Conversations With Chavez and Castro | The Nation


Conversations With Chavez and Castro

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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."

Sean Penn and Hugo Chávez in October.

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Sean Penn
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"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...

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