|Sean Penn and Hugo Chávez|
Conversations With Chavez and Castro
Conversations with Raul Castro about Obama, Guantánamo and the Pentagon; and with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez on human rights in his country and the next US administration.
By Sean Penn
NOVEMBER 25, 2008
Soon to be Vice President-elect Joe Biden was rallying the troops: “We can no longer be energy dependent on Saudi Arabia or a Venezuelan dictator.” Well, I know what Saudi Arabia is. But having been to Venezuela in 2006, touring slums, mixing with the wealthy opposition and spending days and hours at its president’s side, I wondered, without wondering, to whom Senator Biden was referring. Hugo Chávez Frías is the democratically elected president of Venezuela (and by democratically elected I mean that he has repeatedly stood before the voters in internationally sanctioned elections and won large majorities, in a system that, despite flaws and irregularities, has allowed his opponents to defeat him and win office, both in a countrywide referendum last year and in regional elections in November). And Biden’s words were the kind of rhetoric that had recently led us into a life-losing and monetarily costly war, which, while toppling a shmuck in Iraq, had also toppled the most dynamic principles upon which the United States was founded, enhanced recruitment for Al Qaeda and deconstructed the US military.
By now, October 2008, I had digested my earlier visits to Venezuela and Cuba and time spent with Chávez and Fidel Castro. I had grown increasingly intolerant of the propaganda. Though Chávez himself has a penchant for rhetoric, never has it been a cause for war. In hopes of demythologizing this “dictator,” I decided to pay him another visit. By this time I had come to say to friends in private, “It’s true, Chávez may not be a good man. But he may well be a great one.”
Among those to whom I said this were historian Douglas Brinkley and Vanity Fair columnist Christopher Hitchens. These two were perfect complements. Brinkley is a notably steady thinker whose historian’s code of ethics assures adherence to supremely reasoned evidence. Hitchens, a wily wordsmith, ever too unpredictable for predisposition, is a wild card by any measure who in a talk-show throwaway once referred to Chávez as an “oil-rich clown.” Though I believe Hitchens to be as principled as he is brilliant, he can be combative to the point of bullying, as he once was in severe comments made about saintly antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan. Brinkley and Hitchens would balance any perceived bias in my writing. Also, these are a couple of guys I have a lot of fun with and affection for.
So I called Fernando Sulichin, an old friend and well-connected independent film producer from Argentina, and asked that he get them vetted and approved to interview Chávez. In addition, we wanted to fly from Venezuela to Havana, and I asked that Fernando request on our behalf interviews with the Castro brothers, most urgently Raúl, who had taken over the reins of power from an ailing Fidel in February–and who had never given a foreign interview. I had traveled to Cuba in 2005, when I had the good fortune of meeting Fidel, and was eager for an interview with the new president. The phone rang at 2 o’clock the following afternoon. “Mi hermano,” Fernando said. “It is done.”
Our flight from Houston to Caracas was delayed due to mechanical problems. It was 1 o’clock in the morning, and as we waited, Hitchens paced. “Very rarely does only one thing go wrong,” he said. He must have liked the way it sounded, because he said it again. He was God’s pessimist. I said, “Hitch, it’s gonna be fine. They’ll get us another plane, and we’ll be there on time.” But God’s pessimist is actually God’s atheistic pessimist. And I would later be reminded of the clarity in his atheism. Something else would indeed go wrong. Well, right and wrong, as you’ll find out. Within two hours, we were taking off.
When we landed at Caracas airport, Fernando was there to greet us. He guided us to a private terminal, where we waited for the arrival of President Chávez, who would take us on a stumping tour for gubernatorial candidates on the beautiful Isla Margarita.
We spent the next two days in Chávez’s constant company, with many hours of private meetings among the four of us. In the private quarters of the president’s plane, I find that on the subject of baseball Chávez’s command of English soars. When Douglas asks if the Monroe Doctrine should be abolished, Chávez, wanting to choose his words carefully, reverts to Spanish to detail the nuances of his position against this doctrine, which has justified US intervention in Latin America for almost two centuries. “The Monroe Doctrine has to be broken,” he says. “We’ve been stuck with it for over 200 years. It always gets back to the old confrontation of Monroe versus Bolívar. Jefferson used to say that America should swallow, one by one, the republics of the south. The country where you were born was based on an imperialistic attitude.”
