January 7, 2015
Guest: Ernesto LondoÃ±o
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Like many people today, I awoke to the news that 12 people, including two police officers, were shot to death in Paris at a satirical newspaper. It's a sad day for free speech. It's just a sad day. We send our condolences to the families, colleagues and friends of the victims.Now on to today's interview. In mid-December, when President Obama announced that he would begin normalizing relations in Cuba, The New York Times was wrapping up a series of editorials that'd been making the case for opening relations with Cuba. So readers wondered, did the newspaper influence the Obama administration's decision or its timing? Or had the Obama administration quietly encouraged The New York Times to publish the editorials? Or was the timing a remarkable coincidence? Here to answer those questions and to discuss the editorials and what this new relationship might mean for Cuba and the U.S. is the author of those editorials, Ernesto Londono. He joined the Times' editorial board in September after serving as Pentagon correspondent and foreign correspondent for the Washington Post. Londono grew up in Columbia. Our interview was recorded yesterday.
GROSS: Ernesto Londono, welcome to FRESH AIR.
ERNESTO LONDONO: Terry, thanks for having me.
GROSS: So was it a coincidence that your editorials coincided with President Obama's decision to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba?
LONDONO: There's been no shortage of speculation and conspiracy theories about the timing of these editorials. And if you look at, you know, how intensely we went after the subject and the timing of the announcement last month, it's certainly a valid question. We began this series, you know, largely by accident. It wasn't designed as a series from the start. Last fall, soon after I joined the paper, the subject of Cuba came up during one of our board meetings. And, you know, at the time I realized that we hadn't really written about Cuba policy in years in any meaningful way.And in the spring, there's going to be a regional summit in Panama. Where, for the first time really since the Fidel Castro came to power, there was an expectation that the Cuban president and the American president were going to be at the same table at a diplomatic forum. So this was really forcing some awkward questions for the Obama administration about how to handle this meeting. It was the first time when Latin American countries insisted that the United States had to agree to let Cuba tend this meeting. So the impetus for this first editorial that we write is to make a loud call about just how retrograde and ineffective U.S.-Cuba policy appeared to us at the time. And when we thought about this issue, we felt it was pretty much a backwater policy issue in a pretty crowded agenda. We had no real reasonable expectation that this was something that was going to emerge as a priority in the political landscape, but we figured it was worthwhile to give it a shot.
GROSS: You mentioned conspiracy theories (laughter) revolving on why the Times wrote this editorial at the time that coincided with a change in the Obama administration's Cuba policy. What's one of the craziest conspiracy theories you've heard about your motivation?
LONDONO: I would say the craziest conspiracy theory I heard was a reader wrote that perhaps because I went to college in Miami, I may have dated a Cuban who broke my heart and then had been obsessed through the years with the subject of Cuba and had for that reason embarked on this crusade. A more - a more perhaps, you know, reasonable conspiracy theory was that the Obama administration reached out to us before any of this was public and gave us a roadmap of what they were doing behind the scenes in hopes that we would give them a little bit of cover and...
GROSS: Like a trial balloon, like you float those ideas and see what kind of reaction you guys get before I do it?
LONDONO: Right, you know, and, I mean, I think on the past I think it's reasonable to say government has used the media to that effect. And journalists, you know, sometimes within reason are willing to play that game if in the process of doing so they're also doing journalism they find worthwhile. However, in this case, there was really no such collusion or no formal cooperation or collaboration in what they were doing and what we were doing.
GROSS: If you don't mind me saying, I love the theory about the girlfriend who broke your heart (laughter).
LONDONO: I can tell you it's not true.
GROSS: Yeah, so you had no idea that there were secret negotiations between the Obama administration, the Castro regime and the Pope?
LONDONO: No. I would say halfway through the series, you know, as we start looking at specific components of this very complicated, bilateral relationship, you know, in particular at the time, there was an American government subcontractor who had been in Cuban prison for five years. And...
GROSS: This is Alan Gross that you're talking about?
