Photo by Davide Monteleone. Treatment by Darrel Frost.

Jon Lee Anderson on Trump, dictators, and skinny lattes

December 4, 2019

I first asked Jon Lee Anderson for an interview in April, and since then he’s been to sixteen countries. Anderson, a staff writer for The New Yorker, was covering a failed coup in Caracas, Venezuela, and the gold rush on indigenous lands in the Amazon, in Brazil. He spoke at the Tbilisi Storytelling Festival, in the country of Georgia, then flew off to East Africa for the month of August. In between, he went to Siberia, in Russia, and to Italy, Greece, Switzerland, Panama, Costa Rica, Mexico, Ecuador, and the United States. In September he was in Spain; after that he wasn’t sure where he’d be. “Sorry I am such a moving target,” he said. When we last talked, he was en route to Bolivia.

His life has been this way for decades, as he has written on Cuba, Nicaragua, Chile, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Angola, Somalia, Sudan, Mali, Liberia, Haiti, and El Salvador, to name a few. His journalism career began in 1979, at the Lima Times, in Peru. He has profiled the most important and controversial leaders in Latin America—General Augusto Pinochet, of Chile; Fidel Castro, of Cuba; and Hugo Chávez, of Venezuela. While reporting his book Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life (1997), Anderson uncovered the circumstances surrounding the execution of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Argentine revolutionary, and located his burial place. For The Lion’s Grave: Dispatches from Afghanistan (2002), he chronicled the Taliban, including the surrender of Kunduz to Northern Alliance forces. For The Fall of Baghdad (2004), he reported on the lives of Iraqis under Saddam Hussein. He’s written from more places than virtually anyone, and he also appeared in a movie with George Clooney—Syriana (2005). He has been honored by the Overseas Press Club and in 2013 received a Maria Moors Cabot Prize for outstanding reporting on Latin America and the Caribbean.

PODCAST: Brazil’s gold boom and the war for the rainforest, with Jon Lee Anderson

Anderson was born in Long Beach, California. By the age of eighteen, he had lived in eight countries. “I don’t have a hometown,” he said. His eldest sister, Michelle, was born in Haiti; in Costa Rica, his parents adopted Anderson’s second sister, Tina. “Clearly I’m the mistake, because I’m only eleven months younger than her,” he joked. His brother, Scott—also a journalist, with whom he wrote Inside the League (1986) and War Zones: Voices from the World’s Killing Grounds (1988)—is two years younger. Their father, an agriculture expert working for the United States Foreign Service, and mother, a children’s book author, moved the family to South Korea three months after Scott was born. “Basically, I didn’t live in the States after that until I was twelve,” Anderson said. “We went from Korea to Colombia to Taiwan”—his family adopted his youngest sister, Mei Mei, there—“then came back for a year in DC, and off to Indonesia, and back again. Then I went to Liberia to live with an uncle and to England, and so on.”

Anderson’s mother was always finding ways for her children to express themselves creatively. “I had my own newspaper when I was nine in Taiwan,” Anderson told me during our conversation, which began in São Paulo, Brazil, and continued over Skype, after Anderson finally made it home to Dorset, England: “a county without a motorway to it, cloistered and mostly unchanged,” he said, where he studied at age fifteen. It was in Dorset that he met his wife, and the couple eventually moved back with their children, who were educated in Cuba and Spain. Our conversations have been edited for length and clarity.


What was your experience like growing up in different countries, being exposed to different cultures?

We were five children, a very multicultural family. My parents adopted two children, one from Costa Rica, and another one from Taiwan. My eldest sister was born in Haiti. I was just barely born in Long Beach, California. My father quit his job in El Salvador and returned to California with my mom pregnant. By the time I was eighteen, I had lived in eight different countries. That’s a lot of countries, which is why I don’t have a hometown.

We have relatives in California, so every two years we would come back to the United States and spend the summer in the High Sierra, where my father would rent a cabin. And we’d spend our summer outdoors in the mountains—trout fishing, hiking, visiting our grandparents, cousins, and uncles in various towns of California. Mostly around the Bay Area, but also in Fresno. And we would travel by ship across the Pacific or airplane, one way or the other, and that was all I knew of the States until I was twelve and we went to Washington for one year. 


