[OPE] Conversations With Chavez and Castro -- By Sean Penn

From: <glevy@pratt.edu>
Date: Thu Nov 27 2008 - 20:42:38 EST

via Mike L.

The article is online now at:
along with a
VideoNation interview with Sean Penn.

Conversations With Chavez and Castro
*By Sean Penn*

This article appeared in the December 15, 2008 edition of The Nation.

November 25, 2008

This article is an adapted
excerpt of the essay/interview "A Mountain of
which will appear in full December 1 at HuffingtonPost.com.

Sean Penn: Conversations with Raul Castro about Obama, Guantánamo
and the
Pentagon; and with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez
on human rights in his
country and the next US administration.

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
repeatedly stood before the voters in internationally sanctioned
and won large majorities, in a system that, despite flaws
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
"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

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
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
interview Chávez. In addition, we wanted to fly from Venezuela to
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

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,
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
us to a private terminal, where we waited for the arrival of
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
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

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
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
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
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
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
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
of us standing among security personnel and press at the Santiago
Marino Airport on Isla Margarita. Brinkley had a final question, and so
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
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
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
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
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

'Very Rarely Does Only
One Thing Go Wrong'

For me the personal stakes were pretty
high. Getting on the plane to Havana
shy of that guarantee of access
to Raúl Castro was making me anxious.
Christopher had pulled
out of a few important speaking engagements at the
last minute to
make the trip. It was not his practice to leave others
holding the
bag. So for him, it was buy or bust, and he was becoming
Douglas, a professor of history at Rice University, would have to
return imminently for lecture obligations. Fernando was feeling the
of our expectation that he'd be our battering ram. And me,
well, I was
depending on the call to Castro from Chávez, both
to get the interview and
to save my ass with my companions.

We landed in Havana around noon and were met on the tarmac by Omar
Jimenez, president of the Cuban Film Institute, and Luis
Alberto Notario,
head of the institute's international co-production
wing. I'd spent time
with both of them on my earlier trip to Cuba.
We started catching up on
personal matters on the walk to the
customs office, until Hitch stepped
forward and unabashedly demanded
of Omar, "Sir, we must see the president!"
"Yes," Omar said. "We are aware of the request, and word
has been passed to
the president. We are still awaiting his

For the rest of that day and into the
following afternoon, we tortured our
hosts with the incessant
drumbeat: Raúl, Raúl, Raúl. I assumed if Fidel was

up to it and could make the time, he would call. And if not, I
appreciative of our prior meeting and said as much in a
note I passed to him
through Omar. Raúl I only knew about
through what I'd read, and I hadn't a
clue as to whether or not he'd
see us.

Cubans are a particularly warm and hospitable people.
As our hosts took us
around the city, I noticed that the number of
American 1950s cars had
diminished even in the few years since my
last trip, giving way to smaller
Russian designs. On a sweep by the
invasive-looking US Interests Section on
the Malecón, where
waves breaking against the sea wall shower passing cars,
I noticed
something almost indescribable about the atmosphere in Cuba. It is
the palpable presence of architectural and living human history on a
plot of land surrounded by water. Even the visitor feels the
spirit of a
culture that proclaims, in various ways, "This is
our special place."

We snaked through Old Havana, and in
a glass-encased display outside the
Museum of the Revolution we saw
the Granma, the boat used to transport Cuban
revolutionaries from
Mexico in 1956. We moved on to the Palace of Fine Arts,
with its
collection of passionate and political pieces from a cross section
of Cuba's deep talent pool. We then toured the Higher Institute of Arts
later went to dinner with National Assembly President Ricardo
Alarcón and
Roberto Fabelo, a painter they had invited after
I'd expressed appreciation
of his work at the art museum that
afternoon. By midnight there had still
been no word from Raúl
Castro. After that we were taken to the protocol
house, where we
would lay our heads till dawn.