LONDONO: Correct, Alan Gross who had been working for USAID when he got arrested in Cuba in 2009. And to all observers of U.S.-Cuba policy on all sides of the political spectrum, it was pretty clear that unless you found a way to remove Alan Gross from the equation, there was really no moving forward. So there was a pretty interesting debate regarding what the administration ought to do about Alan Gross. The administration had locked itself into a corner on the Alan Gross front. They had said through the years that they were unwilling to swap him for Cuban spies that were in American prison, which was what the Cuban government wanted.As we at the editorial board took a pretty sweeping look at the trajectory of these two cases, after much debate and deliberation and conversations and reading through legal documents and reading through the history of this, it struck us that it actually made sense to do a swap, that a swap would be a reasonable thing to do, on humanitarian grounds, because Mr. Gross is elderly. And he was - when he was in prison, he was reported to be in very poor health. And there were also pretty significant problems with the way the Cuban agents were prosecuted in the United States.And we felt that it was reasonable to find a way to remove this irritant from the equation and that it was reasonable for, you know, all these four men to return home and that a swap, at the end of the day, wouldn't be the end of the world. And it would pave the way for a very different relationship, the type of engagement that the administration now aspires to achieve in the future. But, you know, it was impossible as long as these individuals remained locked up.
GROSS: So did President Obama do the same swap that you had recommended, the three Cuban spies held in American prison for Alan Gross, who was being held in a Cuban prison?
LONDONO: With a very interesting twist. At the 11th hour when this deal is announced, we learn that the Cubans have had a Cuban citizen in custody for nearly 15 years, someone who the Obama administration says had been a very important intelligence asset for the CIA over the years, before he was arrested obviously. So the Obama administration says, you know, this is not really a swap between Alan Gross and the three spies. We're not swapping a civilian contractor for three intelligence agents. We're actually doing a spy-for-three-spies deal, and the Cubans are releasing Alan Gross as a humanitarian gesture. So that was the way they were able to bill this. I think to anybody looking at it objectively, you know, this was a deal - this was a swap between Alan Gross and three Cuban spies that happened to include somebody who's a very enigmatic figure that we know very little about.
GROSS: Alan Gross had told his family that this was going to be his last year. He said this last year, that this coming year would be his last year as a prisoner. And the implication was if he didn't get released during the next year, he was going to kill himself because he was in such, I guess, pain and failing health. So do you think that that was part of the impetus for moving now? Like, what would it have meant if Alan Gross had died in a Cuban prison?
LONDONO: Yeah, I think that was of huge concern to both governments, not just the Americans but the Cuban government as well. The Cuban government, you know, in recent years, has signaled in increasingly public terms that it was very interested in a different relationship with the United States. And it was very interested in engagement, a policy of engagement. But you have Alan Gross, who is stuck in jail, and his hips are failing. His teeth are falling out. He's become so desperate and so angry at the government that he's unwilling to even meet with U.S. diplomats for a period of time.He felt that his government had abandoned him. He felt that they weren't really doing as much as they could to get him out of a predicament, even though he was arrested and got into this situation while he was doing government business, while he was on a U.S.-paid and U.S. government-sanctioned mission in 2009. If Alan Gross had truly become desperate and had done something reckless - had, you know, attacked the staff at the prison or somehow found a way to commit suicide... If Alan Gross dies in prison, I think it's reasonable to say that there really wouldn't have been any political space to move forward on any sort of deal. It would have been unthinkable to think about restoring diplomatic relations, having high-level talks with the Cubans. The kind of things that are now on the table, I think would have been impossible if Alan Gross had died. And people in both governments were watching him very, very closely and had grown very, very concerned because they saw him as the ticking bomb.
GROSS: So what was your reaction when President Obama announced that he was going to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba?
LONDONO: We were floored, quite frankly. When we heard that Alan Gross had been released and we saw signs that this was going to move forward in a pretty meaningful way and that the administration was using, in its announcement, language that was, you know - that really echoed a lot of the points we made in our editorial series, my - one of my bosses, Terry Tang who's a deputy editorial page editor, came into my office. And we both looked at each other, and we hugged 'cause we were so surprised and excited. And we felt that, in a way, this announcement was of indication of some of the arguments we had made.
GROSS: Do you think that your editorials had any impact on the Obama administration's decision or on its timing?
