Cambio Magazine published a short interview today with US author John Lee Anderson. He is a regular columnist for The New Yorker and has covered wars all over the world, including Afghanistan and Iraq. He is perhaps best known for his acclaimed biography of Che Guevara, though I also recommend Guerrillas: Journeys in the Insurgent World.
His thoughts are timely with a controversial “march against the FARC” coming up next week. Below, a translation of the interview:
CAMBIO: You are writing about Chavez. Do you see him as similar to Che [Guevara]?
JON LEE ANDERSON: Since his death, Che has become a sort of martyr, a universal icon and a symbol of revolution. He represents mythological values. Chavez on the other hand, considers himself a modern revolutionary with syncretistic politics combining socialism with [Simon] Bolivar’s thoughts. He sees Fidel Castro, Che’s revolutionary companion, as his spiritual father. Following this logic, Chavez presents himself as Fidel’s revolutionary successor.
But Chavez wasn’t a guerrilla.
It’s true that he didn’t participate in a revolution to overthrow a dictator, but he did start an attempted coup d’etat to overthrow a president, which makes him less romantic.
What do you think of Chavez’s statements that the Farc are not terrorists and that their project is respectable?
Chavez himself has recognized his affinity with the FARC for their Bolivarian spirit, but we all know that president Chavez doesn’t choose his words very carefully. But his position can be interpreted in two ways: the way they have been interpreted in Colombia, that he revealed his true feelings and support for the FARC, or another way is to say that what he is saying is that even if they are terrorists, if the FARC wants to speak about peace, the state will have to reach agreements with them.
Such as the case of the IRA…
Yes, all states negotiate with terrorists and one such case is Ireland who negotiated with the men who were detonating bombs and later released them from jail. The Colombian state will have to admit to things it has done in this war that isn’t clean, but very dirty.
Are you referring to the extermination of the UP [Patriotic Union party] and the ties between state agents and the paramilitaries?
Yes, the state annihilated their own citizens and those responsible are not in jail. The paramilitaries are criminals in cahoots with the state, but hidden in the shadows. Only when the state can properly guarantee the rule of law can those in the jungle give up their weapons.
Are you justifying the guerrilla’s distrust of negotiating?
As long as there is not a completely legitimate state, there will be people who don’t feel represented by that state. The does not legitimize the FARC, but you can’t reduce this conflict to good guys and bad guys because the guerrilla live a parallel reality. In the jungle people do what they have to do to survive. You could be a totally pure Maoist if you have someone funding your lifestyle. But when that money runs out you do whatever it takes to eat. The challenge of the state is to recognize that reality and create space for those in arms to see beyond the jungle, even if they are just seen as drug-traffickers at this point.
All guerrilla movements need popular support to survive and the FARC have lost it. But they are still there. What do think about that?
The notion of popular support is relative. I remember a Nicaraguan guerrilla who told me that they made the youngest soldiers, 14 and 15 years old, kill the enemy, because they still weren’t fully aware of what they were doing and they were easier to control. He also said that there were two ways of fighting a war, the good way or the bad way, but they both work. It’s a fallacy that a guerrilla movement can only survive with popular support, it can also do it through a regime of terror. I don’t see Colombia differently than Afghanistan; over there the Taliban recruits young fighters, the same as here.
Are public marches, such as the one planned for Macrh 4th, any use?
I can’t speak about something that hasn’t happened, but in Spain the massive marches against ETA, even though they signed temporary cease-fires, have not caused them to respond as the people wanted.
What do you think about the process with the paramilitaries?
I don’t know a lot about that process and I don’t know if they will draw a line to keep it from touching the deepest fibers of society such as they did in Spain following their civil war. They are just now digging up their dead and reconstructing their historical memory.
No matter how painful it is, do you believe that truth is imperative?
Yes. For example, countries that lived through wars such as Guatemala and El Salvador did not face the truth and are today the most violent on the continent. The strong link between impunity and corruption leaves wounds that are hard to close. In Argentina they passed a statute of limitations law, yet still today they are trying 80 year old men who committed crimes during the military dictatorship.