An Excerpt From Fidel Castro: My Life (A Spoken Autobiography)
"I congratulate you on your speech. It was an 'I came, I saw, I conquered' message of dignity and ethics," Fidel Castro wrote to Hugo Chávez on December 3, only hours after he had conceded the narrow defeat of his referendum to amend Venezuela's Constitution (and before Chávez undiplomatically denounced the outcome as a "victoria de mierda" for his opposition). As Castro reaches the twilight of his lengthy career as the Caesar of Latin American revolution, he is clearly invested in Chávez's effort to assume that mantle in the near future. "We discovered an educated, intelligent man, very progressive, an authentic Bolivarian," as Castro recalls their first meeting in the mid-1990s. "His adversaries have tried to get him by both force and economics. But he has faced all the oligarchy's, all of imperialism's assaults."
Indeed, in Castro's recounting, Cuba played a key role in Chávez's most dire challenge: the April 2002 coup attempt, which the Bush Administration at least tacitly supported. At a critical moment, when Chávez planned to fight to the finish against the superior military forces of the coup plotters, Castro urged him not to "sacrifice yourself" as Salvador Allende had in Chile, but to buy time for his supporters to rally. After Chávez surrendered, Castro then worked to mobilize mass opposition to the newly installed government and passed the message to the general leading the coup that there would be "a river of blood in Venezuela if this goes on." As the world well knows, after Chávez was held prisoner for two days, popular protests and his loyal military officers restored him to his democratically elected post as president. The rest is a dramatic history that continues to unfold.
Castro tells this previously untold story of his behind-the-scenes actions during the coup attempt–published here in English for the first time–in Fidel Castro: My Life. The book is based on a lengthy series of interviews conducted by Le Monde diplomatique editor Ignacio Ramonet and originally published in Spain. The revised and updated (by Castro personally) English edition hits bookstores this month. "Few men have known the glory of entering the pages of both history and legend while they are still alive," Ramonet writes in the introduction. "Fidel is one of them." Sidelined from power for health reasons as his Cuban revolution begins its fiftieth year, this "spoken autobiography" is likely to be among Castro's final contributions to the histories he created and the legends he fostered. –Peter Kornbluh
On 11 April 2002 there was a coup in Caracas against Chávez. Were you following those events?
…I immediately realized that serious events were about to take place…. We learned that some high-ranking officers were speaking out against the president. It was being reported that the presidential guard had withdrawn and that the army was going to attack Miraflores [the presidential palace]. Several Venezuelans were calling friends of theirs in Cuba to say goodbye, because they were ready to resist and die; they were talking specifically about sacrificing their lives for their country….
Beginning early that afternoon, I kept trying to phone the Venezuelan president. I couldn't get through! After midnight, at 12:38 am on 12 April, I received news that Chávez was on the line.
I asked him what the situation was at the moment. He replied: 'We're dug in here in the Palacio [Miraflores]. We've lost the military guard that would have decided the issue. They've cut off our television feed. I have no forces to move [as on a chessboard or in battle], but I'm analysing the situation.' I quickly asked him, 'What forces do you have there with you?'
'Between 200 and 300 exhausted men.'
'Any tanks?' I asked.
'No. There were some, but they withdrew them back to their base.'
I asked again, 'What other forces do you have?'
And he answered: 'There are some that are far away, but I have no communication with them.' He was referring to General Raúl Isaías Baduel and the paratroopers, the Armoured Division and other forces, but he'd lost all communication with those loyal troops.
I tried to be as delicate as possible when I asked him, 'Can I give you my opinion?' He said I could, so I said with as much persuasion in my voice as I could muster:
'Lay down the conditions for an honorable agreement and save the life of the men you have, which are the men who are most loyal to you. Don't sacrifice them, or sacrifice yourself.'
He answered emotionally: 'Every man is ready to die here.'
I immediately said back to him, 'I know, but I believe I can think about this more calmly than you can at the moment. Don't resign, demand honorable conditions for surrender, guarantees that you won't be the victim of a felony, because I think you should preserve yourself. Besides, you have a duty to the men with you. Don't sacrifice yourself!'
I was very conscious of the difference between [Salvador] Allende's circumstances on 11 September 1973 and Chávez's situation on 12 April 2002. Allende didn't have [the support of] a single soldier. Chávez had most of the soldiers and officers in the army [behind him], especially the younger ones.
'Don't resign! Don't resign!' I kept telling him.
We talked about other things: the way he should leave the country temporarily, get in touch with some officer with real authority among the ranks of the coup members, assure them of his willingness to leave the country but not to resign. From Cuba [I told him] we'd try to mobilise the diplomatic corps in our country and Venezuela; we'd send two planes with our foreign minister and a group of diplomats to pick him up. He thought about it for a few seconds, then finally agreed to my idea. It would all depend now on the enemy military leader….
You were encouraging him to resist with weapon in hand?
No, quite the contrary. That was what Allende did–quite rightly so under the conditions he was facing–and he heroically paid for it with his life, as he'd promised.
Chávez had three solutions: barricade himself in Miraflores and resist to the death; leave the Palacio and try to meet with the people in order to trigger national resistance, which had virtually no possibility of success under those circumstances; or leave the country without resigning, in order to fight another day, which would have a real chance of rapid success. We suggested the third way.