LONDONO: It's hard to tell. I think you'd have to ask them. I've spoken to members of Congress who've been in touch with members of the administration and who've asked this question of them. I think the administration found that we gave them a significant amount of political cover. In many ways, we were making an argument that they agreed with. And we were sort of presenting the very complicated and emotional issue of Cuba policy in a pretty dispassionate way and in a way that sort of, you know, presented things in historical context, was forward-looking about opportunities and gave people a nuanced understanding of what the past had looked like, why the policy had failed and what kind of future we could aspire to if this relationship were managed carefully. So I think we did give them important political cover to do what they did.And I think beyond that, I think the editorials, particularly in Cuba and throughout Latin America, really raised expectations about something big happening. You had, you know, diplomats throughout the hemisphere increasingly asking their American counterparts about Cuba policy, using the editorials and some of the issues that we wrote about to sort of nudge them in ways that they've been nudging them for years but sort of turning up the volume and saying, listen, you know, it's long overdue. When are you going to do this? How much longer are you going to wait? So I think, you know, by setting up expectations and by putting a lot of pressure on the administration, I think we made this - we may have made this a little easier for them to execute.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ernesto Londono. He's an editorial writer for The New York Times. And he wrote the series of editorials for The New York Times that suggested it was time for the Obama administration to recognize Cuba and restore diplomatic relations. And as that series was underway, the Obama administration did just that. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Ernesto Londono. He's an editorial writer for The New York Times. He wrote the series of editorials suggesting that it was time for the Obama administration to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba. And as that series of editorials was nearing its end, the Obama administration did just that and restored diplomatic relations with Cuba.
Now, it's interesting that Fidel Castro became a megaphone for your editorials in a way that I'm not sure he was intending to. Why don't you explain how he quoted expansively from your series?
LONDONO: Sure. So the editorial - the first editorial we published, we decided that we wanted to run a Spanish-language version online. At the time, our aspiration was to reach readers in Latin America 'cause we felt that this was - this would be of interest to them. And we wanted to engage a broader audience in this debate. Really strikingly, a couple of days after the editorial runs, somebody alerts me to the fact that Granma, the Communist Party newspaper in Cuba, has published, very prominently, a column under the byline of Fidel Castro which appears to endorse, and then pretty much quotes, the bulk of the editorial, you know, paragraph by paragraph, at times making some small observations.But what was really striking about him doing that was that on the one hand, the Cuban government, which historically has controlled the media very, very tightly, by publishing this, allowed some pretty critical things to be shared with a wide audience. I think we used the term authoritarian. We used the term police state. We made a reference to a very controversial case of an activist who died under mysterious circumstances. So on the one hand, it was remarkable that in giving this editorial such a wide audience and allowing, you know, state radio hosts to read it on the air, they were also, you know, giving Cuban readers - ordinary Cuban readers - access to sensitive information that, in the past, has not been readily available to them.On the other hand, it was very interesting to people that Fidel Castro appeared to be signaling his endorsement of a thaw with the United States. You know, throughout history, some people who are observers of Cuba policy have seen his brother, Raul, who is now the president, as the more progressive of the two, as the leader who is more interested in making concessions and taking steps to normalize relations with the United States. And they see Fidel and his older generation, older circle of close advisers, as having been somewhat reluctant to take these steps. So for people who read the Cuba - the Cuba tea leaves, which is always a really complex exercise, this was of great significance and interest.
GROSS: And do you think that also sent a message to the Obama administration?
LONDONO: I know they were fascinated by the fact that this happened. You know, but as with many things regarding Cuba, you can - you know, very smart people can draw very different conclusions from things. But I think they - I think they were startled by the fact that the Cuban government took this step. Diplomats in Havana that day collected copies of that editorial 'cause many of them saw it as a historical turning point.
GROSS: Now, your editorials were also circulated - in - why that information is circulated in Cuba - most Cubans don't have access to the Internet because the government doesn't want them to. There isn't a lot of freedom of speech. So what was, like, the alternate way that - besides through Fidel Castro's column - that your columns got circulated?
