Centroamérica / Politics

A 'Biden Administration Will Have to Be Like a Post-War Administration': Interview with Jon Lee Anderson on What US Election Bodes

Thursday, October 29, 2020
John Washington

Jon Lee Anderson has been one of the most productive and essential U.S. foreign correspondents in Latin America over the past nearly 40 years. His voice and his writing have been scintillating, aggressive, and consistent as he has questioned and profiled both leaders and laypeople. Beginning his career in South America in the late 1970s, Anderson has covered the Central American Civil Wars, wrote the acclaimed and definitive biography of Che Guevara, and has profiled Augusto Pinochet, Hugo Chávez, and Nicolas Maduro, among others. He has also reported from Africa and the Middle East. In an interview, the New Yorker staff writer talks to El Faro English about attacks against the press, rising authoritarianism, and the US-Latin American relations ahead of the November 3 elections. 

While Trump’s stance on Central America has been brutish and simple, singularly focused on stopping migration, what substantive differences does a Biden camp offer to the isthmus? In Latin America more broadly, the Trump administration has stood idly by as Bolsonaro burns down the rainforest, Bukele stormed into the National Assembly with armed soldiers, Ortega brutally cracks down against dissenters. He has also reversed progress on the rapprochement with Cuba and has traded diplomacy in Venezuela for sanctions and threats.

Biden, with decades of history working Latin American policy, including his managing of the Obama administration's response to an influx of Central American child migrants, promises a non-Trumpian approach. But would Biden really end the US bullying of the region, as he's promised? Would a modernized Monroe Doctrine, as he's called for, just soften the edges of Trumpism? Meanwhile, how do the emboldened populists of the region — still tilting towards authoritarianism — deal with four more years of Trump, or confront a more dissuasive Biden policy team? And what does the presidential choice spell for journalism in the region, especially in a time when leaders — from Trump to Bukele to Bolsonaro — flagrantly spout lies and attack the free press?

To help answer these questions and enlighten the maze of unknowns, El Faro English spoke with Jon Lee Anderson.

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 12: Biographer Jon Lee Anderson speaks on stage at The Political Scene with Jon Lee Anderson, Steve Coll, Dexter Filkins and Robin Wright, moderated by Evan Osnos at MasterCard stage at SVA Theatre during The New Yorker Festival 2014 on October 12, 2014 in New York City. Brad Barket/Getty Images for the New Yorker/AFP
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 12: Biographer Jon Lee Anderson speaks on stage at The Political Scene with Jon Lee Anderson, Steve Coll, Dexter Filkins and Robin Wright, moderated by Evan Osnos at MasterCard stage at SVA Theatre during The New Yorker Festival 2014 on October 12, 2014 in New York City. Brad Barket/Getty Images for the New Yorker/AFP

(The following interview has been edited for clarity.)

Latin America, along with the entire world, has been going through a lot this year. In the midst of the pandemic, some of the authoritarian leaders are getting a pretty clear pass from Washington. I’m thinking of Juan Orlando Hernández, Nayib Bukele, Jair Bolsonaro, among others, who are all engaging in crackdowns, peddling corruption, and attacking the press without much official pushback from the Trump administration. What does it mean — as we enter this uncertain period of if Trump is going stay in office or what would a Biden administration do — for Latin American leaders who have cozied up to Trumpism? 

I agree absolutely with your premise that El Salvador and Honduras and Mexico particularly have had a pass. To a certain degree, the region does. But you know, because of their willingness to toe the line on whatever Trump has asked for on immigration, however egregious, and through the kind of vulgar and demagogic language that Trump has used to bully people into these [immigration] arrangements. 

You know, in the case of Juan Orlando in Honduras. I mean two plus two is four. The guy clearly is compromised by the narco world, and he's clearly getting a pass. And I'm fascinated to know what the conversations are between and within the DEA, Homeland Security, CIA, FBI, on this issue. Because it does remind me of the days of the old Cold War. We didn't really have narco dictators then, I mean there were a couple — García Meza in Bolivia, and then arguably Noriega in Panama.

But especially with Noriega, it’s also pretty clear that he had been given a pass for quite a while because he was useful. And it was only when the world changed and the U.S. started taking out its own Frankenstein's and had to take on two Frankensteins within a year: one was with Noriega in Panama, and the other was the first Gulf War with Saddam. Fast forward and one has to say that pretty much every country north of Colombia, and of course there are others, Venezuela and Brazil, are also compromised, but, but all of those little countries in Central America and the Caribbean statelets have been compromised in one way or another by the drug trade. 

And drug trafficking is only part of the picture when it comes to compromises.

It's really fascinating to watch, particularly Bukele, who I would say in terms of the Trump effect, you know, along with Bolsonaro and, although he's in a different category, I have to include Lopez Obrador, are probably the leaders that most quickly learned that in the age of Trump, if you control the message, you're on top. That’s the way to go. 