By noon of the following day,
the clock was ticking loudly in our ears. We
had sixteen hours left
in Havana before we would have to head to the airport
to catch our
flights back home. We were sitting around a table at La
an upscale Old Havana eatery, with a large group of artists and
musicians who, led by the famed Cuban painter Kcho, had established
Martha Machado, an organization of volunteers aiding victims
of Hurricanes
Ike and Gustav on the Isle of Youth. The brigade has
the full support of
government dollars, airplanes and staff that
would be the envy of our Gulf
Coast volunteers after Hurricane
Katrina. Also joining us for lunch was
Antonio Castro Soto del
Valle, a handsome young man of humble character who
is the
39-year-old son of Fidel Castro. Antonio is a doctor and chief medic
for the Cuban national baseball team. I had a brief but pleasant chat
him and re-emphasized our Raúl agenda.

clock was no longer ticking. It was pounding. Omar told me we would be
hearing the decision of the president quite soon. Fingers crossed,
Hitch, Fernando and I went back to the protocol house to
get our bags packed
in advance. By 6 pm, we were on a ten-hour
countdown. I was sitting
downstairs in the living room, reading in
the hazy late-afternoon light.
Hitch and Douglas were in their
upstairs quarters, I assumed napping to
offset anxiety. And on the
couch beside me was Fernando, snoring away.

Then Luis appeared
at our open front door. I glanced over the top of my
glasses as he
gave me a very direct nod. Without words, I pointed
questioningly up
the stairs to where my companions lay. But Luis shook his
apologetically. "Only you," he said. The president had made his


I could hear Hitch's words of doubt echo in my
head, "Very rarely does only
one thing go wrong." Was he
talking about me? Et mi, Brute? Nonetheless, I
grabbed at my back
pocket to make sure I had my pad of Venezuela notes,
checked for my
pen, pocketed my specs and headed out with Luis. Just before
I shut
the door of the waiting car, I heard Fernando's voice calling after
me. "Sean!" We drove away.

I'm Off to See the

Stateside, Cuban President Raúl Castro, the
island's former minister of the
Armed Forces, has been branded a
"cold militarist" and a "puppet" of Fidel.
the once ponytailed young revolutionary of the Sierra Maestra is proving

the snakes wrong. Indeed, "Raulism" is on the rise
alongside a recent
industrial and agricultural economic boom.
Fidel's legacy, like that of
Chávez, will depend upon the
sustainability of a flexible revolution, one
that could survive its
leader's departure by death or resignation. Fidel has
once again
been underestimated by the North. In the selection of his brother
Raúl, he has put the day-to-day policy-making of his country into
hands. In a report by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs,
US State
Department spokesman John Casey acknowledges that Raulism
could lead to
"greater openness and freedom for the Cuban

Soon enough 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
Raúl's voice that recalls a lifetime of affectionate tolerance for
big brother's watchful eye. "He wants to know everything we
speak about," he
says with the chuckle of the wise. "I
never liked the idea of giving
interviews," he says. "One
says many things, but when they are published,
they become
shortened, condensed. The ideas lose their meaning. I was told
make long movies. Maybe you will make long journalism as well." I
promise him I'll write as fast as I can, and print as much as I write.
tells me he's informally promised his first interview as
elsewhere, and not wanting to multiply what could be
construed as an insult,
he singled me out from my companions.

Castro and I share a cup of tea. "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. Kennedy would not

stand with that defeat. Today we study US candidates very carefully,

focusing on McCain and Obama. We look at all the old speeches.
those made in Florida, where 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
been under absolute US rule for sixty years.

"The 1959
land reform was the Rubicon of our revolution. A death sentence
our US relations." Castro seems to be sizing me up as he takes
sip of his tea. "At that moment, there was no
discussion about socialism, or
Cuba dealing with Russia. But the die
was cast."

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
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
attacked at the Bay of Pigs!" He laughs and excuses himself
to an adjacent
restroom, briefly disappearing behind a wall, only to
immediately pop back
into the room, joking, "At 77, this is the
fault of the tea."

