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Mountain of Snakes (Part II)

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The following is Part II of Sean Penn's piece, Mountain of Snakes (Read Part I here)

HOLA FERNANDO, COMO ESTA?

I wanted to cut through the crap. I had digested my earlier visits to Venezuela and Cuba and time spent with Chavez and Fidel Castro. I had grown increasingly intolerant of the propaganda. Though Chavez himself has a penchant for rhetoric, never has it been a cause for war. By this time I had come to say to friends in private, "It's true, Chavez may not be a good man. But, he may well be a great one." Among those to whom I said this were historian and author, Professor Douglas Brinkley, and Vanity Fair writer and author Christopher Hitchens. As both had expressed interest in accompanying me on any further trips to Venezuela, and particularly because I wanted a cross-section of voices to share in discussion of Chavez and Venezuela with the American people, these two were perfect compliments, as Brinkley, a notably steady thinker whose historian's code of ethics assures adherence to supremely reasoned evidence. And Hitchens, a wily wordsmith, ever too unpredictable for pre-disposition, is a wild card by any measure, who had once referred to Chavez as an "oil-rich clown." Though I believe Hitchens to be as principled as he is brilliant, Oxford educated Christopher can be combative to the point of bullying as he once was in severe comments made about saintly anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan. He is also a man of volcanically un-predictable politics. His presence would balance any perceived bias in my own writing. That said, these are a couple of guys I have a lot of fun with and affection for. So, I called Fernando Sulichin and asked that he get them vetted and approved to interview Chavez. Additionally, we wanted to fly from Venezuela to Havana, and I asked that he request on our behalf, interviews with the Castro brothers, most urgently, Raul. The phone rang at two o'clock the following afternoon. "Mi hermano," Fernando said. "It is done."

Our flight from Houston to Caracas was delayed due to mechanical problems. It was one o'clock in the morning, we had been de-planed an hour after boarding. Brinkley and I sat in chairs with our legs splayed, bent at the knees over our carry-on baggage. Hitchens paced. "Very rarely does only one thing go wrong." Christopher said. And, he must've liked the way it sounded, because he said it again. "Very rarely does only one thing go wrong." He was god's pessimist. I said, "Hitch, it's 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 go wrong indeed. Well, right and wrong. But that's for later. Within two hours, we were taking off for Caracas.

When we landed in Caracas airport, Fernando was there to greet us. After brief introductions, Fernando guided us to a private terminal, just a short walk through the airport. There, we waited in an area generally reserved for traveling diplomats. We were served a little breakfast and waited for the arrival of President Chavez. His plane was waiting on the tarmac and we would join him on a stumping tour for gubernatorial candidates on the beautiful island of Isla Margarita.

We spent the next two days in his constant company with unfiltered access, and 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 the English language 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 on this doctrine of such glaring loopholes and interventionary justification. "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 vs. Bolivar. 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." Venezuelan Intelligence tells him that the Pentagon has plans for invading his country. "I know they are thinking about invading Venezuela," Chavez 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." He confirmed that he is buying weapons with his petrobillions, but contrary to pundit's spin, insists he "has never, will never have death squads." Does it concern him what U.S. reaction may be to the boldness of his statements about the Monroe Doctrine? He quotes Uruguayan freedom fighter Jose Gervasio Artigas, "With the truth, I don't offend or fear."

Hitchens sits quietly, taking notes throughout this 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. He 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." His admiration for Castro is nothing if not childlike. And he makes no attempt to hide it. In confessing Fidel's repetition of this final line, "More than once Castro told me..." he also reveals the affection of the elder romantic mentor toward Chavez. It's simultaneously an admission of his need for fatherly reminders in cautioning that he be sure to differentiate between the revolutions of Cuba and Venezuela.