Venezuelan intelligence tells him that the Pentagon has plans for invading his country. “I know they are thinking about invading Venezuela,” Chávez says. It seems he sees killing the Monroe Doctrine as a yardstick for his destiny. “Nobody again can come here and export our natural resources.” Is he concerned about the US reaction to his bold statements about the Monroe Doctrine? He quotes Uruguayan freedom fighter José Gervasio Artigas: “With the truth, I don’t offend or fear.”
Hitchens sits quietly, taking notes throughout the conversation. Chávez recognizes a flicker of skepticism in his eye. “CREES-to-fer, ask me a question. Ask me the hardest question.” They share a smile. Hitchens asks, “What’s the difference between you and Fidel?” Chávez says, “Fidel is a communist. I am not. I am a social democrat. Fidel is a Marxist-Leninist. I am not. Fidel is an atheist. I am not. One day we discussed God and Christ. I told Castro, I am a Christian. I believe in the Social Gospels of Christ. He doesn’t. Just doesn’t. More than once, Castro told me that Venezuela is not Cuba, and we are not in the 1960s.
“You see,” Chávez says, “Venezuela must have democratic socialism. Castro has been a teacher for me. A master. Not on ideology but on strategy.” Perhaps ironically, John F. Kennedy is Chávez’s favorite US president. “I was a boy,” he says. “Kennedy was the driving force of reform in America.” Surprised by Chávez’s affinity for Kennedy, Hitch chimes in, referring to Kennedy’s counter-Cuba economic plan for Latin America: “The Alliance for Progress was a good thing?” “Yes,” says Chávez. “The Alliance for Progress was a political proposal to improve conditions. It was aimed at lowering the social difference between cultures.”
Conversation among the four of us continues on buses, at rallies and at dedications throughout Isla Margarita. Chávez is tireless. He addresses every new group for hours on end under a blistering sun. At most he’ll sleep four hours at night, spending the first hour of his morning reading news of the world. And once he’s on his feet, he’s unstoppable despite heat, humidity and the two layers of revolutionary red shirts he wears.
I had three primary motivations for this trip: to include the voices of Brinkley and Hitchens, to deepen my understanding of Chávez and Venezuela and excite my writing hand, and to enlist Chávez’s support in encouraging the Castro brothers to meet with the three of us in Havana. While my understanding through Fernando was that this third piece of the puzzle had been approved and confirmed, somewhere in the cultural, language and telephonic exchanges there had been a misunderstanding. Meanwhile, CBS News was expecting a report from Brinkley, Vanity Fair was expecting one from Hitchens and I was writing on behalf of The Nation.
On our third day in Venezuela, we thanked President Chávez for his time, the four of us standing among security personnel and press at the Santiago Marino Airport on Isla Margarita. Brinkley had a final question, and so did I. “Mr. President,” he said, “if Barack Obama is elected president of the United States, would you accept an invitation to fly to Washington and meet with him?” Chávez immediately answered, “Yes.”
When it was my turn, I said, “Mr. President, it is very important for us to meet with the Castros. It is impossible to tell the story of Venezuela without including Cuba–and impossible to tell the story of Cuba without the Castros.” Chávez promised us that he would call President Castro the moment he got on his plane and ask on our behalf but warned us that it was unlikely big brother Fidel would be able to respond so quickly, as he was doing a lot of writing and reflecting these days, not seeing a lot of people. He could make no promises about Raúl either. Chávez boarded his plane, and we watched him fly away.
The next morning we took off for Havana. Full disclosure: we were loaned an airplane through the Venezuelan Ministry of Energy and Petroleum. If someone wants to refer to that as a payoff, be my guest. But when you read the next report from a journalist flying on Air Force One, or hopping on board a US military transport plane, be so kind as to dismiss that article as well. We appreciated the ride in all its luxury, but our reporting remains uninfluenced.
‘Very Rarely Does Only One Thing Go Wrong’
For me the personal stakes were pretty high. Getting on the plane to Havana shy of that guarantee of access to Raúl Castro was making me anxious. Christopher had pulled out of a few important speaking engagements at the last minute to make the trip. It was not his practice to leave others holding the bag. So for him, it was buy or bust, and he was becoming agitated. Douglas, a professor of history at Rice University, would have to return imminently for lecture obligations. Fernando was feeling the weight of our expectation that he’d be our battering ram. And me, well, I was depending on the call to Castro from Chávez, both to get the interview and to save my ass with my companions.
