The following is Part I of Sean Penn's piece, Mountain of Snakes (Read Part II here)
The disadvantages of being a writer, who is often written about, are numerous. I begin with an enthusiastic call to my 81-year old mother, hoping to share my enthusiasm from an assignment abroad. "Hey ma..." "I know," she says, "You're on Jupiter, it's all over the Internet. They say you're cavorting with the planet's president! They say he's anti-earth! And Sean, why is your hair so big in the pictures?" I muse, "Lack of gravity?" "That's what Hannity said!!" she tells me. It seems that American movies are pretty popular in far away places, and one must dance a bit to avoid being more a spun story, than the true story one intends to tell. However, there are also grand upsides.
I have been in the public eye to varying degrees, for most of my 48 years, and had many occasions to sit in the front row of popular and political culture. I can speak in firsthand, to bearing witness to an often untruthful, reckless and demonizing media. Yes, in many cases, the smoke would prove an accurate expectation of fire. But, the fact is, that our most respected, call that mainstream media, in print and on television are, in part, conscious manufacturers of deception. In one case, I have photographic evidence. It was widely reported that I had commissioned my own photographer to self-promote my involvement among many other volunteers in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. This simply did not happen. Though the notion of self-promotion had not occurred to me, I did later regret that I had not gotten some snaps of the devastation I saw. I will probably bring someone along to document the next fuck-up of media or government. Meanwhile, I challenge anyone to hunt up the few pictures that were taken by the random photojournalists who'd stumbled upon me, and find a single one that would've passed the test of my own narcissistic scrutiny. But a benefit greater than the insight offered by this front row seat, is finding that having a public persona, inclusive of a perceived open mind to the qualities of countries outside one's own, may grant breathtaking access.
Who'd a thunk? There I was with the biggest hair on the planet. Oh yeah. Big, big hair. It does that in the tropics. It gets big. And I mean American big, baby. And there I was with my big, American hair, finding faith in American democracy in the unlikeliest of places. Sitting in the Salon de Protocol at the Convention Palace in Havana's Miramar district, all I had to do was tell the five-foot-six bespectacled man who sat in the chair across from me in his khaki dress militaries, that these words would not be published until after the American election. And with that, granting his first ever interview to a foreign journalist since the beginning of the 1957 Cuban revolution, President Raul Castro smiled warmly and simply said, "We want Obama." His initial reluctance was due to a concern that an endorsement by a Cuban president might be detrimental to the Obama candidacy. And this is where the faith came in: Though Obama would be the 11th American president in the long history of the Castro brother's reign, and despite tumultuous U.S. Cuban relations since what Henry Cabot Lodge called, "the large policy," as justification for American violations of the Teller amendment in the late 1800s. Despite multiple assassination attempts by the CIA on his older brother Fidel, the destabilization tactics of Robert F. Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs, The Platt Amendment with the taking of Guantanamo Bay, and even despite an endless and unjustified embargo (in effect: blockade) on Cuba by the United States, here we were in 2008, and Raul Castro said flat out that if the American people, who today stand with candidate Barack Obama, continue to stand with President Barack Obama, then "meaningful and productive advances could be achieved in Cuba and the world."
In my anticipation of a brief interview, I pulled from my pocket the dwindling remains of my small note pad. Again, Castro smiled, and slid a fresh, full pad across the small polished table to me. We would spend the next seven hours together.
TWO WEEKS EARLIER.
Pausing a channel-surf session, I watched CNN's former chunky ex-junkie blowhard Glenn Beck's dissertation on Wall Street's collapse. For the self-proclaimed "thinker," there were no ifs, ands, or buts about it. The failure of Wall Street was "not a failure of free market capitalism," but rather, one of "greed." I remember a host of bloated black and white "thinkers" in need of attention by way of glib speech from my school days -- loud in class, loud in the school yard, and loud on the bus home. And just like them, Glennie-boy was ignoring substance to maximize the short window of attention he could muster. Free market capitalism and greed in the hands of humans are, in fact, a marriage that never rids itself of the demon. They are of one body. It can be said that Ronald Reagan marked the end of the Roosevelt era, and perhaps, that Barack Obama may mark the end of Reagan's. But historically, our system is a swing, we raise high to the breeze at our back, swing low, nearly taking off our feet, then sway high again to the wind in our face. But that low swing, never low enough to pick up the men and women on the ground. It is a human cycle subject to a monetary one. But with population exploding globally, we seem to tighten up the links and raise the seat higher with every cycle. More and more are left off the swing below. In the last days of this year's presidential campaign, the outcry from the right, and the cry out from the left, has rejuvenated the fears, the possibilities, the values, and the necessity to consider aspects of socialism.
As Americans, we are citizens of a complex society, and the aspiration, at least, is to think with the complexity that will match it. In the best of times, in my life as an American, there have been several Americas. There is the America of the wealthy and corporate elite. An America of the middle and lower middle-classes. And there are the millions of poor, plagued by joblessness, inadequate education, inadequate or no healthcare, racial prejudices, and a trickle down philosophy of economics, where what trickles is caught and recycled before it ever reaches bottom. It is what, in my first meeting with President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, he referred to as "an unsustainable society." Should our country fear socialism, while blindly advocating capitalism? Are there models of sustainable societies? Do we prefer unsustainability to change if any aspect of that change could be defined as "socialist?"
It was Tuesday, September 11th, when the United States government financed the coup that overtook and assassinated the democratically elected socialist leader of Chile, Salvador Allende, in 1973. And our illustrious Secretary of State Henry Kissinger celebrated "the victory" by installing General Augusto Pinochet. It has been our pattern since the early 1900s to attempt to demonize socialist leaders, destabilize socialist countries, and exercise the will of American banking and raw material interests in those countries (Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Chile, and quite notably, Cuba). But perhaps more than ever, it is in America's self-interest to re-educate itself and collaborate, as the human faces of socialism increasingly mirror our own.
But here's the thing: I'm not a socialist. Or at least not entirely so. As an American, I've got a little Al Capone in me. I like the idea of individual achievement. Just not against a background of hopeless oppression.
