Talking Cuba and Che with Jon Lee Anderson

8 Feb
John Lee Anderson [photo Robert Birnbaum]

John Lee Anderson [photo Robert Birnbaum]

There is, for a multitude of reasons, a journalistic endangered species —namely the war correspondent. Happily Jon Lee Anderson, who currently files his stories under the New Yorker banner is still working and is about as authentic a journalist as practices that once honored profession. He’s been to every hot zone of the our times— Central America, Iran /Iraq, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Ireland,Israel and Uganda and written a number of enlightening books The Lion’s Grave: Dispatches from Afghanistan, and The Fall of Baghdad.

I first met Jon Lee Anderson in the summer of 1997 on the occasion of the publication of his well-regarded biography of Ernesto “Che” Guevara —which was especially poignant for me as I had recently visited Cuba. Talking with Jon Lee was quite easy, as if we were resuming an unfinished chat. For this and other reasons (that will be obvious from our talk), it’s clear that the affability he brings to his calling is a skill (for lack of a better word) that stands him in excellent stead. With all manner of babble flowing and flying around us in the ether, one ought never underestimate the value of a journalist who can talk and listen—and can do it almost anywhere in the world.

The recent news that Anderson is working on a biography of Fidel Castro and the big shift in US/Cuban relations reminded me that I had spoken with Jon Lee years ago, about his definitive Che biography. And later when he published a book about Iraq. The subject of Che also crept into that chat

RB: Have you seen Paul Berman’s [2004] piece on the Motorcycle Diaries film?

JA: I thought he got a little hot and bothered. [chuckles] He felt a little strongly, a little too strongly. After all, Che in rhetoric—Che was fire and brimstone—the apocalypse cometh. But it didn’t happen. And in retrospect with Osama bin Laden—if you think about it. This man who wants to declare war on the great power. There are some odd and uncanny resonations. Che was no terrorist. He was a totalitarian, yes. But Paul has forgotten that there was a time, a crack in time in the ‘60s when almost anything seemed possible and a kind of utopian totalitarianism is somehow a logical outgrowth of the apocalypse of WWII and nuclear bombs and the threat that we all lived under that possibility of imminent elimination. And I am not trying to excuse Che.

Robert Birnbaum: Was this a difficult book to write?

John Lee Anderson: It was a hard book to do. You never know how long a book is going to take you. I had guestimated that it would take three years, and I was prepared — fully prepared — to give that much of my life to it, and it ended up being five, of course. And I think the thing that made it most difficult was the fact — and the reason that it took as long as it did — that Che was, after all, a mythologized figure, and Cuba, where I went to try and fill the gaps and clear up some of the theories and conjecture about key periods in his life, was a place where there was a deterministic cordon around his figure. Because, after all, he is that island’s revolutionary patron saint, its apostle, and so people are very protective of his public image. And I had to wade through a lot of euphemism, earn a lot of trust, and overcome a lot of skepticism in order to gain the kind of access that I needed. That took time. And I needed to obtain a level of discourse that was sincere, and that took a hell of a lot of time. But it did happen.

RB: Could you have written this without his widow’s help?

JLA: No.

RB: Would you have written it without his widow’s help?

JLA: No. No, and her expression of willingness to collaborate with me was fairly tentative at best, but I seized it. It was on my second trip to Havana, after I was aware that I hadn’t quite cracked the inner circle, [that] I desperately felt I needed to find his widow. I managed to on my second trip. This is back in ‘92, when I was still kind of trying to figure out how to go about the research. I had been to Moscow, I was making exploratory trips. And at the end of my spiel, when I laid out for her what I hoped to do, I seized the bull by the horns and asked her, would she help me, and she said, in a tentative voice, yes she would. And I said, enough for me to move here with my family? And she said yes. So that’s why I did. I realized by then that I couldn’t come and go and get the kind of trust that was essential to getting as close as possible to the truth about Che.

RB: Why?

JLA: Because. . . . Well, to be honest, at that time, I didn’t fully know why, except that Cuba was an island, it had something of a siege mentality, and certainly then, in ’92, it was right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it was really bottoming out. It had lost virtually all of its subsidies, and the abyss seemed to be yawning in the immediate future for Cuba, and so there was a kind of [siege mentality]. They’ve always had the siege mentality because of the embargo, and because of the past, and the ongoing confrontation with the United States. But now, suddenly, nobody really had any answers about what was going to happen, and so I think they were especially sensitive to anything that might be antagonistic, or damage them or their external image and their knowledge of themselves, I guess. But all I knew was that as a reporter and as a person that’s been around, I just knew I wasn’t getting people talking to me from the gut. I felt as though I was getting the kind of thing that a visiting reporter would get.