You once said that you and your brother believed your father worked for the Central Intelligence Agency. 

I don’t know if I believe it—it’s my brother who does. I asked my father a few times, and he would just laugh. He was an agricultural expert, which sounds a bit suspicious [laughs]. He had friends who were in intelligence. He was socially and politically very liberal; so was my mother. And he was, you know… This was the Cold War and we lived in a lot of hot spots. But I think we’d probably know by now. We had a very tight family.


I can see where your love of traveling comes from. How about your love of books and writing? Did the fact that your mother wrote children’s books have an influence on that?

I would come back from school and my mother would be sitting at a desk just inside her bedroom, and she would be writing there. She published five books before she eventually began to teach. She used to kind of complain that she gave birth for nine years, and that stopped her from writing books. But she was a mentor to many children’s book authors, and eventually taught children’s literature.

We would go to the movies and then she would get big pieces of paper and encourage us and our friends to draw what we’d seen. It was just one of the rituals as a family, sitting around the kitchen table. Bedtime was story time. Both our mother and father would read to us. She also sang to us. Not all of us became writers. Some of us were more gifted in dance or art, but we are all, brothers and sisters, involved in something creative.

And she inculcated the love of books in us, and she encouraged us to write stories. I had my own newspaper when I was nine in Taiwan. It was called the Yang Ming Shan [after the mountain range and national park in northern Taipei City]. My mother helped me by typing it up on carbon paper and making carbon copies. I made my brother and friends my reporters. And I’d sell it to the neighbors for five cents.


What kind of stories did you report on?

Things like, you know, funny odd things. Like, I once had my friends report on this haunted house in a Chinese village near us. Or what the kids wanted to be when they grew up. I even once broke the news that a woman, our neighbor, was pregnant. And, as I remember it, her husband didn’t know, either [laughs]. But maybe that’s just my memory.


Would you pay your reporters?

No, no. In the spirit of journalism, I did not [laughs].


So you always wanted to become a journalist? 

I think so. There was this idea that I always wrote, you know. I wrote poetry, short stories, diaries. I have diaries, some partial and others very extensive, from the time I was a child until I was in my thirties. I was always writing. 

I was very influenced by books about explorers of history. A lot of my art eventually became kind of imagining myself going to the jungle and… I would have lists of things I’d take with me. I had these lists since I was very young, and kept adding to them the things I needed to do when I grew up, or by a certain age.


Do you think of that as a requirement to be a journalist?

Not for everybody. My adventurous side came from the life we lived, the books I read. I started reading biographies at a very young age, and I decided to have similar experiences to the people I admired. I didn’t admire people who hadn’t lived heroic lives or big lives. I couldn’t get into writers who had just sat at a desk their whole lives. I was very disappointed with them. And if they hadn’t participated in the history of their time, I thought less of them. So I think I grew up with this idea that I had to at least do some of the things that they had done, and more, to become my true self. I wanted to see the wild world. I wanted to live the history of my time.

If I find a young person out in the field somewhere, still maybe just trying to figure things out, but they’re already there, I admire them, and I try to help. If they’re sitting around the city, and never leave the café, I don’t feel as much of an affinity. And usually what they write about isn’t as interesting to me. These kind of neurotic metropolitan novels, you know, anguish over chai versus skinny lattes [laughs]. You know, that’s not me.

I became a journalist because I wanted to see the world myself. I wanted to get my fingernails dirty.


How did you end up writing for The New Yorker?

I came to The New Yorker in a roundabout way, after working as a journalist for twenty years, but a lot of it doing my own thing. I’d never really worked for a paper, except for my own when I was nine [laughs]. Long form is what came easy to me, I guess.  

At the Lima Times, they had me write up my experiences. My first stories were five long chronicles of experiences during my trips to the Amazon jungle. So in a way, what I’m doing now is kind of a return. 