We landed in Havana around noon and were met on the tarmac by Omar Gonzalez Jimenez, president of the Cuban Film Institute, and Luis Alberto Notario, head of the institute’s international co-production wing. I’d spent time with both of them on my earlier trip to Cuba. We started catching up on personal matters on the walk to the customs office, until Hitch stepped forward and unabashedly demanded of Omar, “Sir, we must see the president!” “Yes,” Omar said. “We are aware of the request, and word has been passed to the president. We are still awaiting his response.”
For the rest of that day and into the following afternoon, we tortured our hosts with the incessant drumbeat: Raúl, Raúl, Raúl. I assumed if Fidel was up to it and could make the time, he would call. And if not, I remained appreciative of our prior meeting and said as much in a note I passed to him through Omar. Raúl I only knew about through what I’d read, and I hadn’t a clue as to whether or not he’d see us.
Cubans are a particularly warm and hospitable people. As our hosts took us around the city, I noticed that the number of American 1950s cars had diminished even in the few years since my last trip, giving way to smaller Russian designs. On a sweep by the invasive-looking US Interests Section on the Malecón, where waves breaking against the sea wall shower passing cars, I noticed something almost indescribable about the atmosphere in Cuba. It is the palpable presence of architectural and living human history on a small plot of land surrounded by water. Even the visitor feels the spirit of a culture that proclaims, in various ways, “This is our special place.”
We snaked through Old Havana, and in a glass-encased display outside the Museum of the Revolution we saw the Granma, the boat used to transport Cuban revolutionaries from Mexico in 1956. We moved on to the Palace of Fine Arts, with its collection of passionate and political pieces from a cross section of Cuba’s deep talent pool. We then toured the Higher Institute of Arts and later went to dinner with National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcón and Roberto Fabelo, a painter they had invited after I’d expressed appreciation of his work at the art museum that afternoon. By midnight there had still been no word from Raúl Castro. After that we were taken to the protocol house, where we would lay our heads till dawn.
By noon of the following day, the clock was ticking loudly in our ears. We had sixteen hours left in Havana before we would have to head to the airport to catch our flights back home. We were sitting around a table at La Castellana, an upscale Old Havana eatery, with a large group of artists and musicians who, led by the famed Cuban painter Kcho, had established Brigada Martha Machado, an organization of volunteers aiding victims of Hurricanes Ike and Gustav on the Isle of Youth. The brigade has the full support of government dollars, airplanes and staff that would be the envy of our Gulf Coast volunteers after Hurricane Katrina. Also joining us for lunch was Antonio Castro Soto del Valle, a handsome young man of humble character who is the 39-year-old son of Fidel Castro. Antonio is a doctor and chief medic for the Cuban national baseball team. I had a brief but pleasant chat with him and re-emphasized our Raúl agenda.
The clock was no longer ticking. It was pounding. Omar told me we would be hearing the decision of the president quite soon. Fingers crossed, Douglas, Hitch, Fernando and I went back to the protocol house to get our bags packed in advance. By 6 pm, we were on a ten-hour countdown. I was sitting downstairs in the living room, reading in the hazy late-afternoon light. Hitch and Douglas were in their upstairs quarters, I assumed napping to offset anxiety. And on the couch beside me was Fernando, snoring away.
Then Luis appeared at our open front door. I glanced over the top of my glasses as he gave me a very direct nod. Without words, I pointed questioningly up the stairs to where my companions lay. But Luis shook his head apologetically. “Only you,” he said. The president had made his decision.
I could hear Hitch’s words of doubt echo in my head, “Very rarely does only one thing go wrong.” Was he talking about me? Et mi, Brute? Nonetheless, I grabbed at my back pocket to make sure I had my pad of Venezuela notes, checked for my pen, pocketed my specs and headed out with Luis. Just before I shut the door of the waiting car, I heard Fernando’s voice calling after me. “Sean!” We drove away.
I’m Off to See the Wizard
Stateside, Cuban President Raúl Castro, the island’s former minister of the Armed Forces, has been branded a “cold militarist” and a “puppet” of Fidel. But the once ponytailed young revolutionary of the Sierra Maestra is proving the snakes wrong. Indeed, “Raulism” is on the rise alongside a recent industrial and agricultural economic boom. Fidel’s legacy, like that of Chávez, will depend upon the sustainability of a flexible revolution, one that could survive its leader’s departure by death or resignation. Fidel has once again been underestimated by the North. In the selection of his brother Raúl, he has put the day-to-day policy-making of his country into formidable hands. In a report by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, US State Department spokesman John Casey acknowledges that Raulism could lead to “greater openness and freedom for the Cuban people.”