Playwright David Mamet posed a notion in a monologue spoken by the Al Capone character in his screenplay for The Untouchables:
A man becomes preeminent; he is expected to have enthusiasms. Enthusiasms. What are mine? What draws my admiration? What is that which give me joy? Baseball.
A man. A man stands alone at the plate. This is the time for what? For individual achievement. There he stands alone. But in the field, what? Part of a team.
Looks, throws, catches, hustles, part of one big team. He bats himself the live-long-day, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and so on: if his team don't fieldÉyou follow me? What is he? No one. Sunny day, the stands are fulla fans. What does he have to say? I'm goin' out there for myself. But I get nowhere unless the team wins!
Enthusiasms. I'm enthusiastic about exploring socialism. Personal achievement. Well, in this case, I hope to achieve the reader's continued interest.
On a 2005 family Christmas trip to Cuba, traveling under the auspices of religious tourism, my wife, our children and I were received in a private midnight meeting with then-President Fidel Castro and the great Colombian novelist and nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Prior to our departure from the United States, I had sat my children down with documentaries of the Cuban revolution. In particular, my daughter had been offended by the history of oppression toward homosexuals in Cuba, and had made it clear to her father, that if offered the opportunity to meet directly with Castro, she would refuse it. Marquez invited us to his house. We walked in, and there, in the living room alone, sat Fidel Castro. Taken by surprise by the meeting, and being a polite then 14-year old, my daughter took her place in the room and waited her turn to attack.
Fidel grabbed my arm and seated me beside him. He began the conversation questioning my then 12-year old son about the curriculum in his public school. Did he know how far was the earth from the sun? Did he know voltage from kilowatts? The grilling went for a straight half hour, and Castro's demeanor was of the strict grandfather, hiding his affectionate smile behind his lips while demanding knowledge with curiosity. It seemed to me that he could feel my daughter's chilly demeanor. And at just the appropriate moment, still without a word from her, he asked what it is that's bothering her. She answered, "Why do you not offer the same human rights to homosexuals in Cuba as to heterosexuals? Why have you persecuted them?" She was ready for a fight. But no fight was forthcoming. Not even a hint of defensiveness. Castro seemed nothing but impressed with the question, patiently explaining that while homophobia had not been invented in Cuba, it had deep cultural roots, and that he and the revolution had many mistakes as a result. But that there is an evolution involved in the process of change. And while they still made mistakes, there had been tremendous growth. (In 1979, Cuba abolished anti-sodomy laws. Today in Cuba, affirmation of same sex unions is scheduled for 2009, surpassing the pace of U.S. social reforms, and sexual re-assignment surgeries come compliments of the public health service) My daughter was disarmed and it was my turn.
Castro had read pieces I had published in the San Francisco Chronicle from my trips to Iraq and Iran. We talked for three or so hours, and the passion of this dynamic figure of walking-breathing history had intensified my growing interest in Latin American history. Before we parted ways, we all took a few pictures together, and with Fidel standing in his signature green fatigues and cap, one arm around my son and the other around my daughter with their beaming smiles, I said, "Commandante, when people see this picture, they're going to joke that I'm raising my children to be revolutionaries." He said, "This is the second best thing you could do. The first best is to put them into the white coats of doctors." I chose not to write about that meeting until the puzzle of my own interest became clearer.
Earlier that year, in August 2005, Pat Robertson, on his televised 700 Club, actually voiced his will that the U.S. should assassinate a democratically elected head of state in Hugo Chavez Frias of Venezuela. I thought, Finally! Robertson has put a noose around his own neck, stepped from his wobbly chair, and hated himself out of business. I was wrong. While the remarks of the evangelist with close ties to the Bush administration created an international uproar, here at home it was a two or three day story ultimately remembered and framed as if simply a tolerable political gaffe. While it did not reduce Robertson's ratings, it did, at least, broadcast the American media will to demonize perceived enemies (Emphasis on perceived.) While Robertson's comments were too ridiculously obscene to incite much public support in the United States, they cast a bright light on the vulnerability of an American public to invest belief in the media's unfounded demonization of foreign leaders. Particularly those with vast oil reserves under their feet, or geographically strategic real estate. Despite the recent and devastating missteps of the Bush administration in Hussein's Iraq, and largely due to the complicity and ineptitude of the American press (left and right) in selling Hussein's possession of WMDs, and the fiction of his Al-Qaeda links, our country had become so fearful as to invite any opportunity to identify, without evidence, "threats" outside of our borders. Such had become our gullibility and desperation to vent our own internal hostility. We were still pawns in the game, willing exploitants of our contents under pressure.
What's even more disturbing is that the rhetoric of unsubstantiated attacks are no longer restricted to foreign heads of state, nor limited to the voices of vitriolic preachers and pundits. Republican vice presidential candidate Governor Sarah Palin spent the final months of that campaign engaging in a virtual call-to-arms of sociopaths in her Atwater-esque verbal assaults on Democratic nominee Barack Obama. Framing his contact with former Weatherman Bill Ayers as "palling around with terrorists" is akin to the Paralax Corporation using commercial trawling nets in gathering and inciting all the homicidal psycho-dogs and breaking their chains.
Fernando Sulichin is an independent film producer from Argentina. I met him in the late 1980s in Paris through director Spike Lee. Fernando and I had kept in touch over the years and in late 2006 he called me from Caracas where he was doing advance work on a documentary that Oliver Stone was to direct. After a brief chat, Fernando was able to assure me that I would have some access to President Chavez were I to come to Caracas. I got on the next plane.
When I landed in Caracas, I was greeted by aides to Andres Izarra, the president of TeleSUR, the South American television station following the model of CNN. Andres had previously been program director for Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), but in 2002 the opposition party and U.S. Defense Department co-financed a coup attempt on the Chavez administration. RCTV, as well as all the other media outlets, radio, print and television were prime targets of the coup's operatives. The stations had been taken over, and when Izarra was instructed not to broadcast the Chavista response, he resigned in protest. This action would later lead the re-installed Chavez to appoint Izarra Minister of Communications to the Chavez government. His impending marriage to a woman of an opposition party created enough scrutiny that he was soon forced to resign his minister's post, and take control of TeleSUR. He was re-instated as Minister of Communications earlier this year.