RB: Stock answers?

JLA: Yeah, a bit better than that. But it all depended on how I synched with people. Yet I knew that it wasn’t going to be enough, and that anybody else could do that. And that what I absolutely had to do was get in there and get close to the people who knew him best. And who knew him better than his wife?

RB: Was it an ordeal by residency or something like that?

JLA: [Laughs] Yeah, actually. . . .

RB: Where’d you move to?

JLA: Well, initially to a flat overlooking, well, just up from the Karl Marx theater. It was a third floor walk-up — beautiful — overlooking the sea, but impractical, as our flat was flooded with sewage, and our water was intermittent. The lights you can put up with, but we had a three-month-old baby, a two-year-old child, and a four-year-old child, and we had to move eventually. I had to restore a house to do so. We moved to an old seaside enclave at the eastern edge of Havana on the way to Marina Hemingway, and it had been one of the Soviet enclaves that had been left derelict when they left. And it took seven months to fix up the house. And we finally did. I moved the family in, and by then we were almost a year into our time in Cuba. And I felt it was necessary to go off to Argentina, so I did — I left my wife and my kids and I took off. And I have a stoic wife, she kept saying, “Everything’s fine, everything’s fine.” We were having the 18-hour blackouts, but no big deal. When I came back, though, I found out that three days after I left that the water had stopped running — literally — and never returned. And it was mysterious, you could never find out why the water had, in our house, disappeared. And so after that we would have to scramble to make arrangements with black-market state cistern trucks. Our favorite supplier was with the Cuban Atomic Energy Commission [laughs]. That was very good, I never thought of that line, what was it, “Ordeal by. . . ?”

Che by Jon Lee Anderson

Che by Jon Lee Anderson

RB: Ordeal by residency —

JLA: — Ordeal by residency, yeah. But it paid off, I became conscious, because people commented on it, and they seemed very pleased that we were willing to come there. Not only that, with the kids, at a time when everybody’s lives were really uncertain. And they were entering definitely their darkest period. The man who was to have been my minder committed suicide shortly after I got there. There were plenty of others I found out about. One day a woman tried to kill herself by leaping in front of my car. I nearly got killed trying to avoid her, and she had been going down the highway doing it to other cars. I was the last one. And so it was a dark and depressing time, and I think people took it, without me ever saying anything, as an expression of human solidarity.

And when my eldest daughter went into Cuban school, we had the help of the nanny who had raised Che’s kids. [She] came and became the nanny for our kids. She was also a trusted daughter of the revolution, and the implication was obviously that since there were no direct lines of control of me, that if I were anything other than who I said I was, we would eventually be known, but there was never any suggestion of that. We developed a good relationship. But as a result, it was a highly pressurized existence. I was under a lot of scrutiny. They were aware of the high-profile nature, the eventual high-profile nature of the book, that there were a lot of foreign publishers as well, that it would be seen everywhere. And at different times, I was dealt with accordingly and given a fairly high degree of access.

RB: When I was in Cuba in ’91, I didn’t see a lot of Che iconography, and on my last trip I saw some but not a lot. . . . So as it came closer to the 30th anniversary has there been more. . . ?

JLA: — Yeah, yeah, certainly. When I went there it was already beginning. Fidel had, in ’87, when Glasnost and Perestroika liberalization were on the horizon in the Soviet Union, Fidel began the rectification process and also revived the spirit and some of the sentiments of Che Guevara. And a few of the other old communists who’d once been his opponents, like Carlos Raphael Rodriguez and others, came out and once again began talking about Che after a long sort of 17-year hiatus, during what I would call the “Soviet period.” And the alarm bells, obviously, were ringing for Fidel, and he was trying to pull in the wagons a bit and saying, “Well, we have made some errors, and Che may have been right,” and so he began to be revived emblematically in Cuba. There was the usual phenomena by the time I was there, something that had been ongoing — the kids in school, the young communist pioneers of the future, “We will be like Che,” the aphorism, the refrain they all say every day at the beginning of school. And intellectuals of the nomenclatura began writing—suddenly there were little books out, late ’80s, early ’90s, on the political thought of Che Guevara, the philosophical thought of Che. My understanding is that they began reinculcating this into the course curricula of the communist-party cadre school, the military officers’ academy, and so forth. And this idea of the study of Che’s thought became much more apparent. However, Aleida, Che’s widow, who was helping me about the same time, she had reopened their old home as a study center of Che Guevara. But really she had the key, and it was her and whoever she decided to see, and she’s a shy woman, and gruff, and somewhat in the margin of things today.