"You see," Chavez says, "Venezuela must have democratic socialism. Castro has been a teacher for me. A master. Not as an ideology, but as strategy." Perhaps ironically, John F. Kennedy was Chavez's favorite U.S. President. "I was a boy," he says, "Kennedy was the driving force to 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 of Progress was a good thing?" "Yes," says Chavez, "The Alliance of Progress was a political proposal to improve conditions. It was aimed at lowering the social difference between cultures." I am becoming increasingly aware of the complexity in Venezuela's man of the plains. At once, he is the romantic hero of a continent's demand for respect, and an old-school visionary whose implicit responsibility is to hold back the tide of outside empires. And that has been known to distract him from respecting those within his own party. But you can't help but believe in the grace of his hope and affection for his people. And his people are no pushover.

Conversation among the four of us continues on buses, at rallies, and at dedications throughout Isla Margarita. Chavez is, quite literally, tireless. He addresses every new group for hours on end under a blistering sun. At most he'll sleep four hours at night, and spends the first hour of his morning reading news of the world. But once he's on his feet, or at his podium, he's unstoppable despite the heat, the humidity, and the two layers of revolutionary red shirts he wears. Not so, Hitch, Brinks, and I. So, during the final rally of the day, not far from the Bay of Tyrants, where the maniacal conquistador Aguirre had made landfall after navigating the Amazon, the three of us found refuge in an air-conditioned oasis. Wendy's hamburger restaurant. Ol' Trot that he is, Hitchens could barely stomach the real estate of a global franchise. Not to be beaten into its homogenization, (or for that matter, hegemony) he attempted to spike our Coca-Colas, as he had his own, with Cuban rum from a bottle he'd pulled out his duffel. As I put my hand over the top of my cup, feeling dehydrated enough, thank you very much, I asked Christopher where he'd gotten the rum. He smiled and said, "Your amigo Fernando is a top man."

HI CUBA! CAN FIDEL AND RAUL COME OUT TO PLAY?

That night, Hitch, Douglas, Fernando, and I decided to venture out into town. We hit a casino for a few drinks, and even made a short stop in a bikini bar for a night cap. Chavez would have frowned upon these establishments, and further upon our patronage, but it was the only research available at night and a journalist has to do what a journalist has to do. We made short time of it and got some rest, as Cuba was in our sights. While my understanding through Fernando had been that this piece of the puzzle had been confirmed and approved, somewhere in the cultural, language and telephonic breakdown had been a misunderstanding. Meanwhile, CBS News was expecting a report from Brinkley, Vanity Fair magazine from Hitchens, and I was writing on behalf of The Nation magazine, and had pretty well assured them that access to the Castro's was forthcoming.

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," Douglas 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." He shook hands with Christopher; they said their goodbyes, then with Douglas. When it was my turn, I put my hand on the president's shoulder, encouraging him to turn away from the crowd so I could ask him a question privately. "Mr. President," I said, "It is very important for us to meet with the Castros. It is impossible to tell the story of Venezuela without including Cuba. And impossible to tell the story of Cuba, without the Castros." He answered my private question publicly and unguardedly, opening to include Douglas and Christopher. He promised us that he would call President Castro the moment he got on the plane to return to Caracas, which would be minutes after our conversation. He promised he would ask him on our behalf, but warned us that it was unlikely that big brother Fidel would be able to respond so quickly as he was doing a lot of writing and reflecting these days, not seeing a lot of people. He could make no promises about Raul either. What I didn't know at the time was how low the odds were that Raul would see us. Shamefully, I don't know how to turn on a computer, much less Google anything, and so I hadn't bothered, by this point, to look up past interviews given by Raul. Had I done so, I would've found that there were none; that he had never granted one. But Chavez promised he would try, boarded his plane, and we watched him fly away.

The next morning, we took off for Havana. Full disclosure: We were loaned an airplane through the Venezuelan Ministry of Energy and Petroleum. If someone wants to refer to that as a pay-off, be my guest. But when you read the next 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 uninfluenced.