The aides dropped me at the Caracas Palace Hotel facing Plaza Alta Mira. In the plaza, there were protesters, about 200 strong, screaming obscenities and anti-Chavez slogans before the cameras of the media across the street from the hotel. It had been wildly reported that President Chavez had "shut down" RCTV, which had become the primary opposition news station in Caracas. This action was touted as evidence of a totalitarian government's policy of censorship on free speech and free press, drawing the ire of domestic and international free press advocates, including Reporters Without Borders. In fact, RCTV, like all stations, had a finite lease period. As a station that on a nearly daily basis encouraged a coup and even assassination of President Chavez since his 1998 election, the government had simply decided not to re-up that particular lease. Indeed a coup against Chavez was attempted in 2002 planned by wealthy oil and media magnates with additional funding from American organizations through USAID and NED (National Endowment for Democracy). Official documents clear the Central Intelligence Agency of any involvement, but confirm that support funds for the coup attempt were channeled for "democracy promotion" by order of, and in consultation with, the United States Department of Defense. I was minutes away from seeing the truth of the story, and mindful that in the United States, producers, program directors, and anchor people, promoting the assassination of our own president, would not only have been taken off the air, but in addition, have found new housing in a federal correctional facilities.
It was eleven at night. Izarra's aides advised me that Caracas was not a city for a lone American to venture into at that hour, and that I should wait until morning to find my footing. I went to my hotel room and turned on the TV. Coincidentally, there was Bill O'Reilly broadcasting from Fox Television from the United States, decrying the Venezuelan "dictator." As was my habit, I switched channels, but not before thinking, "Hmmm...I thought Chavez censored this kind of thing." Two channels over, there was the Venezuelan news station broadcasting live from the protest in front of my hotel. Unmasked demonstrators screaming, "Chavez is a pig!" into the camera. Apparently this kind of speech was allowed without fearing arrest. I turned off the television and let the free speech of the square drift through my window and lull me to sleep.
SUNSHINE AND CELL PHONES.
Eduardo Rothe is a Venezuelan photojournalist who won Venezuela's National Journalism Award for his coverage of the Vietnam War. Fernando had set me up with him to help me get around and check out points of interest while I killed the first day awaiting Fernando's arrival. Eduardo showed up with a driver and a 4-wheel drive vehicle. Though many years had passed since his rummaging on his belly in the jungles of Vietnam, he still fit the archetype of that rough-and-tumble, scruffy down-in-the-dirt journalist. The belly had grown a bit and the hair had grayed, but he seemed game as ever. He ushered me into the backseat of the truck as he jumped into the seat beside the driver. I asked him to take me to the nearest jungle. He seemed to like the idea and instructed the driver with aplomb. It was when I leaned between the two seats to watch the city go by through the windshield, that I noticed guns in both men's waistbands. Despite the cliché that an armed society is a polite society, Caracas, evidently had missed that memo. Homicide and kidnapping rates were at a record high. Moving toward the mountains, we passed a large medical facility Hospital Cardiologico Infantil, its sole mission, the service of pediatric cardiology patients. Virtually any child in Venezuela and throughout Latin America is treated free of charge. Chavez had inaugurated the center the previous August. I thought to myself, the nerve of this guy, Chavez. How dare he offer care to kids?! Could institutions such as this have been the source of Pat Robertson's hostility? With human doctors made available by government, what might become of God's glory and the triumph of Christian charities!? Now, I get it.
We drove out of the city, through the mountains to the coast. About five hours later, we were in Caruao, where I followed the chain-smoking Eduardo through a pig farmer's yard, and up the trail adjacent the pigs, into the jungle. We crossed a few shallow streams, and then a mile or two scaling the hills through triple canopy jungle where he showed me Pozo del Cura, a waterfall and swimming hole. It was not comparable to Angel Falls in the eastern section of the country, its majesty world renown. But after the heat and sweat of a five-hour drive, followed by an hour hike, it looked like god's kiss to me. I stripped down and jumped in. On the road back, we stopped for chicken and plantains, washed down with Cuban rum in an outdoor eatery surrounded by jungle and a thousand species of bird.
When I got back to the hotel, I was whupped. I had with me a copy of the Venezuelan constitution, and an Irish documentary about Chavez and the 2002 coup attempt called The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. Exhausted as I was, I put on the DVD thinking I'd watch a bit of it, fall asleep, and pick up the pieces in the morning. But I found myself captivated. The truth of what happened in Venezuela in 2002 bore no resemblance to the reportage in the U.S. press. Anti-Chavez demonstrators and Chavistas were mutually lured into conflict outside Mira Flores Palace by opposition organizers. Chavez supporters were reported to have opened fire on civilians, when, in fact, it was opposition snipers who had initiated a gun battle that left 19 dead and over 60 wounded. The palace had been overrun, Chavez, forcibly taken hostage, and flown out of the Capital by conspirators. Over the following 48 hours, another 12 would be killed in police raids and in ember-sparked demonstrations city-wide. Meanwhile, in the United States, officials of the Bush administration appeared on CNN praising what they prematurely assumed had been a successful coup d'etat. But when word got to the barrios of what was happening, hundreds of thousands of poor Venezuelans hit the street to demand the safe return of Chavez. They would not be denied. Chavez was returned to power, as Ari Fleischer said oops. I was so stimulated watching the film, that before I would go to sleep that night, I read the Venezuelan constitution cover to cover twice.
I got up early the next morning and took a walk for a few hours. Caracas sits dramatically at the foot of Mount Avila. Blocks and buildings range from a modern, glossy metropolitan skyline to dilapidation. Though cautioned to its potential risks, this city, twenty minutes from its Caribbean coast feels as hospitable to the morning stroll as any major city in the United States. I walked until the storefront gates were raised, found my way to the nearest department store, bought some sweat pants, hoping to take a jog in the afternoon. I was expecting Fernando Sulichin to arrive from the Philippines at about 11am, so I made my way back to the hotel through the now teeming streets of Caracas. I found Fernando in the café, conquering jetlag with a jumbo pint of Venezuela's best java, the kind that would blow a 747's engine through a black hole.
