Jon Lee Anderson: Getting to Cuba was like a release

You have to talk ab out Cuba and Cubans with the American journalist Jon Lee Anderson, as if there were nothing more important to talk about and as if Cuba and Cubans were like the navel of the world.

Anderson knows the island as he knows the palm of his hand. He was a neighbour of his people, pioneers, worn-out car, his neighbourhood and his family witnessed the exodus of boat people, his home was supplied by waterpipes in the early 1990s, when he moved here with his wife and three small children to write what qualifies as one of the most complete biographies of Che.

The journalist who has written the most frightful stories about conflicts in Angola, Afghanistan, Lebanon … The author of texts which should already be classics as “Afghans love flowers”, “The Power and the tower” and so on, was in Cuba a few days ago.

The New Yorker sent him here to “feel” the situation of the process of normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States to write about it, perhaps.

Anderson talks to OnCuba.

In Afghans love flowers; besides the portrait of all the dramatic situation of war, you describe the customs of Afghans, their quirks. What Cuban customs seem strange to you as a foreigner?

The Cuban is a storyteller. This is a cliché perhaps, but it is true. This is an oral society, you talk about everything.

The Cubans are very complainers, are hypochondriacs. They are the most hypochondriacs I know. They spend the day complaining of any evil, headache, coryza, that they could not sleep last night, about the meprobamate pill they took. I say it emotionally.

They are not very adventurous with food. Almost do not eat spicy. They eat with red pepper, lemon and nothing else. It is an island surrounded by fish, but they prefer pork.

They have no relationship with the sea. It is as if the sea were a thing of substance. They have not fishing fleet, do not eat fish. It is an island of cowboys. Outside Cuba, people think there are many fishermen here, but actually you go out here and what you see is a bunch of cowboys on horseback. This is a very agrarian island of peasants. But there are no cows. It is a green island where little is planted. Those are the rare things of Cuba.

There are many other things that are characteristic of the Revolution, the stagnation and all that, that at the same time are virtues. For example, lack of slums and suburbanization. If this had been different, it would be the size of Miami. This city would have no charm. There were only 70-story towers and there would not be street life. And everyone would have in cars and be fat.

Maybe the Cubans wanted that, but the charm of Havana is that it is trapped in time and in its island status. You leave the city and you are in countryside. That does not happen anywhere.

What did you come to do in this visit to Cuba?

I just came to feel the American-Cuban situation. I think it’s very interesting. I am enthusiastic about the change, I do not hide it. I think it’s very important for the United States and Cuba to resume relations. I wanted to be at this time to feel the atmosphere. It is a historical juncture. And if I can, I will write something about the situation to The New Yorker. I have not found such stories yet, but I’m at it.

What have you felt so far?

I feel we are to the expectation. None of that has crystallized yet but it is by being curdled. I feel it in this process of talks, meetings.

What about the people on the street?

People on the street is like you, questioning, with doubts, on tenterhooks, waiting, anticipating changes. Five years ago nobody anticipated a substantial change. They were somewhat resigned. Five years ago the “Marielitos” could not return and invest in the island, now they can. Five years ago you could not, as ordinary Cuban, go to a hotel, now you can do it if having money. Three or five years ago people could not take their Chevy out the garage and use it as taxi.

There are substantial changes, although there are many to be done. The normalization of relations is one more change that is going to happen.

It is clear that political leaders from both sides will be crucial in this process. What are the characteristics of Cuban political leaders?

They realize that to maintain stability and enhance prosperity and welfare on the island and therefore its political authority, changes and decisions that have been taken are necessary. Otherwise, they would not have done.

I feel there is a cultural and economic liberalization in Cuba. It is still not a political opening. But as a political decision is allowing economic and cultural openness, there is a political change that is more than mild. There is a change in policy stance.

What happens in five years will be interesting. I do not think that full political opening is contemplated with changes that include a multiparty system, or any of those things, but eventually that accompanies the economic and cultural changes. Maybe it takes 17 years to come, but it will come.

What were the first impressions that Cuba and Cubans caused you when you were here for the first time?

The first time I came to Cuba I had the feeling of having reached a site very akin to me. I felt very at home, and I did not expect it. I arrived in 1992, a time that was not easy for Cuba and for the Cuban people. The USSR had collapsed the previous year. Here the economy was almost in vertical dive. This is not a political debate, not necessarily has to do with politics, but rather with people. I was well received, without formalities.

