christ.

    I spotted the painting from across the street and approached the artist's rep, hovering nearby. It's very detailed, I said. Very beautiful. But why President Kennedy?

    Era un buen hombre, she shrugged. Todos les gusta. He was a good man. Everyone likes him.

    Throughout Thompson's year in South America, Kennedy was a constant, if unseen companion. His brief administration set the backdrop for the whole enterprise. Thompson was in Bolivia during Kennedy's famous moon speech. He was in Rio during the Cuban missile crisis. He met several of the very first crop of Peace Corps volunteers, a program Kennedy had inaugurated a year before. Thompson even (falsely) claimed that Colombia's Guajiro Indians spared his life because of his "'lifelong acquaintance' with Jacqueline Kennedy, whom they regard as some sort of goddess."

    More importantly, the Kennedy administration was dabbling in "nation building" during Thompson's time on the continent, hoping to stave off communism with bundles of infrastructure investment and foreign aid. This Alliance for Progress program colors much of Thompson's South American reportage, although Thompson himself took a dim view. "They are hauling the indians out of mud huts and putting them in huts of made of concrete blocks," he wrote, "then hiring $100-a-day photographers to take pictures of the progress."

    But Kennedy's influence is still felt, most obviously in urban projects like Ciudad Kennedy in Bogota or Parque Kennedy in Lima. Or at a small art fair on a quiet street in Cali.

    The President's influence on Thompson's writing is no less profound. He was shot in Dallas just weeks after the National Observer ran Thompson's final South America piece. That afternoon, Thompson wrote to a friend, describing his disgust at the assassination with what would become his trademark phrase. “There is no human being within 500 miles to whom I can communicate anything,” he wrote, “much less the fear and loathing that is on me after today’s murder.”

    To keep up with new stories from the Hunter S. Thompson Trail in South America, follow me on Twitter.
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