Fernando's mischievous smile curled around a final sip as he greeted me, "Mi hermano." I sat, ordered a bit of hot tar for myself and he gave me the basic itinerary. I had come to know that the itineraries subject to accessing a Head of State can be a bit fickle, so I listened, tongue firmly in cheek. "Hermano, most of today, we rest. For me, I have to rest. I've been dealing with a crazy Vietnamese director in the Philippines. Al-Qaeda threatens to kidnap our leading actor, and I'm going to have to leave you at midday tomorrow to return." This wasn't a shocking story of a chaotic movie shoot from Fernando. It seemed he was always involved in chaotic movie shoots. The half-Jewish Argentinean once had to convert to Islam with four months of study in Saudi Arabia to gain Spike Lee approval to use Mecca as a shooting locale. He'd also worked alongside Oliver Stone on a documentary about Fidel Castro, and once in Ramallah in the midst of an Israeli raid in an attempt to get an interview with Yassir Arafat. Fernando is a colorful man. So, after a rest, he suggested we might get some exercise in the hotel gym, and then we would have dinner with Andres Izarra, his wife and some friends. He told me that President Chavez was aware of my presence in Caracas and that a meeting could happen at any time, and that I should be ready for that. I went to my room and inched my way through Spanish-language newspapers, and eventually took a short nap.
When I woke, I headed out for a jog. I ran for miles, dodging cars and buzz-saw motorcycles, texting friends in Europe on the run, and looking for signs of the Hitler-esque world portrayed in the American press. Instead, I again found myself in a place not dissimilar to downtown Los Angeles at rush hour. Back at the hotel, I found Fernando, now rested; traipsing slowly along on a treadmill, sweat dripping from his chin. "Hermano!" I waved him off, out of breath from my run, sat on a bench, grabbed some weights, and played around with them for a while. After we showered up, Andres, his wife Isabel, and a few other friends, picked up Fernando and me at the hotel. At this point, I should reiterate one small difference between Caracas and Los Angeles. Virtually ALL of the drivers, including those who picked me up at the airport the night before, as well as the one driving us all to the restaurant, drove with either small arms or compact assault weapons at their side. We drove up into Mount Avila and to a restaurant looking out over Caracas, the 68 million fluorescent lights that had replaced incandescent bulbs, in adherence to the Kyoto Protocol, illuminating the view. From that vantage point, one could safely imagine this city in more difficult times, exploding in fires, riots, and guns. In February 1989, the Perez Administration raised gas prices and the ensuing hikes in bus fares triggered the riots and looting, in what became known as the Caracazo. President Perez had ordered his troops into the streets. They opened fire, killing hundreds of civilians in that city below me, and thereby, opening the door for the Bolivarian revolution of a young lieutenant colonel who would be president.
Andres ordered a delectable meal and about a half an hour into dinner, his cell phone rang. He moved away from the table, chatted privately for a few moments, then waved me over. I knew who was on the phone. I knew it could only be President Chavez. I hate talking on cell phones. I'm the guy who always gets the static"y" call. In this case, the static would be compounded by the limitations of my broken Spanish and his heavily accented broken English. "Hello." I said. Pause. "Uh...HELLO, SIN." His voice was full and warm. "Senor Presidente" I said. "HELLO, SIN, I sorry my English very-bad. It is my honor to have you in Venezuela. I saw Meestic Reevar -- Oh, very-good." "Thank you, Mr. President. I'm very happy to be here and I look forward to meeting with you." He asked if I spoke Spanish, and I answered with the little I had. I knew he could tell we were better off in English. He asked me if we could meet the following morning. I told him yes, and handed the phone back to Andres who would get the particulars.
After dinner, we went to 360, a dominantly opposition party social meeting place. In very general conversations, I was starting to get the lay of the land. A huge percentage of Venezuela lives beneath the poverty line, and the hope, health care, education, and inspiration of activism given them by the Chavez presidency was unprecedented in most of their lifetimes. For them, he was a hero. He was loved. But for most of the people at 360, he was a dangerous socialist. Or worse, a militarist tyrant. It was not unusual for a person of wealth in Venezuela to say out loud that Chavez should be killed. In all of these conversations, I asked each person the source of their invective. In every case, the answers were regurgitations of debunked U.S. media attacks, or reductive generalizations like "dictator," "totalitarian," or "authoritarian." The man was elected. The election was witnessed and praised by international observers, including former U.S. President Carter. Upon the election of Chavez, he had initiated a referendum for a new constitution, which won overwhelming support. In a rigorous year-long process, a nationwide constitutional assembly was formed, elected, not just from the parties, but virtually from all walks of life. The Constitution was, in effect, drafted by public forum. In the next stage, the people at large were educated to its content. There was a vote and it was put into law. Chavez is a man who, among his first acts as president, was to extract all Venezuelan personnel from the School of the Americas, the assassination and torture training ground, (established by the United States Department of Defense) where operatives of the Pinochet regime were trained to insert live rats and electrodes into female genitalia, and is currently located at Fort Benning in Georgia under the face-lift name Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. What the hell are the people in this nightclub so irate about?! How evil do you have to be to get love in this joint? But by night's end, I gathered the substance of the three primary complaints against Chavez. First, there were the issues of land re-assignment. Secondly, the nationalization of oil. And third, under the guise of attacks on free speech, was the great disappointment that with the fall of RCTV, its evening soap opera broadcasts had left the farm as well. I hadn't even met Chavez yet and these empty attacks were pissing me off. I wanted to be Al Capone, goddamit! These vitriols echoed those of the right-wing Cuban lobby in Florida who had become so un-substantively militant as to imagine taking Elian Gonzalez from his biological father and to participate with the Bush Administration in the harboring of terrorists like Luis Posada Carriles, implicated in the bombing of a civilian airliner, arrested on immigration charges, sneaking into the United States, and who admitted to his role in the 1997 hotel bombing in Havana that left one Italian tourist dead. The U.S. dropped charges against him, and today, he sits in Miami's Versailles restaurant, sippin' Cubano Espressos, chatting up fox-fur and diamond-bearing women. It's like a bad Andy Garcia movie with a Gloria Estefan song playing over titles. (I like Andy Garcia's acting, and one-on-one, a nice fellow, and Estefan seems an otherwise swell dame. But the two of these hi-pro Cuban Americans gettin' on board with separating a child from his parent? The politics even fuck up good human heads.)