In addition, the blood mixture here is something that made me feel good. Cuba and the Caribbean in general have greater openness to the question of color. I felt good, for there was not the notion of class tied to the races, with the same scale in which it was felt in USA at that time.

At that time race relations in America were very tense. While much was achieved in the 1960s with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, it began the discomfort of 1970s and 1980s in which blacks and whites stopped talking. And in the late 80s and early 90s, when Clinton enters the White House, it was the moment of greatest tension.

Getting here was like liberation. I do not want to say that it has been a seamless integration of black people in the Revolution, but it was different. I came here and I feel I can talk to anyone. It is not so easy elsewhere. In other places suddenly there are invisible lines and borders due to color issues. In Europe, the United States, there is not the same spontaneity with which one can behave here. And this is not unique to Cuba. I feel it in greater or lesser extent throughout the Caribbean. Almost always it has to do with the merger of blood; in the Caribbean coast of Colombia, Panama, the Dominican Republic…

You moved to Cuba with your wife and three children in the Special Period. How was your adaptation to the critical moment you lived here?

I made two trips here, a bit as recognition, seeking what would my interlocutors be to write the biography of Che. I had to make connections and ask for support to research his life. I had the approval of the Central Committee to come, but from there I had to make way. There was not a red folder, nor I was assigned guides.

On my second trip, in 1992, I explained my project to Aleida, Che’s widow, and she decided to support me. On that trip I also realized that I could not go back and forth to Cuba as a tourist and achieve something serious. I had to settle down. So it was that we came in early 1993 with the three children, including a newborn baby. We would have come in 1992, but as my wife’s pregnancy was very advanced, we wait for the baby was born.

We moved into a rental apartment in Miramar, on the third floor, with view to the shore and sea. Everything was very nice, but when you have three children it is not easy. The truth is that it was very difficult especially because the Special Period began to hit hard.

I had a Lada which tires were pricked, stolen, it was also crashed.

The apartment was flooded with sewage water, the kids got sick. It was one thing after another. But we went getting accustomed. I had to make proposals to the Central Committee to seek a new house. They gave us another house in Nautico neighbourhood, but it had to be entirely repaired.

For seven months they repaired the house, and I had to feed the workers, three already old men, veterans of Angola. The soup kitchen did not work, there was no food. Then I gave the workers sandwiches from Diplo Market (in dollars) and repainting the house lasted a long time (laughs). It lasted almost five months. But we became great friends.

In addition we lived the Rafters Crisis. People left from that same neighbourhood. We saw people leaving the reef on rafts, and with great dramatic scenes, cries, and people jumping into the water.

We left Cuba in late 1995. At that point, I estimated that roughly 44 people depended on me. Necessity was such that I employed people and more people. I could not live behind the backs of the needs of the people, and with a few dollars many things were resolved. I had an auto bodyworker, the nanny, secretary, a woman who made me transcripts and very skilled people doing rudimentary stuff.

Everything had to be done in the house, because it had belonged to Bulgarians and they had taken even the lamps with them. And not only the lights, but also sockets. The house was a shell, next to the sea, in the aftermath of the famous sea penetration in 1993. Everything was crashed. There was no water in the pipes ever, it was a mysteriously dry house. A man from the Cuban Atomic Commission came with a tanker. We shared water with the nearest neighbors, who did not have either. We joked by saying that with the water one day we were going out fluorescent.

The Cuban people have suffered much isolation, many shortcomings, and many indignities. The Special Period was heartbreaking. The Revolution made the argument that the basic rights as the house, the classroom and the hospital were top priority. Cuba gave that to its citizens, but not in change for civil rights such as freedom, religious, political expression. A price is paid with that, clearly.

Does it seem as if they were exclusive issues for the government?

They were. This revolution was very draconian in its infancy until they abolished Santa Claus. You could not say “mister” to someone, because it meant servility. The Revolution cut root with everything, it was very radical. But the history of the Cuban Revolution has been a gradual disenchantment of the radical to the most moderate. Today it is at its most moderate time.

It was necessary for those who have had the power here, to feel that they have finally achieved sovereignty. I think the whole fight was really for that. That’s my theory.