RB: Why did you want to write this book?

Guerillas by Jon Lee Anderson

Guerillas by Jon Lee Anderson

JLA: I think Che was the synthesis, the end of the road for me, of a long period in which I was compelled to know and explore the physical, emotional, and psychological landscape of guerrilla insurgency. I really went into reporting in Central America because I had this notion that to complete my own personal education I needed to see conflict firsthand and my perception of the world in the early 1980s — and it intensified the more I lived in places that were engulfed in civil war — was that this was an almost artificial oasis, this society of Western Europe, and that most of the world was inhabited by people who really could not reckon on a more stable, more peaceful tomorrow. And that the whole question of sanctity or legality of the nation state in many places was open to question, and that there was a whole insurgent world out there with very disparate ideologies and cultures, but nonetheless that the political map of the world did not reflect its reality. In Burma, I found insurgents that were in their fourth generation, they’d been fighting 45 years. There were grandfathers and grandchildren that had been born and raised in the world of insurgency with their own creations, myths, folklore, mythologies, heroes, and martyrs. So it was also exploration of the world of ideology and how it forms, and of mythology, in a way. That was what I really explored in crystallizing guerrillas. And it was in the course of that book, which I did in the late ’80s and very early ’90s, which took me all over, that I kept finding Che as a symbol of veneration, or practical mentor in the form of them studying his manual on guerrilla warfare in very disparate places around the world. It transcended ideology; Afghan {mujahideen, Burmese separatists, Marxists, Salvadoran guerrillas), and it occurred to me, as you mentioned, that in ’91, in Cuba, you didn’t see much of him. Well you remember in the world at that time, he was nowhere on the posters on the wall. He had ceased to be. But he was very alive in this world, in that clandestine landscape.

RB: I think I saw more images of Che in Nicaragua than I did in Cuba the first time I went there.

JLA: Yeah. Well, so it occurred to me — what happened to Che? And that began my quest. And I realized then that Che as an individual assembled all of the aspects that I had been trying to understand and finding in a variety of guerrillas around the world, but here they were in one individual. And, of course, he seemed to exemplify the breed, the person who crosses the invisible line and decides to hold up a weapon, take life, and offer his own for an ideal. It was a great challenge as a reporter, because there were so many gaps in the record, he was a myth, and also it seemed that world, because of the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was an illusion of a new openness, and that perhaps what had been military intelligence secrets might now be justifiably journalistic domain. That was only partially true. For example in Moscow, I didn’t get, at the time I tried, virtually anything out of the KGB archives, which were less open than they were supposed to be at the time. I did get access to men who had been high-ranking KGB officers and others now willing to talk in the eve and the twilight of their lives. And willing to talk. Cuba was more open, but I had to put the effort in, for example. So, I don’t think I probably could have done it before the end of the Soviet Union, I don’t think. Because it was all still a kind of iron-clad juggernaut, historical juggernaut, which never laundered its clothes in public.

RB: It seems to me to be the case that as Che faded in the Cuban popular culture, he also faded in this country except for aging lefties like me.

Museo Che Guevera

Museo Che Guevera

JLA: In New York last month, I went into Shakespeare & Company, and they had a good pile of my books, and they said I should go down and sign them and they had a poster, a big poster of the cover of the book in the window. When I went in and identified myself, the guy said, “Oh, man, you’ve cost us so much trouble.” It’s right across from New York University. Now these are educated, smart kids — what, 18, 19, 20 to 22? He said, “We’ve got at least 20 kids here every day asking to buy the poster.” They don’t want to buy the book, they want to buy the poster. And many of them, he said, didn’t even know who he was. And they didn’t even know how to say his name, they’d say, “You know, that guy in the window, C-H-E.” They just thought he looked cool. But that’s kind of interesting, too. Superficial as it is, there’s something about his face which resonates, and people understand what it means. And it seems to mean, you know, it’s the uncompromising idealism of youth. It’s defiant. It challenges the unchanging status quo. And I think his face itself and his name are almost registered trademarks in that sense, representing that. Representing the challenge of revolt, and in a sense, I suppose, of youthful idealism. This idea of uncompromising pursuit of ideals that may be doomed, but which can upset the apple cart and rock the status quo.