LONDONO: Right. So the state media republished verbatim a handful of our editorials, the ones, I think, that in their judgment were most favorable to them in and, you know, not terribly critical of the Cuban government. However, much of what we wrote was very critical of the Cuban government. And, you know, in some of the editorials, there were either passing references to them or they went completely ignored. However, there are very interesting mechanisms now for information flow in Cuba. There's this fascinating system that has become hugely popular called el paquete, or the package. And the way that works is somebody comes around to your house every week with a hard drive packed with information, everything from the latest season of "Homeland" to PDFs of popular websites.It's usually a huge menu when it gets updated constantly based on what Cubans are interested in. And when I was there a few weeks ago, it was brought to my attention that the Spanish versions of the editorials had become a prized item on this menu. So people, you know, were at liberty to read these, you know, in their own homes, on their own laptops, even without being online. And then, you know, once you sort of get a bundle of information, the way it works there is you just share what you got with your neighbors, your relatives. You use flash drives to sort of pass things through. And the editorials, I was told, had become very - of great interest and had been passed along that way throughout the country.
GROSS: Is that legal? Or is that all black market?
LONDONO: It's all black market. So far, as far as I know, the Cuban government has not taken any steps to stop it or control it. It's widely, you know, known about. It happens pretty openly. People post signs if they are the purveyors of those data packages. But so far, I don't think they've really been used to disseminate really controversial content. It's not like, you know - it's not like a call to arms or, you know, a lot of information that is very critical to the Cuban government so much. The bulk of it is just entertainment. And I think so far, the Cuban government has chosen to not get in the way.
GROSS: Ernesto Londono will be back in the second half of the show. He wrote the series of New York Times editorials that began in October and ended in December making the case that it was time to normalize relations with Cuba. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Ernesto Londono. He wrote the series of New York Times editorials making the case that it was time for the U.S. to reestablish formal diplomatic relations with Cuba and end the embargo. The series began in October, and as the series was wrapping up in December, President Obama announced that he was going to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba. The decision followed secret talks between American officials, Cuban officials and the Pope. Londono joined the editorial board of the times in September after having worked at The Washington Post as a Pentagon correspondent and foreign correspondent.
So let's talk about what this restoration of diplomatic relations actually means. Is there - is there an easy way to sum up what it is that President Obama is capable of doing through executive action without going to Congress?
LONDONO: The thrust of the embargo was codified in law. The bulk of it is a 1996 law that's called the Helms-Burton Act. And it was passed shortly after the Cuban government shut down two American civilian planes under disputed circumstances. And that sort of, you know, caused an uproar. So in order to fully restore commercial relations, you know, where we can trade freely, where airlines can travel and have routes to each other's airports freely, sort of the type of full-spectrum, squeaky clean bilateral relations would require an act of Congress. And that's not eminent.
So it will take a very long time to peel this back in a meaningful way. And even the chunk of it that can be done under presidential prerogative is really, really complicated. Lawyers right now from the White House, from the Treasury Department, from the Commerce Department, have spent months looking at these different things and trying to examine how far back they can pull this without running into what is codified in law. And that's a really, really intricate process and a process that we might see debated in the months ahead and even potentially litigated.
GROSS: The 1996 bill that you mentioned, the Helms-Burton Act that President Clinton signed, you describe that as having spelled out a strategy to overthrow the government in Havana. And the bill describes itself as helping to, quote, "assist the Cuban people in regaining their freedom." Was this a regime change bill?
LONDONO: It was. I think any reasonable reading of the full bill makes clear that our purpose was to facilitate Cuban Democrats to overthrow their government and to have free elections and a new system of government. So I think our policy, as a legislative matter since 1996, has been for the United States to spend money and take steps to empower ordinary Cubans who wanted a democratic system to replace the government they had, which on principle is something that we might back. We definitely support Cuban Democrats and Cubans who want greater freedoms.
However, if you take a long view with this and you see how this money was spent and how these efforts played out in Cuba, you see a failed policy. You see a policy where, in many cases, as we were trying to do something that was noble, we not only accomplished very little in the way of empowering the people we were trying to empower, but we gave the Cuban government a really powerful tool. We gave them the authority to say, we are a nation under siege. Our neighbor to the north, with its huge military might and its endless resources, is working nonstop to destabilize and overthrow us. So we must close ranks. And we must stifle dissent. And we must limit freedom of expression because we are living under extraordinary circumstances.