For me the personal stakes were pretty high. I'd mistakenly understood that the vetting and approvals for giving the three of us access to Raul Castro had been confirmed before we left the United States. Getting on the plane to Havana, now shy of that guarantee, was making me anxious. Christopher had pulled out of a few important speaking engagements very last minute, to make the trip. It was neither his practice nor reputation to leave others holding the bag. So for him, it was buy or bust, and he was becoming agitated. Douglas, a professor of history at Rice University, would have to return imminently for lecture obligations. Fernando was feeling the weight of expectation, that he'd be our battering ram. And me, well, I was depending on the call to Castro from Chavez, both to get the interview, and save my ass with my companions.

"VERY RARELY DOES ONLY ONE THING GO WRONG."

We landed in Havana around noon and were met on the tarmac by Omar Gonzalez Jimenez and Luis Alberto Notario. Respectively, president of the Cuban Film Institute and head of the institute's international co-production wing. I'd spent time with both of them on my prior trip to Cuba. We started catching up on the walk to the custom's office. How are the kids? How big are they now? So on and so forth, when 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 response." Omar then told me, that Fidel too, was aware of my visit, and asked how long I would be staying in Cuba. I told him we only had two days due to nonadjustable commitments at home. "Two days? It's very short, yes?" "Yes," I said, "but that's what we have." He twisted his face around the idea of accomplishing any part of our request with such little time. "Uh, well, we shall see." he said. After our passports and press credentials got a looking over, we got into a car with Omar and Luis and headed into the city. For the rest of that day and into the following afternoon, we tortured our hosts with the incessant drumbeat: Raul -- Raul -- Raul. I assumed if Fidel were up to it and could make the time, he would call. And if not, I remained appreciative of our prior meeting and said as much in a note I passed on to him through Omar. Raul, I only knew about by what I'd read, and I hadn't a clue as to whether or not he'd see us.

Cubans are particularly warm and hospitable people. Our hosts took us around the city. I noticed that the number of 1950s American 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 U.S. Interests Section on the Malecon, where waves breaking against the sea wall shower passing cars, I noticed something almost indescribable about the atmosphere in Cuba. The palpable presence of architectural, and living human history on a small 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 Habana Vieja, 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 to Cuba in 1956 for the purpose of overthrowing the regime of Fulgencio Batista. We moved on to the Palace of Fine Arts, and browsed its collection of passionate and political pieces from a broad cross-section of Cuba's deep talent pool. We then toured the Higher Institute of Arts, and later went to dinner with National Assembly President Alarcon and Roberto Fabelo, a painter they had invited after I expressed appreciation of his work at the art museum that afternoon. By midnight, there had still been no word from Raul 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. At that point, we had thirteen hours left in Havana before we would have to head to the airport to catch our flights to the United States via Cancun, Mexico. Tempering the drink to stay sober, should we suddenly get some good news, Hitch sat quietly, the Havana humidity styling his fine hair like so many strands of wet spaghetti. Douglas, his hair defying geography by remaining as steady as his temperament talks up the cuisine. Me, I got a bouffant, and I'm gorging. And Fernando, bald as a billiard, smiled in delight. We were all around a table at Le Castellana, an upscale Old Havana eatery, with a large group of artists and musicians who, led by, the famed Cuban painter Kcho, had established Brigada Martha Mashado (named for his mother) an organization of volunteers aiding victims of Hurricanes Ike and Gustav on the Isle of Youth that suffered devastating Category 3 hits on both occasions. The brigade has the full support of government dollars, airplanes, and staff that would be the envy of Gulf Coast volunteers. Also joining us for lunch was Antonio Castro Soto del Valle, a handsome young man of humble character (Cuba is essentially a snob-free zone) who is the 39-year old son of Fidel Castro, a doctor and chief medic for the Cuban national baseball team. I had a brief, but pleasant chat with him and re-emphasized our "Raul" agenda.