RB: My younger colleagues question his willingness, as a doctor who had taken the Hippocratic Oath, to take lives [political trials and executions]. How do you feel about Che Guevara?

JLA: It was a different era. And I don’t know, maybe it’s that a 20- or 25-year-old today can’t understand that in the 60s this was a very different world. We’ve still got many problems. It’s a very problematic country. But the people who were raised in the 70s and 80s have grown up in an incredibly privileged and affluent country. In Latin America, the issues of the 60s are still prevalent; why are there still guerrillas? It’s not because they’re all narco-guerrillas. It’s because the generals might have left office and their so-called elected democrats in their stead, but far too many of them have tarnished the name of so-called Democracy with their corruption, scandals, and abuse of human rights without addressing the basic problems — the endemic poverty. . . . The population’s tripled since Che’s time, and so has the poverty. There’s more guns, and now there’s drugs, as well, to complicate things.

The 60s, when I came back here, I was 11. The first time that I lived in this country, my opening glimpse of the United States was 1967. In that 10-month period, Martin Luther King was killed, Robert F. Kennedy was killed, a lot of American cities went up in flames. You had every right to disbelieve in the sacrosanct nature of the state. With a president in the White House who was generally perceived to be waging an inhumane and illegitimate war in a foreign country, in which — as we now know, three million Vietnamese were killed, we usually only remember the 50 thousand Americans. He had a corrupt vice-president, the police were racist, they killed students on our own campuses, and you did not have suffrage for black people. So you could grow up with a sense that the established forces of law and order were impeachable. And I guess a kid growing up today just wouldn’t know that, wouldn’t understand that, wouldn’t feel it, and would feel that these things were all long ago. But I think Che was a man of his time, and when he came of age in the ’50s, Latin America was ossified, the Latifundia, the inheritance of the Colonial era was still visible. I mean, my God, I’ve seen it, too, in the years since Che. You do have oligarchs and serfs — I mean, it’s as simple as that. It’s not a Marxist notion. They’re there, and they were there, very much there. And the United States was at its most unfeeling and imperial in the ’50s, and Che happened to be on the ground and witnessed the first successful CIA-backed overthrow of a Latin American regime [Guatemala], which is generally regarded, historically, to be a fatal mistake. It set off 30, 35, 40 years of insurgency in that country, devastated it, caused that country to be plagued by death and phantoms for all of these years. And why shouldn’t he have become angry, and why shouldn’t he who, yes, after all he got a doctor’s degree, but he was really a medical researcher, he hoped to cure one of mankind’s maladies, he had a kind of Schweitzerian notion of working with lepers. But the more he traveled, the more he began to perceive that many of the endemic illnesses in his world, Latin America, were induced by poverty. And thus by political repression. Guatemala only seemed to confirm that cause and effect.

Che [photographer unknown]

Che [photo by Korda]

But like the medical researcher he never became, he searched for an antidote. The antidote to him, in his anger and in his idealism, was socialism, and the means to bring it about was armed revolutionary warfare. Because it was clear that anything short of that would only bring compromise and perpetuate the state of things. And thus the Cuban revolution which he assisted, and helped radicalize. And tried to replicate around the hemisphere. In terms of taking life, if you’re 17 men, fighting against an entire government, as shaky and inept as that government might be, in which you’d been bombed and chased over the hills, and then you find out that one of your number, one of your newest civilian collaborators is actually a traitor. He admits his crime, he has already caused you to be pursued all through the hills in preceding weeks, being bombed from the air, and has caused one of your members killed. What do you do with him? You kill him. It’s war. And Che was the one who stepped forward to execute him.