Our argument is that as you are able to make it harder for the Cubans to make that argument, to make it harder for the Cuban government to say, we have to take these extraordinary measures, and we have to control your lives so rigidly as an existential matter because we are on the brink, because we are always under threat by the Americans... I think as the Cuban government no longer is able to make that case in a credible way, its own shortcomings are going to come into clearer focus. And I think ordinary Cubans are going to be more inclined and more empowered to ask tough questions of their government and to start having a more meaningful conversation about the way they want to be governed.
GROSS: But, you know, it's a little bit confusing because if the president is restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba but this 1996 regime change law is still on the books, those two things are in conflict.
LONDONO: Sure, they are. But I think it's a huge step for the administration who has the White House right now to say, we want a change in tone. We want a change in how we interact. We want to start rebuilding trust. We want to bolster the areas of cooperation where, in the past, we've been able to work together. And once we have a more elevated relationship, a more high-level dialogue, we want to talk to you about different things. And we want to talk to you about a broader spectrum of things.
But yes, there surely remains a disconnect between what our legislative policy is as a nation and what the White House is saying. But I think the White House taking the step, at the very, very least, it opens up this debate in a broader and more meaningful way for lawmakers to assess the merits of whether keeping this law is in the best interest of Cubans and is in the best interest of their constituents.
GROSS: So you were in Cuba in late November, early December, reporting for your series of editorials on U.S.-Cuba relations. And who were some of the people you met with when you were there? Like, what kinds of people did you seek out in order to better understand what day-to-day life was like there?
LONDONO: I met with Cuban government officials. I met with dissidents. I met with government journalists. I met with independent bloggers. I met with gays and lesbians. And then I also made an effort to just talk to random people on the street. While I was in Cuba, there was a spotlight on me.
Cubans were really interested in The New York Times editorial series and had all sorts of ideas on conspiracies and opinions about why we were doing this. So a lot of the conversations I had felt somewhat stiff and fairly scripted 'cause people were on alert that they were speaking to me. Some of the more revealing conversations I had were conversations just sort of in back alleys and on the street. And I think those gave me some of the more interesting glimmers into pretty significant changes that have happened on the island since I last visited a decade ago.
GROSS: Give me an example.
LONDONO: One example I found really striking was, for the longest time, you had these neighborhood committees that were the neighborhood committees that were in charge of defending the revolution. And these were, essentially, small groups that had a leader. And that leader was in charge of understanding the needs and grievances of his neighbors and the population, but also served as a bit of a watchdog to see whether anybody in his neighborhood had contrarian views, was a dissident, was somebody who was going to make trouble. And it was very much sort of the granular architecture of the police state. This was how it functioned and how, you know, the government remained in control.
And these groups have become a relic. I saw signs for them and I asked people about them. And I was told that only, you know, maybe a handful of really old people bothered to show up at these meetings anymore. It's not something that people feel compelled to attend. Another thing I found really interesting is young people are no longer, in large numbers, signing up to become formal, or so-called militant, members of the Communist Party.
In the past, it was very important to become a member of the Communist Party because this gave you, perhaps, better opportunities and better jobs and things along those lines. More and more people I talked to, particularly young Cubans, really didn't see that as a vehicle anymore to get ahead and to have a brighter future. And I found that pretty interesting. I found it interesting that so many people seemed to be disenchanted and disinterested in politics.
GROSS: The gay rights issue is so interesting in Cuba. In the '60s and '70s, people who were known to be gay were put in labor camps. And now, like, one of the strongest gay rights activists in Cuba is the daughter of Raul Castro. And she's not gay herself, but she is a member of the National Assembly. What's the status of gay rights in Cuba now?
LONDONO: This has been a really fascinating evolution because over the last decade, in large part, because Mariela Castro, Raul's daughter, took this upon herself. There has been, really, a seismic change in societal attitudes about gay people. You know, for example, the government currently supports and pays for hormone replacement therapy and surgery for transgender Cubans. A decade ago, the gay nightlife was very much underground and underground parties were often raided by police and this was something that happened really sort of in the fringes of society. And people were very afraid of it.
These days, there is any number of gay bars and gay establishments on the island and, you know, cabarets and drag shows. There's been a really fascinating evolution and it's happened at the societal level, but it's also happened within the political system. Mariela, who's a member of the equivalent of the parliament, has been very outspoken and very forceful in nudging her colleagues toward greater reforms, codifying equality under the law, for example, and the labor code. And, to a large extent, she's been successful. However, the aspiration of full equality - for example, marriage - remains elusive.