My final words to convince him were, in essence: 'Save those brave men who are with you now in that unnecessary battle.' The idea came from my conviction that if a popular, charismatic leader such as Chávez, toppled in that deceitful way and under those circumstances, wasn't killed, then the people–in this case with the support of the best members of his armed forces–would demand his return, and that return would be inevitable….
Did the Cubans at that point try to help Chávez in some way?
Well, at that moment we could only act by deploying the resources of diplomacy. In the middle of the night we called together all the accredited ambassadors in Havana and suggested that they accompany Felipe [Pérez Roque], our minister of foreign relations, to Caracas to peacefully rescue Chávez, the legitimate president of Venezuela–get him out alive….
We proposed to send two planes to bring him back, should the coup leaders agree to his leaving the country. But the officer at the head of the coup rejected the formula….
When I called again, two hours later, as he and I had agreed, Chávez had been taken prisoner by the officers of the coup and all contact with him had been lost. Television was broadcasting the news of his 'resignation' over and over again, in order to demoralize his supporters and the rest of the country.
Hours later–it was now broad daylight on 12 April–at one point arrangements were made for a telephone call, and Chávez spoke with his daughter María Gabriela. He told her that he hadn't resigned, that he was a 'prisoner-president'. He asked her to contact me so I could tell the world…. I immediately asked her, 'Are you willing to report this to the world in your own words?' [Castro arranges for Cuban television to broadcast this information and CNN Spanish transmits it throughout the hemisphere.]
And what consequences came of that?
Well, it was heard by millions of Venezuelans, mostly opposed to the coup, and by the soldiers loyal to Chávez, who were being brazenly lied to about the alleged resignation in order to confuse and paralyse them….
I then spoke with Lucas Rincón [the inspector general of the Venezuelan military]. He told me that the Parachute Brigade, the Armed Division, and the F-16 base were all against the coup and ready to take action. I suggested that he do everything possible to find a solution without pitting soldier against soldier….
Minutes later, María Gabriela called again; she told me that General Baduel, the head of the Parachute Brigade, needed to speak with me, and that the loyal forces in Maracay wanted to make a statement to the people of Venezuela and the world….
'One moment,' he told me. 'I'm going to give the phone to Major General Julio García Montoya, permanent secretary of the National Council on Security and Defense'…. In essence, he said that the Venezuelan armed forces were loyal to the constitution. That said it all….
The situation at that point was excellent. The coup that had begun on 11 April now had not the slightest chance of success. But a sword still hung by a thread over the country. Chávez's life was in the gravest danger….
In the desperation I felt as a friend and brother of the imprisoned president, a thousand ideas were running through my head…I was about to call [coup leader] General Vázquez Velasco himself. I'd never spoken with him, and I had no idea what sort of person he was. I didn't know whether he'd answer or not, and what he'd do if he did…I had second thoughts. At 4:15 that afternoon, I called our ambassador in Venezuela, Germán Sánchez….
'Call him,' I told Sánchez; 'tell him you're calling on my behalf, on my orders. Tell him I'm afraid there's going to be a river of blood in Venezuela if this goes on. Tell him there's just one man who can keep that from happening: Hugo Chávez. Urge him to free Chávez immediately, to forestall that very likely course of events.'
General Vázquez Velasco took the ambassador's call. He said he had Chávez in his power and that guaranteed his life, but that he couldn't agree to what we were asking. Our ambassador insisted–he argued, tried to persuade him. Finally the general got angry and hung up on him.
I immediately called María Gabriela and told her what Vázquez Velasco had said, especially his promise to guarantee Chávez's life. I asked her to put me in contact with Baduel again. At 4:49 [that afternoon], the call went through. I told him in detail about our ambassador's conversation with Vázquez Velasco, and I gave him my view of how important it was to make Vázquez Velasco aware of the gravity of the fact that he was holding Chávez. That fact made it possible to exert maximum pressure on him.
At that moment in Cuba, we didn't know for a certainty whether Chávez had actually been transferred or not, and if so, where. Hours earlier, there had been rumours that he'd been sent to the island of Orchila. When I spoke with Baduel, around 5:00 that afternoon, he was choosing the men and preparing the helicopters for a rescue. I could imagine how hard it was for Baduel and the paratroopers to obtain accurate details for such a delicate mission.
All the rest of that day, until midnight of the 13th, I spent all my time talking to anyone I could about the subject of Chávez's life. And I talked to a lot of people, because all that evening, the people, with the support of army officers and enlisted men, were controlling everything….
I even called Diosdado Cabello [who served as president for a few hours at the end of the coup attempt], as soon as he assumed the presidency. When our phone call was interrupted due to technical problems, I sent him a message through Héctor Navarro, the minister of higher education, to suggest that as president he should order Vázquez Velasco to free Chávez, reminding [Vázquez Velasco] of the seriousness of the consequences should he refuse to do so.
With almost everyone I spoke, I felt that I was a part of that drama that María Gabriela's phone call had involved me in on the morning of the 12th….
That's all I know; one day someone else will write the story in all its details.