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.”