Before we left the bar that night, I was able to arrange a meeting for the following evening with two South African contractors, employed by the Chavez government to aid in the mission of drug interdiction. I'll get to that.
HUGO AND ME.
The following morning, Andres picked up Fernando and I, and we headed over to the presidential palace to meet with Chavez. We were walked in to his outer office, the walls full of Impressionist paintings. There was a portrait of Fidel Castro, another showing the presidential office's window view of San Carlos, the military prison within which he had initially been held, following Chavez's 1992 coup attempt to oust President Carlos Perez. My eye drifted to the artist's signature on the paintings. One word: Chavez. I hadn't known that he painted, and would never have guessed a politician could paint so well. Men of reason are rarely men of romance. As men of religion (as Chavez is) are so rarely men of such reason. A riddle of his personality that will be explored for years to come. As I looked out the real window at the real prison dramatized in the painting, President Chavez entered the room. He was a bear of a man (Brown bears and grizzlies are identical in genus and species; Browns are a bit smaller; Chavez is a brown bear) whose eyes squinted above his broad smile as he greeted me. After giving a brief description of his paintings, he led us to an adjacent garden area on a terrace beside his office. At a table under a trellis, we sat for about three hours.
Like Fidel Castro, Chavez is a highly engaging raconteur and student of history. His prison years had been spent in vociferous reading, and in talking to foreigners, he seemed to like to preface the conversation that would refer to where we are now, with a broad discussion of where we'd been. Not only in Venezuela and Latin America, but the United States and the world. His eyes grow and voice becomes impassioned in speaking of Simon Bolivar, "A man who saw in continents and thought in centuries." He talked about the history of mixed blood and race relations in Venezuela. Chavez is black, and racism plays a part in the antagonism of his opposition. As our conversation began to shift toward U.S. -Venezuelan relations, his tone moved between measured indignance and humor. It had only been two and a half months since his boisterous appearance at the United Nations, where he claimed, sensing the scent of sulfur in the air, that President Bush, who had stood at the same podium just one day before, was the Great Satan. "El Diablo." I asked him if he'd taken into account the sound-bite perception of this that would be thrust upon the American people. He was buoyantly unrepentant and told me he never writes or plans his speeches, just says what's on his mind. So I asked what it was on his mind, when he'd been photographed with his arm around Mahmoud Ahmedinejad on the latter's recent state visit to Venezuela. Chavez answers questions quite directly. "Our relationship with Iran is totally transparent. There are many things that President Ahmedinejad and I do not agree on, but there are many things we share as well. Venezuela has extreme dependence on Iranian drilling and refining technologies. We are two of the world's five most oil-rich countries. We have had a very productive relationship, and a necessary one for the Venezuelan people. The Bush Administration has been extremely arrogant, and these relationships are very important in maintaining a balance of power as a buffer to American imperialism."
Chavez's obsession with U.S. power leads him to reach to enemies of the United States. It is a dynamic and necessary exercise if he is to lead a sustained and independent Latin American culture throughout the continent. That leadership role comes to Chavez as a result of three primary components. One, his electric skills of oratory. Two, the expanding movement towards Latin American embrace of leftist leaders -- Kirchner in Argentina, Lula in Brazil, Ortega in Nicaragua. And three, Venezuelan oil production. (Ironically, Chavez enjoyed a major power boost when he busted a strike by the country's elite oil men.) He constructed alliances PetroCaribe, PetroSur, and PetroAndina, through which he offered hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil per day to nations in the region, with "soft financing."
It had not gotten by Chavez that land reform was an issue that had repeatedly been used to justify U.S. military and economic intervention in Latin America. But Chavez inherited a country where 80% of its people had nothing. And the 20% that represented the wealthy oligarchs had concocted the same stew of capitalism and greed we were to experience this year in the hands of Wall Street and sub-prime lenders. Indeed Chavez had re-distributed much of the idle lands of the wealthy class to be farmed by, and feed, a country that was moving rapidly towards its death. It seems ironic that the Bush Administration and much of the American media would identify in this the threat and ugliness of socialism, or totalitarianism, while our own country maintains the rights of government to eminent domain. And while, it is easy to cite the imposition of eminent domain in cases of widening roads, or numerous cases showing its abuse, I was not able to find a single example, where its intent in the U.S. was to feed the starving, or medicate the ill. Chavez had also expanded the state's interest in oil to finance his revolution, while here at home, Exxon drills its way into record profits off the shores of Louisiana. It leaves behind devastating environmental infrastructure damage, while returning nothing to the state. I asked Chavez what his priority was in moving towards productive relations with the United States. He said, "For the next two years, my biggest job is to stay alive." On that note, Fernando excused himself, as he had to catch a plane back to his own potential peril in the Philippines.
After we finished lunch, I slid into the backseat of the president's town car. Just Hugo and me in a convoy of black vehicles. I'm reminded of a game my older brother Michael and I used to play in our youth. He would block the corridor that led to our bedrooms, and with a voice of mock intimidation, announce himself, "Pretend I'm a Revolutionary. I cannot let you pass." Thinking of what Michael might say now, I chortle inside. Chavez asks about my children, and why I had not brought them with me, and demanding that next time I come, "You must bring them. There is much history and beauty to see in Venezuela." With that, he scrolls his cell phone photo gallery to a picture of his daughters, proudly displaying them to me. He then looks at them lost in thought, his eyes nearly well, he kisses the screen. At this point, I was 45-years old, Chavez, 51. I felt a kinship in longing for my children. Chavez answers my question from minutes earlier. "I do not approve terrorism of any kind. I could never bomb or kidnap anyone. And I do not approve of it in others, including the United States. So, we must work together with absolute respect for sovereignty." We continue the drive to a concert hall performance of the Venezuelan Youth Symphony. Prior to the musical performance, the audience was introduced to a group of American students among them. I looked at my young countrymen, and they at me, as we gave each other a little wave. Just then, the bows hit the strings, the brass got blown, and the timpani shook the house. At about three o'clock in the afternoon, Chavez and I parted ways until the following morning when I would join him on a flight to the Andes where he was to dedicate the opening of an organic pesticide laboratory high in the mountains.
