Tuesday, December 2, 2008

SEAN PENN, CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS & DOUGLAS BRINKLEY INTERVIEW HUGO CHAVEZ & RAUL CASTRO

Sean Penn, Nation - We spent . . . two days in Chavez'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 Chavez's command of English soars. When Douglas asks if the Monroe Doctrine should be abolished, Chavez, 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.". . .

Hitchens sits quietly, taking notes throughout the conversation. Chavez 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?" Chavez 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," Chavez 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 Chavez's favorite US president. "I was a boy," he says. "Kennedy was the driving force of reform in America." Surprised by Chavez'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 Chavez. "The Alliance for Progress was a political proposal to improve conditions. It was aimed at lowering the social difference between cultures.". . .

On our third day in Venezuela, we thanked President Chavez 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?" Chavez immediately answered, "Yes.". . .

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 Raul'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 return to the subject of US elections by repeating the question Brinkley had asked Chavez: 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. . . "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.". . .

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 Guantanamo. 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 Guantanamo and in Cuban-held territory. We conduct joint emergency-response exercises. . .

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 Guantanamo?" 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." . . .

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. Raul 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." . . .

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." . . .

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.". . .

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. . . He pauses, putting down his empty wine glass. "Perhaps we could meet at Guantanamo. 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 Guantanamo Bay."

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