GROSS: Did any dissidents say to you you're wrong, we shouldn't - the U.S. should not be opening relations with Cuba, it's going to be a bad thing for freedom in Cuba?
LONDONO: Some of the people I spoke to said that they were opposed to the Obama administration lifting the embargo, or we're taking bold steps without obtaining very significant concessions from the Cuban government. However, in the spectrum of dissidents, I think there's huge diversity.
Some people feel that, as a matter of national sovereignty, the embargo is a wrongheaded policy and should be lifted regardless of what the Cuban government does. And other people do see it as a bit of a carrot-and-stick tool that the United States should use in a more gradual way to try to get concessions out of the Cuban government.
GROSS: So several Cuban dissidents were recently arrested, and this was after President Obama said he wanted to open relations with Cuba. One of those dissidents was a Cuban-American artist, who divides her time between both countries, and went to Cuba to kind of provide an open mic forum for Cubans to express their thoughts about, you know, what the future of the country should be. She was detained. Several other dissidents were arrested. Did you meet any of the people who were recently arrested?
LONDONO: Yes, I met with a handful of the people who were recently detained. Yoani Sanchez, the popular blogger, was held under house arrest. Her husband, who is her colleague at the newspaper they run, was also detained.
GROSS: What did it say to you that they were detained? I mean, that's - that's definitely a negative on the side of how Cuba is responding to the restoration of relations with the U.S.
LONDONO: I thought that the experiment that Tonia Bruguera, the Cuban-American artist, sought to pull off was fascinating. She was asking people to convene at the revolutionary square, which is an iconic place in Havana, and to take to a microphone to outline their vision for the future. So I thought the mere fact that she called for that and that she presented that as an idea and as something that Cubans should be doing in this era was very significant to me. And Cuban media, to some extent, covered the fact that there was this woman on the ground who had this really interesting, bold experiment.
So the fact that it didn't play out was not terribly surprising because, in the past, the Cuban government has been really, really careful about what it authorizes and what it doesn't. And this could have easily turned into a very big, loud, high-profile meeting of dissidents. And, you know, I think they're terrified of that. However, you know, I think, at the end of the day, the mere fact that there was sort of a debate about whether they should - there should be a forum and an opportunity to express freely what you think the future ought to look like is a healthy step in the right direction. And I hope something that we will see more Cubans embrace as an idea.
GROSS: You mentioned that there are Cuban bloggers at the same time it seems like most people don't have Internet access. So what does it mean to be a blogger in Cuba and how much freedom do they have?
LONDONO: So Internet access is very, very limited in Cuba. And the vast majority of people who have Internet access have Internet access through state jobs. What we've seen over the past few years is a really interesting community of people who work at ministries or work in sort of state offices or state-sanctioned projects, who have access to the Internet, starting blogs and being increasingly provocative in the things they write about, increasingly critical, for example, of the bureaucracy of the failings of the Cuban state.
So there seem to be very clear red lines. Nobody on these blogs that is using government Internet is, for example, challenging the legitimacy of Raul Castro or Fidel Castro, and they're not questioning the viability of Cuban socialism. But they are taking some pretty strong shots at the corruption in the bureaucracy of the salaries, the scarcity of food, the gap between what Cubans earn in their official jobs and how much money it costs just to get by in Cuba. And I think that has sparked a really interesting civil society community.
And I think if we were to find a way to expand Internet access on the island - which Raul Castro, or the Cuban government, has pledged to do and the Obama administration is interested in facilitating - I think this discussions and these debates could reach a wider audience. I think that'd be very healthy.
GROSS: My guest is Ernesto Londono. He wrote the series of New York Times editorials that advocated for normalizing relations with Cuba. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest Ernesto Londono wrote the series of New York Times editorials that began in October and concluded in December, making the case that it was time to normalize relations with Cuba.
I'm going to change the subject for a moment. You were friends with a reporter named Dominic Di-Natale, a British TV reporter who worked for Fox News. And he killed himself in December. He was having terrible, persistent headaches. He was having seizures. You write that those seizures might have been a result of concussions that he got during the war in Afghanistan. And it seems like his suicide had a pretty profound effect on you. And I'm just wondering, as one of the reporters who's done time in war zones, now that you're out of that time, now that that's behind you, are you surprised by the effects it's had on your life in ways that you were unprepared for?
