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Conversation Between Fidel and Chavez After Coup Illustrates Their Humanity, Restraint

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Fidel Castro just released the full transcript of the phone call he had with then President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, just after Chavez returned to power 72 hours after being overthrown and kidnapped in the unconstitutional coup of April 11 to April 13, 2002. The transcript is both entertaining and illuminating, as it shows these two leaders, and very close friends, conversing freely and uninhibited about what Fidel refers to in the conversation as the greatest event he had ever witnessed.

The call opens with shared laughter between the two leaders, and with Fidel confessing that he had been unable to sleep because of the excitement of events. Chavez then quickly jumps to the story of what happened.

First, he talks about how he was kidnapped by the coup leaders and led away to five different locations until finally being brought to La Orchila, an island and military base off the coast of Venezuela. Chavez explains that he was able to talk to some of his loyal soldiers, who he refers to affectionately as "muchachos," and how they informed him that there were troops ready to mobilize with tanks and air support to try to save him. However, as Chavez explains to Fidel, he ordered these troops to stand down and to "Hold your position." Fidel interrupts him, finishing his thought, saying, that this was the right call "because a battle or even a civil war" could have broken out if such action were taken. Chavez confirms that this was his rationale, and explains that, in the end, "I decided to give myself up."

To get a good glimpse of Chavez being led away from the presidential palace, Miraflores, to the helicopter which would take him away to places he knew not where, one should watch the film, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. This film shows Chavez being taken away to the tears, chants and songs of his supporters and Cabinet members. Chavez gently tells them, as he is led away like Jesus by the Centurions, that they should not worry because he will be back.

Meanwhile, as Chavez later explains in the conversation with Fidel, the coup leaders tried to force Chavez to resign his presidency at various times during the short-lived coup, including before they led him away from Miraflores, but that he had refused. While not discussed in this conversation, some accounts have it that Fidel had actually managed to call into Miraflores around midnight of April 11 to urge Chavez not to resign, but also to guard his life. Then Minister of Defense, Jose Vicente Rangel, has been quoted as saying that "the call from Fidel was decisive so that there was no self-immolation. It was the determinant factor. His advice allowed us to see better in the darkness."

Despite the fact that Chavez refused to resign, the coup leaders, which had taken over all the media outlets, attempted to sew confusion amongst the Venezuelan population by claiming that he had in fact done so.

Chavez recounts that, when things looked very bleak, a "soldier boy" named Rodriquez entered his small cell where he was being held prisoner, and asked him: "Look, my Commander, did you quit?" "No," Chavez answered, "nor will I give up." "Well, okay," Rodriquez replied, "I have two minutes here. I'm going to ask a favor." The favor he asked was that Chavez jot down a note explaining that he had not resigned, and to leave the note in the garbage. Chavez agreed, writing a note to "All the Venezuelan people and to whom it may concern, I have not given up, ever!" Chavez explains that this young soldier then took that note out of the garbage and faxed it far and wide. This became critical in galvanizing his supporters inside and outside Miraflores to successfully demand his return.

Chavez explains to Fidel that he ended up enjoying his stay in the military base in La Orchilla because he was able to talk to the rank-in-file soldiers and to learn about their struggles. As Chavez related, "Ah, that's another thing that helped me a lot, Fidel: conversations with the soldiers, you hear their complaints . . . . So much complaining about their bosses . . . . [T]hey had been forgotten, fuck, they have economic problems, there are very old facilities, they lack resources for training, for maintenance of weapons. Then I began to get all of those things for them, right? And that's a lesson. . . . . You have to get down, and hear them, their problems."

It was indeed Chavez's rapport with the low-ranking soldiers that probably saved his life, for while the coup leaders, having failed to convince Chavez to leave the country aboard an airplane with U.S. serial numbers, ordered that Chavez be killed. However, they could never find a soldier who was willing to carry out this order.

Indeed, in the end, Chavez was returned to power because of his rapport with the people, especially the poor of Venezuela who gathered in the tens of thousands to demand his return. Again, the film The Revolution Will Not Be Televised portrays this very well.

Fidel released this transcript now for an obvious reason: to show the benevolent nature of the Chavista revolution as compared to the coup leaders, many of whom continue to lead the violent protests against the government now. During their conversation, both Fidel and Chavez explain that the coup leader who assumed leadership very briefly, businessman Pedro Carmona, reminded them of Mussolini in that he quickly dissolved the National Assembly, the Supreme Court and declared the nationally-approved Constitution of 1999 null and void -- not exactly the act of a democrat.

Not surprisingly, the U.S. immediately expressed its support for the dictatorial coup government in 2002, just as it is supporting the opposition now. There are obvious lessons to be learned here, and hopefully the American people will learn them in time.