They say they talked for seven hours, sharing cups of tea and glasses of wine. On one side was the American actor Sean Penn, staunch critic of the system he lives under, and on the other side, Raul Castro, newly-appointed president of a country where just a few people have shaped the political course for almost six decades.
The prominent artist came from a Hollywood that disgusted him and a nation where anyone can yell at the government until they're blue in the face. The general, almost an octogenarian at the time, had seen and approved the downfall of many intellectuals simply for looking askance at power.
Raul Castro must have looked with suspicion and cunning on this wealthy tantrum-throwing progressive. Unable to read aloud without committing innumerable errors, typical of people with few books and many orders, the former Minister of the Armed Forces in Cuba knows that behind every artist hides a critic of totalitarianism who must be neutralized and silenced, or at least an attempt must be made to buy them off.
That appointment in Havana in 2008, brokered by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, had only one objective: to sweet talk the irreverent Penn so that he would repeat the "virtues" of a system under which eleven million Cubans live. And so, the conversation was entirely a dance of conquest, with no outbursts, no guns on the table. The star of Mystic River must not suspect a thing, must not be afraid.
It is probable that the meeting proceeded amid knowing glances, paused words, in the style of "I never liked the idea of giving interviews," offered by the younger of the Castro brothers. The makeshift reporter had to feel he was accessing the hidden soul of a hardened guerrilla, when in reality he was falling in the web of an adept totalitarian. The trap worked perfectly.
Penn not only left assuring us that "in fact 'Raulism' is on the rise along with a recent economic, industrial and agricultural boom," and also passed on from his interview - without questioning it - the 'fact' that reports about the violation of human rights in Cuba published in the media in the United States "are very exaggerated and hypocritical." A journalist would not have lost the opportunity to slip in a hard hitting question and try to get at the truth.
However, Sean Penn didn't even flinch. His reason for being there was not to question the words of General - as an 'inconvenient' reporter might have done - but to use Cuba as the point of the sword in his personal battle against the United States government. We were nothing more than numbers before his eyes, figures that should explain why the Cuban "model" was superior to that emanating from the White House.
As a crumb, Penn later admitted that if he "were a Cuban citizen" and had to do an interview like that one, he could "be imprisoned." But he said it as one recites the Lord's Prayer before stealing from a neighbor; he clamors for transparency and then puts on a hood; brays for freedom and shakes hands with a dictator. He says it in a way that is not convincing.
Years later, Penn would repeat the same modus operandi. He would interview, in the back of beyond in Sinaloa, a fugitive from Mexican justice, a blood-stained drug lord, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, El Chapo. The caviar-progressive with his private planes would fall again, surrendering at the feet of power, becoming the ventriloquist for a story told by another famous culprit who wanted to clean up his image.
This time, the scene also developed like a mating dance, where the one who was in control the whole time managed his naïve prey who believed he was dictating the pace of the encounter. El Chapo also sweet talked the winner of two Oscars, as Raul Castro had done years earlier in Havana.
The actor-journalist gave himself up to the interviewee, joking with him, offering his hand. In their conversation, it is the other who sets the pace and dictates the topics. The idea is presented of the bloodthirsty criminal as a product of a corrupt society, someone who has been shaped by external causes and turned to violence as an act of rebellion.
However, far beyond the adversities and the context, there was a moment when both Raul Castro and El Chapo Guzman could have questioned the harm they were doing, the unhappiness and pain they left in their wake. The greatest failure of the condescending reporter was not to delve into why there was no repentance in either man, only the frigid stubbornness of the caudillos.
Again, Penn missed the opportunity to be a journalist and became, instead, a sad spokesman for drug lords and generals.