Soon enough I’m sitting at a small polished table in a government office with President Castro and a translator. “Fidel called me moments ago,” he tells me. “He wants me to call him after we have spoken.” There is a humor in Raúl’s voice that recalls a lifetime of affectionate tolerance for his big brother’s watchful eye. “He wants to know everything we speak about,” he says with the chuckle of the wise. “I never liked the idea of giving interviews,” he says. “One says many things, but when they are published, they become shortened, condensed. The ideas lose their meaning. I was told you make long movies. Maybe you will make long journalism as well.” I promise him I’ll write as fast as I can, and print as much as I write. He tells me he’s informally promised his first interview as president elsewhere, and not wanting to multiply what could be construed as an insult, he singled me out from my companions.
Castro and I share a cup of tea. “Forty-six years ago today, at exactly this time of day, we mobilized troops, Alameda in the West, Fidel in Havana, me in Areda. It had been announced at noon in Washington that President Kennedy would give a speech. This was during the missile crisis. We anticipated that the speech would be a declaration of war. After his humiliation at the Bay of Pigs, the pressure of the missiles [which Castro claims were strictly defensive] would represent a great defeat to Kennedy. Kennedy would not stand with that defeat. Today we study US candidates very carefully, focusing on McCain and Obama. We look at all the old speeches. Particularly those made in Florida, where opposing Cuba has become a for-profit business for many. In Cuba we have one party, but in the US there is very little difference. Both parties are an expression of the ruling class.” He says today’s Miami Cuban lobby members are descendants of Batista-era wealth, or international landowners “who’d only paid pennies for their land” while Cuba had been under absolute US rule for sixty years.
“The 1959 land reform was the Rubicon of our revolution. A death sentence for our US relations.” Castro seems to be sizing me up as he takes another sip of his tea. “At that moment, there was no discussion about socialism, or Cuba dealing with Russia. But the die was cast.”
After the Eisenhower administration bombed two vessel-loads of guns headed for Cuba, Fidel reached out to old allies. Raúl says, “We asked Italy. No! We asked Czechoslovakia. No! Nobody would give us weapons to defend ourselves because Eisenhower had put pressure on them. So by the time we got weapons from Russia, we had no time to learn how to use them before the US attacked at the Bay of Pigs!” He laughs and excuses himself to an adjacent restroom, briefly disappearing behind a wall, only to immediately pop back into the room, joking, “At 77, this is the fault of the tea.”
Joking aside, Castro moves with the agility of a young man. He exercises every day, his eyes are bright and his voice is strong. He picks up where he left off. “You know, Sean, there was a famous picture of Fidel from the Bay of Pigs invasion. He is standing in front of a Russian tank. We did not yet know even how to put those tanks in reverse. So,” he jokes, “retreat was no option!” So much for the “cold militarist.” Raúl Castro was warm, open, energetic and sharp of wit.
I return to the subject of US elections by repeating the question Brinkley had asked Chávez: Would Castro accept an invitation to Washington to meet with a President Obama, assuming he won in the polling, only a few weeks away? Castro becomes reflective. “This is an interesting question,” he says, followed by a rather long, awkward silence. Until: “The US has the most complicated election process in the world. There are practiced election stealers in the Cuban-American lobby in Florida…” I chime in, “I think that lobby is fracturing.” And then, with the certainty of a die-hard optimist, I say, “Obama will be our next president.” Castro smiles, seemingly at my naïveté, but the smile disappears as he says, “If he is not murdered before November 4, he’ll be your next president.” I note that he had still not answered my question about meeting in Washington. “You know,” he says, “I have read the statements Obama has made, that he would preserve the blockade.” I interject, “His term was embargo.” “Yes,” Castro says, “blockade is an act of war, so Americans prefer the term embargo, a word that is used in legal proceedings…but in either case, we know that this is pre-election talk, and that he has also said he is open to discussion with anyone.”