The clock was no longer ticking. It was pounding. Omar told me we would be hearing the decision of the president quite soon. Fingers crossed, Douglas, Hitch, Fernando, and I went back to our protocol house to get our bags packed up in advance so that we could jump on a dime. By 6pm, 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 snoring away, was Fernando, on the couch beside me. 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 head apologetically. "Only you," he said. The president had made his decision.

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 my waiting car, I heard Fernando's voice calling after me. "Sean!" We drove away.

I'M OFF TO SEE THE WIZARD.

Stateside, Cuban President Raul Castro, the island's former Minister of the Armed Forces, had been touted a "cold militarist," and "puppet" of Fidel. The once ponytailed young revolutionary of the Sierra Maestras was proving the snakes wrong. Indeed, "Raoulism" was on the rise alongside a recent industrial and agricultural economic boom. Fidel's legacy, as that of Chavez (Walking a highwire of potentially over-abundant power) and socialism would depend upon the sustainability of a flexible revolution. A revolution that could survive its leaders departure by death or resignation. A revolution for the people. Fidel had once again, been underestimated by the North. In the selection of his brother Raul, he had put the day to day policy making of his country into formidable hands. In a report by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, U.S. State Department spokesman John Casey acknowledges that "Raoulism" could lead to "greater openness and freedom for the Cuban people."

So as I said, I'm sitting with a fresh pad of paper at a small polished table with the biggest bunch of goddamn American hair on my head you ever saw. I thanked the president for the pad.

"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 a chuckle of the wise. "Why am I here?" I wonder. "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 you 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. He'd informally promised his first interview as president elsewhere, and not wanting to multiply what could be construed as an insult, he singled me out from my companions. The call from Chavez couldn't have hurt. Then, I bust the move, adding, "I feel it's very important for my country to hear your voice, and for that reason, I brought Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Brinkley as well." But of course, Castro doesn't take the bait. I can see my friends back at the protocol house, having heard Fernando's yell; they scurry down the stairs rubbing their eyes, and without missing a beat, Christopher shakes his head, cursing Fernando -- They decided only to see Sean, didn't they? Bastards!

Castro and I share a cup of tea. "Forty-six years ago today, at exactly this time of day, we mobilized troops, Alamieda in the interior, Che Guevara to the west, Fidel in Havana, and me in Oriente. It had been announced at noon in Washington that President Kennedy would give a speech. This was during the missile crisis. We anticipated 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 U.S. candidates very carefully, focusing on McCain and Obama. We look at all the old speeches. Particularly those made in Florida, where opposing Cuba has become a for-profit business for many. In Cuba we have one party, but in the U.S. there is very little difference. Both parties are an expression of the ruling class." He indicates that today's Miami Cuban lobby are descendants of Batista-era wealth, or international land owners, "who'd only paid pennies for their land," while Cuba had been under absolute U.S. rule for sixty years. "The 1959 land reform (Agrarian Reform Law) was the Rubicon of our revolution. A death sentence for our U.S. relations." Castro seems to be sizing me up as he takes another sip of his tea. "At this 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. Raul 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 when the U.S. 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, exercises everyday, his eyes are bright and his voice is strong. He returns, picking 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." Raul Castro was warm, open, energetic, and sharp of wit. He goes on to tell me that, "The U.S. had sent advance reconnaissance operatives from a pool of trained Cuban exiles to the Bay of Pigs. They came over by small boat to cut landing marks into the beach head during the night. Because Cubans cannot live without singing, talking, and snoring, they had been observed. It was this that affirmed suspicions that the American plan of attack would begin at the Bay of Pigs."