And I think, in a way, I don’t judge that action. Because it was an act of — sure, he took a moral leap. He walked out there on that moral quicksand, which is taking another person’s life, but I think he did so fully consciously, and to test himself to see if he had the courage of his convictions. After all, that was what it was about — taking lives, and offering his own for this ideal. So I think it’s difficult for people who’ve never been in an area of conflict or had their own way of life suddenly rent asunder to judge people who have. It’s a situation that much of the world lives under. And Americans have the peculiar luxury of never having had to do it, and having the kind of — to my mind — gall, I suppose, of judging others. . . . That really gets me going, that whole thing.

RB: What comes after you complete a book like this?

Jon Lee Anderson[photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Jon Lee Anderson[photo: Robert Birnbaum]

JLA: [Laughs] I feel like writing haiku from now on.

[Shared laughter]

You know, I feel like doing some very slim volume of prose, I don’t know. Some people have suggested that I should write a memoir of living in Cuba. And I have thought about it, because in a way, it too would cap this long inquiry of mine into the nature of the political outlaw or the revolutionary which ended up personified by Che. But in a way, living in Cuba gave me a glimpse into what institutionalized revolutionary power is, and how they deal with it. How do you maintain an ideal in power over four decades? And I saw it pretty intimately. I don’t know that I’ll do that, I don’t know. I’ve thought about it, I’m not sure. . . .

RB: Do you find that people are just unqualifiably fascinated with things Cuban —

JLA: Things Cuban? Yeah, I think Cuba inhabits, for Americans, a very special realm in our imagination. And part of it is its peculiar time-warp quality, that somehow by going to Cuba or glimpsing it, you are seeing the span of the last four decades. Because it’s still there. It’s the one place that’s not changed, in a way. Of course, it has, but I mean right down to the kind of, you know, ’50s Chevys, and the lack of urban sprawl, and the old buildings, and all the appealing qualities like the music, the people, the culture itself, which are so alluring to people. Sexy. And, I think that people feel transported to the past, and I think for Americans of a certain age, or anybody who’s been to college, even if they are in their 20s, knows that Cuba has been this lightning rod in our history. After all, one time we nearly went to nuclear war was of our history. Cuba, Castro, the CIA, the mafia, all of those things are somehow also attached to what we don’t know or believe we know about the JFK assassination, all of these things are part of our collective psyche. Castro is still there. He’s there from the age of black and white, and he’s still there. He’s still got the beard. He’s still shaking his fist. And I think there’s a kind of a sense of grudging admiration for him, for doing it. By even his opponents, his old foes. And a recognition that he’s maintained certain principles, right or wrong. When pretty much everywhere else has fallen under our sway. And you know, after all, this is an island which until I think the early decades of this century still had a strong Senate lobby that openly called for its annexation. Its always been a coveted piece of real estate by the United States. And you’ve got the business interest. I mean, where else can you find a 700-mile-long Caribbean island that’s not developed? The developers must just be salivating over Cuba. Not to mention —

RB: — Well, now you’ve got the healthiest, best-educated workforce in the Caribbean. That’s pretty attractive to the businesses looking to come to Cuba.

JLA: But, you know, the return of the popularity of the Cuban cigar, the Afro-Caribbean music — all of these things appear to be happening simultaneously. It’s, I think — it resonates with people on different levels. It’s a place to go. It’s got an edge,

RB: Do you miss Cuba?

JLA: Every so often I do. Quite often. I mean, I’m in Spain because I needed to be somewhere else to finish the writing, just to be in a place where I didn’t have to worry about the day-to-day, and to be in a neutral place where I can think on my own, and have a clean day to work in. But Spain doesn’t do it for me. It’s not the same as Latin America, it’s not the same as Cuba. Cuba gets into your blood. . . .

Widely circulated photo of dead Che Guevara

Widely circulated photo of dead Che Guevara

2 Responses to “Talking Cuba and Che with Jon Lee Anderson”


  1. Cuba Si, See Cuba | ourmaninboston - October 31, 2016

    […] ** Talking Cuba and Che with Jon Lee Anderson […]

  2. True Dat: An Oral Biography | ourmaninboston - July 21, 2017

    […] 2. I should note that Jon Lee Anderson’s  biography of Che Guevara is exhaustive  accessibly with lots to recommend it as Anderson is  superb example of a disappearing calling— the foreign/war correspondent. Here’s a chat I had with him back in 1997 when his Che biography was freshly minted… […]

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