Raúl interrupts himself: “You are probably thinking, Oh, the brother talks as much as Fidel!” We laugh. “It is not usually so, but you know, Fidel–once he had a delegation here, in this room, from China. Several diplomats and a young translator. I think it was the translator’s first time with a head of state. They’d all had a very long flight and were jet-lagged. Fidel, of course, knew this, but still he talked for hours. Soon, one near the end of the table, just there [pointing to a nearby chair], his eyes begin to get heavy. Then another, then another. But Fidel, he continued to talk. Soon all, including the highest-ranking of them, to whom Fidel had been directly addressing his words, fell sound asleep in their chairs. So Fidel, he turns his eyes to the only one awake, the young translator, and kept him in conversation till dawn.” By this time in the story, both Raúl and I were in stitches. I’d only had the one meeting with Fidel, whose astonishing mind and passion bleed words. But it was enough to get the picture. Only our translator was not laughing, as Castro returned to the point.
“In my first statement after Fidel fell ill, I said we are willing to discuss our relationship with the US on equal footing. Later, in 2006, I said it again in an address at the Revolutionary Square. I was laughed at by the US media–that I was applying cosmetics over dictatorship.” I offer him another opportunity to speak to the American people. He answers, “The American people are among our closest neighbors. We should respect each other. We have never held anything against the American people. Good relations would be mutually advantageous. Perhaps we cannot solve all of our problems, but we can solve a good many of them.”
He paused now, slowly considering a thought. “I’ll tell you something, and I’ve never said it publicly before. It had been leaked, at some point, by someone in the US State Department, but was quickly hushed up because of concern about the Florida electorate, though now, as I tell you this, the Pentagon will think me indiscreet.”
I wait with bated breath. “We’ve had permanent contact with the US military, by secret agreement, since 1994,” Castro tells me. “It is based on the premise that we would discuss issues only related to Guantánamo. On February 17, 1993, following a request by the United States to discuss issues related to buoy locators for ship navigations into the bay, was the first contact in the history of the revolution. Between March 4 and July 1, the Rafters Crisis took place. A military-to-military hot line was established, and on May 9, 1995, we agreed to monthly meetings with primaries from both governments. To this day, there have been 157 meetings, and there is a taped record of every meeting. The meetings are conducted on the third Friday of every month. We alternate locations between the American base at Guantánamo and in Cuban-held territory. We conduct joint emergency-response exercises. For example, we set a fire, and American helicopters bring water from the bay, in concert with Cuban helicopters. [Before this] the American base at Guantánamo had created chaos. We had lost border guards, and have graphic evidence of it. The US had encouraged illegal and dangerous emigration, with US Coast Guard ships intercepting Cubans who tried to leave the island. They would bring them to Guantánamo, and a minimal cooperation began. But we would no longer play guard to our coast. If someone wanted to leave, we said, Go ahead. And so, with the navigation issues came the beginning of this collaboration. Now at the Friday meetings there is always a representative of the US State Department.” No name given. He continues, “The State Department tends to be less reasonable than the Pentagon. But no one raises their voice because…I don’t take part. Because I talk loud. It is the only place in the world where these two militaries meet in peace.”
“What about Guantánamo?” I ask. “I’ll tell you the truth,” Castro says. “The base is our hostage. As a president, I say the US should go. As a military man, I say let them stay.” Inside, I’m wondering, Have I got a big story to break here? Or is this of little relevance? It should be no surprise that enemies speak behind the scenes. What is a surprise is that he’s talking to me about it. And with that, I circle back to the question of a meeting with Obama. “Should a meeting take place between you and our next president, what would be Cuba’s first priority?” Without a beat, Castro answers, “Normalize trade.” The indecency of the US embargo on Cuba has never been more evident than now, in the wake of three devastating hurricanes. The Cuban people’s needs have never been more desperate. The embargo is simply inhumane and entirely unproductive. Raúl continues, “The only reason for the blockade is to hurt us. Nothing can deter the revolution. Let Cubans come to visit with their families. Let Americans come to Cuba.” It seems he’s saying, Let them come see this terrible Communist dictatorship they keep hearing about in the press, where even representatives of the State Department and prominent dissidents acknowledge that in a free and open election in Cuba today, the ruling Communist Party would win 80 percent of the electorate. I list several US conservatives who have been critical of the embargo, from the late economist Milton Friedman, to Colin Powell, to even Texas Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, who said, “I have believed for a while that we should be looking for a new strategy for Cuba. And that is, opening more trade, especially food trade, especially if we can give the people more contact with the outside world. If we can build up the economy, that might make the people more able to fight the dictatorship.” Castro, ignoring the slight, responds boldly, “We welcome the challenge.”
