Sean Penn’s interviews with Hugo Chavez and Raul Castro

2352 words from a much longer and quite interesting 4 page article in The Nation. …

The Penn – Chavez Interview.

Joe Biden: "We can no longer be energy dependent on Saudi Arabia or a Venezuelan dictator."

Hugo Chávez Frías is the democratically elected president of Venezuela (he has repeatedly stood in internationally sanctioned elections and won large majorities, in a system that has allowed his opponents to defeat him and win office.)

We spent two days in Chávez's constant company, with many hours of private meetings.

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.

"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."

"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."

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."

John F. Kennedy is Chávez's favorite US president:
"Kennedy was the driving force of reform in America. The Alliance for Progress was a political proposal to improve conditions. It was aimed at lowering the social difference between cultures."

"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."

The Penn – Castro Interview.

We landed in Havana, soon I'm in an office with President Castro.
President Raúl Castro, former minister of the Armed Forces, has been branded a "cold militarist" and a "puppet" of Fidel. But the once ponytailed young revolutionary of the Sierra Maestra is proving them wrong. "Raulism" is on the rise alongside a recent industrial and agricultural economic boom.

"I never liked the idea of giving interviews," he says. "One says many things, but when they are published, they become shortened, condensed. I promise him I'll write as fast as I can, and print as much as I write.

"Forty-six years ago today, at exactly this time of day, we mobilized troops, Alameda in the West, Fidel in Havana, me in Areda. It had been announced at noon in Washington that President Kennedy would give a speech. This was during the missile crisis."

"We anticipated that the speech would be a declaration of war. After his humiliation at the Bay of Pigs, the pressure of the missiles [which Castro claims were strictly defensive] would represent a great defeat to Kennedy."

"In Florida, opposing Cuba has become a for-profit business for many. In Cuba we have one party, but in the US there is very little difference. Both parties are an expression of the ruling class."

He says today's Miami Cuban lobby members are descendants of Batista-era wealth, or international landowners "who'd only paid pennies for their land" while Cuba had been under absolute US rule for sixty years. "The 1959 land reform was the Rubicon of our revolution. A death sentence for our US relations."

After the Eisenhower administration bombed two vessel-loads of guns headed for Cuba, Fidel reached out to old allies. Raúl says, "We asked Italy. No! We asked Czechoslovakia. No! Nobody would give us weapons to defend ourselves because Eisenhower had put pressure on them. So by the time we got weapons from Russia, we had no time to learn how to use them before the US attacked at the Bay of Pigs!"

"You know, Sean, there was a famous picture of Fidel from the Bay of Pigs invasion. He is standing in front of a Russian tank. We did not yet know even how to put those tanks in reverse. So," he jokes, "retreat was no option!"

"Would Castro accept an invitation to Washington to meet with a President Obama, assuming he won."

"The US has the most complicated election process in the world. There are practiced election stealers in the Cuban-American lobby in Florida… I have read the statements Obama has made, that he would preserve the blockade."

"In my first statement after Fidel fell ill, I said we are willing to discuss our relationship with the US on equal footing. Later, in 2006, I said it again in an address at the Revolutionary Square. I was laughed at by the US media; that I was applying cosmetics over dictatorship."

"The American people are among our closest neighbors. We should respect each other. We have never held anything against the American people. Good relations would be mutually advantageous. Perhaps we cannot solve all of our problems, but we can solve a good many of them."

"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."

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

"The US had encouraged illegal and dangerous emigration, with US Coast Guard ships intercepting Cubans who tried to leave the island. They would bring them to Guantánamo, and a minimal cooperation began. But we would no longer play guard to our coast. If someone wanted to leave, we said, Go ahead."

"And so, with the navigation issues came the beginning of this collaboration. Now at the Friday meetings there is always a representative of the US State Department."

"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 Guantánamo?" 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."

"Should a meeting take place between you and our next president, what would be Cuba's first priority?"

"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. Raúl 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." It seems he's saying, Let them come see this terrible Communist dictatorship they keep hearing about in the press, where even representatives of the State Department and prominent dissidents acknowledge that in a free and open election in Cuba today, the ruling Communist Party would win 80 percent of the electorate."

I list several US conservatives who have been critical of the embargo, from the late economist Milton Friedman, to Colin Powell, to even Texas Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, who said, "I have believed for a while that we should be looking for a new strategy for Cuba.

And that is, opening more trade, especially food trade, especially if we can give the people more contact with the outside world. If we can build up the economy, that might make the people more able to fight the dictatorship."

Castro, responds "We welcome the challenge."

"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." The US Geological Survey speculates something in the area of 9 billion barrels of oil and 21 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves in the North Cuba Basin."

"Iraq is a child's game compared with what would happen if the US invaded Cuba. Preventing a war is tantamount to winning a war. This is in our doctrine."

"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."

"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?"

"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."

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.

"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.

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."

"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."

Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, a former adviser to Colin Powell, 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."

"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."

"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."

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.


2 thoughts on “Sean Penn’s interviews with Hugo Chavez and Raul Castro

  1. Holy Cow! This was totally fascinating! It took me awhile. I'm not a fast reader. My eyes jump all over the place…old age I guess. I'm going to have to read it again because I don't want to miss anything.As I was reading it, I thought of the photos I have of Cuba. Have never been there but my Aunt Ruby and Uncle Herb took a trip in Sept. of 1949. I was only a year old. Somehow I ended up with these photos which were in the posession of my mom and dad. They are all deceased now…mom, dad, aunt and uncle. My aunt was my dad's sister. She used to work for the Indianapolis Star…wrote a column or something. Have no idea what it was about. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. There is a video clip on the main site. 3 of them went to Venezuela and spent some time with the President.The Cubans were more alert to propaganda and refused to see his two companions.Did you know that Chavez has been trading with the USA since the start? And he is responsible for sending charitable oil donations to the original inhabitants of Alaska, because the USA is behaving like the Belgians did in Namibia; stripping the place with little concern for the natives.No wonder Georgie Porgie is so full of hate for him.(He'd have sent a lot more but the richer politicians didn't need it. Get that?)There are a lot of weevils in the pork barrels. President Obama is really going to have his work cut out for him. I don't think he will do anywhere near as well as expected.It's is easy for me to sit at the sidelines prognosticating.I am pretty good at that.(Well, we have all got to be good at something.)

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