LONDONO: I think most of us in that tribe of war correspondents who have spent many years going from one war zone to another have spent the past few years taking stock of how that experience has shaped us and, to some degree, broken us a bit. And it's - Dominic's death I think was a reminder for all of us of how strong and invincible we felt when we were doing this kind of work and for many of us, how hard it's been to come back and to rebuild lives that are very different after an experience that, for many of us, was very challenging, traumatizing, physically exhausting, emotionally devastating. And I think, to varying degrees, we all have some scars.
GROSS: Why is it that a war reporter would feel invincible while in the war zone and then feel like they're falling apart after getting to safety?
LONDONO: I think when you're doing this kind of work, your body switches into a state of sort of being adrenaline-fueled. The landscape is so confusing. The challenges are so significant. The dangers are so real that the only way to really operate in this environment is to be very gung-ho and very focused. And your body operates differently. Your mind operates differently. And I think, for many of us, you know, over the years in Iraq and Afghanistan, there was this sense of invincibility. There was the sense that we knew enough and that we were taking enough precautions to beat the odds. And, to varying degrees, I think many of us did manage those risks carefully and thoughtfully.
I think what we didn't really think about at the time or really paying - paid attention to was what that experience was going to look like years down the road, whether we were going to start struggling with substance abuse, whether we were going to have nightmares, whether we were going to feel withdrawn once we were back in the United States. And I think many of us wrestled with some of those things. And like Dominic, I think many of us never really wanted to draw attention to the fact that we were still somewhat haunted and still a little bit broken from those experiences because it was seen as something that could be career-damaging.
GROSS: You mean if you betrayed your own vulnerabilities, it could be career-damaging?
LONDONO: Right, I think for many reporters who came home, you know, and still aspired to work overseas or still aspired to have high-profile jobs, showing that you were depressed, that you had difficulty focusing, that you were feeling withdrawn, you really weren't where you needed to be, felt really dicey. It felt, like, perhaps bosses would start looking at you like damaged goods. You know, to what extent do you seek help? To what extent do you go out of your way to make it clear to others that you're struggling?
In Dominic's case, when I read his suicide letter, it was so devastating to me to learn just how much he had been struggling because we kept in fairly regular touch. And I really - you know, I might've had a limited window into some of his struggles, but certainly not the full spectrum. And he always seemed like such a strong and resilient person that it was a bit of a rude awakening to get a glimpse of what was really happening behind the scenes.
GROSS: Well, Ernesto Londono, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
LONDONO: It's been a pleasure.
GROSS: Ernesto Londono wrote the series of New York Times editorials that began in October and ended in December, making the case that it was time to normalize relations with Cuba. Coming up, TV critic David Bianculli reviews the season premiere of the Showtime comedy series "Episodes." This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. This is a busy weekend for cable TV, with several series returning with new episodes to start the year. Our TV critic, David Bianculli, has opted to focus on one in particular, a show he feels deserves more attention than it's gotten to date. It's the comedy series on Showtime called "Episodes."
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: After the holidays, it didn't take any time at all for TV to get back into the swing of things, at least on Sunday nights. Last Sunday, both "The Good Wife" on CBS and "Downton Abbey" on PBS returned with strong, new episodes to start the new year, and ABC premiered an odd, little musical comedy series called "Galavant." All those shows are back with fresh episodes this Sunday, and this weekend, they're joined by a handful of returning cable series as well. "Girls" is back on HBO, picking up where it left off last season, with Lena Dunham's Hannah accepted to the Iowa Writers Workshop. And both "House Of Lies" and "Shameless" are back, starting new seasons on Showtime, with their lead characters working their way back from, respectively, prison and near-death. All of these shows, I watch and enjoy on a regular basis.