And then I was drawn to Central America and I was a stringer for Time magazine. And that was probably an early learning curve, because I was suddenly in an area of newsworthiness. It was a controversial place. I was trying to figure out the truth of what was really going on there. There was a lot of propaganda coming from the local government, the American government. And I remember feeling very much at odds with what my magazine was putting out. It was usually not what I had seen on the ground. I’m not saying it was wrong, necessarily. But it wasn’t my point of view. It was not interesting; it didn’t feel relevant. And it didn’t reflect my experience, except that sometimes I recognized a paragraph or two. To this day, the stories that I tell of my time in Central America—El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua—when I find myself telling an anecdote, it’s something that was never published. So, ultimately, I found it very frustrating.

 I quit after two years, and went off to write a book. I then spent ten years writing different nonfiction books. The first two I wrote with my brother, Scott. So four or five years went by until I began writing Guerrillas. That was the first time I really was able to find my own voice and write what I wanted, based on an idea I had come up with, I had shaped, and which came out with full integrity. And I felt very liberated. Then I eventually moved to Cuba to write Che. Financially, of course, it didn’t work at all. But it was never about the money. Time magazine in those days was like the State Department—they paid your rent, they bought you a car, they moved you, they put your children in private schools. But I wanted to be free. And so I sought out insecurity rather than security. I had a book advance, but it didn’t go at all far enough. And the reason why my Guerrillas book took me four and a half years to write was partly because of lack of money. I did some documentary films, one with the National Geographic in Panama, I wrote an article on Bosnia, which just about paid the rent.

Ultimately, I wrote my book, and then I got a contract for the Che book, and then I began working for The New Yorker. They heard that I had a diary from my time in Cuba, and they were preparing a special issue on Cuba. So I contributed with a piece called “The Plague Years.”


What kinds of stories are you drawn to?

My journalism has been a long-standing exploration into the nature of organized violence, political violence, and an examination of the exercise of power. I also love the idea of, whenever possible, turning stereotypes on their heads, particularly racial or social ones. I grew up with a diplomatic passport. I’m white. I’m always going to be white American. But I’ve actually had these other experiences. I worked as a machetero (cane cutter) in Honduras for a dollar a day, I’ve lived on the street. Sometimes I have to get past what people’s first impression is of me. 


How do you choose where to go on an assignment?

Recently, I have almost completely allowed myself to focus on Latin America. Although I can propose stories in another part of the world, I was very excited about the historic and positive developments in Cuba, and also the end of the civil war in Colombia. And then came Trump, who threw a new wrinkle into the world equation, which was this populist and racist discourse towards Hispanics and particularly towards Mexicans. So when he was elected, that same night I spoke with David Remnick [editor of The New Yorker] and we agreed that I should go to Mexico. I went there that exact same night and spent much of that year there.

As the time progressed, I did different stories, like the one about the lost tribe in Peru. Then the rise of [Jair] Bolsonaro, a new populist nationalist in the region molding himself in the vein of Trump, in a Brazilian way. And I had been covering what seemed to be emerging in Brazil, and then across the region, with the collapse of the left since at least 2014. I didn’t mention Venezuela, but there was that as well. So a lot of things are converging, and it seems to me that a certain period of history is ending. The death of Fidel coincided with the rise of Trump. 

So there is a lot that has kept me in Latin America. It is where I began my career. Spanish is really my second language; Portuguese I understand. Brazil is a hugely important part of it. And since I am interested in the wild areas of the world, I’m now thrilled to be able to go back to the Amazon, which is where I started.

That’s a long way of saying that, for a number of reasons, both good and bad, it’s fairly obvious what I can or should do next. I found that I can use all of my experience in the region to try to understand myself first and then hopefully explain better what’s going on in Mexico and Colombia and Cuba and Venezuela and Brazil.


And your decision to go to the Amazon was just a week or so before the fires in the forest that gained global attention.

Yeah, I mean, look, this isn’t clairvoyance. This is obvious. Las condiciones se estaban agudizando [conditions were becoming acute].


Can you write anywhere, anytime?

No [laughs]. Look, tu sabes, you do what you have to do. If I’m really pushed, I can write anywhere at any time. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. But if you don’t have to, you procrastinate; you invent reasons why you should do something else. In an ideal world, I go, report, come home, the world falls away, and I spend three weeks writing in my perfect ivory tower. But it isn’t always that way. I am usually dragging work around the world with me. It’s just the way it is.