Joking aside, Castro moves with the
agility of a young man. He exercises
every day, his eyes are bright
and his voice is strong. He picks up where he
left off. "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!" So much for the "cold
militarist." Raúl Castro was warm, open,
energetic and
sharp of wit.

I return to the subject of US elections by
repeating the question Brinkley
had asked Chávez: 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. Until: "The US has
the most
complicated election process in the world. There are
practiced election
stealers in the Cuban-American lobby in
Florida..." I chime in, "I think
that lobby is
fracturing." And then, with the certainty of a die-hard
optimist, I say, "Obama will be our next president." Castro
seemingly at my naďveté, but the smile
disappears as he says, "If he is not
murdered before November
4, he'll be your next president." I note that he
had still not
answered my question about meeting in Washington. "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

Raúl interrupts himself:
"You are probably thinking, Oh, the brother talks
as much as
Fidel!" We laugh. "It is not usually so, but you know,
Fidel--once he had a delegation here, in this room, from China. Several

diplomats and a young translator. I think it was the translator's
first time
with a head of state. They'd all had a very long flight
and were jet-lagged.
Fidel, of course, knew this, but still he
talked for hours. Soon, one near
the end of the table, just there
[pointing to a nearby chair], his eyes
begin to get heavy. Then
another, then another. But Fidel, he continued to
talk. Soon all,
including the highest-ranking of them, to whom Fidel had
directly addressing his words, fell sound asleep in their chairs. So
Fidel, he turns his eyes to the only one awake, the young translator,
kept him in conversation till dawn." By this time in the
story, both Raúl
and I were in stitches. I'd only had the one
meeting with Fidel, whose
astonishing mind and passion bleed words.
But it was enough to get the
picture. Only our translator was not
laughing, as Castro returned to the

"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." I offer him
another opportunity to speak to the
American people. He answers, "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
but we can solve a good many of them."

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,
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 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.
example, we set a fire, and American helicopters bring water from the
bay, in concert with Cuban helicopters. [Before this] the American base
Guantánamo had created chaos. We had lost border guards,
and have graphic
evidence of it. 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
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." No name given. He
"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."

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."
Inside, I'm wondering, Have I got a big story to
break here? Or is
this of little relevance? It should be no surprise that
speak behind the scenes. What is a surprise is that he's talking to
me about it. And with that, I circle back to the question of a meeting
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. 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,
ruling Communist Party would win 80 percent of the electorate. I
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, ignoring the
slight, responds boldly, "We welcome the challenge."

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." Indeed, the US
Geological Survey speculates something in the area of 9 billion barrels
oil and 21 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves in the
North Cuba
Basin. Now that he's improved recently rocky relations
with Mexico, Castro
is looking at also improving prospects with the
European Union. "EU
relations should improve with Bush's
exit," he states confidently. "And the
US?" I ask.
"Listen," he says, "we are as patient as the Chinese.
percent of our population was born under the blockade. I am
longest-standing minister of Armed Forces in history.
Forty-eight and a half
years until last October. That's why I'm in
this uniform and continue to
work from my old office. In Fidel's
office, nothing has been touched. At the
Warsaw Pact military
exercises, I was the youngest, and the one who had been
there the
longest. Then, I was the oldest, and still the one who had been
there the longest. Iraq is a child's game compared with what would
happen if
the US invaded Cuba." After another sip of wine,
Castro says, "Preventing a
war is tantamount to winning a war.
This is in our doctrine."

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
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
"Being There. I like this movie very much. With the United
States, every objective possibility exists. The Chinese say: 'On the
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

"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?"

He considers the question
with caution, speaking in a slow and metered tone.
now," he says, "we have good relations with Colombia. But I will
that if there is a country in South America where an environment
exists that
is vulnerable to that...it is Colombia." Thinking
of Chávez's suspicion of
US intentions to intervene in
Venezuela, I take a deep breath.

The hour was getting late,
but I didn't want to leave without asking Castro
about allegations
of human rights violations and alleged narco-trafficking
by the Cuban government. A 2007 report by Human Rights Watch
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. As I await
Castro's comments, I
can't help but think of the nearby US prison at
Guantánamo and the
horrendous US offenses against human
rights there.

