Conversations With Chavez and Castro | The Nation


Conversations With Chavez and Castro

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Sean Penn and Hugo Chávez in October.

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Sean Penn
Actor/filmmaker Sean Penn's pieces have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Time, Rolling Stone and at...

'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.

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