By now, we have moved on from the tea to red wine and dinner. “Let me tell you something,” he says. “We have newly advanced research that strongly suggests deepwater offshore oil reserves, which US companies can come and drill. We can negotiate. The US is protected by the same Cuban trade laws as anyone else. Perhaps there can be some reciprocity. There are 110,000 square kilometers of sea in the divided area. God would be unfair not to give some oil to us. I don’t believe he would deprive us this way.” Indeed, the US Geological Survey speculates something in the area of 9 billion barrels of oil and 21 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves in the North Cuba Basin. Now that he’s improved recently rocky relations with Mexico, Castro is looking at also improving prospects with the European Union. “EU relations should improve with Bush’s exit,” he states confidently. “And the US?” I ask. “Listen,” he says, “we are as patient as the Chinese. Seventy percent of our population was born under the blockade. I am the longest-standing minister of Armed Forces in history. Forty-eight and a half years until last October. That’s why I’m in this uniform and continue to work from my old office. In Fidel’s office, nothing has been touched. At the Warsaw Pact military exercises, I was the youngest, and the one who had been there the longest. Then, I was the oldest, and still the one who had been there the longest. Iraq is a child’s game compared with what would happen if the US invaded Cuba.” After another sip of wine, Castro says, “Preventing a war is tantamount to winning a war. This is in our doctrine.”
With our dinner finished, I walk with the president through the sliding glass doors onto a greenhouse-like terrace with tropical plants and birds. As we sip more wine, he says, “There is an American movie–the elite are sitting around a table, trying to decide who will be their next president. They look outside the window, where they see the gardener. Do you know the movie I’m talking about?” “Being There,” I say. “Yes!” Castro responds excitedly, “Being There. I like this movie very much. With the United States, every objective possibility exists. The Chinese say: ‘On the longest path, you start with the first step.’ The US president should take this step on his own, but with no threat to our sovereignty. That is not negotiable. We can make demands without telling each other what to do within our borders.”
“Mr. President,” I say, “watching the last presidential debate in the United States, we heard John McCain encouraging the free-trade agreement with Colombia, a country where death squads are notorious and assassinations of labor leaders have been occurring, and yet relations with the United States continue to get closer, as the Bush administration is currently attempting to push that agreement through Congress. As you know, I’ve just come from Venezuela, which, like Cuba, the Bush administration considers an enemy nation, though of course we buy a lot of oil from them. It occurred to me that Colombia may reasonably become our geographically strategic partner in South America, as Israel is in the Middle East. Would you comment on that?”
He considers the question with caution, speaking in a slow and metered tone. “Right now,” he says, “we have good relations with Colombia. But I will say that if there is a country in South America where an environment exists that is vulnerable to that…it is Colombia.” Thinking of Chávez’s suspicion of US intentions to intervene in Venezuela, I take a deep breath.
The hour was getting late, but I didn’t want to leave without asking Castro about allegations of human rights violations and alleged narco-trafficking facilitated by the Cuban government. A 2007 report by Human Rights Watch states that Cuba “remains the one country in Latin America that represses nearly all forms of political dissent.” Furthermore, there are about 200 political prisoners in Cuba today, approximately 4 percent of whom are convicted of crimes of nonviolent dissent. As I await Castro’s comments, I can’t help but think of the nearby US prison at Guantánamo and the horrendous US offenses against human rights there.
“No country is 100 percent free of human rights abuses,” Castro tells me. But, he insists, “reports in the US media are highly exaggerated and hypocritical.” Indeed, even high-profile Cuban dissidents, such as Eloy Gutiérrez Menoyo, acknowledge the manipulations, accusing the US Interests Section of gaining dissident testimony through cash payoffs. Ironically, in 1992 and ’94, Human Rights Watch also described lawlessness and intimidation by anti-Castro groups in Miami as what author/journalist Reese Erlich termed “violations normally associated with Latin American dictatorships.”
Having said that, I’m a proud American and infinitely aware that if I were a Cuban citizen and were to write an article such as this about the Cuban leadership, I could be jailed. Furthermore, I’m proud that the system set up by our founding fathers, while not exactly intact today, was never dependent on just one great leader per epoch. These things remain in question for the romantic heroes of Cuba and Venezuela. I consider mentioning this, and perhaps should have, but I’ve got something else on my mind.