In the case of Bukele and Bolsonaro, the constant use of Twitter. Bolsonaro basically got elected on Facebook Live. It sounds funny, but it's also true. And he uses Twitter constantly. He openly emulates Trump right down to “Make Brazil Great Again” and some of his policies: you put a coal guy in charge of the environment, you destroy from within, you go to war against the structures of the democratic government by appealing to a lumpen base that wants a firm hand. So in the case of Bolsonaro, it's harking back to the old days of the dictatorship, and surrounding yourself with military men, which, by the way, so did Trump, remember? And making nice with every despot there is. And, in the case of Bukele, it's a 38 year old’s version.

The millennial version. 

Bukele is also an “hijo de papa,' a daddy's boy, just like Trump is. So he's got that air of entitlement. He thinks he's cool. He's clearly narcissistic. He uses Twitter. His pandering to Trump is extraordinary. What goes on behind the scenes, we don't know. But his use of the American flag behind him in the picture in his Twitter thing, his friendship with that gross character that’s the American ambassador there now, it's all a very bit tight. 

They have the toolkit for essentially fascist leadership. I mean, I use the word very carefully, I don't use it very much. But I've come around like a few other people to believe that it's really what we're looking at here. It’s fascismo refritto, refried fascism, but it’s the same thing. 

In its essence, you know, the objectification of the other, the creation of enemies, the use of simplistic language and emotion to rally people. What scares me about Bukele is similar to what scared me about Uribe in his apogee back in his second term. That would have been around 2006.

Uribe was like a god in Colombia. His popularity ratings went way up in his second term, and he was getting 86, 92, 83, 88 percent popularity ratings. And it was scary. This was on the heels of massacres, widespread repression. Nobody would talk ill of him. And I began to have arguments with people I knew who I felt were temporizing with him. And I felt that that kind of popularity was scary. He would have these rallies in the country, and his popularity seemed to increase as a counterweight to, in part, Chavez’s declaration of socialism and a more radical turn in Venezuela. And I'm aware that Bukele’s popularity ratings are something similar. 

He's been hitting approval ratings into the 90s. 

There’s a kind of unquestioning, unthinking, they shout you down, nobody can touch or talk ill of our leader. When leaders get that popular, it's scary. You know, you're dealing with a population that's been manipulated to a large degree. What also worries me about El Salvador is the way he has used his pulpit to undermine the very fragile, in the case of El Salvador, it's a country 25 or 30 years after a brutal civil war. As we know it ended in total impunity. You've had several governments that have been, you know, horrifically corrupt. But you've also got a country where you have a lot of killers walking around who've never been punished for their really sick crimes. These weren’t people who just shot people in the head. There was not a woman who was detained in El Salvador in those days who eventually was killed, who wasn't first sexually mutilated. This was really sick stuff. This was Saw II. 

And now we're seeing the stonewalling around the investigation into the El Mozote massacre, for example

I saw that, and I feel remiss because I meant to write something last year about a trip I took up there [to El Mozote], but I didn't have the time. 

My point is, though, here's a country where the democratic institutions have been built a duras penas. It's a very small country. Its elites don't feel that they did anything wrong even if they did support horrific bloodshed. They've not lost their economic position. There's obviously new people, new actors have come in, including Bukele’s crowd. And he's been finding his way and making some symbolic nods here and there, but essentially seems to be making a very powerful place for himself. And that I find incredibly disturbing. The way he talks directly to the security forces, and they obey him and ignore the Legislative Assembly and the Supreme Court. These are really serious examples of someone who's an authoritarian, who has no democratic impulses whatsoever. And the way he and his regime have made common cause with Trumpism is highly disturbing, and bodes ill for El Salvador.

El Salvador has many problems, but the biggest problem has always been the rule of law, and it's not getting any better in El Salvador now. And I really fear for the country as a result, the repressive nature, the shouting down, the authoritarian discourse that he's imposed, and which is now being exalted by a conditioned population is worrisome to watch.  

What about journalism itself. Obviously, Trump has a mendacious nature that he’s not afraid to exhibit. And he attacks journalists. And that's something, while not new to the region, we're very much seeing under Bukele. We're seeing murders and arrests of journalists in Guatemala and Honduras. We’re seeing these incredibly worrying oppressive laws against freedom of speech in Nicaragua. How do you report the news when there is this catalytic wave of anti-press freedoms and these authoritarian-leaning leaders with such animus towards the press?

I think it's really worrying, I think Biden will change the discourse hugely, I think the influence of the United States is massive on the region, much more than people give it credit for. I think back to when Jimmy Carter introduced for the first time, to my knowledge, human rights as a foreign policy priority of the United States. That was quickly undone by Ronald Reagan, but human rights became this liberal flag that has been raised, but eventually, of course, the Salvadoran Junta, and the Salvadoran military had to be certified for their human rights. And of course, there was a lot of sleight of hand done in order to get them the guns and the money they needed. And just as it was when they decided they would have to certify the Contras, despite it being an illegal inception. They were only given supposedly humanitarian aid, rather than lethal aid, but that's when the Iran Contra thing came around. 