In a world of instant news, how do you keep yourself calm and avoid the temptation of rushing from one newsy story to another?

Part of it is experience and part of it is because I work for The New Yorker. We like to be newsy and timely, of course, but we all know that especially nowadays, with social media, the immediacy of news exhausts itself very quickly. So even when the Amazon fires became number one news on every media outlet, I knew it wouldn’t last forever. But there is more interest now pertaining to climate change and ecology, and an audience for a story like the kind I can write, which is a good thing. It can be frustrating at times, not to be ready with your story when it’s timely. But there’s almost no way nowadays, unless you’re just writing daily news stuff for blogs, to actually hit it at the critical moment.


You’ve been doing journalism in a period of transformation, including at The New Yorker with its website. How has that process worked for you?

It’s been a kind of learning curve. The New Yorker encouraged me to write blogs or “Daily Comments” for the Web. It allowed me to do something I’ve never done before—I’ve never written anything short in my life. And it did take me a while to figure it out. At first, it felt unnatural. Then I realized, I can do it. I now have enough contacts and experience to write short daily dispatches about something occurring somewhere, and it’s kind of great to know that I can do that.

But I don’t feel quite the same satisfaction from these short pieces as I do from a longer form. If I have a story to tell, if I can call upon a memory from a place that somehow feels relevant, I’m happy to write a shortish piece. But if it’s just informational, where I’m doing kind of instant pundit stuff, I get no real satisfaction from that. If it doesn’t have a creative or a storytelling element, there’s no fun in it for me. That’s not why I’m a journalist.


What is your writing process?

Occasionally I write outlines or a kind of sketchy structure of scenes [here Anderson shows me a yellow pad filled with notes—decipherable only to his eyes—for the Amazon story] once I’ve gone through my material and seen what I have.


Where do your stories begin?

I usually start in a kind of intuitive way and I work through the story, going forward, sometimes just chronologically. It works very well, because I believe that with my stories there’s an element of discovery involved. Not in all of them, but in quite a few—and that’s why I wanted to do them.

Let’s say you go on a voyage of discovery, to call it something, and as you’re journeying you reveal as you go, you gradually peel back the layers, until you get to the heart of the problem. I’m aware of those elements when I write. But I don’t have a formula. It used to be that I would sit down at the computer and I would not know what I was going to write and whatever I started writing became the beginning. And it felt almost like a kind of magic moment. I assumed it came from my creative unconscious—maybe it did, or, you know, the juices had been flowing subconsciously, and the act of writing of course releases that. So I always like that slightly magical element to the writing process. I like to allow the creative unconscious to do its work and not to overly craft something. It probably drives my editors crazy [laughs], but that is the way I am, you know. Even a straightforward journalism story, if it doesn’t have this kind of element to it, this kind of possibility, then it is less satisfactory to me.


How is your relationship with your editors?

I’ve had three editors in the years since I began, in early 1998. I worked for seven years with one editor, Sharon DeLano, who was a veteran editor at The New Yorker, until she left, in 2004. Then I was with Amy Davidson for about five years. And for the last ten years I’ve been with Nick Trautwein. Nick is very respectful of my space. Usually we have a talk before I go, another one when I come back. He usually gives me a couple of weeks. I try to report in, but if I don’t, he doesn’t… He’s very gentle. He’ll begin to poke me a bit [laughs] to move me along.

In general, it takes me about three weeks to write a ten-thousand-word draft. Nick is always very happy when I finally send in a draft. We talk on the phone and he asks me lots of questions. And what’s extraordinary is that all the questions are all of the things I didn’t put in the piece [long laugh]. So then I begin to add them back, and I usually overwrite, so he will take a stab at cutting it down. He bolsters it and strengthens it. There are sometimes descriptive passages, which are very important to me, and he is very respectful of that. But as I say, usually, good editors can get rid of a lot of words without you even noticing. And sometimes restructure it. I’m always open to these possibilities. Because in the end, for me, the important issue is the intellectual integrity of the piece rather than a fixation over style.


Is there any conversation or lesson in particular from an editor that stayed with you?