“Can we talk about drugs?” I ask Castro. He responds, “The United States is the largest consumer of narcotics in the world. Cuba sits directly between the United States and its suppliers. It is a big problem for us…. With the expansion of tourism, a new market has developed, and we struggle with it. It is also said that we allow narco-traffickers to travel through Cuban airspace. We allow no such thing. I’m sure some of these planes get by us. It is simply due to economic restrictions that we no longer have functioning low-altitude radar.”
While this may sound like tall-tale telling, not so, according to Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, a former adviser to Colin Powell. Wilkerson told Reese Erlich in a January interview, “The Cubans are our best partners in the counter-drug and counter-terror war in the Caribbean. Even better than Mexico. The military looked at Cuba as a very cooperative partner.”
I want to ask Castro my unanswered question a final time, as our mutual body language suggests we’ve hit the witching hour. It is after 1 am, but he initiates. “Now,” he says, “you asked if I would accept to meet with [Obama] in Washington. I would have to think about it. I would discuss it with all my comrades in the leadership. Personally, I think it would not be fair that I be the first to visit, because it is always the Latin American presidents who go to the United States first. But it would also be unfair to expect the president of the United States to come to Cuba. We should meet in a neutral place.”
He pauses, putting down his empty wine glass. “Perhaps we could meet at Guantánamo. We must meet and begin to solve our problems, and at the end of the meeting, we could give the president a gift…we could send him home with the American flag that waves over Guantánamo Bay.”
As we exit his office, we are followed by staff as President Castro takes me down the elevator to the lobby and walks me to my waiting car. I thank him for the generosity of his time. As my driver puts the car in gear, the president taps on the window beside me. I roll it down as the president checks his watch, realizing that seven hours have passed since we began the interview. Smiling, he says, “I will call Fidel now. I can promise you this. When Fidel finds I have spoken to you for seven hours, he will be sure to give you seven and a half when you return to Cuba.” We share a laugh and a last handshake.
It had rained earlier in the night. In this early-hour darkness, our tires streaming over the wet pavement on a quiet Havana morning, it strikes me that the most basic questions of sovereignty offer substantial insight into the complexities of US antagonism toward Cuba and Venezuela, as well as those countries’ policies. They’ve only ever had two choices: to be imperfectly ours, or imperfectly their own.
Viva Cuba. Viva Venezuela. Viva USA.
When I got back to the protocol house, it was nearly 2 am. My old friend Fernando, looking much the worse for wear, had waited up. My companions had had quite a night. Poor Fernando had taken the brunt of their frustration. They hadn’t known where I’d gone, nor why I had left them behind. And the remaining Cuban officials they’d been able to contact had insisted they stay put, should either of the Castro brothers spontaneously offer an audience. So they had also missed out on a last Cuban night on the town. After filling me in, Fernando went to get a couple hours’ sleep. I stayed up reviewing my notes and was first at the breakfast table, at 4:45 am. When Douglas and Hitch ambled down the stairs, I put the edge of the tablecloth over my head in mock shame. I guess, under the circumstances, it was a bit early (in more than just the hour) to be testing their humor. The joke didn’t play. While Fernando took a separate flight to Buenos Aires, we had a quiet breakfast and a quiet flight back to home sweet home.
When we arrived in Houston, I realized I’d underestimated the thick skin of these two road-worn professionals. Whatever ice I’d perceived earlier had melted. We said our goodbyes, celebrating what had been a thrilling several days. Neither had been so catty as to inquire into the content of my interview, but Christopher headed to his eastbound connection with a parting word, “Well…I guess we’ll read about it.”
¡Sí, Se Puede!
I sat on the edge of my bed with my wife, son and daughter, tears streaming down my face, as Barack Obama spoke for the first time as the president-elect of the United States of America. I closed my eyes and started to see a film in my head. I could hear the music too, appropriately the Dixie Chicks covering a Fleetwood Mac song over slow-motion images in montage. There they were: Bush, Hannity, Cheney, McCain, Limbaugh and Robertson. I saw them all. And the song was rising as the image of Sarah Palin took over the screen. Natalie Maines sweetly sang,
And I saw my reflection in the snow-covered hills till the landslide brought me down. Landslide brought me down…
This article is an adapted excerpt of the essay/interview "A Mountain of Snakes," which will appear in full December 1 at HuffingtonPost.com.
SEAN PENN Actor/filmmaker Sean Penn's pieces have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Time, Rolling Stone and at HuffingtonPost.com, among others.
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