Up to this point, I'd spent time in a jungle, a hotel room, a palace, some high class dining, a bit of city jogging, a symphony hall, and a lot of driving around in cars with guns. As one moves around Caracas, the foothills of shantytown barrios are omnipresent. I hooked up with a couple of nuns who took me on a tour of Barrio Carapita. Yep, this was all the way down. Think Cite Soleil in Haiti. Think tin roofs and homemade mud walls. Think malnutrition, diarrhea, and diabetes. Think asthma and drug addiction; hypertension, meningitis, and dengue fever. Think hell. Then, think again. Because, despite the plagues and murders and poverty, these barrios have taken a turn since the advent of Chavez. Through his oil-for-doctors program with Fidel's Cuba, medical clinics had been constructed throughout Venezuela. From seven in the morning to seven at night, any citizen of the barrio could walk in without an appointment, and get free medical care from a Cuban doctor. There are 20,000 Cuban doctors countrywide. These Cuban doctors live on-site, working in shifts where half of their time is spent administering to the poor, both in-clinic, as well as proactively going door-to-door in the barrio. And the other half training Venezuelan doctors for the eventuality of self-reliance.
For generations prior to Chavez, as Venezuela's leadership had changed hands from one corrupt U.S. puppet to another, these poor people lived without the equivalent of a social security number or identity card. In essence, until Chavez, they didn't exist. The pre-Chavez attempt to privatize elite quality schools, had left few jobs for teachers, and less equal opportunity for education. All of that had changed. Medical, social, and energy brigades had been formed throughout the country, and each community now has autonomous councils and a bank through which they can finance the particular needs of their area. The higher one walks into the barrio, the poorer the people are. But all of them now had access to medical care and quality education. We walked in unannounced to a girl's school. The new Bolivarian schools are differentiated from pre-revolution schools, less by issues of indoctrination, than by a credible curriculum. In pre-Chavez Venezuela, the schools were closed by noon,having fulfilled, what amounted to a symbolic day of learning. Today, children are served breakfast and lunch as they fulfill a school day quite similar to our own in the United States. A full curriculum, well trained teachers, with sports, music and dance programs. At three o'clock in the afternoon, they head home with books and homework. The head mistress accommodated my spontaneous visit by putting me together with about ten young girls who were, at that moment, at dance practice. They each pulled up a chair, bewildered by the invasion of this ragamuffin foreigner. I asked them simple questions. Did they like this school? "What subject do you like best?" "Really? And why is that?" Anyone who has traveled to third world countries has seen the fresh eyes of youthful hungering for education. These kids had been hungry for a long time. Their parents before them had never been fed, and here they were at a virtual banquet. The excitement was palpable. I asked one particularly bright-eyed girl, about 13 years old, if the education she was receiving would promise her a way out of the barrio. Suddenly, the innocence of those eyes deepened into a soulfulness. She looked me right in the eye and said, "What is first important is the opportunity it gives me to become a better person here." I asked them what their feelings toward President Chavez were. Their enthusiasm for him was palpable. Many regaled me with tales of change that, in a very real way, brought them to tears of joy. The hope that he had brought to their parents, to them, the activism, the identity, and self-respect that any developed nation would count themselves lucky to share. But, was I observing a buoyant revolution of sustainable and grow-able change? Or merely the cult of personality?
MORE PIANO-WIRE PUPETEERS.
From the sublime to the ridiculous, it was now 2am. I lit a cigarette, took a couple of drags, flicked it into the alley and entered the bar. Downstairs the music was loud. Some quasi-combo of house and salsa. Thump! Thump! Thump! The downbeats shook the floor and tickled my feet. I headed up the back stairs, and waiting for me at a table in the upper deck were the two contractors I had arranged to meet the night before. Full disclosure: I'm not a big "contractor" guy. I'd been jacked up by DynCorp-employed Iraqis on a dark night in a Baghdad alley, and slept beside Blackwater boys and their guns on a floor in the floods of New Orleans. It's just this little thing I have about apolitical military might for profit. Call it irksome. Call it what you will, but a source is a source. We exchanged greetings by way of grunts. I took a seat and ordered Johnny Walker Black. It had been years since I ordered Johnny Walker Black. Pathetically I might have wanted to be one of the boys for a moment. They ordered a bubbly water a piece, and it was on. I was Al Capone, motherfucker, and they were a pair of Perrier pansy John Wayne's. "Whatcha got for me?" Uninterestingly, they turned out to be a couple of gents, South African though they were. In practice, their job in Venezuela was logistical. One, organized the patrolling of waterways by their company, contracted by the Venezuelan government to aid in drug interdiction. The other strategized jungle patrols on the Colombian border. We talked about a lot of things, and a lot of parts of the world, as I tend to do when indulging Johnny Walker Black. But here are the highlights: Neither one of them liked Chavez a bit. Whatever personal politics they might have had were far to the right of my peripheral vision. Chavez just wasn't their kind of fellow. But the jungle patrolled said straight out, "I'll tell you this about Chavez though. Of all the countries we've worked for, this government is by far, the most serious about drug interdiction." I said, "What's the bad news?" He said, "Chavez won't last a year." "What do you mean?" I said. "He's too radical. We've seen it before." "Seen what before? I said. "They'll kill him." "They?" I said. He reached across the table, took a sip of my Johnny Walker Black, smiled, and pointed directly at me, the Americano at the table.