Yeah. Going back to my early years at The New Yorker, which were very informative, one of the things I learned from my editor was this: She’d ask me, “What’s the idea?” At first, I didn’t know what she meant. My approach was that the story would create its own idea, and have its own integrity. And she was trying to encourage me to think more critically or analytically, so that I’d direct the reader through the material. It took me a while to learn that. Maybe there are other journalists who are much clearer and strategic about the story before they set out. I’ve never really worked that way. For me, the element of discovery is key, and one of the things that leads me to my stories. I want to explore and discover. I don’t want to find material to substantiate a theory. That is not the way I work. And I’m not saying one is better than the other. I suppose mine is probably more primitive and worse, but… that’s me. But she was quite important in guiding me into understanding that having a stronger idea earlier in the reporting would allow me to save my energies and direct myself while I was in the field and ultimately, I suppose, hand in a tighter draft.


What are the best moments of your career? I can think of a few: for example, when the Bolivian retired military official revealed to you how Che Guevara had died and where his body was buried.

That was pretty amazing! Yes, it was my biggest scoop. And not just that moment, but what followed—because, in the end, it turned out to be true. His body was found and also the bodies of most of Bolivia’s other “disappeared” people. I found it to be a very moving experience. Getting Pinochet to talk to me was pretty amazing. Gabriel García Márquez was an extraordinary experience. I had exclusive access to him for over a seven-month period, which was the longest I’ve ever taken. And that, in some ways, changed my life. I became a teacher at the foundation he created [Fundación Gabo, in Cartagena, Colombia]. And here I am twenty years later, with a huge network of Latin American friends and alumni, and I feel very much a part of that orbit and I cherish his legacy, and thank him. He was just a great human being.


Why do you think people open up to you?

Ha! I don’t know, really. I just try to be myself.

I remember the conversation I had with Aleida, Che’s widow, when I tried to convince her that I was just who I was saying I was, and this is what I wanted to do. And I can’t speak for her, but I felt that we clicked. I think she liked me. And she wasn’t an easy person, but I liked her and still do. You know, some people you click with, and that’s really sometimes all it is. It’s not practical or rational. 

Sometimes it’s not even wise for them, but they do open up. With Salinas [the retired Bolivian general who revealed Che’s grave site] too, I felt that we clicked. He realized maybe that I was from a post-ideological generation, that I wasn’t sitting in judgment of him. Even before he told me where Che was buried, he confessed to having executed one of the wounded fighters that he caught, which was a war crime. Maybe because I’ve been around men of war, violent people, and at war myself, maybe he felt at ease because I do understand… It can be taken out of context, what I am saying, but I do understand how we can come to these moments where we commit acts of violence. And, you know, I feel like I would be perfectly capable of it myself. So, at some level, maybe murderers feel at ease with me [laughs]. It’s a difficult thing to explain.

There seems to be a kind of brotherhood among people that go to war, experience things. I think you know what I mean—I’ve seen this not only as a male dynamic; there are women, too, who have this effect. And there are other reporters who don’t get that, who don’t have that kind of relationship. But, with me, it’s happened a lot. I’ve seen men who’ve committed crimes—mercenaries, guerrilla fighters, terrorists, and others—to be pretty candid about what they do to me. I’m trying to think of other moments I’ve had. I mean, a very evil person that I profiled early on my first year at The New Yorker was Charles Taylor, the warlord president of Liberia, who is now in The Hague. The doctor and muse of Saddam Hussein, we became very close. He was the main character in my book The Fall of Baghdad. I first wrote a story about him called “Saddam’s Ear,” about what happens when you live in a tyranny and become part of it.


Are there times when you feel conflicted?

A few just popped into my mind. Not a good memory, but a very dramatic one: I was deep into the Nicaraguan jungle once with some contract guerrillas, it was rainy season, and the woman with the commander, a young woman called Melida, told me her story, and it was that she was actually a hostage. She had been taken from her home, husband, and two children and forced to march; others from the village had been knifed to death in front of her. I tried to help her, but she had to remain there. And that’s a disturbing memory. It stays with me.

