Eduardo Rabasa interviews Jon Lee Anderson about his upcoming new book Los años de la espiral. Crónicas de América Latina.
It would seem that you’ve always had a particular fondness for Latin America. You speak the language perfectly and you wrote the biography of reference of one of its most iconic figures, Che Guevara, partly while living in Cuba. How would you describe the mental space that the region holds for you, and how is this reflected in your journalism on the region?
Latin America is much more than a continent I know and in which I have spent a great deal of my life, and care deeply about, it is my muse. If a hemisphere can be a muse, that's what Latin America is to me. Latin America's culture, its politics, history, and the cares and concerns of its people are things I identify strongly with, and feel linked to.
As to how this relationship has been reflected in my journalism, well, I began my earliest reporting in Latin America. I learned the craft of journalism there, first in Peru and then, living in Honduras and El Salvador, in an era of violent civil conflict. I travelled widely through the region and lived through and reported on extremely dramatic situations. These formative experiences brought me closer to the people of the region, I think. I also formed long-lasting friendships in the countries I worked in, friendships that I conserve to this day.
In the rest of my reporting life, I have returned again and again to Latin America, with sometimes long intervals away, in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, but I have always returned, and in the last decade, I have embraced Latin America fully in my work, happy to be back in a region that is like a home to me. I am keen to tell the region's stories to the rest of the world, and especially to Americans, in the United States, where I was born, feeling certain that many of my countrymen do not know the region or understand its people and their issues as well as they should. I suppose that much of my reporting reflects something of a desire of mine to play a mediatory role.
As you mention in the foreword to the book, the chronicles here collected reflect a decade, 2010-2020, of great change and upheaval in Latin America. Do you think that it can be said that as a region it tends to move somewhat collectively, in cycles?
Yes, I think so, and perhaps all regions do, but in Latin America, there is no doubt that, for all its diversity, the common bonds of culture and history, as well as geography, have a huge influence, as do personalities who make an appearance on the scene. As just a few examples, consider Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, or, on the other side of the political spectrum, Augusto Pinochet. Such characters have obviously had an impact not only in their own countries, but in one way or another, and for better or worse, on all Latin Americans.
From the Thirties through the Fifties, there was a wave of military dictatorships throughout the region, dictatorships that were mostly rightwing. These began to be replaced in the late Fifties and early Sixties by fledgling democracies, but this trend also coincided with the Cuban Revolution and with the onset of Marxist guerrilla wars and US-backed counterinsurgencies throughout the hemispere. A new crop of rightwing dictatorships arose with American sponsorship –and they lasted right through the end of the Cold War in the 1990s.
In the years since then, we saw once again the soldiers return to their barracks and a reemergence of democracy, but this coincided with a new upsurge of leftist government, this time spearheaded by Hugo Chávez, and as ever, with Fidel Castro behind him. In the latest cycle, one that has run parallel with the Trump presidency, there has been a renewed slipping away of the left and rise of the right, and also of post-ideological populism, which appears to be having the same kind of contagious effect as COVID-19. However unique each of its countries are, few things in Latin America ever happen in isolation.
At times your stories read almost like an extreme version of Gonzo journalism, in the sense that while reporting on these chronicles you are often present; you accidentally fired the pistol of a Colombian sicario, or helped to carry food and water for earthquake survivors in Haiti, or watched a journalist getting beat up by right-wing paramilitaries in Nicaragua. Do you think that in some of these pieces you had a higher than usual personal involvement (and risk) in the process that led to writing them?
I have always been a reporter who likes to get dirt in his fingernails, so to speak. The more up-close and personal, the better. While I don't seek out dangerous situations on purpose, they are often there, right around the corner, in some of the circumstances in which I have to report. As any Latin American knows, even "normal" life is not risk-free.
You also mention that in the later years of the past decade some of the changes have been partly a response to the Trump phenomenon, yet it strikes me as curious that instead of a sort of Latin American resistance against his aggressions, the reactions have been very varied, going from the usual empty antiimperialist rhetoric (Venezuela), to appeasement (Mexico), to emulating him (Brazil). Why do you think that such a polarizing figure has failed to produce any kind of Latin American solidarity movement against him?
First, there is a longstanding tradition of Latin American subordination to Washington, and to the powerful –and lucrative– American corporate interests by Latin America's political class. There have been a few exceptions in the modern era –the first and foremost, of course, being Fidel Castro, in a style that was emulated by Chávez, and now as you point out, by Maduro, but only very badly. Given his own limitations and Venezuela's shattered economy, Maduro cannot even begin to compete with his forebears in rhetorically “standing up” to Washington.
Second, it is fear. Fear of Trump –and the punishment he can deliver to a country's economy, and to its political system– is what drives AMLO's behavior of appeasement, of course. Whatever their view of Trump, the governments of the smaller, weaker countries, as dependent as so many of them are on US aid, bilateral trade or on migration and remittances, all they can hope to do is play rope-a-dope until he is gone and replaced by someone less monstruous. In the end, no one wants to end up like Noriega did, and which, if I were to hazard a prediction, could well be the way things eventually go for Maduro.
You devoted one of the chronicles to the contact with a previously isolated indigenous tribe in Peru, the Mascho Piro, and another one to the impact that gold mining has had on the Kayapo people in Brazil. What was your personal impression, or even feeling, of these encounters between two opposite worlds, in which one seems almost doomed to end up on the losing end?
These experiences gave me very mixed feelings. I felt enormously privileged to be able to observe the Mascho Piro as they emerged from the forest. But it was very sad to see them, because of their very vulnerable circumstances and my own awareness that they were, as you say, almost certainly doomed. But it was exciting to lay eyes on a group of native people who were still living in their “original” state in nature, a human condition that is vanishing, and almost gone from the world.
To see the Kayapo and the gold miners who had overwhelmed their forest reserve and were destroying their way of life, again, was an immensely sad thing, but I was fortunately able to balance this portait of destruction with a visit to a more intact Kayapo community living deeper within the forest and led by a chief who was determined to keep the miners out and to continue to live traditionally. Hope endures.
I know it’s very risky to venture a prediction –especially in politics during times like the current ones– but, based on your extensive travels around Latin America and your conversations with some of its key actors, as well as everyday citizens, do you hold any hope in the near future for the region? Do you see signs that the tide could once again change in a more promising direction?
I feel that with a Biden administration in the United States, there can be a reset of the political clock with Latin America, something Obama began to do in his effort at detente with Cuba, and which Trump has destructively undone. But even with a better US government, the region faces many problems, and they will be worse after the economic downturn brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. These include endemic problems of poltical corruption, rule of law, inequality and poverty, drug-related criminality, extreme levels of violence, and environmental destruction –the list goes on and on.
But in the end, and despite all that, I am always optimistic when it comes to Latin America, because it is after all, the New World, a region extraordinarily rich in cultural diversity, imagination and innovation with a growing population of young people who, like young people everywhere, will inevitably demand something better for themselves and their children than what they see around them today.