I made it to the president's plane at about 8 o'clock the next morning, and was shown into the cabin populated with as diverse a group in skin-tone wardrobe and languages as the U.N. itself. A Rick's bar of Poles, Canadians, Belgians, and a beautiful flower from Burkina Faso. There were turbans, fezzes, and funkadelics, all with one thing in common. They represented countries signatory to the Kyoto Protocol. Also on the plane, were members of the International Press Corps. And today, Chavez was to show off the new prized jewel of Venezuela's protocol adherence. I noticed that the seat across from me was reserved for the President of Venezuela. I looked out the window of the plane and found myself re-playing the tape of the contractor meeting from the night before in my head. I saw the red-bereted sharpshooters positioned on the roofs of distant hangars, soldiers on the tarmac, their eyes searching the perimeter, bomb-sniffing dogs, and an X-ray machine going through every article of every passenger. I saw my own bag being sniffed and had a brief moment of horror as I remembered stopping for an overnight in Miami on my way. But the bag went by, un-accosted. Phew. And here came the convoy -- three to four heavily armed vehicles and the president's car. Soldiers shuffle, move into formation. The security chief opens the door to the black sedan, Chavez gets out of the car, makes his way up the gangplank, and steps into the plane. After greeting each among his guests, one by one, he takes the seat across from me, belts up, and asks me how my night went. I tell him that I'd been finding it quite easy to get people to talk about Venezuela...and its president. And that "the range of vocal opinion was...well...extreme." The brown bear belly laughs and repeats my response for all to hear. The charm of his laughter is infectious, but it speaks as much for his pride in the unity of his supporters, as it does for his indifference to his detractors. The plane engines roar, and off we go.
It's about an hour flight from Caracas to La Fria, deep in the Andean mountains. It wasn't until we were halfway there that I recognized one among the diplomats. It was Ricardo Alarcon, president of the Cuban National Assembly. We had met and dined together on my first trip to Cuba a couple of years earlier. A graceful man whose steadfast romance with the Cuban cigar had outlived the habit of Fidel himself. He sat with Chavez and me and we chatted through landing. Covering the trip for the New York Times, Simon Romero, later reported Chavez's post-flight prediction of a U.S. financial crisis, "that could cause it to explode from within." This was August 3rd, 2006. On approach, I could see that this was a fairly isolated area. The sky was gray and threatening rain, the tarmac was full of soldiers, armed vehicles, and a waiting convoy. But this time, not of polished town cars. But instead, open Tiuna all-terrain vehicles, the Venezuelan equivalent of an uncovered Humvee. This is when the day became surreal. I accompanied Chavez down the gangplank and he walked me to one of the Tiuna's. It seemed like whatever plan the security forces had for him, or at least one would have thought they would have for him, was about to suffer some adjustment. Chavez himself jumped into the driver's seat and waved me into the seat behind him. The rest of the seats quickly filled with soldiers and staff, and off we went, into the wild, gray, mountainous, jungley yonder. The additional security teams, diplomats, staff, and press, scurried into vehicles almost haphazardly, adapting to Chavez's whim. He gave me a glance and a wink. He enjoyed this sort of thing. Beside me sat Governor Ronald Blanco, of the Tachira State. He had been imprisoned alongside Chavez in 1992. As Chavez introduced us, we shook hands. Governor Blanco smiled, similarly to Chavez himself and said, "You are now in Venezuela's most dangerous state."
For the next five hours, we drove into the mountains on a road paralleling the Colombian border, some fifty kilometers to our south. Two military helicopters were swirling overhead, part of the Chavez security detail. At one point, the helicopters veered toward the peaks on the Colombian side of the road. They seemed to be circling a nearby thicket and dropping in altitude. The sound of the rotors, close and loud. I suppose, of some subconscious trepidation, I lit a cigarette. Chavez noticed the curious movement of the choppers as well. He turned to me with a "ya never know" raise of the brow. I offered him my cigarette and he took a stealthy drag, (though he is not a smoker) nodded conspiratorially and returned his eyes to the road. In every village along the way, hundreds of people awaited the arrival of Chavez. In every village, pandemonium, as the poor people of these mountain villes wept and cried out, surrounding the convoy to see their beloved president. Chavez stopped each time, screeching brakes in Dominos behind us. He'd get out of the car, hug old women, babies, farmers, peasants. These were the campesinos -- one hundred percent Chavista. While many journalists have reported displays such as this little road trip and the Beatle-mania that surrounds them with a cynical bite, there was no question, no question at all, of the passion in their gratitude to the Chavez reforms and the improvements made in their lives. The evidence was mounting. While on its exterior, Venezuela had not shown radical improvement in the last decade, the simple fact that poverty was being addressed at all, offered tremendous hope. But beyond that, conservative U.S. estimates had poverty in Venezuela down 20% under Chavez. Some objective analysts put the numbers between 35% and 40%. The man inherited an emergency zone, and to date, his reforms have made some dramatic improvements. The day went on like this, driving, stopping, driving, stopping, soldiers positioned every two kilometers or so, strobing by, their rifles pointed toward the jungle and the mountainous Colombian border rife with paramilitaries, guerrillas, contractors, and from all accounts CIA operatives. Symbolic security for a populist president -- a man of the people cannot be protected. Anyone in any of those crowds could indeed have taken his life.
We arrived in the mountaintop town of Pueblo Encima as Chavez mounts a platform before a waiting crowd of Cipriano Castro lab personnel. This new facility, he was here to inaugurate, was developing organic pesticides. Prior to the advent of this technology, rain and irrigation waters polluted with toxic synthetic pesticides, worked their way through the tributaries down mountain throughout all of the villages where we had stopped on the road. As a result, cancer rates had escalated to genocidal proportions. Declaring the beginning of a new era of organic pesticides and celebrating the completion of the Cipriano Castro laboratory, Chavez declared, "We now stand at a vista of hope, where what before had been merely...a mountain of snakes."
A mountain of snakes. The phrase weighed on my mind on the flight back to the United States. Several Venezuelans on board had read of my presence in Venezuela and engaged me in conversation. Generally speaking, Venezuelans who can afford an airplane ticket to the United States, are not supporters of Hugo Chavez. More than three times on that flight, I was asked how much money I had been paid by the Chavez regime to promote his reforms. This assumption, again, could only have been initiated by U.S. and opposition media, as I, at no point, had promoted anything. Indeed, Chavez had made some highly praising public remarks about me, to which I responded with a few publicly stated niceties, but none that could have been soberly interpreted as propaganda. I was there to learn something. Money? I thought. This is the stupid ugly thinking they attack with. But it was more than that. They were schooled in this suspicion. They seemed to truly believe that the only motivation one might have to support Hugo Chavez, was money. Ironic, as money was the one thing his most vehement supporters didn't have.