It was one of those moments when I realized that you have to be human. So I gave her a slip of paper with a number on it, for her to call me if she could get across the border. That was all I could do in that circumstance, because the only way in and out of that jungle was by helicopter. I never found out what happened to her. But she’s always stayed in my mind. I had many moments like that.


How you deal with such moments or the trauma that might emerge from what you’ve witnessed?

Well, I accept it as part of del oficio. If I were a car racer, I would have a few crashes. If I were a fireman, I’d get burned. If you’re a war reporter, you’ll get hurt along the way—not necessarily physically, but psychologically and emotionally. That’s just the way it is. It comes with the territory. And I’ve always accepted that as part of the exchange. There are things that make me deeply sad when I think about them, or talk about them. But, hell, it’s not as sad as what those people went through.

Yes, it is traumatic, but I’m not gonna make it out to be more than it was. I’ve been grabbed a few times, but I haven’t had to live as a kidnapped hostage in fear for my life for weeks or months—only a few hours.

And I usually seek out the perpetrators, I don’t just hang around with the victims, because what I’m interested in is why the violence is committed in the first place. And, of course, you can’t come and behave like Human Rights Watch in their face. You have to make them feel at ease. 

I’ve had killers talk to me and inwardly I felt absolutely appalled, but outwardly I kept up a diplomatic demeanor, maybe in order for them to keep talking. I talked with a guy who was a Zeta [from Los Zetas, the Mexican criminal syndicate]. He had never spoken before, and he wore a mask. It was a three-hour interview, and he was describing how they executed and dismembered people. It was a very creepy encounter. Mostly I wanted to get through the interview, and I think you’re in a kind of altered state in that kind of interview. And I’ve done a few—sometimes you are dealing with psychotics, and these things can turn quickly. So I’m quite careful. I’m just trying to be intuitive with them and their information and get out of it alive. 

When I’m listening to a killer talk about how he kills, I’m not showing judgment. I may feel it, and usually I do, but I can deal with that later.


And how do you deal with that later?

Well, I write about it.


You once said that Fidel Castro became a role model for other leaders around the world, in the sense that they could be angry against superpowers. Has Donald Trump now surfed on the resentment of elites to stir up a right-wing movement in the United States and elsewhere? 

In a sense, yeah, and you can see the quick way in which the new populists have recognized one another… It’s as if power has shifted to the uncultured and the bigoted and the amoral. The genius of these new leaders may be in realizing that those people were enough of a political power base to bring them to power. If you look around the world, you see, it’s the era of the bullies. My sense is that Trump is just a rich bully, a predator who’s never had to work a day in his life, because he’s always been rich. Everybody has flattered him because everybody around him is on his paycheck, and he despises everybody else. Occasionally, he might be able to pull a few things off. But in the end, it’s only because it’s in other people’s interest that certain things work out. He’s turned the US government into a kind of monarchy at his service. He thinks he knows how to play chess, but he actually plays checkers. The Chinese play chess. The Russians play chess.


Do you think the media had a role in the election of President Trump?

I think so, especially TV. It didn’t matter what he said, they would give him full airtime. Even CNN did. There was something curious about him, where he was so outrageous that he enthralled people. They couldn’t stop watching him. Because of his celebrity career, they saw him as kind of a provocative entertainer.


And in what way has Trump changed the media?

We have a convergence for the first time in history between what used to be called the developed democratic world and the world of authoritarian autarchy.

We have this big, free system which has now got an authoritarian in its midst—the first to use the term “fake news” was Trump; the second was Putin; others followed. Those authoritarians in power now have millions of followers on Twitter, who are on TV every day belittling us and calling us fake. But people like our grandmothers in their homes still depend on us for some notion of impartial truth. So, as journalists, as the representatives of the free press and of democracy, we have a battle to fight against them tooth and nail. We have to hang on to our integrity, our ethics, and, however much we become more editorial, we have to maintain a balance. We have to keep people listening, watching and reading us, in the faith that we are actually trying to be fair. Maybe we’re not perfect, maybe we are flawed—some may even be dishonest. But most of us try to be fair.

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Adriana Carranca is a Brazilian journalist and a reporting fellow with the Global Migration Project at Columbia University. Follow her on Twitter @AdrianaCarranca.