In 2006 El País publishes an article titled “Castro’s Last Battle” about what was happening in Cuba with the Battle of Ideas. You manage to meet with Ricardo Alarcon and other very difficult to access political figures. Did they know the work you were doing? How did you reach these people?

I was interested in the situation of that time, including the Battle of Ideas and the theme of the Five. I had access to Randy, (presenter of the Round Table prime time show) and all those people who were linked to the Battle of Ideas.

I had established relationships with people like Alarcón, Alfredo Guevara and Abel Prieto in previous years. And they gave me their support to interview them here.

El País did not help me at all, they bought the rights to my article for its publication in Spanish after it came out in The New Yorker, due to the headlines they put it to the work. My displeasure was such that since that time I have insisted with my literary agent in super monitoring all rights of my texts bought to be published in Spanish. In the case of El País they put it very tendentious headlines. In The New Yorker they used more phlegmatic headlines and tones. I’m not that frontal.

They put their own headlines, subtitles, which they highlighted in black. They put their own pictures, with their own footnotes, without asking my permission.

In The New Yorker the title of the article was in line with the Battle of Ideas, because he (Fidel Castro) was engaged in that.

But the title in Spanish was something like “The decline of the dinosaur”. Can you imagine how was received here? In the case of Cuba some people uses you as a major hit.

These officers do not usually give such statements to our press. What were the reactions here when the work was published? Because despite you do not tell lies there, I do not think they have reacted very well.

I honestly do not know. I was in Lebanon when war breaks out there in the summer of 2006. If I remember correctly my article came out on a Monday and think Fidel became ill on Thursday, or something like that. I have understood that Alarcon did not like it, and commented that out there, which I never understood. I heard that, but I am not aware of it. It was an article, albeit with a critical eye, not a biased look. I’ve never felt tendentious with Cuba.

But hey, I work for a living, I have editors. And in the end I am trying to do an honest work. Finally, in answer to your question, I do not know why they have decided to talk to me in interviews the way they spoke, but they did it. Perhaps because they thought I was someone open, non-confrontational, with a fair look; sometimes critical but fair.

What has been your contact with Cuban media? Do you have visited them? What do you think of them?

I do not use to visit the official Cuban media. I have read the newspapers they produce, but do not know their newsrooms.

Do you believe that Cuba needs a new media, or they have to be reformed?

All media is reformable, everywhere in the world. I would say hat here the media need to open up and find new ways of interpreting reality. I know good journalists in Cuba, but the media do not help them much. I think that the issue that everything has to have a political interpretation is very sensible today. I think that sometimes it is just needed to say things as they are.

In Cuba there are many things that are not reflected on the news. The real newspaper of this island is ¨gossip¨. If I read The New York Times I hope to read important lapidary articles on what is happening in the White House, what is the policy towards Syria, etc. etc. I do not expect to read a front-page article on beet harvest in military terminology. That’s not journalism. I do not know what it is, but it’s something else.

It is needed to renew, refresh, and expand. You must have journalism and some newspapers at the height of the Cuban people, reflecting the concerns, the work and curiosity of them. Because if you do not have them, the Cuban people must seek alternative means to know things. That is why people have satellite dishes in their rooms to watch foreign channels. Maybe you should have a print and digital newspaper here to be called La Bola (Gossip) that is the real news transmitter in the Island. This I say it jokingly.

You have lived in capitalism and lived under socialism. Which of the two is the best?

In my soul, I slightly lean to the left. But I do not like control societies. I have an anarchic spirit; I would like to live on my own. But I think the social democratic societies are the fairest, where the state does give, cares for defenceless, the less fortunate. It does not throw them out. Institutionalized communism is very alienating, because it does not allow freedom of spirit.

And what about the Cuban socialism?

Cuban socialism is a mix of all. And it has changed.

What went wrong in the way? Because the initial dream of the Revolution was noble.

All utopias are noble. But in practice it is difficult to live the utopia every day. For 40 years the Soviets paid everything. This was never profitable. While money came you could live a utopian notion. That was used in Cuba to invest in education, medicine … But when there was no more money you were not able to continue investing. Then Chavez came and this was extended another 10 years. But of course, there is not always someone willing to invest.

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