"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
Indeed, even high-profile Cuban dissidents, such as Eloy
Gutiérrez Menoyo, acknowledge the manipulations, accusing the US
Section of gaining dissident testimony through cash
payoffs. Ironically, 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
normally associated with Latin American dictatorships."

Having said that, I'm a proud American and infinitely aware that if I
were a
Cuban citizen and were to write an article such as this about
the Cuban
leadership, I could be jailed. Furthermore, I'm proud that
the system set up
by our founding fathers, while not exactly intact
today, was never dependent
on just one great leader per epoch. These
things remain in question for the
romantic heroes of Cuba and
Venezuela. I consider mentioning this, and
perhaps should have, but
I've got something else on my mind.

"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
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."

While this may sound like
tall-tale telling, not so, according to Col.
Lawrence Wilkerson, a
former adviser to Colin Powell. Wilkerson 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

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]
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

pauses, putting down his empty wine glass. "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."

As we exit his office, we are
followed by staff as President Castro takes me
down the elevator to
the lobby and walks me to my waiting car. I thank him
for the
generosity of his time. As my driver puts the car in gear, the
president taps on the window beside me. I roll it down as the president

checks his watch, realizing that seven hours have passed since we
began the
interview. Smiling, he says, "I will call Fidel now.
I can promise you this.
When Fidel finds I have spoken to you for
seven hours, he will be sure to
give you seven and a half when you
return to Cuba." We share a laugh and a
last handshake.

It had rained earlier in the night. In this early-hour darkness,
our tires
streaming over the wet pavement on a quiet Havana morning,
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.

Viva Cuba. Viva Venezuela. Viva USA.

When I got back to the protocol house, it was nearly 2 am. My old friend

Fernando, looking much the worse for wear, had waited up. My
companions had
had quite a night. Poor Fernando had taken the brunt
of their frustration.
They hadn't known where I'd gone, nor why I
had left them behind. And the
remaining Cuban officials they'd been
able to contact had insisted they stay
put, should either of the
Castro brothers spontaneously offer an audience.
So they had also
missed out on a last Cuban night on the town. After filling
me in,
Fernando went to get a couple hours' sleep. I stayed up reviewing my
notes and was first at the breakfast table, at 4:45 am. When Douglas and

Hitch ambled down the stairs, I put the edge of the tablecloth over
my head
in mock shame. I guess, under the circumstances, it was a
bit early (in more
than just the hour) to be testing their humor.
The joke didn't play. While
Fernando took a separate flight to
Buenos Aires, we had a quiet breakfast
and a quiet flight back to
home sweet home.

When we arrived in Houston, I realized I'd
underestimated the thick skin of
these two road-worn professionals.
Whatever ice I'd perceived earlier had
melted. We said our goodbyes,
celebrating what had been a thrilling several
days. Neither had been
so catty as to inquire into the content of my
interview, but
Christopher headed to his eastbound connection with a parting
"Well...I guess we'll read about it."

ˇSí, Se Puede!

I sat on the edge of my bed with
my wife, son and daughter, tears streaming
down my face, as Barack
Obama spoke for the first time as the
president-elect of the United
States of America. I closed my eyes and
started to see a film in my
head. I could hear the music too, appropriately
the Dixie Chicks
covering a Fleetwood Mac song over slow-motion images in
There they were: Bush, Hannity, Cheney, McCain, Limbaugh and
Robertson. I saw them all. And the song was rising as the image of Sarah

Palin took over the screen. Natalie Maines sweetly sang,

And I saw my reflection in the snow-covered hills
till the
landslide brought me down.
Landslide brought me down...

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About Sean Penn
Actor/filmmaker Sean Penn's pieces have appeared
in the San Francisco
Chronicle, Time, Rolling Stone and at
HuffingtonPost.com, among others.


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Received on Thu Nov 27 20:45:05 2008

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