But this year, as it begins season four, I'd like to focus on "Episodes," a series that's quietly become one of the best current comedies on television. "Episodes" stars Tamsin Greig and Stephen Mangan, as Beverly and Sean, a happily married British couple who co-wrote a hit TV series in England. Hollywood came calling and seduced them with prospects of fame, money and the chance to adapt their highly acclaimed comedy for an American audience. In England, their comedy was about an elderly history teacher whose lectures and passion inspired his students. But by the time American network TV executives were through improving it, the series was a broad comedy about a coach of a high school hockey team. The series was renamed Pucks, and its star, instead of a stuffy-but-lovable old man, was Matt LeBlanc.
Matt LeBlanc plays an exaggerated version of himself in "Episodes," like Larry David does in "Curb Your Enthusiasm," and this TV Matt isn't any more flattering a character than the TV Larry. This Matt is a self-centered womanizer who uses his celebrity and money from "Friends" to coast through life and his new sitcom. In previous seasons, the relationship between Matt and his British TV writers has been laughably complicated. Sean admires Matt's wealth, hedonism and carefree attitude, while Beverly vehemently dislikes Matt and everything he represents. But eventually, she ends up sleeping with him, separating from Sean and having a very tough time of it in Hollywood.
Last season, Sean and Beverly worked their way through their problems and got back together, just in time to flee Hollywood and return to London quite happily after their American sitcom Pucks was canceled. But just when they thought they were out, Hollywood pulls them back in with a reprieve for Pucks, an unexpected order for new episodes, that neither the writers nor the star want anything to do with, but are contractually obligated to deliver. This puts the three main characters on the same side for once, which somehow makes their interactions even funnier.
In Sunday's season premiere of "Episodes," Matt LeBlanc attends the funeral of his longtime accountant, only to learn that the man committed suicide after embezzling the accounts of his clients. Matt goes straight to Sean and Beverly for sympathy which he receives, but only up to a point.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "EPISODES")
MATT LEBLANC: (As himself) I don't deserve this. I'm a good person.
TAMSIN GREIG: (As Beverly Lincoln) I don't know that it's about good or bad, per se.
LEBLANC: (As himself) Go along thinking everything's great. I mean, not the stupid show.
GREIG: (As Beverly Lincoln) Sure.
STEPHEN MANGAN: (As Sean Lincoln) Right.
LEBLANC: (As himself) You wake up one day and half your money's gone, just, just gone.
MANGAN: (As Sean Lincoln) Wait, I'm sorry, say what?
LEBLANC: (As himself) What?
MANGAN: (As Sean Lincoln) You said half? Half your money's gone?
LEBLANC: (As himself) Yeah.
MANGAN: (As Sean Lincoln) Oh, you made it sound like he took everything, didn't you think?
GREIG: (As Beverly Lincoln) I did, yeah.
MANGAN: (As Sean Lincoln) Well, if it's not everything...
LEBLANC: (As himself) He stole $32 million from me.
MANGAN: (As Sean Lincoln) No, that's a ridiculous amount of money, of course.
GREIG: (As Beverly Lincoln) It's insane, unbelievable.
MANGAN: (As Sean Lincoln) But you still have...
LEBLANC: (As himself) A little over 31. What?
GREIG: (As Beverly Lincoln) Nothing.
LEBLANC: (As himself) What?
MANGAN: (As Sean Lincoln) I don't want to diminish what you're going through in any way...
LEBLANC: (As himself) But?
MANGAN: (As Sean Lincoln) ...But it does seem slightly less dire.
LEBLANC: (As himself) I lost $32 million.
MANGAN: (As Sean Lincoln) Absolutely, but the good news is you still have 31.
LEBLANC: (As himself) But the bad news is I lost 32.
MANGAN: (As Sean Lincoln) Right, I get it.
LEBLANC: (As himself) I don't think you do.
BIANCULLI: All three of these characters and actors have made me laugh out loud, often very unexpectedly. And the rest of the ensemble cast, playing network executives and other TV types, adds to the overall enjoyment and excellence. "Episodes" was created by David Crane, who worked with LeBlanc on "Friends," and Jeffrey Klarik, one of the writers and producers on "Mad About You." They know the TV world inside and out.
And today, when so many television shows are adapted from programs from other countries, this brand of satire is particularly timely. And thanks to actors and writers who deserve much more notice than they've gotten to this point, "Episodes" also is extremely, wonderfully funny. There's a lot of competition for your Sunday night TV-viewing attention, but "Episodes" most definitely belongs on your short list.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.
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