I return to the subject of elections in the U.S. by repeating the question Brinkley had asked Chavez. Would Castro accept an invitation to Washington to meet with a President Obama? Castro becomes reflective. "This is an interesting question," he says, followed by a rather long, awkward silence. Until, "The U.S. 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," I tell him. And then, with the certainty of a die-hard optimist, I say, "Obama will be our next president." He smiles, seemingly at my naivete, but the smile disappears as he says, "If he is not murdered before November 4th, 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 was open to discussion with anyone." Recognizing his own jag, he 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 been directly addressing his words, fell sound asleep in their chairs. So, Fidel, he turns his eyes to the only one awake, the young translator, and kept him in conversation till dawn." By this time in the story, both Raul and I were in stitches. I'd only had the one meeting with Fidel, whose astonishing mind and passion bleeds words. But it was enough to get the picture. Only our translator was not laughing, as Castro returns to the point.

"My first statement after Fidel fell ill, I said, we are willing to discuss our relationship with the U.S. on equal footing. Later, in 2006, I said it again in an address at the Revolutionary Square. I was laughed at by the U.S. 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 problems, 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, by someone in the U.S. State Department, but was quickly hushed in concern of 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 U.S. military, by secret agreement since 1994. It is based on the premise that we would discuss issues only related to Guantanamo. On February 17th, 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 4th and July 1st, the Rafters Crisis took place. A military-to-military hot line was established, and on May 9th, 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. For example, we set a fire, American helicopters bring water from the bay, in concert with Cuban helicopters. The American base at Guantanamo had created chaos. We had lost border guards, and have graphic evidence of it. The wet-foot/dry-foot policy of the U.S. had encouraged illegal, and dangerous emigration. And had U.S. coastguard ships intercepting Cubans who tried to leave the island. They would bring them to Guantanamo 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, also, at the Friday meetings, is always a representative of the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 of no surprise that enemies speak behind the scenes. We know of these negotiations even between Israel and the PLO. What is a surprise is that he's saying it. And with that, 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 U.S. embargo on Cuba, has never been more evident than now, in the wake of three devastating hurricanes. As the Cuban people's needs for materials, in particular, due to a devastated electrical grid, has never been more desperate. The embargo is simply inhumane and entirely unproductive. He 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 U.S. State Department, and prominent dissidents acknowledge that in a free open election in Cuba today, the ruling Communist party would win 80 percent of the electorate. I list off several U.S. conservatives who have been critical of the embargo, from the late economist Milton Friedman, to Colin Powell, to even Texas Republican 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 a Cuban dinner. "Let me tell you something," he says, "We have newly advanced research which strongly suggests deep-water offshore oil reserves U.S. companies can come and drill. We can negotiate. The U.S. 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," he explains, "God would be unfair not to give some oil to us. I don't believe he would deprive us this way. We must have oil there." Indeed, the U.S. 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. With Cuba's relations with Mexico on the mend, Castro is looking at improving prospects with the European Union. "EU relations should improve with Bush's exit," he states confidently. We sip our wine. "And the U.S.?" I ask. "Listen," he says, "We are as patient as the Chinese. 70% of our population was born under the blockade. I am the 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 to what would happen if the U.S. 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 there 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 says, 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 U.S. 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 Free Trade 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. "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 (a long beat)...it is Colombia." Thinking of Chavez's suspicion of intended U.S. intervention in Venezuela, I take a deep breath.

"Am I making you tired?" he asks me. I told him, no, and I meant it. Nonetheless, the hour was getting late, and in respect, I felt I should take the cue. But, not before I ask him about allegations of human rights violations and alleged narco-trafficking imposed and facilitated by the Cuban government. In a 2007 report by Human Rights Watch, "Cuba," it states, "remains the one country in Latin America that represses nearly all forms of political dissent." Furthermore, there are an estimated 200 political prisoners in Cuba today, approximately 4% of which who are convicted of crimes of non-violent dissent. As I await Castro's comments, I can't help but think of nearby US prison at Guantanamo and the horrendous offenses by the U.S. on human rights there. Castro would say this much, "No country is 100% free of human rights abuses." But, he insisted that, "Reports in the U.S. media are highly exaggerated and hypocritical." Indeed, even high profile dissidents in Cuba acknowledge the manipulations, accusing the U.S. Interests Section of gaining dissident testimony through cash payoffs. Ironically, in 1992 and 1994, 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."

