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...

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."

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