MONIKER OF A FOXY LADY.
Back in the USA, home in my bed and suffering a bit of travel fatigue, I'm flipping through the channels when I come to Fox News. It's only 20 seconds or so before I hear some cock-eyed comment about my "pro-Chavez" trip to Venezuela. These people are exhausting. My eyes begin to cross, and in the corner of the screen, the word "Fox" begins to morph. I see the "F" tip clockwise 45 degrees. A smaller "F" appears at the center of the "O," and each of the four points of the "X" extends in a serpent-like squiggle. Like hieroglyphic graffiti for our own mountain of snakes.
I flipped the channels around a bit. It was campaign season, and evidently, season of the witch, as certain Democrats in the Senate had just voted alongside George Bush to identify the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization, giving the Bush Administration carte blanche to bomb Iran into oblivion. I muted the sound and checked a week's worth of phone messages I'd ignored while in Venezuela. A pal of mine, actor and activist Peter Coyote, was endorsing Senator John Edwards's campaign. Though he knew I was a supporter of candidate Kucinich, Congressman from Cleveland, Peter had left a message that Edwards would be in the San Francisco area in the next couple of days and wanted to arrange a meeting between the Senator and I. Two days later, I sat with a small group of supporters around a coffee table as Senator Edwards took off his jacket, loosened his tie, rolled up his sleeves, and began to talk, spelling out a platform of a campaign that was politically plagued by one simple fact: "There's no PAC money in poverty" he said. At the time, Edwards was the only Democratic candidate with a serious focus on this issue. He was candid and very impressive. By the end of the meeting, understanding the value of his voice, I committed financial support to the Edwards campaign, but maintained my position of endorsement for the Congressman Dennis Kucinich. Later, and for me, publicly irrelevant, revelations about the Senator's personal life, dug up by the snakes of American Media, Inc. and later, Murdoch's mountain, silenced the candidate's singular voice.
AS GOES ALASKA, SO GOES DELAWARE.
It's now October 2008, Senator Joe Biden has been selected as the running mate to soon-to-be-President-Elect, Barack Obama. Biden's selection had won me a $2000 bet with MSNBC political analyst Lawrence O'Donnell, with whom I'd made the wager on Biden two months prior to his selection. So, in effect, I'm watching my dog in the race, as I watch Biden rally supporters on television. The street-boy Biden speak, I've loved every time I've agreed with him throughout the years. But when I hear that same voice of authority, either for political purpose, or in actual opposition to my principles, it makes me want to slap him. (I think friends of mine feel similarly towards me.) But there he was talking energy, and here are the words I heard: "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, I wondered without wondering, to whom Senator Biden was referring. While some noteworthy irregularities had come before and would again later, the election process in Venezuela is one of the most transparent and internationally validated in the world. Goddammit, Joe. Goddammit! What kind of "dictator" proposes constitutional reforms on term limits, not different than the goddamn Mayor of New York just did, and loses? What kind of dictator is that, Joe? Dictators don't lose. And they don't accept the loss with grace as Chavez had. This is not to say that there is no cause for serious concern and consideration. Chavez is a media master. His reforms have met with mixed results. While some of his cooperatives thrive, others are in shambles due to an over-dependence on government contracts, bureaucratic government incompetence, or the lack of basic marketing skills. And crime is excessive. So with Chavez pointing to the failure of his term-limit referendum as a key to the escalation of criminality, it's a shaky play. In the immediate aftermath of the rejected referendum, Chavez posted billboards throughout the streets of Venezuela stating, "Por Ahora" (For Now) Should these words reveal themselves as an intended threat, in a movement toward totatlitarianism, both Chavez and Venezuela will self-destruct. But, if "Por Ahora" is the promise of a committed leader to exercise the will of his people, his socialist experiment may bear global fruit. But por ahora, as they say, 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 homicidal 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. It's time to choose our words with caution and care.
In a phone conversation with Americas Division, Human Rights Watch Director Jose Miguel Vivanco, he tells me, "Chavez is not a dictator, and Venezuela is a democracy, though we believe, a weak one. They don't kill people for dissent, nor do they hold political prisoners. It is a multi-party system and power is, to a degree, dispersed. We condemned the 2002 coup attempt, categorically." But news in Venezuela was not all good. He continues, "Since then, the actions of Chavez have caused us concern. In the immediate aftermath of the coup attempt, the Supreme Court had made outrageous rulings that the generals who executed the coup, had not been criminally liable. At that time, the Supreme Court was extremely erratic. Twenty justices, half of them pro-Chavez, and the other half, opposition. But, what Chavez did was to initiate reforms with the appointments of twelve new additional judges. Since that time, the decisions of the court have almost universally favored Chavez. This disregards international human rights standards." Chavez expelled HRW from Venezuela on September 18th of this year. Of the expulsion, Chavez is alleged to have said, "These were foreigners who came to Venezuela to insult our country." On the afternoon that led to their expulsion, Human Rights Watch had held a press conference in Caracas, and reported their findings related to the judiciary, and on what they believed to be, the government's excessive power over television and radio media. Vivanco compares the pro-Chavez television bias to that of Fox TV's reverence of the Bush administration. Vivanco adds, "In general, NGOs operating in Venezuela do so in an environment of harassment." Meanwhile, to this day, the three main newspapers in Venezuela are opposition-run, and invectively anti-Chavez.
Like Pat Robertson drove me to Venezuela the first time, and the 2003 summer bombing of the U.N. Headquarters in Baghdad had driven me to that city the second time, Joe Biden, the Senator from Delaware might as well have bought my ticket to Venezuela the following week. For that matter, I thought I'd sure like to see what's going on in Cuba since the transfer of power from Fidel, to his brother Raul. Maybe I could make it a two-fer.
(An excerpt of this piece originally appeared in The Nation and thenation.com November 26, 2008)