Still, as a proud American, I'm infinitely aware that, were I to write such an article as this, with as many dissenting opinions as a Cuban citizen speaking of Cuba, as I have the US in these pages, I may well be jailed. Furthermore, I'm astounded that the reasoning of our founding fathers, while somewhat un-intact today, had never been dependent on just one great leader per epoch; things that remain in question for the romantic heroes of Cuba. And Venezuela? Chavez tells a story of Fidel. "Chavez," Fidel said, "History will absolve us." To which Chavez humbly responds, "No Commandante, history will absolve you. I cannot yet claim this." "Okay," Fidel concedes, with a smile, "But history told me it will absolve you." The challenge to Chavez is enormous. He must keep his head above the waters of drowning personal power, without getting it shot off, and his revolution must not fire a shot. It is in US interest to help him and his country's revolution succeed. I think to mention those things, to bounce them off Raul, 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 between the U.S. and its suppliers. It is a big problem for us. In the past, when Cuban or American officials intercepted smuggling vessels on our common seas, often, smugglers would throw their drugs overboard, and the currents would sometimes wash bundles of packaged drugs onto the shores of our archipelago. Locals would immediately surrender these drugs to Cuban officials, as strict narcotics laws here, limited the local market. But 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 advisor to Colin Powell. Wilkerson told Reese Erlich in a January 2008 interview that, "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."

I want to ask Castro my unanswered question a final time, as our mutual body language suggests we've hit the witching hour. It was post-1am, 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. 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." He pauses, putting down his now 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."

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, get into the car and close the door. As my driver puts the car in gear, there is a tap on the window beside me. I roll it down to the president, who after checking his watch, has realized, seven hours had passed since we began the interview. Smiling, he says, "I will call Fidel now. (It was 1:15am) 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 the wet pavement, isolated in a quiet Havana morning, it strikes me that even the most basic belief in sovereignty offers substantial insight into the complexities of U.S. antagonism toward Cuba and Venezuela, as well as the controversiality of those countries internal policies. They've only ever had two choices: to be imperfectly ours, or imperfectly their own. All three of our countries harbor grim and glorious realities, tarnished hope and living dreams. We all share an undying demand for respect. In the United States, we have grown up chanting the mantra, "We are the greatest country on earth." Feels good and patriotic to say, doesn't it? But think. Think how much better it might be for ourselves and our children to discover it to be a MIS-statement of truth. Would we not be better served if we could legitimately celebrate our place AMONG the great countries and cultures of a diverse world? I decide that night to join the Castros and Hugo Chavez in believing it can be so with Barack Obama. As a kid born 1960 to assassinations of American leaders, the Vietnam war, and Watergate, I'm gonna roll the dice this one more time -- Viva Cuba. Viva Venezuela. Viva U.S.A.

When I got back to the protocol house, it was nearly 2am. My old friend Fernando, looking much 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. To see Raul? Fidel? Both? Nor why I had left them behind. And the remaining Cuban officials who they'd been able to contact, had insisted they stay put should either of the Castro brothers spontaneously offer an audience. This never came to fruition. Therefore, they additionally had missed out on, at least enjoying a 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 4:45am. When Douglas and Hitch ambled down the stairs, I put the edge of the table cloth 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 and whatever ice I'd perceived, melted. We said our goodbyes, celebrating what had been a thrilling several days. As neither had been so catty as to inquire into the content of my interview, Christopher headed to his eastbound connection with a parting word, "Well..I guess we'll read about it."

SI, 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 montage. There they were: Bush, Hannity, Cheney and McCain, Limbaugh, Robertson, Luis Posada Carilles...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..."

And so, we should hope, will go what remains of this, our mountain of snakes.

An excerpt of this piece originally appeared in The Nation and thenation.com November 26, 2008

(To comment on this piece, please go to Part I, here)