Conversations With Chavez and Castro
This article is an adapted excerpt of the essay/interview "A Mountain of Snakes," which will appear in full December 1 at HuffingtonPost.com.
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.