So, however much a red herring, there was, for the first time, the emergence of a dissuasive policy and rhetorical deterrent coming from on high in the United States for regimes that had previously been given a complete pass during the worst days of the Cold War. And that included Pinochet in Chile. I mean, remember, Pinochet did what he did with the help of Henry Kissinger. So, only five years later, along comes this peanut farmer in Carter, and he starts talking in this namby-pamby stuff about human rights. Pinochet was furious, you know, but they were at the height of your Operation Condor, they're whacking people right and left all across the hemisphere. And Washington was at odds with Pinochet, with what the previous governments had not only countenanced, but let go way too far. And the moment when it truly went too far was when they killed [Pinochet opponent Orlando] Letelier in Washington with a car bomb in 1976. 

And of course, who is doing it? CIA proxies. Guys who had formerly worked for the CIA. The guy who blew up the Cuban airliner in 77 had quit the CIA the day before. Come on. The day before it happened, they never went after him. He finally died of old age in Miami about two years ago. 

So, long way of saying, I expect something to happen. There will be a change in language. I believe that Biden and his people will draw a line around the idea of press freedom and freedom of speech, respect for journalism. I’m sure they will. Because this was exactly what Trump went to war with from day one. 

And the war between Fox and the rest of us over all this time, these are really serious issues. And it came awfully close to the precipice. And so we're seeing the effects in our own country. And you know what's happening further south. So I think we're in a good position to see some of that language go away. And if they're not saying it in Washington anymore, it'll be much more difficult for them to say it openly elsewhere. But you know, you do have a problem. You've got even AMLO with his ridiculous mañaneras, and he goes ragging on about the press, and it's no longer funny, because he's in office, you know, and people get killed all the time.

And not really addressing the ongoing violence or touching on cartels taking over parts of the country.

I know. It’s incredible. 

So what happens either if Trump is out of office, and these authoritarian-leaning leaders don’t have that emboldening, enabling character in the White House, and suddenly have to contend with with the Biden administration. Or what happens if Trump wins again and they see Trumpism as a model of success? Does Juan Orlando think, Okay, I'm not going to be prosecuted. And Bukele thinks, Okay, my strategy is working, and I'm gonna double down and push further?

Well, what you just described in the if Trump wins scenario is exactly the way I see it as well. You know, we've seen the emergence of clownish clones like Bolsonaro, and more clever, younger, inspired by and riffing with Trump in Bukele. I think we'll see more of that if Trump wins. I think we're gonna see a lot worse in the hemisphere. God forbid. And I think we’ll probably see regional conflict. Whatever the rights or wrongs of Venezuela, and there's plenty wrong, but nonetheless, since day one, January 20, 2017, Trump has not ever attempted any diplomacy. None. We're reading in the paper today that he sent down that that character with some title to talk with Maduro.

Richard Grenell sneaking to Venezuela to try to convince Maduro to step down.

I think they're looking for any diplomatic win they could after spending three years basically aiding and abetting any crazy-ass, harebrained, mercenary, coup d'etat scheme they could. And talk about fake news, they actually officially insist on calling the Maduro regime 'the former regime.” I mean, what? 

Or like what do they call Guaidó?

The president. [Laughing.] 

“Acting” President.

He’s the president and Maduro is the former president, el usurpador. For the Americans to insist on that kind of language, it’s just crazy town. It's like semantic war at its most ridiculous. So I think that, God forbid it happens [Trump wins reelection] because I really do think we're all in for it and I don't know if we would have a country at the end of it. But right now it looks as though he's going down, but he can do a lot of damage before he goes, unfortunately. And there's going to be huge repair work to do. 

And so we're going to the other scenario that Biden wins, I've already picked up from people who are likely going to be part of his team, that there's no love lost there with Bukele. They're looking askance at him. And he's really blowing it. And people are worried about him. He’s clearly authoritarian. And he's gonna have a hard road to hoe with the new administration. Now, I don't think that you're looking at a vindictive administration. 

In a way the Biden administration will have to be like a post-war administration in which it tries to set this ship that was sinking back up. It's going to have to jettison cargo, it's going to be overburdened with emergency measures, but mostly at righting a ship that was keeling over and sinking. And some of these people are going to slip through the cracks. Just like Truman had to look the other way at some of the fascists who changed their allegiances or their neutrality and declared war on Germany the day before Berlin fell. They had to kind of tragar el sapo. Because it was the Cold War and they needed allies. So Bukele might slip in there, but he's a pretty sleazy character. And I think I can see him kind of sticking in people's craw.

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